Devil Sold His Soul, March of the Raptors, Akercocke, Ancients, Eden Maine, Mahumodo – the various component parts of post-metal super-collective *shels makes for impressive reading. With the band’s core band members usually separated by the Atlantic ocean, when the band toured the UK for the first time in five years, Ruth Booth ambushed frontman Mehdi Safa and trumpeteer Arif Driessen and for her trouble received a demonstration of some of their special skills…
So the big surprise tonight – throat singing. I did not expect that.
Mehdi: “Oh yeah. What did you think? No, I didn’t learn it with this in mind. Originally my friend was teaching me, a very good friend of mine since childhood, about a kind of meditation that’s called ‘toning’. That’s basically where you inhale, and when you exhale you make a sound, and you just keep doing that over and over. What happens is you become so relaxed, eventually you get to the point where you will start to like….Here, I’ll give you a quick recording. It works with what we’re doing because it’s a very nice feeling vibrating from inside out. It’s a very good way to get everybody on the same frequency.”
How getting back together after so long apart been?
Arif: “It’s been nothing but amazing, and it really has! I’m not bullshitting you. Russia was, as Mehdi summed it up best, like a dream, and it was only til we came back that we really realised [that] or at least I did. These shows in England have been just as impressive, so I’ve really enjoyed it, every minute.”
Mehdi: “I think that it’s kind of like the way we are, you know? What we’re trying to express is being open and honest and being yourself, and having the guts to be yourself. That’s pretty much the most important thing about what we’re doing. When we first met, we were all brave about being open to each other. When you have people like that, you can quickly figure out, oh this one’s not going to get along. So now, it’s all people in the band that get along with each other. So if it’s five years or two weeks, we’ll get in a room, it’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Alright let’s do this.’ And then we’ll just do it. And if there’s mistakes, we’ll be like, [grabbing Driessen's shoulder] ‘Hey, are you alright? What’s been going on the last three years of your life?’”
Speaking of Russia, you recently finished off your first tour there – how was it?
Arif: “We weren’t expecting to sign as many autographs take as many photos, essentially. We didn’t think we were perhaps that wanted or popular over there. Huge shows, crazy audiences, and so much respect for us. And vice versa for them, for the shows they put on for us.”
Mehdi: “We even played actually at a really bad time of the year, because the holidays had begun and they wanted us there a lot earlier.”
Arif: “Didn’t they say the government had even issued warnings? They wanted people to move out, I think to allow tourists to come in.”
Mehdi: “It’s weird. But the nicest people ever, like super creative and talented people, and great food, great weather. The weather was gorgeous while we were over there.”
Arif: “And in St Petersberg it was White Night as well. So there was no darkness, essentially, at night. It was crazy. We finished playing, it’s really late at night and we come outside and it’s like still light. That’s why there’s some footage on the internet, from one of the shows, and it’s just bright white outside. It looks like a daytime show, but it’s not.”
You’ve previously mentioned how your 2011 album, Plains of the Purple Buffalo, took The Neverending Story as a big influence. What is it about the film you relate to?
Mehdi: “It’s pretty simple, really. It’s about this kid who has issues, and he’s afraid of most things reading a book about someone who is, basically he can associate himself with who’s a hero, and this hero’s on a difficult quest to protect the world from the Nothing – the Nothing is people’s imagination’s being destroyed. He has to basically fight to keep hope. So it’s an awesome story of overcoming your fears, fighting for something cool. And there’s a dragon in the movie that’s like super-cute, do you know what I mean? Falcor, man!”
Mehdi, you also run the Shelsmusic label, as well as writing and recording with *shels and Ancients. Does that affect your outlook on making music?
Mehdi: “A little bit. It’s actually really good because you see labels sometimes don’t understand the stuff that bands have to deal with. So they’ll be like you guys have to do this, you guys have to do more singing, you guys have to have your album ready in two weeks. When you own your own label, you’re like, ‘Shut the fuck up! I want to do whatever I want whenever I wanna do it!’ There’s lots of advantages having control of all of those sides as well. Because you can also think about the art, the music, all as it’s being developed. Whereas, if you were just a band, then sometimes labels [will] be like, ‘You guys aren’t going to deal with this’. It’s good being in control of all sides of the whole process. We’re just going to release stuff that we think is awesome, and that’s it.”
What’s coming up after this tour?
Mehdi: “On the label front we’ve got Latitudes new album coming out. Then we have Ancients debut album – that’s the guys from Rinoa [David Gumbleton and his former bandmate in Crydebris Dan Hoang] and I’m doing the vocals on there, and it’s really, really cool. I’m really so proud of being involved in that. It’s beautiful. Those guys are amazing, and it’s an honour for me.”
“We’ve just released our second vinyl, Sea of the Dying Dhow, which was our first album. We’re signing a couple of new bands. We’ve got a really good French heavy band, so a lot’s going on.”
How about *shels-wise?
Mehdi: “I hate saying stuff like this, cos it might not happen, but the aim is to have another *shels ready to release by this time next year. That’s the aim.”
That’s a “tight” schedule.
Mehdi: “It’s all written. That’s the thing. It just needs to be strung together and start recording, so fingers crossed. The last album took too long [Plains of the Purple Buffalo was released four years after 2007's Sea of the Dying Dhow], so this needs to happen quickly.”
Do you feel like the last album was, well, a bit stale by the time you came to putting it out?
Mehdi: “Stale? How dare you! No, we’re playing songs live that we were playing three, four years ago, and to people who are watching us, that’s new to them. But the cool thing about the way we have everything set up is that we never see each other, we hardly ever play, so it’s so fresh every time. Every time it’s just brand new. So we’re not bored, it’s not stale. It’s us.”
*shels have just finished touring the UK, so you better keep those fingers crossed that they do get that new record out sooner rather than later if you hope on seeing them live any time before 2017. For more info on the band, go check out their official Facebook page, and for more info on *shelsmusic, go check out the label’s official website.