Catching Up With Ilyas Ahmed

It’s been a busy couple of months for Ilyas Ahmed. First, Grails (the long-running band Ahmed joined a few years back) released the awesome Anches En Maat, which was quickly followed up by an extensive European tour. Then in October, the Portland, OR-based artist released his excellent new solo record, A Dream of Another, on the Geographic North label. As noted below, Ahmed’s first album came out nearly two decades ago, but A Dream of Another shows that he’s still working on an exceptionally elevated musical plane. The album’s seven instrumentals are spectral and uncanny, offering listeners a strangely luminous landscape to wander amidst. “Uncommonly beautiful” is a phrase Ilyas uses — and this music more than fits the bill. Recently, we hopped on the phone to get his thoughts on a variety of topics. | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me about the Grails European tour you just got back from — how’d it go? 

Ilyas Ahmed: It was great. That was the band’s first tour since the pandemic. We had been going fairly hard for a little while before that. We don’t all live in the same town, so that makes it a lot … I don’t want to say “better,” but we’re just stoked to hang out with each other. All the little personal things that probably annoy other bands in the day-to-day — that’s not on the table with us. We’re older now and we travel really well together. 

AD: Has it changed at all, touring post-pandemic? 

Ilyas Ahmed: It feels like there was an appreciation for it. Not that it wasn’t there before, but everything was just heightened. I felt so glad that I’m able to do this. You don’t take it for granted. You’re like, this is something I know how to do, but it feels foreign again. And you could tell that people were so into it — people were crying at the shows. It was heavy.  

AD: The new Grails record has such a big sound. How did you approach bringing that to a live setting? 

Ilyas Ahmed: We were able to get together in July and play a one-off festival show out here in Portland that was literally out in the woods. They were able to make it so everyone in Grails could fly here and we had a practice space for free for a week. We reconnected with some of the older Grails stuff that we hadn’t played before. Alex [Hall], the other guitar player, he and I are huge Loren Connors fans. And some of the early stuff, Alex wrote based on his love of Loren. So, we played some early stuff that completely synchronized with my natural way of playing guitar, like when playing solo. I thought it might be more about the new record’s vibe, and we played three songs off of it that really got intense by the end of tour. But it also ended up being a Sonic Youth-y, Fleetwood Mac-y, guitar-heavy set that was really emotional. And more stretching out within song segues. It all felt awesome. It happened organically. The band has a natural unspoken chemistry when we play together. During soundchecks we would sometimes have some extra time to improvise and almost instantly we all could lock into something that we were like “There’s a song right there”. The way the band works can be tricky — it’s all via text message. But I did some homework and thought, “Oh, this is perfect.” Moments leaned into my ECM-y, Loren Connors, kind of smeary way of playing music and was personally so thrilling.

AD: You’ve been in collab mode a lot lately, whether it’s the Cantu record, Grails, Golden Retriever … but your new record, A Dream Of Another, is completely solo. There’s no one else on it, right? 

Ilyas Ahmed: There’s no one else on it. [During the pandemic], there was this year of just not knowing what was gonna happen. And I’m not talking about music. There’s this collective trauma that I think no one’s really talking about. Which I totally understand — why would you want to revisit that? Such a weird time. And awful for so many obviously and I don’t want to make light of the horror. It seems ludicrous now, but I was just remembering asking friends early on “Is it OK for me to touch doorknobs?” [laughs] When that all kicked in, it coincided with me wanting to make music that was surprising to me. I felt I had gotten away from the initial impulses that excited me about making solo music a little bit. It’s not a hard and fast thing — I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve made. But I got a little bit away from what I really liked about solo recording, where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. The unexpected. That’s always exciting.

Solo recording was this make-believe band in my head, where it had to satisfy all these impulses. Joining Grails changed that a bit. My desire to write songs is still there, but I leave it dormant until it’s time to write songs for the band now. Which I really like! I like compartmentalizing stuff like that. It makes it feel special. And I’ve actually been working on that kind of stuff for Grails since I got back from tour. For a while, I had gotten away from improvising, which is my natural inclination. The solo records I’ve been making for the past couple years feel more natural to me.

