JB: I want to start at the beginning.
MG: I'm a California native living in Oakland since 1991. I'm 36, born in late 1969. My Dad comes from Baghdad, Iraq. He met my Californian mother in Berlin, where she was vacationing because she'd won a Del Monte foods sweepstakes to Europe. They were married within months and she got him to bypass Michigan, where the rest of our Iraqi family were settling. My family has talent. My brother Erik, who I've collaborated with in groups like Mono Pause, Neung Phak and The Twelve Steppes, is the most scientific musician in the family. He actually studied theory and music. My Dad can sing old Iraqi songs. His family discouraged him from becoming a singer, which is what he wanted to do in Iraq at one time. My Mom sings devotional songs at her church. Beginning with my mother in 1976, the women in my immediate family have all become reborn Christian zealots and see fit to channel their singing throats in that direction. Looking back, my family had a significant impact on my musical interests. My mother used to set up the kitchen like a percussive orchestra with pots and pans, etcetera for my benefit and she and I would make songs and record them onto a portable cassette recorder, which she taught me how to operate when I was 5 or 6. My American grandfather was a military radio intelligence heavy and a Ham radio operator from the early days of broadcast. He had an enormous rotating antenna on his roof and a "radio room" in his basement where he broadcast and received who knows what. There were radio devices from every decade stacked in that room and elsewhere in the house.
A visit to the grandparents always included a lot of quality radio time where my grandfather would ask me where in the world I wanted to listen to. He had a device with a globe and a pointer on it and I'd tell him I wanted to talk to Russia or China or Africa or the Mid-East and he'd point the antenna and make it happen. Their house was always buzzing with the loud din of modulated voices, Morse code and bleeps and blips from somewhere. On the other end of the spectrum, my Dad was always listening to classic Arabic records and tapes, singing and playing backgammon with his Arab buddies throughout the 70s. I spent some good times in Michigan in those years attending Iraqi-style weddings with full-on Arabic orchestras and belly dancing. These things seemed fairly commonplace to me at that time. Concurrently, I started screwing around with tape decks and putting radio plays together with a lot of edits and sound effects. A lot of these were done with my brother. We'd also use the audio we made as backing tracks for live vaudeville-like performances in the living room presented to anyone who'd watch. We'd shoot Super-8 films and use the audio for those too.
I started focusing more on music when I turned 15 as I started to get turned on to some great drugs and music. I was part of many tiny noise duos, primitive tape-music projects and other musical forays for kicks throughout my teens in the 1980s. Eventually that all led to me calling what I do by myself Porest. Other bands came and went until 1993 when the first Mono Pause configuration was put together with Peter Conheim, Mike Shizuru, my brother and me.
JB: What is the Twelve Steppes like?
MG: The Twelve Steppes is a group formed by my brother Erik and me in 1994. It was meant to handle Mono Pause overflow but started walking on its own two legs as a duo. We perform rarely and record even less. There has been one official release called Deep North which was a magazine and a CD in 1996 and there's enough material for a couple of releases down the road. We'll just have to see.
JB: I know you have done a lot of recording, engineering and compiling as well. Could you discuss some of those projects?
MG: In addition to working on Porest and the long-term groups, I travel as much as possible, particularly through the Arab world and Southeast Asia. Collecting sounds, images and ephemera is a part of the whole deal when I'm out. This includes field recordings and the constant monitoring of shortwave/AM/FM radio and television in hotel rooms late at night. All of these things are integrated either into the Porest project or released in a context such as the Sublime Frequencies label, which I've been contributing to over the past three years. I collect a lot of cassettes and vinyl when I travel, and selections from these finds are catalogued and compiled when I'm home.
JB: I've seen you perform in Mono Pause, Rut-Ro and the Logs, as Porest and in other mysterious contexts. It's certainly eclectic. How does the traveling, the engineering, the curatorial compiling, and finally, the performance affect the overall music?
MG: Everything is part of the same process for me. I don't mean to say that creating a stage show or recording an album is the same as traveling, but everything I learn in one field gets utilized and worked into another. With performances, I try to build a show that I WISH I could see a group do. I perform what would kill me if I could see it on a stage ... or at least I aim for that. I let everything influence the music and performance. meaning the travel, my loves, my absolute hatred and contempt and anything else. A fucked up snippet of radio I intercepted in Lebanon can inspire me more than buying a record or going to see a contemporary music group. It can force me to come up with an entire album or stage show. Everything is taken as it comes. As a result, the variables are infinite. Infinite variables keep things exciting. And by the end, the fact that a Lebanese radio ad was the inspiration might be so obscured and inconsequential that it may as well not have been a part of the process.
JB: Do you play any non-electronic instruments?
MG: I use electric and acoustic instruments as much as tape or electronic processes and manipulation. It's all there to use per track/per project and it's open season in every which way. Bass, stringed instruments of different varieties, horns, drums, keys, etc. Whatever it takes to make a track work, I'll try it, or I'll invite someone who knows how to play it to step in if it's beyond my abilities. It's the conscious non-mastery of all instruments while maintaining close relationships with all my options in the studio or on a stage that make Porest sound the way it does. This is the way it goes in all the groups I've been with as well. In over 20 years of playing with music and tape recorders, you'd think I could have taken the time to master one instrument or at least learn how to read music...or know what a G sharp is when someone calls it out. Somehow, I've managed not to get into any of that, and I'm interested in continuing in this trajectory until it's time for something new, just to see where else it can go. It rarely works against me, and I'd hate to be cluttered with music theory that would reduce things like Sun Ra to algebra. I'd rather die than have the "spirituality" stolen from the music. For me it's easier to create something "new" when I don't have another learned language system stuck in my brains.
JB: That helps to explain your rich collaborative relationship with the Sun City Girls. They can be totally subtle and inside of one's throat at the same time. I don't even know what to say – are they as "contrary" to work with as they are to predict in terms of their music?
