Name: Sia Ahmad (performs solo as Shoeb Ahmad)
Occupation: Musician / arts administrator
Current Release: Shoeb Ahmad's Façade is out on Provenance Collective. Also highly recommended comes im/modesty on Flaming Pines.
Recommendations: Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime by Dan Hancox (book) and People Pleaser Pt. II by Will Guthrie (record)
If you enjoyed this interview with Shoeb Ahmad and would like to know more, visit her official homepage.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was always into music from a young age – I guess I’m part of that MTV / music video generation so we always had music playing in the house on a Saturday morning. But also my mother liked to listen to tradition Bengali music too.
I didn’t think about making music until later on in my high school years once I had discovered things like DC hardcore, Sonic Youth and other indie rock bands, more visceral and dissonant sounds - but I also loved good melodies and harmonies too.
I think the physicality of performance was something I enjoyed putting myself through in those younger years (and still now in certain circumstances) while also allowing space for an emotional resonance with what I listened to, be it on record or at a gig.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I’m a music fan first and foremost so I am forever listening and challenging my ears to explore new ideas and approaches. I can’t help but be influenced by what I take in and I’m not ashamed to say that most of the music I make is in homage of what I love, be it songs, a specific sound or even just a performance technique.
The interesting thing for me in my own making is when I think about how differing techniques in my various listening pursuits might sit together in the same sonic space and that part of my exploration - sometimes even those techniques - are jarring alongside one another.
That kind of kitchen sink approach to “genre” is where the most fun is in terms of creating.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main challenge has always been having the instruments and technology to make things happen. That said, I really do enjoy working with what I have at hand and this also adds to the aforementioned kitchen sink approach to anything I do creatively too.
I always refer to my music as ‘hi-tek lo-fi’ if only to refer the more production friendly approach to recording really shitty / clunky gear and seeing where I can take those expressions in a musical sense.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I only really set-up my first studio around 10 years ago when I moved into a house that could accommodate that and it’s still there to this day – it also houses my recorded archive and the remainder of the hellosQuare catalogue from my record label days too.
Originally it had a bed and sofa set-up so I could house many of the touring artists who came through town as well as provide sitting space while the odd band did a session in there too. It’s pretty simple, a few mics (both close-up and room sound options) to go into a small 8 channel multi-track recording mixer that’s plugged into all the laptops I’ve had over the years.
I’ve never been one to pick up external hardware for the recording side of things, if only because I’ve been spoiled by the options I have within Ableton during mixing. But also because I love to capture the sounds made as purely as possible. I guess that also includes a good selection of guitar pedals used during performance, and capturing that sound through an amp as purely as possible. If anything, being able to use the Sunn amp left in my studio by my good friend / design collaborator Adam J Bragg has been a good piece of gear to work with over the years.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Working with software like Ableton opens up all the sonic possibilities, it really was a game changer for me back in the early 2000s after I discovered it through Lawrence English’s use of the program as a recording and performance tool.
[Read our Lawrence English interview]
I think the juxtaposition between technical precision and finding ways to create imperfections within that system is a fun challenge and I really enjoying exploring flaws whilst recording then using the software to enhance that through arrangement and mixing choices.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I always see Ableton as both a glorified multi-track recorder (with or without a mixing console) and also a glorified effects rack too.
I think the authorship of the works I make is aided by what I can choose to play with but I do steer away from self-generative elements within the tools at hand so things are still driven by my own personal compositional choices.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is pretty core to my creative being. I love being able to engage in musical conversations that pick apart and reconstruct sketches of ideas and see where that takes me. From being part of bands like Agency and Tangents, where the group dynamic was important in creating the final results to my work ‘im/modesty’ with the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO), which allowed me to write and script a narrative that allowed for flexible interpretation with the group setting, it’s always exciting to follow your fellow musicians left turns and take them with you on yours.
In recent years, I’ve been lucky to reflect on all the recorded collaborations I’ve done and find ways to recontextualise those sounds in new ways that further explore the sonic clashes that I’m keen to do more of.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
To be honest, my daily life revolves around my day job as a creative producer for an arts centre as well as being a parent. The time to make music is precious and as I move along further in my career, I understand that it needs to be done from instinct rather than driven by delivering the next product. This means when music is made, it feels very fruitful and might have over a short time frame at odd hours.
