Just as the the sun was around its highest point in New York City, around noon, and the jostling of people coming and going filled the humdrum of my city, I awaited a Skype call from an artist in Pakistan who’s work has really resonated with me. During the week before plunging into a local venue, i’m scouring the web for oddities in the form of songs: works seemingly come to me that convey a personal truth or hold sorrow that is pouring into the form of a melody. Every now and then I find an artist across the globe lost and finding themselves in a beautiful dance of sound, story telling, and self-discovery; that artist being Zeerak Ahmed. She’s the one I was waiting for, by now at my desk sipping tea. Zeerak performs under the moniker Slowspin. We “discovered” one another by what i’ve been experiencing lately, as, what i’m going to dub here first as the modern “South-Asian Diaspora Consciousness Movement,” works of profound art coming from members of Asian and Middle Eastern communities that are not only products of centuries old (wisdom, art, and culture,) but forged with the innumerable genre’s and technological components of todays music culture. Something i’ve spoken about here with Humeysha‘s connection with Brooklyn–India and Nandi Plunkett of Haif Waif, (whom we’ll make mention of in this article/interview as Zeerak will speak about collaborating/traveling with her.) While my day had just began, Zeerak’s was soon settling because in Karachi it’s 9pm, (she mentioned being nocturnal like myself so we’ll see!) The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. I originally offered a written interview, but Zeerak said phone calls better suited her, and personally, it was an awesome experience allowing each other to come to questions and answers naturally, since this interview was conducted, Slowspin has released new material which is the song at top titled “For Now,” buy it, loop it, cherish it.
(In reference to the lighting situation at home)
Zeerak – “I have a really interesting relationship with my Karachi lighting, I made sure my curtains are double whatever you call them…double blinds, just so there is barely any sun, so I have to pretend it’s one kind of dreamy mood lighting non-stop.”
Nadeem – You probably hate waking up with light hitting your face! Luckily in New York we have rail roads so in the middle of the apartment there’s not much light, the perfect place to sleep I guess!
Z – “You lived in new york all your life?”
N – Yup I was born and raised in Brooklyn and it was a really interesting experience being thrust into a lot of people from different walks of life. And I think I mentioned I was half Pakistani right? My mom’s Indian.”
Z – “Oh right, so your father’s Pakistani?”
N – Yeah!
Z – “The ultimate peace child!”
N – Haha yeah I was born from a rebellion and controversy actually!
Z – “So have you visited both the lands?”
N – I have, I loved them both. I wish I could go back but all my family from both sides are pretty much in America now.
Z – “Can I ask where you went there?”
N – My dad’s from Jhelum, a tiny village i’m sure hasn’t changed too much. How bout you, is most of your family there and you’re the main one who travels for school and your art?
Z – “Well I was born in Lahore, and my mothers side of the family still lives in Lahore, i’m a Karachite, who was raised, and grew up and went to school and did everything there. My mothers side is defiantly into the arts, we have a lot of writers, artists, scholars, Sufi architects, there’s a lot of like sacred geometry, there’s a lot of grounding in spaces, but we float, we defiantly move to wherever we find new things. There’s a lot of movement for sure. My father went to college in the US he went to Western Illinois, his brother married in America and lives in the U.S., and my brother lives in Montreal, he’s been there for a while now, so I suppose my parents are still in Karachi holding down the fort for us but we move, we’re easy with movement.”
N – Is that something you want for them? To stay or something they want for themselves?
Z – “I think so? Yea, my parents are really…I don’t know, we recently had a conversation where they were like “Ok, you’re defiantly not us, you do you and we us,” so it’s pretty neat we’re allowed to follow whatever calling, do what you have to do to figure this out. I think they’re good for now where they are, this is home, it’s the house, the people, but um I think once I got out I really started enjoying discovering, there is something supremely…about revisiting, and uncanny about interaction. It’s nice to reconnect with yourself in other places. I left for college when I was 17, 18? Then I did my undergrad at a liberal arts in Ohio, it was in the middle of a forest, there were more trees than people. This was the Midwest?”
N – Too bad the trees can’t vote!
(at this point we had some signal trouble)
Z – “Ohio is where a lot of contemplation happened for sure.”
N – Was that your first time in America?
Z – “It was…just the Biome, just the land, the severe geographical differences it just really shook things up, because in Karachi we don’t have enough water or trees, we don’t have forest, we have a lot of metal, industry, smoke. It’s a strange kinda cactus land where we get water but nothing can really grow with that water, so then to go from that to this fertile land was really giving and nurturing. I actually felt my shoulders drop. I remember once (they) said there’s a 2% crime rate! I said, alright! My mother got shot when she was pregnant with me, let’s hear about that 2% crime rate, bring it! (We laughed a bit about this) Well, it was a beautiful place for me to trust spaces, it was a really beautiful introduction to trust, and love…loving people, loving things, like nature, love the extreme change of temperature, that severe period of like a cleansing palate, just super white, just white. The snow you see no color, than spring comes and you’re like “woah!” In Karachi we live through the same temperature, you probably know that, summer and winter is not a very severe scale there, we pretend it is.”
