Space Oddity
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Readers in Columbus, Ohio (the Agit Reader hometown) have very likely come into contact with Ahmed Gallab and the music he has made over the years. Gallab first made his mark as a drummer in Sweetheart, a post-hardcore band, before moving on to the more eclectic sounds of Pompeii, This Morning. Outside of the Buckeye State, though, Gallab may be better known as a one-time touring member of Caribou, Of Montreal and Yeasayer. However, it is with Sinkane—a project that began as a one-man endeavor, but has since evolved to become a band—that Gallab is quickly making a name for himself. After releasing his debut, Color Voice (2008), and a self-titled follow-up (2009) with Emergency Umbrella Records, he has signed on with DFA for his latest, Mars. While expanding upon the mix of motorik beats, African textures, and electro experimentation of his past records, Mars is also Gallab’s most immediate work. With a full band now comprising Sinkane, these songs, as witnessed at the album’s release show last week, are even more impressive live.

I caught up with Ahmed in his new home of Brooklyn to discuss the new record and how he has brought his vision to fruition.

So you were born in Sudan?

Ahmed Gallab: Actually, I was born in London. My father was working for the Sudanese embassy in London. I don’t think we were there for longer than a year before we moved back to Sudan and lived there for a bit before we came to the United States.

How old were you when you moved to the States?

AG: Five years old, in 1989.

And you moved to the Cleveland area?

AG: No, my father was studying at Boston University, and we were there for about a year and then we moved to Utah. We lived in Utah for eight years, then we moved to Northeast Ohio, to Kent, in the fall of 1996. My dad got a job teaching at Hiram College, but no one really wants to live in Hiram.

Then you went to Columbus to go to Ohio State?

AG: Yep, in 2002.

And let’s fill in the blanks going from Sweetheart to Sinkane. I remember when you told me that Sweetheart was going to put out a second record with someone.

AG: When I moved to Columbus, my friends Bryan Parker and Mike Howard, who were also from Kent, were there, studying at OSU. We started Sweetheart and eventually our friend Greg Lofaro, who co-produced Mars, joined the band. We started the band in 2002 and went heavy until I graduated from school in 2006. When I talked to you, a record label from Virginia called The Perpetual Motion Machine was going to release our record. We went on tour and recorded the record in LA. We were all really happy with it, but the band fell apart.

And did that record come out?

AG: No, it never came out, which was unfortunate. Right after Greg and I graduated from college, we committed to going on tour with Sweetheart for as long as we could, but it just didn’t work out. In tandem with Sweetheart, I was playing with a band called Starcrossed, which was my high school band and which turned into Pompeii, This Morning, with Evan Richards. I guess you could say that was the earliest version of Sinkane. I was learning the ropes of writing music. After Sweetheart broke up, Mike Howard joined Pompeii, This Morning. It was a project that had a lot of wax with no wick. There wasn’t much beyond the ideas, but it was an amazing group of people to play with. In 2007, I decided I wanted to do my own thing and that’s when Sinkane started.

Where does the name come from and why not just use your own name?

AG: When I was starting the group, I didn’t want to use my own name because it sounds weird. It’s not a very musical name. I’m also really into being in a band. I’m not necessarily into creating a project that is solely me.

But it was solely you at the beginning...

AG: Yeah, in the beginning, I completely built the house. But the intention was to start a project, then eventually form a band. That’s why I didn’t want to use my name. I was listening to a Kanye West song from his first record called “Never Let Me Down,” and there was a rap on it by J. Ivy with the line, “I’m trying to give us ‘us free’ like Cinque,” which refers to Joseph Cinque, who was the slave that led the Amistad revolts. I didn’t know too much about that, and I misheard it. I remember listening to that record and listening to that section and it popped out pretty intensely. I’d think about it and go back and listen to it and go back and listen to it. I’d think, “This guy must be talking about the Sinkane, which must be this huge, larger than life, monolithic African god. It must be this huge thing that you learn in Black History or African-American Studies classes in college. It must be some weird Afrocentric thing that I don’t know about.” I manifested this idea in my head about this person like Shaka Zulu. I’d always say that I should go on the internet and look up who this person is, but I never did. Finally, I remembered to look it up, and the closest thing that would come up would be the Shinkansen trains in Japan. I looked up the lyrics and realized I misheard it.

