Artist InterviewsInterviews

Ad·ver·sary: an interview with Jairus Khan


So, I got a cool opportunity to interview Jairus Khan, the mastermind behind the project Ad-ver-sary. After trading e-mails back and forth for a while this is what we came up with…

1 – What inspires you to make music? There are some things hinted at in the liner notes, but they only scratch the surface. Why do you make music? What is the purpose of Ad-Ver-Sary?

These are big questions. I’ll try to answer with a minimum of bullshit.

I spent my childhood and most of my teenage years around gangsters and bikers (and bullshit). It’s a really isolating environment to grow up in. I have 6 siblings, and I’m close to maybe one of them? Maybe. Trust is usually a liability, and that doesn’t prepare you very well for the outside world. You learn conflict instead of cooperation, and conflict is the situation that I’m the most familiar with, above all others. It’s what I grew up with.

This isn’t a cool thing, or a hardcore thing, or a tortured artist thing, it’s actually pretty shitty. It becomes very difficult to solve problems or relate to anyone when your touchstone is conflict. It takes a lot of time and energy for me to make sure I don’t operate that way. It’s a lot of work. The problem is that it doesn’t change where I come from or how I feel, and it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a very large part of me that only knows how to interact with the world through very confrontational filters.

Ad·ver·sary is part of that. You could call it therapy, if you wanted to. It’s a way for me to examine conflict and power, and communicate things that I don’t know if I have the right words for.

There’s a beautiful Bukowski poem called “Bluebird”. (If you don’t know it, you should stop reading this and go Google it. I’ll wait.)

It’s about how he has a tiny, beautiful bluebird living in his chest, but he has to smother it in whisky and working-class life, because he couldn’t do what he needs to do if everyone knew it was there. He only takes it out at night when everyone else is asleep.

I fell in love with this poem when I read it, because I feel the exact opposite; like there’s a tiny, beautiful blackbird living in my chest, but I have to smother it in positivity and friendships and art and community… but every now and then I’ll take it out and show it the songs I wrote for it, and let it know that it’s not forgotten, that it’s still a part of me.

2 – So then making music is cathartic for you? Do you ever just sit down and write a track or is there always a trigger, a stimulus that pushes you to write?

I don’t think I’d describe it as catharsis, because I don’t feel any better when I’m done. I’m not making music to change how I feel. It’s more that making music is a way for me to recognize and communicate how I feel, even if I’m the only person who understands it.

I actually need to be in a pretty calm place to sit down and write music, I have a lot of trouble doing it when I’m really upset or really happy, so more often than not it’s sitting down and seeing what comes to the surface.

3 – What is “Bone Music”? What does the term mean and why did you choose it?

I’ve always thought poets were wrong about the heart being your emotional centre. I think it’s your stomach. It doesn’t matter what emotion you’re feeling – falling in love, realizing how badly you’ve fucked up, or scared shitless – you’ll feel it in your gut long before it hits your head or your heart. If you want to be in touch with your emotional self, I think you should pay attention to your stomach.

It’s the same for me with music. When I’m lost in music, I don’t feel it in my head or my ears. I’m surrounded and smothered by it; I feel it all the way through to my bones. That’s where Bone Music came from. It is not music I want people to listen to or analyze, it is music I want people to feel.

Ad·ver·sary4 – What is the key to making music that is felt?

For me, a big part of it is that I’m writing songs -about- something. I’m not looking for a cool collection of sounds, something to pack a dancefloor or a song to show off technical abilities and how clever I am. It’s easy to understand where a song should go next or what a song is missing when there’s something emotional behind it.

Beyond that, I’m not sure. I spend a lot of time with my eyes closed when I’m writing music.

5 – If you could be anywhere when composing music, where would it be?

A sleeping city.

6 – Would you be indoors or outdoors?

Indoors, but with a very big window.

7 – Kind of a random question but, do you listen to your own music when you’re not working on it?

All the time. At the end of the day, I’m writing it for me.

8 – I think the heavy organic qualities of your album allow it to be felt as well as heard by the listener. Was there real guitar/bass guitar used on “Bone Music”? Sometimes it sounds like there is. Why did you choose to use these elements which are somewhat non-traditional to contemporary ambient/noise industrial?

