SBS: SMAI! What’s happening over there my friend? It’s been what feels like a lifetime since we last talked, which was approximately one large pandemic-era ago. How have you been dude? What’s the recovery been like in the UK as we’ve come out of our Covid-induced hibernations…back to normal yet?
SMAI: Hey! I operate in London now!
SBS: As the world began to re-open its doors for the most part, you released your album Sanctuary in late 2021. You’ve described it as “deeply personal & open to interpretation, the best way to experience it is to be surprised & allow it to take you where you wish to go during this musical adventure.” Now…I don’t think there’s any better way to go about this than to ask you directly Smai – isn’t that a bit of a cop out at the same time? Ultimately, couldn’t all music being made, be described in a similar way that you described Sanctuary? Let me ask you this…is it not fair to assume that fans of your music and the people out there listening would want to go to the source for the real details of what something might be about, as opposed to going with their own interpretation? Why not take the opportunity to spell it all out for those listening? What’s the advantage in letting people listen & form their own conclusions?
SMAI: Awesome question. I do think a lot of music doesn’t have to be personal or open to interpretation either though. Whatever fits the song, performance or collection.
I love Sanctuary as a song because by its nature it gives the listener somewhere to go. It’s a key to entering your Sanctuary, a sacred place. This is completely subjective to yourself. I have a place I go to while playing Sanctuary, visuals have always happened with me with music but I can’t listen to a song for someone, it’s not a good idea to try to either, it’s yours to experience.
I’ve been really practicing & getting the hang of how this, maybe, is supposed to be. I believe our job, our role is to inspire. If we don’t succeed at that, we’re not doing our job. People make the work what they wish to make of it, I don’t take any of it personally, but I would like to do a good job in expressing an idea to reach the best it can be & inspire people. This demands complete commitment & hard work. I don’t want to be dumping my problems or presenting yawn worthy Dadaism to people.
Currently, I’m looking into expressing myself out of some wintery anxiety/depression I’ve got myself in & also how having long term PTSD affects life. I’ve become anxiously sealed up lately outside of work & have made myself get out there to perform at venues & interact with people afterwards & during events. I want to inspire & do more for people that are suffering, so many people have come out the other side of 2020 with symptoms I’ve known for over a decade so naturally the world feels so much stranger, I don’t have a lot of the money or a lot of the means, but I have the dedication & the dreams.
SBS: I think…if I’m recalling this correctly…you actually had more guest-stars/musicians appear in the lineup of Sanctuary than I’ve seen from you in the past on the albums I’ve heard. Tell us about the folks you found to play on the album…what made them the right fit, how did you know, and how did it all work out in the end? Is there a lot of back & forth when you collaborate with others? Somehow that doesn’t quite strike me as the way you’d go about it…but at the same time, you also want things to come out a certain way too I’d imagine…so there has to be some element of control in there too, right? How do you go about collaborating with others…how much creative freedom do they have to contribute the specialness & uniqueness that made you seek them out to begin with? How much of it is composed and written for them to perform, versus how much room there is for their own ideas and improvisation?
SMAI: Oh by the way! Check out a guy called Gabrre sometime, he’s fantastic. We did some stuff together recently.
Collaborating, jamming, dancing, bouncing ideas, sharing or creating with other people is pure bliss & what it’s all about! It’s a HUGE part of it for me & it’s always an equal ground. It’s fun to be a cheerleader to/with someone as they add to the magic. Whether it’s jamming with a guy from Syria playing the Oud, a fish and chip shop worker playing their only instrument (the bass), jamming with someone that’s doing the industry stuff, refugees with stories to tell, whoever! It’s the best feeling to give this to people & share with people!
Iyansunda is a fellow Indonesian who had access to a lot of these traditional instruments, he was a really cool guy & delivered loads of these great samples. Mario D’aMario had a really positive response to what we created which was beautiful to read. Norlene absolutely nailed the cello, she’s amazing! Giulia was the first person I decided to bring into this, I think she said ‘I just followed the music’ if I remember and again was great! Tomoko was the only artist that improvised a little at the end, I really enjoyed hearing her harp running alongside the guitar.
Besides that harp bit, all the additional tracks were composed from scratch. I would give the artists the riffs & they’d use their technical talent & access to their instruments to make them happen. It was all done online. It was a great way to learn how to be a composer, I can’t write notation so the original audio/video samples sent to them had to be dead on. Once done I could track what they did & see if it worked. Sanctuary’s very classical in a lot of the way it was approached, which is a disciplined style of music but I’m also glad I’m still making sure to keep things different & fresh.
