Name: Kavus Torabi
Occupation: Musician/ Composer/ Broadcaster/ DJ
Bands/Projects: Knifeworld / Gong / Guapo / Admirals Hard / Cardiacs / The Monsoon Bassoon / Chrome Hoof
Labels: InsideOut / Cuneiform / Believers Roast / Snapper
Musical Recommendation: Given that I've mentioned Chris Ware and Cardiacs above (both of whom are THE BEST), I'd say the books of Daniel Clowes, particularly Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron / Stars In Battledress.
As far back as I can remember I used to invent tunes. My parents weren't particularly into music and my main exposure was from television, specifically the music of TV shows. I used to come up with different themes in my head for imaginary programmes my toys were in. Around the age of seven, a piano turned up in our house and while I wasn't that bothered about lessons, I did start coming up with rudimentary tunes on it. I can still remember them. It wasn't until I was eight, in the summer of 1980, seeing Stray Cats on Top Of The Pops that a light went on and I realised I wanted to be Brian Setzer when I grew up. I didn't know it was a thing you could do before that.
I borrowed my cousin's guitar. His favourite band was Madness. We started a band and I started writing tunes which, in my head at least, sounded like a cross between Stray Cats and Madness. Naturally, we called ourselves The Madbats although that changed to The Machine Heads. We did one gig in our garage. It went pretty disastrously. We gave all the other kids on our street boiled sweets to cajole them into attending and they spat them at us during the performance. Fucking philistines. Luckily, we recorded the thing for posterity and 'released' it on cassette. It was a limited edition of one copy.
In retrospect, very little has changed since.
For most artists, originality is first 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?
Well, I learned an important lesson from the above, 'If you're going to be different, learn to love getting boiled sweets spat at you'. I carried on with guitar, forming a few bands while I was at school but always writing. I thought that was what you did. There was a guy at school, a few years older, who was an amazing guitar player. He was only fifteen but he could play Van Halen and Iron Maiden solos like you wouldn't believe. His technique was staggering. Even now I don't think I can play as well as he could then. I very sheepishly asked him if he'd like to be in my band, The Electric Gestapo, and, to my delight, he said yes. Here's the thing though, he would take ages to learn the tunes I was writing and when he played me one that he'd come up with it was, for all his fretboard acrobatics, pretty ordinary. I think at that point I realised that my talents, if you can call them that, lay in writing and arranging and perhaps I had something here.
At school I was into a fairly eclectic mix of mainstream-ish guitar-based rock and pop. It was the mid-eighties and I was consuming as much as I could, it all sounded so new and exciting. Particular favourites were Metallica, The Smiths, Iron Maiden, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Kiss, Rush and The Cult.
I left school at sixteen and after that everything changed. I got turned on to Cardiacs and that was that. It was like an explosion in my psyche and the shockwaves vibrated into my future and my history. Forward and back, inside and out. The influence of Tim Smith's extraordinary compositions totally altered the way I thought about music. That and LSD. Almost overnight my approach completely changed. Tim's music just set the bar so high, at a level I had not realised existed, it was like the whole world went multicoloured and 3D. There was no going back to 'straight rock' after that. In a way my fate, to spend a lifetime living in rented accommodation, was sealed.
I was lucky to meet another likeminded guy, Dan Chudley who grew into the most inspiring and remarkable guitarist, singer, lyricist and composer. If anything, my style and sound is closer to him than anyone else, so entwined were our waking days. We worked, almost exclusively, together for the next twenty years. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty we really developed the curious style that I've been following ever since. We left home, went on the dole and spent all our time listening, playing and composing. There was living! We were obsessed with stuff like Henry Cow, Naked City, Captain Beefheart, Igor Stravinsky, Voivod, Steve Reich, Syd Barrett, King Crimson, Shudder To Think, Gong, Sonic Youth, Magma and XTC. That kind of thing. The influence of which I still hear in my music.
It was around the age of twenty, tripping with Dan, that I was presented with what I now like to refer to as 'the vision of the bent path'. In the flashbulb of clarity, I saw three silver sixes, that is to say I realised my calling was making the kind of 'bent' music I have been doing ever since.
