Name: Aria Rostami
Occupation: Producer, sound artist
Current release: Aria Rostami's new album Maramar is out via his own bandcamp store.
Recommendations: I recently watched The Sound of Metal (I watched it twice, actually) I highly recommend it for anyone who makes art, especially music, or who does something that defines themselves as a person. I’m not ruining anything here, but the basic plot is about a musician that goes deaf nearly instantly and unexpectedly. It’s also a really good movie for anyone in recovery – I think it does a good job depicting recovery without depicting drug use, what is life like once drugs and alcohol have been out of the picture for a long time?
And I’ll just pick a song at random that I’ve listened to a lot over the last few months – "Doubt" by Joanne Robertson and Oliver Coates
If you enjoyed this interview with Aria Rostami, stay up to date on his work via his offical website, as well as his accounts on twitter, Soundcloud and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs around the age of 14; this would have been in 2002. At that time I didn’t think of myself as a producer – I just wanted to learn how to write songs on the guitar.
I had a friend, Grant, who had been playing a little longer than me and recording songs who kept telling me I should start recording songs properly. At that time I was just using Windows Audio Recorder which had a 1 minute cap on recording time, you could layer audio by combining two audio files together – but no way of tracking where each part of the song was without taking notes on what happens at what time stamp, and there was no metronome or anything like that. So I would make 1 minute songs kind of guessing how to put the parts together. Grant showed up at my house one day unannounced with a CD of pirated software and a crack – I was about 16 at the time – that’s when I actually started recording and layering songs. I made albums non-stop, some I’d do in a week or just a few days, they weren’t very good. (laughs)
I think I recorded something like 30 albums before I graduated high school. I still didn’t think of myself as a producer at that time. I wasn’t really thinking what I was making at home would ever work as a final product – I always imagined eventually you get a band together and go into the studio and that’s the missing link in the formula. I thought there’s some magic that happens in a studio that I didn’t have access to and I was always under the impression that I needed a producer to help me out.
I had a friend Brian around that time who went into a studio, recorded the songs he wrote, sent them out and then was picked up by a label. It was the first time I saw someone I knew break down that wall of mystery between sitting at home and writing songs and getting music out there on a proper label and touring. But still, in my mind you needed to go into a studio – and to be fair, maybe that’s true for most of the music I was listening to at that time.
I really tried cracking the code of home recordings but I was looking in all the wrong places. I would read an interview with Sigur Rós, for example, on how they got such a massive sound and would leave it thinking, “Oh, I can’t really record quality music until I have access to incredible mics and an empty indoor swimming pool”. (laughs) I think early on I was just way too obsessed with a “grass is greener” mentality, I was looking at artists I liked and fixating on what I didn’t have access to.
I was never discouraged from pushing forward though – there was always something about music that sparked my imagination in a way nothing else could. I always thought it would be cool to get into drawing or film making, but I never did, I didn’t have the same blind, endless, forceful energy that I did for music. It’s hard to say why music and not something else, maybe it’s just that cliché of “I didn’t choose music, music chose me.” But I’ll say that there is something really special about music that just doesn’t exist in other art forms. It is inherently abstract, especially if you are talking about instrumental music. It can feel like it’s telling a story or that it’s creating a space but there’s nothing literal about that space or story and it’s radically different in everyone’s mind.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I don’t think there’s ever an ending to this process, emulation, copying, learning, listening and expanding are constant in my process. With each record I bring new things in, whether that is software, instruments, techniques, directions, restrictions, it’s always new and always a learning process.
I recently just bought the textbook “The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music” by Hormoz Farhat to incorporate Persian music theory and tuning into future music. I bought Ben Johnston’s “Maximum Clarity and other Writings” as well so I can start looking into microtonal music and how to apply it to composition. Before this, I had purchased some new plugins and bought a violin, a Roland Gaia, and a Harmonium. Before that I had purchased some flutes and a classical guitar. As the years go on I just add more to my studio and use these things to add to and limit parameters. I also revisit ideas I think I could improve on from old records and with that revisit old influences.
I also make a conscious effort to take big steps from album to album to explore different genres and directions – the primary impulse is that music is a channel I can use to learn about the world and myself.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Absolutely – sometimes in more explicit ways. I grew up in a house that had both American and Iranian music. As a child I don’t think I had a strong opinion on either, my favorite music then was whatever my brother thought was cool on MTV or videogame soundtracks like FFVII or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
I learned to really appreciate Iranian music as I got older, particularly after I met Ata Ebtekar when I was 19. He was the first person I knew that made at home laptop recordings and released them on labels – and he made music that was extreme and complex. It also bridged the idea that if I were to make Persian music or at least incorporate Persian influences, it did not need to sound like my parent’s music.
