The Ascetic Mysticism of Deleyaman
It’s rare that a band can invoke a real feeling of mysticism in me upon hearing their music. Perhaps this is because I play music and my brain can go directly to understanding song structure and chords; that is, unless the song is coming from another place entirely. There are some bands and composers who are tapping into something on a deeper, more spiritual level that can shut my brain off and immediately propel me into a state of meditative bliss. The multi-cultural band Deleyaman, currently on tour from France, is one these rare mystical bands.
Deleyaman have uniquely combined the post-punk influence of its founding Armenian-American songwriter Aret Madilian with the traditional folk background of duduk player Gerard Madilian. Their sound is grounded by the minimalist percussion of Swedish drummer Mia Bjorlingsson, while the vocals of Beatrice Valantin add an ethereal, divine element. The alchemy amounts to the perfect mystical blend, which is often surprisingly minimal and consistently arrestingly beautiful. They have toured this year and last in support of their latest album “Fourth Part II,” released in 2011 on Equilibrium Music and TTO Records. The albums “Fourth Part I” and “Fourth Part II,” saw Deleyaman being lyrically inspired by transcendentalism and beatnik poets, while experimenting with more guitar and less synthesizers than on previous records.
Deleyaman are currently on tour in Southern California with dates through April, culminating in a final free concert at OCCCA in Santa Ana on Saturday April 27 at 7 pm. The founding songwriter of Deleyaman, Aret Madilian, sat down to speak with me about his musical background, inspirations and touring.
What inspired you and your bandmates first to start making music? How long have you been writing music?
I’ve been writing music since my teenage years when I was living in the South Bay in L.A. in the early 80’s. I recorded my very first 12 inch 45 single in 1983 which was produced by a man known as SPOT who was the engineer and producer of bands such as Black Flag, Husker Du and Minutemen at SST Records. I also formed a post-punk new wave duo called Vogue aka WOG with a friend during that same period. We had our moment of glory with WOG when we were voted the best L.A. band in 1985 on KROQ’s Battle of the Bands contest. One of our songs entitled “Moment of Betrayal” was voted as the number one song amongst 600 songs that were sent in to the then infamous radio station in Pasadena. Mind you this was the time when we still sent out cassettes. WOG went on to record one LP before it broke up in 1988 which is when I left L.A. for Europe.
I was convinced that the music I was writing would be better perceived in the old continent. I moved to Paris and basically started a whole new life. But what happened once there is that music took a backseat to my new life. I had to put my instruments away and work here and there to try to figure out what was next for a while and a few years went by without much music in my life working and living in Paris. Then things changed once again when I decided I’d had enough of Paris and came back home to live in L.A. for a couple of years before returning to a newly re-structured life in the more economically viable French countryside.
I formed Deleyaman in 2000 following chance meetings with Gerard our French-Armenian duduk player (an ancient wind instrument) and Beatrice, Deleyaman’s female voice whom I also met in France. In all honesty, I had given up on the whole idea of “I want to make records and do concerts” thing. But when I met them, some unexpected thing fell into place and the timing was right. This time, I had not moved to the city but was living in a rural environment where I had lots of space to write and record with a band without the need to go to rehearsal or recording studios and spend small fortunes. So I decided that I could re-form a band and experiment with a new sound taking my time and advantage of the space. I asked Gerard and Beatrice if they would join such a band and when the answer was yes, Deleyaman was born. I spent the next 6 months writing new material living in the village. When I had all the songs for our very first album, I called both of them and we recorded the parts I’d written for them on weekends when they would come to my house.
How did Deleyaman come together as a band? How did you all meet?
I met Gerard simply because we share the same rare Armenian last name. One day I got a phone call from a man who had found me in the Parisian yellow pages and wanted to meet me just because he was surprised that there was someone else carrying the same last name as his. So I agreed and we met up at a cafe. We chatted and started comparing family history to try to establish some logical genealogical tie but before long, the conversation veered towards music as we realized that we were both musicians. He from a traditional folk background and I from a post-punk background. Now most may think that these two irreconcilable influences would not work when juxtaposed together but we decided to give it a sincere shot and it worked marvelously well and the music went even farther than we’d expected. So this man who called me one afternoon was Gerard our duduk player who’s been with the band ever since. We still don’t know how and if for sure we’re related but that doesn’t really matter.
I met Beatrice in as unexpected circumstances as I met Gerard. She was the friend of a friend who was visiting my house on a weekend. Everyone was just hanging out goofing around when she started singing without any intention to be serious. I was utterly mesmerized when I heard her singing voice and just flat out asked if she would agree that I record her singing to one of my songs. She didn’t think much of it and said sure. She’s also been in the band ever since.
