I recently carried out an interview with Mehdi Safa of *shels
and his label shelsmusic
it can be read at http://www.ukmetalunderground.com/index.php?topic=3257.0
Mehdi Safa is a well known name in the UK underground having created and fronted Mahumodo. After large underground success, 4 EPS and massive media and label interest, Safa disbanded Mahumodo and relocated to the sunnier climate of the United States. There he released the first *shels EP and 2007 saw the release of the critically acclaimed album “Sea of the Dying Dhow”. Mehdi took some time out from the writing and recording of the bands second album “Plains of the Purple Buffalo” to talk to UK Metal Underground about the past, present and future of his band and his record label.
Did you play in any bands before Mahumodo?
I started playing in bands when I was 14/15 with friends from school. The first real band I played in we did Silverchair and Nirvana covers, we totally sucked and it wasn't long before I started writing stuff at home, I was eager to write and play some original music. The first proper band I formed was called Airflow it lasted a few practices! Then we started piecing Mahumodo together but it was called Bruise first, the first Modo show we were called bruise, that was a funny one.
Have you always found writing an easy thing to do or are there many songs from the Bruise/Mahumodo era that lie hidden away?
I feel bad that I told you about Bruise, ha ha please don't mention that name again it hurts my insides! I love writing music and have always loved it since I was a wee kid - the first official Mahumodo EP and album lie hidden away. Sometimes the first time you do things is the most fun and exciting and you manage to capture something that you might never see again. Although the recordings might not be totally representative of who we are now, listening back to them there's something we'd never be able to capture today so I'm proud of it all.
So what changed with the writing for you to get to the point of being happy enough to release the first Mahumodo ep to the world?
There's actually one recording off the first record we ever did (didn’t even have a band name at the time) which I'd be proud to release today. Well at the time we were trying to release our stuff and get it to as many ears as we could but looking back I think our first real moves were with Mahumodo’s ‘Shels EP’ back in 99 prior to that we were trying too hard, with the Shels EP we just simplified it down LOADS and it started to feel right.
Only one song from all the Mahumodo releases credits someone other than yourself (Johnny Renshaw now of Devil Sold His Soul
), do you prefer writing by yourself or is it just how it comes about in the end?
We each have our ways of communicating with others - lots of people just speak their thoughts, or paint, or express themselves through sport, business, writing etc; music has been the only way of getting my voice across comfortably. It's always been like that to me so the writing process has always been extremely personal. As a result, it’s been extremely difficult finding the right folks to share it with – which is why *shels is so special. When it comes to writing there's no such thing as a wrong or right way, just different perspectives and it's been very difficult to find folks that understand and share similar perspectives, working with my best friend Tom (Harriman, drums Mahumodo and *shels) has been one of the best things ever. We both understand each other so well when it comes to music that the process is a lot more natural, honest and hella good times.
What inspires you when you write music?
People. I also find movies quiet inspiring, true stories mostly I hear a lot of folks watch movies and make comments like "ahh, this would never happen in real life" when they see the effects and dramatisations etc but I think NOTHING, not even the most well produced movies can come close to a real experience – so, I tend to think about the realities, the untold true stories etc etc when I watch movies It gets my brain thinking about real events true heroes and great people, tragedies, love stories and of course a lot of the experiences I've had in my own life ultimately am I making any sense??
What kind of writing process did you use while in Mahumodo?
With Modo I spent ages writing on my own, nearly always on an acoustic guitar. Everything I've ever written has been on an acoustic, but yeah I'd spend ages writing then I'd record a basic demo of the song using a drum machine and a four track recorder and send it to the guys to check out. I’d then meet with everyone separately, almost always starting off the jams with Tom – we’d work on the structure and the feel and once the drums were all sorted I'd jam with Rick and Jonny (both now in Devil Sold His Soul), those guys are incredible so they would normally learn everything in practice and we'd do the song piece by piece repeating every section until it was tight. Then we'd do the entire song. Vocals would always come at the end when everyone had a good feel for the song - we'd make tweaks etc in the practice room if they were needed.
Has there been a difference between the way you write and recorded Mahumodo compared to *shels?
Yeah, I've learned to let go A LOT more, with Mahumodo I was extremely overprotective and SUPER picky. With *shels the passion and care is still there, but it's a lot more free. It's all slightly different now too, the recording is all Tom and I now. The live element is similar to how it was with Modo.
Was *shels something that came to you straight after the end of mahumodo or did some of the themes and emotions carry from one band to the other?
