BASSEL & THE SUPERNATURALS
- August 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH BASSEL & THE SUPERNATURALS
Bassel & The Supernaturals are an eclectic 9-piece band based in Chicago, Ill., led by the soulful vocals of Syrian-American songwriter Bassel Almadani. The band’s music combines soul, jazz and funk with captivating lyrics about love, loss, corporate life and a war in Syria that has directly affected Bassel's family along with more than 10,000,000 others.
In late 2014, Bassel & The Supernaturals debuted new original material for an intimate audience in their Chicago loft space. Due to popular demand, the band has announced Loft Sessions #2, taking place Saturday, Aug. 29, at Elastic Arts. Brittany Lee Moffitt will kick off this special evening of sound, recorded live by RoboToaster, while sponsors Baderbräu, Kovaland Pie-Eyed Pizzeria provide beer, spirits and grub.
We chatted with Bassel at Justin’s on Southport over some Baderbräu pilsners in advance of Loft Sessions # 2. We covered a lot of ground, including his musical expedition, working with producer Sinkane, the dreaded “diarrhelease” and why he’s excited for this second, more intimate event. Tickets are limited to 100, so be sure to grab yours today.
The Gig: Loft Sessions #2 at Elastic Arts // Sat., Aug. 29, 2015 // 8 p.m.
Drinks of Choice: Baderbräu Pilsners
Kristen: So in addition to a good beer, what do you enjoy drinking?
Bassel: I'm not ultra picky on the brand; I just like a good bourbon. My wife and I had our first date at a bourbon bar called Delilah’s —
Kristen: Yeah, I know Delilah’s! On Lincoln?
Bassel: Yeah. It's got this divey feel, but it's got a warm vibe to it, too, and they have so many bourbon options. But I was nervous because it was the first time we went out. I felt like I was supposed to order the drinks and make the decisions…
Kristen: Is she big into bourbon?
Bassel: I’d say she appreciates a good drink... So, I ended up ordering Maker’s Mark all night, which at Delilah’s is almost like a well because they have so many options. Anyways, I like that bar because it’s not all about the next big trend; it's all about a quality experience and some bourbon.
Kristen: I didn't realize it was a bourbon bar. You learn something new every day. Are there any other bars in Chicago that you frequent?
Bassel: I live in the Belmont and Kimball area, and there are a couple of cool bars right by me — Alice’s is great and they do a karaoke event that’s just hilarious.
Kristen: Karaoke is the best. I won't be up there singing but I'm always down to watch other people make fools of themselves.
Bassel: The guy who runs the karaoke is this really stoic, old dude. He's super quirky and he'll pull out props, like a little inflatable guitar, which he’ll use to play along with a solo. And he wears cheesy sunglasses. The guy is amazing.
Kristen: All classic moves. There are so many places I haven’t gone to in my neighborhood, and that multiplies tenfold outside of my neighborhood. I need to pick a day each weekend and explore one neighborhood at a time.
Bassel: Isn't that what's nice about Chicago? I've played in New York — and don't get me wrong, I've got a lot of really, really close friends out there — but it's interesting. If we play in Brooklyn, I can't expect my friends from Queens to come to the show. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s way too far. I’m not going to Brooklyn.” But in Chicago, you can pop over to a neighborhood and have a really great experience in one day. Sometimes it's difficult to get somebody from Lakeview to come to Wicker Park for a show, but at the end of the day, people will do it. It's big enough that there's always something else to do that you haven't experienced, but not so big that you have to isolate and stick to your own neighborhood.
Kristen: Very true. You didn't grow up in Chicago, right? Where are you originally from?
Bassel: I grew up in Northeast Ohio, and I went to school in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State.
Kristen: And as big as that school is, you found your niche in music there. Is that when you started considering singing and songwriting as a real path?
Bassel: I had considered it before college even started. There was a strong movement in northeast Ohio — very indie and eccentric. I grew up in Kent, Ohio, where Kent State University is. Growing up in a college town, we had a really diverse group of people who lived there. I'm Muslim; one of my close friends is Jewish; another is a Buddhist. There were people from every walk of life. And there was this independent movement of people from different genres and art forms that came together. I was inspired a lot by that. I'd say as soon as I got into high school I took off with it. I had a really close connection to the arts and a community of people who were putting it out there. And there was just so much frickin’ talent in that area, especially around that time. It really exposed me, so when I went to Columbus it was just capitalizing off my roots.
Kristen: That's a good way to put it.
Bassel: I had already started songwriting to a degree, and being in Columbus was great because it was a bigger city but it wasn’t Chicago or New York. It had a whole bunch of untapped opportunities. I could work with other musicians and try things.
Kristen: Yeah, your sound is really unique. There’s soul and funk and rock infused in there. And it sounds like a lot of your band has a jazz background as well. Has your sound always inhabited that unique space?