AD: And this one is completely instrumental, as well. 

Ilyas Ahmed: Singing is something that I did out of necessity. I’m not a confident singer.  It changed as the records went on and I feel like I eventually found my voice. Again, I thought the records needed to satisfy every creative impulse that I had in my head. Now, my solo records are more like the weird stuff that was going on in the back of those older records, that I always wanted to be more in the forefront, if that makes sense. I made my first record almost 20 years ago now, which is totally insane to me.

AD: I was listening to your new one today and I was thinking that it falls into one of my favorite categories — which is “music where you can’t tell if things are coming together or falling apart.” Does that resonate with you at all? 

Ilyas Ahmed: I love that. I’m not someone who looks back a lot, but there was a point during the pandemic where I was thinking about my first record and the amount of work that went into it. I was trained as a visual artist. I studied painting and took some sculpture courses. That first record, I always think about it as if I were making a sculpture. I was trying to find the songs in there, give them form. I thought: it needs to have singing, it needs to have chords. That was the base level. At the time, I thought it sounded like the Beatles [laughs]. To me, it was a pop record. That probably sounds crazy. I haven’t listened to it in a long time. 

But I kind of got back to a feeling of surprise with the new record. I mean, I like it, but I also have this feeling of like “Is this even good?” [laughs]. Or not even that … it’s more like “What is this?” [laughs] I got home from tour a couple weeks back and I was sort of a jet-lagged mess, and I had the test pressing playing while I was unpacking and unloading the dishwasher or whatever … and it never sounded better. It was perfect for a sleep-deprived, sleepwalking state of mind. 

AD: The new record sustains that state of mind in a really cool way, where it’s moving in some direction, but you can’t tell what that direction is. 

Ilyas Ahmed: I love that so much.  Every time I make a solo record, I think this is going to be the one where I just shred. It’s going to be nonstop technical guitar shit. “Here’s what I can do!” Or it starts conversely, where I think there’s going to be zero guitar on it. The first song on the record is from that zone, where I was thinking “Maybe I’ll try to make a piano record?” I can kind of play piano. But then I went in another direction. It’s that sculptural idea again, where you’re sort of hacking away at it to get to the thing it’s supposed to be. I was talking with Emil (Amos) about doing drafts — first draft, second draft, revising, bringing it all back down and then building off again from there. With this record, it ended up being something that I didn’t think it would be. And you just have to go with it. You have to trust your instincts, which is a big thing with being a solo person. You can’t play it for someone and ask “Is this shit? Is my part any good?” Which is great — I love being in a band and getting that feedback. But being a solo person, you can sometimes wonder if what you’re doing is any good [laughs]. 

AD: But that can be a good feeling. You don’t know what it is you’ve done. “My god, what have I done!?” 

Ilyas Ahmed: Right? Mystery and nuance come up a lot in conversations I have with friends about art and music and just life. And when making this record, I realized that I need to walk it like I talk it a little bit more. I’m always saying these things … I need to have the confidence to do it. It’s so easy to just add excessive amounts reverb and drones and make this really full, huge-sounding thing. And I’m not denigrating that – it has its time and place. And there’s some moments approaching that on the record. But I really wanted to make something that felt like it was intimately in the room with you. 

AD: Yeah, the record almost feels interactive, like it’s happening in real time. Did you have any specific touchstones when you were making it? Music, films, books, anything? 

Ilyas Ahmed: I’m always thinking about Tarkovsky, which might be obvious. Or maybe not, I don’t know! Ozu is another big favorite. And I was thinking about Claire Denis’ films — the way the narratives unfold. There’s some of that unreliable narrator aspect to it that Nicolas Roeg has, where you’re not really sure what’s going on. I like that a lot. 