Towards the end of Modo I wanted to change the band name to *shels, (well ‘shels’ the ‘*’ came later) - If Modo would have carried on it would have evolved into *shels – I think anyone who heard the first *shels EP will have no doubt seeen (heard) the transition from Modo to *shels. I think if Mahumodo would have remained there would have been severe line up changes – and at the time I didn't think that was the right way to move forward it was just time for a different stage.
Do you find living so far away from the live members of *shels holds you back at all? The live shows are always an amazing experience but do you find not practising with the guys on a regular basis adds or detracts to the show?
There's advantages and disadvantages of both I like being away and on my own. Tom and I work very well together so there's a lota times I wish we were closer but even that being apart makes it more exciting when we're together and we all appreciate it more I think – the disadvantages are clear just 4 or 5 practices to learn 6/7 songs prior to a tour that's always gonna be interesting! haha but the guys in shels are incredible Simon from Eden Maine, the daves from Fire Apple Red, Edwin, Arif, extremely serious and dedicated musicians and we all share a similar love and perspective. So it’s ALWAYS the best times tons of fun and just awesome being together imagine being in a band with your best friends basically that’s what it’s like(*knocks on wood)
The *shels live shows include some of the finest UK underground musicians, as you have mentioned, how did you go about choosing members for the band?
We toured loads in Modo with loads of different bands but only a few stood out and certain friendships were forged along the way the guys in *shels were basically the dudes we got on most from the Modo days we love each other to death in a totally gay way :P
Conference of the Birds includes some stunning trumpet playing, which is something not often found in music of this sort, who is it that does the original track on the album?
It was done by my old boss Rob Walker – he’s an incredible player… and has toured with Ray Charles The Temptations, The Supremes and loads more. The company I worked for had an INCREDIBLE in house studio most of the top jazz players would record there so we just went in there on our lunch break one day and did that in 2 takes.
Live you have Arif playing trumpet, how did you find him?
Ben from Down I Go put me in touch with Arif. We were looking for a trumpet player who could play the end of conference and also jam with us and after trying to get in touch with numerous trumpet players I heard about Arif only days before our tour his first practice was with myself and Tom and it was a couple of days before our first ever *shels show. He had one practice then we went on our first ever *shels tour that week he met everyone else at the first show, he's a crazy mofo and one of the sexiest guys you’ll ever meet we all love him to death.
You must have put many hours into the writing, production, mixing and mastering of "The Sea of The Dying Dhow" how did you feel it was received by the press and music listeners?
Really grateful for how it was received most of our true fans have always understood what modo etc was about it’s not metal or genres but more about the emotion, the message, the melodies and the feeling. I'm glad that people saw the progression and understood it. It was an important record because it helped to show people where *shels is going where the music is heading - the next album will be yet another step into the direction we’re going in and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
Are you happy with the album or are there parts you would change? Or do you not hold regrets but take what you feel was wrong and amend it with the next release?
Well, i wouldn’t change anything on Sea but we’ve come a long way since that record so, the writing, production and anything we do today will be quiet different. That's the greatest thing about this whole thing in my opinion, the growth and the constant change and ‘improvement’ – I don’t feel we're even close to what *shels will sound like when it’s in bloom but I feel were getting close and if i'm alive and healthy long enough to get to that point I'll be the luckiest mofo alive.
How far along with album number two? has it all be written is it just to be recorded or do the two processes run together with songs been written whilst you are recording ones already complete?
Yes that's exactly it - its both processes happening together. Usually, we'll write a ton of riffs and melodies etc and spend ages filtering through them - over time some fade away and some remain and the ones that survive will get strung together with other surviving melodies and then songs are forged in the fires of mount doom :P – so, we're in the stringing phase at the moment.
You took the unusual step of offering people the chance to be on the album by sending in material to you. Are you going to be using much of the material you received?
Haha.. yeah .. we got loads of cool stuff sent in and this next album is gonna be ridiculous there are SO many contributions –there’ll be loads of folks putting something into it. Gonna be a mission to produce it all, but it'll just be a matter of time and getting all the spices into this awesome stew… Sweet!! So yeh.. people sent in lyrics and audio of them whispering stuff, screaming, talking, singing, stuff on guitars, stuff they recorded, and aside from all that we're also getting loads of guests from other bands. I reckon every shelsmusic band will have a contribution on this album.
2009 will see the release of album number two “Plains of the Purple Buffalo” what plans do you have for touring this album?
We hope to tour the rest of Europe, we've been offered to play a festival in Poland but it's in April and might be too soon for us. We are also looking to play France, Italy, Greece, Germany and the UK.
