“I’m pretty ambidextrous and I really like multitasking,” says Shahazad Ismaily, holding my interview recorder and eating pancakes at the same time. We’re in Los Angeles at a health food café in the Highland Park neighborhood. It’s unseasonably cold for the late morning and Ismaily – who is very tall and lithe – is swaddled in a giant Canada Goose down jacket and a beanie and perched on a tiny wire café chair. He is in town from New York to work on a new record from eclectic Canadian indie-pop singer Feist. Ismaily tells me he doesn’t exactly know what he’ll be doing in the studio, but that this is usually the case in his collaborations and improvisations. (A comfortable relationship to uncertainty is an important part of his toolkit.) He’s brought along a drum set, some percussion, a Moog synthesizer, and an electric guitar, just in case. “I'm sort of in the role that I'm often placed in [at] sessions, which is to ‘Bring the spirit’ on whatever instrument that makes sense,” he explains.
Finding and channeling musical spirits has been a continual obsession in Shahzad Ismaily’s life. As an artist, he’s best known for traveling in NYC’s close-knit experimental music circles since the early 2000s. He is a musician, composer, teacher, and producer who runs his own recording studio, called Figure 8, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Eschewing a singular discipline or instrument, he plays electric bass and guitar, synths, drums, computer software, and all manner of percussion, including instruments picked up on his travels to Turkey, Chile, Indonesia, and Morocco. While musicians often pine to be the center of attention, or acclaimed for their virtuosity, Ismaily vibrates at his highest frequency when working in tandem with others. This essence has not gone unnoticed – yielding collaborations with Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, and Laurie Anderson, Bonnie Prince Billy, Ben Frost, Greg Fox and Colin Stetson, among hundreds (if not thousands) of others.
A Sound Infusion
To understand what drives Shahzad Ismaily, we must start at the beginning. Ismaily grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, the child of a doctor and a civil engineer who emigrated from Pakistan. “I had wanted to play music ever since I was young but my parents didn't play anything and there wasn't much music in the house,” he recalls. “So it's always been surprising and curious to me to wonder, where did the intensity of that come from? I grew up being quite good at math and science, because those are my parents’ skills. I think I either got them by happenstance or genetics or osmosis or something,” he continues. “That [mathematical] side of music always made a lot of easy sense – the forms and the structures, the crystals, the cubes. What was always more esoteric and challenging was ‘How is it that you make sound and then a person outside of you feels something or feels transported, or the room feels different?’ I wanted to learn how to do that.”
Ismaily had some transformative relationships to music as a teenager, finding music like U2’s „Joshua Tree“-album and Tracy Chapman’s „Fast Car“ that beautifully articulated and connected with his deep sadness. He went to university across the country in Tempe, Arizona, earning a master’s degree in biochemistry while slowly coming to the realization that music was all he wanted to do.
A college LSD trip also yielded profound revelations, which still bear talking about over two decades later. “I did some acid one time and I was sitting on a pair of carpeted steps with an unamplified electric guitar, an instrument which is so fucking quiet,” Ismaily recalls. “I played one note, and I felt like there was an orchestra of instruments playing that note around me. It was very touching in that moment to feel how strong the vibration of that note was, even beyond the literal volume of the object. On that same evening, I went to a Subway sandwich shop and I was still on the psychedelics. A song would be playing on the radio, and it felt like the color of the room and the mood of the conversations were of a sort. Then that song would finish and the next one would start, and the mood of the room felt different. So I had this palpable feeling that when music is on, it alters the entire environment we're sitting in. It’s not like a stationary object over there, that we can either turn our attention towards or ignore – it has this suffusing quality, like the air around us, or like the sunshine. You don't have to tune into music to sense it, it's already permeating you.”
What the Music Demands
Ismaily became determined to literally become one with the music. He bought a guitar and carried it everywhere. He taught himself to play along with everything: with records, with the noises outside, with other bands while sitting in the front row of their shows. “When I was learning to play guitar, there were lots of moments where I was insistent on taking my guitar to dinner. And so I would hold it and play with my left hand, while talking to people, while eating,” he says, by way of explaining how he’s comfortably juggling a knife, a fork, and a medium-sized recording device. He takes a large bite and continues, his speech is as hypnotically rhythmic as his playing style. “I think the way people often play along with records is they try to learn the thing that's taking place. In my case, I had this way of listening to a song and then trying to find out what are the notes that compliment it or the feelings that compliment it or the gestures that compliment it. And I continue to be that way throughout. Everyone has their strengths. And I have a way of walking into a room and when a piece of music is happening, finding the element that either supports it or nourishes it or expands it or makes it rise into the air.”
