In the second installment of our Transform Today collaboration with Absolut, we’re putting the spotlight on the producing duo that’s taken Cairo’s music scene by storm, having transformed their lives and careers from corporate to creative…
We’re at Epic 101 studios to shoot Hussein Sherbini and Ismail Hosny. The photographer starts flashing away from the other side of the room. There’s no bad boy poses, no hand gestures, no requests to capture their good side. In fact, they turn away from the cameraman without asking, open up a project file on Ableton and start improvising an impressive array of grinding synths, Hussein excitedly prods away at the midi keyboard boasting about the new drum rack he’s just created on an old version of Garage band, Ismail nonchalantly automates filters engulfing the suddenly mesmerizing beat. It’s a great metaphor for the workaholic producers, inadvertently shying away from the spotlight in favor of developing their unique sound. It’s ironic, because between them they’ve probably garnered more international column inches and TV appearances than any other Egyptian Electronic producers, coming into prominence in 2012 after their collaboration with aureate female vocalist/producer Bosaina and the release of their three track Pop-Electro-clash EP Bang & Blow that took Cairo’s stages by storm, critics near and afar lauding the intense energy that a live Wetrobots performance exuded.
They’ve since inspiringly lead the way for a burgeoning left-field music scene in Egypt, touring all over Europe including sold out gigs in the EDM haven that is Berlin whilst focusing on their solo projects. Hussein released his brilliant post-dub experimental debut solo EP Fairchile in 2013 and Ismail is close to releasing an innovative collaborative album with best-selling Arabic Pop songstress Fayrouz Karawya.
Before the Wetrobots became Wetrobots they were trudging along as corporate bots, Hussein at a 9-5 marketing job and Ismail working with his father in the leather manufacturing industry, music only a part-time occupation. In early 2012 they quit their jobs, and took the risk of putting all their funding into founding Epic 101 studios along with friend friend/DJ/producer Mahmoud Shiha, and the rest as they say is history. The studio is not only their soundcape laboratory but funding the dream and is home to the first comprehensive Electronic music production courses in Egypt, becoming a conveyer belt for some of the most promising young Egyptian producers. We caught up with the affable duo to talk about breaking out of the comfort zone and daring to transform, where their obsession with sound design becomes transparent right from the off...
You can answer however you like, together or individually…
Hussein: We'll speak at the same time
Ismail: Yeah, with like a two millisecond delay... so it's like a chorus!
Okay, when was the moment when you thought 'screw this; I'm going to commit to music full-time'?
*Both umm at the same time creating an unintentional chorus*
Hussein: We went on this Euro trip in 2011, and we had planned for it before going but after spending all of our life savings on this trip we decided to quit the corporate life and do this for real.
Ismail: Perfect timing haha, when you're most broke you're forced to follow your dreams. But we knew this always what were going to end up doing somehow, but we all got caught up with life and work. For me I was thinking of doing music on the side and keeping my other job but at some point I just realized it wasn't possible.
You don't think it's possible to balance the two? Is an entire transformation necessary to live through your art?
Ismail: Honestly, if you're a part-time musician you will always be a bedroom musician. You have to dedicate all your time.
Hussein: It's like all these cheesy sayings - 'you never get anywhere if you don't get out of your comfort zone' - and it really does make sense. Otherwise you'll end up always saying "I'm just doing this to make money so I can do what I want", but you'll never end up doing what you want.
Ismail: You need to be put in the situation where you have no other choice but to actually get somewhere with your music because you need to live and survive.
Does that become a hindrance as well, your passion becoming a financial pressure on you?
Ismail: Getting this pressure by doing music is much better than anything else.
Hussein: At the end of the day in your mid 20's until your 30's you're not supposed to be comfortable. If you want to do something really cool and be proud of it in your 30's, it's not going to be easy anyway. So if you work at a bank, it's not going to be any easier knowing that you're going to get your salary at the end of the month anyway than owning your own business and not knowing if you're going to be able to pay rent or not. The difference is you wake up, look back a few months and know that you're pushing yourself, and doing something special.
What other challenges did you face when you decided to transform your life?
Ismail: Psychologically I think, there was this huge guilt having been working with my father and I felt that maybe I was abandoning him. That was a bit of an issue and it's just scary to actually leave a solid career that is working and making money, to start something you're not very certain about. It was definitely worth it though.
What are your artistic inspirations?
Ismail: It's just what I do, I can't think of myself doing anything else. It's an important release.
Hussein: I feel like for the past 50 years we've lost Cairo's signature sound. I don't feel like we have a sound which is ours. Yes we have all the Arabic pop and the Shaabi, which for me was the first clear landmark of what Egypt sounds like but in general the industry hasn't really been going anywhere, we've just been copying everything. There's always this idea that we need to impress the west, that we want to show them we can make music that sounds like theirs but at the end of the day 20 years from now none of this will be significant.