MG: Sun City Girls is among the most inspiring collectives to crawl out from under the rug of Western "civilization" EVER. Anyone who doesn't know that hasn't been paying attention or doesn't know how to pay attention. I've been a fan longer than I've been a friend. I haven't collaborated with the Sun City Girls proper, but I've had the pleasure of collaborating with Alan Bishop. The Sun City Girls are only contrary in that they've always refused to play by rules set by industry, audience, critics or art. It only seems contrary in context of how bands are usually constructed in the West. Actually, their approach is the most genuine way of doing anything. They are true folk artists in that way. I don't mean new Free/Freak-Folk or whatever. I mean they are humans. They do things the way they want and have made sure that only THEY call the shots.
JB: They are at once an explosion of information spilling out in an infinity of diverse forms, and simultaneously pull the rug out from the expectations of ANY audience.
MG: Which is why there are more people that can't appreciate them carte blanche then those who can. Most people need some kind of context or compartment to put things into. When there's a group like SCG who actively defy your expectations and base need for sameness every step of the way, it's unpredictable and unfamiliar, which has somehow come to equal undesirable. Even the most progressive of personalities seems terrified of unpredictability.
JB: It seems too much to talk about how this works in a collaborative sense but if you want to...
MG: The collaborations with Alan have come naturally. We've worked on a few Sublime Frequencies projects together and just finished a film on Sumatra. Most recently, he was part of the first Porest performance in years. Last year he asked for the assistance of Porest and Liz Allbee on the Uncle Jim LP Superstars of Greenwich Meantime. We were honored.
JB: That Uncle Jim record is contrary in another sense. That character rips everything a new asshole. There is so much stomach fluid in that one it becomes metaphysical. When I listen to that I am constantly being thrown back and forth between what seems sarcastic, or linear, or ridiculous, or ironic, or sarcastic about ridiculous irony, or angry a la Lautremont and Burroughs. It's like this infinite mirror tunnel system expressed as rant in which nothing is the figure or the ground, and there is all this music going on, and you recorded a lot of it, so let's talk about that. How did you record it? Did anybody get punched or lit on fire?
MG: Well, what I recorded for the Uncle Jim record is mostly on side 2. There are a few samples of mine that appear on side 1, but on side 2, Jim asked Liz and me to come up with some sounds and trumpet. He provided material and loops for processing and sampling and let us go at it. Liz got these killer horns going that really fit the mood of the piece and I reprocessed and came up with a lot of the sounds mixed in throughout the title track. We recorded everything remotely by mail in Oakland so that in case we messed it up, Jim would have to hire someone to fly down here in order to beat us up. Luckily he liked what we did, and Liz and I are still alive today.
JB: What is the relationship between the text and sound in there?
MG: That's really a question for Jim himself! For me, Uncle Jim is a man who's seen it all and is qualified enough to talk about it. He's gonna throw a lot of curve balls and he's not really going to spend a lot of time decoding his messages for anyone. It's there for the taking. He speaks in truths and half-truths, but never lies. He spins yarns as big as Arabia and uses more metaphors then Persian cinema. After all this is said and done, the music is mostly incidental.
JB: I am really excited to ask you about another ongoing project you have been involved with Alan Bishop from the Sun City Girls on and this, of course, is the Sublime Frequencies label. You have worked on several projects for them, and I'd like to get into the details of some of those in a moment. For now could you give us an overview of the Sublime Frequencies project in general and the specific releases you've worked on with them?
MG: Sublime Frequencies was started in 2003 by Alan Bishop, Rick Bishop and Hisham Mayet in order to focus on international music that wasn't being paid attention to (both here and in its place of origin in many cases). I have been a collaborator since the beginning and it's been a thrill and honor to be a part of the collective, sharing recordings and ideas and making this shit happen even when the odds are against it. All of the contributors to SF (ed note: from here on out "SF" refers to the sublime frequencies label) are travelers and lovers of music. We have been discovering and collecting this music for many years and would continue to do so if the label ceased. Now there is a venue to release this work that is a part of our lives and research and to share it with others, regardless of how much we know or don't know about that music. We don't profess to be experts, because expertise is a lie. We produce these discs and films with an immediacy that serves to expedite the process of getting this mostly unheard music to a public who might care about it. I've produced and curated I Remember Syria, Cambodian Cassette Archives and Choubi Choubi: Folk and Pop music of Iraq. Alan Bishop and I have co-produced Molam: Thai Country Groove of Isan and Radio Thailand: Transmissions From the Tropical Kingdom together as well as the not-yet released Sumatran Folk Cinema.
JB: Want to tell us a little bit about your new film and the other new SF film?
MG: Sumatran Folk Cinema is a 60-minute film that focuses on the music and scenarios we came across during our 2004 trip to Sumatra, Indonesia. It's a non-narrative collage film which is highly edited and features street footage, live musical performances, footage from Sumatran / Indonesian television and an incredible range of music. Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan is a film by Rob Millis (Climax Golden Twins) which focuses on a folk-ghost festival that takes place annually in the Northeastern region of Thailand. It's an incredibly colorful, sprawling film that features incredible Molam music and more phallic references than I've seen in one sitting.
JB: It seems like Sublime Frequencies has important differences from other, more commercial "World Music" projects, so much so that the term World Music is shown to be as meaningless as it is. For instance, a high level of production quality is maintained, engineers working with live recordings and compilations make decisions as to what is best kept "live" or dealt with in archival capacity, and there are even examples of free treatments of materials, a collage aspect in which the engineer basically creates a portrait of their curiosity about the recorded materials.
MG: All of the releases on Sublime Frequencies are curated and produced with our own aesthetic filters. The hundreds of tapes and CDs and records that lend to the creation of one release are dizzying. Trying to track down info on all of the material is even more dizzying. We are obsessed and in love with the music and the process. We don't see anyone else operating in this same sphere as of yet, but I can't wait until we do.
JB: The series also shares some obvious intentions with efforts of the Smithsonian and other groups to document vanishing music and soundscapes in transition, to produce recordings of hard to find musics and to make music of non-western cultures and subcultures available to the curious.