Around that time Aaron Hibbs of Sword Heaven wanted me to play a show at The Shelf, the third floor space in (Columbus DIY space) Skylab. I told him I’d love to, so he needed a name. I thought I’d change it later, but it just stuck. It became this thing, this idea, that was larger than the music itself.

Where were you at that point with the project? Had you recorded stuff?

AG: I had started recording Color Voice, the first album, but I just remember telling Aaron that I was doing a new thing and starting to play shows if he needed anything for Skylab. Skylab was a big inspiration to the music. Playing in hardcore bands and being in the DIY scene in Columbus was really amazing and inspiring. There was an energy and beauty to what was going on at Skylab, and I wanted it to be a hub for Sinkane. I told them that I’d do whatever they wanted me to do.

But then you started playing with Of Montreal and Yeasayer, which led you to New York. Do you think Sinkane would have come to fruition quicker if those things hadn’t diverted you?

AG: The first band I played with professionally was Caribou, and Caribou was a very big influence on Sinkane’s sound. I wrote Color Voice based on Caribou songs, and when Even and I were doing Pompeii, This Morning, Caribou was always a point of reference. He played at the Wexner Center with Four Tet and Prefuse 73 when I was freshman in college, and that was a big deal. My dad is a big jazz head and the first two records he introduced me to were In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. When I heard Caribou, I thought it was a modern take on those things.

I remember finishing Color Voice, and two months later, Caribou was playing the Grog Shop in Cleveland. I went up with my friend Mark Himmel, who recorded Color Voice. Mark said that I should bring a copy of the record and pass it to him. I spilled my guts to the guy and told him that the music on the record was inspired by him. He really liked it, and I was lucky enough to play in the band. He and Ryan Smith have been like my mentors and very supportive. The musical evolution of the band would have been drastically different, but I learned so much just being in the band those two months. When we did the Caribou Vibration Ensemble, I got to play with Marshall Allen from Sun Ra, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, Koushik and James Holden—those are all strong reference points. I learned more in those two months than I did in the next four years. Then, Of Montreal and Yeasayer helped me learn what it was like to write a song. Caribou’s music is so rich in ideas, and the songs are very good and smart, but the difference between them and Of Montreal and Yeasayer is that Of Montreal and Yeasayer do straightforward pop songs. To be quite honest, I didn’t know how to do that. I knew how to make music, but I didn’t know how to craft a song like they did. It was definitely a good investment to put Sinkane on the backburner and learn from those bands. I got to see people do the right thing and do the wrong thing and have the blessing not to take the blame for any of it.

You were talking about your dad introducing you to Miles Davis. I’m not all that familiar with Sudanese music, but I can hear the influence of African music that I am familiar with. Is that also something else you grew up with?

AG: Oh, yeah. My parents are huge music fans. They are very into pop music and very into jazz. My mom is also a fanatical Sudanese music fan. There isn’t a day where she won’t listen to Sudanese music, so it’s ingrained in me. I can’t play the guitar without playing something Sudanese, or play the drums without syncopating it to what Sudanese music sounds like. My ear is tuned to that, and it is very nostalgic. Anytime I hear something that is reminiscent of Sudanese music, it reminds me of waking up on a Saturday and my mom making breakfast. It is very homey and comfortable. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t incorporate Sudanese music into the music I make.

How did you get hooked up with DFA?

AG: When I released the “Runnin’” single in March, I put it up on Bandcamp. One of the cool things about Bandcamp, is that when when someone purchases something from you, you get an email saying, “Ching ching, you’ve earned this much money, and so-and-so bought it.” They bought the single, and I was like, “Wow, DFA bought it? I wonder how they heard about it.” A week later, (DFA label head) Jonathan Galkin sent me an email and said he really liked the song and wanted to hear more music. He came and saw us at BAM, and after the show, he said we should talk about releasing an album. It was pretty amazing. I had gotten a few offers from other labels, but I held off because I didn’t see it fitting in the grand scheme of things. It was a blessing to know that they were genuinely interested. They’ve been very supportive.

Obviously, this record is probably going to be most people’s introduction to you. Did you feel like you were working with a clean slate or had the opportunity to reinvent yourself? How did you approach the record?

