The “Dom”-inant Strain: Dom Bouffard’s Manifold Sounds

A writer and musician of diverse works, Dom Bouffard discusses his evolution from punk-rocker to sound-art composer.

As part of Sona Fariq, Dom Bouffard helped to draft sounds that always seemed like works-in-progress. These musical transmutations — experiments in rock, punk, dub and hip-hop — were war-ravaged fusions that often drew erroneous comparisons to other bands of multifarious influences, like Asian Dub Foundation and Rage Against the Machine. But Sona Fariq existed in a more idealistic space of sonic information; their sound came from a pointedly rapacious and hedonistic thirst for dangerous thrills. Like an artless cocktail-fusion of testosterone, power and humour, Sona Fariq managed a strange co-ordinance in dynamics, each band member perfecting a craft that allowed their sound to move in many directions at once. Their self-titled (and only) album, released in 2000, demonstrated a sonic fluidity that processed just about every point of pop music influence (dub and raga being the accented spices) into their volcanic punk-rock. A look at the album’s inner sleeve reveals the kitschy, tropico pop-art — a visual aid that clued listeners into the rapturous, devil-may-care vibe that evoked the sex, panic and danger of four young men taking the piss during a night on the town.

Bouffard, a writer and musician of both combustible aggression and intense, mathematical precision, was the crackerjack demolition man to singer Mike Frankel’s flame-thrower. As a guitar player, Bouffard laid his chords down like heavy explosives, setting off thunderous fireballs of furious noise that cut through the panicked drumming and pummeling basslines. Frankel’s hyperventilating snarls were discharged like a loaded gun, firing indiscriminately at anyone within target’s range. Bouffard kept a temporary measure of cool, his deadly croon creeping along like the burning fuse to a bundle of dynamite. Sona Fariq were a showy, fantastic and exhausting affair; brilliant and fun while they lasted, remembered by a select lucky few when they ended.

Since the band’s breakup in 2002, Bouffard has explored all reaches of music’s perimeters. His current musical project is Emperors of Rome, a band that mines the deep-fried soul of delta blues and dusty, arid punk-rock. His voice, once the threatening susurration in Sona Fariq, has developed and matured into a deep, salty growl that gains traction in the romance of his new blues-punk melodrama. Bouffard has also been especially busy working on the fringes of the performance art and dance scenes in Europe and New York respectively, composing deeply personal and challenging pieces of music and sound collages. His music has put him in contact with everyone from avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson and dancer Marianna Kavallieratos to musicians Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, and Lady Gaga. Continuing to hone material for an Emperors of Rome album and steadily at work on various theatre-related music collaborations, Bouffard discusses his past with Sona Fariq and his ever-expanding body of musical work.

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When and how did all the band members of Sona Fariq meet?

Abs and I met at college in Loughton. He was playing guitar in a band with Wasif at the time and I had my own thing going. The three of us started jamming in Wasif’s garage, which we did every day for about two-and-a-half years and got super in tune with each other’s playing. Then I started another project for a while, during which time Mike — who was a friend of a friend — appeared on the scene. We started writing this kind of Tricky-type stuff together and sent a four-track tape to musician Paul Hardcastle (“ner-ner-ner-ner-nineteen”), who lived in the neighbourhood, because we didn’t know anyone in the record business. We decided to put a band together, asked Abs and Wasif to join, and it just morphed into Sona Fariq (which was the name of a cartoon character I used to draw).

What you were all trying to achieve stylistically in terms of the sound? There were the Rage Against the Machine and Asian Dub Foundation comparisons, but what are your own ideas on Sona Fariq’s sound?

We never liked the Asian Dub Foundation comparison. Or even got it, except for the lazy connection that we both had Asian members, which is irrelevant. In fact it’s beyond irrelevant, because where they were trying to make big statements about identity, we were all about blind love and completely non-partisan. We all had pretty diverse tastes and they definitely crossed over with things like Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Parliament, Stooges, Pixies, the Prodigy, Sly Stone, Dillinger, Janes Addiction, Public Enemy, Mos Def, and Middle Eastern music; passionate, genuine stuff. Abs’ parents are Bangladeshi, Wasif’s are Pakistani, Mike’s half Moroccan, and my dad’s Piednoir (Algerian-born French).

There were some kinds of sounds and rhythms we sort of all had in our bones. We were totally guided by our hearts. We never planned a sound or direction. It was a pure chemistry thing, born out of jamming day and night. That’s why we never had that morose indie attitude, or phoney metal anger. Our anger was genuine, just like our happiness was and frustration, whatever — just like yours or the next guy’s or girl’s. Just normal shit from living wherever. There’s no need to fake it when you just let it flow. As for electronics (in our music), we tried out a couple of gizmos early on but I think we only ended up using a couple of tiny samples in the end: one in “Move On” and one in “We Be on Fire”.

Sona Fariq existed in one concept as a studio album and became another altogether as a live band. Can you give some details on the nature of the live performances?

The live shows were fucking mayhem. We had this manager called Steve (may he rest in peace) who was a total loose cannon. Early on, we would pull up into town squares and kick a football out of the side of the van and start a football match in the middle of all the bars. People would come running out and joining in — and that’s how we got people down to the gigs. We had all kinds of kids there from different back grounds — ethnically, socio-economically, straight, gay, gentle, psycho — like the Road Fools BMX guys from the US. They brought down the PA system in Hastings and we got banned from French TV and Radio 1 over here in the UK. It wasn’t always a smart move professionally, but it was fun… well, maybe not the Radio 1 thing. And live, well, we just knew how to play; Mike was a super talented front man.