Bassel: Well, most of the guys in the band are jazz musicians. But the sound now isn’t where I started. When I first started writing I was really into indie rock. I was really into Denali and Minus the Bear … It was the early-to-mid-90s and the indie rock scene was just stellar. Each weekend we would go out to Cleveland or Akron and see all the talent coming through. But actually, I started out playing violin, and then became a percussionist…
Kristen: Which is such a jump. But it worked out, right?
Bassel: Yeah, it did. But especially when I was drumming, it was all about indie rock. I loved playing loud music, but then I got into songwriting and acoustic guitar. I just picked up an acoustic guitar one day and figured out how to play music that felt interesting to me. I wasn't a trained guitarist or anything. I had some theory knowledge from playing violin, but mostly I was learning chords to songs that I liked and was playing mediocre versions of them. I played through all the random Death Cab For Cutie songs — another band I loved during that time. I don't know, I played with different tunings; I found different tunings that allowed me to do a lot of finger tapping, a really interesting opening sound as a solo player, and connected to that.
Kristen: And when did the singing start?
Bassel: I gave singing a shot when I was a teenager, but when I went to Columbus there was an interesting fusion between indie and folk music happening. Folk was big in Columbus at that time, and that resonated with me because I was going through this songwriter phase.
Kristen: It’s hard to stand out when you’re doing the whole “one man show” thing though, I’m sure.
Bassel: Yeah, it’s hard and I didn't want to play the same damn thing that was out there. I ended up going through a lot of collaborative relationships with people and other musicians that I knew wouldn’t be there forever. I wasn't focused on creating a consistent group because I knew I was eventually leaving. I collaborated with a lot of artists and a lot of it was incredible: banjo players and violin players, all sorts of strings players. It was really interesting to see so much talent around there.
Kristen: Yeah, and all of those different approaches to sound likely helped when you went to make your first record, which was produced by Sinkane.
Bassel: Yeah, the first EP I made was in 2008, so that was in the heart of my college experience. Sinkane is a super close friend of mine, and without his mentorship I don't feel like I would've gone this far down the music route. He has always been a brother of mine. He's a few years older than me, and I’ve been able to watch this incredible traction he's built for himself and watch him develop: working hard, putting his nose to the grindstone and just hustling. He has always been very inspirational.
Kristen: What would you say is the most valuable thing he taught you throughout this process?
Bassel: I feel like it's one message broken up into two key components. One is keep your head down and work hard; put your nose to the grindstone. And the other is remember to tap into why you chose to create music and perform in the first place. Remembering that helps you put forth, otherwise it's easy to say, “Screw all this.” If you don’t remember why, you can get in your head. You’ve just got to get rid of that damn ego. And remember that you’re making music because it's something that you love.
Kristen: So, why music as a creative outlet then as opposed to writing or journalism or photography?
Bassel: That’s a good question. I think it’s largely due to the connection I had to music growing up. It drew me through some really, really emotionally rich times. I think a lot of people can say that, but I know for me there are certain songs that define a very specific era of my life.
Kristen: It's so crazy how music can do that, isn't it?
Bassel: It's amazing. It immediately works you back into a certain experience. Your brain plays a visual; not only do you hear it, but it creates so many feelings and colors around it that are so vivid, the song almost comes to life. I think you can absolutely get that through other art forms, whether it be the written word or painting or photography … But music was the one that resonated with me specifically.
Kristen: You’re a first-generation Syrian, and you draw a lot on personal experiences. How did you get from the indie/folk singer/songwriter experience to where you’re at now?
Bassel: I think part of answering this is bridging the time gap between the rest of Ohio and Chicago. After going through the songwriter experience and working with a lot of different artists, I released another album in 2010 and moved to Chicago. By this time I'd toured two records and it was like my vision was finally coming alive. I built a lot of that from the ground up. It was interesting moving to Chicago because I could just press “restart” and say, “Okay, what’s ahead of me? I'm in this bigger city and I need to figure out what this means.”
Kristen: In terms of sound?
Bassel: Yeah. I'd gone more of an indie rock route with that first album, then I explored folk music. And those are all different roads of music that spoke to me at a certain point in time, but when I got to Chicago, I really took the time to discover music I found timeless — really captivating music that lived through the ages. And some of that music really left a mark on me. I was constantly listening to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and damn, were they good. I can't think of a single person I've ever talked to who said they genuinely disliked The Temptations or Otis Redding. It's pretty unanimous that these guys were super-talented on a very raw level. They didn't have bells and whistles to add onto their records; they just had so much raw talent and so much emotion.
Kristen: And that had to influence you in some way.
Bassel: Yeah, I started writing music that was very personal and from the heart. And I was lucky to work with a lot of incredible musicians that helped build these beautiful, intricate arrangements around what I was doing. In a sense, I was always doing something non-traditional — open tunings where I'd take my A string off or I’d do a lot of odd metered stuff …
Kristen: And how have you evolved vocally?