AG: One of the things I was very interested in doing with Sinkane from the beginning was to never do the same thing twice. There are specific elements in the music that I always want to keep. The major influences on Color Voice were Pharoah Sanders, Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, Spiritualized, Caribou, and My Bloody Valentine. Those were very specific influences that helped me craft that record. I really like ambient music, and I always want to have some sort of element in the music. I really like Krautrock, but I’m a fan of a lot of music. There will always be an element of Sudanese music, but as an artist, the ultimate challenge is to create interesting pop music. Yeasayer taught me that. They want to create pop music. They aren’t interested in being an esoteric group. They don’t want to be some sort of art college fantasy band. The want to be a pop band, but they want to do something different with pop music.

With the evolution of the band, I feel like I did it backwards. I started off with a really experimental record, and every record since then has been more and more concise and more and more straightforward. I don’t think it’s reinventing, it’s just one of the other ideas I had to create an album.

One of the things about Spiritualized that I like is J. Spaceman does a really good job of always keeping the music he’s created relevant. So if you listen to the Royal Albert Hall record, there are Spacemen 3 songs and songs from early Spiritualized records, but they all fit seamlessly into one cohesive show. I want to revisit those last two records and reappropriate the songs to what we are doing now. Those records have a lot of instrumentals, and I listen to them and think about almost rewriting the songs to play them live. It’s really interesting to look at your music that way, as something that is always evolving and always something different.

Songs like “Jeeper Creeper” and a couple others have been around for awhile, right?

AG: Yeah, I started writing this record initially when I joined Of Montreal. I felt like I was on a roll. I had just finished recording the second album, and I had moved to Athens, Georgia from Columbus. I was living in the Of Montreal rehearsal space and I had all this gear in front of me. Being in that band, because they are such a weird pop band, I started realizing the possibilities of what I could do with a pop song. I had the opportunity to play music all night and I started thinking about Mars. I did a draft of the record, but it didn’t really work out. Then I moved to New York and started playing with Yeasayer. I did another draft of the record, but I accidentally deleted it from my hard drive. I was knee deep into the record, so it was fucked-up. All I had was a loop from “Caparundi” because I had sent a demo to Roberto Lange, who sings on that song. Everything else I just had to remember. That’s when “Jeeper Creeper” came about. It initially had a Rolling Stones vibe, but after playing with Jaytram, the whole thing changed. But yeah, the record’s been done for two years now.

You were talking about Greg co-producing the record, but I had the impression of you making this record on your own. So what was the actual process like?

AG: There was definitely a lot of me time. Greg was living in Pittsburgh. The way our relationship with this record developed was very organic. I would work on a song and send it to him and ask him what he thought about it. I would send it to a few people, but he would have very specific notes, while everyone else would just be like, “Yeah, it’s cool.” He would take it very seriously. He’s very into editing and being part of the process of making art. So I’d send it to him and he’d have all these ideas that I never would have thought of. It would be like, “Play this part shorter” or “Move this section over here.” It really opened up my mind. He didn’t play any of the music, but he was a big part in ultimately crafting the vibe, and he helped me write lyrics. After a few weeks of sending it to him and him pushing me to worker harder, it turned into being part of the process. I couldn’t finish a song without sending it to him or I’d feel weird about it. Then, we just got so into it, I decided he should be co-producer because he was helping me make it work. There was a lot of time on my own, but near the end, I flew him to New York and we finished the record together. He had his role in the arrangements, and I don’t think I could have made the record without him. It wouldn’t have been as good. A lot of people in music nowadays take a lot of pride in saying they did it all themselves. That’s fine, but when you have an honest collaboration with someone that creates something larger, that’s really special.

Similarly, now that Sinkane is a four-piece, I see the same thing with Jaytram, our drummer, Mikey Freedom Hart, our guitarist and keyboard player, and Ish (Montgomery), our bass player. I played all the instruments on the record, minus a few things here and there, but I know that Jaytram is a better drummer than I am. I know that Mikey is a better guitar player than I am, and Ish is a better bass player than I am. Together, there’s a synergy that is created that makes the music better than the album. Moving forward, I can present music to the band and I know it’s going to sound better with the four of us playing than if I did it all myself. I’m proud of what I did, but I really believe in collaboration.

Going forward, do you think you’ll go back to making a record on your own or with the band?

AG: I definitely want to write the songs for the band, but I don’t want to be some tyrant who writes everything, records everything, and tells everybody what to play note-for-note. That’s not a real collaboration, and I don’t want to play in a band with hired guns. That’s really boring and sterile. I know working with Greg will make the music better, and I know all the strengths in the band. I know if I give them ideas to work with, it will manifest itself in something better.