Sense Memory: An Interview with Musician and Visual Artist Hisham Bharoocha
Hisham Akira Bharoocha has been a mainstay in the New York visual art and music scenes for over 20 years. Known for his collage and mural work, Bharoocha also plays drums in the band Kill Alters and has released solo music under the name Soft Circle.
In addition to these various artistic endeavors, he has also been a longtime Sensory Percussion user, and is now releasing his first solo recording with Sensory Percussion, entitled Live at H0l0. This release was recorded live at the venue h0l0 in Ridgewood, Queens on January 31, 2020.
Being of Japanese/Indian/Myanmar decent, Bharoocha has a deep connection with the history of Asian drumming and percussion. Based on this connection, he chose sounds that came from his cultural background to create a set of semi-improvisational short pieces that reflect on his childhood memories. He also decided to create 50 one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork for each of these limited edition cassettes. Each cassette cover is unique and made by Bharoocha using original printed ephemera, the same way he makes his fine art collage pieces.
On 'Live At H0l0,' there's a nice mix of pieces that are based on percussive sound design and others that are more melodic. For the melodic kits, like the one in "Ténkï Amé" for example, how did you set those up? Are those pitches randomly generated or sequenced specifically?
Yeah, it's super simple. I just have a set of tonal samples on each zone. I usually sort of stick to one sound and then I just pitch it. I make usually three to five samples and 90% of the time, they're randomized. I use the "retrigger" button so that the layers don't get too thick and blurry. And that's pretty much all I do for the melodic stuff.
Do you use any kits from the Sunhouse library when performing live?
Yeah! There are clearly a ton of great kits and it's really fun to sort of play around with them and use them as inspiration. I don't remember off the top of my head, but there are a few of the songs on there that are just straight up Sunhouse kits and they sound great for certain songs.
Creating a kit is kind of like creating a collage. I'll find a great sound and want to put it in a kit, the same way that I'll see a weird image and want to apply it in a new context to create a visual narrative.'
You had mentioned that you found some old cassettes with traditional music from Myanmar and this was part of the inspiration soncially: old memories and the connection between sound and memories of your upbringing. Did you source these samples straight from the cassettes?
No, those cassettes were more of a loose sonic inspiration, like a reference. Then I'd find a sample that reminds me of that sound. Like for the first track on this live album, there were some gong sounds that I found somewhere, maybe a sample pack, but I just messed with the tunings of them. So they have an imperfect tuning thing happening. I love that about Gamelan music and the music from where my father grew up. There are these weird little weird harmonics that happen in between that you can play with. So the samples for the most part weren't taken directly from that music, but I'd just take one-shots from recordings of the instruments that are traditionally used in that music. I realized that a lot of the percussive sounds that really trigger some emotion in me are things that remind me of my childhood.
And now it's almost come full circle technologically in that you were inspired by these old cassettes, then played the sounds using new technology, and now you're putting it back out on cassette.
Yeah, totally. And it's not a perfect recording; there are some little flaws. So I just thought, "It should just be on a cassette." It's gonna be a digital release too; you kindof have to do that because how many people actually have cassette players these days? But it also gave a me a good reason to make the artwork for it. So we made 50 cassettes and I made all the artwork for each cassette by hand. So there are all these individual, handmade collages that I've done.
I have a cassette player in my art studio. And so it's nice to just have that there. Every medium of how music is heard has a different length. At the end of the tape, there will be a silence because you're not immediately streaming the next song. So I like that about listening on different formats; it changes the way you listen to stuff.
Is there a connection between the visual art on the cassettes and the music they contain in terms of how sense relates to memory, cultural background, etc.?
Originally, I did directly try to use things from Japan or some things that referenced different parts of Asia. But when I really got into it, I was like, "This is hard." Cause it's hard to have that much material on such a specific thing, so it felt a bit restrictive. So I sort of just started going freeform with it. I think the one thing that connects conceptually is that they're all made from photographic ephemera. A lot of my collage work connects to memory because imagery triggers different memories for different people. So it's almost like a kind of synesthesia in a way where it's like, "I'm making a conceptual version of the auditory experience of hearing something that reminds you of some moment in your life." I mean, for me, I'm making things that reference my own life, but whoever is listening will have a different reference. That's why I like using collage. I like creating this weird relationship between X object and X background. I'm hoping that these trigger some kind of connection with the sonic experience when people get the cassette and listen to it while looking at the collage.
Do you find that your music and visual art both come from the same impulse, or are they scratching different itches creatively?
Yeah, the process is really pretty similar. I'm very process-oriented, I guess. For me, creating a kit is kind of like creating a collage. I'll find a sound I like and know that I want to put it in a kit or try to make a beat from it. The same way I'll see something and think, '"Oh, this is such a weird image, I want to apply it in a new context and create a strange or an abstract visual narrative.
Painting for me is very rhythmic; it has to look rhythmic to me to work as a visual composition. There's a rhythm to everyday life stuff, like how the traffic is moving. I think it's just so beautiful. And as somebody living in New York City, that ends up just being part of the influence sonically. And same with the visual stuff, you're being bombarded with information all the time. So then it's a process of trying to step back and mold a piece with all that information. So, yeah, I guess in those ways, they're pretty similar in terms of my approach.
You're involved in lots of bands and collaborative projects. How do you find the experience as a solo performer differs from playing with other people on stage?
Yeah. Before I started doing solo stuff under the name Soft Circle, I played in a band for a while, but then it got so exhausting with all the gear because there was no Sensory Percussion yet. I was just live looping with all these electronics, vocals, and guitar. Sometimes I was playing guitar at the same time as the drums, so touring with that was a nightmare. I just got sick of it and I took a break from solo. But then when the sensors came along I was like, "Oh, I could do this. And it doesn't have to be a nightmare every time."
A good thing that I've noticed is that if I'm in a set venue, I don't have to worry about training the drums too much. It's been pretty good. I maybe do a little bit of thresholding and it works pretty well. I've also set up my kits so that even if there's a little bit of crosstalk, it's fine. Things can be layered, just like with acoustic drums.
What was your workflow when you were building the kits for "Live at H0l0"? You're playing an acoustic kit, but it sounds like maybe you started with the samples and then came up with the drum groove afterwards. Or do you do it the other way around?
Right. At this point it's always been building a Sensory Percussion kit first. I've never actually thought about this, but with my electronic stuff, I almost never start with the drums. Maybe that just works better for me. Again, it's like collage in that I start with something that I find and then add to it. I make a sonic palette that I think will be cool in some way, then I play it on the kit and see how it manifests from there. Sometimes I make something and it's not how I imagined it at all, but sometimes that's the good stuff. So yeah, it's pretty organic, but it's always the sensory kit first.
I sortof attribute that to not being a formally trained drummer. I'm self taught and I can't really play a million types of beats. I didn't learn all the technical things. So I guess because I'm not as capable that way, maybe I don't like to start with the groove. There's pros and cons. I purposely didn't go to music school, because it was like, "I love this too much. I don't wanna get into these systems." Maybe it was a good choice, maybe it wasn't, but it just was the choice.
Well it seems to have worked out for you. Anything else you've got on the horizon you'd like to mention?
Just my band Kill Alters. We're working on a new album that will come out next year and we're back out playing shows after a long hiatus, so I'm really excited about that.