Sasha Bayan is a musician who studies jazz, classical and flamenco guitar, sings tenor and composes. He’s from California but lives in Chicago at the moment. He’s a stellar musician, a bright soul, and an engaging conversationalist.
Sasha recently released an album called “Call the Doctor”, and he invites us to give it a listen (my three favourite songs are “Icarus”, “Oración Para Servicio”, and “Hands”):
I am very excited to share the news of my new album, “Call the Doctor”, and want to share this new music with you!
Toward the end of my stay in Haifa, I had the privilege of working with two incredible artists, Glenn Loe and Gus Wayenece, who helped me pioneer this project.
If you enjoy what you hear, “like” the music page and download the album on iTunes.
I was around Sasha during the early stages of this album, while he was composing with his guitar while working night shifts. I also had the opportunity to write, sing and record a song with Sasha and a few others—including Mr. Dave Twaddell, whose version of “Here Comes the Bride”, downloadable here, is somewhat of a hit—while I was serving at the Baha’i World Centre in Israel. We wrote and performed a song called “New Spring”, which we later recorded with Glenn Loe, a musician and producer from the Solomon Islands. I tried to upload it for you guys, but FAIL.
I had the delightful opportunity to interview Sasha about his general state of things, and the fruits of that delight are below for your reading pleasure.
Real Life Artist: Tell me a bit about your relationship with music.
Sasha Bayan: Oh God. I’m going to have to make it sound as nice as possible.
RLA: Why? Is it an abusive relationship or something?
SB: (chuckles) Sometimes.
I’d say that my relationship to music is like someone’s relationship to their own body. Music is very much a part of me; I can’t escape it even if I want to. If I want to deny it, or I don’t like it sometimes, it’s always there. I can always work on it; there’s always a capacity to improve it. Sometimes you can work on it too much, and your musical muscles can become sore or pained, and you can damage them if you overexert yourself. And I’ve definitely burnt out in that way before. But, you know, the muscles recover, and then there’s always a need to go back. It’s like breathing; just like a person has to breathe, I have to play music, because if I don’t for long enough then I start going crazy.
I can’t stop composing and I can’t stop playing—even if I want to deny it. I mean, I find that I have the capacity to do very well academically, for example, or I could eventually get a well-paying job if that was the direction I wanted to go in. I don’t feel incapable of achieving that, but my greater fear is that, if I were to pursue those things, I would go crazy without music. Completely. Even now it’s a struggle with balancing my classes, because there are so many interesting classes that are purely academic, and it inevitably takes time away from playing music. So I’m in between rivers, here, and I don’t know which one to jump into exactly.
RLA: I don’t know if that feeling goes away. I know how you feel; there’s just too much to be interested in, too much to learn.
SB: Yeah, I’m basically just giving myself college. College is for me, as far as getting in all these academics. I already feel like a fairly well-educated person for my age, but I’m getting into it a little more deeply, and once I’m done with my undergrad I’ll drop everything else and go full-force into music. That way, I won’t be able to say “ah, I should have learned; I feel stupid that I don’t have that opportunity any more”. The idea is that all of my studies will shape me as an artist. I don’t want to be what my friend calls a “one-trick pony”—you know, like if I become great at music but not much else. As a Baha’i, I want to be able to serve humanity, and not just in one way, because the Faith may need other things and if I’m not able to step up to the plate when I’m called, then, I don’t know—I feel like that would jeopardize the whole purpose of my pursuit of music, which is to serve mankind.
RLA: Let’s talk about your album. What did you learn while making it? What stands out from the whole experience?
SB: I learned so much. I learned a lot from a lot of different sources. Obviously the composition of the album was one thing (writing the individual songs). Recording them was another. But I probably learned the most from Glenn and from Gus, to be honest. Both of them… their image as musicians really still sticks with me—and that goes beyond their skill level. Gus is a fantastic musician, and I look up to him as a player—someone who’s got a tremendous amount of talent and skill. But it was their attitude that was the most striking. That’s probably what I want to carry with me more than anything.
RLA: What were the roles of Glenn [Loe] and Gus [Wayenece] in the making of this album?
