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Escape Velocity

Industrial Strength: E-Saggila Interviewed
Ollie Zhang , August 12th, 2019 15:03

Following the recent release of her debut album for Swedish label Northern Electronics, E-Saggila speaks to tQ about challenging convention, navigating contemporary violences and the tricky terrain of the music industry

For me, the shouting of what the fuck? is often the marker of a really, really good set. Confusion is one of my favourite feelings for music to spark, and many of my most impactful dancefloor memories are marked by the utterance.

That’s exactly what entices me about E-Saggila’s Northern Electronics debut, My World, My Way. Confounding, shocking, nonsensical and relentless, the record cycles through a plethora of genre conventions in a way that sidesteps expectation and convention at every step. It’s wild and untamed, makes little sense, and arrives with all the ferocity of hardcore.

Opening track ‘Aziza’ cycles from spurts of noise and garbled vocals into fractured percussion, before descending into full-blown gabber. Uneasy, rushing hats drive it forward, where it crashes headfirst into a stuttered, pop-echoing vocal. ‘Crimson Liquescence’ slows the BPM down, but doesn’t compromise on brutality. Echoing E-Saggila’s earlier BANK Records release, Dedicated to Sublimity, in addition to much of Perc Trax’s output, it’s a forceful track that welcomes the most caustic textures and noisy whines. ‘Alia’, which features Club Chai-affiliate Thoom, settles for a halftime groove built from cleverly restrained percussion and occasional neurofunk stabs, with uncompromising, exhausting wails atop.

Extracting tropes from gabber, trap, pop and everything in between, and pairing them with their most unlikely counterparts, E-Saggila constructs an album that’s as perplexing and wild as the one we live in. It feels unprecedented, it feels uneasy, it feels anxious and joyful, wry and sombre, and all the confusing, contradictory things between them.

With the album now released through Stockholm's Northern Electronics label and an appearance at Berlin Atonal set for later this month, the producer, real name, Rita Mikhael, spoke to me about her Toronto base, working with Ableton and navigating her way through the music industry.

I hear so many different things in My World, My Way. Could you tell me a bit about your experiences hearing different genres and being exposed to different scenes in Toronto? How has that shaped what you’re doing now with E-Saggila?

Rita Mikhael: I purposefully tried to make this album not fit into any one genre and leave that interpretation for the listener to make what they want out of it. I think it’s important to expose yourself to as many fields as possible and I found myself doing that even at a younger age. I’d cycle through punk, noise, hip-hop, hardcore, dancehall, etc., but I wouldn’t really say that Toronto played a role with that kind of exposure. When I was getting into noise around age 16, the scene here was already dying. Years later, myself and others tried to revive it by putting shows together and starting labels, but because of the venue situation, that was extremely difficult and still is today.

Toronto definitely has a large range of musical talent. Everyone has their own scene here and while making my own music, I realised I didn’t really fit with any crews here. Sometimes I was too noise for techno or too techno for noise, or I just wasn’t a fit at all. I guess maybe the idea of my music not being adaptable is a good thing?

Yeah, I think the way you learn from many different genres works really well on the record. What is it about that process that draws you to it?

RM: When I first started this project it sounds nothing like what I’m doing now. It was very entry-level to me because it was my first time attempting to make techno and I wasn’t really thinking about how to make it eclectic. The more comfortable I felt with my production skills, the more I wanted to branch out and rally together the various techniques, patterns and emotions I was exposed to. I don’t think I have a certain style that people can attach to my production, it’s mostly a mindset of 'how do I make this track better than the last?'

You’ve also mentioned wanting to challenge the prescriptive structures of Ableton and work with more challenging, confounding rhythms. What excites you about writing this way?

RM: I think I’m pretty messy when it comes to working with Ableton. Everything is pretty sample heavy - everything (not just drums) goes into a drum kit and is assembled from there. That’s just how I’ve always done it. I use a lot of VSTs as well, my favourites are more granular ones that I often apply to percussion. I'm still trying to master mixing everything the way I want it to sound, playing around with frequencies and such, especially when it's being played at a club. I’ve mentioned in other interviews that as I grow with this style of producing, it opens more doors to more complex shaping of tracks. I’m just starting to use an MPC paired with my setup to try something new.

