Q&A: Sinkane On His New Mean Love And Working With Everyone From Usher To David Byrne
Every Sinkane album is a world unto itself. Mean Love is no different in that it is very different. A conglomeration of everything from Sade to Radiohead to Alvino Rey to Fela Kuti, it marks the latest evolution by one of music’s most fascinating figures. Bandleader Ahmed Gallab was born in Sudan, grew up in Utah and Ohio, and has come to prominence while based in Brooklyn, where he took time off from Sinkane to raise his profile as a sideman for Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. His travels have become an inextricable part of his biography because they shine through so clearly in his unique pool of worldwide influences. (Full disclosure: He’s also been a friend of mine since his days playing post-hardcore and experimental electronica in Columbus.)
In the wake of 2012’s spectral funk record Mars, Gallab’s odyssey took some more unexpected turns. Some, such as performing his underground hit “Runnin‘” with Usher and Afghan Whigs at SXSW, came and went in a flash; others, such as heading up the Atomic Bomb Band, a traveling William Onyeabor tribute featuring David Byrne and other superstars, have been ongoing labors of love. But amidst his many DJ gigs, tour dates, and studio sessions, Gallab’s most intense commitment has been finishing Mean Love, an album that explores the American side of his diasporic musical identity. We talked to him last week to discuss the album and his other endeavors.
STEREOGUM: We should start by talking about the record because I imagine that’s your primary focus despite many side hustles.
AHMED GALLAB: Yeah, I’m hoping that it all leads back to the album. I’ve had a lot of other things on the docket. Everyone in the band has been involved with everything else, so it’s been kind of nice to do this whole thing. But it’s going to be good to be on tour and focus on Sinkane full time.
STEREOGUM: How soon did you start putting this music together after the last record came out? If I remember right, you were already working on the new record before Mars was even released, right?
GALLAB: Mars was done a year before it was released. So I had two years working on other things. It was really weird because it all kind of happened in spurts. I think it was April 2011, 2012 maybe, I wrote like four songs in a row, took a break and wrote two more. Then I decided I wanted to write a whole bunch more. I had four more that came, then six more that came, then two more in really weird spurts. Halfway through touring Mars I realized I had the whole record written, and I wanted to stop touring and focus on that.
STEREOGUM: Are you already on to the next stuff then?
GALLAB: No, not really. There were probably 16-17 songs written for Mean Love, and six of them didn’t make the album, never really got finished. I’m more interested in seeing if I can finish those and do something with those songs before thinking about an entirely new album. It’s a very daunting task to start a new album. I get way too into it, don’t really think about anything else, kind of lose track of reality. I get so into this idea of the album. I’m not really ready to be into that right now. There are a few other songs I’d like to finish.
STEREOGUM: It’s definitely another shift for you. All the Sinkane records are their own thing. Also, based purely on lyrical content, it seems like this is the most directly you’ve referenced your background and family in the music.
GALLAB: With Mars it was really important for me to establish a world, a place where people who are similar to me could feel comfortable — a foreign land for people who felt foreign all over the world. Once that was established, I felt it was pretty important for me to speak about who I was. I never really thought about myself per se, but rather was interested in being a part of a big community. That was really nice. A lot of the influences I have for this album were records that were very personal. And I started becoming obsessed with this idea of speaking about things simply, but not necessarily directly — like the idea of love, loving someone or something, a relationship you have with yourself or to life, and how that’s similar to a relationship you have with someone else. My personal experiences growing up versus the experiences people like me have. It was a big challenge, and I really enjoyed picking it up.
STEREOGUM: At the end of the record you have “Son” and “Omdurman” back to back, both of which seem very explicitly personal.
GALLAB: Yeah, that’s funny because it was completely a mistake. The original sequence of the album didn’t have them right next to each other. So after we all talked about it — me and label and my manager — we sequenced the record and it made a lot of sense that those two were the last songs of the album.
STEREOGUM: How did the sequence change from what you originally had in mind?
GALLAB: We went back and forth about the album sequence. At first it was sequenced on lyrical content. Then we went back and sequenced it like a mixtape or something. It seems like an album should roll like a mixtape first — bring the listener in with the music and content will follow. And when it started being thought of that way, it made sense that “Omdurman” would follow “Son” melodically, and it made even more sense after we found the lyrical content was so complementary.
STEREOGUM: That song’s a really good way to close the record from a musical standpoint as well. I feel like you want to end a record either with the quietest moment, like disappearing into darkness, or the upbeat sun-coming-back-up thing. “Omdurman” has that latter feel; it’s probably the most joyous sounding piece of music on the record.