MG: Yes, it does, fundamentally. But in a lot of ways, we pick up where Smithsonian leaves off. Street music, popular culture and many folk-pop movements have come and gone in the countries we focus on. Where is the documentation on these movements? To us, these forms of music are as important as the kinds many labels have ignored over the decades. It's hard to imagine that these forms of music were skipped over accidentally. The music you hear in the streets or blaring from cassette shops is all around you when you travel. You learn more by hanging out with people on the streets and going to their homes and their shops and hearing what they hear. Or you dig even deeper onsite and search for the older forms of pop or folk music that reside on old cassettes and vinyl that were never copied over to CD or other mediums. Then you dig deeper and learn more about THOSE musics. The possibilities are endless.
JB: Yeah, and the opposite holds true as well. It's weird what media ends up focusing on and what it ignores. It ends up not even existing in people's minds (they have no experience of it (the power of journalism). Yet the reverse is true for your efforts. It seems like in the SF stuff, and throughout your work, you treat materials that other people might regard as "documentation" very freely. In fact, it seems like you treat everything as raw material for further development if it happens to go that way. You make new organized sound out of commercials, shortwave radio broadcasts, interference, other people's music, basically whatever is at hand, and COMPOSE what some might regard as "field recordings." When you approach "field recording", often the insects and birds, humans and machines are all blurred together, or heard from a perspective that makes the source difficult to identify (like the long sound towards the end of the Syria disk). In any case, its obvious that it's not mere 'documentation' you are after here. Could you talk a bit about your approach to field recordings?
MG: I start recording on location somewhere; I try to avoid thinking about clarity or final product. I start recording anything of interest, whether that's a candid conversation or sounds that strike me, not excluding television and radio recordings, etc. I record the complete experience that way and basically anything that reflects the nature of the locus as I experienced it at that moment in time. If a concept arises as a result, then a window opens into another realm and I either build off of that or work it into or out of the final result when editing. The process from start to finish should be chaotic. Intuition will follow. It's just another form of documentation.
JB: But it's more honest in a way. You are not pretending to be objective. You document your experience rather than even pretend you can document someone else's, and you create experience too.
MG: Like all documentation, it's only a reflection of one person's experience and aesthetic. That person decides how to steer the listener / viewer into and out of a place. It is inherently a more complete representation when all channels are left open. There's not a correct way to document a place. There's no template for me and there never will be. I think that's where a project falls flat... when it has to start adhering to some criteria set by other documentarians or the weirdos that finance them. I always have to think of the way an idiot Christian missionary travels to a foreign land with what he believes to be an ultimate truth. The last thing he tries to do once he sets foot off the plane is to learn something from the people he meets. He's arrived with the intention of telling these people that they and their age-old customs are wrong... and doomed at that! He won't be satisfied until they are "righted" with his little template. I try to arrive in a place knowing I possess the sticky residue of an ultimate lie and proceed from there.
JB: Are there patterns you find in your approach to this work that are particularly useful?
MG: Yes...and patterns do develop as I repeat the process in different locations. Sometimes the patterns are useful in that I won't repeat certain mistakes, but at the same time, those patterns can get me in trouble if I rely on them to heavily. My approach of acquiring becomes especially useful when I'm distilling all the material down from 100 hours to one hour. As far as "blurring" is concerned, it's natural for me to try and recreate the level of excitement and chance happenings I had in a place when editing a project together. It's not always important to identify for the listener what a sound is. I think I'd be going out of the way to give that context. Often, the context was never given to me, anyway. Maybe it started as an incidental sound. Then, when committed to tape, suddenly it's immortalized and seemingly some supernatural importance becomes attached to it, when all it ever was incidental. Maybe I never noticed it while recording but it struck me later. A lot of the time, explaining what something is evaporates its magic. There's a time and place for explanations. Sometimes I give hints in the liner notes or in the titling of the piece. The last track on the 2nd disc of I Remember Syria is called The Noiras of Hama: Blood Irrigation on the Orontes. It's literal as it gets, yet sounds abstract to someone who doesn't know that the Noiras are giant wooden water wheels in the city of Hama that churn 24/7. There is a photo of one of the wheels in the attached booklet with a credit ID-ing it as the Noira. The subtitle Blood Irrigation... refers to a massacre that occurred next to the Noiras in 1982. I leave the research of that to the audience. I could have included it in the liner notes, but Syria doesn't need anymore bad press than it already has these days. I always figure that this info is out there and ready to be researched by anyone who wants to take it to that level.
JB: The listener at the other end experiences this work differently than field recordings made by someone with a strict ethno-phonologist (no artistic license) approach. You create feelings of mystery about these places too. And unlike travel documentaries you do not try to package everything neatly, and there is no Q & A session at the end. Your fieldwork leaves the enigma intact.
MG: Of course, the listener is getting my nostalgia and romance lumped on one big plate to be eaten in one sitting from their armchair, so once it's out of my hands , it's all up to how much the listener is willing to let go and absorb it. Still, they will have very different images being conjured by their own imaginations and experience. It's the same if you travel with another person, no matter how similar your mutual activities are throughout the trip, each person will bring home very different perceptions and memories about the same trip.
JB: I think that the approach of SF in general has a very positive aspect as far as humanizing relations between cultures. Often countries will use state-sponsored propaganda in attempt to create an image of an "other" without human qualities. This propaganda allows governments to manipulate public opinion about a place that public has never experienced directly, and it manifests in forms such as blind support for wars, theft of international resources, etc. For those curious enough to listen, this project demonstrates the vibrant music produced by many cultures, many of which are undergoing dynamic political turmoil internally or in their interactions with other cultures like the US. Hearing this music creates a bridge between the basic human aspects of people living in different places, and it does a great deal to reverse some of the dehumanizing attempts and tendencies of larger interests. I feel like this effect, whether intentional or not, is extremely different than the intention of corporate record companies' "World Music" attempts.
