Guitarist Aram Bajakian has performed with some of the most aesthetically diverse artists of our time.He had the distinct honor of playing as Lou Reed's guitarist during the rock legend's final two tours. He then went on to perform over 100 shows alongside multiple Grammy winner Diana Krall during her much lauded Glad Rag Doll Tour.
Bajakian has also shared the stage with saxophonists John Zorn and Yusef Lateef, guitarists Marc Ribot and Nels Cline, saxophone virtuoso James Carter, bass legend Jamaaladeen Tacuma, violist Mat Maneri, and the original Can singer, Malcolm Mooney.
Bajakian is a member of bassist Shanir Blumenkranz’s group Abraxas. The band has released two albums on John Zorn's Tzadik label, the first being the heralded Book of Angels Volume 19. In February of 2014 the band released Psychomagia, a book of music written especially for Abraxas by John Zorn.
Bajakian leads several of his own groups, including Kef, a chamber string trio that plays arrangements of traditional Armenian Songs. Kef's first album is featured on the Tzadiks's Spotlight Series.
Bajakian's latest album, there were flowers also in hell, has received universal praise, and was called "One of the best instrumental rock records of recent years," by New York Music Daily.
Which was the first musical sound do you remember?
I really have no idea.
Probably the sound of the bubbling brook outside of my grandparents house. I used to love listening to it when I spent nights there as a child. But the first thing that really hit me as a musician was U2 singing Sunday Bloody Sunday on the Rattle and Hum video.
I know that Bono is all about his sunglasses now, but man, that video is so intense and had a huge effect on me as a third grader. There’s something so powerful in it. And when I saw it, that’s what I wanted to be a part of as an artist. Creating those types of moments and experiences. So while it’s a technical pursuit, there’s also a very large spiritual element to it as well. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about that. And meditating. My daily meditation is more important to remaining connected as an artist than anything. For me anyway.
there were flowers also in hell by aram bajakian
What do you dream, musically speaking, about?
I'm constantly thinking about music, musical ideas melodies. Writing songs and such. And that's the catch. There's so many ideas and only a fraction of them can be realized at this point in my life, because of time and financial reasons. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the practicality of realizing them. How to actually make it a reality instead of just an idea. And planning that out.
And a lot of this involves thinking about what musicians will work on a project to make it the most kick ass.
For example, with there were flowers also in hell, I spent quite a long time thinking about who would work well on it, who would gel musically. That way there when we went into the studio there was no wasted time. We recorded it in a day and it was done. That’s how I like to work. Have it be quick and spontaneous. Kef was also recorded the same way. And there’s something to be said about that, because all those great Stax records that we all love weren’t slaved over for weeks and months on end. They went in and killed it, and that was that. They captured that specific moment in time. So that’s how I like to work.
So, why did you decide to pick up the guitar?
I really loved U2 and Led Zeppelin. I know that’s not really avant garde of me, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t like Led Zeppelin – they kick ass!!!!
So in fifth grade I had a picture of Jimmy Page on my desk. And I learned all the Led Zep songs, but I was always too lazy to figure out the solos. And that continued through my life, when I was in music school. I’ve always hated transcribing for the most part. Always found it more interesting to make up my own solos.
The interesting thing though with Zeppelin was that I was more into there out sounding stuff. I loved the live version of Dazed and Confused. And at my fifth grade talent show I played that with a violin bow and everything. I also loved that song Black Mountain Side, on the first album. And it has kind of a Middle Eastern feel, which I think was speaking to my Armenian genes. And it’s interesting, I was talking to Ribot once about Black Dog, and that riff, and he was talking about how he thinks it was influenced by oud music. It’s such a weird riff if you get into it, the phrasing and the way it sits on the guitar. And I know that Page traveled to Morocco at some point. I also remember also really getting into this album by Sonic Youth called Sonic Death. It was this long minimalist thing, repeating just a few chords for the whole side of a cassette. I was into that when I was about 13 and used to have my bus driver play it on the way to school. I think she reported me to the school psychologist, but hey, I just liked the music!
Which work of your own are you most proud of, and why?
