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Escape Velocity

Visceral Views: Duma Spill Their Guts
Richard Foster , September 29th, 2020 09:09

Nairobi's Sam Karugu and Martin Khanja have made one of the most arresting debut LPs of 2020 as Duma. Richard Foster speaks to them about gore, gabber and grindcore

Duma play Tusk Festival 2020 which is on now

Nairobi’s Duma are a duo that should be slowly seeping into your consciousness. Sam Karugu and Martin Khanja - aka Lord Spike Heart - are key figures in what is by all accounts a totally wired local metal scene. Their explosive, sometimes visionary self-titled album is released on another vital East African concern, Kampala’s Nyege Nyege Tapes.

Over previous weeks I had become quietly obsessed with Duma’s record as well as many other killer releases on Nyege Nyege. Consequently the questions I had sent to the lads and the label were “florid”, to say the least. A couple of weeks passed.

Had I sent a load of mere pseud mag nonsense that wasn't worth the bother of a reply?

Then an email, replete with an audio file appeared in my inbox. I pressed play.

“Hello Quietus. This is Duma, Martin Khanja’s voice, Khanja-Khanja-Khanja’s voice.

"Hello Quietus. This is Duma. This is Samuel’s voice, I’m gonna speak at a higher pitch. Here are the answers to your questions.”

The 40 minute file contained a salutary lesson in learning how to get to the point; especially when I heard my borderline pompous questions scanned and filleted, with their remnants read quizzically back at me. It felt like a job interview in reverse.

At times the answers tumbled out; and, in Martin's case, at top speed when he was keen to emphasise a point.

Transposed against this sometimes unstoppable wall of energy from the pair was the odd external noise (at one point a bird call), which brought another kind of spatiality to the experience. Interdimensional rock & roll communication, all the way from Kenya.

There seems to be a strong focus on the possibilities of noise in the record.

Sam Karugu: Yeah. Even when mixing Duma I was in shock. Sometimes we had used twenty channels of really noisy shit. We were thinking, 'How’s it all gonna fit into the same sound?' But the good thing with noise is, it just melds into itself. A lot of noisy music doesn’t have a lot of pitch in it. And a lot of white noise is just every sound and every pitch played at the same time. So a lot of this kind of noise can go really far and sound good. Anyway, a lot of music today is trapped in noise: I think that is where the world is now.

Martin Khanja: Yes, noise; because we wanted to make a record of hybrid electronic shit and metal shit. That is the main point. We found that we could make a lot of noise by using electronic sounds, making the record more noisy than is traditional. Making seriously heavy shit through dropping beats, creating heavy bass sounds and employing different soundscapes. Noise can overlap and cover you like a fucking blanket! [Michael makes some noises to signify noise] There is a lot of shit you can do with noise, bro! You can also sample normal shit and make noise from that! You can go anywhere with noise, like annoying noise, unlistenable noise. Truth!

There are strongly sensual elements in your music, and I read that you liked to attack the senses, to get to a level where you engaged "people's nerves". Is music your psychic weapon?

MK: Yeah man, music is a seriously awesome thing for me, mainly because of my background in psychology. Take people in marketing, they use really serious shit to get your attention for their products. I envisage music in the same way. And we are here, doing this, so what the fuck? I could say that we are just normal kids from Kenya, but when we go on stage we become like some other motherfuckers, man. When we are onstage, we have power and can convince people through our music. It’s the easiest way for us to get to other people. It’s a very serious weapon too, so you are right.

SK: This question takes me back the first time I listened to Sunn O))), I remember thinking, 'What the fuck is this music?' It got to me, it went straight to my 'nads. And the next day I went back; I went back again and again. There was this strong sensual thing. Like Martin said, it’s like a blanket. But a weapon? I don’t know. Maybe if it was a weapon against bullshit music? [Both laugh] In Kenya they have these matatus (buses) and the drivers play music they want you to listen to. Ah man, it’s terrible. And every time when I used to go to school, I would put in my earphones and play Merzbow or Pulse Demon, and just blast that shit. It would save me. But those matatus, man, they are so loud. And even with earphones in, there is no salvation from that shit. [More laughter] So I turned it up. I’d just have the whole of Pulse Demon until I got to school. Pulse Demon! Next question!

What kind of communion are you looking for with your listener? To get out of your collective heads on the freedom noise and metal gives? Or something more spiritual, or connective?