Mia our drummer was the last to join the band. Another bizarre coincidence brought her into the line-up. The three of us, Beatrice, Gerard and I had recorded our first album which had been released on a Parisian indie label. The label’s owner asked us to do some live shows for which he suggested we find a drummer. The album’s drum and percussion parts having been recorded by me in my studio, we needed to find someone. During one of my morning visits to the local bakery, I heard that there was a Swedish girl living in the farm just outside the village who gave drum lessons to children. I took our album and went to knock on her door the following day. We chatted for a couple of minutes and she told me that she’d also heard about me, the American musician in the village. The next day she called and told us that she loved the album and that she was in. She’s also been with Deleyaman ever since.
Does your cultural heritage influence your music?
I think that everything we are influences our music and the way we do what we do. But I can’t say that we force it on our music. It’s a very natural process without us pushing the “cultural” buttons purposely if you know what I mean. What is sure is that our differences are definitely an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It allows each one of us to see music from a different angle and perspective. We never liked the genre called “World Music” for example, which has that obvious folk or traditional spirit engraved within it which I feel ends up being just another creative prison. We really don’t want to put any borders or fences around our music. Heritages and traditions can be as enriching as they can be dangerous. We want to transcend genres and cultures, we’d like to go beyond our own heritage to put something more into our music, something more untamed, something that grows alongside our lives, something that anyone can be touched by no matter the heritage or the culture they may be from, something that will surprise us too.
How does the collaboration with the band work? Do you write the music together or contribute separate parts?
It has evolved through the years and with each album. I used to write practically everything up until our fourth album with the exception of Gerard’s duduk improvisations and Beatrice’s vocal parts. Since then, Beatrice has gotten much more involved in the preludes of the creative process writing more of the musical parts as well as her vocal parts. But there are no set rules, the process is not fixed, anything goes as long as it works and we all feel something for the song at hand. It would be very difficult to write Gerard’s duduk parts anyway because of the nature of the instrument. It’s based on different scales and no one in the band except him can really compose with the duduk. We can only ask him if he could play it in such or such way, to be softer or more aggressive or to come in or to go out at this or that measure etc.. The duduk is a totally different beast and Gerard must be given room for improvisation within the frame of his determined part. You can hardly to the very exact same thing twice or at least not precisely on a wind instrument such as the duduk. The drum parts are maybe the only parts that I still tend to write for Mia though Mia will obviously bring her own skills and feel to mine. But usually, the way it works is quite simple. I come up with an initial idea on the keyboards, guitar or even the bass, I try to give it a minimal structure and arrangement so it’s direction or mood is somewhat comprehensible to the others. I may include a vocal melody line in there and see where it goes when Beatrice or Gerard start improvising on it. It usually always goes somewhere new than what I’d expected. Then it is again my role to sort of re-invent the song and guide it to its new direction, allowing all the new elements that the others brought to best enhance the song.
We all live in Normandy near “La Manche” or the English Channel in villages located about 5 or so miles from the sea. It is a very rural environment with lots of farmland and agriculture. I think that it’s more the spacious and calm environment than the location which certainly influences are mindsets. What I mean is that the rhythm of life flows in a slower pace than in the urban or suburban environment and this is good for us. I also like being away from the trendiness of cities like Paris or London or New York or whatever because I simply find the whole scene superficial and destructive to the more introspective or contemplative type of person that I am. I prefer waking up to the sounds of cows mooing than to the sounds of traffic or the neighbor’s footsteps on the upper floor. It’s obviously a more peaceful atmosphere with much more space and believe it or not, it is economically ten times cheaper than living in the city. But I know many people who couldn’t live where I live for more than a week. They’d get bored. No trendy cafes, no nightclubs, no boutiques, no shopping centers or malls. As far as I am concerned, it is really perfect for music and for recording. Besides, I am a late sleeper. I can make as much noise as I want playing the drums, rehearsing or mixing a song at 3 am in the morning. No one’s around for me to bother. Well maybe the three cows on the field across but they don’t seem to complain much.
We do like coming out to the city for the concerts and to share our music when a venue is willing to book us and have us play at their place. It’s just easier and more pleasant for us to prepare and to be able to work and to concentrate on our music in calmer surroundings. I’d think that many musicians with the exception of a few would agree once they’ve had a taste of it.
How do you fund your music and tours? Do all your band members maintain other jobs?
We fund our music and tours anyway that we can. We’ve been lucky enough to have found three different independent labels in the last ten years willing to release all our albums. We’ve never had to spent any money so far for the pressing of the CDs for our five albums. This doesn’t mean we’re making any money. We’re not making much at all but at least we’re not loosing any.