As far as music, I listen to so much piano music at home. I was really inspired by the Gurdjieff / De Hartmann piano stuff. And eternal favorites like Satie or that Mingus solo piano record.  I thought, why don’t I try to make something that makes me feel like that. Also this Autechre record Sign, particularly the 3rd and 4th sides of it. Just the sound of those Rhythm & Sound 12”s.  It’s such a scary move to not drench the guitars in reverb or have a lot of notes. I wanted the sounds to feel like they’re under a microscope, which might be what my favorite filmmakers or favorite records are trying to do. I like messiness and I can respond to that. But my favorite stuff is something like the Necks, where it might feel random, but it’s also totally deliberate. 

AD: There’s almost a kind of swagger to that approach — with the Necks, it’s like, “this is going to happen, no matter what.” 

Ilyas Ahmed: Yeah. Swagger is such a great way to describe that. Weirdly, Grails played this festival in Latvia, and I didn’t look at the program before we got there. But [Necks drummer] Tony Buck played right before us in this church. We walked in and there was a drum kit set up right in the middle of the room and we were like, “What the hell?” We were backstage and I thought, “Tony Buck is just sitting out there! Is it lame if I go fanboy out?” So, I went out and said, you know, I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’m a huge fucking fan. Do you want to come back and drink wine with us?” [laughs] Sweetest dude. And he killed it. He played this insane set. I’ve seen a lot of improv solo drum performances where parts of it are OK, but parts of it get a little bit boring. But even though he was improvising this felt so composed and mind-blowing. And inspiring. Just amazing. 

AD: What do you hope a listener is going to get out of your new record? 

Ilyas Ahmed: That’s a tough question. On a really facile level, I want people to … like it? [laughs]

AD: That’s a good answer!

Ilyas Ahmed: I’ve always thought about music for how it functioned in my life. I’m deathly serious about what I do, but I don’t take myself seriously at all. It might be kind of a Neil Young thing. I want this to be part of the fabric of life for someone. There’s an interview where someone asks Ian MacKaye a similar question and he said — I’m paraphrasing — that the challenge is whether we can throw down in the way that other bands did for us. That’s it.

I don’t know whether my records compare to the other stuff I love. I would never even go there. But I’m trying to make it feel like that. Captain Beefheart, Public Enemy, Coltrane — something you’ve listened to a thousand times. You can listen to a hundred different versions of “Schizophrenia” and still think: “This is the greatest song ever.” How did they do that? I don’t think they know — which is kind of the beauty of it. How can “Cotton Crown” still sound so good when I listen to it as an almost 50-year-old as it did when I was 17, smoking pot in my best friend’s car? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. 

In Grails, we talk about it a lot — is this going to stand the test of time? It needs to be bulletproof. There’s plenty of music or art that’s just window-dressing. And that’s OK, that’s cool. But whether it’s the solo records I make or the band situations I’m in, I want it to push a little bit. 

AD: Interesting you bring up Fugazi — something I’ve been thinking about lately is whether instrumental music can have actively political content.  

Ilyas Ahmed: In some ways, I think that all music, whether it’s instrumental or not, should be political in some way. And by “political,” I mean in the broader sense of the term. It’s a political act to make the kind of art you want to make, regardless of what’s in favor at the moment, or what’s easily digestible. 

AD: I guess I think that instrumental music, since it doesn’t have lyrics, has a kind of built-in ambiguity. It’s not imposing a really strict viewpoint. It’s not didactic, which maybe is one of its strengths. 

Ilyas Ahmed: In the past, when I’ve made records with singing, I almost think of them as instrumental records. I don’t like the vocals to dominate. There are exceptions but for the most part I like when vocals are part of the overall texture.  There’s lots of things I love that fall into the category but singer-songwriter stuff for the most part is a pretty abhorrent genre to me [laughs]. 

AD: I seem to have less and less tolerance for it. Obviously, there are exceptions. 

Ilyas Ahmed: Do you think that’s because of the way the records are mixed these days? 

AD: Yeah, maybe the way the voice interacts with the music. But I find that I bring a little bit more of myself to instrumental music now. 