MG: That's a great observation and I certainly hope for that. You hit it on the mark when you said "those who choose to listen". Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the label is the success it's had in bringing international music to those who may not have had the desire or chance to hear it otherwise. Corporate world music labels have created a shiny brand of world music that has flourished in its own way for decades. There has been a stigma attached to non-Western music that's been hard to crack. The types of music that SF has chosen to focus on and the channels of distribution that have made the releases available have managed to turn on a different collection of people to the material. I have friends who are into progressive music of all kinds, but are truly uninterested in the international music, even on a base level. Of course I don't understand why, because I'm me, but I can relate that to the way I feel about certain things. We all have preferences. On the other hand, I know a lot of folks have been listening to the SF releases and getting into this stuff in a way they may never have before. Whether or not people want to think of Sublime Frequencies as a political label is up to them. As far as I'm concerned, all of the releases I'm responsible for are drenched in politics by their very nature, and whether that's invisible or not, they are designed to stab the face of whoever I consider to be a fucking idiot or group of idiots in this world. I always manage to sneak a deserved anti-Israeli statement in there somewhere, but even if it's not overt, the politics are there on many levels. They are evident in what I choose to focus on, how Sublime Frequencies chooses to release it and how we talk about it when we are asked. Everything an American does is political whether they realize it or not. It's such a privileged, insular and arrogant country that you don't really need to know anything about anything to exist here and do whatever you do. An artist or musician here can fuck off into their fun little art shell and make really cool stuff until their fucking head explodes and they still don't have to know anything, including any wholesale destruction they themselves are inadvertently endorsing in this world. Not only that, but they don't need to question what they think they already know. In my opinion, they're in the way and they're expendable. I don't want to see more politically correct fools in the Bay Area OR more pedantic political bands and useless protesters. How about starting with an iota of knowledge of what the fuck goes on? Then we can move on to the understanding that our art is a lot less important than we think it is. We're all ignorant until we seek something otherwise. When you wake up knowing you're ignorant each day, you can start beginning to learn something. That's humility 101. Something this country's population generally avoids like the plague.
JB: Okay, let's cut the crap then and talk about these things. Fortunately this is still a country where you can criticize its administration from inside the country, even in print or on television, and not receive midnight army visits ending up in two years of prison and torture resulting in forced, signed confessions, like in, uh, Israel for example, or worse (like murder at the hands of a US backed death squad). This country is not like that yet. Of course we have this guy Negroponte in charge of intelligence and there is that whole "death squad" reputation he has (people say he was involved in coordinating activities of death squads in Latin America). In any case, as you pointed out, we censor ourselves.
MG: Exactly. And I'd even take it one step further and say that it is already like that. We're just allowed to say what we feel for now. Once we really started having an impact with our voices they'd make sure they took us down. For now, they need little people like us to exist to prove that their illusion of "democracy" exists. They also need us because they can point their fingers easily and say, "Look at those kooks". But yes, for now, I can talk about Dick Cheney being impaled by my Ka-Bar hunting knife. I can speak about the public dragging I'd like to watch him and Perle and Wolfowitz and the entire Israeli Knesset endure and to see them and theirs cut to pieces, fed to cannibals and "handled" by the sickest and horniest child-fuckers on earth. I can say that, can't I? I guess we'll find out after this is published. America. Where imagination runs WILD!!! (That was Border's books motto for a while – "Where Imagination Runs Wild". I can't imagine what they meant by that). But really, complaining about the Bush administration means nothing. It's the easiest thing in the world to do. Even Republicans do that. It's boring. When they're gone, they'll be replaced by more just like em and there's nothing my vote or anyone else's can do about it. That's not apathy, it's reality.
JB: Yes, that certainly is true since the interests that make these large scale decisions about international policies and practices are much, much bigger than any one government or political party. The IMF, WTO, G8, Exxon and McDonalds of the world set policies that determine what sort of future you will have, or at least they would like to. Normally in conversations such as this people point to the "us and them" problem, and request that you define the "they" you are referring to in detail – the "they" you were using above. Its not so easy to define bodies that deliberately remain faceless, though, and since these international economic controllers ARE bigger than say the Republican party or any particular country it might be best to dispense with trying to name them. We see their shadows and feel their effects; perhaps "they" is definitive enough. You can bet you are not faceless and nameless to "them" though. Try avoiding a credit bureau. It's incredible that these people are allowed to maintain secret files on everyone and yet won't speak to you in person until you have paid them too. Of course, I guess that is a bit of different subject.
MG: Yeah, exactly. "They" are much bigger. "They" are skilled at making us think we can write our congressman and make things change. They are experts at being invisible. When I used to get into pointless arguments with friends and acquaintances, I heard a lot of them say,"Oh, so you think there's some elitist cabal out there that controls things...." Isn't that obvious? It's more like a collective of cabals. "They" are experts at making us say, "There can't be a cabal". I'll bet I'm not nameless or faceless to them. That's OK though because all I'm doing is art and music and travel....and bitching. They'd have to fabricate a problem to incriminate me. It very well could happen. In addition to domestic spying and wiretapping, thanks to internet search engines like Google, etc., everything we write or say in public becomes archived forever. This interview is a good example. Who is Mark Gergis? Just type his name into a search engine and find out. So, I'd like to write a "hello" to my future employers, colleagues and investigators right now. Hi guys!
JB: And then there is The Etiquette of Polite Conversation. The idea is that it is more worth it to give up your freedom than to endure the "threat", which, of course, has no name other than Fear. So in America, we are careful to only talk about what is "appropriate" (don't want to "send the wrong message to our troops") and we bring legal action against the newspapers for printing the news (for instance, when they write about secret domestic spying by the government). But we all live here already so we know this, and I am supposed to be interviewing YOU so let's talk about that.
MG: And I'm being interviewed as an "artist" of some kind, not a political analyst. So let's call this an interview with a 21st century human who claims we'll all be living in a police state in the U.S. real soon – and most of this country will welcome that scenario because they're so scared by what they never choose to know. I hope I'm outta here for good by the time that happens... but if not I'll only blame myself. I've been told a lot by other Americans throughout my life: "If you don't like it, then leave". But I'll leave after I'm finished.
