Sunday, July 24, 2011

Steve Berlin Q&A

berlin
Did you know a member of Los Lobos lives in Portland? I didn't until Chelsea Morrisey of Dirty Mittens mentioned it. Conveniently, Los Lobos was planning to play at the Oregon Zoo just a few weeks after that conversation--perfect timing to do an interview with saxophonist and keyboardist Steve Berlin for The Oregonian.

Steve was extremely friendly and happy to do an interview even though he was in an airport when I reached him. I first heard Los Lobos at a friend's cabin in Pagosa, Colorado, when I was 16. Kiko became the soundtrack of much mischief, and the opening notes of the album bring that time back for me instantly.

Somehow, I've gone all this time without seeing Los Lobos live. I had better text an elephant friend of mine at the zoo to save me a good seat!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Black Scorpion

Picture 3
Acrassicauda--the only metal band from Iraq--reminds us why rock is important. I was honored to get to do an extended phone interview with vocalist Faisal Mustafa for this story in The Oregonian.

A lot of good material didn't make it into the story, so I posted it below. In preparing for this interview, I listened to Acrassicauda's 2010 EP Only The Dead See The End Of War many times and was really pleased that once they finally were able to practice regularly, they produced good material. I'm looking forward to their forthcoming full length and to continue to learn of their development because what impresses me most about this band is that they're all in. They've risked a lot to do this and hopefully, when they play Portland tomorrow, they'll remind us--a city in which it seems like everyone is in two or three bands--not to take being in a band for granted.

acrass

If you'd like more background about Acrassicauda (like the meaning of their band name--hint, it's the title of this post), you can stream the film about the band, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, on Hulu.



Now on to the Q&A.

Simms: What is the most surprising thing so far about touring?

Faisal: The most surprising thing is each country you hit, it's like a new, different world. You will be shocked if you're a stranger. Everyone acts in a different way, different rules. They're all nice to you, but when it comes to protecting their own town and their traditions, it's like a very restricted area. But whenever it contains music, they're all the same rules. Everyone from the east to the west, they all give you that tension. Especially in the west. People actually pay attention to music. I'll tell you the truth. I'm a musician, but I know if I'm going to a live concert for, for example, Dream Theater on Thursday, it will be very hard for me to go to Megadeth on Friday. Some people call it, "Oh, you're just a wuss." But people actually are capable of doing that for the whole time of the week, you know? This is their life: "OK, I will be working in the morning and hitting another show at night."

I noticed in the film about you, there weren't many women at your shows in Iraq. Is it different playing for women now?

I thought all women, whoever is going to come here, is going to be very aggressive, but now I saw both sides of women in my shows. I've seen the aggressive, and I've seen the very mellow, very gentle and nice girl that she want to have fun, she want to have relax, she want to come with her friends and meet the band or whatever. Women are fine. In my opinion, they are the most beautiful thing. They can combine with you anywhere in any type of lifestyle. And I thought that our lifestyle wouldn't bring women in the past. But now, my idea has been totally changed.

I know a lot of American soldiers like metal. I was surprised I didn't see them at your shows in the movie. Did you know American soldiers in Iraq? Did they like your music?

I used to be working in the Iraqi government in the past. For almost two years, I worked in the Women's Right's Ministry and it was more opening and I had to meet a lot of American soldiers because I was in charge of a lot of logistic stuff in the office and I had to be communicating with American Army so I can make sure everyone who is going to be coming to the Ministry or whenever we're making conferences and press conferences around the Green Zone, will be just fine to be escorted. I had to make a lot of friends from small soldiers to big generals. You can see how simple and humble they are because they don't pay attention much to the rank. They will be like, "Hell yeah, I know Slayer! Yeah!"

Have you met Iraq War veterans here in the US?

Yes, I did. Yes, we did. One of them actually gave us his shirt as a matter of proudness and how much he hates being a soldier in a war and killing innocents. I don't remember the words, but it was something like, "Congratulations Acrassicauda for what you did. We are very proud of you, and remember, not all of us are actually thirsty for bloodshed and I think what you guys accomplish is a matter of high proud to us." It was very wise words to us. The guy's name is Bobby. He was a soldier and now he's demonstrating against war all over the States. he came to a show or two in Texas.

Then there were a couple of guys that came to me in and Virginia and they're about to go to Iraq and they came to us and were like, "I just wanted to talk to you guys about what is this like." It was shocking for me because I don't know what should I tell him.

You hadn't been to Iraq for a long time.

It's not just that. This soldier came to me as an Iraqi and asking me if he gonna survive. It's just another polite way to say, "Am I gonna survive?" And I will be like, "You know what dude, war is war no matter where you at or where you're fighting for and if you're gonna do that, just remember one thing: you won't leave this area with a bad conscience. You have to believe that you're doing it for the right reasons, and if you believe in that so hard, then go for it, but if you don't, it will backfire on you eventually and will hurt you.

That's good advice.

He was like, "Awesome. Thank you, man. Thank you." And I was like, "No, thank you for doing the right thing, man." I really appreciate and respect this kind of people because some people doesn't give a shit--they just want to fire a gun. One of these guys, we were sleeping over and he was showing us his hunting weapons. Some of the other guys were touching it, checking it out. and he was like, "Hey, Faisal, do you want to check it out?" And I was like, "Dude, I promised I'm not going to carry a gun. I promised myself that." And he was like, "I respect you for that."

I had heard that guys had to carry guns to practice in Iraq for protection.

Some of the guys usually carry their own personal piece. There was three of us actually carrying a gun. I've been chased like three times. The last time was like nine days before I get my passport and get the hell out of there. I was actually carrying a piece with me because I've been chased, jumping over roofs, hiding myself in a trash can for hours. By the time I get back, the electricity was already off and my family was chilling out, and I was a little far away from them so they couldn't smell the trash over my skin and they were like, "Hey, where the hell you been?" And I was like, "Just chilling out with the some friends." My folks are too old to handle such a news. Before I leave, I hand my piece back to my department, and I was like, "You know what? I'm out of here."

And you haven't held a gun since then.

I haven't and I'm not actually willing to.

Who was chasing you?

What I remember is there were three grey Beamers full of covered guys no showing their face and screaming, "There he is!" I'm trying to hit the dirt and I made a choice: either I'm going to be surrendering, but I have the power to run, why I shouldn't? And I started running.

Why were they chasing you?

I've been chased because of the band and I've been chased because of my work so I wouldn't judge on which point it was. I had to quit my job and leave with the band if I wanted to keep something going on.

Was it worth it?

I don't know much about politics, but I'm really hoping for the best and that everyone will realize this world doesn't contain only bloodshedding and killing each other. It's wider and bigger and that's where we try to experience. We came all the way to spread the love and music. You can see that in your lives, in our story. It's not very easy to leave your homeland without knowing if you can return to it soon, leave your own home and your own family behind, but you have to fight for what is right.

Heart of Town

Picture 2
Dirty Mittens really is kind of the heart of Portland. They sprang up with more gusto than skills (although I even liked them in their house party days) and after five years, many new members and lots of great shows, they finally released their first album, Heart of Town, last week. I covered it for The Oregonian.

Though it's their first official album, even their demo made my top 10 albums of 2008.