Being purposefully involved in Washington DC's DIY music scene can feel a little like launching a cooperative farm commune in Antarctica (I'm only guessing, I haven't actually tried this Antarctica thing out). Your friends don't understand why you live so far away, there aren't too many interested parties around here anyway, your tools and shelter are often weather inappropriate, and most of the "fun" you might have along the way carries the weight of ever-present questions you might not be able to answer: is this even going to be possible, and will it matter to anyone besides me?
Forget the farm commune example, I (obviously) exaggerate. My point is that there are easier places to do this kind of stuff, but some of us like it here for a number of different reasons. I didn't really get to press Ahmad Zaghal on whether or not he likes it here, but he is a life-long resident of the area and a constant show-goer with a number of interesting perspectives on disparate musical sounds. Ask him about any show or record. If he was there or and if he's heard it, he won't hold back. A man of many tastes and opinions, Ahmad told me a little bit about how he came to enjoy music so much.
K: Did you grow up in the DMV area?
A:Yeah, I lived in the area my whole life. I lived in PG county (Greenbelt area) throughout the 80's and my family moved to Germantown in '89. I left to go to school in College Park for a while but otherwise, have been in Montgomery County ever since.
K: Can you recall the first record, or song, or show that had an incredible impact on you? I'd like to know what first drew Ahmad into music world.
A: I had to think about this second question for a while. My parents are Palestinian immigrants and came to the US not long before I was born. They brought a bunch of music; all of which was on tape. Relatives would often come and visit from overseas and bring tapes with them. All of this music lasted throughout my early childhood and was the first music I was exposed to. It was mostly popular music of their youth. Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Abd El Haleem Hafez, Fareed Al-Atrash, ETC. It was almost always being played around the house or on car trips. That definitely helped lay a foundation for the interest in music I have now. There have been a few instances where I'd walk into a house show in DC and hear one of these artists being played on a stereo and be taken back 25 or more years. It goes to show how timeless so much of this stuff really is and how small the world's gotten.
K: I know Fairuz! I mean, I don't know her, but I have a great Fairuz record. I don't know a lot about her though, or her scene or anything. Did that music feel mysterious to you, or was it contextualized by your family's origins?
A: That music was contextualized by my family's origins, for sure. It was literally the first music I remember hearing so it was always just kind of there for me. Later on, I think the first rock record to really hook me was Black Sabbath's Paranoid. I got into metal at a fairly young age and that was one of the first albums that made a big impression on me. From there, (spurred by my acquisition of internet access a few years later) my tastes quickly branched out. With regard to live shows, I don't think there was a specific show that got me into live music in general. There was one that hooked me on live noise/psych/avant-garde music, though. It was Damo Suzuki with Kohoutek as his backing band/(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope/a trio comprised of Carlos Giffoni, John Wiese and C. Spencer Yeh. The whole show was great (I went mostly for Suzuki because I was listening to a ton of Can at the time) but what really stuck with me was that first noise trio. I often tell people who can't get into noise on record that it has to be experienced live before being written off and that set is the prime example.
K: Can you talk a little more about the experience of live noise versus a noise record? In your opinion, are a lot of noise recordings missing something or do you just think the best introduction to a lot of noise stuff is at a live show?
A:There are a lot of noise records I like; I obviously can't speak for the artists themselves but the impression I get is that they have different goals on record from what they are trying to accomplish in a live setting. The live noise experience is a better introduction in my opinion, though only because it forces a more immediate response from its audience. The best live noise sets for me are multi-sensory experiences that tap into something primal in both the audience member and performer. They last no longer than 10-15 minutes but leave you just as spent physically and emotionally as an hour's worth of music. My favorite noise recordings are mostly just interesting explorations of sonic textures and rhythmic patterns. Yellow Swans, Double Leopards, Mouthus and John Wiese are examples of artists/bands that immediately come to mind. That recent Pharmakon record is a pretty successful attempt at contextualizing noise for a more mainstream crowd. She's also got the super intense, visceral, confrontational live show thing down well.
