We speak to Sammy Sayed, of Scarab, ahead of his latest collaboration on Procession Towards The Unknown - an improv track that could more accurately be described as a religious experience than a musical one...
Procession Towards The Unknown is a 25-minute improvised experimental ambient track performed by Sammy Sayed on vocals and Sherif Elias on keyboard, who are both members of heavy metal band Scarab, as well as Invisible Hands' Cherief El-Masry on electric guitar, maracas and cymbals. The five minute snippet of the set released online is a vacuous journey, ominous and trance-like. Spacious synths smooth out through among subtle hi-hat hits and rustles, engulfed by Sayed's powerful chanting. The vibe of the hit, which feels as if you're making your way through an ancient temple, is no accident, with the prayer-like mantras bellowed out a result of Sayed's impromptu trip to the Pyramids. Ahead of their first live performance of Procession Towards The Unknown at Balcon Lounge on Saturday August 30, we have a chat with Sayed about the concept behind the project, discovering a new language, and transcendent improvisation...
How did the idea come about to record Procession Towards the Unknown?
It all started when the artist Sandrine Palletier (Metal Groove Records) contacted me, asking me to create a 25-minutes avant-garde/ambient track for a new project that she was starting. Her ideas came in total synchronicity with something that I already had in mind, but I wasn't sure how to materialize it. I went off and intuitively gathered up like-minded musicians that are willing to help turn this idea into flesh. It was Sherif Elias from Scarab and Cherif El-Masry from The Invisible Hands. But the idea itself wasn't even organized to begin with; where there are limits binding us, or where we rehearse what we are going to record in advance. The idea is pure freedom, just grab your instrument(s) and play until you feel it's time to stop playing. The only thing that was ready before hitting the studio was the mantra I used. Sandrine on the other hand was creating uniquely different 11-inch vinyl records that were pressed manually overnight with a special overheated amber compound, all contained within a wooden box, that I think looks like a gem and not just like a normal vinyl record anymore. We all didn't know what the outcome of what we were doing would be, or how it would look? How would it sound? And we did not fear any of that; hence came the name "Procession Towards the Unknown" that Cherif El-Masry brought up, and the name explains what the whole thing is about.
What was the mood like while recording and feeding off each other?
We were all in a state of pure trance as we were recording, and it felt ecstatically amazing. You know, that feeling when you tap out of everything and when you come back again asking yourself "What just happened here?" And the answer to that question would always be "I don't know what happened, I need to listen to it so I can remember." And as cheesy as this may sound, but when you listen to it carefully, you discover new stuff about yourself.. . And it was strange enough that the track came out to be 25 minutes long unintentionally. To put all that into rational words, we allowed our unconscious mind to be in control of everything we were doing in the recording, it makes everything more honest and real. It is healing, kind of like the art therapy, but this is more of a music therapy to us.
Could you explain the personal feeling at the Pyramids that inspired the chanting?
Well, here's the whole story.... On one random day, I woke up just like every day, I was having my breakfast and I strongly felt that I need to visit the great pyramid of Giza, which I often do from time to time when my friends are with me. But this time I went out alone. I went into the upper chamber and I was lucky enough that no one was up there whatsoever, and I wasn't even bothered by the guards. I stayed in there for about an hour long or maybe even more. I don't know for how long, as you lose sense of time inside. I have always been fascinated by the acoustics of the sound within this chamber, it has great decay or echo of sound, where when you sing you are instantly enchanted. It puts you directly into this meditative state. So I kept on chanting and humming and improvising different vowels, then I just felt like sitting down in silence, just meditating. When you are alone in this room, everything is so silent and muted, you could hear yourself from inside after a while, your heartbeats, and blood flowing. That's when I kept hearing a word or maybe a phrase that has nothing to do with any language I know of so far. And this is the mantra I repeat in Procession Towards the Unknown. It was a heavy experience and I had to let it out in something, and the atmosphere of the project was totally welcoming, as if it was made to harness that experience into something that has a meaning to me. Some of my friends say that this experience is all mentally brought about, or I have influenced it unconsciously, but even if that was the case, it is time that we grow up to realize that the unconscious mind can work as a mediator. Where do you think real inspiration comes from? If you manage to silence your mind and not become affected by what's around you, you will be able to channel what is coming from within your true self! But in my case, it wasn't just me; the great pyramid of Giza must have had an influence. This experience has also influenced me into writing my own language (if you want to label it that way), which is again channeled from hours of meditation in my humble room, which I will be using some of at Procession Towards the Unknown's performance in a couple of days in Balcon Lounge, Heliopolis.
Photo by Olga Kuzmenko at Bloodstock Festival UK 2013
At Balcon Lounge, will you all be improvising a complete new set?
Yes, every set is a new set to us all; in that sense it is truly a Procession Towards the Unknown. We have actually jammed only one time just for fun to welcome a new comer within this project. Graça Carvalho on the violin, and it was a magical experience to have her with us. It all fits perfectly. Luckily we have this jam session recorded in fair quality using a mobile phone. Somehow the recording sounds like a great old-school tape recording, and we just love it that way. We will definitely have it mastered and released at the right time. Graça had it recorded without even telling us... Smart indeed! But this has nothing to do with how we will sound in the actual performance. It is all still formless and will take shape only during that show, and then who knows?
Do you have any direction in mind before you start playing?
Nothing in mind but the mantras I will use. Other than this, I don't know what key or scale I will be singing at, and the same goes to everyone else. We will find out as we are performing the set, which can be from 30 minutes to a complete hour, and maybe more. It is all spur-of-the-moment and in the spark of it. As I said, it is more honest and real that way; as boundless and limitless as it can get on a Saturday...
And finally what do you want the listener to leave with after hearing the set?
Performing in this project feels like a process of alchemy on all levels to us. We arrive at a state of pure ecstasy when we are done with it, and the process itself is as beautiful to us as the outcome, always. We desire nothing but the listener to become part of that and share the energy along with us. I invite everyone to bring a sketchbook and a pen or whatever they may desire, and automatically doodle something if they will. Get into that altered state of mind with us, and tap into it in pure joy.
The event kicks off at 8PM at Balcon Lounge on Saturday August 30. Event details here.