Saint Abdullah & the Defiance of Survival

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Saint Abdullah is the Tehran-born duo of brothers Mohammad and Mehdi and over the last few years, they have built a formidable discography. Their music is borne from their own human stories and personal histories. Combining elements of harsh dub, free jazz, noise collage, and musique concrète, Saint Abdullah creates visceral documents that twist intensity into emotive, focused webs of sonic mayhem. Their 2020 opus, In God’s Image, on Psychic Liberation is one of my favorite albums of the last decade and now they offer up their latest on Room 40, Inshallahlaland (not to mention a killer release on Important last year and its companion on Cassauna)

This interview was conducted toward the end of 2021. Inshallahlaland will be released February 4th on digital and cassette. 

First off, how have you all been the past two years and how are you holding up?

All things considered, we’ve been blessed. Some personal ups and downs, but healthy, and gosh, still here. 

One thing that’s been a highlight of running the site this year is that you all are the fourth interview I’ve done with Iranian-born artists. Though all but one (Siavash Amini) are not in Iran currently, I’m curious what your experience was like growing up, especially concerning music and art, and what kinds of things you were exposed to while still in Iran?

We were there until around 6 / 7, and then Mehdi went back to Tehran for high school. What you feel is the presence of community and family in so far as raising all the kids. There are always cousins, aunts, uncles, “uncles”, and grandparents and block friends around. This sticks out massively. 

There was also a real strong sense of identity that was built very early on. You have to remember that these are the years immediately following the war and so the family (and society perhaps) was on quite a bender when it came to all things revolutionary, and nation building and setting everything up through the lens of shi’ism. 

And as kids, we felt that come through. Certainly musically, this meant that our exposure to sound was centered around the Mosque or Islamic experiences. Shia Islam is steeped in ceremony, oration, rhythm. Let’s just say we were active participants in this way. All the old war songs were almost like companions. And if it wasn’t that, it’d be a mixture of Iranian classical and pop music, depending on the occasion. 

There was a real keen awareness or curiosity for the political world and the news. We’d wait at the window sill for the arrival of the newspaper. The news was always on tv. If it wasn’t that, it’d be some panoramic shot of a field of wild roses, with some classical tune on top. Or hasty lessons from parents and relatives. What was good, what was bad. And where we belonged. Those roots that perhaps you hear across our sounds were planted at that age. 

That was an odd time. Our sister wanted to get a setar, and somehow the family turned out to be against it. So our parents decided against it. That sticks out. She eventually played flute all through high school in Canada, so it’s all good, but damn. There are lots of stories like that that come to mind. Ones where it was always this game of how committed you want to be to some evolving post-revolutionary dogma. Even though, 10 years prior, you’d probably decide differently. So what’s changed? Simply everything. 

How did you all first start to play and create your own works?

Mehdi had moved to New York, and we decided to mess around and buy pioneer ddj-sx’s. The impetus was really simply curiosity. We were seeing so much live music around the city then. A lot of intake, and reflections on what we really want to do. And it was just like, blahhhhh work work work. Like what the fuck are we doing? It was like how do we escape this? The inspiration, and perhaps courage, came with the passing of our grandmother and a desire to express the grief. A real wake-up call. Like what are you waiting for? 

So there was a funky challenge between wanting to say something, yet not wanting to learn shit for four years before you do. The solution that was most provoking was to stick to the pioneer decks and create only using this. Doing it this way meant that we can go deeper inside ourselves, with more urgency. Mind you, at the time, we couldn’t afford to pay our gas bill, barely our rent. And a general dislike of being in front of a screen. So you know, you do with what you have. We’d sit there day and night making loops and recording, freezing haha. Ay. Still do in many ways.

One of the main things that always stands out to me about Saint Abdullah’s music is how visceral, in-your-face, and unapologetic it is. I remember reading an interview where you guys talked about how so much Eastern music is watered down for Western audiences and you all had no interest in anything like that. How do you all sustain such ferocity release after release without burning yourselves out?

It’s funny because just a few days ago, we were talking about how this youthful angst slowly wilts away, and we’re not sure what it will be replaced with. At the same time, you endure throughout the creation process. We liken it to brainwashing, like really letting go. You’re watching / experiencing a lot of heavy shit. Nevermind what’s going on outside. It can also be tough on those around you. That’s one side of it. 

For real tho, a lot of the dance music we were being exposed to in NYC at that time, if there were eastern elements, oh gosh, it felt so contrived. It almost felt like they were controlling a narrative about us that was suitable for them. Like a pretty little rabbit. Like this is what you are to us. What you can be to us. That, somehow combined with the crazy American news cycle, that’s so dense, and is hell-bent on fucking with your religion, identity. It’s enough to make anyone go nuts. 

It’s deeply satisfying to give the middle finger. We’re inspired by the bravery of amazing artists and co., past and present, that offer the courage to keep going. Plus, we haven’t moved to Calabasas just yet. When you’re in it, there’s a lot to say. 

The burnout is the outcome of having to survive. Moh just had a kid this year too. If it didn’t feel absolutely necessary to dedicate ourselves to this, then we wouldn’t. If it was just music, it’d be far more manageable (and probably offer its own challenges, too), but it’s the combination of all other things that can kick your ass at times. We have no solution to this. It’s a daily grind. 

