Introducing Aram Bajakian

My review of Aram Bajakian’s remarkable debut Aram Bajakian’s Kef dropped yesterday at Popmatters. (check it out here).

It’s not too early to predict that this will end up as one of my personal choices for best-of-year releases. Here is the conclusion of the review.

There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Aram recently took the time to answer some questions and discuss his evolving aesthetic. This is a musician we can –and should– expect to hear amazing things from for a long time. If you are at all interested in adventurous, exciting music, it’s about time you got acquainted with him.

1. Your press materials include the story of your debut at age 10, where at a talent show you emulated Jimmy Page’s violin bow on guitar pyrotechnics (from “Dazed and Confused”). Presumably Zeppelin was an early influence? Who were you listening to then, and who would you name amongst the musicians you’ve learned from?

Yeah, the story is true. I actually had a picture of Jimmy Page on my homeroom desk in fifth grade. I would rent The Song Remains the Same video every weekend. The sound was so great! Bonham’s solos. Page’s solos. Plant’s crotch. Then my mom made me watch Amadeus and I got really into classical music. Mozart, Bach and Prokofiev were biggies for me. I studied classical guitar and took lessons and harmony, though I didn’t really understand theory at that point. I read all the theory books and tried to make myself have perfect pitch. It didn’t work. Then I got into punk and noise. Sonic Youth’s EVOL was a big influence. Then once high school hit I became a jazz snob for a few years, but managed to effectively shed that. Now I’m mostly influenced by the people I play with. For my own projects I try and get people who are going to push me and make me better, so I don’t become stale and so that music doesn’t become lame. You always want to be on your toes.

2. Although born and raised in Central Massachusetts your music has obvious Armenian influences (in fact, I learned from your press materials that the name of this trio –and album– “Kef”, refers to Armenian dance music). Can you elaborate on the cultural heritage and ways your sensibility was shaped by your upbringing?

There’s a large Armenian community in Central Massachusetts, where I was brought up. I would always go with my grandparents to the Armenian dances and hear the oud music. But I never really studied it. A few years back, Shanir Blumenkrantz said to me “with a name like Aram Bajakian how can you not be playing Armenian music?” That’s when Kef was born.

3. Walk us through your career thus far. When did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician? Any highlights (or lowlights) you care to mention amongst your gigging career thus far?

I’ve always played music and always wanted to play music, literally since I was in preschool. The highlights are any time I can perform. I try and play with the same respect for the music whether I’m in a rehearsal, or playing in front of ten people at a bar in NY, or playing in front of 50,000 people at a festival with Lou (Reed). But it’s hard to be a musician in NYC, even when you’re playing with great artists. The other day I had to lug my amp and pedals, about 40 lbs. worth of gear, up 5 flights of subway stairs in the rain. It sucked. But things could be worse. I could always be a lawyer or a banker, or in some destitute village in Somalia.

4. It’s difficult to be a jazz fan in NYC and not at least be aware of John Zorn (and Tzadik). How did you link up with this label, which is so ideally suited for your work?

I had approached John with the idea a few years back. Marc Ribot introduced us. The good thing is that even with that, John wouldn’t put out the project. It was because I hadn’t done anything with it yet. So I decided that I’d make a record that was so good he’d have to put it out. It was a good challenge for me, because as an artist, it’s easy to let your mind or laziness get in the way.

5. Presumably you’ve played with/interacted with some of the guitar studs from that label, including Marc Ribot, Jon Madof and Yoshie Fruchter?

Yes, I’ve played Ribot and Madof. Will probably play with Fruchter on Oct. 26th at the Tzadik Festival on the LES. Ribot is a genius because he’s able to sound like he’s picking up the guitar for the very first time. That is probably the hardest thing to do. And then he’ll play one little thing that will just tear you apart.

6. How would you describe your aesthetic and what you are after (on this release but also what you are doing next, and after that…)

I remember when I was in fourth grade and my parents got me my first electric guitar for Christmas. It was a crappy Kay guitar with a battery powered amp. I spent days just playing simple chords on it relishing in the sound. My aesthetic is to always go back to that same feeling of loving the sound. So often musicians can get stuck in technique or ideas. That usually results in boring music. What I want is more raw and guttural than that. I’m not trying to do anything revolutionary or cutting edge or innovative or avant-garde. It’s really all about working from that other space. That’s what I practice now.

7. You played with Lou Reed this summer. Describe that experience, and how that incredible opportunity came your way…

Zorn had recommended me for the gig. I went to audition and his manager came out and said “sorry, but Lou’s going to go with the guitarist who’s in there now.” I went home and forgot about it. You can’t get worked up about those things; I felt honored just to be asked. Three days later my daughter was born, which was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced. About a week later, Lou’s manager called and asked me to come to the studio to play for Lou. It was nine in the morning and I had been up all night changing diapers. I was dead tired and really not giving a fuck. But still, I went in and decided I was going to get the gig. Lou had me solo on “Sweet Jane” and I played my ass off. A lot of people have said to me since then that it’s a “hot seat” gig. That he pushes his musicians and can be difficult. My response to that is “do you really want a gig that isn’t a hot seat gig?” Do you really want to just go through the motions? Lou teaches you to start out at 150%, and that is a life-long lesson. You have to have the tone and the technical skills, but you need something more too. You need to play with all you have. That’s why he’s Lou Reed. And whenever he gives someone shit its only because he really cares about it being as good as it can be. It’s not a personal thing. You can’t take it personally.

8. What albums (jazz and otherwise) have had the biggest impact on you?

Smashing Pumpkins Gish, Fugazi’s Repeater, Sonic Youth’s EVOL, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Anything by the Rail Band of Bamako, Booker T and MGs, Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel. Anything by The Beatles. I’ve gone for a few months only listening to them. That’s a good thing to do. PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Ribot. Really, if you’re a musician you should listen to as much music as you can. You should listen to metal. Messhugah is awesome! Those rhythms! And Metallica is like a Ferrari! I love Indian music. Carnatic music is awesome! Forro music from Brazil is awesome! Accordions with a triangle and bass drum! It’s awesome. What about Vivaldi? Certainly The Four Seasons is overplayed, but his harmonies are awesome! Radiohead. Sometimes avant-garde people can be too cool for certain things. I say fuck that. The producer Hal Wilner was on the tour with us for a few days this summer. We’d listen to everything. We’d go from listening to Barry Harris playing Monk, to Beyoncé to some obscure noise metal band to Radiohead. It was a real lesson in listening.

9. What else do we need to know, about you/Kef?

I love food. www.aramscarum.blogspot.com Please buy my CD and support music! Yes I play with Lou Reed and have a record on Tzadik. I also still have a day job in real estate here in NYC. It’s a good job and I like it, but if you support my music, at some point I’ll be able to do that exclusively.

10. (Editor’s note): See below.

For more info, check Aram out at arambajakian.com.

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