Over the years I’ve incorporated my identity in conceptual ways like on Sibbe, Distant Companion, or Numb Years, and have incorporated Persian music in more literal ways like recording and performing with classical Iranian musicians Shaho Andilibi and Naghmeh Farahmand, incorporating Persian breakbeats on two upcoming records, Bolbol and Water From the River, on Shaytoon Records, or whatever I come up with once I start incorporating the Dastgah system into my music.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Creative challenges have always been challenges of perspective. At a certain point I realized that plenty of good records exist that do not follow whatever I’ve prescribed as “the way to make a record.” There’s always a way to take what you have and lean into it – even the things that you assume are weaknesses.
A part of the creative process is not just making the decisions about what you are going to do, it is also decisions on what you are not going to do, and luckily, there are circumstantial restraints that are going to dictate what I am not going to do. I am not going to have access to an orchestra, to an incredible way to record Bass guitar, to an empty indoor swimming pool to capture amazing reverb, etc. So any inspiration from other music that incorporates things I love but do not have access to, is now a creative pursuit of how to emulate the feeling created by these things with the equipment I have available. How do I make things feel big? How do I make them feel small? How do I slowly bring in energy? How do I make things feel still? Because those are the things I am really looking to accomplish, not the literal avenue I’m hearing in someone else’s recording. There are so many poorly recorded, poorly mic’d, punk records I heard friends make or listen to in high school that captured high energy way better than something recorded in a nice studio. Daniel Johnston’s singing and recording quality is all part of the magic – I’m not really interested in hearing it any other way.
These are biographical elements that tell some sort of truth about the artist, the moment, the place, and the constraints. Whatever I have access to dictates whatever is going to be made. I also make an effort to continuously learn things about musicianship, theory, recording, production, etc. I find the more I learn, the better off I am. I used to have an ignorant belief that learning more meant I was just going to end up doing what everyone else was doing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a better way to access and manifest ideas that come to me the more I expand my understanding and capabilities.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first instrument was a Casio keyboard, it was probably 3 octaves – I got it on my 9th birthday. I didn’t really get into music until I started playing guitar when I was 14. I ended up using that Casio keyboard on very early recordings but eventually bought a nicer keyboard. I got an electric guitar for Christmas one year, I eventually gave it to my brother who still has it – I gave the Casio keyboard to my friend Grant, my nicer keyboard I gave to a friend and it burned down in a house fire, I gave my first acoustic guitar to my cousin, and the really nice Fender Telecaster I saved up for, I sold when I moved to New York. In New York
I had to start new with most instruments – I brought over a Korg EMX-1, Alesis Ion, a glockenspiel, a melodica, my interface and monitors, a Bluebird Mic, a mixer, a sampler and I think that might be it. I bought a nice Yamaha electric piano here with the money I got from selling my Telecaster. I had an upright piano in my room in San Francisco that I had to leave behind too. So a lot of instruments have come and gone from my collection over the years.
In New York I had to build up some instruments again from a classical guitar, to various flutes, a violin, harmonium, Roland Gaia, A Waldorf Blofeld, various processors like guitar pedals, reverb, compressor, exciter, etc. My brother has gotten really into making hardware too so I have a tiny granular synthesizer he made and a light Theremin. The last song, "Going", on my latest record, Maramar, was made using my brother’s granular synth. The bit crushing makes the synth pads sound scratchy like violins; I don’t think I could have accomplished that with another instrument.
As for software, I bought Renoise when I was 19 after watching a video Venetian Snares posted on Youtube of one of his songs. There was a moment of time where I believed the answer to making good music was the right software rather than just time and experience (laughs) – I definitely didn’t turn into Venetian Snares the moment I started using Renoise. But I’ve used it ever since – it’s what makes the most sense to me and I’ve recorded so many vastly different records with it.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Renoise definitely changed to way I made music, there’s no doubt about that. It’s changed the way I think about music too – It really made me think of all recorded segments as samples to be manipulated, even if all the elements in the song were things I newly recorded. I can also just import something and start working on it to make it radically different – just make sounds to start songs with without any idea what it is going to turn into.
More recently, just learning about Persian music theory has been really eye opening. I knew that there were different musical systems than just the Western system but I didn’t really realize how fundamentally different any other system can be. It’s the same as learning a new language and having to learn a new system of grammar, culture, and colloquialisms.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I collaborate pretty regularly with Daniel Blomquist, we have a few albums out already and have been working together since around 2014. I’ve done other collaborations here and there like a live performance with Iranian musicians or playing bass in a friend’s band, though most of my work is solo.
I really enjoy collaborating when it is improvised – it’s something I’ve come around to with Daniel over the years. Finding someone you trust and learning when to sit back and let someone else drive is pretty essential for collaboration – at least if I want it to be enjoyable. Daniel and I will use loose structures as guiding points but everything we do sounds different every time we play it.
Initially we were just doing recordings live in the same room – we were primarily a live project that happened to record our sessions. Since I’ve moved to New York we send files back and forth – we’ve put out two records that were constructed by sending files back and forth, Floating Tone, which came out on Geographic North in 2020, and Time Apart in the West, which came out on my label, Intimate Inanimate.