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Pure Intuition Without Any Limits: An Interview with oOoOO and Islamiq Grrrls

Courtesy of the artists

The newly-formed electronic duo of oOoOO and Islamiq Grrrls discuss their experimentally-minded new album Faminine Mystique releasing this Friday.

Faminine Mystique
oOoOO & Islamiq Grrrls

Nihjgt Feelings

18 May 2018

oOoOO has released murky music since 2010 via Tri Angle and Disaro. Recently, he's fashioned an imprint, Nihjgt Feelings, allowing him to release music on his own terms. Islamiq Grrrls has come to music more recently, having shared "Yr Love" in late 2016.

The two artists share a common bond in being raised in suburban wastelands. Their paths converged while both living in Berlin. oOoOO had taken a hiatus from the music industry, while Islamiq Grrrls was just starting to find her voice. Meeting proved alchemical, and in this interview, they share how productive working together has been for their upcoming album, Faminine Mystique (pronounced "Famine in Mystique".)

oOoOO, can you paint a picture of what growing up in North Jersey was like? You've described it as a bit of a barren wasteland.

oOoOO: Whenever people ask me to describe where I grew up, I refer to The Sopranos. There's this opening sequence where Tony Soprano is driving down the New Jersey Turnpike and there are jump cuts of oil refineries and parking lots and stuff like that. It's basically exactly how New Jersey feels. When I saw that show I couldn't believe somebody had actually captured or wanted to capture that feeling. Or maybe that only captures it for me because I know what it's like there. It's just super gritty. Most people who I grew up around, they had jobs working at this Exxon oil refinery, or working at Port Newark or Port Elizabeth, or in a handful of factories that still hadn't closed down at that time.

Yeah, a half hour outside of the city, a lot of it is like that.

oOoOO: Right. You have New York on one side and then 20 or 30 minutes to the west it's all farmland, but pocketed with industrial parts. This area where I grew up is like the reason that New Jersey has a bad reputation because otherwise, it's a really pretty state. It's hilly countryside and farms and stuff, but North Eastern New Jersey is just where all the sludge of New York ended up.

You were involved in some punk bands in your early music career. How did they inform your current sound? What did you get from that experience?

oOoOO: I like to think there's a certain intensity that carries over. Most of the punk and hardcore bands I played in were really fast, but most of the music I've made, the electronics have been really slow. Maybe there's something of this kind of heavy, distorted rock kind of feeling and a DIY mentality of doing things yourself. Feeling what you're doing is going to be underappreciated anyway, and the only way it's ever going to be heard is if you push it, and it's always going to be kind of underground and part of a specific smaller scene. So maybe this mentality, more than even the sound, informed what I do now.

Islamic Grrrls, you lived in Paris for a while before Berlin, where you reside now. What was life like for you growing up?

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: I grew up in Hagen, a small industrial town in Germany. I really didn't think about it much when I left, I really just kind of left it behind. Where I come from is a really ugly city. Everybody around me was cleaning toilets or working at a factory. So that gives you an idea. There's this really weird concept there of being working class, but showing off that you ride a BMW. People put all their money into a car or something else that other people can see. My family immigrated from Bosnia, so I felt like my city wasn't so representative, and I was bored to death. I felt really isolated and I just wanted to do something else.

Moving back to Berlin when I was about 28, 10 years later, I realized I didn't know Germany at all. I just knew the west side of Germany, which is is totally different from the rest of Germany, and Berlin especially.

You've only been writing music for a few years. What's the history there?

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: I've come around actually completely differently than oOoOO. I moved to Paris to study fashion design and worked as a designer for about 10 years until I pretty much burned out. The city just really exhausted me. It's quite a life there, you know? You just kind of work to go home and sleep and you live for the weekend basically, or at least that's how it worked for me. After a while, I was just fed up. I moved to Berlin where I started my own brand and realized that as soon as I was doing something for my own purposes, it was rolling really quickly. But I was just so done with fashion. In Berlin, there's a lot of people who make music and so on, but I'd say I started making music when I met oOoOO. I saw how he made it and I was intrigued.

