Text by Paul Parreira
Photos by Marine Carlson, Philip Di Fiore and Erez Avissar
Ahmed Gallab is calling from a busy café in the south of France to talk about Sinkane, the band name for his solo project. With a stellar new record out on James Murphy’s DFA label, Mean Love, and a tour of Europe well under way, we have a lot to talk about. Throughout the Skype video call we’re interrupted by the clatter of coffee cups, hissing steam from espresso machines, and attractive Europeans shuffling about. Brooklyn-based when he’s not touring, Gallab is transient in nature, soft spoken, articulate and as we talk he reveals himself as an honest artist on a quest for discovery.
I like a lot of different kinds of music and I want to express that as honestly as possible. I want to bring them all into Sinkane. The challenge is to figure out a way to meld them all together.
Thanks for calling where are you?
Bordeaux, I’ve never been here it seems like an ideal place. It’s on the coast, there are mountains, very romantic and Mediterranean, I didn’t know that.
You’re in the middle of tour of Europe right?
Yup. We started in Germany, Austria, and Belgium, then we went up to Amsterdam, and England, now hitting the south.
What’s the live set up for Sinkane?
It’s four of us. I play guitar, keyboard and sing, Jason Trammell plays drums, Ish Montgomery plays bass, and Jonny Lam plays pedal steel and guitar.
Pedal Steel that’s interesting sound for you?
It’s been winning them over.
I hear a bit of Pedal Steel on the new album?
There’s a lot of it actually.
I bought your previous album, Mars, partly because it’s such a great album cover, I buy a lot of vinyl and sometimes simply because the cover is interesting, plus it is on DFA records.
I’m the same way. I’ll buy records based on the cover.
How did the DFA connection come about?
They came to me. I released the “Runnin’” single on Bandcamp and Jonathan (Galkin) listened to it and he liked it and wrote to me asking if I had anything else and I had the whole record done. Mars was done for a year at that point. He said he had to get James’ (Murphy) approval and he seemed to like it and so he put out the label.
Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
My family is from Sudan, and we moved to the States in 1989 when I was 5 years old. I lived in Boston, since moving to America we moved every few years. My parents went back to school to be professors. I lived in Utah for a while, then to Ohio that’s where I went to High School and College, my formative years were in Ohio. And then soon after I graduated from University I started touring. I didn’t really have a home for about a year and a half then I moved to NY.
You’re in Brooklyn, right?
Yeah, that’s right.
One of the bands you toured with as a player was Dan Snaith’s Caribou project? How’d that come about?
It was a lot of luck. I went to see him play live while I was in Ohio and gave him the first Sinkane record and he reached out to me and told me he really liked the record so we stayed in touch. And when his drummer Brad broke his wrist he told me they needed a replacement and it just so happened that I was available.
I didn’t know you played drums.
I always played drums in high school and college bands. I felt like it was much easier for me to communicate with people if I could speak their language, and I always thought I needed more than just the drums as a way to communicate with my band mates so I pushed myself to learn other instruments and express myself a bit better. And I ultimately I realized I wanted to make my own music.
I wanted to ask about the development in your sound. It’s refreshing to hear the progression and growth in your music through the cycle of your releases. Starting with the (almost) experimental sounds on your debut, Color Voice, and the following year, 2009’s self-titled release had more of that Indie rock sound, then you begin to introduce the afro-pop, beat-driven vibe which is all over Mars, and now you’ve got a very accessible, R&B sound on your latest release, Mean Love.
Well, I travelled a lot growing up and I still travel a lot from touring. It’s allowed me to truly experience many different cultures—its people and music. I also grew up in a multi-cultural family, and the Sudanese, expat communities are also very multi-cultural. And I’ve absorbed a lot. And the main thing has been music and I’ve been very inspired by that. I like a lot of different kinds of music and I want to express that as honestly as possible. I want to bring them all into Sinkane. The challenge is to figure out a way to meld them all together.
It definitely comes through on this record. There’s a natural, global thread in your sound that glues disparate music cultures. I was surprised to hear a few ballads on the new record, though. I’m a big Curtis Mayfield fan and some of it reminds me of him.
Yeah. There are some heavy nods towards Curtis Mayfield, the flute, the falsetto, are just a few examples of that. Also, I’m a huge Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations) fan, the way he expressed himself through his music. It’s a like an active thing that I’m trying to do in conjuring up those spirits.
How do the songs come about? Is it you and the band jamming in a room?
I write all of the songs but I work with a co-producer, my friend Greg Lofaro. He had a very heavy hand on this record, he also worked on the Mars record but this one I’m very excited about the collaboration. I would come up with a song and make a basic arrangement of it and then I’d send it to Greg and he’d act like an editor moving melodies and parts around. I wanted him to write lyrics for the music because I really like the way he speaks. So we had long conversations about what I wanted to express in my music. And he’d send me lyrics and we’d hash them out, sometimes it would be amazing and then other times we’d have to work on it a bit.
There are some songs on the album that I brought to the band as finished demos, and we flushed them out, like “Young Trouble” and “Yacha”, and that has inspired me to do that a bit more.
It surprises me that you didn’t write the lyrics. The song “Son” seems so personal, and confessional. I wondered if it was you having a dialogue with your parents?
The song is very confessional, and that is one of the times that Greg and I spent a lot of time thinking about the lyrics, he has a very important relationship with his father, as do I, and we both needed to say a lot. Initially when I wrote that song it was a love song. He challenged me to take it to another level. And I think the song is much better for it.
The last album seemed more jam-based. Sounded like a band having fun in the studio stretching out. Especially on tracks like “Caparundi” and “Jeeper Creeper.” The songs on Mean Love feel much more….
Cohesive. Yeah. But I played virtually everything on both Mars and the latest album. The reason it’s so jammy is because when I get into a groove I just wanna stay there and go harder and harder. With this album I set up some parameters and if you want to sing more you have to work within parameters.
What about the African vibe? Is that a sound you want to continue to explore in your music since you’ve got these strong roots?
I think it’s a bit subconscious for me. I’m Sudanese when I write music and rhythms I do it as a Sudanese person, I grew up with that. You make what you know, and I grew up knowing a lot of Sudanese and East African music and I feel that. But I’m also American and grew up in America and had a lot of that influence as well. Ultimately, I want my music to be universal. I just want to be as honest as I can.