The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Fingers On The Vinyl: Mariam Rezaei Interviewed
Al Cameron , September 22nd, 2020 08:38

In the run up to her duo performance at Tusk Festival with Stephen Bishop, Al Cameron speaks to Tyneside turntablist and experimental music lynchpin Mariam Rezaei

“Brace yourself because I am a fucking gobshite”, composer, performer and improvising DJ Mariam Rezaei warns me. No doubt she has plenty to say about her many artistic projects when we talk. Our conversation touches on her recent solo output, making experimental music with turntables, the Northeast DIY scene, and her involvement with Tusk Festival, shortly to launch an ambitious virtual edition.

This May gone, Rezaei released her second solo album SKEEN. Entirely arranged on two turntables - her instrument of choice - the record generates a visceral collage, recomposing varied sound sources, most of them contributed by friends and fellow travellers from the UK experimental scene.

Such an approach is typical of her multifaceted output, grounded in a feeling for community and collaboration, whether as an improviser, as musical director of LBGT+ choir Northern Proud Voices or for her Noisestra project, which mobilised a collective of young turntablists from the local area, performing shows with prominent new music ensemble Apartment House.

In 2012 Rezaei co-founded evolving studio, DIY venue and artist collective The Old Police House in Gateshead. Across its subsequent iterations, the project has remained a vital nerve centre for the Northeast underground community, hosting and convening unconventional shows spanning the messy continuum of experimental noise, electronic music, sound art and free improv. As musicians, the collective and their collaborators have been responsible for multiple recordings and performances, in such provisional and shapeshifting ensembles as Swarm Front and Always Check Your Mirrors, from whom a set will be released later this month. Bucking lockdown, in this Covid-year TOPH have streamed scores of performances on their Twitch channel, enlisting the likes of Yeah You, Cath and Phil Tyler, llan Volkov and the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

We speak at the end of a day spent in the current TOPH studio at Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre, working with fellow Tynesider Stephen Bishop, founder of the prolific Opal Tapes imprint, who performs and records in various guises as Basic House and Lacrima, as well as fronting belligerent sludge provocateurs Drunk in Hell. The two have been busy preparing their collaborative performance for Tusk’s 2020 edition. With its unruly agglomeration of underground musics forced online this year, the venerable Newcastle festival of experimental music promises a fortnight-long broadcast of nightly performances, talks, films and archival video programmes that feels like one of the scene’s most weighty post-Covid offerings yet.

Rezaei herself has a long association with the festival: last year performing piece ‘The 42 Mirrors Of Narcissus’ with turntables and voice alongside Norwegian noise sculptor Lasse Marhaug and a string quartet, whilst TOPH have collectively hosted and programmed the Tusk fringe since 2015.

You and Stephen Bishop are both powerhouses of the Newcastle scene, but is this your first time collaborating?

Mariam Rezaei: Yeah, Bish really is a powerhouse. His label Opal Tapes reaches every corner of the earth, and he’s an incredible performer. I’ve got nothing but mad respect for him. We’ve been friends for a number of years, and always spoke about having a jam, but we never got round to it. And then with the lockdown, and [Tusk founder] Lee Etherington going mental with Tusk online in an amazing way, he said, “I think you two would make a good duo.” And I was like, “My year off’s not going to happen this year!”

How have you approached making the show?

MR: The idea is to bring my turntables together with Bish’s modular and vocals. We have very different ways of approaching music. Bish likes to talk about music in terms of timbre, maybe because of how he works with his modular setup. I often think about how things will work in terms of technique and the sound itself can be secondary; knowing that I want to take his source material and do a beat juggle, scratching looping or filtering. It’s an act of improvisation because I’m presented with sound that I didn’t come up with, and have no control over until I get into it.

There’s that old idea in improv that you don’t talk about it, you just turn up and do it, but I think the record deck in so many respects is much further behind in development than other instruments and there’s so much left to do with it. It’s unique in that you can take any sound source and change it with your hands, and there’s the possibility of genuinely surprising results.

You put out your second solo record SKEEN in May, a lockdown album on which - contrary to most offerings of this novel genre - you’ve collaborated widely. How did that come together?

MR: Yes, I was in lockdown and thought “I’m fucking bored, I need to do something.” One thing that’s unique about the turntable is its tactility, the fingers on the vinyl. There’s a human dimension in the way sound can be manipulated live, pulled and dragged. How far can it be pushed, broken? For this album I was interested in working with particular people - I think I’m able to call them all friends - and exploring different sound sources as a result. I wanted to work with vocals, and on the record there’s Sharon Gal, Fritz Welsh and me: three very different tones. Sharon’s piece sounds like drums. She was like, “What have you done to my voice?” It’s just the turntables.

The track ‘Flesh’ reworks a Tony Bevan free-sax set. He is an absolute legend who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. I was going to his Help Me I’m Melting jams in Glasgow, and asked if I could record his set on my phone and go home and mess around. That’s it: just me, messing around with a sound, finding out how much can I get out of these turntables. I don’t use any software, it’s a live process. I’m not interested unless it’s performed.

