‘When you limit yourself, you are actually more free’
HA!, the latest release by Syrian artist and musician Samer Saem Eldahr – a.k.a. Hello Psychaleppo! – is, as the musician’s pseudonym might suggest, a manic and eclectic set of layered tracks recorded live. Featuring a delicious array of electronic sounds and beats, as well as a cameo by Gaddafi and macabre, yet colourfully vibrant artwork for each and every track (produced by the artist himself), the album presents an interdisciplinary feast for the senses. To find out more about his new album, REORIENT’s Leo Kroonen chatted with the young Beirut-based audiophile.
It was less than a year ago that I spoke with you, discussing your previous album, Gool L’Ah. You are super-productive, I must say!
I think I can say that I’m ambitious, in the sense that I try to make my visions become a reality. I love and respect my work, and am addicted to it. All the new developments [in my life] have given me hope to keep pursuing my music, and I take it as far as I can.
How have you been growing as a musician?
It’s a never-ending process; I suppose I would call it a natural progression, only because it is my will to keep growing. I push myself in these areas. Growing as an artist makes me more aware of my decisions in my daily life, [and] trying to develop myself in every way makes me more in tune with myself. I’m aiming to grow bigger, and want to take my career to the next level.
Your new album, HA!, seems even more conceptual than your previous one. What are some of the ideas behind it?
The difference between these two albums is [the fact] that Gool L’Ah is a [studio] production, while HA! is a live set. The idea behind my new record was to create a space where I could play a live electronic performance and change the lines, solos, and arrangements every time. It comes from the concept that when you limit yourself, you are actually more free; so, when I decided that I would do several tracks with the same tempo and relative scales, I saw where I could take [things]. The tempo is the same from the beginning of the record to the end. By limiting myself, I had to challenge myself to create content within these guidelines; so, yes: HA! is indeed a conceptual album.
Even though you sampled sounds by Iraqi and Palestinian musicians, the album altogether sounds less ‘Middle Eastern’ – was this intentional?
Well, it was never my intention. I don’t think it’s less ‘Middle Eastern’, but it’s more [modern] sounding. I believe it has more of a modern Arabic sound, and [less of a] traditional [one]. HA! has a lots of Arabic rhythms and melodic synth lines; it’s just the [arrangement] that makes them sound different. Recording the album live [entails] a different way of thinking and creating.
For the release party of HA!, you played both music from the album at the same time that you were displaying its artwork. It seems like you’re very much aware of your visual identity … what is the most important element of the digital illustrations produced for the album?
Harmony. I wanted the visuals to be absurd and mysterious, and have many layers. For each track, I created a character. Through the visuals, I am trying to tell the viewer more about the music. I’m an abstract expressionist painter. Mainly in my work, I really take care of the expression. Behind an expression, there is an emotion.
Once, a Syrian friend and journalist in his sixties came to one of my gigs. I was afraid he might not like how I’d used our traditional music, [but] afterwards, he [alleviated] my fears, saying, this is how it should be done.
Music, painting, VJ-ing … where do you find the time to do all of this?
Being a contemporary artist make me try to bring these three art mediums together. It’s very relieving to have the ability to express myself in multiple disciplines. I always keep myself in the creative flow, so it’s just a matter of choice for me to pick any medium and work with it; and they surely enrich each other. A lot of disciplines I learned in art I use in making music, and vice-versa. Having a visual [arts] background influences the visual aspects of my music. This is how I find the time to do anything I feel like doing, but I always try my best to keep the balance.
What’s it like having your studio at home?
Feeling comfortable in your work area makes you produce better, so it’s very important having the studio at home; it makes me more connected to my creative flow. If I have a tune repeating in my head, I can [record] it right at that moment. It feels good to know that you can make music any time of the day.
And being based in Beirut?
In Arabic, we have a proverb that says ‘you cannot carry two watermelons in one hand’; it means that I left Syria for a calmer place, but in order to arrive [there], I had to leave home. I had a difficult time after I had lived my whole life in Syria, and had to move out of my comfort zone during such hard circumstances. It took me about seven months to start feeling comfortable about living in Beirut. Even though I had been here many times before, everything felt strange. The richness of the art scene here, [though], [has] made me take my music career more seriously.
Would you agree with the popular idea that electronic music is quite an anomaly in the Middle East? Or is that a misconception? And, do you ever have the feeling as an artist and musician that you’re misunderstood in your surroundings?
There are tons of DJs, but when it comes to original Arabic electronic music, there aren’t enough music producers to create a scene for it. It will take some time.
I always try to keep myself surrounded by inspiring people – [they’re] one of my motivations. There was a time, [though], when I was afraid of how the older generation might view my work. Once, a Syrian friend and journalist in his sixties came to one of my gigs. I was afraid he might not like how I’d used our traditional music, [but] afterwards, he [alleviated] my fears, saying, this is how it should be done.