SBS: The instrumentation, in my opinion, was as gorgeous as ever on Sanctuary…truly some of the best I’ve heard from ya so far in many ways. “Swim” was one that continually caught my attention…the piano is stunning, the production on it is spacious & atmospherically brilliant…the melody is outstanding. So maybe you don’t want to explain it all together…I get that…but how about this – what inspired “Swim” – is that something you can share, or is that just another way of me trying to get an explanation? I’d be equally inclined to ask about “Tropical Heart (Buah)” as well…both of these tracks were among my favorites in the lineup of Sanctuary…but in truth, it really seemed to be an album that worked out well.
SMAI: Thank you for your words & listening Jer, that’s really kind of you to say & I’m always grateful for listeners & the people that are inspired from the work, that’s what it’s all about. There is a kind of prophecy that I find in the songs that come out, a lot of lines I’ve written often reveal themselves so hopefully this is a sign that you’ll be swimming on a tropical beach sometime!
Swim’s good fun! As people tend to work out, I’m a bit of an ‘in the moment’ kind of guy & often like to recreate moments, experiences or sounds more than music itself. Swim is very much about swimming in the piano, I love swimming. I think it was probably inspired by Zelda but again, not so much the soundtrack but more the motion of climbing the waterfalls in game.
Tropical Heart’s an interesting choice for one as a favourite. Okinawa plays a big part in a lot of the tracks of Sanctuary, I’ve got family in Japan that I miss dearly & that place always seems to crop up in what I do. There’s this place called The Tropical Dream Centre that’s referenced in the opening track of the album along with this song. It’s the most beautiful place you can imagine. I’d rather not talk about it, it has a special, strange & beautiful quality to it that’s pure magic.
I had to learn Japanese as my second language since primary school, Indonesian’s my main second language though, my Japanese is pretty rusty. I have to admit though that a massive musical influence on Sanctuary was Ichiko Aoba, I love her work, she’s a generous, masterful artist & there’s a lot of respectable integrity behind how she works & what she’s been thinking about lately in teaming up with Plastic Bank. Windswept Adan is a masterpiece. I love that album, it’s one of my favourites. She’s one of the all-time greats.
SBS: “The boy who made this is long gone. This man is all that’s left.” That’s one heck of a quote from “One Of The First” – is it one that we can assume is autobiographical? Is it fair to say that’s a comment on how much you’ve grown as an artist from the time you started making this record, or music in general, to where you’re at now in your life? When you say “long gone” – is that in spirit, or in reality? In a way, music preserves who we are, and who we were, as one, does it not? In theory, you can always revisit your past through the music you’ve made and recall the journey you’ve been on, like an audible diary or a sonic form of breadcrumbs left to lead you back home. I’d assume you’re very forward-thinking and likely rarely look back in the life you’re leading. How often do you reconnect with the boy who is now “long gone” – or was this the moment where you drew a line in the sand to say goodbye?
SMAI: One of The First is One of The First. That phrased overdub was the only modern bit.
It’s a recording from my childhood, I was with a friend & started playing the piano because we were bored in some person’s house that had a piano, some sort of old microphone and a computer. I was supposed to be doing something else.
It was an in the moment recording & pure improv. I made a tiny bit of atmosphere with the original audio & got rid of the bits where we were talking in the beginning when we were trying to set it up. I’ve been doing these things forever & I used to be completely buried in books & video games & used to write books as a kid. I had a childhood that was difficult at times but also really beautiful. That was one of the beautiful moments, it was interesting to rediscover that & I was surprised we managed to record it so well, all things considered.
I’d say Sanctuary has a resolution to it regarding the hazy, dreamlike production style. I’ve moved on from that style now through that album. After When We’re Vulnerable We Come In Peace 2 & the songs from this year, I’m writing, performing & producing things a bit differently. I want to give out a sense of clarity & I’m really pushing into other directions musically.
SBS: You had quite the active 2022 from what I can tell. You released an album of instrumental tunes, you released singles like “Thank You For Holding The Door” and “I Blushed Before Your Kind Soul” – and most recently, you’ve put out Where We’re Vulnerable We Come In Peace 2 – that’s quite a lot for one year! What had you so active in 2022? More time? More opportunity? More ideas? What has inspired the music to flow as continuously as it has & do you think it’s a pace that’ll continue forward from here?
SMAI: The works this year have been amazing to do. I love them so much & have been performing them or encountered people listening to them with really positive reception which is really wonderful.
Something I never dreamed or expected in a million years would ever occur, happened to me in Easter. I experienced the best night of my life & really felt the beauty of this again. Just equal levels of people loving creativity. It was amazing. There was this weird, life changing thing that reignited my creative spark & made me feel a lot better about the world & somehow not alone with my panic. I’m unbelievably grateful, the inspiration & stories behind this stuff though, is private.
