wed 13/12/2017

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gonjasufi | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gonjasufi

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gonjasufi

The hirsute electronica singer-songwriter mulls music, marijuana, Islamic mysticism and the fate of his brother

Gonjasufi: staring into the yogic abyss and bringing back tasty morsels

Gonjasufi, AKA Sumach Ecks (b 1978) was raised in San Diego by a Mexican mother and an American-Ethiopian father. His musical ability first came to more than local prominence when he appeared on the Flying Lotus album Los Angeles in 2008. His own debut album, A Sufi and a Killer, produced by Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer and Mainframe, appeared in 2010. It was an extraordinary, uncategorisable piece of work that wandered across a musical landscape of Gonjasufi’s own making, taking in global rhythms, hip-hop, folk, heavy rock, pop and much else, all sung by him and bled through with trippy electronic production. It was, perhaps, the most imaginative yet accessible piece of work to come out of the thriving West Coast underground electronic scene. Gonjasufi toured the album, then returned to his life as a yoga teacher. He now has a new album Mu.zz.le, again on Warp Records.

I meet Gonjasufi in a Warp boardroom. He is around 5 feet 7, wearing brown corduroy trousers and a hooded white zip-up tracksuit top pulled up over a baseball cap. Around his neck is a red and white football scarf of the Amsterdam football team AFC Ajax and in his hand is the unlit stub of a fat spliff. Loose dreadlocks surround his face and he has a large unwieldy beard. His voice is a Californian drawl, hip-hop argot mingling with sweary West Coast dude-isms as it speeds up and down between calm thoughtfulness and manic intensity. His large brown eyes well up with tears a couple of times when he talks about his brother. As I walk into the room he is pacing about, looking as if he wishes he were somewhere else.

gonja 1THOMAS H GREEN: I’m sorry - you’re stuck in this cell with me.

GONJASUFI: Nah, I wanna be here, man. That’s the thing about being trapped – because I’m water I can evaporate, turn into air, then come back as rain. As Bruce Lee said, water has the strength, the flexibility, to cut through anything.

Well, there’s a thought for me to chew on. Tell you what, I’ve a bone to pick with you. At Glastonbury last year I left my mates, trekked across the site to see you perform but when I got there, you’d cancelled.

That wasn’t my fault. That was a mistake by the booking agency E******, and you can put their name in [No, we can’t]. They fucked me. I wanted Glastonbury, man, but it wasn’t meant to be this time. That was the universe. That was beyond my control. I apologise to everyone that came to see me. I was looking forward to that shit.

Your albums, to be frank, sound very stoned.

Fuck, yeah, dude. For Mu.zz.le, a couple of those songs I wasn’t really smoking but during the mix-downs I’m high. I like smoking weed, that’s natural.

What do your parents do for a living?

My father was actually a judge and my mother’s a teacher. I’m the first-born of three so I grew up very strict, straight As. My brother got away with everything, that’s why his ass is locked up. I wanted to grow my hair at a young age, fuck, no, my pops wouldn’t let me, but my brother could. He grew his. Everything that I wanted to do, I couldn’t because I was the oldest but my brother would do it.

People want me to come through on a magic carpet, floating, I can do that shit

What did your dad want you to be?

Clean-cut. He’s happy with me now. Now is different. Back then, once NWA and Too $hort came out and I started bumpin’ those tapes, my pops was not feelin’ that, man. I had to ask my mom’s permission for that shit. Once I started smoking weed, DJing, buying records, or I was in the garage with the organ, making beats on my four-track, he was like, “Get the fuck out of here, man.” He always believed in me. He just wanted me to find me, and for me to believe in me. He taught me and I taught him at the same time. I taught him that, look, you can’t make me something I’m not, but I learned that being me is alright. Now we hang out. He’s always supported me, even in my music, but he wanted me to follow in his steps. Him being one of the first black judges in California, I was a target for the police. They wanted to defame him through me so me and my brother had it hard. The police, any time they found out we were out – psssht – they were swooping down on us - "This black man thinks he’s going to be a judge in our country? Fuck that." San Diego was a racist motherfucker back then so that kind of shaped me. I thought, “You know what? Fuck the courts, I’m going to give it to the children and the youth through music before they end up there.”