K: Have you seen Pharmakon? What is the live show like?
A: I caught her twice; once at the Black Cat and once at Hopscotch Fest in Raleigh. Both were fairly similar. About 15 minutes of non-stop sonic brutality in the best way. Black metal-esque shrieks and electronics. I didn't know this until afterward but she also runs into the crowd and gets in individuals' faces. Like I said, pretty intense.
K: Are you completely blind, or do you see certain things? What do you see at shows? Was there a time when you could see?
A: I'm completely blind and have been since birth. I try to form a basic mental image at shows of each act I see; such an image may include the amount of musicians on stage, instruments being played, the band/stage's distance from/proximity to me, etc. Some of these images are more accurate than others. I recently saw a band whose members were spread all over the room we were in while they were playing and didn't realize this until after their set when someone mentioned it to me. Sometimes, if a room is a little boomy or if a band chooses to forego the stage and play in the middle of a room, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where they are based only on auditory feedback.
K: OK, I had heard from someone that maybe you were able to see at one point? So this is interesting and clears that up. I've been wondering recently about how very picture-oriented internet platforms like tumblr do not necessarily cater to people who can't see. I know there are ways to navigate around this, like potentially a tumblr-user can write a caption below their image to describe what is going on. What do you think about tumblr, or general social-networking stuff? I don't use instagram but I hear you're sort of a star in that world.
A: I haven't done much with Tumblr because, yeah, it appears to be 99% picture oriented and the thought process of most tumblr users is probably (totally understandably) "Why put up a caption if the pic is self explanatory?" if they even think about a caption at all. I'm not an active Tumblr user but do periodically check a few that do regularly have text on them. Priests', for instance. ;) The only social networking I do is Twitter and as little sense as this makes, Instagram. Facebook is screen reader (software available for both computers and smartphones that takes text on a screen and converts it into audio) accessible but I never really felt a need for it.
I guess I should back up and talk about my Instagram use. To make a long-ish story short, a friend and I thought it'd be funny if I started taking pics at shows based solely on what I'm hearing and post them on an Instagram page. Here it is. I quickly noticed that more people than I anticipated were interested in my little joke. It eventually caught the attention of Dave Malitz (who I've known for a while from going to shows) and Chris Richards at the Washington Post and they thought it'd make a good human interest piece. I think it came out really well. Here it is. I take the pics with a standard Iphone and the only feedback I get from the phone is how crisp/blurry or light/dark a pic is. Occasionally, I take a lucky shot and get a full face in the pic. The phone's screen reader would give me that info as well but that's so rare. I don't do any editing because it's impossible. What you're seeing is the raw pic. Quite a few people have told me specifically that they appreciate that aspect of the pics. I think there are actually a few good ones of you up there. It's been fun getting feedback and I plan on continuing as long as people seem interested. It's also a good way to document the shows I attend.
K: You and I have talked about noise-level at shows being disorienting. Can you elaborate on that?
A:Yeah; the noise level, more specifically the volume of the PA music between acts/after a show can be incredibly problematic for me. I rely on echo location (sound bouncing off walls/people/furniture) for getting around in a venue and super loud PA music makes that impossible. I can also sometimes pick up voices of people I know in a crowd in smaller rooms and a loud room can also make it difficult to do that. Not being able to do either of those things can make a show really isolating and miserable. It also just really sucks to wake up the day after a show with a noise hangover which often ends up happening. To clarify, bands being loud is not an issue at all; it's the unnecessary PA music volume that sometimes plagues shows that is.
K: I see you at almost every DC-area show, it seems. You're a pretty experienced show-goer. Any thoughts on how to improve the live show scene? Another DC resident, Sean Gray, did a great piece a few months ago in the The Media about the inaccessibility of a lot of DIY venues. He brought up a lot of things that should be more obvious to everyone but are typically ignored. Like, you pointed out the sound issue to me the other night and while I was aware of it and slightly annoyed, I wasn't completely impaired because I can rely on other senses, I guess. It strikes me as a bit of a "Meno's Paradox" kind of thing.
