Shoeb Ahmad Interview: “A place of experimentation”

In Brisbane in 2014 a friend of mine saw the Canberra band Spartak. They talked of the visceral nature of the group, the unyielding intuition and energyfour years later, the memory is still firmly lodged. Some time afterward I was at Sonic Masala festival in Brisbane: someone was sleeping in the gear room, carving a small space on a fraying couch. They later emerge on stage as part of AgencyI can’t remember the specifics, but I remember the feeling: fuelling, rigourous, enjoyable.

In early 2017 I recall watching Tangents perform at the National Gallery of Victoria for an ‘Up Late’ program: the dining and wining of a nearby crowd, seated at dinner tables, battles with Tangents in a loudness war. Above the band is a dinky projector screen that shuffles the same three David Hockney paintings on repeat. Ignoring that the evening was more marketing exercise than artistic endeavour (where bands are positioned as ‘social occasion’ rather than ‘art’), I became so taken with Tangents: the meandering, the formal investigations that use music skill and free jazz excellence without any of the smug or mundane elements that such endeavours can sometimes imply. It’s more soundscape than song: controlled and fluid, all with an exploratory urgency.

A couple of weeks ago I head to Eastmint in Northcoteramshackle, homely and kitsch, part-performance area, part-studio. It has a genuine aura and $5 laksa. When I arrive someone is playing guitar on stage, sometimes with her fingers, sometimes with objects. It’s serene; it ebbs and flows.

Shoeb Ahmad is across all of these encounters: Spartak, Agency, Tangents and her own solo music. She’s a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi heritage and one of the first names that come to mind when you think of ‘underground Canberra’. For the last decade she, like so many people in local music in Australia, has been creating her way through her life.

Most recently Shoeb released her second solo album quiver. It’s her first release since she embraced being trans-femme. The more I listened to quiver the more it felt like a person simultaneously pursuing, addressing and expressing identity through song form: the album thinks through the art of vulnerability. Yet where emotionally and personally important things happen in Shoeb’s creations, formally musical interesting things are also happening: and it’s a collection of all of these facetsidentity, music, experimentation and placethat Shoeb and I talk about.

Photo by Leah Jing.

You’ve been in many bands and projects over the years, and I particularly came to know you for Spartak, Agency and Tangents, as well as your solo projects. Looking back,
do you feel they’re all connected by a common thread, or is there an impulse just to keep continuously experimenting in different ways?

It’s probably a bit of both to be honest. I think my melodic and performative sensibilities, whatever the musical context is, come from the same influences but each project will skew them to be more washed out or distressed, ethereal or visceral. I seem to be becoming tied to the idea of narrativemusical or literarywithin my creative work so that’s a pretty strong thing to anchor onto.

While I don’t feel like it, I do think I’m a restless creator and am always thinking about the next thing. I like to procrastinate on ideas in my mind until I have a solid plan as to what needs to be done in the studio, so a lot of that time is thinking about potential compositional techniques and ways to sing, seeing what could work together and what would be an interesting sound-clash on record and live.

What I find really admirable about your recent album quiver is how honest you are in your songwriting, and how honestly you wrote about the album for Gusher online, particularly when talking about embracing life as a femme person, being a parent, and the complicated nexus of religion, gender and identity. Did you mean for quiver to come out as such a reflection of your life when you started writing it?

Musically, at least half of quiver was written before the words were even put to paper so there was no concept of dealing with such personal matters then. The oldest song ‘lope’ began as a demo from the last Spartak trio songwriting sessions. So the words for that are really the first kind of personal tale I had written but, even then, it could have been seen as a character piece. The biggest issue during the music writing was that I knew I didn’t have anything that was genuinely important to say so I wasn’t even trying. Maybe ‘washed air’ was the next thing because I wanted to address this feeling within me about a familial moment and its lasting effects.

