Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Azar Swan is the industrial project of Zohra Atash and Joshua Strawn. While their electronic madness was once classified as industrial pop, Azar Swan has since taken a much darker turn. Their performance at Out From The Shadows IV this year in Portland was absolutely phenomenal, intense and otherworldly. In September they will be performing at A Murder of Crows Festival. I had the honor of interviewing the band to discuss their origins, their latest release Savage Exile, and a fun myriad of topic not previous discussed in other interviews. Enjoy!
I know prior to Azar Swan you guys had the band Religious To Damn. Is that how you first met?
Z: We had known each other for years before the band. We had a lot of common ground musically, I’d been developing and recording these musical fragments that were like sonic textures, I guess, and building them into songs. I let Josh in on the process pretty early on because I trusted him and knew he wouldn’t humor me for fear of hurting my feelings. That musical palette became the throughway to the Religious to Damn sound.
J: Zohra texted me this past St. Patrick’s Day that we’d met something like 14 years ago? An Irish friend of ours introduced us, I was visiting New York one March and Zohra was living near Hell’s Kitchen at the time. Our friend brought me to some Irish pub near her apartment and then we went over.
Where does the name Azar Swan come from?
Z: It’s layered in various meanings. I speak both English and Farsi, so it’s a fusion of languages (and you could also say it includes a slightly butchered anagram of my first name).
The backstory for Savage Exile is incredible. The process alone was something completely different from your previous albums. Do you think you’ll continue creating music in this more bleak image, or is Savage Exile a one-off?
Z: I’m so psyched on how the record came out. I’d always wanted to make a “vocalist’s record” that bridged the gap between the avant garde western tradition and the various vocal traditions from the “east” that I’d grown up with. East is in quotations because I’m condensing a handful of styles/practices from the Middle East to South Asia, Turkey to Western India, really. Some of those traditional techniques are in the extended vocal technique arsenal – and contrasting them with the synth textures we’d already been exploring was that perfect thing. That took it into new territory and into a space that hadn’t really been explored to death by dozens of artists before me. There’s a place for nostalgia in art, but it’s a very tricky thing. Engagement with the past is fine, but re-creation is a waste of time. So in a way, I’ve been chasing this nebulous things, but I think we finally got there. So, yeah, I think we will continue down this path approach-wise, but I’m not really sure what that will sound like.
This record is probably the most overtly dark but within that there’s still a subtle balance between beauty and ugliness, bleakness and hope, dark and light, tragedy and humor…
J: It’s funny because we have songs in the works right now that are both more extreme, noisy, and abstract than Savage Exile, and songs that are more dancefloor-friendly and melodic. Most of that music I expect to be released this year, maybe as limited run tapes and digital singles and stuff like that who knows. As for where the next fully conceptualized LP will go? We’ve had some really interesting conversations about it, it would be too soon to say.
What influential musicians have you gotten to meet/speak with since the success of your own music? Would you ever collaborate with other artists?
J: That’s a tough question to answer, since some of our oldest and closest friends over the years could now be considered influential. Speaking just about legendary people I guess Drew McDowall from Coil, William Bennett of Whitehouse, JG Thirwell, Mark Burgess are a few that spring to mind. I feel like “Savage Exile” was already in some ways a collaboration with Kris Lapke, whose Alberich project is one of our favorites, and Drew McDowall appeared on our second LP. I’m always excited to work with other artists whose work I love and respect.
Z: Some of my biggest influences like Lydia Lunch, Jim Sclavunos and Ian Svenonius have become friends. Between the show I’ve been working on for BUST and playing shows and orbiting around folks in bands for as many years the list is too long but off the top of my head Al Cisneros (of Sleep and Om), Googoosh, Egyptian Lover, and Nick Cave – I remember being psyched about those.
What are your home lives like? Family? Pets?
J: I live in New Orleans with my wife and 5 year old daughter and a Siberian Husky. We’ve been here for about 4 years. An average day for me is getting my daughter ready for school then doing band and label email stuff for a while. Sometimes I work on music, sometimes I read. Afternoons I spend with my daughter after I pick her up, we do stuff like go to the park, go to laser tag and she’ll come to record shops and music stores with me. We have lots of fun. Sadly, I don’t get out to shows much except for when friends come through town on tour. I did manage to see Stevie Nicks last year though, which was brilliant.
Z: I like to eat salads and watch Stan Against Evil, Rick and Morty, and Jessica Jones with my favorite company. Since these shows are like ten episodes a season with three years between seasons, I’m usually singing, working on various projects, like my show, Down In It, which I’m currently soundtracking.
(For Zohra) Before creating music, were you able to find other creative outlets for things like your sleep disorder and synesthesia?
Z: It’s weird because with something like synesthesia, you don’t know that the way you’re experiencing stuff is unique because how a person “hears” is as elusive as how a person tastes. I like pizza and so does Josh, but I’ve never thought to ask about the specific sensations and if they’re exactly like mine. Music, chords, notes, keys, rhythm are all intensely visual for me, but I don’t consider it an ailment and I wouldn’t change it because experiencing sound any differently would be strange and kinda scary.