A: I have known Sean for years and we have discussed all these accessibility issues many times. It's really great for The Media to give us a forum in which we could point them out! The disorienting noise level issue is easily the biggest accessibility issue for me. It makes perfect sense that it's one of those things you don't think about until it is pointed out to you. I have on a few occasions mentioned it to people who work at certain venues and they were more than happy to accommodate me. Sean just tweeted yesterday about a ramp building initiative in Baltimore to help make DIY venues more accessible. This would be great if it happens. I can only think of a couple venues in which I had a small problem getting in (I was never prevented from getting in, though) but the more inclusive DIY venues are, the better. On a completely unrelated note, one practice at live shows I think needs to be completely abolished (this doesn't happen at DIY venues as far as I know) is the practice known as "door polling." The way it works is that patrons are asked who they are at the show to see upon entering the venue and bands are paid at the end of the night based on a tally the person working the door keeps. This is a disgusting practice that creates rifts in a local music scene among bands and turns concerts into a bullshit competition. It's also a sign of laziness on the promoter's part. Instead of doing the work to promote a show, he/she forces bands to do it by threatening them with lesser pay if they don't get people out. I try hard to avoid venues in DC that do this if I can (only know of one promoter who does this in DC) and if I do go to one of his venues, I refuse to answer the question and make sure the person at the door knows how much I disapprove of it. The more people refuse to answer the polling question, the less reliable the result becomes and the more likely it'll be that promoters will abolish the practice.
[The] Meno's Paradox analogy is spot on. As I implied earlier, it likely is impossible for someone to realize how loudness can affect accessibility unless he or she is faced with the idea of having to navigate a room with no sight while being bombarded by noise. Most probably would not make that connection at all.
K: Tell me about some of your favorite records at the moment
A:I have been on a bit of a Chris Knox/Toy Love/Tall Dwarfs kick. This happens for a week or two every few months. Knox is one of my favorite songwriters ever but for whatever reason, hasn't gotten the notoriety he deserves outside of New Zealand. The same goes for dozens of other bands/artists from New Zealand for some reason. Hopefully this begins to change with Captured Tracks' reissuing of a bunch of Flying Nun's catalog. I've recently revisited some of the older Os Mutantes material for the first time in a while because they're touring the US again and I finally was able to catch them live. That first album totally holds up after the many years it's been since I gave it a listen and the live show was much better than expected. I've also been listening to a bunch of older twee; 14 Iced Bears, Dear Nora, Another Sunny Day to name a few. 2013 has been a great year for music. I'm limiting myself to five albums here because if I didn't, this answer would go on forever.
Wax Idols - Discipline and Desire: Can't get enough of this. Not sure if anyone else has done the 80's goth pop thing this well post-80's. Also, Hether Fortune's Twitter feed is great.
Rose Melberg - September: Rose Melberg (Tiger Trap, Softies, Brave Irene, Etc.) put out this beautiful covers tape earlier this year that seems to have gone under most people's radars. Covers range from Black Sabbath to Wipers to The Bats to Big Star to The Muppets to The Magnetic Fields to Thin Lizzy to fifteen other bands/artists. This may be my most listen to album this year.
Alasdair Roberts and Friends - A Wonder Working Stone: Been a big fan of this dude for a while; you basically know exactly what you're getting with each release of his. Beautiful dark Scottish folk; usually a mix of originals and traditionals. This album sounds more like a full band effort than his other albums, though.
Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap: Devastating rhymes over really smooth RNB/soul tracks. One of those albums (actually a mixtape) I don't listen to that much but when I put it on, I think "Hey I should listen to this more often."
Neo Boys - Sooner or Later: I actually found out about this thanks to your feature/interview with Calvin Johnson a few weeks back. The influence they've had on so many acts around today becomes obvious almost immediately after you start listening.