SB: Glenn was the producer, so he basically recorded everything and then mixed it, and made sure everything sounded professional. Gus laid down the bass lines and the drum tracks. If you remember, you and I had that recording session with Glenn, and that’s how I knew him; I had never really talked to him before that. And basically I approached him and said “Hey, Glenn, I’ve got a whole bunch of songs. Do you want to produce an album with me?” He was like “Sure! That sounds great!” and just that attitude—that willingness, that eagerness, without any desire for compensation—it was remarkable. It was such a striking contrast to the general Western philosophy in which your self comes first; you have to have your self survive and you can’t do anything selfless because it might compromise your own “integrity” or “well-being” or whatever. Whereas Glenn totally gave everything; I mean he gave a lot of time to me—hours and hours and hours. And I bugged him so much because I wanted to get the album finished before I left [Israel]. I almost feel bad; I was just so adamant about wanting to get it all done. He definitely made a lot of sacrifices. The last few nights, we were up until, like, two in the morning.
With Gus it was a similar situation. I met him once, at a rehearsal that Glenn had brought him to, and I saw that he was really talented, so I asked whether he wanted to help me lay down the tracks for my album. “Sure, man, no problem!” And he also worked so much—probably a couple hours per song, at least. That’s a lot; that’s thirty-something hours he put in. And Glenn, probably more.
A lot of work went into this album. It was especially difficult because I was living in Akká, an hour away from Haifa [where Glenn and Gus were living], so whenever I could I would go by sherut to Haifa, then come back to Akká to sleep or to work. Whenever I was in Haifa people would ask me to hang out and I would inevitably tell them “sorry, gotta go work on my album”. It was the only reason I went to Haifa anymore. Otherwise I’d be in Akká, I’d be at Bahji, I’d be at the Shrines, I’d be working. So it was really tough. It was really tough to record the whole album. I learned so much while doing it.
I think I also learned the value of people’s time. It’s interesting because of the context, because it’s not like I paid for their time, but I saw how generously they gave it and I was made very aware of how valuable their time actually is.
RLA: That’s interesting because it’s the opposite of what people think. People think that the value of someone’s time is proportional to how much they’re being paid for it, but that’s not necessarily the case.
SB: Right, because it’s measured by numbers, which are something we can easily grasp. But this was much more intuitively based. Not everyone would come to the same conclusion; some people would think “I got a steal, I scammed these guys; they did all this work for me and I didn’t have to pay anything”. That could perhaps be one conclusion one could reach. The reality is that all those hours put in by Glenn and Gus would have cost me, in America, easily over $7000. I would put it closer to 10K. There’s no way I would have ever been able to pay for that. So just to have this accomplishment under my belt is amazing.
Putting an album out is a lot more complicated than just saying “Okay everybody, I have an album!”. So much is in the packaging and the marketing, and I know so little about that. So I’ve come to realize the importance of that, and the necessity of using marketing tools to get people enthusiastic about a product, which is my music. Unfortunately music is a commodity, and it has to be because that’s how I earn a livelihood. I’m not being very articulate.
RLA: No, I understand. Every artist has to find the middle ground between the ideal form of his art and using it to meet his or her daily needs.
SB: Right. And then there’s the added problem of—I don’t know how to best put it—intellectual property or intellectual integrity or something. When I’m playing with my band, for example, I can’t really promote my album because that’s my solo work. Even if we’re playing some of the songs from that album, it’s like right now I’m in Aurelia, I’m not Sasha Bayan—which is fine, because we’re more powerful as an ensemble than I am on my own.
We make a powerful ensemble because we balance each other well. I mean, my friend Sam (he’s the bassist) is practically a prodigy; he’s an incredible musician—a talented pianist, theorist, composer and bassist. He’s able to take things to a new level, to add form and an intellectual dimension to a lot of the songs. Yet sometimes it goes too far, and we need Alex (the percussionist) because he’s sympathetic to the crowd and wants to please the audience. Now, on the one hand, the super-intellectualized stuff is very cool to musicians, but on the other, it’s not always accessible or cool to people who are not musicians. So what we play depends on the gig and on the audience; if we’re playing at a jazz club then we can go all-out, but if we’re playing at a fraternity then cerebral jazz standards don’t fly. I’m sort of in the middle: I want to bridge the gap between sophistication and accessibility. It’s possible to do, and it’s been done in popular music, but that’s a challenge currently facing our ensemble. We’re figuring out how to use our backgrounds to our advantage and not let them become a hindrance.