The vision dictated we move to London, which we dutifully did shortly after and, to this day, I've never really deviated from what was revealed during that revelation. As a result I have been blessed with the most wonderful, colourful and absolutely rewarding life. Without any real design I ended up playing with both Cardiacs and Gong, not to mention a whole raft of extraordinary musicians with whom I've been privileged to play or have play my music.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The challenge is always, I think, to try and translate what is in your head into a workable tune. It's always a compromise although sometimes on the way to the end result, the process will throw up curious twists and unexpected consequences. Post-LSD was really when my own style started proper. Before that I think I was just acquiring the skills of arranging, learning to play my instrument and just getting a feel for the general dynamic of playing with other people. It was fun but had little to do with what happened after.
Working with Dan was a dream. I don't expect I'll ever meet another person with whom I share such a musical bond. Sometimes when we were playing I couldn't tell which one of us was which. Really magical. All our songs would be worked on together and we developed this very singular, idiosyncratic style which was put into practice by our group The Monsoon Bassoon, during the mid to late '90s. I don't that think approach will ever leave me.
The availability of a home recording set up, starting initially with a digital eight track in 2000 and progressing to a computer by 2007, completely transformed the way I was able to write. I guess it did with almost everyone, throughout almost all the arts. Sadly, Dan moved back to the south west around this time so it took me a little while to adjust to writing and arranging by myself, at least to a level I was happy with. That's what Knifeworld was, the realisation of my solo compositions. With the aid of my own studio I was able to fully realise far more ambitious and experimental ideas.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio, Skyhenge, is basically an elaborate soundproofed shed in my garden. It was built by Mel Woods from Knifeworld, and myself and has been up for nearly six years now. It's pretty small but is perfect for what I do.
I'm not sure how much the ergonomics and haptics (I had to look up the meaning of this word!) affect the process, but I certainly like the place to look good and feel comfortable and practical. The interior is pink with one wall papered with a beautiful, psychedelic blue and gold print. I'm a stickler for tidiness -the magician must have order- and it looks lovely inside, all full of instruments and ideas.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
My main compositional tool is still the guitar, and, I suppose, my voice although I like writing on keyboard too. I'm a pretty rudimentary keyboard player. The great thing about that is, when I use it to compose, my hands don't tend to fall into the familiar shapes and patterns the way they sometimes can on the guitar. The other great compositional tool is, of course, marijuana. I tend not to talk too much about that because, like most drugs, it's illegal, which gives it a stigma and ties it up with that whole dreary rock 'n' roll myth. Nonetheless, in the interest of honesty, it's pretty central to my personal writing process. There's a reason that a lot of musicians are stoners and a lot of writers are boozers, I guess.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
I think you have to be aware of the limitations of any tool. Ultimately, all the best work comes from the mind. Anything else is just a conduit to making the idea concrete. There are plenty of musicians out there who get so hung up on the actual playing of their instrument to the end that it becomes more about the playing than the music. To be fair, there are also plenty of people who love to hear playing and consider that to be real music. It's not a world I inhabit, thankfully, which is not to say I am anti-technique at all but it always has to serve the composition. If the composition is far-out enough, obviously the playing has to step up to meet the challenge but get it the wrong way round and it stops being music. Like putting the horse before the cart; for me, anyway.
In the last fifteen years or so, certainly for guitarists, looping has become a 'thing'. I use this as an example because, while it's a terrific tool for spontaneous writing and improvising, it has also become a kind of thing in itself. I see a lot of loop artists basically wheeling out the same tropes. Start up a melody or riff, loop it, put a harmony over it, repeat until bored. That dated pretty quickly. Half the battle of self-improvement is being able to identify and avoid clichés, both in your own work as well as in others and to be able to change tack or move beyond them. It's what makes the process exciting. I always like to change the variables so that I'm forced into not repeating myself. That said, I'm sure I could easily be accused of playing the same old shit for the last fifteen years or so.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
I'll talk about the difference between our last album, The Unravelling, and the new one, Bottled Out Of Eden. Like I said, I always like to change the variables and this was very much the case with these.
The process always begins the same way; with a tune. Be it a riff, chord progression or melody over chords. Where these start is never the same, often they come out of nowhere and just arrive in my head. Marijuana really is incredibly helpful in opening the gate between the subconscious, where all these ideas seem to be lurking, and the functioning of the day-to-day mind. Often they come out in a torrent and it's hard to capture them all before they escape. Having a mobile phone with a record function has been enormously helpful in this. Once the initial idea has been captured it really is just an elaborate process of organisation before reaching the finished result. For instance, at any given time, I'll have a backlog of maybe thirty 'ideas' all of which can be turned into complete pieces. I can usually tell immediately if an idea is strong enough to keep or whether it's just a nice sounding bit of fluff. Sometimes it's a verse or a bridge or just a melody but I know if I spend a few days with it, it will grow into a finished tune.
