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In Extremis

Where's The Urgency? An Interview With Porest's Mark Gergis
Yousif Nur , June 29th, 2016 08:42

With his first album under the Porest name in ten years, Mark Gergis draws on years of recordings made across Syria for his own take on pop music. He tells Yousif Nur about making a "tragicomedy told in song and sound"

Photograph courtesy of Ayesha Keshani

Mark Gergis is a man with great, great responsibility thrust upon him. Not only was he partly responsible for introducing the world to the likes of Omar Souleyman, he's also involved with the day-to-day runnings of his label Sham Palace and being a contributor and producer for Sublime Frequencies. He is indeed a busy man.

For now, Gergis is under the guise of Porest for his new album, Modern Journal Of Popular Savagery, out next month on the Egyptian/Algerian label Nashazphone. His first under the name since Tourrorists! in 2006, it’s a record that keeps you guessing with its humour, use of samples and in his words, "post-globalised hate pop, cabalistic text-to-speech drama and violent tape music against soapbox anthems and swirling barbed-wire psychedelia". Unless you've wrapped your ears around this, it's an album that's almost indescribable. But to put it another way, this album is a veritable mess, but the good kind of mess you understand.

At the moment, Gergis is in Malaysia and it's from there that he talked about his fourth Porest album, events in Syria past, present and future and what he thinks about the term 'world music' being misleading.

Having a listen to your record, I found it to be a mix of really experimental elements and humour. Did you want to inject humour into this record intentionally?

Mark Gergis: I think those who find the humour are going to be the ones that can get into the album. If someone isn't laughing with Porest, they're laughing against Porest. That's fine, there isn't much left to do in the world but laugh, is there? For me, this is more of a pop record for Porest – a sort of tragicomedy told in song and sound. A few people have suggested that the reception will be contingent on global events at the time of its release. That's reassuring, since the material has been recorded over a span of time where the world seems to change every few months, so even if it feels inappropriate on its release date, it should all make sense a month later.

I believe that you recorded part of this album in Syria? How much does the country have a special place in your heart?

MG: Yes, the portions recorded in Syria were made in 2008-10 between apartments I kept in Damascus or in hotel rooms in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Hasakah, etc. I was always afraid for Syria's sovereignty, even back in the 1990s. By 2006, I started getting a feeling something wasn't right, which became especially evident in my stays there during 2009-10. This was a time when a lot of covert meddling from abroad was initiated. I began witnessing agenda-laden, hyped-up westerners roaming around Damascus and Aleppo – not the same sort of spirited travelers I'd come across in years previous. These were the insidious NGO-types you can now find in any developing country. For the sake of it, let's call them foot soldiers for the new world order. These people were taking apartments without windows, making lots of young friends, infiltrating, establishing roots, making reports, etc. Some would end up following me around. One even jumped in my taxi to see where I lived. I jumped out at the next light. They'd show up at the strangest times to clock what I was up to, which was simply collecting music and doing Omar Souleyman-related business and enjoying the country, but we can only imagine what they were up to…

I had no idea my flight out of Damascus in 2010 would be my last. I'd come to know Syria well during the 15-year span I traveled and worked there. It's hard to take what's happened to Syria. It's even affected the way I relate to or attach to new places since 2011 – a sort of disconnect I can't shake. Every few months, I reach into the freezer and pull out the last bag of coffee I purchased in Damascus in 2010. Three staggered boils over a flame, one medium dose of sugar, two deep breaths and I'm in. There's 600 grams left now, holding me over until I can return for the next bag someday.

How much have your travels through far-flung places influenced this record, in a direct or indirect way?

MG: Both directly and indirectly, I'd say. Throughout the earlier years of Porest, I traveled whenever I could, mostly through the Arab world and southeast Asia. Collecting sounds, images and ephemera, filming, recording and monitoring radio in hotel rooms have always been a part of the whole deal when I'm "out". These things are then sometimes integrated either into the Porest project or released in a context like the Sublime Frequencies or Sham Palace labels. The rest gets archived and waits for a purpose. It's a record that spans about eight years in total, which isn't uncommon for Porest. I finally left the States over three years ago and have been based between the UK and southeast Asia since then. Now that I'm staying in Asia, it's not travel anymore, and it's been good to turn it around that way. Overall, what I'm inspired by in one field often gets utilised and worked into another, so everything influences everything, which keeps the project exciting and relevant for me.