Bassel: I've realized that as a vocalist, soul music is something I really identify with — it’s the idea of being able to reel the audience into your emotional experience. That has been a huge challenge with this new record, and “Hideout” is really the first song that embodies that challenge. There are a few songs on this new record that touch on what's happening in Syria, and this has been a really difficult thing for me to figure out how to write about. I'm not there, so I can't write about it as if I'm there because that would feel disingenuous. It doesn't do justice to the people who are really experiencing this to a degree that I can never comprehend. I can only understand it through the lens that what my family has been through.
Kristen: You have family still living in Syria.
Bassel: Yeah, I have a lot of family there. All of my aunts, uncles and cousins are from Syria, and about half of them have fled, but the rest of them haven't. I'm getting updates daily from my aunts and uncles, making sure who's alive today, with what circumstance. And that's what I mean: I can’t experience it through the violence but I still have to show my personal experience with it through this music. I’ve come to find parallels between things I'm experiencing in my life and things that I know that they're experiencing in order to write about what’s happening with emotion. We have a song called “Lost” that'll be on this new record, and it bridges together two stories. It's about loss — about one of my cousins being murdered. She was Ph.D. student in microbiology, a victim of crossfire, a completely innocent girl. Around the same time she was killed, we did this crazy double header of a gig. We drove from Chicago to Cleveland, played a show in Cleveland, drove to Dayton, did a show in Dayton that night and then drove back to Chicago. It was insane. There was a crazy thunderstorm, and in the mix of everything, my guitar was stolen in Cleveland. We were leaving in such a hurry and our equipment was so disorganized. That hit me hard, and then I also had all of these emotions surrounding what was going on with my cousin. It just came out, this song — this feeling of loss and the adrenalin and the terrified feeling behind all of this.
Kristen: Is that how most of the songs happened for you on this record?
Bassel: Some songs just flew out; others took a lot of time to write, and since we’ve performed them, we’ve tweaked them and they’ve taken on seven different forms.
Kristen: When is the expected drop date for the record?
Bassel: Right now, it’s undetermined, but the album will be done this fall. It will be together before the end of this year. But there’s a term I’ve come up with called “diarrhelease,” which is exactly what I don’t want to happen: you’re done with the record and you're so excited that you just want to throw it out there. You can’t be so excited to move onto the next thing that you get too quickly over what you’ve already done.
Kristen: How did you get the idea for Loft Sessions?
Bassel: It was a really impromptu event that we did last fall. Our primary keyboardist who lives in New York City was in town to collaborate and work on some stuff. We were already working on music, so we figured we would just make it happen. We got some whiskey and some pizza and we invited 30-ish people over to my house. It was a Monday night or something, and we were like, “Shit, let’s try it and see what happens.” It was so spur of the moment, and it was such a blast. It was really intimate vibe in a small space and the audience was right in front of my face. I was talking about these songs, what’s going into them, what inspired them and it became a really personal experience. We ended up getting all this great footage. Rarely do you make something happen but not have a plan of what you’re going to do afterwards. We were like, “So, now what do we do with this stuff?” It was fun to sit on it and find the right kind of experience. I didn't want to “diarrhelease” this experience on the interwebs.
Kristen: Into the depths of the World Wide Web
Bassel: Yeah. After we released the first video, we decided we could step it up a bit and have a more formal event. We could actually get some sponsors involved that can provide product; we could do it in a bigger space where we could have a little more to work with; bring in other artists.
Kristen: And what’s your hope for Loft Session’s future?
Bassel: Ideally, every few months — or whatever it might be; one or two times a year — we feature different artists and we can curate music in an interesting, intimate space. I want to maintain a level of exclusivity, so people can enjoy that intimacy with the music.
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s really important. A lot of times you go to shows and you're packed so tight with people that it unintentionally creates a disconnect between you and the music.
Bassel: Yeah, we played House of Blues in May, we did a big Double Door show in February and played New Year’s Eve at Schubas, and those shows are a blast. Because of the nature of clubs in Chicago and the deep focus on drinking, there's a certain vibe you get when you go to a club to see a show. A lot of people want to dance, have a good time, kick back and drink. And we have a lot of upbeat, funky, energetic songs that work so well in that space. Especially with this new record. But even though it’s groovy, it’s a lot darker. There's a lot happening in the lyrics. And you can’t always convey a particular feeling to 400 people in a room at the House of Blues. They can hear what's happening and they can move along but they can't really decipher the lyrics and really feel them. There are too many annoyances; too much distraction. What I'm really excited about with the Loft Sessions is that it’s focused solely on the performance. It’s the perfect environment to lay down some brand new music, communicate a message and build a true connection with a really engaged audience.