JB: Yeah, that's my attitude too. I certainly don't need to be paying my government to kill people I'd rather be playing music or eating dinner with. I'll be finished here before long myself. If the entire human race isn't. We can render ourselves extinct and so what if we do? Other life in the history of life on earth has undergone extinction and extinction on a mass scale has occurred several times, with two major instances at the end of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. It would be pretty fucking human of us to go ahead and design our own to end the Cenozoic. Well, so what, even if we blow up the earth? The universe will just try something else. Still, I like to think we could do better if we could convince our leaders to cut the shit. Of course greed and ignorance still pervade a large portion of the population everywhere. Maybe they will turn out to be stronger that curiosity and uh, love or whatever. Seems to be heading that way. It's amazing to me that a people can turn around from being victims of genocide only to engage in the same behavior against someone else without a second thought. It's the same as the extinction thing. We could easily design our own demise, and then be like, "Oh uh, whoops." I heard a radio broadcast the other day where a lot of people where talking about mass die-offs of sea life, amphibians and now bees going extinct. Someone suggested we could "simply" manufacture more bees. That brought an interesting silence. Maybe these could be end times for us – I'd rather assume it isn't. Even if it is though, it isn't "end times" for the cosmos. We'd just be one more cosmic experiment that fucked up. Or rather it went where it would go. The experiment was fine, just that results were negative, or at least contrary to our interests as human beings. We could be involved in an evolution of consciousness that is showing its cards: either we figure out how to deal with violence and environmental management or we destroy ourselves though our other impulses.
MG: Exactly! We failed, we won, we did it all... and we never learned from our own mistakes. It's all human. Let the cockroaches have a go at it while all these carcasses in the ground that thought they'd go to some supernatural paradise rot like the organic matter they are. I understand the reasons we have rules about not talking politics or religion at the table. No one learns from history. There is no world peace, nor will there ever be. That's like talking about saving the unicorns or something. There will never be a human society that gets anywhere with non-violence. Violent, armed resistance is about the only way the Palestinians have made any land gains since their land was stolen from them. If they had tried to get Gandhian on the Israelis, they'd have been bulldozed over in no time. These are the sorts of topics Americans and Europeans to an extent have difficulty understanding today because they don't have the context for it. It's not their reality. It's easy to fantasize about world peace and global harmony from our privileged standpoint.
JB: Yeah, I've heard people suggest that Gandhi fared well because he was dealing with the English. I think he had studied the Christian mindset and realized that eventually these people who where beating all of these Indians would feel bad since the Indians weren't fighting back.
MG: And, yes, in retrospect, we feel bad, but would you like to see my incredible collection of Indian baskets sometime? I've got one with an American flag stitched into it when we only had 12 states! The parallels between the two "promised lands" in this respect are uncanny. And so the question that naturally arises, once someone thinks about it: What can I do to make a difference? I think we can only do what we can do in this respect. A lot of people seem to think that in order to begin dealing with the intimidating world of politics and awareness, they need to join some party or attend protests, etc. Awareness is the first part – then you find what works for you. If it's in your art, then so be it. Is that insignificant? Maybe it is, but who cares? If it's not limited to preaching to the choir, that's more significant. If it's done in a clever way where it doesn't come off as a pedantic political statement – that seems even more effective. If it's in your discussions with people, that counts too. It's true that we are more powerless (or less powerful) than a lot of liberal schools would like us to believe but there are ways to at least be thinking about what goes on and to stay informed and share information and ideas with people. It all matters on some level.
JB: And yet one's expressions are so often misinterpreted. For instance wasn't there a funny review of the recent Porest album Tourrorists! in which the reviewer was questioning your etiquette or taste or human decency or something?
MG: Ah yes. That was one of the best Tourrorists! reviews. They've been as varied as they get, but apparently I made that critic vomit before he wished me DEAD! If he only knew what I was really up to....
JB: But back to Sublime Frequencies for a moment: I guess the interesting thing is the perspective and freedom of perspective, which SF allows the documentarian. It results in a street-level view.
MG: It's a view that is rarely seen in international music labels. In my opinion it's the only way to gain perspective on a culture. That is, a culture outside of the music studio and unhampered by producers who think they know how the world wants to hear the music. In Syria, I spoke with a visiting producer from the Gulf region that suggested I should mix house and techno beats into the Syrian music because that's the only way to market it in the west. On one level, he's right. There are idiots out there that can't handle international music unless it's glossed over. But we don't feel it's necessary to cater to that audience. There's enough merit and raw passion and soul in the music we collect. Why would we want to destroy it with today's ephemeral template? So it can be purchased now and laughed at and forgotten in ten years? What a joke.
JB: Come on, how are we going to DANCE to it? Through a little beat and some reverb in there and its Dead Can Dance. Yeah, THAT'S the answer.
MG: (laughter) Or a smoking hot Euro-electro remix.
JB: Of course, it originates in the person with the tape recorder and that person's cultural background as well. But that's okay, the audience gets a double portrait, especially in your work, like the Syria record and the new film, which we saw premiered the other night at Artists Television Access in San Francisco. Sumatran Folk Cinema is the title of your film. And it truly is a street level view. Let's talk about that and the title and "folk" in the sense you mentioned earlier.
MG: For me, that street-level view is important because it seems closer to some sort of truth. But the fiction of these truths is always evident. There's a different type of truth in documentation like this. Any substantial document is a blend of voyeurism, sincerity, manipulation, fibs and other ingredients depending on the project. I tend to get really into all of the ingredients and work them into the project instead of trying to find ways to cloak them. To me, documentation isn't about portraying reality. It's more about creating a new reality based on what existed during a moment. It is rarely "pure" unless it's unedited or truly candid. But even then, purity is debatable.
JB: Right, because of the whole question of the perspective. You know the "eye", the "gaze", all that.