When I was growing up, I didn't know anybody who was playing music. There were no bands. In Europe, at least in Germany, there's no real culture of teaching kids music at school, having classes filled with instruments and that kind of stuff. We had music classes, but we were singing cover songs or playing with a xylophone or something. It was just really basic. But I didn't really want to listen to this interest I had because I didn't know what am was going to do with it. Music was always the first thing in my life. I was constantly on top of it. I always knew what was going on. I was always interested in it and I didn't really know anybody who cared as much as I did for music, and when I came to Berlin, all of a sudden I found more people like that and I thought, "Hey, maybe I can make music. Why don't I just try?" I downloaded a program, I started recording, and I don't know, I think in three days I made my first song, "You Don't Love Me." It just happened like that.

oOoOO, what were you working on after leaving San Francisco for Berlin?

oOoOO: I moved to Berlin because I thought it'd be easier to be a musician. For one, Berlin is much cheaper. Shows pay much better in Europe than America, so I thought, "I'll move to Berlin because I know a lot of people there, I'll be able to get better paying shows."

But then ironically, I had no interest in making music for two years. I think I was just really burnt out on being in the music industry and touring. In my mind I was like, "I'm going to start working on new music soon," and then a year passed, and then two years passed. Around 2016, I started to get really interested in music again, and once I put my feet back into it, all of a sudden it just flowed.

Was the burnout anything to do with Tri Angle? Because I know you set up your own label. Or was it just relentless touring?

oOoOO: I would say it was more the touring thing. I have this feeling that maybe around 2007 to 2011 there was this really great kind of organic music scene that had come up around the internet. The internet was wide open and everybody was making music, writing about music, and promoting music. Everybody was doing it out of a sense of real passion. And then somewhere starting maybe in 2012, the internet coalesced into this sort of clickbaity industry thing, and a lot of what was appearing on the internet about the music that I liked was becoming listicles and clickbait. It was getting much harder to find good music, I felt like, and the quality of things that were appearing was getting lower and lower, and I was just like, "This isn't what I got into this for."

Can you tell me more about how you guys met? It was through the internet as well, right?

oOoOO: Yes, but I don't remember exactly how we started talking. We have friends in common, so we knew of each other. Berlin's actually a pretty small city in some ways and you inevitably know somebody who knows somebody else, and I think we had some minor contacts on the internet and then ended up meeting each other soon after.

What's the concept behind the album's title? It takes its title from the key second-wave feminist book by Betty Friedan.

oOoOO: It's not even really a concept so much as it's something similar going on between what Betty Friedan had been talking about in the '60s and this constricting role that women were being put in by society, and what I was saying about the internet before and how it works with music now.

I feel like music before has been something that people are really passionate about and now it's more becoming something like content to fill a space. Spotify playlists, for example, just exist to get people to like streams and click on them. Almost as if music is just a means to get advertising revenue. It's almost like streaming music has become like flipping through photos on Instagram.

Songs mean less within the context of an algorithmic playlist.

oOoOO: Exactly that sort of thing.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: And there's a little bit of this strange feeling that people consume music differently. It's almost like some kind of background music when you work. Like graphic designers will put it on in the background to retouch a picture or a creative font or something like that. You know? Which is fine. Everybody can do with music what they want or whatever, but that's not what we identify with. But for some reason, everybody else is listening to music that way. So the album was a little bit our answer to that.

Courtesy of the artists

How did you both work? Were individual songs written by one of you and then sent to the other to tweak, or did you work together in the studio?

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: Earlier where oOoOO said, "I didn't really make any music for so long," he's just being humble. He actually had a laptop full of songs. To me, making a song is much more painful because I'm still in the learning process of how to mix instruments and that kind of stuff. I get really excited and I just add up and add up and I end up with 40 instruments in my song.

I'd make a song and he would listen, then just laugh and say, "You're insane. How did you come up with that?" With me, there is an excitement of starting with pure intuition without any limits. I don't have an idea of myself or my music, I just do really what I want and how it feels right to me. I would hand tracks off to oOoOO and he would mix it better and add a guitar riff or whatever felt right. That's basically how the record was created. It was just a constant back and forth. He would make songs and give them to me, I would sing on them and maybe we should work on the beat and do this or that. Yeah, it was a collaborative process, but each one of us kind of started on their own and then we would take over each other's songs more and more, and after a while, we wondered why we were even doing this to each other's tracks? Why don't we just combine them?

oOoOO: We originally thought we were going to just release two separate records. We started out working pretty separately, and then maybe when half of the songs were done, so many of the songs had become intertwined and we were like, "Why don't we just make a record together?" All of the songs were starting to have a similar mood and fit really well together. Then we met at the same place every day and worked on it together.

