In my first piece for left-field music blog Echoes and Dust, I caught up with Middle Eastern proggers Empty Yard Experiment at HRH Prog festival: http://echoesanddust.com/2016/04/interview-bojan-preradovic-and-gorgin-asadi-from-empty-yard-experiment/
Hailing from from India, Iran and Serbia, Dubai-based progressive post-rockers Empty Yard Experiment channel a confluence of influences as diverse and ephemeral as the city they grew out of. In between acoustic and live sets at HRH Prog festival, Bojan (guitars/vocals) and Gorgin (keys) took the time to shoot the breeze with Dave Brooks. On the cards: creating a scene in one of the world’s most transient cultural landscapes, their plans to follow up 2014’s critically-acclaimed album Kallisti, and the best soundtrack to a good floss.
(((o))): First off guys, welcome back to the UK. Beyond gigs in Swansea, Basingstoke and Milton Keynes, where’s on your map?
Bojan Preradovic: When we came here to tour Kallisti in 2014 we were over for about ten days. Ten days in December was maybe a little ill-advised for a band from Dubai, but we had a great time and even made it out to Stonehenge. I used to live in London, so after the show in Milton Keynes I think we’ll hang in Yorkshire for a few days and see what’s going on up there.
Gorgin Asadi: Stock up on some proper tea!
BP: After that we’re playing Basingstoke and then heading home.
(((o))): You’ve played some huge arena shows back in the United Arab Emirates, supporting the likes of Anathema (2011), Evanescence (2012) and Metallica (2013). When you’re planning a tour, what kind of venues do you have your eye on?
GA: The stage here at HRH is a good size for us. Empty Yard Experiment began in 2006 as a post-rock band with no vocalist, so the music has always been quite cinematic. We like venues to be a little more spacious to allow us to hear each other clearly, and fit in visuals too. Unfortunately that’s not a possibility this time round, but they’re a big part of our show, and something we’d really like to include on our next tour.
(((o))): Several other bands we’ve spoken to would have liked the option to include visuals too. The festival is expanding next year: we’ve been told that the big theatre will feature a full AV set up, so maybe there’ll be an opportunity to stage the complete Empty Yard Experiment experience at HRH Prog 2017. On that note, how do you feel visual accompaniments enhance your stage show?
BP: It’s a great dimension to add because it provides the audience with another perspective from which to interpret our music. It’s been a core part of our live show that has helped us to build a name back in the UAE. Plus it takes the focus off me so I don’t have to gyrate on stage as much!
(((o))): What’s the creative process behind your visuals?
GA: We have a bank of illustrations, graphics and filmed footage that we’ve collected over the past ten years. Some of them are shot by us; some by our friends. Occasionally we incorporate material from documentaries, but we try not to do that too much because we want to put forward our own creations. Every two or three shows we change the set to try out new clips and new combinations. If people come to see us play numerous times, we’d like them to feel that each experience was unique.
(((o))): When you’re songwriting, do you ever start with a piece of film and try to soundtrack it?
GA: That’s an interesting approach. We’ve definitely drawn inspiration from certain books, movies and scenarios in the past. Still, the music and visuals tend to grow out of a mindset or concept that’s developed from that blend of influences. Our on-stage visuals always tend to come after a song is written.
(((o))): With a new album in the pipeline for 2016, what’s inspiring you at the moment and what doors do you think that’ll open for the next record?
BP: We’re working on the new album and hope to be able to put it out by the end of the year. If not, we’ll definitely have some tracks lined up to preview by that point.
GA: When the time comes to write, we’ll meet up a few times each month, and then eventually lock ourselves away for two months to really get everything sorted. Frankly, during that latter period I don’t listen to anything except the news. At that point I feel that focusing too much on what other bands are doing isn’t really helpful.
More generally speaking we’re all quite eclectic in our influences, though we share points of convergence when it comes to rock and post-rock.
BP: I brush my teeth to Karnivool. I’m looking forward to the new Deftones album too.
GA: I’ve been listening to a lot of Cage the Elephant recently, but last month it was Fifties swing. Constantly. That’s the beauty of being in a band: you listen to whatever attracts you and use that collage of interests to collaborate with other musicians, each of whom bring their own ideas and influences to the table. When we write it feels like we’re all from different bands, collaborating on a project.