MG: Purity is a prude's word. First, let's talk about the subject. If the subject is human, the human decides what to present to the camera or microphone, whether it's a spontaneous or pre-planned situation. What a subject chooses to give to the documentarian is contingent on all sorts of variables, including the relationship between the two at that moment. After the subject is recorded, the way that subject will be portrayed is in the hands of the documentarian and must pass through his baggage of filters and criteria. The subject is recontextualized and made to fit within the producer's vision of the whole document. The end result is a totally subjective and entertaining lie with shards of raw truth. By the term "Folk Cinema", we reference ourselves and those in front of the lens. It's folks filming folks.
JB: Anyone can do it.
MG: Exactly...I hope it's continued by those who find it worth investigating. It was done before and I was inspired. I can't wait to see more! Meantime, we just have to make more!
JB: My mother sang folk songs when she was younger but I don't think she would recognize the genre in the stylized "Folk Music" that is popular here now. If anything, people making electronic music might be closer in spirit to folk music, because the tradition is still emerging. It's not defined yet and a lot of it is word of mouth. Like what you were talking about with your grandfather, and hi-fi sets â€“ the human, and strongly American, impulse to modify technology into doing what you want. There is a tradition of that. At the question and answer series after Sumatran Folk Cinema the other night, people where bringing up a lot of these issues, the "gaze" of the phonologist and all sorts of post-modern things. These things exist in a real way. But still one learns from pictures and recordings.
JB: So how do you juggle your improvisations and stream of conscious treatments of recorded materials in your Sublime Frequencies projects with the educational goals we were talking about earlier?
MG: I can't say I think much about that juggle. I approach each subject differently and the stream of consciousness methodology is what propels the project. It clarifies as much as it obscures. It forces context where there was none, or it alters context to my specifications when I need it to. There are areas focused on that can never be disturbed from their context, but I often disturb the environment around these areas to enhance the experience. I still can't accept this title of "educator" even when I know I'm bringing new information into people's sphere – not when the traditional title of educator describes someone who is grounded, focused and learned in his field. I operate more chaotically. I may never learn enough about any one of these places I visit. I'm in too many fields at once to ever specialize in anything other than my methods of collecting and producing when it comes to documentary work. But I feel naturally qualified to have a go at it because I'm approaching it not as if I'm creating a totem pole of history, but rather that I'm sharing what I learned because it has a value I think people can start to get into. That and complete obsession are what fuel the work and as a result, keep me interested. With discs like Choubi Choubi, or I Remember Syria, I enter them knowing I'm creating a window where there wasn't one. People who peer in will see or hear some place they may never have considered. This type of document serves the purpose of bringing something closer to home that seemed so foreign by distance and/or culture that the mere thought of that location was obscure enough to ignore. Well, you can't ignore the phenomenal music of Iraq or the sounds, music and stories you hear on the Syrian discs. These projects were assembled with sheer hatred as much as they were by passion and true love.
JB: Well, whatever the motivation, I think it forces a humanizing affect on those willing to listen.
MG: That's for sure and in the end, I don't want to color the listening experience for people by ruining it with my personal context. There's enough of that happening in the content anyway. All of the context is self-evident if you're listening for it. If I thought that explaining my motivations and drives were essential in these releases, I guess I would have included a manifesto in the liner notes. A bulk of the initial editing, composing and compiling on I Remember Syria was done during the first few weeks of the 2003 onslaught on Iraq. It was a cathartic way to cope with the whole deal, personally.
JB: I've been playing Choubi, Choubi and some other SF releases regularly at the bar I work at. One girl borrowed FOUR cds from me. Lots of people have asked questions about the music on both the Syria disk and that one. Also, Radio Thailand seems to be getting a huge response. I think that these records DO educate and humanize, especially when we are dealing with countries where people are not being presented as people by the government and most of the media here in America.
MG: They do. And that's really vital when you can say – Check this place out, does it sound like you want to help bomb the civilization out of these folks? They've got it going ON over there, why don't you care that you're assisting in shutting it down? – These places are too easily demonized by the media and the government. Un-demonizing and deprogramming is tricky business. Humanizing the place is a first step. Sublime Frequencies sometimes serve as deprogrammers. Not the type that are going to try to explain the mathematics of a culture or it's music to you, but help show you the soul of a place without having sold that soul out. It's a first step – and then if one gets fascinated, they can decide to explore that culture anyway they want... just like we do.
JB: I want to talk about the Mark Gergis performance that affected me more than maybe any other. It was shortly after the World Trade Center attack and at the beginning of the US attempt to destroy the Taliban by bombing Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, out of whatever infrastructure they had been able to establish between the other bombings and wars going on between superpowers or tribes in their own "homeland". My state of mind at the time was really strange. That whole World Trade Center thing left me feeling really nervous because I knew that something really crazy was going to happen. That, and I really love New York City – I feel like I have such a personal relationship with that place (and I don't know too many people there – it's more of a relationship with the buildings or something) that I felt like someone had bombed my imagination. Then our invasion of Afghanistan made me feel worse and worse by the day, and the situation seemed to me one that would just bring more wars. Our political leaders were even stating publicly at the time things like, "This war may never end." Didn't someone say that?
MG: That is what was said and what was implied. It's obvious that a war declared on terror can never be won.
JB: No, nor a war on drugs. One might as well declare war on human nature and get on planning our own extinction. In America's case a war on terror might include the US fighting itself, shadow boxing. It's like in several Philip K. Dick stories where the drug addict is also the detective investigating the drug addict. Anyway, I also felt like I could do nothing about this crap. And soon I began to feel like I could do NOTHING. And I started doing nothing. Now I do things but I still feel angry and sometimes stuck, like in a dream where you can't move your arms. Nonetheless, your performance was at Heco's Palace over in West Oakland (I think it was opening for Wolf Eyes)...
MG: Yes, it was.
JB: It seemed to me to express perfectly what I felt. It expressed other things too apparently for other people, because some people where throwing bottles (even in radical northern California!) and yelling things at you all. The person I came with was so nervous afterwards and there was a lot of talk about how you all "shouldn't have done that". Meanwhile I was just like "what WAS that? I feel lighter suddenly. It was really poetry in the functional but un-romantic sense of the term. A few well-placed words from one person coming to express a deep sentiment. But I better explain what the performance was – you had some house guests from the Middle East or Turkey, right?
