Central to all of her work is Sarkissian’s Armenian heritage. CLUB CHAI strives, amongst other things, to elevate Non-Western sounds and Sarkissian’s own music is filled with the sounds of her homeland. Ahead of the release of her debut solo project in December, Native Instruments asked the San Francisco-based artist to create a track using DISCOVERY SERIES: MIDDLE EAST. Native Instruments spoke to Sarkissian about her studio setups, Sabian drum kits and just how essential it is to call Armenian sounds by their rightful names.
Check out DISCOVER SERIES: MIDDLE EAST here.
What did you first start out making music on?
When I was in high school, I got together with some friends and made a band. We’d play in my garage and we listened to all kinds of music – mostly bands: garage rock, electronica, blues, indie and post-punk. I started drumming and that was when I fell in love with percussion. I began listening to music differently. I remember my first drum kit – my friends and I showed up at this house to buy a $75 drum kit we’d found on Craigslist. It was totally not tuned and falling apart, but I remember that the hi-hat I bought from a friend was a Sabian. I was so stoked, like, ‘Yes! It’s Armenian!’. I started producing for film when I was older and studying in Copenhagen. I took a ‘Sound Design’ for film course and started getting into production and tailoring it more towards visuals and a narrative structure.
How did film work influence your music making?
I used to film and shoot a lot and make my own short films – that’s why the music I produce has a narrative and a cinematic feel. It’s really visual for me, so I think about colours and stories and conversations in my editing process. I think about the physical environment you’re stepping into. About distance and, if you’re a character in this scene – what’s flowing around you? What do you hear outside of the space you’re in? Where is a voice coming from? The way I edit my tracks – how I layer them and how they have a beginning, middle and end – has a lot to do with the way I would edit a film. I describe my structure as weaving different instruments and sounds together – it’s literally like cutting things into each other. There’s an Armenian wind instrument called the duduk and I like to layer different notes of that and weave them in between. If you saw my Ableton screen you would see tiny cuts everywhere.
How has your studio setup changed over the years?
After I started playing drums, I was curious about programming drums digitally. I downloaded Mixcraft onto my mom’s old Dell and started making acid tracks and techno, then, years later, Audacity to make edits. When I got more comfortable, I started using Ableton. I taught myself and learned from peers – 8ULENTINA and I went back and forth teaching each other. I have the most simple studio setup now: two monitors, my laptop and a Roland Aira System-1 synth. I have Maschine Jam, Komplete and an Arturia MiniLab controller. I use CDJs and a Pioneer mixer for DJing and making live edits or blends.
How do MASCHINE JAM and KOMPLETE fit into your workflow?
Komplete gives me access to things that I don’t have in arms reach – especially with Discovery Series: Middle East. There are a lot of sounds on there from instruments that I was sampling already but I would have to go and rip things from YouTube or CDs. It’s mostly people in the homeland who play these instruments – they aren’t near me – so having the instruments there in my hands was exciting. I was overwhelmed when I got Maschine Jam, like, ‘Oh my God. There are so many sounds and instruments that I can work with!’ It’s been helpful with sequencing drums, too. Having Maschine Jam as the base and bringing all the string and wind instruments on top makes me feel in control of the story.
Which sounds from Discovery Series: Middle East do you particularly like using?
I like using the wind instruments because they’re very lyrical to me – they almost sound like vocals. When you pitch them up and down they sound like other vocal ranges and when you layer them together and cut them up in between it sounds really interesting. I was excited to delve into these sounds because I can’t find them in other sample packs. I actually used simple percussive things from Discovery Series: Middle East in my EP – not heavily, but there are hints that give a different sound, almost like its a live band. A lot of the instruments in Discovery Series: Middle East – such as the kanun, oud and zurna – are instruments heavily used in Armenian folk music that’s come from the Armenian Highlands region ever since ancient times. Although these instruments have been shared among many cultures, Armenian work and narratives aren’t referenced or credited much in conversations about these instruments, especially in the mainstream. That’s a result of periods of systematic genocide from empires in the Middle East – like the Ottoman Empire – and being removed from conversations over time. These events in history and the backstories have shaped how Armenian music sounds, its approaches and the intentions behind instrument use. It’s so important that we have more Armenian voices and artists in conversation about these sounds.
Can you talk us through the two different sides to your musical identity – the music you make and DJ as FOOZOOL and the work you make under your own name?
Under FOOZOOL I play lots of different genres and make blends with other artist’s music. My DJ sets celebrate my friends’ music and what I feel inspired by and am listening to at the moment. It’s very playful and upbeat – that’s not to say I don’t like getting dark! I also make a lot of edits and DJ remixes – sometimes I’ll take the idea of how I mix a track live in a DJ set and edit based on that. I feel like I give myself more room to experiment with production and samples. My original productions tie more into my visual work – they focus on personal stories and things I dream of and create in my head. I wanted to have a project under my name, something to honour artists in my family who never had the privilege of calling themselves that. And something coming directly from me.
How does it feel to have your first solo release as Lara Sarkissian coming out in December?
I’m really excited about it. It’s coming out on CLUB CHAI and it’s my first time putting out a full body of work – I’ve only done bodies of work composing film or installation scores before now. Ever since I started producing, I’ve made a lot of one-offs which I’d quickly upload to my SoundCloud because I’m impulsive. Now I’m ready to showcase the different skills that I have; the range of sounds and story structure I work with. The EP is called Disruption and it has a very spiritual meaning behind it. The concept comes from reading about Armenian mythology, the gods and goddesses and each of their strengths and focuses. It’s also about communicating with passed family members and how the visions and visual communications I’ve had with them come abruptly and sort of disrupt my day. I’ve had really intense moments with that in the last few years. The EP is five tracks long. It’s very dancey, then mellows out, is drum-heavy again, and ends more ambient and dreamy. I wanted to have ups and downs and different feelings in there.
What do you find to be the challenges of mixing Armenian instruments with sounds more typically associated with the West?
Some of the challenges are making sure the scales sound nice together or that certain acoustic instruments can compliment the electronic sounds I use. Producers/DJs like Sammy Flash and Armen Miran do an incredible job mixing zurna, duduk, and other Armenian instruments with all kinds of electronic percussion typically associated with the West. Sometimes I add a lot of layers and sounds to my music and then I have to wait a few days, come back to it again and strip sound away. Giving that time and going through that process is important – I had to do it with this track I made for Native Instruments.
Can you talk us through the making of the sketch?
I made a pattern with the ney, which is a flute instrument. I opened it with Komplete and used it as an Ableton plug-in – then I edited the pattern, which was a lot of fun. I loved changing the pitch and the scale and also putting the different effects in. I love the Pop Mix sound preset – it’s super crisp and clear and it really stands out in your mix. After that, I added percussive elements, like the darbuka. I chopped them up in Ableton and removed some of the MIDI notes to give breather time. I also really like the ensemble part of Discovery Series: Middle East.
You mentioned ripping samples from YouTube before. Has Discovery Series: Middle East changed the way you make music?
Using sample packs and ripping feel like different approaches and they each carry their own meaning. I do still rip things from YouTube – it’s my way of archiving. I rip a lot of old Armenian instruments, vocalists and tunes I can’t find anywhere else, so it’s very intentional for me. It’s cool because it lets me bring in my own reference points and meaning as a diasporan. But, of course, when I have a sample pack I have more control on what I can create and change and – the sound quality! Discovery Series: Middle East makes such a big difference.