And how does your music transcend that idea of finding a sound for Egypt?
Hussein: We try to make music that comes from our direct environment, not saying that we're going to use sabat, and all these oriental instruments but just becoming very influenced by what's happening around you.
So it's about a more direct environmental influence rather than an objective one...
Hussein: Yeah it's everything really. When you wake up what do you see on the streets...
Ismail: These things happen naturally though. You don't sit down and say I'm going to make something that sounds like that. As long as you're just honest with the music you're creating, it will happen automatically. That being said, it doesn't mean our music sounds Egyptian. I don't think our music sounds Egyptian at all but we're still exploring sounds.
Do you think music has to have a solid concept behind it or can it just simply be artistic expression?
Ismail: I think the concept also comes naturally.
Hussein: It's not necessary that it has to have a concept but usually when you're working on something, a concept will just appear on its own instead of following a strict idea in your head. Maybe art some point you could do this because that in itself is a very interesting process but again, it happens naturally.
Ismail: Trying to be very conceptual about your music makes it lose something. With sound art and things like that, being conceptual and technical works but it's a different field all together. There will always be a concept depending on who you are, and where you are at the time.
You put a lot of effort into visual art during your performances nowadays, how important is it for musicians to expand their mediums of expression on stage?
Hussein: I think it's very important, whether we like it or not people may be starting to get bored of just listening to music at a club....
Ismail: Electronic music; it's just a guy on a laptop, pushing buttons. It's not very appealing.
Hussein: It's better to have something to push the entertainment value. As someone who attends a concert, why do I want to pay X amount to come see you. I want to enjoy this whole experience and I want to leave the concert remembering that this was really cool and maybe effect people somehow.
Ismail: For us, I think watching an Electronic artist is interesting because we want to know what he's doing and see the gear, but for your average guy at a gig, it might be very boring.
How has technology changed the rules of what you're doing now and what kind of impact will it have in the coming years?
Hussein: I think it allows you to do much more but at some point...
Ismail: It becomes overwhelming...
Hussein: Yeah. I think that in general people have been using technology for the wrong reasons. I think we should use technology for it's ears rather than it's power in terms of it's things you can do as a human. I'd rather use technology for its power to capture sounds and its power to allow me to play visuals triggered by the music rather than use it to create a beat exactly quantized on time for example. It shouldn't be used to enhance your performance, it should allow you to do something that you can't do as a human.
Ismail: I think with technology, shows now are much more complex so you can have one person doing visuals and audio and and. It just expands your capabilities on stage and in the studio.
What makes a good producer?
Ismail: Focus is really important. Creativity obviously but more than that focus and knowing what you want and not getting distracted.
Hussein: Taking our course!
Tell us about the course, how it differs to what's out there and how you’ve inspired others to transform their lives…
Hussein: To be honest there isn't another music production course in the country I know of that is as comprehensive. We cram a lot of information into six weeks. The one thing that is definitely unique about it is that we don't push for a specific genre and we don't push for a specific workflow which is something that is very common in the entire industry. Everyone just follows a strict set of guidelines, everybody is really afraid to sway off them because there is always one master engineer who has been doing it a certain way for ten years and everyone just wants to follow this because the industry have stated this is the way to do it. But I don't think this is how you get anywhere, what we're trying to do is actually push awareness to budding musicians that you can do things in a million other different ways and you can use these tools to make any kind of music. You don't even have to make music by taking the course, at least you'll know how it's done so that your ability to understand and asses what is good music or what is a good producer becomes more legitimate.
How do you get the creative juices flowing when you're having a mental block?
Hussein: I will usually phase out of what I am doing at the moment and literally just look around or remember something really random from the day and try to find all these different threads to get me somewhere. It could be as random as this weird car I saw that day, with a weird colour, and what was this guy thinking and why did he buy this car and so on. Just random thoughts to push me to think of something else an drive me to try to express something. I've been getting into field recording a lot as well, so I'll record something and I'll pull up a random wave form, loop it and see where it goes.
What was the last field recording you took?
Hussein: There was a fight behind the studio, followed behind a street wedding! It was epic.
Ismail: Usually when I have a mental block I just stop and don't do music at all. I go out a lot and distract myself, put myself in situations that would inspire me afterwards. After a while of doing that it just comes back by itself. I'll also try loading up a random track, slicing it and messing around, not for the purpose of making music but just exploring sounds that will bring out a spark.
What does the idea of transformation mean to you?
Ismail: Optimus Prime!
What are your dreams now?
Ismail: Honestly, my dream is to keep doing what I am doing now, to be able to maintain this and then make it bigger.
Hussein: Same, I just want to keep doing this - touring, playing concerts all around and releasing more.