My work as a creative producer means I’m always engaged in conversations with artists (in all forms) about their practice and what they need at present along with what they need in the future. I see this work as a good way for me to celebrate and support those artists within my community as well as provide opportunity to showcase work by artists who represent contemporary making from a whole spectrum of unique lived experiences.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
This ebbs and flows between many of the records I have made over the last decade.
With “quiver”, there was a heavy influence of adult contemporary pop songwriting. This meant a lot of considered arranging and working with musicians individually in the studio to reach the desired outcomes through performance only and not a touch of manipulation in post-production. This music needed the ears of external minds so the end point of this record is when all the mixes came back in from the various contributors to get their takes on the balance and placement of the instruments in the stereo mix.
When making ‘im/modesty’ with AAO, this began life as a live performance only so the record is a true representation of our group sound at one moment in time. This to me adds to the emotional being of that work in particular.
Between ‘A Body Full Of Tears’ and my newest album ‘Façade’, I’m back at a point when I’m creating, manipulating and mixing my own work using a history of collaboration and specific new recorded additions to really look at replicating the soundclashes I’ve been imagining in my head. There’s a lot of personal headspace required for this but unlike “quiver”, there’s a precision that I wanted to achieve and want to do so on my own.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’ve been settling with the idea that creativity is in me but not explicitly part of my life on a daily basis. It might influence some of the ways I think about things but it comes and goes with a natural swing that doesn’t conflict with other moments in my life.
I took a big step in the last couple of years to look at my making practice from outside a “career” lens and allowing space to enjoy the opportunities and friendships that come my way through working in this space rather than thinking how I stay on the right track and what the next good move is. It’s been liberating because I know that I’m truthfully making work for myself first and foremost with anything being put out in the public realm being available for those who connect with me and my practice.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
This is an interesting one. If you had asked me this when I was making “quiver”, I would have said that if I couldn’t perform the songs, they wouldn’t be worth recording as the song was so important to both aspects. But for where I’m at now, I’m very comfortable with the idea of not being able to perform music I’ve released on records and even performing improvisations that have no resemblance to my recordings but as pure expression of sound at that time.
There are definitely always elements of improvisation within the arranged work I’ve made and I love finding space for improvisation within the more hyper composed music too but being too rigid about the relationship between both is troublesome to me. It’s all very fluid in the way I approach music.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I don’t think there’s a difference between them for the way I make music, a texture is placed in a specific moment because that’s how the narrative of the song requires it to be. The interplay between texture and composed performance is always nice to reflect on – how can you compose for texture and abstract sound for an acoustic instrument or electronic device without sounding parallel to the other.
This goes back to the fluidity between composition and improvisation perhaps, the space to approach a narrative in the most suitable way, which then creates more space for the next relevant move?
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
It really is something to be pulled emotionally by music in real time. So much of the music I’ve made also has been a form of therapy for me so while I think I’ve been able to work through troubles and demons in the recording process, it never ceases to amaze me how a certain song in a certain setting might trigger a visceral response within me on stage.
It might be the thought of what’s being sung, it could be resonance of the music with those listening in the space, it might be the feeling of performing with those you call comrades, it might be the location of which you are performing in. A lot of things to comprehend and not always easy to understand. But this is why music got me back in the day and why I’m drawn to this kind of expression.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Making art is my platform to further a place for those who identify as non-European, a person of colour within the contemporary arts landscape. I treasure my opportunities to enter in dialogue with those who identify as First Nations and support them in creating and owning space to represent their cultures first hand.
I never saw people like myself in positions of power within the arts sector so being within the mechanism (whether I like it or not) also allows me the privilege of being able to have a voice for change. I always say that my hope is that I am surrounded and then supplanted in the arts sectors by others who identify similarly to myself or as First Nations. This can only happen by providing support and mentorship for those who want to take that step further into that space.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music is a forever evolving concept isn’t it? I don’t think there’s any right or wrong when it comes to creating new music. There’s so many Western traditions in place but also many innovative and freeing practices from cultures that inhabit the rest of the world (some that rely on communication alone) so I hope we keep dismantling the notion of Western tradition and embrace working through instinctual practice and reflective performance to continue further contemporary music to new, far reaching places.