How much does politics influence this record?

MG: More than some records out there, I'd assume. For me, this record is a logical follow-up to Tourrorists!, which also dealt overtly and sometimes ridiculously with political themes. Since the release of that record, the world has entered a convoluted and heightened age of barbarism and savagery. This, along with the endless chain of overt and covert wars, co-opted movements, well-financed revolutions and divide-and-conquer terror tactics applied by global agencies were all a significant influence. But aside from all that, there are good measures of psychedelic hate-pop, soapbox karaoke and even a few dense instrumentals. It's as confusing as a Porest record should be, I think. The reactions to the album from the US have already differed greatly from reactions elsewhere in the world, which is unsurprising, given the current state of the American psyche. In fundamental ways, it's become increasingly hard for me to tell the difference between US progressive liberals and the far right. On a personal level, it's been great to be physically away from it all. Now it's only American foreign policy that can destroy me.

Overt politics in music, if it is done, can be more pedantic and off-putting than anything else. In my opinion, there has been a surprising lack of urgency in contemporary arts and music for decades. Where has it gone? Where is the urgent cinema? The devastating recordings? The murderous performance? The aisles and aisles of dangerous ephemera steeped in secrets and myth? I think the marriage between politics and music needs to be done differently than before in order to be effective at all, or to truly hit a nerve. With Porest, I try to make something that I would like to hear myself; something urgent, terrifying, challenging, but still playful, and at other times something very, very stupid. These elements are what I also appreciate in music, film, writing or any art form.

Through your work with Sublime Frequencies and Sham Palace, does the tag of 'world music' take on a whole new meaning?

MG: Sublime Frequencies began in diametric opposition to the so-called "world music" movement that occurred, say, from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Without naming names, I refer to the overproduced garbage fusion that served to perpetuate a specific vision of what the rest of the world sounded like. For me, it was actually killing culture by misrepresentation – reinforcing stereotypes, imposing glossed standards and omitting most of what you actually hear when you're actually inside a country. Based on our travels and our listening habits when traveling, we sought to expose the sounds we were hearing in our own way – free from overproduction and closer to what we were actually hearing on the streets and at weddings and parties, etc. While some have argued that this was yet another western repackaging and marketing scheme, it did actually succeed in showcasing some of the great music of the world for the first time to a western audience. It just made sense to do it, and we learned as we went. There were no consultants or big producers or label bosses afraid of sales – there were hardly sales! These releases were made out of pocket, and out of necessity during a time when the west was ranting about the "axis of evil" and butchering Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest with impunity. We're now in deeper than ever.

So it's steadily removing the notion that it's not one belonging to a new age, hippy, almost patronising sort of music?

MG: The upsurge in labels and individuals collecting, researching and releasing international music has increased greatly in the past five years in particular. There are some fantastic labels doing work that I've really enjoyed. A by-product I don't enjoy seeing is the lack of sincerity that comes with a faddish interest in "ethno" music. This is inevitable as non-western music gains popularity. Part of it is my problem, since I used to believe that showcasing music from a country that the west didn't pay attention to could actually humanise a culture and inspire people to think more about the rest of the world. This sort of idealism fails to take into consideration how anything gets commodified, diffused, even infiltrated. All context can be conveniently removed, reshaped and labeled as "emerging global consciousness". The same person who never thought about Syria, for instance, still doesn't, for the most part. But he can DJ a Syrian recording and wear a turban at the party next to a palm tree. That's just the way it goes. Not always, but a lot. Unfortunately, it seems as if the inevitable next step is that people come full circle, back into a revived 'world music' era of hippy/hipster new-age patronising. We should prepare for the disappointment of watching history repeat itself in real time.

Modern Journal Of Popular Savagery is out on July 8 via Nashazphone