Currently, life’s been a bit tough. There’s also been a bunch of really difficult life situations affecting some people really important to me & my living personally & I’m in quite a bit of pain when I’m not working. I let in the wrong kind of energy for myself that I let push its way into my mental space & it retriggered a bunch of internal pain that I had found a healthy way to deal with. I need to just focus on the work, creating my own stuff & meeting people that share the love for this. Otherwise I’m going to overthink the physical pain & not be able to get through to the other side. I’m never interested in hopelessness, I’m fine with heavy, dark, ‘depressing’ even but hopelessness is a bad thing to have in a battling mind & I don’t want to feed those thoughts.
I almost completely shut off listening to music online or looking out for things because they started to trigger me, it’s been that bad & I almost gave everything up completely because of how messed up it made me. I’ve learned a lot through these times. I mean there’s this thing about modern cities…
We seal ourselves away in a lot of moments of transit all the time without acknowledging the person next to us exists, yet we cry out into the void or let total strangers into our heads all the time. Our phones that we used to talk to each other with have become these magic lamps that don’t really give us anything but a drip feed of dopamine. Suddenly, someone looking through a screen & giving you the illusion that they see you is enough to be considered a job. We invented phones to talk less to each other, but we’re in everyone’s pockets. Everyone’s competing to be the loudest & build the biggest advert. We’ve made ourselves & each other products. There’s something deeply unsettling about the way we’ve structured our world socially & people are really struggling & at the risk of falling aside from the poverty & struggles that seem to have occurred through modern living or a poorly maintained state of health. I’m very egalitarian & it just doesn’t work like that & I’ve been really overwhelmed by things at times. I don’t want to spread that kind of energy or pain but I do want to create something meaningful from these struggles. I don’t know, all this stuff is expressed better outside of this writing but there’s a real sense that time’s getting the better of us… The world’s become a lens. There are lyrics coming that talk about this stuff or use these lines.
SBS: You’ve set off my internal OCD alarms and need for symmetry in this world…so I suppose I should ask the obvious question: “Where We’re Vulnerable We Come In Peace 2?” 2? Two before one? I don’t know that I’m gonna easily recover from this quandary you’ve put me in here Smai! I’m gonna attempt the implausible here…and see if you’re willing to explain why you’ve gone with 2 instead of 1…will you?
SMAI: Yeah, 2 just got sorted out quicker than 1. 1’s production is completely left field. I did a test run with some of its material at an event for Patchworks Musik. It was awesome to do that.
Post-Pandemic from our last interview also hints a little bit at what’s coming, but I will say, 1’s been really exciting to do.
SBS: What’s on the horizon for the future to follow Smai? Have you got new music being planned for 2023? World travel? A new book? What do you want to accomplish in the upcoming 365 days ahead?
SMAI: New material! Yes! I’m always working. I work a lot outside of the creative fields as well but, creativity always has been my number 1 love. I’m getting out and about to perform my work again. I did a performance of Paintings & Poetry a few nights ago at The Rose Hill in Brighton that, thankfully, went down really well! There was one at a venue in London that I did recently as well, which was a good way to get comfortable with it again.
I’m also going to be careful about answering this because I’m in the flow of finishing the new material up, there needs to be a surprise 😉 but, I’ve taken risks in a field I’ve never done before. I thought I was ready but I had to deal with getting comfortable being back on stage & into the work again to get there.
I rarely travel, I can’t afford to. I know musicians tour a lot but I also question the whole private jet culture, or pro liberal politics being spread by people that produce a lot more greenhouse gases & waste than we’d like to think. I mean, I’d like to pretend that I’m doing it because I’m all for the planet but, I also can’t afford to travel outside of London yet.
I’m doing a couple of side projects as well. There’s Music For: which are pieces inspired by Eno’s music for airports, it’s location based ambient music instrumentals. There’s a really dark project I’ve called Screaming Into The Void. The F***** & Famous is also this rocky band project which will be exactly what it sounds like. It’s very serious business & uncensored in its real form…I do want to branch out & pursue more variety in my music output.
There are ideas for another novel, I’m very happy that some people have been reading Wanita’s Quest. Having done that process of writing a novel already, I know that I’m going to need a lot more time than usual so I’m approaching these ideas realistically.
SBS: I think as artists, we gravitate towards a lot of what we personally enjoy & do our best to create something that’s within the same realm of what we like to hear or see etc. – but that doesn’t mean we’re limited to just those things and only those things, know what I mean? A lot of us have what we consider to be ‘guilty pleasures’ or we’re proud of how well-rounded our palettes can be when it comes to the art & music we enjoy. So I’m curious Smai…you listening to Death Metal in the background there? How about the Grindcore genre? Alright…I’ll be honest with ya – I wouldn’t expect that you’re listening to either of those particular categories/styles of music, but I would bet that just like everyone else under the sun, you’re probably listening to a few artists or bands that we wouldn’t have expected you would be. So out with it my friend – what are three artists or bands that you listen to that we would never have assumed you would…and what is it about their music that keeps you coming back for more?