With music, Ismaily found a dialogue with himself and others, and a freedom that was missing in academia. “Music is funny in America compared to, say, India,” he muses. “There are traditions in India that say, ‘Start playing tabla now and don’t ever play it in front of someone ‘til 30 years from now. And in the U.S., it's absolutely the case that we say ‘Buy a guitar today, play a show later tonight.’ You can have no skill. But if you find some aspect of sharing through sound, it's totally acceptable to just start having the confidence to play. That’s one of the few moments where I feel proud of being born and raised in this country although there's so much to feel disgusted by. This idea that we don't need to follow suit with a tradition to find out who we are – that's kind of an elemental part of the American psychology that is quite beautiful and freeing, I think.”
Praying For the Music to Come
While in Arizona, Ismaily unwittingly manifested his future in New York City. The budding musician used to be a regular at a record store called Stinkweeds, where a clerk recommended him „The Prosthetic Cubans“, a Cuban music album by guitar luminary Marc Ribot that pays tribute to the late great blind Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez. Ismaily obsessively listened to the record. Upon moving to Brooklyn in 2000, charged off the energy of the city and its players, Ismaily became a regular at shows and quickly began improvising with some of his heroes, including jazz revolutionary Milton Graves and noise-scene star (and Tom Waits sidekick) Ribot, whose style he was already intimately familiar with from playing along with the record. The pairing was so effortless that Ribot asked Ismaily to join his band Ceramic Dog, which he has now been in for over 15 years.
Playing in Ceramic Dog has been one of the most salient experiences of Ismaily’s musical life, and Ribot one of his greatest teachers. “Sometimes backstage before we play, Marc will say that ‘Playing music is a prayer for the music to come,’” he shares. “It’s a reminder that, as you're just simply playing the notes, the music hasn't started yet. As it’s taking place, as you're playing the notes, you're still asking for it to be imbued. I thought that was very beautiful and that really stayed with me.”
“I've been so lucky with the people that I work with, because they are interesting, wonderful teachers and musically innovative, incredible human beings,” Ismaily continues. “There would be a long list of people I worked with who then left me with something that I grew from.” Another New York fixture he counts in this camp is Raz Mesinai, who also operates as Badawi. “In the early New York days, around 2002, I started working with Raz, who was making super wonderful, mostly club-oriented music. He was like, “Alright, I'm just gonna play this track for you and you just play some basslines. I play for a little while, and he said, ‘Okay, cool. I've definitely got the thing that I need.’ And I watched him then erase all the notes that I played, find this one squeak, and then make an entire bassline out of that. None of the notes that I played or basslines I played were in there. What has still stayed with me from that moment is that the music is sometimes not where you're looking. Or don't look at the place that you would think to look at. Look in the other direction or look below it or look above it. That's actually where the music is sitting, and you didn't realize that because no one looks there.”
Perhaps none of this growth would have happened if not for Ismaily deciding to move to NYC. “I'm in love with New York because it gave me my life,” he confesses. “I moved there wanting to be a musician that plays and works with people and travels and does fun, interesting things, so I still cherish that city so much. Every day I could go and see someone play, go up and talk to them and say, ‘I'd like to play together’ and just let that snowball intensify. For a 15-year period, let's say between 2003 and 2018, literally every single day, I would wake up in the morning, go to rehearsal, play a dance class, do a recording session, play at least one show or sometimes three shows, seven days a week. Life was so fluid and so beautiful and so ornamented. I felt very happy and easy in that until quite recently, and I’m sure COVID had had a bit to do with it. Previously, just simply getting a phone call to go record or play a show felt so purposeful. And now I’ve been reflecting a lot on why we do what we're doing? Where is the meaning in it? Shall we continue? If it feels meaningless right now, how could we re-imbue it with meaning?”