(((o))): Kallisti gained plaudits far beyond the reaches of the UAE, thanks in part to Red Bull’s backing, which has helped to promote your music to a wider audience. What difficulties do up-and-coming Middle Eastern bands face in terms of gaining investment, marketing their music and getting on the road?
GA: The biggest struggle back home in Dubai is that there’s no platform to help new bands to develop.
BP: In fact, for a lot of bands playing our kind of music it really isn’t easy, and that’s not exclusive to the UAE. Everyone has a second career or a job, even well-established artists. Unless you’re touring every single day and putting out new material you have to work, because making music is just unsustainable on a day-to-day basis.
To put some perspective on it, Steven Wilson recently came out and said that for him “Every day is a working day.” If someone as revered on the prog circuit as Steven Wilson has to work constantly to be able to make a comfortable living, you can imagine what it’s like for bands in our environment where there are far fewer opportunities to work. There’s very little in terms of music industry infrastructure in the Middle East, and unless you’re making Arabic pop it’s really hard to gather any support from commercial outlets. A lot of people give up at some point.
GA: They die trying, and it’s not down to their music because a lot of them are incredibly talented. If you don’t gain the attention of the people who matter the most, you struggle.
BP: The UAE is a very transient place. It’s changed rapidly and there are a lot of people moving around. You never really feel like you’re at home. It makes it difficult to establish a music scene, and the result is that in Dubai there’s a real shortage of viable music venues. Unless you’re U2 or Madonna it must be quite a discouraging prospect to play in the region, and for promoters it’s unlikely to be commercially or financially worthwhile. There are a lot of barriers in terms of decent venues and good promotion.
GA: It’s much better than it was ten years ago, and the amount of festivals, concerts and shows on offer in the UAE is increasing. But they still tend to be one-off events. What we actually need is a platform that’ll encourage growth on a more consistent basis; something that’ll help emerging bands to keep developing and be rewarded for their efforts. For artists to survive they need to be able to perform regularly and build up a reputation.
BP: As you said we we’re fortunate enough to be supported by a brand like Red Bull, and they’re really doing a lot in the region to support individual scenes. Unfortunately, a lot of excellent bands out there haven’t been so lucky.
(((o))): It’s easy to take that established infrastructure for granted, living in Europe.
GA: Perhaps. As Bojan mentioned, there’s no easy ride to writing prog or post-rock, wherever you are. That being said, it does seem that in the Middle East it takes six to seven years to get where bands in Europe get in two to three. We have to apply for every tour about four months in advance, and accepting a foreign gig a month beforehand is impossible because you need to get flights and visas sorted, as well as giving notice at work.
(((o))): Visas must be particularly tough considering the band’s multicultural make-up?
BP: We actually didn’t get our visas through for this tour until a few hours before travelling, despite pleading with the embassy to let us know what was going on. Even arriving at the airport in Dubai, we almost missed our flight. We have three Iranian guys in the band, which doesn’t make airports the easiest place in the world. It seems we were hassled at every single point until we finally made it onto the plane.
GA: I guess all of these obstacles make the whole act of being in a band more interesting, because you really need to want it to do it. The UAE doesn’t produce a lot of artists, but those that are around are generally good. They put their blood and sweat into it because that’s what it takes. There’s some great music in Dubai just waiting to be discovered.
(((o))): So what’s the solution for bands coming up at the moment?
GA: You have to use any help you can get from outside of the Middle East to grow.
BP: That’s one of the reasons we really wanted to come over here and play, because a lot of bands that tour the region never manage to get out. It’s so important to get your music out to a wider audience.
(((o))): Even if it isn’t financially viable?
BP: Definitely. This tour isn’t financially viable for us, but it’s an investment. Playing a specialised prog festival seemed like a great opportunity.
GA: If bands in the UAE thought about it financially then no one would do it.
(((o))): And finally, where would you guys like to take on next?
BP: It’d be great if we could get back to mainland Europe at some point.
GA: We’re best suited to warmer climates!
Kallisti is available via Bandcamp.