We tried to keep the album as close to ‘live’ as we could, with Chris Sheldon, but it’s kind of impossible. I mean you add a few overdubs, like an extra backing vocal here and there to keep it interesting or because you just think of it right then and it seems cool. And then you have to make up for the absence of certain elements you can’t do live with energy when you go back on tour, so it’s approximate. And anyway we kind of liked that it was never quite the same twice…

There was to be a second album but things fell through. What happened?

We got dropped by Warners, and then Wasif quit, which was a much bigger deal than getting dropped. The only time I ever begged anyone for anything was to try to get him to reconsider, but when Wasif’s mind is made up, that’s it. Fortunately we heard about Spike T Smith through Gizz Butt. Spike’s a completely different kind of drummer. Whereas Wasif had a very idiosyncratic way of playing, Spike is like an encyclopaedia of punk/reggae, you name it, and also a hardcore pro. He also really understands songwriting.

The second album was a massive jump forward. I’d say we’d really found our style by then — Mike and I also holed up in my warehouse in Mile End and put down loads of ideas on my 8-track. It was much more punk, but more Arabic as well — more everything. And Mike’s words were starting to get really interesting; it just clicked. We went to my cousin’s studio in Paris to record it with Alex Silva, who produced Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album. We were all skint; I’d had to borrow the money for the tapes and studio time. Sometimes we had nowhere to stay and had to sleep in these fully automated Formula 1 motels. We also got threatened with being shot by the studio’s neighbour, who was a lunatic. But it was a brilliant record.

The problem was this: after we got dropped, we fired our then (good) manager and that set into motion a series of increasingly ill-considered choices of manager, which in turn resulted in us shelving the album and trying to start again on one manager’s advice. By this time we were driving an hour out of town to use a cheap rehearsal space and things were getting more and more grim. At some point I got asked to join Queen Adreena, which I did for a few months. One night, after supporting Fishbone or someone, I turned to Mike and said “if you were to say to me now, ‘let’s end this’, I’d be fine with that”. He replied, “I never thought we’d be having this conversation,” and that was it. Over. Sona Fariq: 1997-2003, RIP.

What are some of your favourite memories of your time in Sona Fariq?

There are too many. The first big festival in Norway we played, where we were hanging out with Liam Gallagher and Ab’s jumped into a freezing fjord; Mike turned to me and said: “remember that 4-track tape we sent to Paul Hardcastle?” Then there was Rock am Ring, where the festival manager came down to throw me out personally. The ferry to Holland, where Mike and Shaun, the drum tech, had found those reflective yellow ‘official’ vests in a locker and were ordering hundreds of passengers to move from one side of the bar to the other to ‘balance’ the ship — till they got spotted and spent the rest of the night on the run from security. Supporting Sonic Youth, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Fishbone (and them liking us!).

Loads of stuff that featured Mike after a couple of beers and, of course, our first manager Steve — they were a real double act. We were all like brothers. And the crew: Shaun, Mole and Bertie, the sound man. When I started answering your questions, I had a lot of negative memories going through my head, but the more I go back the happier it gets. And you know what, to be lucky enough to be doing that in your 20s is something great… there’s nothing like it.

Emperors of Rome explores American Southern Blues, an entirely different sound than what you were doing in Sona Fariq. Can you elaborate on the band’s sound?

Well it took me a long time to find my own ‘voice’ again. I did other projects, but I was more of a writer/producer. They all had the spotlight on someone else so I was safely in the shadows. Emperors just came organically and over time. I didn’t play guitar for a long time and that’s like a language; you lose it if you don’t keep using it. I was writing songs, very personal stuff, more like letters, really, and I was stuck; there was something missing — the bit that makes you feel truly one with it. And then my partner, Alli MacInnes (who I met on tour when her band Fifth Amendment supported Sona Fariq in 2000), started harmonising and playing around with bits of percussion and suddenly it didn’t just sound like songs anymore, but like songs. So we think of it as kinda Blues, Dark Folk, Primitive Rock’n’Roll and I guess a bit of Country. It’s kinda Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bonny Prince Billy, Breathe Owl Breathe — outsider stuff.

To be honest, I had to dig around to find references just so I could explain it verbally to get gigs. I had the fortune of getting exposed to a lot of new approaches and artists when I moved to Berlin between 2008-2013 and I have spent a lot of time in NYC too, working with Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Coco Rosie, and loads of artists in other disciplines. It gave me new ways of seeing and hearing. The format of Emperors’ music is simple but the colours and nuances aren’t.

How did you come to start composing for theatre, film, and dance?

By accident. Like I said, we moved to Berlin a few years back. It was a good move. It was healthy to escape the single-mindedness of London and be around free spirits. I did a studio session with a piano player called Hans-Joern Brandenberg, who’s worked with Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and others. He asked me if I wanted to audition for the band for a play by a director called Robert Wilson at Bertold Brecht’s theatre, the Berliner Ensemble. Well, I knew nothing about Wilson then, but he’s an avant-garde legend. After six weeks of darkness, while this madman spent four hours lighting a hand or whatever, something happened — a kind of epiphany — sitting listening to the darkness. It changed me and we toured all over the world.

I went on to do his next one and, although I wasn’t the main composer, I wrote parts when they were needed. One thing led to another and Wilson started inviting me to workshops in the States and I began composing for him. I began working with a choreographer in Athens and we’ve made two productions commissioned by the Onassis Foundation. I’ve had work at the Louvre and have been commissioned to make an hour-long sound art piece for German state radio. I did a few short films, too, and licensed music to CSI and a couple of feature films, but it’s mainly theatre, radio and performance right now.

My composing work is avant-garde/experimental I guess, but also calls on modern classical, musique concrete, chance procedures and rock ’n’ roll. I love it and it compliments Emperors of Rome perfectly because together it gives me huge range of expression and context. I’ve never been happier or more challenged. I’m not 27 anymore and I’m fine with that. I’ve got new stuff to talk about.