INTERVIEW: THE MANY FACES OF KSA'S INDIE ENIGMA
Having paved a unique niche over the past couple of years as the definitive alternative artists in KSA growing indie scene, Abdulmalik Zubailah's time is about to come, with 2021 promising to be yet another productive year.
SWITCHED: Hello Malik. You just wrapped us a first fully live online performance with Statues of Sinking Men. What was that like?
MALIK: I’m not necessarily a big fan of the outcome of that show to be completely honest. However, it was surreal in the sense that it gave me the opportunity to play with some of the best local musicians I personally know. People that I wholeheartedly love and enjoy playing music with. Maan Balila and Saif Mufti, my bandmates, and dear friends from Ana.n7n. And Moe Abdo, a great musician, and a dear friend too.
Another great thing about doing this performance was the opportunity to work on the arrangement of the songs to fit a live setting. Most of these songs were never played live with a full band, so it was interesting to discuss that with the guys and perform versions of these songs that stood on their own. ‘Lady with the shadow eyes’ for an example, became something completely different in terms of atmosphere and execution. I really liked the outcome of that song specifically.
So, all in all, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to perform my songs with these wonderful musicians, learning a lot from doing a live set with a full band for the first time, and seeing the songs take a new and different direction.
SW: SOSM has a distinct sound, blending styles and genres, from heavy synths to industrial rock, what were your influences and why were you specifically drawn to these sounds?
MA: There is this certain feel of catharsis that comes from industrial and heavy sounds. That is something that has always attracted me. With Statues of Sinking Men being a narrative driven project, each song or soundtrack tackles emotionally charged subjects, so it just feels natural for me to use instrumentations or sounds that has a lot of heaviness to it, I personally think they go hand in hand with the weight of these emotional subject.
Expression can be heavy, and I feel like it is only fair to complement that with heavy sounds too. I also believe that synthesizers are one of the most versatile instrumentations a person can use, and they almost always complement every other sound or instruments in such interesting and experimental ways. They truly offer a lot of variety in terms of their sonical textures.
But then again, my love for synthesizers and electronic sounds in general stems from my everlasting obsession with bands like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. They have provided me with tremendous amounts of inspiration throughout the years. Studying their sound and songwriting techniques or styles have had a huge impact on me. And so, I try to channel that spirit of songwriting honesty and sonical experimentation in my work. If there is anything I learned from DM and NIN, is that honesty plays a huge part in making music. What better way to tell your personal truth in Synths?
SW: You’re one of the most active/productive artists on the alternative/indie scene in KSA and across the region. What drives you as an artist?
MA: First of all, thank you! I’m genuinely glad you guys think so. I’ve always been a huge advocate of emotional expression and telling stories. I believe that emotions have rights, and that we need to express them in some shape or form. Holding them in won’t do anyone any good. So, for me personally, I’ve always dabbled in storytelling and narrative design. I tried it in general story writing, I tried it in Video Game development, and I tried it with music.
Being able to perform these stories or narratives physically and emotionally in music kind of paved this addicting path for me that I feel the most comfortable in. It’s a surreal feeling that is equally addicting as it is gratifying. So being able to have this internal dialogue of many different subjects, putting it in a narrative format, and then creating music with it is such a beautiful process. It’s one of the only contexts of vulnerability that feels okay for me.
SW: What would you say is the difference in the various projects you’re involved with, SOSM, Ana.n7n and Skeleton Crowd?
MA: Each one of these projects have a specific process and context, and I believe that’s the beauty of what makes each one stand on it’s own. There’s also the wonderful people involved in these projects. I’m usually a tough person to work with, and I try to not get involved with other projects or people that I don’t feel a 100% about. But working with Faris in Skeleton Crowd and Maan in Ana.n7n has been, and I say this with zero exaggeration, one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in life. They are honest, creative and truly inspiring individuals, so writing with them is truly an exceptional experience that I constantly learn a lot from.
In Skeleton Crowd, it’s just Faris and I, and we have a very specific process that is often unconventional, and wouldn’t necessarily work with other people or bands, but it works wonderfully with us, and we’re completely comfortable with that. And so with this method of work that we have, in gives us a lot of freedom and space to experiment as much as we want, and tackle songs individually rather than collectively.
"In Ana.n7n with Maan, it always starts with a conversation. We talk about specific subjects that we want to be vocal about and tell stories about collectively, and so when we write, we write each song with an already established idea or theme that all collectively pour into this context that would eventually become the album and represent the grand picture of this story we want to tackle."
Once we have a solid basis, the wonderful guys in the band: Saif, Shaher and Saleh start to add their own input and touches that truly forms the final form that is an Ana.n7n song.
