*shels have the honour of being one of the earliest bands I ‘found’ for myself with 2007’s mind-blowing Sea of the Dying Dhow. This made the connection I formed with the music pretty deep, and as a result I’ve jumped on any piece of news about the long-rumoured new albums, Plains of the Purple Buffalo. It seems like this year is finally the year I’ve been waiting for, and I recently got the chance to talk with vocalist/guitarist Mehdi Safa.
We chatted about the new album, the shelsmusic label, and his new side project with ex-members of Rinoa and Crydebris.
Your music is quite dichotomous; you incorporate a number of ‘heavy’ aspects, but your songs are also very expansive and ambient. Was this an active decision you all made, or did the *shels sound evolve more organically?
If there’s a measure by which we assess the success of what we do, it is how freely the music is allowed to take form. We try to let songs go wherever they want to go as much as possible – most of the effort is applied to restraining too much thought, and allowing the entire writing and recording process be as free and organic as possible; almost like jamming for the first time. Obviously the music will be influenced by what’s in our hearts and our brains and our capabilities, but we have such broad tastes in music: we’re into MUSIC – not genres – and MUSIC is vast, with few limits.
Is there any word on a tentative release date for the album – a vague time you’re aiming for? Will it be a huge departure in sound from Sea of the Dying Dhow and Laurentian’s Atoll?
It’s nearly done…it’s being mixed right now – we’ll start on the final track today actually! Hopefully Spring – it might even be the exact same day Sea of the Dying Dhow was released back in 2007 [This has since been confirmed – June 18th! Ed.]. As for the sound: since we first started getting attention for our music back in 1999 with Mahumodo, it’s always been about the melodies and creating the heaviest, most honest and emotional experience we could muster – and the agenda has never changed. We have come a loooong way since our last record; the melodies, the emotions, the honesty and the heaviness have all become more intense in our lives and we hope we’ve captured it on this record.
What sort of topics interests you lyrically?
Most of our music is instrumental; melodies say it all, but sometimes we throw in a few words to help guide things.
You live in California, but the rest of the band is in the UK. How hard is it to operate as a transatlantic band? How do you go about recording?
Most of our difficulties are when playing live or touring. With many of the people involved having full time jobs, we only get a few practices to learn everything from scratch, and then we hit the road! Imagine not playing for a few years and being thrown into a tour; that’s been the hardest part!
I work with Tom Harriman (*shels and ex-Mahumodo drummer) to create and record the music. We’ve worked together since 1998 so we’ve been through a lot of music together and completely understand each other. Music starts off as riffs or ideas, they’re put in a big pot and eventually strung together into passages and then eventually songs. A rough demo is recorded with a click track or some basic drum loops and emailed to Tom, who then works on the drums. We then get together (he either flies to Cali or I go to the UK) and record drums. The drum tracks are then brought to studio in Cali and the rest of the song recorded onto them!
When and where was the last show you played? How did it go?
I can’t remember…I think it was the Underworld in Camden back in 2008? It was hella fun – it was with The Ascent of Everest, Latitudes and Rinoa.
I was at that show! It was seriously fantastic – I think I even have a picture with you. So any immediate plans for live shows?
Hopefully tour this year – maybe around November.
Something I’ve always wondered: is there a reason for the asterisk at the beginning of the band’s name?
It was to help find and sort *shels demo tracks and riffs more easily in iTunes – an asterisk is a powerful thing!
If *shels were in a horror movie, who would survive to the end and why?
Tom, because he IS the dark side.
There’s been a bit of a buzz about your new band Ancients with members of Rinoa and Crydebris. How did that come about, and what are the immediate plans for the project?
I’ve always been a fan of Rinoa. We played shows with them on several occasion as way back as 2007. When Rinoa split a few of the members asked if I’d be interested in doing Ancients and I said yeah! We’re gonna release a limited edition single soon which will include a new track and a print, and later this year we’ll put out our first EP proper. I’m looking forward to playing some shows too!
Despite the relative silence from the band’s camp, the shelsmusic label seems to have been going from strength to strength. How much work goes into maintaining the business?
It’s a labor of love. There’s a shit-load of incredible bands out there struggling to get their noises heard. We’re a tiny label and a band ourselves and we’re using all that’s in our power to get the music we believe in to more ears. It’s an incredible position to be in – working with hard working musicians and some of the nicest people on earth.
The roster is fairly diverse. Is there anything in particular you look for when signing new bands?
Honesty, fearlessness, emotion…and being nice people! People who are into music for the love and the long run – not trying to be BIG, or be rock stars; we don’t get along too well with folks concerned with being ‘cool’ or whatever. We like humble, down to earth, honest folks who have their hearts in what they do. Big beards are a bonus!
Do you feel the name has much clout within the industry? Do you get any recognition, or people actively seeking you out with praise?
You tell me! As long as we’re able to keep doing what we do, we’ll be the luckiest mofos alive. That’s all that matters!
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Be yourself and don’t ever change who you are for anyone.
Sound advice indeed. Many thanks to Mehdi for taking the time to answer my questions. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for Plains of the Purple Buffalo come June 18th, and of course our review!