Desert Storm

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

There’s so little known about the dystopian warrior poet Gonjasufi that research is all but impossible, and I’m forced to email Warp Records after our chat to clear up a few points I never got to raise in the interview. What is his real name? How old is he? Does he really live in a shack in the Mojave Desert? And – something that never came up in conversation – is he really a reformed junkie?

Two hours later I’m on the receiving end of an email from the man himself, who addresses my points one by one. His birth name is Sumach – after the flowering plant used to flavour Middle Eastern cooking and so beloved of his jazz fanatic father – and he is ‘his present age’. Yes, he lives in the desert, on the outskirts of Las Vegas, though he says he has visited the Strip only a handful of times. And yes, he is a recovering addict, though he says that his love for yoga, his children and his music has a stronger pull than any drug ever could, bringing him closer to himself and closer to God.

It’s an unusually frank insight into the man behind the Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus-produced A Sufi & A Killer, though one that only serves to further highlight his inherent spirituality. Sumach’s mystical, whispered musings run through the album like silver threads, binding together ragged fabrics of blinding psychedelia, haunting desert laments and hypnotic Hindi chants. Warp have even been kind enough to compile a small green and gold-bound ‘prayer book’ of lyrics in the form of poems, in which the album’s themes come rushing into focus. On Kobwebz, for example, Sumach reverently intones:

I came with hearts while you came with weapons,
I came with God whom you are forgetting.
Don’t aim your problems in this direction,
Don’t blame Allah for your misconception.

It doesn’t take long to register the album’s strong religious undercurrent, but to see it as specifically Islamic in origin is to underestimate the scope of Sumach’s spiritual reach. Born into a family of Coptic Christians in San Diego, Sumach first studied Islam at college, but became turned off by the fundamentalists and attracted to the pursuit of divine unity pioneered by Sufi mystics; on top of that he has had studied the Rastafari movement and the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Yet despite the religious diversity of the album – from the whirling Hindu beats of (Bharatanatyam), to the maddening dervish chants of Kowboyz&Indians – it’s the affiliation with Islam which America hears above all else.

“The truth is very watered down on this side of the world,” he says. “Americans think these people blowing up building and car bombs are Muslims. To me they’re as much Muslims as these Catholic priests that molest kids are Christians. To me a true Muslim and a true Christian are the same thing: they worship one god. But America doesn’t want to hear that shit. The crazy thing about this record is that I had to get it to the US listeners via London. I’ve been living here for more than 30 years, and it took the London ears to pick me up.”

Sufi and Gaslamp Killer, who co-produced the album

It’s when talking about such matters that Sumach’s cadence takes on a menacing snarl, revealing flashes of the aggressive tendencies I’d been warned of before the interview. Sumach himself admits that he’d be “a dangerous man” without music; that writing is for him “a vehicle to channel all this frustration and pain”. As such the album serves as a window into the two contrasting personalities fighting for Sumach’s soul: the Killer on the one hand, the Sufi on the other. It’s a complex inner dialogue that offers both moments of benevolence, such as on Advice (‘It’s your only life / So it’s only right / To take your own advice’), and raw brutality, as on DedNd (‘I got the trigger cocked back / Watch these devils drop back’).

Yet it’s a disparity most accurately embodied on a single standout track, the Gaslamp Killer-produced Sheep, which swings between Blakean ideals of Innocence and Experience in four short minutes. Over lilting acoustic guitars and bucolic female vocal samples, Sumach begins by reflecting in an even more stoned-sounding trance than usual how he wishes he was a sheep, if only ‘because I wouldn’t have to kill to eat’; moments later he’s lurched into the voice of the lion, ‘feeding off sheep that graze / Off the leaves and blades / I wouldn’t have it any other way’.

Luckily, says Sumach, the recording process lent itself well to the long periods of isolation required to channel such contrasting emotions: Gaslamp and FlyLo would prepare snatches of samples and beats from their LA studios before mailing them out to Sumach in the Mojave, where he could board himself up uninterrupted for days on end with just a pen, a pad and a microphone for company. Equally important was that digital production techniques were kept to a minimum, something Sumach feels strongly about.