Having simple, low expense lifestyles help a lot these days if you want to pursue your musical vocation. That was another very valid reason for moving out of the city for me. I did not want to have a side job anymore, I wanted to dedicate my entire time to music. But to be able to do that, I had to consider a very simple almost an ascetic way of life.
Funding tours is still a very difficult task. It’s next to impossible to find a booking agent willing to invest in a band such as ours because we’re not easy to market or promote. We are all over 40 years of age and not sexy enough, so the youth factor cannot be used as a marketing tool. Our music is tough to categorize and to sell with one word publicity slogans. Simply put, we don’t have a strong marketable selling point. We’re just too normal. Four 40 some year old people putting our hearts and souls into our music. In this day and age of sensational marketing, big bucks promotion and exaggerated youth culture these are just not convincing selling points for organizers.
So, sometimes we look for sponsors, other times we get in touch directly with venues to ask them if they have a spot on such and such date and sometimes we get an email from an organizer asking us to do a series of shows. To them, we never say no and we always try our best to find the solutions to fit their budget.
To fund our latest series of Los Angeles concerts we used the crowd funding site, Kickstarter. We were able to raise $5361 which was way short of our $10.000 set goal for a 15 date tour. If you are short of your set goal, you don’t get a penny of the funding on Kickstarter. Meaning, if you ask for $1000 and you raise $900, your project does not get a penny and all pledges are cancelled. Which I think defies logic and is a terrible idea considering the time and hard work you have to put into promoting your Kickstarter project. So when we were short, we wrote to all our backers on Kickstarter and asked them to re-donate their pledges directly to us, explaining to them that $5361 would not fund 15 but would fund 7 gigs. So instead of 15 shows we decided to do 7 plus a free concert at OCCCA as you know, where we come to play every time we’re in California.
As for the women in the band, Beatrice is a licensed Gestalt therapist and treats about 20 patients a week. Mia is still giving music lessons to the children in her village. Gerard does not have a side job and dedicates all his time to music like myself. He also has a traditional/folk music trio as a side project.
Your band has songs in many languages. Do you prefer to write songs in one language in particular? Does what language you are writing in change the feel of the song?
There is no preference per say. But the language definitely colors or makes a difference on what the song conveys. I’ve always felt that a language is like a musical instrument, sometimes it is fitting sometimes it isn’t. Just like the use of a saxophone or a distorted guitar will make a difference on a song’s atmosphere, so does a language. Especially a language like French with so much cliches attached to it with so many connotations that are not always true. English is an easier language to integrate into a song. It tends to flow with the music without competing for the center spot. Where as a language like french has such an unusual and exotic presence that it almost becomes the focal point pushing the musical parts to the background. At least that is my experience and perception thus far. So the use of French is for a very specific type of song. We’ve also used Armenian, Swedish and even Turkish once. I really like the sound of Swedish as well. Very different from both English and French. Has a fairy tale quality to it. Where as Armenian sounds ancient and mysterious when sung and carries a mystical or spiritual quality without ever falling into the trap of the new age esoteric feel. So yes, languages certainly change the feel of a song.
During the last Deleyaman performance I saw (in 2012 at OCCCA) you performed several songs that were inspired by various poetry. Have you always written songs that way? Or do your inspirations behind your songwriting change for each album?
They vary from an album to the next and even from song to song. There are lyrics written by me and others borrowed from poets within a same album. We don’t do theme albums but rather let ourselves be inspired by whatever works for a song. Usually though, there seems to be some coherence in the choice of poems or inspirations when we look back to the finished work. We almost never choose the lyrics before the music. It’s almost always the music first and then I either write the lyrics for the song or we’ll search for a fitting poem. So the music is definitely the main guiding force. Whether we’re choosing a poem or writing our own lyrics, we have to take lots of musical factors into consideration anyway. But of course once the lyrics fit into a song, the entire experience shifts and I sometimes have to make changes in the musical arrangements.
When I have seen you perform I have felt immense peace and inspiration from your performances. Do you or your band have a deeper motivation for sharing your music with others like such- to share peace or beauty with others?
I am happy to hear that our performances were inspiring for you. This is a vital reason why I like to perform live. I am always very glad when a show inspires anyone in the audience. Yes, I sure hope that we have a deeper motivation. I wouldn’t adventure into trying to explain it in words as I’ve done in the past because when I read back the things that I’ve said sometimes, I get embarrassed with the way they come across. But it’s true that I still think music is a powerful medium. It also still continues to be as mysterious to me as when I was first touched by it as a kid. It is an immediate emotional experience that goes above and beyond words. That being said, I’ll leave it at that…
Deleyaman perform at OCCCA in Santa Ana on Saturday April 27 at 7 pm. (Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks open)
Photos courtesy of Stephen Anderson at OCCCA.