Was shelsmusic on the go prior to the first mahumodo ep or did you start the label after attempts to get other labels to release it? had you always just wanted to just do it yourself?
Yeah well, that came about really because most of the deals we were being offered where crap and landing a record deal for the hell of being signed never interested us – we always asked “what could a label offer us that we couldn’t do for ourselves?” and aside from money and a long list of contacts there didn’t seem to be much else and we thought it would be worth saving up and doing it ourselves working our asses off. Initially we put 50 pounds each into the first Modo recording and after that it all paid for itself right the way until our last release. It was a lot of work and took time but we quickly realized not only was DIY doable but it was way better, we saw money from our releases and we put every penny we earned back into the band. Of course the downside is you wont get to tour Scotland or far away places as easy as you'd like but we've always believed things should grow organically even if that means slowly. The major change occurred just prior to the Shels EP when we stopped caring about getting signed and started focusing on what was important to us - from early on we realised it was always going to be hard making a living from music, but we all knew that we’d would always make music, as long as we were healthy, so we just focused on doing what we loved, took our time etc etc, and we’re still doing it today with the same mindset.
The first *shels EP came out in a limited dose in 2004 on shelsmusic but for the sea of the dying dhow you broke the mould and released it through Undergroove
Records, what lead you to go through a label this time?
I've always had huge respect for Darren Sadler (owner of Undergroove Records) and we've been friends since the Modo days. At the time of Sea of the Dying Dhow, Shelsmusic as a label was still being setup as far as distribution etc and we weren't ready to release this properly. I spoke to Darren and asked if he'd be interested in helping until we were on our feet and he was down.
Did you learn new aspects of running a label from this experience?
I'm always learning so yes - the culmination of all our experiences have gone towards gearing our deals more towards the bands - there's no reason why everyone can't come out ahead - the label, the bands etc it's a shame but most labels, even indie labels are greedy mofos and to put it frankly crooks. When they receive the check from their distributors they somehow forget that not all that $$ belongs to them. Even as a small label lots of our projects break even and generate profit – we keep our costs down and work our assess off for our bands. We're very proud of the way we do thing we’re only in our 2nd proper year and I’m looking forward to growing more in 2009.
We are in an age of supposed ‘virtual piracy’ with decreases in commercial cd sales do you have any ideas on how you will go about releasing music in the future?
I really want to move away from pressing CDs and want to focus on more and made stuff like prints and posters tshirts. The idea is that if people buy a print or T they'll get the album for free on a hand-printed CDr that we'll make with handmade packaging etc will save us money, and also be a way nicer thing to have and collect - I'm not going to rule out mass pressing CDs completely. The original Mahumodo EPs were hand made so we've always done it and yeah it's def more work but the old distribution model is dying or dead and I think it's a good thing. It's only going to force labels and bands to work harder and give folks something better which is good. I think there will always be a market for physical stuff with beautiful artwork and packaging and that's what we want to focus on - creating ART and sharing it with folks. Art and music does not = Cds we all have to think beyond that. We want to give folks something real and long lasting something they can keep and be proud of forever hand made art whether it's a poster or limited edition CD. Boom. (http://www.shelsmusic.com/label/prints.php
Are there many releases planned for shelsmusic in 2009?
Loads… we could easily do WAY more if it wasn't for the lack of $$ - at the moment we have just under 10 releases set in stone for 2009 including the new The Ascent Of Everest
album, new Black Sheep Wall
album, Latitudes Debut full length! *shels album, Sons of Noel and Adrian
EP and worldwide album launch in April –parliament of owls
Debut album, Kopek
, a new band from LA called Admiral Angry
and more. There's a lot we want to do we just need more interns and money and we'll be sorted! Ha ha
The *shels album is so clear and so crisp is this down to the recording of the album or what you did to it once the recording was over?
It's a lot of different things but i'd say recording is probably the most important stage there's ALOT that can be done in mixing especially if you dont have the expensive mics and gear (we have the most basic shit) for Sea of the dying dhow, aside form the drums, everything was recorded using an SM57 mic there's a lot you can control in Logic and in the mix so, as long as you have a reasonably good ear for music and have a few good recordings to compare to you can do ALOT with basic equipment - especially in this digital age - I think folks should be doing shit at home Sea of the dying dhow is proof that you can do it in your bedroom like we did with BASIC equipment.
Which UK underground bands are you currently listening too and who do you tip for 2009?Manatees
, The Sonatran Experiment
, Down I Go
and The Ocean Fracture