Is that why your brother went down, then, because he got messed with by the police on account of your dad?

Nah, he had his own shit, he didn’t have music in the same way – drugs got him, heroin, he was into his heroin.

Ah, I’m sorry to hear that, it’s a horrible drug.

He’s also found himself and he’s coming out of it. Life, man, life. I can’t blame it on the H but I’d say that’s what got him in there.

gonja 2Is he out soon?

A couple of years.

I came across you through your first album but you were 30 when that came out. You’d been around for a while. Did you have any jobs during your twenties apart from the music?

I was working on gardens and shit. I was a waiter, well, actually a dishwasher. They would never let me be a waiter because of my beard.

Why didn’t you shave it off?

I had to have some fucking sense of identity, man. Look, I had once been convinced by my old man that if I cut the beard off everything would change. I was struggling. Even at 23 I wasn’t able to get a good job and he thought I was wasting my time with the music. He was like, “If you cut your hair, everything will change.” I cut my hair and nothing changed, man, I got more pissed. I was like, “Fuck these motherfuckers.” So then I just got any job I could, washing dishes - I made a song on four-track about giving them their knives and toothpicks - delivering pizzas, I mentored kids in Oakland when I lived out there, junior high kids going to high school, DJing on radio stations, doing street promotions, selling dope, not crack or nothing like that but weed and shit.

Ecks is the name I took on. X – but I spelt it phonetically just to fuck with it

Your living now isn’t just music, is it? It’s also teaching yoga?

Yeah, yeah, I’m able to pay my bills. It’s both. Since Warp has stepped in, Warp has helped a lot. They’ve given me more time to focus on music.

One of the greatest British labels of all.

Fuck, yeah, bro’.

How did they find you? It was Flying Lotus, wasn’t it?

FlyLo, yeah, FlyLo. Him and G [Gaslamp Killer], OK, straight up.

Listen to "Nikels and Dimes" from new album Mu.zz.le

When were you first drawn to yoga?

Actually, it just found me at the right time. Getting in that room takes a lot of courage, every day I have to convince myself. Now I’m addicted to it. I love going to rooms and practising where they don’t know I’m a teacher. If they know, they expect me to be able to put my head through my ass. What I’ve been teaching is for people to pull their head out of their ass.

So your twenties were spent making music while doing all these jobs on the side?

Yeah, just trying to make enough money to buy weed. And gas.

gonja 3I associate you with wonderful, weird electronic sounds but in your early days you were into straight-up hip-hop?

Yeah, yeah, hardcore rap – Too $hort, Geto Boys, NWA, MC Pooh, hardcore West Coast shit, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, LL Kool J, Luke [Skyywalker], 2 Live Crew, all that shit. That got a hold of me first, that movement, the rap with the explicit lyrics on it, I wanted that. That shit right there sold more records just having that Explicit Lyrics Parental Advisory [sticker]. That made everybody go, “Oh, fuck, what’s in this motherfucker?” My brother was all the rock, I was the rap, I couldn’t stand the rock. He’d be playing that while I was bumpin’ this shit. I was like, “Turn that shit off, it’s too fucking loud.” It was Jimi, man, and I was like, “Dude, I can’t fucking think.” He’s left-handed playing my dad’s right-handed guitar, like Jimi. He’d be playing Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, introduced me to Tool and all that shit. That motherfucker’s bad on the guitar.

What’s his name?

Koshoni.

Your forename is Sumach but Wikipedia has you down with two surnames, Ecks and Valentine.

Valentine is the family name, given to me, Ecks is the name I took on. [Crosses his fingers to demonstrate] X – but I spelt it phonetically just to fuck with it.

Is it to do with the Nation of Islam?