However, come August 2016 and feeling completely on my own after the now ‘infamous hotel room robbery’, I found myself writing words as therapy, not pastiche or fiction, and this was a great release, especially as someone who isn’t fond of talking to therapists. Opening up myself in text brings about certain emotions, but they are still fairly contained within you
so then when I knew that quiver was going to be something more than just a therapeutic release, that’s when I had to think harder about whether or not this was the right thing to do and then, if it was, who was it for and is it actually relevant for people when they listen to it. The biggest success of quiver is that the people who listen to the music and hear the words do feel that sense of empathy but, more importantly, feel inspired in some way to feel comfortable in their own skin. That is so much more than what I could have asked for when first writing quiver.

I know you’ve talked and written about it before, but for people who might not know, what happened with the ‘infamous hotel room robbery’?

I had two days in Melbourne between an Asian tour with Agency and an Australian one with my jazz/electronic improv trio Sensaround where I thought I would spend this time as my feminine self since I had been away from home and would be for a week or so more. My life was severely compartmentalised at this point in time‘my public face’ (to quote the song ‘silhouette’) was so at odds with my true identity, so this time to myself was very treasured.

During this time, however, my hotel room was broken into during the daytime and numerous things were stolen including important music gear and a laptop, as well as my wedding ring, passport and all the cash from the Agency tour. As I considered what happened, the sense of violation triggered guilt around wanting to be myself because it happened when I was able to live my life as I felt was right
but, with time between now and then, it’s strange to talk about it as a negative experience because so much light has shone into my life since this moment and I learnt so much about myself as a person.

So how do you then see the links and intersections between self-expression, identity and music? I feel like, as you’re saying, they’re quite complexly entwined in your solo music, but then I also wonder how they interact in more group-focussed dynamics like Tangents?

You’re right in that the intersect between these things are very much intrinsic to my solo music but with a group like Tangents, my ‘musical identity’ comes into the picture quite a lot too. There’s a few contexts to considera punk scraper amongst jazz-inspired conceptualists, DIY mindset versus musically educated, brown femme with four masc whites. So to me, it’s really about finding the right space amongst all that, both creatively and practically, and trying to find where I fit into that mix. It’s not easy dealing with five egos at the best of times, let alone in a highly charged creative environment, so there’s a lot of personal expression for that bigger picture that comes from a entirely different part of my identity.

I’ve always had the feeling you’re as interested in the conceptual and political facets of music-making, as you are concerned with questions of songwriting as a craft. Especially with a project like Tangents, I feel like there’s a continuous impulse to experiment at a formal level. So when you start a new project or band, or even a new song, do you find yourself thinking more conceptually or emotionally about the songs, or do you start from the idea of experimenting with ‘the song’ as an art form?

All of my channels of music-making come from a place of experimentationeven the musical rationale behind quiver was an experiment in pure ‘guitar pop’ song structures as a reaction to the improvised abstractions I had been making before that. But Tangents is indeed a great example. We’re always on the go conceptually and we’re always thinking of how to expand our sonic palette within the constructs on what the band’s group sound is. As we improvise during our performances or recording sessions before sculpting them into ‘songs’, there’s already a layer of breaking out of rehearsed song-form as we know it, but also we aren’t tethered to that tradition. Or, maybe more so, the five of us bring different takes on composition and add our two cents to that moment.

quiver on the other hand, I spent so much time in my head before picking up a guitar, thinking about the types of songs I wanted to write and for what instruments, then workshopping the potential ideas in the studio.

To me you seem really invested in the empathic qualities of music: it’s kind of circular, as if you’re reaching out towards others, but then letting listeners reach back towards you (which is hard to say without sounding cliché!). But I think you’ve talked about it in the past as owning a sense of vulnerability, and interrogating the idea of ‘the other’. Has that been something you’ve always been aware of when making music, or did it particularly come to the fore with quiver?

