This liveness has informed most of his work composed over the past five years in Venice on his own Morphine Recordings and M>O>S. As he prepared to return full-time to the country of his birth, Lebanon, in advance of the full-length's release, we caught up with him to find out more about his unique approach.
How long were you in Venice? What brought you there in the first place? If you were aiming to be an electronic musician, it seems like an odd destination city to me.
I was there 14 years. I was a DJ in Lebanon and I wanted to come to Europe to learn more. There were small changes in Lebanon that became big changes, so I just wanted to leave Lebanon but I mostly wanted to discover new things. I chose Italy because I was curious, and it was the place where I thought you could live well.
Did you speak Italian?
No. I arrived there with no words, but I learned it quite easily.
And you were just DJing around town immediately?
No, I used to study architecture and I was DJing in the meantime. It grew into a more mainstream thing for a while because around that time the cool thing was house music. It was weird because the way we saw it, New York house was an underground thing.
Stuff like Strictly Rhythm.
Yeah, that was the cool stuff. I was playing that at the time because for me Chicago house was really off, it was old stuff and I thought "I am not going to play that anymore." At the time, Euro dance was the commercial and mainstream thing. But I was starting to play house music in the bigger rooms and that's when I stopped. It was just a natural thing I think. I began to research more jazz, African music. I also found a job in a hotel, so I didn't have to play all the time. That's when I started my real digging into alternative jazz and underground stuff, old school stuff.
When was this?
Around 2000 or 2001. That was the year I played in the second biggest club in the whole region, and also did a couple of gigs in the biggest ones. I played twice there and said "OK, this is not my thing."
Why did you play there the second time?
The first time went quite well because I was opening so I didn't get into the harder stuff. But the second time I played after a top Italian DJ, and I knew I had to go really hard so I dug up all my hardest stuff and I realised that it wasn't my thing. I thought, "I'm going to get lost in here." I stopped then. Right at the peak; most DJs in Italy were aiming to arrive there. When I arrived there, I escaped.
When you arrived there you realized what you'd have to do to stay there...
Yeah. Lots of compromises. It wasn't a fight or anything. But I knew that I would have to make public relations, and I'm not really like that. I made the right choice at the time, and I really stopped playing for one year. Then there was a small venue in Venice in the centre where I did a residency on Saturdays that was massive. It was a small place, but we did really amazing nights there.
What were you playing by that time?
Deep house. Moodymann. I was discovering Theo Parrish, thanks to Stefano Ksoul. That really opened my mind to some killer music.
But it didn't last long at that venue.
It is all about the owners. They are never really into the music. But it's also that Venice is a very small, compact town all full of houses. Everything you do, even if you make all the noise barriers in a club, you'll have a problem with the people standing outside the club.
It seems like there is an appetite in Italy for forward thinking music despite what a lot of people say.
The problem, maybe, is that Italy is small. The cities are small. And if they are big like Milan, then they are not big in a good way musically. Rome is good; there is a scene there, but it is struggling. I played in October, and that was my only gig in Rome. Claudio Fabrianesi booked me for this really tiny but sick place. I loved it. That's when you find that there are these people who know about music and know about what you're doing even if there are only 100 people in a room.
I am not saying that other promoters don't know about music, but they don't go against the grain. I helped with a venue in Venice for a while that didn't have any boundaries. You could do anything in there, as long as it is quality music. We did noise concerts. That's not my thing, but I did it out of curiosity. There were lots of people, and most of them didn't like it but they said it was good that we did it. Promoters normally don't do that. Especially when you can have the room full every weekend if you bring certain names to the city. In some cases, that's still quality music. Today the names Berghain, Ostgut Ton and Panorama Bar on the underground techno scene are an example of quality club-fillers.
You released a few records outside of your own label before you began with Morphine. Do you regard that as a transformational moment for your sound? What was the difference between that and what you had been doing before?
I think it stands in the middle between what I was doing before and what I am doing now. Though, if you have a wide open vision, things are not that different in the end. I can also say I'm following what is happening around me music-wise. I don't make music only for myself; I make music for music. It's a contribution to the whole thing. Of course I make efforts to make it come out, hear it and share it, but I don't work a lot on promoting myself for this reason. I am continuing my research and I want to give to music.