GALLAB: Yeah it is, it is really. It was a bit hard for me to follow at first. I wanted to write a song that was distinctly Sudanese. I wanted it to be more that way than I’d done in a song before, like on Mars or the record previous to that. When I realized I did it I was really excited about it, and I got a little scared. Like, “Man, am I going too far? Am I giving up too much of myself here?” But at the end of the day, it’s one of the best songs I think I’ve ever written — one of my favorites. And I’m really happy about it.
STEREOGUM: I thought it was interesting on “Son” you have that line “I will not forget where I came from/ I cannot forget where I came from.” It seems to be addressing your parents and your family, but I don’t know if you also intended for it to have a looser meaning that also includes your ancestors or the various cultures you’ve grown up in?
GALLAB: Oh yeah, certainly. I think my experience with my family, and our experience — the way we’ve lived as a displaced people, my father coming from a nomadic family line — has been really interesting for me, but also kind of confusing in terms of figuring out who I am and where I fit in the world. The universal theme of the song is directly correlated to my family and my self. It’s kind of subconscious for me to do that. I didn’t realize I was doing that until the song was written.
STEREOGUM: You can hear that Sade sound, but you can also hear your love for Radiohead in the melody you wrote, which is also kind of where you came from.
GALLAB: It’s no secret they’re a huge influence for me. They’re one of my favorite bands. I could tell you where I was on the day every album was released. They’re a really important band for me. That’s the thing: Where Mars kind of showcases my African influence, Mean Love kind of showcases my American influence, like who I am as an American, who I am in American culture. And I think Radiohead definitely factors into that.
STEREOGUM: With that in mind, I love the pedal steel on this record.
GALLAB: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. I always tend to do things that might be a little polarizing. People are either going to love or hate it. I had this idea, this epiphany when I was working on this album. All of the influences I put together — African music, country-western music, soul, funk — are people who experienced a similar kind of oppression or longing or nostalgia. A lot of simple people who were poor or came from a lot of hardship, and in that they created this music. I found that common theme within all that music, and I wanted to bring them together — infuse a reggae song with pedal steel. And I realized reggae had a lot in common with country music, you know?
STEREOGUM: I feel like there are so many different levels to listen to a Sinkane record for that reason. Like, there’s the enjoyment level and then there’s kind of an academic level where you can hear all those connections.
GALLAB: Yeah, you can thank my parents for that.
STEREOGUM: You were talking about concepts such as loving a thing rather than a person and your relationship with yourself. The title track has that line, “You know I love you, but you’re mean.” Is that addressed to yourself?
GALLAB: One of the big things about this album was I didn’t want to write any love songs. I didn’t want to write anything about directly loving a person. That idea is tired. Love songs are written every day, and every song on the radio is a love song. I like the idea, the sentiment of love. And I thought it’d be interesting to find some sort of relationship that was similar to the relationship with a significant other, but wasn’t specifically about a girl or a guy, and I realized that living your life and the relationship you have with yourself is no different than the relationship with a significant other. You get challenged throughout your life, time and time over, and it’s really tough. But if you sit and think about it, you’re happy to be alive. And that’s what I wanted to write about — sort of an existential understanding of love. I thought it could be a fun spin on the idea, and I layered that. After you listen to a song over and over again, you start to have one of those a-ha moments that makes it much more interesting. I love songs like that. I didn’t want to talk about drugs, I wanted to talk about life.
STEREOGUM: “Hold Tight” was the first song you released out, then “How We Be” followed that. What made those spotlight tracks for you?
GALLAB: Well, I wanted to further explore the idea of making music that was universal. Music that people all over the world could enjoy. I was showcasing another side of me, more of an American side. So these funkier songs came about, and I realized that if was going to release a song that was more similar to the previous album, it would’ve been cool, but it would’ve further established me as a niche artist. And I wanted to present something that was different and take a risk on that, see what people thought. It was more open than a song that was distinctly Ethiopian-sounding, something that was distinctly Sudanese-sounding. Those songs are there, and people are going to enjoy those songs, but the newer ideas are starting to express a more universal understanding of music, something that anyone could enjoy — something not only people who are like me will be able to relate to, does that make sense? Also, I like to take risks. I like to do something I won’t know what the answer will be to at the end of the day. I’ve seen many different bands succeed really well when they release something similar to what they’ve done in the past, but I think my favorite bands are ones who haven’t done that. Beck doesn’t really do that; there’s so many different kinds of albums. And Radiohead certainly doesn’t do that.
STEREOGUM: Are you still playing with the same lineup?
GALLAB: I have a new guitar player. His name is Jonny Lam, and he played the pedal steel as well.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain how the whole William Onyeabor thing came together and how you ended up in charge of all that?