SOSM is something that I just pour my personal conscious into, without fear of holding back. It’s my white canvas to do whatever the hell I want in. Sometimes that can be good, other times not so much, but then again, having that freedom to do whatever crosses my mind as a solo songwriter and producer is something that is truly rewarding to me as an artist, and as a human who’s trying to express emotionally.
SW: Tell us, what would you say is the biggest challenge in you balancing between these different projects and more importantly ensuring they each have their own unique approach/sound?
MA: I’m not entirely sure what the biggest challenge is, truth be told. Maybe it’s something that I’ll discover as time goes on. But I’ll say this much, as long as everything is planned, nothing is forced, and everyone is into the work, then things will probably work out.
Maybe also knowing when to stop and take a rest. Sometimes it’s challenging to keep yourself physically and mentally in a good place as you keep grinding, and forget that you need to recharge, and I’m lucky to work with people who will always care and support me whenever I need to recharge. If anything, they’re the ones who usually go “Malik, you’re gonna burn yourself out. Take a break.”
As for ensuring each entity retains it’s unique approach/sound, it’s all about the process and working with the guys on them. As long as I’m with them, I can tap into that territory that defines the sound of each entity, and if I ever start losing track, they’ll be there to steer me back right into the zone.
SW: You also clearly have an eye for aesthetics, how much of this stems from your own vision - the art, style, videos etc? And do you collaborate with other artists from different disciplines?
MA: Having this narrative driven approach to songwriting definitely helps a lot with visual aspects of the songs. Same thing with the design of each character from every SOSM era.
When I first started SOSM, I wanted it to be 50/50 project of music and visuals. My dear friend Abdullah Babrouk was the second member of SOSM and helped define the aesthetic and feel of the first era of SOSM. But the direction of the project changed, and now I try to see what kind of aesthetic/color patterns and feel would work best after I have an image of the character design in my head. Sometimes I’d do the artworks myself (very poorly, might I add), but mostly, I approach other amazing artists that would collaborate with me on fleshing out the visual identity of each era of SOSM. The next phase SOSM’s visual identity is something that I truly cannot wait to share if all goes according to plan.
SW: Obviously a lot has and is changing about Saudi’s music scene. And inspire of the challenges faced in 2020 due to pandemic, the future seems quite bright. What’s the mots exciting aspect for you personally?
MA: I’m truly looking forward to more proper live shows and new musical hubs that would be the home of new artists and musical identities.
We’ve got a lot of creative and talented people, but no one is putting a lot of attention in making sure the live experience is delivered in a proper manner. But I feel like more and more artists, audiences and music event organizers nowadays are starting to see the importance and significance of live shows being an experience that has a start, a middle and an end, rather than just a social gathering type of event.
Another exciting thing is the rise of local independent record labels that offer the artists the needed support, tools, and environment to present themselves in the best way possible.
I’m gonna be completely honest, a lot of them are completely commercial based, and don’t really care much about the vision or the content, but the little ones that truly care get me super excited to see what the local scene has to offer in terms of music. I mean, before being someone who makes music, I’m someone who loves to listen to music. And the stuff that’s being produced locally nowadays is super lovely!
SW: You’ve recently signed on with the new Saudi label Wall of Sound (as Skeleton Crowd, SOSM) how has that impacted you and what should we expect in future?
MA: Wall of Sound has been a beacon of hope in a time where labels are needed the most locally. They’re one of the few labels that actually care about the content that is being produced, and the amount of support they’ve been giving is exceptional. I truly believe that with their involvement, the work we’re doing will be more concentrated and have all the needed to necessities to be presented in the best way possible. Expect a lot more music not just from us, but from other amazing musicians too. And more care about live shows in the near future hopefully.
SW: As the music scene/industry keeps shifting and changing, as an artist what is the one thing you hope to see? How can indie artists thrive in an otherwise corporate-centric scene?
MA: More artists experimenting and putting content out there that doesn’t feel rushed.
Thriving in a corporate-centric scene is tough, I’m not gonna say otherwise. But at the same time, if there isn’t enough truly standout releases that encourages experimentation and ingenuity rather than rushed content for views and clicks, then I don’t think the scene will ever change. I feel like we as artists have a point to prove. The only way to prove that point is keep on creating exactly what we want to create. It might not work out anytime soon, it might take a lot of time… it might not even work out at all. But we gotta keep doing what we do best, and we gotta be honest with ourselves and our work before anything else.
So I truly hope to see more experimentations from artists, with well though out content. Give your work the time it needs, you don’t need to put out a song every week while compromising the honesty of your work. It needs to be part of the culture, the way music is presented.
SW: What’s the one misconception you always hear from others about the indie/alt music scene in Saudi?
MA: I truly don’t know. I feel like everyone knows everything about everyone around here! Which is equally good and bad I guess…
SW: 2021: what to expect?
MA: Stories, lots of them. And when it comes to SOSM, an angry hateful dude named Zeddy.