N – To fit in with reality! Well I think it’s fascinating that sometimes some mundane decisions like deciding to go to school and deciding where can give you something you need that you’re not completely conscious of, coming from an industrial metal place and going to Ohio! I can imagine it’s something you didn’t plan fully.
N – So can we talk about the Dosti Music Project?
Z – “I remember I was in Berlin because i’m doing my Masters in Creative Practice for which I move between Berlin and New York now, so I was in Berlin and there was a deadline for Dosti and I got another message from friend saying, “Don’t forget! You’ve got to apply to this program!” I remember the year before that, the last time i’d been there, hmm, I don’t know how I feel about fusion? You know the whole Eastern–Western fusion thing, but there was something really, I don’t know, something organic about the way it was happening based on what I saw, and I knew nothing more apart from like two videos which were like a minute long each but there was some good feeling my heart so I said i’m going to do this. So quickly I recorded a video and sent that and a yeah, a couple of months later that worked out, I was one of the six Pakistanis chosen, this year was special because there wasn’t an equal amount of Indians, Pakistanis, and Americans, but they had a few more Pakistanis they took in this time because, yea one of the people went scouting from Inter Punjab for like traditional instruments and musicians who play some of the dying instruments. Yeah so there is this stuff in Karachi that is happening that is mindblowing. I met Nandi when I was in New York (Nandi Punkett of Brooklyn based Half Waif) I met up with her to finalize some visa details and then she invited me to this show they were having in Brooklyn, a show organized by Found Sound Nation. They had this beautiful way of combining installations with space and timed performances in different spaces, there’s a cube structure here, you’d here one sound end here and across the hall it would start from another side of the wall, It’s like, OK, I trust these people, this feels really good! Yeah, trusting that aesthetic and that sensibility…i’m really happy I jumped into those things a month later. Nandi is one of the people that works for Found Sound Nation, we found some really cool spaces, late nights we found ourselves in studios. She was on the grand piano and we started singing, i’m so happy we recorded those pieces, even just on an iPhone, just a really cool sampling just in life, it was really beautiful. From there on there was something really special. Actually we went for an improv when we were on Chattanooga when we were on tour, we went for an improv video shoot at sunrise in a cave. It was called Ruby Hills I believe. At sunrise we went 11hundred feet down, took a half mile walk with like amps and gear and all sorts of equipment through this crazy passage way that like started from solidified organic wax drippings forms, they were strangely lit and everything smelt like salty clay! It got narrower and narrower and then finally it opened to this massive hall inside the cave that had this ridiculous waterfall drop happening like right above. So that’s where we settled and did this piece, which i’m really excited, I hope the video comes out soon, it was Nandi, myself, and two other guys.”
N – That sounds amazing!
Z – “Yea I really enjoyed working with her, it was super cool, a wonderful person and beautiful human being.”
N – They’re playing here in May actually, i’m super pumped to see Nandi’s band for the first time. It seems the Dosti Project has so much heart and intention put in it.
Z – “Yea it’s ridiculous the amount of heart and soul. At the last day there was Chris and Jeremy, it’s their baby for sure, we were in a circle all of us, all thirteen dosts, and I was crying uncontrollably just thanking them, it’s a combination of some really beautiful people running a really beautiful idea. To fully manifest that vision it’s really unbelievable how they’re doing that.”
N – Can we talk about your records?
Z – “Yes!”
N – Your records have grown as I can imagine you have grown, from Biome to Between Shadows In Water, how do you generally write and how did these two albums get written? (Location, methodology, emotionally, ect.)
Z – “So it starts with Nightfalls Reverie, that was my first EP. It was eventually released on Mooshy Moo Records, they were the first. That first one was everything I left with after Ohio, so it was a 17-minute one track that had all these little different snippets like haikus, that come and go, I remember I brought them to a friend a producer, one I look up the most in Karachi, and I said, “Here, this was what was is in my head.” It was recently after my brother had been in a coma in Montreal. It was an unexpected return back home but there was a lot of emotions and experiencing. It had my first track ever as Slowspin so it was born from that, it was called “Night Spin.” So like psychedelic spaces showing me things and inviting me to sounds, and leading to like some series–emotional journeys that I went through in that space and then came out of because my brother woke up. And to bring those tracks home and be like, “I think I make music now!” And have your friend stitch it together, in some ways it’s like I didn’t know what it was, he “stitched it up,” (we like to call it that), you could say he produced it, he sent it back and I loved it, it was the right order of things and it made sense to share it as one spelled experience. Then once I went home and Karachi started feeding me Karachi, I realized how much I was influenced by my landscape, by my…how much electricity I feel in my peace and in my head and how that’s so creative. It became a really inspiring form of just recognizing everything you feel, it’s like a really saturated way of experiencing nausea! That was maybe Biome, it was a lot of conversations that I was never really be able to have, I just.. keep calling it that because that’s the only way I can describe it, really, too much pent up stuff that just came out as Biome, it’s a very dear EP to me. That was co-produced by Danial Hyatt, we sat there and like lovingly worked on everything till all my tracks that began in the cold tiled perfect lit bathroom with me on a guitar…we worked from there till it felt right. That’s when I got my Roland SP404 so I was getting into…(laughs) it wasn’t just me, a guitar, and dry walls like it was in Ohio! It was developing now, sure I took things around me that I used as sounds but now it became a little more…”
N – Cohesive?