MK: I would say both, bro: freedom and also connection. I mean when you know you’re free, what next, eh? So we look to connect on another plane of thought. I think the greater “side” of human beings is their enlightened, connecting side. I remember the day when we first made this weird shit, we gained a kind of freedom we hadn’t felt before. But our music is definitely pushed towards the connecting side. It’s in the lyrics and the music: we won’t say too much specifically about the things that drive us in our music, but look all around… Shit is dark man, but we can get together in the darkness, so you won’t be alone. Don’t fear the darkness because we’re all there together, man.

SK: I would say both too. Before Duma even, I was doing a bunch of tours outside of Nairobi, in Nakuru and different towns. We were there to show people that hey, “the metal scene is here [in Kenya] - we’re here in this land”. And we were not there to please people! I’m not your clown, or your dealer. [Laughs] But I love it when music is playing and people are coming together in that moment. Whether it’s a mosh pit or it’s an ambient gig and people are talking over it!

The record also sounds like you are having a LOT of fun, do I hear giggling at the end of one track?

MK: Yes; it was a lot of fun making this record! Ever since we started making music we have always encountered a lot of opposition to what we are doing. And that can be during recording or during mastering, or even during the actual release. But with this one we just abandoned any reservations and expectations. There was just total experimentation. Lots of adding sounds, just to see how deep we could go with that shit. It was a lot of fun. And we were able to show more aspects of ourselves through the production, our compositional sides, because it was made by just two people. It was made by friends. I’ve been friends with Sam for over ten years, since we were teenagers we’ve been going to gigs together, we’ve been in bands together and now we have the freedom to make this record! The track you’re talking about is ‘Kill Yourself Before They Kill You’, and we just found it funny to make it, that moment made us laugh it’s a joke, like what the fuck? It was unexpected, but we knew it was going somewhere!

SK: One thing I love about Duma - like when we recorded a vocal - is it was really in the moment. Maybe Khanja’s laughing or a door opened or we'd drank a lot of alcohol and… well, we just left those noises in. I don’t like cutting them out. And yeah, it was fun! For me when music isn’t fun anymore I just leave it. Just fuck off man, time to go and get a real job you know? [Both erupt in laughter] Because music should be fun man! If it’s not fun it’s lies man. It’s just boring.

Oh yeah and also in ‘Omni’, there is a version with a lot of laughing and crying that is not on the album. If you check out the video it’s there, but on the album it’s not there.

There's a big psychedelic, or industrial feel for me anyway, too. Stuff like ‘Pembe 666’, with the Swahili Bible reading. And ‘Echoes Of Beyond’, it's disorientating at times. The record often could be a classic art school one; like Psychic TV or Negativland LPs played at top speed!

MK: Thank you for those references man. I don’t know who the hell Negativland or Psychic TV are but our background is that we come from very heavy shit. And a lot of these heavy bands like Seeds of Datura add a lot of psychedelic shit into their mix. So it’s just natural for us to use psychedelic, heavy and industrial sounds.

SK: Psychic TV? Yeah, maybe... if it was at top speed! I like bands, like Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Chris And Cosey and Carter Tutti. I love how it can all be very disorienting. Music shouldn’t just be “melody, melody, melody” so you get up and dance. These kinds of things get boring to me. I love it when I’m listening to a track and it gets very disorienting and then at one point something comes in and it’s then like, “fucking dope”, and then, it’s disorienting again. That’s why ‘Pembe 666’ is my favourite track on the record. It’s like, insane.

I don’t do psychedelics, that’s on Khanja’s side. But I like a lot of psychedelic music. I love a lot of industrial, this kind of heavy hitting sound and I love it when it’s just crushing you. And that with the psychedelics, yeah, that’s like matching up some heavy shit that can fuck you up.

The beats are mental fast, punishing. Why the restless beats? There is an element of gabber and grindcore here too isn't there? But pulverised into something else.

MK: Yeah, the restless beats. Why? Well that’s the shit that normally plays in my head. The restless shit calms me down you know? This heavy crazy chaos. [Martin then makes a number of different heavy beat sounds] It’s very positive music. You can’t be depressed listening to that, man, because you feel energetic listening to it. You can get up and run around and crash into some shit. This is what I feel like. That’s how we are in everyday life.

Also we fuck with gabber. Gabber is electronic metal. Gabber is heavy as fuck. And grindcore goes fucking crazy man. And we combined all this music to make something else, so it’s like a tribute to it all. We give what we can, as a tribute, to continue these sounds. The moment we made this album, we thought we could use these things. The first song we made for this album was ‘Lionsblood’, and this song has a lot of the influences you’re talking about. We were thinking, nobody’s done this before and we like this!