The guitars/bass on “Waiting For Gira” are real, I think it’s much easier to communicate with a guitar than it is with a Virus or an Evolver or whatever. That song is actually a bit of a crossover track, I was working with a guitarist and we were trying to write an entire album of that style, but it was very slow going. I really miss that dirty, underproduced sludge that used to be a part of older industrial and post-punk.

9 – I miss it as well! That quality is a huge part of why I enjoy your album, that sound of old industrial… Anyway you mention sludge, are you a fan of bands like Neurosis, Isis, etc? I could see that influence in your music.

Yeah, I think “Panopticon” just might be the best album of 2004. To my ears, bands like Isis, Boris, or The Melvins have a lot in common with Godflesh or early Scorn. It’s hard for me to listen to a lot of CDs just because of how clean and crisp everything is, even when it’s supposed to be crunchy.

10 – So what are you listening to currently? And reading? What, or whose, written words do you enjoy?

The past few weeks I’ve been listening to some older electronic albums. Some More Crime, Fluke (the last one, not the one with Atom Bomb), Leftfield, Art of Noise.

Answering what I enjoy reading is harder, I go through a lot of books. Science-fiction is the first genre I fell in love with, and I think I’ve read more Greg Bear and Gregory Benford than anyone else in sci-fi. Or Vonnegut, if he counts. For the softer sci-fi and/or speculative fiction end of things, I like the golden age stuff and the cyberpunk stuff, but I really enjoy the newer approach that authors like China Miéville, Sean Stewart and Kim Stanley Robinson seem to have. I like that you don’t know what you’re getting into when you start reading their books. I own and enjoy a lot of King and Gibson, but I always know exactly what I’m going to get when I buy it. Outside of sci-fi, it’s really all over the place. Italo Calvino, Brian Greene, Jared Diamond…

11 – Why did you choose the artwork? Is there significance to the birds being on the tree and then on the opposite panel they are leaving their branch?

Ad·ver·sary I didn’t want to use macro shots of rusty metal or crumbling bricks or any imagery like that. I’m not writing songs about technology or the tyranny of skyscrapers, I’m writing about things like conflict, loss, or power, and those are emotions that feel very personal, and that I have a relationship with. I don’t have a relationship with smokestacks or robots, but I do feel like I have a relationship with nature, trees, crows. I think anyone who’s spent a lot of time outside alone does — crows are easy to have relationships with. With that said, the reason I used the two different photos is because it isn’t really the crows or trees in the photographs that I find beautiful, it’s the transience of it all. There’s a perfect moment where you’re privy to something beautiful – where you have a relationship – and then it’s gone.

12 – I’ve heard some of your remixes on last.fm and they were pretty excellent; do you have more remixes planned and are there any plans to officially release previous mixes?

Thank you! I’m working on a handful of different remixes right now, actually. Totakeke, Memmaker, Left Spine Down, Tonikom, a few others. I have a lot more unreleased remixes than released ones, honestly. Less than half of the remixes I do for other artists end up being something I’m happy with, which means I don’t end up sending it back to the original artist.

I’d love to see the finished remixes (Cyanotic, Converter, Iszoloscope) get official releases, but I don’t think it’s in the cards. Bit Riot and Ant-Zen aren’t terribly interested in them, and they’re just getting older.

13 – Actually I just noticed you have them up for free download on your website. Speaking of which, you have the whole album up for free download under Creative Commons licensing. Are you planning to do the same thing with future releases?

Yeah. All future A-V-S albums will be released under CC licensing or something similar which make them free to download and share. That was my only line-in-the-sand rule when I was first talking to Tympanik about releasing an album with them, and I have to applaud Paul (who runs Tympanik) for taking a chance with it. I know how terrifying the idea of giving music away for free is for most labels, which is one of the reasons that I didn’t have a much earlier release somewhere else. I’ve had pretty heated discussions on the topic with a few different labels (including an afternoon-long argument with Martin Atkins trying and failing to build a contract that everyone was happy with). I understand the labels’ point of view, but I can’t imagine ever releasing on a label that wouldn’t let me give the music away for free.

14 – What is the motivation behind the choice to give your music away for free?