MG: My brother Erik was the guy on keyboards that looked like a middle-aged professor from the Gulf. The other guy was a guest musician named Nejdet who had just moved to San Francisco from Turkey. He was always looking to jam out, so I called him up the day of the show and asked him if he'd like to play his Turkish flute on-stage. We rehearsed earlier that day, but I didn't tell them I was going to completely go off like I did. I just said I'd grab the mic. I didn't want to think too much about it and I certainly didn't want those guys to be burdened with the pre-knowledge. Erik loved it, but we never really hooked up with Nejdet again after that. Too bad.
JB: So if I remember correctly, they came out and began improvising a sort of mixture of traditional Middle Eastern musics. This went on for a while. Some people seemed to think it was comedy since they had sort of Middle Eastern clothing on too. And no one knew them. People where asking, "Who are these guys?" and all that. Then this tall, cigarette smoking, Iraqi army jacket and Palestinian head scarf wearing sunglassed super smiler gentleman comes out and takes the mike. I was so involved in it that I didn't even recognize you even though I'd seen you perform many times. So this guy (you) says a couple of things, people laugh, the music plays. Then you started thanking people. At first for laughing, for coming to the show. This goes on, some people make sarcastic remarks, then you start thanking the United States, but through the crowd, for "liberating" various things (Bush had been using the phrase "liberate" for what we where doing in the Middle East at the time – "liberating people from oppression"). You started thanking people for liberating you of your house, your new car. Then for liberating you of your wife, children, arms and legs... it went on and on. People started to get really nervous. Some people were heckling you and the band, some people where heckling the hecklers. I think I remember a couple of beer bottles thrown at the stage. But the real weirdness was how uncomfortable everyone was when you where done. Then there was that picture in the paper at the beginning of our horribly pointless Iraq war, the photograph of the boy who got his arms and legs blown off because he was unlucky enough to live in Baghdad and because of a war we wage as a luxury, who will have to live with four stumps instead of arms and legs IF he lives. Its not pointless for him – we liberated him into quadriplegia, like you said we were doing.
MG: I expected the reactions to be varied, and I would say that Northern California was the best place to do that show. It's known as being so radical, but there is a fundamental problem in the Bay Area. It's so self-conscious and politically correct that it's completely drowned itself and smothers anything real from ever being dealt with. It's a big lie.
JB: I think people feel guilty for so many of the terrible things that have gone down. Like the fact that Native Americans have been driven to extinction. And white people with any sort of conscience wonder how kidnapping thousands of African people and holding them hostage while making them do the hardest labor ever seemed okay to anyone. But they take the guilt too far without action, and it becomes paralysis. Instead, action is needed to reverse the process; otherwise it will just repeat itself in slightly varied forms like I was saying earlier about genocide. People must be free to express themselves, people need to deal with each other and not be so full of fear and full of crap. On a larger scale though, people feel guilty about having these luxurious lifestyles at the expense of the rest of the world. It's good to be conscious of this because it is real. There are levels to this: our involvement is more dramatic in some places than in others. For instance, my critique of Israel is largely due to the fact that the US is responsible for supplying them with weapons. I don't support the actions of other militant states and groups either, but what can I say about them if I have nothing to do with them? But part of my paycheck goes to this every week. And now there are pictures in the paper of people who are trying to escape Israeli bombs ON FOOT. I hate that. Why do I have to fund genocide? For the US often that is what "foreign aid" amounts to. Forget aid for tsunami victims or even for disaster victims in this country. Instead of using my taxes to help out people in New Orleans after the hurricane they send it to Israel as "foreign aid" Military aid. But what can one do?
MG: I hate that too. You're right, what can we say if we have nothing to do with them? We can only gain an understanding of it from our viewpoint. We can travel, learn, talk to people, etc. But it becomes a problem when we are steered to think of one side as "good" and the other as "terrorist" as we finance the "good".
JB: Especially when the "terrorists"are actually on every side of the situation.But back to our idyllic Bay Area...
MG: I speak in broad strokes here, but it's the way I've felt about the dominant population here for a long time. And San Francisco has actually become a bastion of conservatism over the past several years.
JB: It's true. Even Berkeley is in a lot of ways a much more socially conformist place than some I have lived in. Even in Texas. In terms of control, for instance, not state control but social pressure. You can have dreadlocks here and not get fired from your office job, sure, but freedom ends there.
MG: The new conservative rightists have piercings, dreads, tattoos, elongated earlobes, etc
JB: It's just fashion. And I get lectures almost daily from random people getting into my business. People like to lecture others about their personal behavior and claim "the community" as their mandate. I recently saw this college girl getting a lecture from some lady for parking next to the woman's house. She was yelling, "Why can't you park more appropriately"? She was concerned that the car was taking up too much space, but give me a break, the street was empty. Aren't there other, more important problems?
MG: It's the greatest expenditure of energy on the pettiest of concerns. To me, that defines Americana and Western civilization in general – apparently, there's nothing better to trouble ourselves with! It's an island we live on here. There's a really "liberal" gloss over it all that clouds the issues at hand. People are so busy double-checking what they just said to make sure their true colors aren't showing. There's also a large Jewish population here that would rather embody Zionism rather than act human. This isn't the case with everyone, but it's there – and it's a silent plague that also runs through the veins of the music and arts scene.
JB: In general, I think this sort of thing this has a lot to do with the fact that people lead meaningless lives of servitude to corporations and so lack personal empowerment. People fulfill these needs by forming social groups to pursue their curiosities and interests, or to make them feel better, or secure of whatever. In the Bay Area many people try and do this within themselves by adopting one or another identity, and usually a pretty radical one.
MG: Yes... but how radical is it when it's in the Bay Area is another question. The Bay Area is viewed across the country as the place to go for radicals – and dutifully, those who want some radical camaraderie flock to it.