On The Unravelling, even before we started recording, I had a very specific idea as to how I wanted the tunes to sound, from arrangement to timbre, performance and production. As a result, it was a very difficult album to make. The hardest one so far. I think most of the instruments were re-recorded maybe three times, owing to my dissatisfaction particularly with my own performances. I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at a computer screen, editing, correcting and redoing parts to the point that it felt more like an office job.
Part of the problem was that for a lot of the record I'd be teaching the other guys in the band their parts when they came in to record them, so they had about half an hour or so to familiarise themselves with each part before we recorded it. After listening for a few weeks we'd both generally decide it could be played with more attitude or a little more expressively, so we'd redo them. Then I'd be unhappy with how it was all sitting, so we'd have to redo it again. It was awful and I was no fun to be around. It made me so miserable and I really lost all confidence in the tunes, the band and myself. It's the first time in my life I'd felt that way. It was horrible. Absolutely terrifying, really.
The thing about making the kind of music we do is that there's very little financial reward. It's not as if we're surrounded by a coterie of sycophants telling us how wonderful we are. Most of this stuff comes out to mass indifference so it takes an incredible amount of self-belief, almost bordering on arrogance, to see it through. If I didn't believe so strongly that what we are doing is fucking amazing and really important then the whole struggle and the hardship I have to put my family through by forgoing a proper job or career would insane...which for a couple of months it did. Anyone who lives with a musician will know how self-centred and selfish they are. I try to do the right thing and am fortunate to have a very understanding wife, nonetheless I felt like my life had been a complete waste of time. I'd go into my studio, switch on my computer and just stare at the folders that contained each song, unable to click on or open them, terrified by the crushing disappointment they would reveal if I did. That's when I realised something was very wrong. I shelved the album for a bit. All I could think was "Who am I kidding?", about everything, about my whole life up to that point. Finally, I asked my friend and producer extraordinaire, Bob Drake, to mix the track Don't Land On Me, the only song I'd managed to complete. Man, it sounded so good that we filmed a video for it, largely just to let folks who liked us know that this mythical second album was happening. Shortly afterwards, without looking for one, we were offered a record deal by InsideOut.
The blind, hubristic confidence came gushing back and I set to finishing the album. The whole thing took about two years from beginning to end. A ridiculous amount of time for one record and, while I didn't go as far as saying "Never again", I decided that the next album would be the total opposite of this one.
For Bottled Out Of Eden, I almost went back to a pre-computer way of working. I knew how I wanted the songs to sound but we worked together on the arrangements. Everyone in the band has a very idiosyncratic style. For The Unravelling we'd just expanded to an octet and four of the guys were relatively new to the band. Some of the tunes were a few years old and I feel I was probably trying to shoehorn their styles into playing the pieces as I had imagined them. This time round I had written specifically for this band and these players, and owing to the fact that all the songs were brand new, I had far less pre-conceived ideas as to how I wanted them to sound. On top of this, every time we had a new song sorted, we'd add it into the live set so everything got gigged in which helped with the tempos, pacing and general feel. It was really liberating, for a control freak like myself, to cede a little because I trust the other guys so implicitly. Everyone had a hand in saying "Maybe that chorus should happen twice here" or "Perhaps this section doesn't need to be quite as long" etc. It really felt this was our album rather than my album that I'd dragged these poor fuckers into.
I'd decided I didn't want to look at a monitor or touch a computer keyboard for the whole recording process, so we opted to actually record with the wonderful Bob Drake at his studio in the Pyrenees. This meant I was free to worry about my own performances and the overall sound and let him take care of producing the thing and of course the boring stuff like engineering and staring at a monitor. As a result we got the album largely recorded in nine days. We all knew exactly what we were doing before we went in and were all happy with how the parts were sounding. We had to record a few minor details back home at Skyhenge, I did a few cheeky overdubs, but the main meat of the thing, if you will, was done in that joyful nine day stint. The album ended up sounding like a much posher version of what we had been rehearsing, so there were no nasty surprises in the mix.