Improvisation with Meaning
These existential questions are inspiring some of the ideas Ismaily is putting together for his appearance at the 2022 Monheim Triennale, though he is also leaving room to respond to how the world feels come springtime. At the moment, he’s heavily considering collaborating with Antwerp-based trio Merope, an otherworldly-sounding trio anchored by Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, a Lithuanian folk singer also plays a traditional plucked-string instrument known as kankles. Merope’s music is gorgeous, sad, and sometimes even haunted-feeling – musical moods that Ismaily has been known to lean into heavily.
“The major seventh chord really hits me hard still,” he enthuses. “Like if you were playing an E, and then you played a D sharp, that feeling is so strongly around. I also love the Lydian scale, which is taking the fourth note and taking it up one fret on a guitar. Oddly enough, it's in a lot of kind of Emo, sad rock music like Low, Mazzy Star, The Sundays, but it's also part of a particular raga and classical Indian music called ROG Yemen – they both have that similar kind of sweet, beautiful melancholy. That tends to be around a lot, I'm going to go reach for something. But there are also moments when monolithic heavy riffs are around; maybe that comes from being into Rage Against the Machine and stuff like that, where it’s about one sort of strong object and then some drums.”
“Another thing I definitely want to do in Monheim is teach or interact with the local kids,” states Ismaily, who has a 12-year-old daughter. “Something that's very special about this particular setting is that the mayor and the government structures are a big part of bringing the festival to Monheim. They’re open to making the artists and the festival even more connected to the city itself, and I’m excited to see how my presence there could more deeply affect the fabric of the city by interacting with the local music school.”
While improvised sets can seem complex and mystifying to the audience, they are often like a childhood game – you walk into a room, possibly full of people you’ve never met before, and you build something right in that moment. Ismaily has a couple of techniques that he likes to draw on from past projects, which he may use with school-aged children or anyone just to loosen the music-making mood. “I did a bit of work with Butoh dancers and I was so floored by how beautiful that form is,” he recalls. “For many of them, the start of the piece tends to be image-based. For example: ‘Let's make a piece together where, at the beginning, it feels like our arms from our shoulders to our fingers are hundreds of birds, and they all wish to move now.’ And so if you start with that image and you say, ‘The woodwind section: I'd like you to just imagine that you are 100 birds that all wish to go in opposite directions’ then really intense music can come from that. And what's interesting is that it can short circuit a kid's nervousness of ‘Am I playing the right note? Am I playing in tune?’ It can skip all that and go to this deeper place.”
“Another idea comes from a brief interaction I had with this fella named Butch Morris – he was a part of the really important loft jazz scene in New York City in the 1970s, with Ornette Coleman and all that, and he eventually came across the concept of doing conducted improvising. His idea was that he’s the conductor, which allows a group of musicians who are typically disparate to have a uniform focal point; then he starts by giving some very simple language. He would say, ‘When I make a ‘come-here’ gesture with my hand, then you start improvising. If I hold my ear lobe and point to the person playing and then another person, I'm saying to that new person, ‘Listen to what this other person is doing and try to imitate it.’ With a series of gestures, he quickly gets a group of like 20 or 30 people who don't play together to start to make these beautiful, improvised fabrics. Something quite nice happens when this wall gently dissolves between experimental improvising and esoteric things, and more structured things like songwriting or playing bass on a Feist song or something.”
Of the Moment
Ismaily’s work itself erases lines, dissolves the boundaries between pop, experimental and everything in between. It’s music as magic, and he himself is the instrument – or maybe a lightning rod – tapping into the collective spirit of the room at a particular moment in time. Ismaily playing almost exemplifies the fusion of mysticism and math, as he’s able to effortlessly calculate a complex lexicon of moves without overthinking things. “In improvising there is the sense that, without paying too much attention to it, the math brain is trying to figure out quickly, ‘What are the chords around me? What are the rhythms around me?’ Therefore, what would feel consonant and what would feel dissonant? All that information is being processed at the same time, maybe in some substrata. So that if I do want to decide to make things feel dark or chaotic, for example, I can dip into that information that's taking place and make some informed choices about whether a gesture I'm going to play is going to be right side up or upside down.”
Shahzad Ismaily clearly has a deep well of knowledge to draw from – yet in an almost monastic way, he’s still driven by the pursuit of the unknown, still interested in being a student of life as much as a teacher. “I still get this sense like I haven't done much of anything in my life,” he shrugs. “I walk into a room, I don't know what I'm doing, and I don’t have anything to build on yet. So I just see what to do in that moment.”