“I’m not really into the way computers filter out the power of a soundwave, which is why I only use analogue mics and tape when I record. On tape it resonates, you get more of the air and the environment captured on the recording. You listen to old Miles Davis and Charlie Parker records, and you can hear the cigarette smoke swirling around the room. I want all that to come across in my own recordings: the weather, what I was feeling, how much I was sweating.”

Sumach believes that digital production flattens out the rough edges and harsh frequencies that make great records. For this reason he insisted on travelling to LA for weeks at a time to sit in on the eight-month mixdown – a process that, needless to say, took place on an analogue desk.

“The sound wave itself has become so thin that kids these days subconsciously expect everything to have a softer, more accessible sound – their ears have become tuned to it. With this record I wanted to almost hurt the ear, to shock people with something raw, something hard. Something that’s capable of cutting into the eardrum and scratching off the resin of that microchip filth.”

There’s something of Blake here also – of cleansing the ears of perception, so to speak, until man hears things as they truly are: infinite. Such ideas tie neatly into the notion of the desert landscape that surrounded Sumach during recording, and which seems constantly on the verge of reclaiming the album. The track Ancestors, for example, with its haunting refrain of ‘ancestors, take my hand’, seems to suggest that Sumach’s analogue mics may have been picking up more than the sound of sweat and cigarette smoke alone.

Society is 'eating itself alive', but Sufi's debut is also shot through with hope

“This is all Mexico really, and the echo of the slaughter of the so-called Indians is present to this day. If you tap into its vibration then it’s there to be captured, it’s just that most people are too busy talking on cellphones or watching TV. Most people don’t give a fuck, man. But this is sacred burial ground, and people are driving their cars over it and maddogging each other, and it’s sad to see, because they’re ignorant of what lies beneath. And the crazy thing is that it’s all going to be burial ground again in a minute, and these cats are going to get buried, and their cars will be their caskets.”

There’s certainly a sense of impending doom running through the record, but it’s rooted more in despair at the human condition than in abstract revelations or religious iconography. Sumach says that the collective power of mass thought cuts both ways: that if everybody is simultaneously tuned into a television telling them that Armageddon is going to happen, then that’s what is going to happen. By contrast, if music like his can reach millions of people at the same time, then there’s no telling what it might yield in terms of salvation. His greatest dream, he says, is to hold a concert in the Gaza Strip: to focus all the world’s minds at the same time in an attempt to bring about peace.

“That was what I kept thinking about when I was making this record. Not making money, or scoring a record deal, or getting famous. Those things couldn’t have been further from my mind.”

Which makes it all the more galling when he turns on his television and sees rappers he grew up alongside in the ’90s hip hop scene banging and bragging about who makes the most money, not least because hip hop itself was a movement founded on social upheaval and airing the voices ignored by mainstream politics.

“I watch the Discovery Channel and find out that 75% of the population has no running water, then I turn over and there’s these cats bragging about who owns the most cars. Some of these guys are straight up rap billionaires, and what are they doing to make a difference? There should be a rule: if you make more than a certain amount of money each year, then a percentage of that has to go towards getting running water and food to places that need it most. It’s sickening man. I mean, how did we get from Public Enemy to this?”

Yet while A Sufi & A Killer is undoubtedly an angry record – one splitting at the seams with indignation for a society that Sumach says is “eating itself alive” – it is also an album shot through with hope. It’s a hope that has helped him overcome problems of its own, and his belief that it may yet help others remains the greatest reward for having made it.

“Energy is energy. A lot of this record is about me taking all the negative emotions that I have as a result of the world’s ignorance and hatred and racism, and dealing with them by turning them into something good. For me this record is a call out to people who feel the same way, but if they’re going to listen and follow me, then ultimately all I want to do is lead them back to their true selves. That’s what I’m channelling when I’m making music: the idea that we can all realise ourselves in our fullest potential. That’s what I think it’s all about.”