‘Otherness’ as a concept is always seen as a problem to solve rather than something to embrace, at least outside of creative thinking. I don’t think I did reflect on it when I was growing up because I didn’t really face issues around being different. But as I grew older and became a parent, reflecting on the concept of identity and how my own perception of this would not only affect me but the people around me too, made me zero in on what being ‘the other’ really meant on a personal level. It’s quite confronting to think of yourself as a willing counterpoint to ‘the normal’ and how to find ways to challenge that pre/misconception so you can begin the education process of putting out a different design of life into the world to become part of the wider fabric of society. I see my place in life now as a positive person who’s there to help educate others, if only through putting my true self out there in full focus.

And because success on the stage has for so long largely been the domain of white males, it can sometimes be hard to try and understand your place in the music world/community if you don’t see ‘yourself’ up there on stage too. Would you say you’ve experienced that?

I tried to avoid thinking about it for a long time, but it’s just so obvious that it’s hard to ignore, right? I’ve said this before, but a lightbulb moment for me was finding out that British bands Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation were British-Indian lads and they had actual fans plus great music! Just knowing that there were brown people like me playing guitars and making a racket was so liberating after feeling strange for not being a rap fan like other Bangladeshi kids. Later on, I found myself drawn to both ‘Riot Grrrl’ bands and post-punk outfits like The Slits, The Raincoats and ESG because, again, they represented the ‘other’ to me in terms of identity, as well as a fierce DIY spirit which I could align my own approaches with. I think, though, I accepted being an outsider musically a lot earlier on as part of my identity and have been very okay with that. But because of how the music landscape is very masculine-orientedespecially in Australia anywaysbeing able to be comfortable as a woman (let alone a transgendered femme) is also a bit of strange one. Of course, it’s easy to cut through the bullshit more when you have no intentions of playing an alpha game, regardless of gender [laughs].

In the last couple of years there’s been a really strong focus on the politicisation and ethics of creating music, as well as representation in music. As someone who’s been creating for over a decade, how do you feel about these changes in focus?

It’s a great thing that we are discussing all of these matters in wider forums and that people aren’t shying away from talking about things like identity politics and violence. The biggest issue is that because the discussions are wide open now, not every point is as well nuanced as it could be. Even the notion that we are creating pathways for inclusion, but then creating other exclusive situations as a by-product, is a very tricky thing to navigate.

What are some these exclusive situations that you’ve seen?

A key example would be when M.I.A. was dropped from the Afropunk festival because she was speaking about the strange politics around being able to say #blacklivesmatter in 2016 but something like #muslimlivesmatter would be a complete shit storm—the idea behind what she was saying was a great provocation to make people think and discuss all minority rights, but we again get forced into the idea that we have to achieve one victory before moving onto the next thing.

One final, slightly deviating question, but what does it feel like to be a musician base primarily in Canberra? I know that being from Brisbane, but now living in Melbourne, I’m always asked about ‘the Brisbane scene’, but the more I talk about it, the more I realise how Brisbane, and its music and its history, has been more influential than I gave it credit for. Do you feel the same way about Canberra?

I wouldn’t be able to make the music I do without being in Canberra. The way I create and ruminate on ideas is very much a product of my surroundings, being able to have time and space to work away without many external pressures. It’s not a cheap place but it’s also well balanced out and as someone with a young family, it’s very much a relaxing place to be.

As you know, I do spend a fair bit of time these days travelling interstate to perform and make music but what’s great is that Canberra really isn’t that disconnected from the rest of the world if you make the small effort to stay connected. I’ve seen so many people leave here to ‘make their career’ happen but only a handful really have, so it does go a long way to think about what your actual ideal environment is for being a creative being and what you’re seeking from a relocation before making the actual move.

Tangents are playing in Melbourne at The Jazzlab on Saturday 13 October 2018, and Ahmad will be undertaking a live performance version of her installation work im/modesty with the Australian Art Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne on Sunday 9 December 2018/

Shoeb Ahmad – quiver
Released in May 2018

Tangents – New Bodies
Release in June 2018

Tiarney Miekus is a Melbourne-based writer, published by The Lifted Brow Online, Overland, un Magazine, RealTime, Art Guide Australia and Swampland. She started Difficult Fun and plays in No Sister.

Top photo by Leah Jing.

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