There are a lot of reasons behind it – I want people who download music to get a high-quality version instead of some ‘FWYH’ release full of errors, I think if more people hear the album more people will support it by buying it or spinning it, I download a lot of music myself and I’d have to be a pretty big jerk to tell others not to download mine – but the only reason that matters is that I think music should be free. I don’t agree at all with this artist-centric view of intellectual property; I think the idea that you’re not allowed to listen to something or read something unless you get permission first is completely absurd.

It’s like someone putting on a private fireworks show and telling people who don’t buy tickets that you owe $10 if you look up, and if you don’t pay then you’re a thief who steals fireworks. It’s insanity.

15 – How did you get into music – specifically noise-y music – the creation of music?

“Fixed” was the first time I heard anything noisy or experimental, and it completely blew me away. I had no idea what was going on in the music, but I knew how it made me feel, if that makes sense. I managed to track down some Coil (and later some Foetus) tapes, and it all went from there. I remember recording bits of “Broken/Fixed” and using “Scream Tracker” to make my own (terrible) remixes when I was thirteen or fourteen. It just seemed so much more interesting than the (terrible) demoscene music I was making before.

16 – What are you into other than music?

I’m not sure how to answer this question anymore. I used to invest a lot of energy into activism; working with street kids, political protests and the like, but in recent years I’ve been working in the public sector and trying to channel that energy into institutional change instead of direct action. The things that people fight from the streets, like poverty, secrecy, privatization of the public – these aren’t the diseases, they’re the symptoms, y’know? I don’t think the system is going to change because there are ten thousand protestors who want something, I think the system is going to change because there’s someone on the other side of the security door who wants the same thing the protestors want.

Activism aside, I used to spend a lot of time writing or designing. So much that I felt defined by writing and design, in fact, much more so than I felt defined by politics or music or anything else. I hardly do either at all any more. It’s troubling, and I’m not sure how to pick it back up. I feel like I’ve lost myself somewhere along the way.

17 – Do you feel that you are able to create or stimulate change from where you are now – the other side of the door? Is it possible to affect change at all in the state that western society is in currently? Maybe it’s different in Canada from the United States. Here it seems that the government is a colossal shadow over the people and there is simply no hope for the common people to affect any policies of the government unless you’re a big rich CEO who can spend tons of time and money lobbying…

Part of the reason why I’m optimistic about stimulating change is because I’m not aiming for massive policy decisions or high-profile subjects. I don’t have any direct influence on policies that affect millions of people, but I can try to influence on how openly those policy decisions are made, with a fair bit of success. If discussion and research takes place in plain view rather than behind closed doors, I think that better serves the public.

We have some issues with lobbying, but it isn’t an industry up here the way it is in the US.

18 – Is there any desire to evolve A-V-S into more than just music… Some sort of multi-media apparatus that gives you the chance to utilize more of your talents? What I mean is, for example, creating a storyline through your writing or some kind of multimedia designs to go along with the music. Some bands I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned things like creating comic books to go along with their band’s theme.

It’s probably not going to be released as Ad·ver·sary, but I’ve been working on writing a children’s story along with a soundtrack to go with it. It’s a creation myth, about how Raven made the world. I’d like to see it as a small book with a CD attached to it, rather than the other way around. We’ll see what happens. The music is mostly ambient and downtempo. Something you can listen to, or use as background music. Kind of like Delerium before Semantic Spaces.

19 – Now I have to ask, what’s the inspiration for the children’s story?

I love folk literature. I think fables and fairy tales are some of the best stories that have ever been written. Most of the writing I really enjoy comes from authors who are trying to answer questions. That’s the reason I love sci-fi so much; good science fiction asks “…what if?”

Mythologies are the product of generation after generation struggling with the biggest questions they know – why are we here, where did we come from – and creating these amazing and beautiful answers. Obviously, I’m not trying to answer any questions; I just love the form.

20 – What is next on the Ad-ver-sary agenda?

I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind touring, but I’ve been having trouble finding an act to go on the road with. A remix album for sure. I’ve got an idea for a concept album I like for the next full-length Ad·ver·sary release, but we’ll see if it materializes. It might involve a Public Enemy cover.

Relevant links

Ad·ver·sary @ MySpace
Ad·ver·sary @ Facebook
Ad·ver·sary @ Last.FM

— interview by Dan Barrett, originally published in Wounds Of The Earth (September 2008)

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