Not really, it’s a revolt. It’s crazy that Valentine is my family name – it makes sense because I’ve got a lot of heart to give. But at the same time, because I’ve got a lot of heart, I get a lot of pain, to the point where I can’t give any more. X is like drawing a line, X, this goes no further, this is it, man, let’s move on from here.

Returning to rock music, did your brother eventually pull you into that?

Yeah, yeah, I’d always been jealous because he’d always been more handsome, more talented than me. I used to beat the shit out of him. It was just him and me and then my sister came 11 years later. He was always in competition to pull my girlfriends, all that shit, but he was advanced. He was really my teacher, as a youth, my younger brother. It fucking hurts [pauses, overcome with emotion]. Getting him out is why I’m working, why I’m with Warp, because the record that I’m here to make is his record. Him and my old lady who’s on Mu.zz.le. He plays guitar on songs we’ve made together that shit on anything anyone’s ever heard from me. We had a record done in ’93 called Funeral Prayer Horoscope that got stolen, my equipment had gotten stolen, and everyone in San Diego who heard that shit knows that was the hardest rockin’ record, man. Then he got locked up and I’m waiting for him to get out. He was looking to buy a guitar, man, he opened a music catalogue and he called me, hyped, because Mu.zz.le was on the front being advertised. All this music I’m putting out is to get me to a position where I can put his music out, a platform for him.

So you’ll work with him when he comes out?

Fuck, yeah.

When did he go inside?

He’s been in and out for a while but he’s been in there for four years now.

So when he comes out it’s going be a whole new journey for you both.

Yeah, G. You kiddin’ me, bro? [Whoops with wild joy] When he comes out I’m free, man, because then I can take the background, go, “OK, here’s your time,” sit back and let him fly, just pound the drums behind him. Them people won’t understand who I am once he comes out. Yo! Think I’m the shit? Wait till you hear this motherfucker!

Is he on your riff-fuelled song "SuzieQ"?

No, no.

Listen to "SuzieQ"

That kind of sounds like The Stooges.

Yeah, yeah, that’s like a Stooges rip-off [rifles around with unlit spliff].

You need a light?

I can’t smoke in here, can I?

Oh, no, you can’t. You could open the window.

Do they give a fuck?

They shouldn’t, this is the music industry, it wasn’t built on not smoking indoors. Your music has a spaced-out Californian vibe but I heard you’d moved to Las Vegas – what does that bring to the table?

gonja 4Fuck Vegas, man! [roars with laughter] It’s 24 hours. California has a two o’clock rule so once it’s 2 am you can’t buy any fucking beer, man, not that I drink that much anymore, but 2 am the party’s over. It was also about help with the family, me having kids, I have more family over there, and it’s cheap rent. Those are some of the reasons but it came down to that fact I had too many friends knocking on my window when I was recording, man, not the cats I was doing music with but other heads so I had to relocate.

How many kids have you got?

Monster… monsters… four.

Is that with the lady who sings on the new album?

Yes, April.

How did you first hook up with Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus?

I grew up with Willie [William Bensussen – Gaslamp Killer]. I didn’t really like him at first. I learned to love him. He introduced me to FlyLo, straight up.

A lot of the music on your albums is quite mellow, out there but mellow, but I’ve seen footage of you live with Gaslamp Killer and it’s ballistic, hard, fast and noisy.

All that shit comes from this. I have to go there to get to those soft-ass spaces, to get "Sheep" you had to have "DedNd". It doesn’t make sense for me to make some soft shit when I’m feeling pissed off and angry and just wanna fucking kill everybody, but when the killing’s done and I’ve eaten, then you hear the other side of me like, “Oh, I feel stuffed.”

The titles of both albums A Sufi and a Killer and Mu.zz.le hint at latent violence.

Mu.zz.le is more just like me being taught to guard my tongue and at the same time wanting to say, “Fuck that!” So it was like an oxymoron, opposites coming together.

gonja 5Why the full stops in the middle of Mu.zz.le?