SMAI: When We’re Vulnerable We Come In Peace 1 answers a lot of this question.
There’s this really cool album called Sunflowers Volume I. It’s raising money for a library called Biblioteka (or Biblioteka Kyiv in regards to what’s going on), an Organisation for refugees called GrupaGranica & an NGO called Insight. It’s amazing! I love it!
Angelicaa makes this really interesting dark music with these cool effects playing with her words. 7777 の天使 are awesome as well. I don’t normally like autotune but, if you dip into seeing those performers in a dark space it’s a visceral experience. I saw them at The Glove That Fits & they sounded great.
There’s a song called Disappear by Felice Bauer that’s really cool as well. There’s this falsetto in there that’s like, really, woah!
I’m happy to give anything a go in music. I do find celebrity name dropping & the way people do that a lot kind of embarrassing these days & am focused on the art/music. The Smile does have the coolest use of time signatures going on & Open The Floodgates is an amazing song. I also…have actually made heavy songs & heard a lot of them from other artists as well, you’d be surprised. A lot of stuff I’ve made has been a bit, ‘wha?’ though so it’s not going to be released any time soon. Um, that’s three right? I have more!
SBS: I can’t stand being behind schedule on projects that come my way…you know, like I am in sending you these questions Smai…it actually drives me nuts. Yet, life gets in the way…moods can get in the way…there are so many things beyond our control, and I clearly need some kind of meditation or calm in my life to be able to get back on track where I should be. Because YOU deserve better than that – I shouldn’t keep ya waiting, and I apologize that I have. I think I know you well enough to know you’re not worried about how much time has passed…you’re very much a whatever will be will be type-dude, and I’m thankful for that. Anyhow. How do I get to that plane of existence my friend? How do any of us? The world continually moves at a more rapid pace…and yet, from an outside perspective, it almost seems as if you’re entirely unaffected by that fact. So how do you go about that – what’s your secret?
SMAI: You’d be surprised Jer. Considering how late I got back to you on this I’m clearly in need of that as well. Trust me, I’m also working on myself… Hopefully the music you’ve experienced can give you what you need!
The refreshing thing to realize is: we’re all struggling. We all have it in us to be magnificent when we realise just how much we don’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things. Our dreams are aspirations formed from our humble places in life, that’s why they’re beautiful.
SBS: I’ve always known you to have a much different perspective than the majority of folks out there in this world of ours SMAI…so let me ask ya…all these years on this planet…all this theoretical “evolution” to humanity & such…from your point of view, to this point in time, what have we got right & what have we done wrong? What do you feel like planet Earth’s most monumental missed opportunity has been? What is the biggest success we’ve shared in humanity? What are the main challenges still yet to come?
SMAI: I believe Kindness is the most important quality & thing we have as people. It shouldn’t be rare.
When you get hurt, see the impacts of war on people, people passing away, people hurting each other, lies, the way nature changes…all you want to do is find the beautiful in the world, some kind of peace or magic. One of my favourite websites is called The Red Hand Files. That has some amazing writing about the human condition, I feel like outside of communing with each other that’s the way to reach out to people in this age, instead of doing whatever it is we’re doing now with our barrage of profiles & content. Someone that saves lives for a living deserves a voice for this kind of question more than this dorky artist. Global warming, politics & modern conflicts have been so disappointing because aside from the utter tragedy of them, they’ve been unnecessary. Cynicism is really important to keep away from, but it’s sooo tempting to indulge in it sometimes.
SBS: Some things never change my friend, and that includes the way we finish our interviews here at sleepingbagstudios. For as long as I’ve been doin’em, I’ve always offered everyone that I’ve been lucky enough to talk with the freedom to say anything else they’d like to at the end of every interview I’ve ever done…because no single interview will ever cover it all. And while this is the second time I’ve been able to chat with you this way, and honored to, well…the same logic still applies. So here you are SMAI – the floor is all yours…what else would you like the people to know about you and the music you make?
SMAI: Instead of doing a general self-promo talking myself up I’m going to point out that the bluesy album Volume raised $114 for Against Malaria! You can still donate mosquito nets to combat malaria in Africa if you buy Volume on Bandcamp, artist revenue goes to the charity! Against Malaria are the real deal & fantastic. Fuji Gunung’s a rare falsetto running in the snow song to check out as the album’s single if you want to start with a track.
For you the reader/listener. Thank You. No matter what, never defeat yourself & stay kind.
I’m grateful to have some of the best jobs in the world! I’d like to continue to fulfil my job to inspire you, I’m happy to serve in gratitude. See you later.
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