Julius Masri is Mephisto Halabi is Julius Masri: An Interview

Photo by Ryan Collerd

Julius Masri has always had a lot going on. The Lebanon-born, Philadelphia-based multidisciplinary artist and composer has studied with a laundry list of stalwarts like Elaine Hoffman-Watts, Thurman Baker, Joan Tower, Carl Mottola, and others, but ultimately creating his own compositional framework and practice. He is also known for his performances and compositional work in Philadelphia’s dance community. 

All of these intertwining aspects of Masri’s background come together as he transforms into Mephisto Halabi on his new opus, The Arabic Room. The genre-hopping mixtape incorporates a wide range of sonic influences from free jazz to metal to electro-chalabi. It’s colossal, entrancing. As soon as the opening riff of “Watch On the Orient Pt. 1” hits, he’s got his hooks in and immerses listeners in this fully-realized enclosed world. The Arabic Room, one of my favorite albums of 2021is an absolute force.

Masri and I did this interview throughout September and October. The Arabic Room is available for pre-order now and releases on November 26. Julius can be reached via his website.

So I always like to hear about people’s early memories of music and sound, but it seems even more relevant in this case. In that vein, what were some of your earliest memories, and how did those help inspire The Arabic Room?

That’s a tough one. There’s plenty to choose from; helicopters, guns, etc. I remember once waking up to what I thought was the sound of thunder, but it turned out to be the 1983 invasion of Beirut spilling into our town. I’m sure the ensuing panic, confusion, and all the internecine conflagrations coming down the pike left their scarring, psychological or otherwise, but I’m not sure I can make direct connections between these experiences and what I do musically. Maybe as a subconscious backdrop of trauma and mental clutter…

Some things are more obvious, and it wasn’t war all the time. I do remember the sound of BBC World Radio, (electricity permitting), my mother occasionally playing the piano, and how the sounds created space, reverberations in hallways and large (to me then) rooms. The emotional-aesthetic vibes in regards to sound and space is something I noticed early on.

The big one though, the most viscerally important music experience was definitely drum-related, (how I forgot about this until a few years ago, I have no idea. I’m almost certain it subconsciously fed into my starting drums in the first place). Muslim majority communities have what’s known as Musaharatis. During the month of Ramadan, you have various crews of drummers working in different parts of the city, anywhere from 3am to 5am, depending on what time of year Ramadan falls on (shifting lunar calendar). The point is that people get woken up to some pre-sunrise noshing before fasting starts for the day. These crews, (anywhere from one to three persons) work their way throughout the month, through the streets and eventually up most apartment buildings. They collect alms and play on every floor landing. I remember being five (when I became mentally active) and being aware that this wasn’t a normal thing. There was a cognitive dissonance; waking up to celebratory drums when the world is sleeping; it messes with your sense of reality. It was very exciting, and seemed to me then very loud, although I’m sure it really wasn’t.      

What led you to start playing drums after you moved to the US?

I was already a little metalhead by the time my family and I moved to the states. In Tripoli, there were clusters of bootleg shops that would dub cassette tapes of whatever records they had on hand, so lots of Maiden, Sabbath, Saxon, etc. Until recently, I assumed I picked up drums for the same reason anyone else would because drums are cool and they’re straightforward, (no mysterious scales, chords, or theory). I stuck it out after getting exposed to many creative musicians who were inventing environments you could almost walk through, or were shredding in such amazingly unique ways. Every time I thought that music was boring and there was nothing new, I’d hear or see something that obliterated that misconception.

Beyond more direct influences on this new record, how did those experiences growing up in Tripoli impact your creative practice and approach more generally?

Again, tough one. I never developed that “striver” mentality stereotypically ascribed to Lebanese and, not to get too dour, by the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was well aware of how touch-and-go the whole existence thing really was. After all the unavoidable excitement of that first decade+, I think all I wanted was to retreat a bit, lay low, stake a flag in a tiny corner, and work on stuff at my own pace. I have hermit tendencies, and if I wasn’t doing music, I’d probably be pursuing something in a similar vein.