Was there a specific way you went about sequencing the album? I'm not sure if it was based on who the primary singer on each track was.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: We both separately did the order and at some point compared our lists. We talked about it and then we kind of met in the middle.

I like that kind of democratic approach because you could probably see patterns in how both of you sequenced the tracks separately.

oOoOO: Sure, yeah. Sequencing is one of the few times during making a record where I think, "I wish we had a record label to force us to do it this way," because I really just don't know. I'm so deep into the songs because I've been working on them for so long I can't hear them anymore.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: I think the way we ended up doing it was to put the song that would pull people in at first, and then actually our favorite songs in the middle, and then completely kick people out by the end of the record with something really punching and intense. Because the end of the record is spacier. It's very intense.

Were there a lot of extra songs that didn't make the cut?

oOoOO: We have quite a few other ones that didn't make it onto the record. Not because they weren't even good, it's just they were nowhere near finished. So there's a good handful of songs that I actually really like and I'm looking forward to finishing and releasing at some point. We could have just gone on forever and we had already gone on for so long anyway.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: Yeah, once we really agreed on working together it was like opening Pandora's box. It was just all coming out. We were second guessing everything and having more and more ideas, so at some point we needed to stop. At some point you just need to say, "It's done."

The mastering process was so painful. We thought the songs sounded completely different. I always thought, "a song is a song." Like how much different can it sound? And then the engineer would send them back and they sounded like a live concert. You could hear every drum, you could hear every guitar. I thought, "Wow, this is kind of great." But then where did our grain go? Where did our distortion go? That was also a huge decision we had to make at that point. So I'm glad that we didn't add more songs because the record would have been released like next year or something.

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

How did you choose the three singles you've already released?

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: "All of Me" was one of the songs I originally started, about a year ago I would say. It had been there for a long time, and I really wanted a guitar in there. I'm learning how to play guitar right now. I didn't have the privilege to learn how to play guitar when I was 10. So it's really painful. It really hurts. If my hands were more flexible, I would learn it quicker. But it's more like working out right now.

I took a really cheap guitar patch from Native Instruments or whatever and played the chords. I asked oOoOO if he could play that, and he said, "Yeah, sure." He took it and just went off on it. It was so amazing to see him improvising. He added such a great vibe to the song with all the guitar and I said, "Oh my god, we need to do more of this." We both felt like that song really achieved the complete spectrum of what we like in music.

"The Stranger" is my absolutely favorite song. It makes me cry, it makes me dance. I really love that song. "The Stranger" happened after we already worked a lot together and we had shared all the music we liked and agreed on all the little details, so in music, he just kind of incorporated all these elements into the song. "The Stranger" is really our baby. I remember when I sang the lyrics it was almost a little bit like a graphic way of singing. It really reminds me of all these Algerian singers we like. "The Stranger" is possibly, if I may say so, a hint to what our next record will sound like.

Which it sounds like you're already planning. It sounds as if the creative juices are really flowing right now.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: I can't wait until we get this behind us so we can put the next one out because we'll go full-on. We're so supportive of each other's weirdnesses and so detached on people or any kind of social contacts, just doing our thing.

oOoOO: "The Stranger" is the last song we finished, right?

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: Yeah, I think so.

oOoOO: When we finished that song, I could hear actually all the songs on this record are us trying to make this song. Once we made that we finally achieved exactly what we were trying to do with the other songs. I'm totally happy with this one.

ISLAMIQ GRRRLS: At no point did we ever tell each other what we were really looking for. We just knew exactly what we wanted and we have this unspoken agreement on what we like or not, and you can put any song in front of us and we'll hear the same thing and think about what could be improved and what should be done this way. For some reason we're just really lucky to be that way.

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