RLA: Tell me about your band. What type of music do you play?
SB: So it’s myself on guitar and vocals, a friend of mine on bass, and another friend on percussion. I guess you could say I’m the frontman.
One of the challenges we faced at the beginning—and it helped that I recognized it early on—and other bands have gone through this, but I think it’s just a general human principle: instead of making it my band, I wanted it to be their band. So instead of “Sasha Bayan and These Dudes”, it’s Aurelia, which is us collectively; it’s our ensemble. And as a result, I see that they’re invested in it; they’re not just accompanying me, and they’re input is a lot more valuable. When someone feels as though they own something, they act like it and treat it like it’s theirs. So this band is theirs as much as mine.
RLA: Do you perform with them a lot?
SB: Yeah, I do. We have three gigs this week.
You know, you learn a lot from playing live, especially in a group, because you get a feel for how people respond to certain songs, what songs are appropriate for what situations. And you learn about the dynamics of the ensemble as well: how to communicate. It’s a real challenge, having a band.
RLA: So it seems like a good moment to ask about performance. Have you had any performance experiences that stand out or that were particularly tough?
SB: Uh, well… Just last night we had a small performance. We played a song at an open-mic of sorts at one of the dormitories on campus, and we chose a song that we enjoy playing, but what ended up happening was that it didn’t suit the crowd ideally. We have other songs that would have been more impact-ful as a first impression, and we were made poignantly aware of that just by the feel of everything and in our discussion and reflection afterward. The song was the “Oraçion”, the prayer for service, and both the other guys think it’s a beautiful tune, but it’s not something that’s going to make college kids cheer. It needs a more intimate atmosphere. It would be a good encore piece, but it’s not a first-impression piece, and that was the blunder we made. It’s not that we performed poorly, we just made a choice that wasn’t as compatible as possible with the audience we were appealing to. So sometimes challenges like that come up.
Oftentimes we feel that everyone enjoyed what we played, and other times we don’t. That’s what reflection is for at the end; at the end of the day we ask ourselves how we can improve. It helps us learn about ourselves as players, our tendencies. There’s an attitude of learning within the ensemble, which I’m very happy about. We’re working together instead of against one another, and we’re understanding of one another’s backgrounds, and we understand that this is new for all of us. This is perhaps what I’m happiest about. We’re all committed and enthusiastic, and we’re working toward something that’s greater than ourselves individually. The more we do, the better we get. We’re learning about what people respond to and about our own tendencies, positive and negative—and how to enhance the positive and minimize the negative.
RLA: Do you compose together? Do you have plans to record?
SB: Yeah, we’re planning to record. We have some friends who are into recording and who have offered to help us out. And we are composing. We just finished an arrangement of “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, a really cool arrangement, and we wrote a salsa tune.
Actually my plan, when I formed the band, was to treat the band as an instrument. The band is for the songwriter what the orchestra is for the composer. There are standards and techniques to learn if you want to harness the power of that kind of ensemble, and the same is true of a band. So we do covers sort of as etudes. We learn pieces and then put our own spin on it, and that’s like a study.
RLA: I would never have thought of doing covers as a way of practicing and getting to know your self and your band mates, but when you say it, it makes perfect sense because you can all come together with some common knowledge, and whatever comes out of that shows you what you’re capable of.
SB: And even beyond that, it has to do with learning to compose. “Message in a Bottle” is the perfect example: we’re playing a well-known hit, and by doing that you learn certain aspects of a popular-music vocabulary that you can then begin to incorporate into your own compositions. When learning jazz, for example, the most beneficial thing to do is transcribe other solos. You can learn all the scales, you can learn all the chords—and you should—but that alone won’t make you a good jazz musician. It all comes down to learning what the greats have done, learning their vocabulary and their manner of speaking. It’s the same as learning a language: you can read all the textbooks and memorize the grammar, but until you hear it spoken and speak it yourself, you’re useless. That’s why I think it’s valuable to do covers.
Our originals are our repertoire—our concert pieces, if you will. If our covers are etudes, then our originals are concert pieces—at least in the classical musician model.
RLA: Who are your guitar heroes?