I think that’s another really helpful way to challenge convention - by refusing techniques and misusing tools. How exactly do you think this kind of approach lends itself to creating more complex tracks?

RM: Yeah, I believe a lot of amazing things happen through mistakes and unconventional ways of trying to create a track - specifically when it comes to drums and percussion, that’s my favourite part to manipulate. Whenever the foundation is set, I’ll usually process the drums through plugins that shred and mangle the entire structure. Sometimes they end up being a little offbeat. It’s important to keep a mindset of being able to incorporate any kind of sound to your workflow and changing something’s natural form to your touch.

The record is really rave-influenced and I’m curious about your experience of that culture. How did you first become exposed to hardcore, neurofunk and other European rave genres? Rotterdam gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not sure what your relationship to the actual place is…

RM: Yeah I used to listen to a bunch of old ’90s mixes of Thunderdome, Industrial Strength, Ruffneck stuff and it was pure craziness. I’m always into making your drums and perc as stupid as possible. I’m also a sucker for cheesy synth leads. I use a lot of samples inspired by Rotterdam, but I don’t really have a relationship with it or any European scene. My experience of hardcore, or any other genre, is using it and revolutionising it through my own work.

I saw you describe My World, My Way as a “[g]ranular assault towards our ecological collapse of systems.” Could you expand on this a little? What were some of the things you were thinking about during the making of this record?

RM: I was making this record when I felt like everything was coming together to create a mass downfall of structural order. I wanted this record to be a political observation, but still subtle. There were several factors that I wanted represented, like climate change becoming more substantial, fascism/racism being more casual and comfortable - all of this while living under abusive powers across the globe who aid this violence.

For me, it’s more stimulating being exposed to your surroundings through the digital realm of social media. It makes you feel insignificant and you can only be submissive to the world you’re in. A lot of the tracks are processed and stripped down through digital manipulation. These are the most concentrated and physical tracks I can piece together in the moment of making this record. It might sound kind of cliché, but right now it’s our reality.

On that note, I’m curious about how you navigate the industry end of things - you haven’t been pushing the social media promo stuff as hard as a lot of other artists. Many producers feel like being hyper-visible on Instagram, Twitter, etc. are necessities. Could you tell me a bit about why you present yourself as you do?

RM: I always thought that being really active online was mostly a thing larger DJs and producers did because they have such a big fan base and people want to keep up with them. I just never really thought it was for me, and I wanted to keep my music in a close-knit community. Even all this press stuff takes time to to get used to because I don’t feel like I have many insightful things to say. It’s hard feeling like you’re in everyone’s feed all the time, and you get worried about being that artist who’s just hyped for a couple of months because of their persona and not the record they stressed over making.

When you step into the social media world and are exposed worldwide in such a short amount of time, it can change the entire game. I still have my Instagram private and my Twitter is anonymous because I want something to go back to that doesn’t always revolve around music and trying to create buzz. I’m not trying to overly humble myself either, if you believe you’re the shit then everyone should be made aware.

Some of your work, say your mix for Abyssal, draws in Iraqi music like chobi. I also read that your family is quite musically inclined; what has your relationship been with the music they play?

RM: My father played in Assyrian folk bands in Iraq. It’s nothing close to what I play or hear when going to the club, but it’s still something that’s a part of my culture that I feel is important to keep. Many Middle Eastern artists in the electronic scene today are making some groundbreaking stuff, and I think its vital having that representation with artists from broken countries. My parents don’t understand the music I make or why I like it, although I never expected them to like it. They’re conservative, but they’ve let me explore what were my experiences leading to all this.

Yeah I’ve had a similar kind of experience. While my parents moved to the West in hopes of better quality of life, more opportunities for their kids and what not, I don’t think they were expecting that to manifest in such “unconventional” paths. Has that been difficult to navigate with them?

RM: My parents were mainly rooting for the child who has a well-paid job with a husband and children. We came to Canada with $7 to our name and lived with a white Canadian family for a while, who helped my parents get on their feet. They both worked service jobs and obviously wanted me to have more ambitious goals. I’m 25 now and don’t have either of those things but the pressure isn’t as heavy anymore. They’re typical strict Middle Eastern parents, so I can’t ask much from them other than to just be content with my life.

My World, My Way is out now on Northern Electronics and can be purchased here. E-Saggila plays Berlin Atonal on August 30

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