Azari & III
'Oh, I love DJ Sprinkles'
Interview Alex Macpherson
Photography Petra Collins
Azari & III seemed to emerge from nowhere last year: fully formed club iconoclasts with an aesthetic both sonically and visually arresting. Their two singles, “Hungry For The Power” and “Reckless (With Your Love)”, reveled in sleazy sexuality, both dangerous and alluring: these were songs that prowled like predators on night time city streets. Flamboyant male diva vocals, courtesy of Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full (née Cedric Gasaida), sung lyrics that flirted with S&M and nodded at the specter of AIDS. The accompanying video to “Hungry For The Power” was an American Psycho-meets-Paris Is Burning fantasia explicit enough to be banned by YouTube. The classic Detroit feel of the crisp hi-hats, sexily bumping 808s and judicious synth melodies were enough for the songs to be mistaken, on first listen, for lost ’90s house classics, but they were also far more than mere period pieces. Remixes for the likes of Booka Shade, Voltage and Mano Le Tough followed; and, after a superb set at the London Electronic Festival on a damp day in East London’s Victoria Park, the two men behind the project – Christian Farley, aka Dinamo Azari, and Alphonse Lanza, aka Alixander III – sat down to uncover some of the mystery behind the band.
The two guys who sing on “Hungry For The Power” and star in its video, Fritz and Cedric, are pretty integral to it. How did you hook up with them?
Azari: I’ve known Fritz for a long time. We already had a bit of a live project going and then he went in his direction and I went in mine. We somehow came back together again.
Alixander: Cedric kinda just wafted into our lives.
Azari: They bring a piece of magic, we don’t even know—
Alixander: They have an amazing rapport with each other.
Azari: Magic just happens with the four of us. Two gay black guys and two metro—
Azari: Let’s go with metro. It’s a really interesting dynamic, and we’re all the best of friends. It’s been an amazing chemistry since we met. And we’re going to go on a full live tour with them.
You seem to be very in tune with the traditional importance of the diva role in house music – that powerful, glamorous, emotional voice ringing out over the beats.
Azari: The voice resonates within all cultures, whether you’re hearing weird Japanese vocals or African music or whatever – as long as there’s a voice in there, some sort of humanistic nature coming out, people gravitate to that. And we’ve experimented with that on “Indigo”. With that we decided not to use lyrics, just these powerful vocal expressions. It’s like a shamanistic incantation; we’re trying to talk to the world. It’s not English, it’s not French, it’s not German, it’s not Japanese, it’s all of them in one – and everyone can relate to that tone and those melodies and those harmonies.
The Azari & III project seems to fit into a lineage of dance acts who really explore the potential of club music to make political points or tap into resonant cultural issues – Terre Thaemlitz /DJ Sprinkles and Chelonis R. Jones spring to mind.
Alixander: Oh, I love DJ Sprinkles.
Azari: He’s so unique; I don’t even know how he’s making his music. He’s a young guy, right?
No, I met him earlier this year. He’s in his 30s.
Azari: So he knows his stuff. We love him. We’re trying to get a remix from him at the moment. Him and Floating Points, I really gravitate to those guys. It’s a little more melodic, very good listening music. Chelonis R. Jones? I don’t know the name, but that sounds familiar. Oh wait, is that the guy on Get Physical who does vocals for Booka Shade? On “Bad Love”, which we remixed? It’s gotta be him. He’s been wanting to work with us for some time.
You definitely should; your sensibilities would be a good fit. Talking of which, your songs seem to be paeans to excess in many ways. How important is hedonism to you? And how easy is it to find in Toronto where you grew up?
Alixander: That stuff is certainly around us.
Azari: Toronto has been a conservative city in the past, though that’s changing slowly. We have a 2 a.m. cut off for booze, which has allowed the after hours scene to excel. We’ve taken on the warehouse scene, throwing our own events and performing live late into the night at parties where we just turn off all the lights except for maybe a red disco ball. It’s the late night against all the corporate bullshit. The crowd is, like Hell’s Angels, ex-ravers, local hipsters.
Alixander: They’re usually a little off the beaten track, and word kinda just filters out – the crowd comes because they really want to be there, you know? You almost need the conservatism of the city to react to and bounce off?
Azari: Yeah, that’s a great take on it. Without a doubt, that brought out, like, all the crazy girls who turn up to the parties – all the girls with tattoos. They’re all Catholic girls who went to all-girls’ schools, but they’re bad-ass bitches!
When you read so much about the mystique of Azari & III, the fact that you seem to confuse people so much – does that amuse you?
Azari: The mystery… It’s like how everyone loves the first time you meet somebody, the courting stage. We like to keep everyone excited, so they never know what they’re going to get. The mystery evolves and changes. We don’t like to get stuck in one little area. Like Alixander said, we have so many different people in the band, so many different views and ideas. Once you get stuck in one area, you get pigeonholed.