SB: My goodness. I’ve had different heroes throughout my years of playing guitar. When I first started, I thought Yngwie Malmsteen was super cool, and Metallica. I was into hard rock and then I kind of outgrew it. There are specific guitarists who I like—Paco de Lucía, Tomatito, on the flamenco side of things. They’re remarkable players, perhaps Paco above all, just because he bridges the gap between flamenco and other forms of music. On the jazz side, I mean, Wes Montgomery is a must. It’s cliché, but he’s a quintessential jazz guitarist.
I want to say, though, that my idols tend not so much to be guitarists as bands or songwriters. My instrument is the guitar, but it’s a vehicle for my compositions. That’s what I’ve always paid most attention to: the song itself.
RLA: So do you consider yourself more of a songwriter than a guitarist?
SB: More of a composer, actually, but the line is blurry. I mean, I am a trained guitarist, but I’m also a trained composer, and I love to do both. Like, I love Stevie Wonder, for example; he’s not a guitarist, but he’s a talented pianist and his songwriting is impecable. Eric Clapton is another good example because he’s a talented guitarist but also a gifted songwriter. For me, the two aren’t separate, but corollary and mutually beneficial.
RLA: What do you think about fame? Do you want it? Do you care about it? Is it on your agenda? I mean, I guess you can’t really put it on your “to do” list, but… I guess what I’m asking is this: for all artists there exists the prospect, and perhaps the danger, of having your work recognized on a large scale. Some people are excited by that, others don’t want to think about it, and others think of it as “selling out”. The artist’s relationship to fame… it’s strange sometimes, and different for every person. So?
SB: Well I think this all depends on how you define fame. If fame means being able to play for a large amount of people who enjoy and are inspired by music that I write, that my band writes, then yes, I want to be famous—because how could you want anything other than to contribute in such a powerful way? So I would be thrilled. There is definitely a scary component, though, to the prospect of fame. Our band is starting to get a lot of gigs, and it’s scary to think that it’s actually starting to take off a bit—but you never know what will happen in the future, so it’s challenging to shut off the logical part of your brain that wants to know exactly how everything is going to work out… I don’t know. I mean, I would love it if a lot of people listened to my music, and I would love to have others to collaborate with, to learn from, to play with. The idea of fame has nothing to do with money for me. Obviously everyone wants financial security and the ability to live comfortably—I’m guilty of that as well—but I don’t need a 17-million-dollar mansion….
RLA: When I say that fame is “dangerous”, what I’m talking about is ego, and the danger that your ego can get inflated depending on how your art is received. Some artists are okay with that, and others don’t want that (including myself).
SB: That’s definitely a challenge for some, and it may become a challenge for me at some point… but honestly I just have to listen to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Stevie Wonder or any of the greats, because I learn so much from them, and it’s impossible to vaunt yourself over those masters. Humility is a major component—but that comes from a deeper philosophy. If you believe that the whole point of life is pleasure because you’ll die and disappear, then arrogance isn’t as much of a leash; there’s nothing holding you back from it, and it gives you a false sense of security. It’s not so simple, and not many people hold to a hedonistic philosophy in that pure form, but—I don’t know where I’m going with this—I pray that I won’t have to face that test.
RLA: So maybe the question is: is there a deeper philosophy that guides you as an artist, and how do you hold on to that?
SB: Well, I think you know the answer to that: it’s the Baha’i Faith and its Writings. That’s what keeps me tethered to the ground in every situation. If I’m down on myself, the Writings give me perspective about what’s really important in my life, and if I’m getting a little big-headed, well, there are warnings against thinking too highly of yourself—not only because it’s harmful to that individual, but because it’s damaging for the people around and has severe consequences not only in a future life but in this very life. I was just reading from Paris Talks, or maybe from Selections [from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá], and someone asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “what is the purpose of life?” and He said “to acquire virtues”. Pretty simple. So if our purpose is to acquire virtues, and arrogance is the lack of the virtue humility, then clearly that’s a failure in the very purpose of life.
RLA: (laughs) Excellent. Well thank you, sir. Do you have anything to add, anything we didn’t cover?
SB: No. It was fun. I wasn’t even thinking about the interview, I just thought we were going to chat….
RLA: Ha! Fooled you!
Sasha is currently working his way through a more-than-full course load at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. He somehow makes time for writing and performing with his band, Aurelia. You can check out Sasha Bayan’s Facebook page, listen to his music on MySpace, or download his album from iTunes.