Z – “Yes! Or maybe it grew? It got extended limbs. I felt this moment like, “Oh ok, this my other arm and other hand and things, strange! Growing!” Eventually I kept moving into other softwares discovered. Plugging in through iPads, all these other things, I call it “boyness,” that was a special moment for me, I said, “Ok what is this space? What am I craving?” I started moving into this space, what am I creating, what’s exciting me? I just tried to collect that, the best I could, keeping true to myself and the melodies that come in using sensitive spaces…Putting it all together, saying, this is me. Truly producing from the begging to the end. That was another moment of a kind of growth. Standing and experimenting with trusting I suppose, trusting the vulnerability of just doing and sharing like this. I mean I know that i’m sure from a musicians perspect there would be things to question. But I just…Each EP is flawed i’m sure! But each time I take comfort as it just came out as honest conversation, no regrets!
N – I like the concept of no regrets..in practice..music should be a safe space.
Z – “Yes!”
N – Sometimes people can make it an unsafe place for them (artists) or sometimes you can do it to yourself. It takes some work for sure, practice to remind yourself to let it be a safe place.
Z – “Hmm, it’s interesting you say the word “safe spaces,” because during that EP there were a lot of unsafe places during that time, my grandmother was dying from progressive dementia.”
N – I’m sorry to hear that.
Z – “It’s ok, umm, she actually passed away in January right after I released Between Shadows In Water. The track “Self” is about coming to terms with a lot of uncomfortable places, trying to remind her this isn’t right, this is the correct version of the story, and eventually realizing it’s a pointless game, our delusions are purposeful.”
N – Do you think your empathy for her had the biggest role in your sound at this time as well?
Z – “Yea because that entire period for me was very dark, but I kept finding reason and magical truth and some like golden feeling through this darkness. Through death that is a process too. I remember going on this crabbing trip with my friends, and um we were on a boat and I kept looking at the waves, and I got super sick at one point, I wanted to know what was hiding in there, there’s something so seductive about that, and you find that silver glimmery stuff in there. Between Shadow In Water, there was a lot of intricate secrets and beauty.”
N – Glowing gold is a beautiful way to describe something that can be dense. The impression I get is that there is silver in the darker parts of your songs, certainly lots of night images come to mind, but I guess the stars shine brightest in the dark too.
Z – “So on the new EP i’m putting out, more “boyness.””
N – Ha, I’ve never heard that expression!
Z – “I’m sticking to this, when I got to Berlin, I looked at my advisor and was like i’m upset you have tags for feminism and all kinds of stuff, except “boyness!” Well, on this new EP I spent a lot of time at airports, it’s a really weird space in between spaces, it’s such a cliche it is! I usually do a lot of traveling alone and when it’s the U.S. it takes up to a day, like 22hrs of travel sometimes and i’m on the go. So I have my iPad and headphones and I kept making these tracks, with some Reason software and yea, after my grandmother died I moved back to Ohio, ground myself back again and when I opened it up I was like “Woah! This is a different energy space, there’s 121BMP! Really unexpected and I started coping files and singing the melodies coming as they were, I usually just chant vowels till words appear, that’s always how it happens, that’s why I say conversations I was never allowed to have because it’s very kind of like stream of consciousness instead over overthinking lyrics. I’m pretty bad at writing lyrics, i’m using that as my thing for right now. I had more fun with Villain, bobbing loud sounds and it feels really good with my system. I’m looking forward to releasing it. So a part of my art practice is that I map spaces with different mediums, one of them is sound. So I mediate in taped circles in different places, started in Berlin, then New York, then Karachi. For each place I kind of use my SP404, there’s a rectangle marker within the circle for every track tape around it and they’re sealed with notes, North, South, East, West, like a compass. I get to have like documented images of what those shapes were, rectangles, circles, than what those sounds were. Than the EP i’m sitting on has the raw tracks (from the airport) guitars, vocals, there’s no other tempering done.N – Anything else coming out?
Z – “Yea i’ve done some collaborations that are coming post Dosti, a lot of work with females, working with females is a new space I need to mention. Nandi was one of them, Abacus a girl from the U.S. was another, there were some really interesting harmonies, I usually do Slowspin take 1, take 2, take 3, 4, 5, 6 with many forms of myself! I’m really looking forward to those coming out as well. So I think this is a really great discovery of collaborations for me, in Karachi we do this different. That’s what’s in store.”
N – So many incarnations of your creativity!
Z – “I’m sorry I spoke so much! Now you know why I wouldn’t be able to write this, there’s a lot of chaos in my head.”
N – “Well you’re so lucky to have all these things come to fruition, it’s like little time capsules of yourself, and you have a really fascinating life story, all of it! People reading this will learn a lot and I think they’re going to love reading this.”
Z – “Thank you so much for listening and sharing.”
N – Thank you and Salam.