JB: The problem is that they adopt an identity and then never question the dogmatic dictates of the group. It becomes a mob mentality. One tries to demonstrate one's allegiance to the group by proclaiming dogma the loudest. It's the same thing with extreme patriotism as identity. So people here may adopt attitudes about the situation in Israel based on their allegiance to a group that here has very little to do with the situation and foreign policy over there. They are not asking these questions, but neither is the Ku Klux Klan, which used to promote itself as a Christian organization. No one ever points out the hypocrisy of these things.
MG: True. And to many Americans, who are able to exist in a country that's at war without having to feel the repercussions of war, foreign politics and geography are so abstract that they have almost no meaning. Also, you have groups like the ADL and AIPAC whose purpose are to witch-hunt those who speak out against Israel at universities or in the media. They go to great lengths in order to maintain an Israel-slanted bias in all forms of media. It's shameless and surreal, but there are few who seem to notice. The fact that a state would have to go this far to protect its image says a lot. And they've designed it so that when one opposes Israel or Zionism they scream anti-Semitism. It's laughable... and scary. I don't normally go waving an Arab-American flag around these parts but when my decidedly Arab character started chiding Israel that night on stage, I got accused of all kinds of things afterward. Being anti-Semitic was one. There's a general taboo there that's ignorant on white folks' part and institutionalized and scary on many Jews' part. It needs to be shattered. That performance told it like it was, then took it 12 steps further and held the audience hostage. I would have loved to see that on a stage. That's why we did it. Looking back, it wasn't even that extreme. I should have taken it 20 or 30 steps further. That's why I'm saying what I'm saying now – so I'll have no regrets later because by the time this gets published it'll be that time where it shoulda been taken further. No more shoulda.
JB: "Better to regret something you have done than regret something you haven't" as the Buttholes say.
JB: But seriously, life is supposed to be about living, right, doing something – not just working for someone else's dream, making them richer all the time.
MG: That's an ideal approach to life and one that too few strive for... or are in a position to strive for.
JB: Well it's certainly not available to your average Lebanese citizen. Not now, for sure.
MG: This is the end of the line, man. I don't know where it's headed, but it never gets better. Israel has had this Lebanon plot planned for years. And it's always been the plan. Actually, Israel has been violating Lebanon illegally since the late 1940s. People are so programmed to dismiss what get called "conspiracy theories". They'd rather not theorize or dig any deeper than the facts they are presented with from leftist and rightist media. Everything IS a conspiracy unless you're a member of the elite. Let's face it. And most terror plots you've heard about are guaranteed to have one of two mafia culprits: Israeli Mossad and US intelligence.
JB: It's hard to know what to think when confronted with the fact that the US often schools, funds, and supplies people who it later deems as enemies. I remember hearing that we funded the Taliban at one point, but I could be wrong about that...
MG: No, you're right! In fact, most of the time this country deems someone a rogue or an enemy, it's someone or some group that wouldn't have existed or thrived without the United States in some way, shape or form.
JB: Or were actually TRAINED by us, and at one point the US and Saddam Hussein were on good terms. Not to mention the connections between the CIA and Osama Bin Laden. But I'll leave that to the "conspiracy theorists" and people can read about that somewhere else. We have more obvious ways of creating enemies anyway.
MG: That is, if Osama Bin Laden has even been alive for the past 5 years! Yeah, we can go elsewhere for that, cause there are enough theories to fill up an encyclopedia! There are forces at play here that are basically unstoppable. The very least we can do is theorize. They want you to think of things in terms of "conspiracies" and "truths". Real information is available everywhere if we open our eyes and ears. There's really no excuse with the types of communication at our disposal these days. Israel could never deal with a flourishing Lebanon. That's a major reason behind them bringing it down the first time and then they wait 15 years till the Lebanese are putting the cherry atop their rebuilt, fragile landscape and the snakes come around to tear it down again. Israel operates by way of deception. The only way they can survive is by annihilating people and they have it down to a science. They are the best example of modern fascism apart from this country.
It's really so much more complex and it would take hours to discuss, but the bottom line is, it's been many decades since the Arab countries were carved by British and French interests. Time has passed and the spheres of influence have shifted. Some of these Arab countries kiss the hands and feet of America and Israel daily. The ones who do not are endangered. They will either comply or be destroyed. We are witnessing a major reshuffling now and Israel, the US and the neo-cons working on both sides will ensure that it all goes down their way. They thrive on chaos and the disruption of the region. There's a sick plan at play here. It's being financed by you and me and it's virtually dismissed as a "thousand year-old conflict" by those who don't get it. Some sick freaks are trying to fulfill their Judeo-Christian rapture fantasies and guarantee the extermination of the Arab while they profit from the affair. A worse world for everyone! And after ALL that, Americans think that writing their congressman will help change something. Some people assume I'm a bitter and unhappy nihilist that spends too much time focusing on this "negative" shit. I'm actually having a blast! I'm thrilled to be alive and doing what I do. There's a way to balance this kind of knowledge or investigation into the deep dark ugly while making sure you're staying sane and inspired, which is the least you can do if you're still alive! It's like a heightened form of multi-tasking. Some people wonder why I even bother with this shit. I guess for them I should either be ignoring it or be more apathetic. I'd rather know who's fucking me in the face!
JB: What do you like especially?
MG: I've talked a lot about what I hate, so yeah... I should mention a few of my vices: cigarettes, sugar, coffee, dynamic music and performance, weird shit in general and anything that inspires me.
JB: So what are your future plans?
MG: I'll keep recording and performing as long as I can as well as traveling and researching/collecting music from abroad and making more films too. There are plenty of Sublime Frequencies projects in the queue as well as several Porest projects up the other sleeve. Mono Pause still exists somehow and there will be more material from that project as well as Neung Phak (the Southeast Asian branch of Mono Pause) and I continue to collaborate with other groups. Liz Allbee and I have a record coming out, too.
JB: Oh yeah, and what is that metallic sounding percussion instrument on Choubi Choubi?
MG: That's a drum called a Zanbour (Arabic translation: wasp) aka khishba drum.
– originally published in Issue #2 of Osirhan, Osirhan.