You call it research, which I find interesting...
The research is the key for me. I'm always discovering new stuff and I am happy because I've been DJing for 20 years and right now it's even more exciting, because the more I discover the more worlds that are opening up for me in really different places. One of my biggest inspirations is Sun-Ra, not only because of the compositions but even the way he was dealing with his orchestra, the black power concept behind the music. All of this has brought me to the same sort of freedom on stage. The second biggest influence has been the Upperground Orchestra, this group that I am a part of.
sequencers and drum machines.
What I do is try to...free it."
I feel like your music is quite unique. It has a sense of space that a lot of house and techno doesn't, for lack of a better way to put it. Why do you think that is?
It comes from freedom. We lock music with Ableton, sequencers, computers and drum machines. I know it's a genre of music where you make everything that is really well sequenced, so what I do is try to work with a loop in a way to free it. Maybe it won't get free, but that is the process of it and that is how I work making music. All the modulations, all the sounds, the shapes, It is a matter of freedom.
Tell me about some of your song titles. They seem like very serious statements. "The Last Temptation," "The Fall of Justice."
I like that. Each record has a concept behind it, and the new album is the sum of all the concepts; that is why it's called What Have We Learned. This is a marking point in my life, since I am moving back to Lebanon. What did I do [while in Venice] and what am I taking with me? Positive and negative. The whole album is based on that musically.
To go back for a moment, you mentioned that Upperground Orchestra was a big influence on you. Can you talk about how you met them?
I knew Max the keyboard player, as we had friends in common. And one night I had this DJ date in a squat. One of the guys called me and the other guy called the band. So we showed up, and we saw that we had a jazz band and a DJ, both ready to play. So we were like "what do we do now?" And Max said, "Why don't we just do whole thing together?" So that's what we did. We played for like four hours with people coming on stage playing, then going offstage and replaced by other people. It was really fun.
That's it. You think more like a band. You are not alone making your stuff and, more than that, you start guiding and leading a band and that is the most difficult thing. Especially because they all know that I don't read notes or write them.
What do they make of your solo 12-inches? Do they listen to them?
Of course. They really dig it, because the sound that I have is more close to what they imagine of house music. I think they were quite surprised to discover a DJ or producer that is inspired by Sun-Ra and Miles Davis and Roy Ayers and this stuff while making house music. They didn't understand it for a long while, until they saw it when we did a session in the studio. Then they said, "OK, now it's clear, this connection." The Sun-Ra records they knew were more the jazz ones, and I provided them with some of the other ones.
It's funny with Sun-Ra because the catalogue is so vast that people can know this side of his work, but be completely unfamiliar with another side.
Yeah. I was buying every Sun-Ra record I found and sometimes I was disappointed. I remember when I first heard Jazz in Silhouette. I thought it was too jazz for me, and I didn't like it. Listening to it again and again, I love it now. Maybe I understand jazz now more than before; I was more hooked up in spaces to play stuff at the time. Disco 3000 [a record Sun Ra made when he was fascinated with the Crumar Mainman synthesizer/rhythm box] was my mind-blowing stuff. For me, using the drum machine and playing jazz over it was a totally new thing. It wasn't that new, because many other people did that, but I didn't know that.
You mentioned the black power aspect of what Sun-Ra did was interesting to you as well.
Yeah. When I saw the movie Space Is the Place five years ago, suddenly I understood everything. The improvisation, all the weird sounds, the sax madness, the free jazz. It's all a language. He screams against the system but he never says it in words or, if he does, it seems more like a complicated thing. But it's simple. The whole movie is about freeing black people from a state of mind.
Do you look at your music as a way to free people in general?
Generally, yeah. I like to contribute to that. I think I am going somehow into that, because each time I play I discover there are some people that are—I don't want to say illuminated—but they discover a new thing and then they start digging and they arrive to the point where I am. This is my biggest satisfaction.