I’m thinking about the description of Inshallahlaland where you talk about the sample on “Glamour Factory” and how he talks about film being this place where we can break free from these preconceived, singular identities society expects of us and how music and sound offers this same, or even more freedom to break free. How has music done this for you all?

Well, fundamentally, it goes back to the watered-down Eastern bullshit we were talking about earlier. It’s about exposing the fullness of it all, without compromise. That’s likely where the juicy stuff comes out for us. When you decide to break down walls. 

With sampling, you can create your own world within seconds. One pad is a young British-Iranian woman in London, another pad is a youth inmate at a prison in Tehran. And you bring them together. And you create a backdrop, sonically, rhythmically, that caters to their meet-up. But that’s not all, because all of a sudden, wham, the mullah delivers a sermon as the prisoner and the woman from London are kicking it. Meanwhile, the TV turns on and it’s the 3am news cycle live from Tehran. And they’re all kind of bopping their heads at the same time, as the universe changes around them. You end up asking why, it is a curious get together. 

And you know, what the fuck is going on? And so on. When you sample, you are partly celebrating – the characters and the sounds that are your source. Like a blessing. And you’re also almost becoming them, like Treadwell with bears. This poses a question around how you choose to source material. Like on youtube, do you go horizontal, in so far as focusing on a topic or question, or premise? Or do you go vertical? As in, do you follow another path, one laid out by the person who has uploaded that video. The latter ends up far more exploratory. So you’re speaking through the samples, and even the YouTuber who has uploaded all these videos. You speak through them, as God speaks through you. The latter through improvisation wrapped into the performance, the recording. 

Along those lines, your work makes me think a lot about this book, Sonic Agency, by Brandon Labelle where he talks about the unseen nature of sound and how it can support political transformation. Specifically the idea that the experience of listening and being heard can begin this political and societal transformation. Thinking about a lot of the roots in your music and the revolting Islamophobia that pervades the West that is then used to create and enforce policies against the Muslim world – and Iran in particular – how do you think or hope that telling your stories through sound and music (and art, even more generally) can begin to make inroads into those mindsets if you even think it’s possible?

Brandon’s onto something! But it works both ways, as in, sound can also support a political transformation that isn’t exactly ideal. Transform into / to what? This is the frightening thing about the potential of sound. In the Iranian context, politicization of Shia ceremonies is no secret. This hijacking is happening all around the world. So we hijack back. You see where it gets difficult? It’s like a two-sided marketplace. You got shit to say about that, and you’re trying to fight harmful narratives in the West. 

At best, some kid finds something in these sounds that makes their day a bit more durable. To a fair extent, the sounds come from the daily experience of coming face to face with this narrative that you’re referring to. Like as an example, on the album stars have eyes, the track I’m sad / frightened / angry. The power is in the vulnerability. Anything beyond that, I dunno, our storytelling is niche, so at best, you can think more broadly about the community of artists that, in aggregate, are making inroads into mindsets. Although, not just as artists. Activists, educators, healers, carers, organizers, and so on. 

Coming back to Inshallahlaland, can you tell me the story behind the name?

Felt like everybody was dropping inshallah. That has to be partly due to people like Khabib, or even the Hadid sisters. We kind of got obsessed with how inshallah is just being thrown around in the West. Like what is happening here? A similar phenomenon is happening with Habibi. 

But Inshallah is heavy. There’s a video of Biden saying Inshallah in a debate with Trump. But the way he used it, broke our hearts. Like “inshallah”, as in, that will never happen (in reference to Trump releasing his taxes), but here’s to hoping. And of course, sometimes it’s used that way. Like a parent to a kid wanting a pair of sneakers that are way too expensive. 

We grew up with it always used in a hopeful way. An admission of things outside of our control, a hope, a belief that all is possible. And so it began to take shape from there, into a desire to build this world. Ultimately, it’s wordplay, I dunno. We’ve always been fans of creating worlds through words. 

And how did you all get involved with putting it out with Lawrence English on Room40?

We wrote Lawrence and expressed a desire to do something together. He was open to it, which meant the world to us. And so, large chunks of 2021 were spent trying to create this world of inshallahlaland. We’d been sending Lawrence a lot of synth-based music. And some of it was decent, but it always felt like something was missing, which ended up becoming a glamour factory. Lawrence helped us realize that. From there, it all fell together. 

As we’re at the end of the year now, are there any records or films that really struck you in 2021?

Oh man, what we would say is: get a docunight membership and just watch, it’s tough to go wrong. 

There’s a couple we’d recommend: one is called None Of Your Business, which is about the life and death of Iranian musician Ebrahim Monsefi. Also Baade Jin. And Arbaen by Nasser Taghvaei. 

Musically, so much joy this year. These last few weeks we’ve been on a Luke Vibert kick. Just the way he samples and tells stories. Groove. Really inspiring. 

What are you looking forward to or hopeful for in 2022? 

Looking forward to creating in one place more together, now that we’re within walking distance. Maybe then we will figure out what we want to present live more deliberately. 

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