Ilyas Ahmed: Instrumental music is challenging — like with Grails, we’re not blatant shredders, we’re not Mahavishnu Orchestra, though we probably could do something like that. The focus of the band isn’t soloing. It’s composition, it’s ensemble playing. But conversely, Alex, Emil and I are huge Bill Fay fans. Huge Judee Sill fans. The big ones. We listen to a lot of instrumental music, but in the back of our minds, we’re trying to make something like Time of the Last Persecution. Something that makes us feel like that. Something that crushes you like that. Or an Alice Coltrane song or a Nina Simone song. 

With my record, I’ve seen people reference Loren Connors, which is great — I’m a huge fan of Loren Connors. But I’m always comparing it to something like Bill Fay, maybe in an emotional sense. Or like, Neil Young — how do I make “Cortez The Killer” … but not just copy it. One of my favorite Coltrane tunes is “Alabama.” Those eternal favorites you always come back to. How can I make something that feels like that without just doing that, right? I’m not interested in copying it, I’m interested in transmuting it, making it fit into my weird perspective of the world. 

AD: It’s tough, to have that kind of music as a model. It’s sort of the opposite of just “vibes” music — and I like “vibes” music. But your record is a bit more … I don’t know if “challenging” is a bad word to use [laughs]. 

Ilyas Ahmed: I like it, though. I want things to feel familiar, but also a little unsettling. I want it to be soothing, but with an edge. That’s the goal. There’s a little bit of Elton John, but also some Captain Beefheart knocking at the door [laughs]. The goal is to make things uncommonly beautiful, or unusually beautiful. There’s something satisfying about making something pretty, but not in a Hallmark way.

AD: I guess that’s what the search for new music or new art is all about, at least for me — to find that thing that you know you love but maybe you don’t fully understand. 

Ilyas Ahmed: Anthony Bourdain said that drinking was a pleasant derangement of the senses. And that’s a pretty good description for how I want music to feel. I don’t want it to just be noise music. We’ve been through those wars and there’s very little pleasure to be found [laughs]. My favorite kind of poetry is where it feels like you’re a couple of glasses of wine in, trying to be deep. It could be serious or not. 

AD: Half a joke and half not a joke. 

Ilyas Ahmed: But yeah, some of it is age. I’m almost 50 and I think about this stuff a lot. The way I fixate on age is kind of like an art practitioner. You’re always on the lookout for new stuff, but at a certain point in your life, you start looking back and you ask, “What was it about this thing I was obsessed with back then?” Emil and I talk about a Sebadoh a lot, because we were both huge fans. And still are. We roomed together on tour, and I’d put on Bubble and Scrape and we’d both say, “How did they do this?!” It’s so mysterious. At the time it was written off as slacker lo-fi rock or whatever. But I think it’s as deep as Spiderland. It should be talked about in the same way as Pavement — venerated. 

AD: The age thing is interesting — I’m late Gen X, and I work with people who are younger than me, and there’s a big difference in how we approach art, music, culture. 

Ilyas Ahmed: Yeah, we’re the generation that grew up without access to the internet. That’s a pretty distinct paradigm shift. It’s big. There’s a difference — like why people our age can get into, say, Cassavettes movies, or My Dinner With Andre. Things that maybe younger people are going to say, “This is fucking stupid and boring.” Maybe it’s just the natural cycle of how culture is disseminated. It’s hard not to sound like an old man yelling at the sky sometimes.

AD: Yeah, it’s like we’ve been saying — not knowing exactly what a piece of art is trying to do, not knowing what it’s doing to you … that’s one of the best things to have happen!

Ilyas Ahmed: There’s so much value in that. That’s great. That’s why life is worth living. If you know what something is going to do for you, why do it? Why listen to it or watch it? One of the best meals I’ve had in my life was at this place in Portland called Le Pigeon. It’s highly regarded.  My partner Sarah took me there. I get handed this plate with a bunch of different sauces and other things that I don’t know. And right off the bat, I was like “How am I supposed to eat this?” And it’s still the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I said to Sarah, “This is like listening to a record for the first time that’s just blowing your mind.” I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s incredible. That’s my goal. I want to be that. I don’t know if I am. I have no idea. But that’s what I aspire to. Something that seems so familiar and so right but also … what the fuck is this? 

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