I only in the last five years or so discovered it was condition with a name while reading Oliver Sachs trying to understand the blinding auras that preceded my chronic migraines. It was really a watershed moment that I wish came far sooner in my life than it did – the accounts of artists, writers, scientists who harnessed these migraine-induced hallucinations as fodder for their work instead of being crippled with anxiety was super rad.
The sleep issues used to be anxiety-inducing which only further exacerbated the situation. My ASMR binges have helped settle frayed nerves. I would never write specifically about it because that feels a bit like navel-gazing. I do collect a lot of ephemera in that quiet time.
(For Zohra) In the article you wrote for Talkhouse a few years ago you mentioned your mother having your life all mapped out for you as a teenager. What was your relationship with your parents like when you moved to New York? What about now?
Z: My mother, not out of religious zealotry whatsoever, did not want me to let some dude/s objectify me and didn’t see how a woman in music could get around that. In many ways, I was far more naive about this than I’d ever like to admit. Punk rock or whatever subculture does not even out playing fields, nor are you immune from all the bullshit trappings that come with being a woman in a “man’s world”. But I refuse to let that dictate anything I wanna do. I don’t see it as a man v woman thing, because if I’m honest, growing up my mother tried to “keep order” far more than my father, he was more supportive because he was a musician and the Kalash people (my dad’s tribe) are just more chill in that regard. It’s assholes and non-assholes and that’s all there is to it.
I call Lydia Lunch my rock n’ roll mama, and her response to this #metoo stuff was pretty much in line with my mother’s – we ladies cannot be afraid to crack a dick should the situation call for it.
Do you find yourself going down weird Internet rabbit holes? Does what you find get incorporated into your music?
J: I read a lot about technology and politics, the politics of technology. That stuff does have a way of finding itself way into my music, but more explicitly in other projects. With Azar Swan, at least up until now, the subject matter all comes from Zohra. Even on the songs I contributed more to musically on the new record, most of the lyrics except for “Functions of Fantasy” were either all Zohra’s or they were collaborative.
Z: Oh yes – but I’ve learned how to stave off those mind-numbing deep dives where you’re actually in a stasis state that you come out of eight hours later, disoriented with no recollection of anything. If I’m not annotating or bookmarking or tagging or making connections, I’m about to go zombie and I do my best to snap out of it.
I’ve been collecting nightlife photos for an on-going personal project over the last four or five years. Nightlife may be cheapening it a bit, these are captures of artists and the scenes they came up in or helped shape. People like Anya Phillips, Pam Hogg, Texacala Jones, Linder Sterling – not household names, but totally influential. Somehow I lilypadded to a CVLT NATION collection of photos of death rock kids from the Hull scene in the 80s – it was so great because it wasn’t overly-curated nostalgia pandering. It was a snapshot of a real scene with real people partying and having a good time. It finally put the outre of the death rock/goth/post-punk aesthetic in its place – somewhere after the music and the community. The gravity-defying carefully-coiffed, Aquanet drenched hairdos and heavily painted faces were too photo-ready for my tastes! When you catch me on the third or fourth hour of debauchery and dancing, my eyeliner is smudged and my hair is wild because I’m a human girl.
Who have been some of your favorite bands to tour/play shows with?
J: Our tour with Clay Rendering was a blast. We played a fest in Germany with Die Selektion and they were amazing.
How about your non-musical hobbies? What food do you like? Favorite films?
J: I guess my non-musical hobby would be writing, usually nonfiction, usually about politics. But unfortunately now that’s become everybody’s hobby, it’s much less interesting than it used to be. My favorite cuisine is probably Vietnamese. As for films my whole life is probably a cross between a Cronenberg and a Bergman film. Lots of sci-fi and horror, stuff like Videodrome, Brazil, Stalker, The Thing, World On A Wire, Don’t Look Now, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Manhunter, Time Bandits, Rabid, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Messiah Of Evil, Night Tide. Zohra recently got me to watch The Innocents, that became an instant all-time favorite. Withnail & I or John Dies at the End if I need a laugh.
Z: Dialectics with the same people I’d invite over to eat pizza and watch Rick and Morty with me,
semiotics, vocal study and practices from various cultures as an alternative to opera which is western shorthand for “the only proper vocal training” or “most renown” and that is hogwash. Guerilla filmmaking for my very DIY show.
Favorite films, books, art – I’m working on a piece about Art under oppressive regimes, and art post Totalitarian Regimes. This is usually my favorite stuff – and not in some gross voyeurism to suffering way. Films like Possession, La Jetée, La Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, Dr.Strangelove, the Blind Owl, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the Russian Symphony of Sirens, the work of Alfred Wolfshon, the *Persian poetry of my ancestors – all the wine from the sour grapes of political upheaval and religious persecution etc, ad nauseum.
* Persia as in the territory of Persian speaking lands that folks erroneously credit to Iran specifically, which, like Opera, has marketed its way into lazy textbook writing.