GALLAB: A year ago, I played Summerstage with Sinkane, we opened up for Femi Kuti. And Eric Welles Nyström and Yale Evelev who run Luaka Bop Records were at the show because they wanted to interview Femi Kuti for the Onyeabor documentary that came out. And I saw them backstage, and one of them was wearing an Onyeabor T-shirt, and I kind of struck up a conversation with Eric. He asked me if I knew who he was. And I’ve always been a huge fan of William Onyeabor. Even when I lived in Columbus, I discovered World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s A Real Thing compilation that Luaka Bop released that has “Better Change Your Mind” by William Onyeabor on it. And that was one of the first important, weird African songs that I felt I could relate to. It had a distinct African flavor and a distinct African sound, but it transcended it and became its own thing. They had a lot of American influences as well, and I was like, “Wow, this is really what I want to do.” And I became borderline obsessed with finding out more about him. And so I listened to their song over and over again and found out they were releasing a compilation of his music and doing a whole documentary. And when I told them I knew who he was, they asked me to meet with them a week later. And at that point they told me about the idea for the show, told me they wanted me to be the musical director, and they said Money Mark from the Beastie Boys was involved and I instantly said yes. I spent the next eight months pretty focused on getting the band together and recording Mean Love at the same time. It’s been an amazing experience. I was pretty scared, at first to take on the task — it’s a pretty daunting task, you know? Not only to put the music together, but to also have to lead a person like David Byrne and Damon Albarn and Money Mike — all these music legends that we’ve seen on TV and heard about, they’re all legends, and now I’m this scrappy young kid who has to lead this whole band including them. So I was a little bit intimidated, but it ended up being great, and I have a lot of respect for the Sinkane band and all the other guys, everyone has made it really meaningful to be with.
STEREOGUM: And you have more of those shows still lined up?
GALLAB: There are more in the works right now. It’s exciting. It’s literally the band I’d love Sinkane to be — a nice big band, with a horn section and percussion players, and really universal. There are a lot of people from all over the world, all over the United States who are putting their own flavor to the music of William Onyeabor, and I can only hope that I can take that idea and use it in the Sinkane band and do something even bigger than this afterward.
STEREOGUM: I also never got the proper explanation of how you ended up on stage with Usher and the Afghan Whigs at SXSW last year.
GALLAB: [Laughs] That was a really, really strange day. I think the day before, I was woken up at 10 in the morning by my booking agent, who was frantically on the phone with me saying, “Usher wants to play your song with you and Afghan Whigs.” I instantly hung up the phone, like, “He’s totally joking, there’s no way.” He instantly called me back and said, “His tour manager’s going to be at the house in half an hour. Get yourself ready, you have to do this.” And a half hour later a big black Escalade rolls up to the house I was staying at in Austin and took us to a rehearsal space, and Usher was there and the Afghan Whigs were there, and they were super stoked. They had learned the song, and I sang it with them. It was so surreal. I couldn’t even think for the rest of the day. I was so scared the entire time I was doing it. I had no idea how I even got to that place. You know, when you hear a person like Usher and Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs say, “We love your song so much we want to add it to our setlist, and I want to sing it with you,” that’s a pretty intense thing to think about. And then we get to the Fader Fort and I’m sitting backstage and Pharrell welcomes me onstage and says good luck, and it’s just so weird for me. I couldn’t really process what was going on. I was so nervous, and I just did not know what was going on in my life at that time. And then all of the sudden it was over. I still talk to Usher once in a while. He’ll send me messages. He said he wants to work with me on some stuff, and we’ll see where that goes. But I feel very blessed to have done something like that.
STEREOGUM: How’d they hear your song? Did they just stumble across it on their favorite music website or something?
GALLAB: I don’t know. I think Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs was playing the track to Usher, and I think Usher asked him what he’d been listening to lately. And I am floored. He could have said anyone, like Future or Solange or Blood Orange, any of those people — all these people who have a lot of presence on the internet. But he liked my song, and he played it for him. And Usher was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s play this tonight. Let’s figure out if he’s around and play it with him.” So, I’m pretty floored that that happened. I feel really lucky and really honored that they liked the song that much.
STEREOGUM: I know you’ve done some DJ gigs lately too. Anything else going on with you that we haven’t mentioned?
GALLAB: I’ve just been touring a lot. Between the four of us in the band, we get along very well, and we’re starting to create a very special thing. I love those guys. I’d like to continue developing our relationship and make the band even better. My dream is coming true. I can only hope people can listen to the record and enjoy and see something in it that allows them to relate to the album, spread positive energy and love, come see us play, come say hello.
[Photo by Martine Carlson.]