You mention that originally this record started out as a documentation of extended drum techniques before evolving into what is being released. Was there a particular moment where you realized it was becoming something different?

The original idea was an album that was half drums and half circuit-bent Casios, but the recording dates kept getting pushed back, which I never minded since I wasn’t in any great rush, to begin with. Besides, I was having a string of music breakthroughs and getting better at different instruments along the way; I was too busy developing content. I think the turning point occurred when I was messing around with a rabab (spike fiddle). I don’t usually write riffs, but I stumbled backward onto what became the melody of “Watch On The Orient”. My reaction was, “well, I’m going to have to do something with this, now.” I still wanted to pursue the initial concept, but the song’s gravitational pull eventually forced me to rethink that intention. I also gave myself license to explore whatever I wanted to; musically, philosophically, etc. I knew this was going to take a while. And who’s going to stop me? 

What’s the story behind the name, Mephisto Halabi?

Stupid pun. Couldn’t help myself. Covid lockdown had me going batty, so nearly every title on this album is some dumb in-joke. Fustu(q) Halabi is another name for a kind of pistachio. The name Mephisto Halabi popped into my head during the recent bombardment in Syria. Halab is the Arabic name for Aleppo, one of many towns and cities in Syria we used to go and visit back in the day. 

Photo by Julius Masri from his trip to Tripoli in 2019

It’s impressive how varied stylistically and sonically the record is and yet it flows so well and fits together. Why was it important to you to get into so many different styles/genres? And what were some of the challenges with keeping everything cohesive, but still exploring so many different zones?

At some point, after deciding on the thematic thread, I knew I wanted to structure the album like a mixtape. I grew up with mixtapes, but I wasn’t looking to make an homage-to-the-nostalgia-of kind of thing. Really, this album came together through a critical observation of nostalgia, whether personal or in the larger societal context. But even still, cassette mixtapes are emotionally loaded artifacts. They’re anthropological documents of people, time & place, and carry more weight than playlists algorithmically constructed; someone has to sit down, curate the material, and do the labor, (I’m sure this isn’t a new topic). I also think the best songs are ones where listeners are able to project their own emotions onto, or that they (mis)remember in their own heads. I’m banking on the ability of listeners to graft their own connective narrative tissue onto the total material and give it personal cohesion. 

I play in all sorts of situations: metal, Jazz, noise, music for choreography, etc. There’s the fun challenge of writing music in different genres, or even just using it as an excuse to learn new instruments, (some instruments just lend themselves to specific genres). I also gave myself whatever time I needed, with the goal of making the best version of each song as my abilities allowed before moving on. Each track has to be able to stand on its own, but there’s still a decent amount of Meta floating around the whole project that may not be apparent to anyone but myself. Each track is a sort of clearinghouse to whatever my brain was working out at the time, (dialectic accumulators?). That’s a whole other lengthy discussion.

Building off the sonic diversity of The Arabic Room a bit, another aspect of that that really struck me is how there are moments where it’s really loud, kind of maximal, but then there are other pieces that have a real sparseness to them. When you’re writing, how are you developing these ideas? Do you have certain sounds in mind and then it’s a matter of figuring out how to make those sounds come to life, or is it more of an image or idea in your mind that you try to translate to sound? I’m curious how something comes into existence…