The next artistic challenge is how does it sound, does it feel like me? It’s about exploring musical language, but also heritage and what it means. On the track ‘Agency’ I tuned my Vestax Controller One deck to an Iranian Dastgāh scale to manipulate my own vocals, and that was a much more literal way of bringing myself in. My Anglo-Iranian heritage is very important to me. I grew up with my dad listening to Iranian poetry and improv on the radio all day. We had a piano, but I didn’t have lessons, I just played. No surprise I’ve ended up experimenting with sound!

SKEEN and your first solo album BLUD came out on the Fractal Meat label run by Graham Dunning, another figure who experiments with turntables. You started out more conventionally as a hip hop DJ and still use scratch techniques in your work. How has your style evolved subsequently?

MR: Some of the most amazing gigs I’ve ever seen have been turntablists: I saw D Styles performing phantasmagoria live at the Custard Factory in Birmingham, or QBert, who can control the room with one record. He’s up there with Roscoe Mitchell or Sun Ra; an innovator who’s changed the face of music. So I’m indebted to hip hop turntablism. But I do so many other things too. Where the music is consumed is what changes - performances, theatre, improv shows, the Police House. But it’s still me.

I’m classically trained and studied turntable composition, but Rhodri Davies was very instrumental in introducing me to the experimental side of improv. I was jamming with some friends and he walked in and asked if if I’d heard of Otomo Yoshihide and if I wanted to come and do some improv. I was like, “Who is this random Welsh dude wearing a harp on his back?" But I turned up to play a show his incredibly small flat in Newcastle, and it was just awesome.

There are several other artists out there today, adding to this fantastic prism of the turntable, pushing it in new directions. Its really important that we encourage and support each other. The competitive side of the DMC championships that I tried when I was younger isn’t necessarily productive for me. Yes you have battles, but Theodore, Herc, Flash and Bambaata were about community, being together.

That said, I’m also a fan of healthy competition. I get a lot of that at The Old Police House. We’re great friends, but we roast each other like you wouldn’t believe - it’s really savage.

How did TPOH come together and how has it evolved since you moved out of the original space in 2017?

MR: I was a twenty-something teaching turntablism and getting into experimental music, and got some funding to work with young people on the turntable ensemble Noisestra. In the process I was borrowing a lot of kit and space, and eventually Gateshead council offered me the Old Police House building in the civic centre. I had the place to myself as a studio, but then I met Adam Denton, who makes music as Sw1n-Hunter, and asked him in. From there we just started jamming and opening the doors for gigs that needed an informal space. The whole premise behind it was doing things to promote new music, experimental music, sharing space, sharing skills, sharing kit. And that’s what we do; a bunch of friends having a good time but working really hard to make it happen with no money.

DIY spaces are integral to me as an individual and as an artist. I’ve had all that classical training, but I remember finishing my degree and thinking, "What have I learned?” I didn’t feel accepted anywhere. It’s really important to have a space where you can just hang, be you, and other people can be themselves; where you can put something on and three people turn up and it’s still a roaring success. It’s so important that community exists. If there’s no scene, there’s no art and no point.

But there’s nothing romantic about it. Swarm Front - my ensemble with Adam, Mark Wardlaw, who’s a TOPH member and makes music as Kenosist, and Jamie Stuart, a brick-shithouse from Blyth who performs as Wrest - have a piece called ‘Bailiff Kettle’ about being unemployed and forced into poverty in the Northeast. That’s something we’re used to living with up here; Covid hasn’t made any difference. At the moment we’re literally running things off my mobile phone.

How have you found moving online: both with TOPH’s Housebound and Outbound series, and the upcoming Tusk fringe?

MR: We knew lockdown was coming so for Housebound we asked a few friends to perform who we knew would say yes. A lot of people have started putting on online gigs, so we decided to curb it, but the last one was basically a festival with 22 artists performing! And then we thought, how can we do the next one? For Outbound the idea was to do a walk through Newcastle with people performing for five minutes in a spot along the way, and to stream the whole thing live on a phone, because we haven’t seen anyone do something like that. It was a very collaborative effort as Police House, working together with Mark and Adam. We thought, “Fuck it, let’s just try it.” It’s an improv thing; if it goes wrong it goes wrong.

This will be our sixth year programming Tusk fringe. Lee Etherington, who runs Tusk, has done so much for Newcastle, helping out artists, programming gigs and festivals, bringing money in, hooking people up. He just said, “Mariam I want an afterparty. You know what you’re doing.” From there it just kept going.

It’s hard this year, not being together in the flesh, but at the same time we’re involving a new audience from around the world who are just like “fuck yeah”. As for Tusk fringe we’ve been able to invite a number of mint artists and talks that we couldn’t normally due to our financial limitations; like Shelley Parker or Drvg Cvltvre. It's unbelievable they would consider playing for us.

We’re always digging really hard as artists and DJs. There’s a running joke that whatever we put on at fringe you’ll see at Tusk next year.

Mariam Rezaei and Stephen Bishop play Tusk Festival 2020