SK: Sometimes I think I’m quite ADHD. So I can’t sit down in any one place for more than, let’s say, an hour. And right now I feel like fucking moving away from doing these questions. But Khanja keeps pushing these questions at me! [Laughs] But yeah, breakcore, gabber, grindcore, all these kinds of music that are fast and pulverising? This is the sound that is wired into our heads.

Let's talk about the possibilities of MEAT. Nerves, (lion's) blood, guts on the table, killing yourself (before they kill you) the name “Lord Spike Heart”. There's a lot of strong physical imagery that Duma engages with. Care to explain?

SK: First of all, let’s deal with the meat. It’s what our drummer used to say; you have to “go loud” and turn yourself inside out, take out your guts and “put them on the table”. And this kind of physical imagery? It just comes naturally with our music.

MK: I am Martin Khanja as Lord Spike Heart. This is the whole point. You know how we find all these differences in the world? Racism, Classism... everything fucked up with all this fighting and shit? Well this imagery concerns exposing your true self and asking, 'Who is that inner person you are hiding inside yourself?' We have the same lungs, stomachs, kidneys and blood types. We don’t care where you come from. There are just different ways of living and maybe different perceptions of the world, but we are essentially the same and that is what has been forgotten. And if we make music that can remind us that we are the same, then this is what the physical imagery is also all about.

How do you compose the music? What's your startpoint? Is there actually a startpoint?

SK: How it starts is with an idea, even before any sound is made or recorded. And then from this idea - say a funny story or something we experienced - we develop a sound. Imagine the track ‘Angels And Abysses’, how does an abyss sound? Is it a case of throwing Satan into some hole and then some angels go into that hole and then some demons come out of it? Angels make a regal sound. [Makes a sound like a trumpet fanfare] With this kind of sound we are making, it is like we are “scoring to life”. We score life. Then we work on the sound, over and over again. This aspect comes from metal actually. Before anything is recorded, the [metal] band jams. So we jam out the idea first lots of times.

MK: Then comes the refining; there are at least nine versions of each song, often ten or eleven. Because the end product has to be a 'What the fuck?' kind of sound. If it sounds like something we know and understand, we don’t go with it. What we actually want to think to ourselves when we play it back the next day is, 'Who the fuck made this shit on my laptop man? Who came into the studio last night? Was it some fucking gnomes? Did some leprechaun come in at night and upload some songs?' If you think that, then you know that it is fine and say, 'Fuck yeah! This is a good song!' [Both laugh]

And we also add things from real life. We hear things and think, 'Yeah that's cool.' Maybe it will be a toad in a trench croaking. So we come and record that sound and then make drum tracks from it. Or the sound of the wind, or someone cutting metal with a grinder. Or a kid crying... really sad crying. We make samples and work with that shit.

If you listen to ‘Lionsblood’ it’s about lions hunting, that’s why it’s so fast. And also it’s about the Masai, so they are crying and they are also hunting the lion, and there’s an overflow of noise when the lion is biting a gazelle. It's about the whole experience.

SK: Yeah. I don't like a lot of music when it’s too linear. That’s why even metal went away from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus thing. This is why with some forms of metal there is no verse. Like Napalm Death's ‘You Suffer’. That is like a score to life contained in one second, just like that. Bam. This kind of thing is very important to us.

MK: That is why our music is so restless. OK, next question!

There are so many elements in this LP, it feels like you've covered so much already, what are you thinking of doing next?

MK: Yeah we have covered a lot to make this new sound we have, but what’s next is more Duma, more real shit, man! I’d say more of this sound that is really fucking out there. More of this alien fucking music from out of space, but one that humans can still find palatable. We are now making an album with Gabber Modus Operandi, it’s gonna come out at the end of next year. We’re also working with Sense Fracture from Milan in Italy and Moor Mother, and Elvin Brandi also. So yes! We’re going to give you guys everything, man.

SK: I love how in ‘Pembe 666’, there is the extract from the Bible in Swahili from St John's Revelation, in which the Lamb is going to break the seven seals. And now, the first seal has been broken. The first album is done and now we need to break more seals. We don’t like waiting to do this. It will sound like this: [Sam and Martin both start to make trilling noises]

Duma play Tusk Festival 2020 which is on now