It’s really a mix; the goals change from song to song. I assumed, working on pieces individually, that each would require its own process. A track may begin life with the intention of highlighting specific instruments, sounds, maaaybe a compositional idea. The Sandy Bull track is an obvious reference to the duo recordings of Sandy Bull and Billy Higgins, a favorite drummer of mine. ( The Arabic connection with that track is rather an involved topic, but I’m willing to go down that rabbit hole if you’re curious). I was in a position where I could set my own barriers or obstructions, walk away from a track if I hit a wall, and come back to it six months later. A big part of allowing a piece of music to accumulate forms and emotional clutter is allowing for the possibility of discovery and happy accidents. I’ve spent decades studying and playing drums, and the whole purpose of “mastery” is that it puts you in a position where you can make new kinds of amazing sounding mistakes. That’s the fun part of this whole explorative process of playing music for me, discovering quirks on recording software, or learning new moves on any given instrument, (some of the instruments on this album I learned on the job). When I discovered things that I liked, I had to go where the sounds wanted to. I’ve learned the hard way that forcing a predetermined aesthetic or compositional choice usually fails to produce anything worthwhile. Watch On the Orient was originally intended to be a “clean” sounding track. Christopher Andrew McDonald, fantastic engineer that he is, decided to add an extra drum mic with higher gain for a slightly distorted sound; to give things a little grit. Working on the track, I found that I really liked the sound of the distorted drums, and turned them all the way up in the mix. It simply tapped into my own history of noise music. Synesthesia isn’t the right word, but the sounds seem to incite an aural recognition, maybe a headspace similar to the one I used to have listening to my old copy of Stooges’ Fun House. The incorporated samples are a definite throwback to early 90s production styles, Bomb Squad, et al.  

Photo by Ryan Collerd

Completely changing speed here, can you tell me a little about how the duo with Dan Blacksberg, Superlith, came about? 

 I’ve known Dan Blacksberg for years. He’s a monster Philly trombonist, a leading figure in both the Klezmer and the experimental improv scenes (Anthony Braxton Quartet). We met through our mutual friend and shred lover supreme, Nick Millevoi, (John Zorn, Desertion Trio). There are innumerable projects and shows in our past, and we still play in larger ensembles in the experimental vein: as members of the orchestral component to visual artist Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud Ensemble. We’re up in each other’s business, and we live about three blocks from each other, anyway. 

Regarding Superlith, I dipped some toes into circuit bending in the mid-2000s, but I bought a finished Casio SK1 from genius builder Dan Parks, aka SpunkyToofers, which I still use today, (see The Esoteric Ordnance of Mystic Howlers). I was drawn to this machine because of its endless possibilities, and that the sounds coming out seemed to have little to no historical, contextual associations. It felt like a blank slate compared to higher-end keyboards and modular synths, whose market seems very nostalgia-driven, (nothing wrong with that, by the way. I love synths for the same reasons everyone else does. See Track 2-Station Identification). With circuit-bent Casios, I quickly learned that you can’t really master it like a more orthodox musical instrument. It’s inherently a cheap piece of equipment that can crap out on you if you push it too hard. The best you can hope to be is a sort of sonic-event curator. This method of execution fed its way back into my drumming and was the initial spark to this whole enterprise. Dan was quick to see the possibilities inherent in these machines as well. We teamed up and threw down, extending the technical reach of our respective instruments, idiomatic language disruptions, granular synthesis, the works. Usually, we just try to create the most ugly, raw, bestial sounds possible, until neither instrument can be distinguished from one another. Other times, we mess with music tropes, or just build off whatever crazy noises we can find.

There was such a long amount of time between that first album and the most recent one, though most of that one was recorded around the time for the first. What prompted you all to collab remotely earlier this year and put out this album?

At the time of recording the second album, we may not have felt too strongly about our performance. We’re both rather hypercritical and prone to focus on perceived negatives or whatever, so the album was shelved. This is a great lesson for musicians who may also be hypercritical perfectionists regarding their own playing because nearly a decade later, we listened back and asked ourselves what the hell were we thinking?! What came through the headphones was insane. I’ve had this experience with other late-released albums as well. We sifted through hours of material and took our favorite parts. While working on the mixes, some elected dumbass and not so crypto-fascist in the US Congress started in with Jewish conspiracy theories, Space Lasers, etc. Civic duty compelled us to issue forth a track of maximum shred. Maybe in the grand spirit of social discourse, it’s not as effective as a well-lobbed milkshake, but we felt much better performing it, nonetheless.  

Any more Superlith in the works?

Never say Never.

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