Initially I wanted to release it as a vinyl series which was going to be Mu, Zz, and Le, a three-piece 10” box set. I’ve always been fascinated with them.

Due to the name Gonjasufi and title of your first album people associate you with Sufism.

Of course, yes, it’s embedded, it’s part of my blood. When you can learn to breathe, to get your lungs to match the same BPM as your heart, you can vibrate and get the same breath as ones who were here before. My name is Sumach, right, my dad named me after an Indian plant so it’s not like I’ve said, “Yo! I’m an Islamic mystic”, that’s not something I’ve labelled myself, other people label that shit because of the Sufi [references] but mysticism in itself is everything.

Presumably yoga is part of the spiritual process too?

Of course. Yoga’s more than just butterflies and namaste.

So is Sufism a kind of zen version of Islamic thinking?

To me it’s more about a non-structured, non-fundamentalist way of any religion, especially Islam. Sufis became the ones that, instead of five times a day going to make Salah [formal ritualised Islamic prayer], the whole day is going to be prayer. It was being less attached to the way that man has interpreted the Prophet’s way.

Given the international conflicts in the Middle East over the last decade and that you’re based in the US, have you sometimes had to explain your beliefs to less than sympathetic ears?

Yes, and that’s appropriate and I like that. Being in the middle of that is a blessing for me. I used to see it as a burden – it is a burden – depends how I look it – but it’s an opportunity to educate heads. You get both sides. You also get Muslims who don’t agree with me, they don’t want me to have anything to do with [their religion]. I don’t like being labelled – people want me to come through on a magic carpet, floating. I can do that shit, that’s what a yoga mat is, we turn that shit into a magic carpet, motherfucker flies, but the most important part about flying is learning how to get back to the ground safely, staying grounded. That’s what this shit does for me, man.

gonja 6You ever read Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic and poet?

Yeah, a lot of books I read I just open and read it, I don’t even look at the title. Rumi is some crazy shit, just perfect.

What are your aims, sonically, with the new album?

Just to open up the spectrum that I hear. I want it to cut away the box that A Sufi and a Killer put me in. People thought that was Bollywood epic. It’s about being able to free myself so I can put out records the way I want to for the rest of my life. Next time I show up and do these songs [live], people will know what I’m doing because when I did [before] some of you looked at me like I was crazy and something was wrong, but maybe that’s your favourite song now. Open up to the moment and don’t expect anything other than to get some shit you haven’t expected.

You have plenty of solid traditional songs which you could just play on an acoustic guitar or with a band, so why filter them through the prism of electronic weirdness?

That’s how I wanna hear the shit I hear, just like everyone else, bring my subconscious to the forefront of my consciousness and get that sound out. Until that’s done I’m gonna keep going, man. Once I feel I’ve done that then I’ll move on.

When are we going to be able to see you live again?

Right now in this moment I’m here live. Some time this year… maybe next year.

Is it something you like doing or not?

A little of both. It takes a lot of work to get in that zone but I love it when I’m doing it. The thought beforehand, the anticipation, is painful. I need a lot of time just to sit and get with my band so I don’t even have to think about it. Or I could just show up and do it.

Wouldn’t yoga help with all that?

That’s what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been recording a lot, I’ve spent most of my time in the room teaching since I got back, and now I took time off teaching for a month. Here’s the thing. When I met up with Warp, I was into my yoga hard, bro’, from 2005 to 2009, I’m talking two classes a day teaching. While I was teaching the record’s dropping and they want me to hit the road. I was afraid to, I was scared of it, and I knew because of what I’d practised and professed, I had to do that, to face my fear, to apply what I’d learned in that room outside of it. Once I hit the road and became comfortable, then I became afraid of teaching, because I figured I’d done all this bad anti-yogic shit. Fuck that, bro’, I’m getting back in that room and sweating that shit out again, and I’m going to keep going.

Watch Gonjasufi and Gaslamp Killer live in Paris

 

 

They expect me to be able to put my head through my ass. What I’ve been teaching is for people to pull their head out of their ass

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