Really everything. It’s all such an honor and gift to be a part of. You can never take any gig for granted, and I try and treat even the coffee house gigs with the same respect as the bigger fancier gigs. Obviously it was amazing playing with Lou Reed and being a part of that huge sound he creates on stage. And with Diana Krall it was a different thing, really about nuance and subtlety. She’s a such a master at singing ballads and creating space. And her piano playing can actually get really out. She has some beautiful voicings that she uses and an amazing ear.
But I love the Abraxas records and playing John Zorn’s music, Book of Angels Volume 19 and Psychomagia.
To me that music is so ALIVE and of NOW.
And I’m proud of all my own work. It’s a weird thing as an artist to put out your own work and listen to it. Some things I hear and I’m like, “Wow that’s great. What was I doing there?” It’s always fun to try and transcribe your own solos. Ha! But the reason why it’s weird is because it’s not really you that’s doing it. It’s some other thing. At least if you’re doing it right. The other challenge as an artist is to actually have the confidence to put out your own music, while also remaining humble. I’ve done all my own self promotion and it’s and emotional roller coaster, because you have to get over the thing in your head that’s constantly saying “This sucks, this sucks this sucks,” and say, “Hey this needs to get out there, it’s great.” It’s a real amazing thing to be able to go through and experience in life, and is something I don’t think a lot of people have the opportunity to face every day. At least that’s been my experience.
What's the role of technique in music, in your opinion?
The only purpose that technique has is to facilitate expression of something deeper and beyond human experience. That's why you can hear a shredder and feel cold about it, or even hear someone doing crazy avant stuff with a prepared guitar and be bored, but hear Marc Ribot flubbing the second note on Silent Movies and have your whole way of looking at the world and music transformed. The technique is, in my opinion, only a reflection of what’s going on in the the person.
So I’m more interested in things like taste and musicality than technique and techniques. And this was something that Lou was one of the ultimate masters at. He was able to marry the avantgarde with sublime transcendental song writing. Like on Sunday Morning there’s that awesome droning guitar part in the background, all out of tune and chorusy. And on top of that is this amazing masterpiece of a song. So the song in some ways makes it accessible to the masses. But within that there’s all these amazing sound worlds that are transcendental. And it’s all done with so much taste and feeling. So this is the technique that I am working on and practicing. And I’ll probably be working on it for several more lifetimes.
How would you define the present time in musical terms?
We have access to everything but very few people are really listening. It's time to dig in. I think this is one of the reasons why vinyl is having such a resurgence. It makes you listen differently. People have 10,000 songs on they’re Ipods but they haven’t really listened to them with any depth. And it’s funny, but I think one of the reasons why the music I bought as a kid stuck with me so long is because I didn’t have a lot of music. I remember when I got My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless on cassette, I listened to it so much that the tape broke. But it’s because I didn’t have a lot of cassettes. And I don’t think that’s happening now.
But I think that with all this information, there’s also an emptiness in this time. And I think that as artists, our role in the world is to somehow show people that there is something else in this world that connects us that is greater than the internet.
What’s the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
A good guitar lets that thing come out. I love writing on my busted Harmony acoustic. Music just flows from it. That's a good guitar and you can tell the moment you pick it up. Also my Rick Kelly telecasters, there's nothing I hear in them that makes me think, “oh I wish it sounded like this.” I just love the sound they produce. So that also facilitates making music.
I really don’t like guitars that are too easy to play. Like a perfectly set up Gibson Les Paul, or something like that. They’re too easy. I like to work the guitar and have it fight back.
This is one of the reasons why I like playing a telecaster so much. Telecasters can really sound like shit if you don’t know how to play them. They make you work.
But it’s funny, along with my shitty Harmony, I just got a 1938 Gibson HG00, like Ribot’s only in better shape – at least for now! I played his at one of my Diana Krall gigs. He had sat in the night before and left his to be shipped back to New York. So I sneakily took it out of the case. And it was so magical I became obsessed with getting one. They just have this amazing sound and rich harmonics. You can just strum a G chord for hours and get lost in it.
John Zorn's Four Rivers, From the Album Psychomagia played by Abraxas. Shanir Blumenkranz - Bass, Aram Bajakian - Guitar, Eyal Maoz - Guitar, Kenny Grohowski - Drums
Why do you need music?
You know I actually don't need it. I spend a lot of time in silence. Going for walks. Or listening to my kids playing. Music is the very big cherry on top.
A valuable advice that someone has gifted to you in the past?
Wynton Marsalis told me to play everything with feeling and heart. And that was watershed for me. I think I was 16 and the I was in a period that was heavily focused on technique, and once he said that I focused on things differently. So even though I play a very different music than what he plays, I consider that to be a very great gift.
Also, my teacher Yusef Lateef spent a lot of time telling me the importance of living your life.
And what he meant was that you should practice and compose and such. But also have a family, go to church, cook, have friends.
Because if you don’t have those things, your music won’t have much depth. The thing that taught me the most about playing guitar was learning how to sing my daughter to sleep. More than all the scales and books and listening and such. So I’m very grateful to Yusef for helping me see that perspective early on.
Define the sound you're still looking for.
I always felt like I was trying to emulate that sound and feeling I had when I got my first guitar pedal. It was a DOD American Metal Pedal. Sounded like shit, but when you’re 12 it’s the best thing in the world. So I’m constantly trying to get back to that sound and feeling.
Which living artist would you like to collaborate with?
I love PJ Harvey and would love to play in her band – she writes such great songs. Also if Thom Yorke ever fires Ed O’Brien or Jonny Greenwood I’d love to have that gig. Also Madlib. I’d love to put some of my sounds on his beats.
But really, I play with everyone I’ve always wanted to. Shanir and Kenny and Eyal, they all inspire me every day. Shanir is such an amazing band leader, and so rock solid. I think every gig we play I learn something from him.
And Tom Swafford, the violinist in Kef is just such a beautiful deep musician. He just tears your heart in two with his playing.
And getting to work with Zorn is such a great thing. He has such an attention to detail and focus. But he also knows how to just let go and let the band do what needs to happen at that moment. This is something that takes a lot of courage, if you really think about it. The balance between detail and letting go. You have to really trust. So that’s a huge learning experience.
And at night my wife and I will sing songs and it’s just magic. So what more could I want?
What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?
Howlin Wolf. Skip James. Mississippi John Hurt. And I wouldn’t want to play with them. I’d just like to be in the room while they’re playing.
What’s your latest project about?
Well, I have a bunch of things going on right now.
The first is my album that just came out called there were flowers also in hell. I wanted to create a contemporary blues record, and not like the blues records that you hear all the middle aged guys in Hawaiian shirts play. I really wanted to do something that was of my own experience living in Queens. So I got Shahzad and this amazing drummer Jerome Jennings. He plays like Mitch Mitchell. And that record is really great. I had a blast playing on it and producing it, and I feel like it was something that really had to come out.
The second thing is an album that will be out in September or October of 2014 called Dalava. It’s a bunch of Moravian folk songs that my wife’s Great Grandfather transcribed back in the early 20th Century. He was good friends with both Henry Cowell and Leo Janacek, and my wife would always talk about this book that he wrote, where he wrote about the songs and had transcriptions of them.
We started going through the songs about two years ago and arranged them, with her singing. Her voice is amazing and powerful. She sang with the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards for five years, and was also an original member of Darius Jones’ Elizabeth Caroline unit. So that record is beautiful and amazing. The songs are so strange and magical. It’s really great. You can listen and preorder it at www.dalavamusic.com.
And then my band Kef will have a new album in 2015 with pieces I’m writing based on the Armenian epic, David of Sassoun.
There’s going to be a whole book of tunes, kind of like Masada, though nowhere near as big of course!!!!
But we’ll be recording this fall if all goes well.
And I’ll also be putting out a solo guitar record in late 2014. I’ll write these little pieces that I call Nocturnes, for lack of a better word. I always write them and record them late at night and they all have a little bit of magic. Really pretty and quiet pieces. So I’ll be releasing that around December, if all goes well.
And at some point I’m going to put out a record of my hip hop beats. I write them when I’m on tour on my Ipad, and it’s something I’m a little shy about. But I love making them and will eventually get it out there. Probably in 2015.
So there’s a lot going on, but it’s all really exciting!