Alixander: I think mystery in life is very alive and well for all of us. We really do believe in fantasy – the possibilities that aren’t really spoken or played out. We just believe there’s stuff on the other side of our existence, of our perception. Those shamanistic rituals are summoning something on the other side. We can all feel it, that thing that makes your hair stand on end.
Azari: There’s religion, there’s money. You know, there are a lot of secrets that the world is still very blind to, and it’s very sad to see, with all the information that’s out there. But Azari & III represents this new culture of young adults that are conscious, seeking information and sucking it in; realizing the past and figuring out the future. Our music is hungry for the power. We want to figure out where we stand in this world. We’re strong people. We’re very intelligent and we don’t want somebody controlling us. So that comes out in our music.
Self-discovery is a key part of your art?
Azari: For sure. We’re trying to figure out what the fuck we’re like. Work, go to school, all these weird things that society tells us to do – we’re figuring out that there are a lot of loopholes. That brings us back to a lot of the nitty-gritty stuff. Survival. We’re trying to survive in the darkness. There’s so much evil out there. It’s hard to believe that someone would give you food that will kill you, or put so much chlorine or fluoride in your body that it will kill you.
It’s about taking back control of your existence then?
Azari: Hell yeah!
Alixander: Or at least being aware of those things. There’s a sense of resistance against the oppression and the status quo; I think that’s reflected in our music, and maybe subconsciously that’s the concept we approached [making music] with. I guess this ties into the long-standing historic idea of club as place of escapism and self-discovery, especially for oppressed minority groups.
Alixander: Exactly, that feeling of solidarity and acceptance.
Azari: It sure is. It’s a place to go and feel free and shut your eyes. If we play “Hungry for the Power” and mix it into some other really interesting melodic sound, you can go from that song’s words and themes and still think about them while you’re listening to the next track, and it changes your perception. Just like color or shapes change your perception. Like round curves help you think differently while square boxes stop you from thinking. There’s not a whole lot of creativity in grey and light brown, but once you start throwing in bright reds and yellows and blues, you start changing your perception.
Do you consider yourselves religious?
Alixander: Certainly spiritual. But growing up on organized religion – I was brought up Catholic, church every Sunday, the whole works – you tend to want to find your own place.
Azari: Religion has a beautiful part; everyone wants their children to be pure and safe from all evil. Which from that perspective is drugs, sex—
Alixander: Greed, too. But that tends not to be as focused on as much as the recreational stuff.
Azari: The food we’re being fed is more evil, too.
Alixander: Once you go down that road, I grew up with a mother who’s a nutritionist and my brother’s a practitioner.
Azari: We’re very interested in nutrition and the food and water we’re given. I think that’s a huge part of the drop the society’s been falling into, especially in the last 10 years, when it’s become this disgusting chemical stuff, though it started in the ’60s with Monsanto and their crops and all that bullshit. But we’re very passionate about our food. What we eat is what we are.
What sort of stuff do you do to counter all of that, personally?
Alixander: Oh, we do our best. We wish we could do more. As much as we can, we eat locally raised and free-range stuff, we try to support local farmers because they’re a dying breed now. There’s a movement towards all of that, and I think Toronto is definitely taking it up well.
Azari: No preservatives, no additives, no chemicals. Fresh. That’s all. It’s like, don’t play games with us, don’t try and make your money off our diets.
Alixander: Kids are being brought up in the McDonalds culture, and it’s harder for them to wean themselves off it. All that salt and sugar is addictive.
Azari: Sugar is the real drug of society, fuck everything else. Sugar is evil! I don’t know what it’s like with you, but in Canada diabetes has quadrupled recently. It’s beyond out of control.
Tell me more about your pre-Azari & III background.
Azari: We both discovered these kids from Venezuela or Colombia or Brazil or Cuba or Trinidad who were all flooding to Toronto to, you know, have a nice life where everyone’s open-minded to different cultures, finding their place within that, and going to school. So we were just feeding off these young artists, working with them and creating sounds that were very different to modern ones. I had a band called Pan-Tiki Sound System, and he had a band called Pan Con Queso, funnily. And we didn’t even know each other then. We were using steel drums, Brazilian samba beats, Cuban keys. It was unbelievable what was going on in Toronto for a little while there with the experimentation of modern technology and native folk music from cultures that really aren’t too far from us.
Does having made music like that influence how you make music within the more conventional framework of house music?
Azari: We would get bored if we used samples. It’s too easy. We create all our music live – I’ll tell you, that’s a reason we work together. When I first met Alixander, he had a whole studio set up so that he could feel the energy and make it live. We’re playing drum machines and synthesizers and bass and whatever, but everything is live. Maybe our remixes are different, where we get to have fun and do crazy old weird minimal Green Velvet type remixes, but I wouldn’t even be able to make this music if I didn’t have the fun of going in and making these little machines from the ’70s or ’80s sound so interesting and different – you never know what analog gears are gonna do.
Alixander: Sometimes it’ll just start generating this weird noise, and it’s like – press record, and boom!
Azari: It’s beautiful, it’s a piece of art, it’s a moment in time and those instruments give us that feeling, and it’s so amazing. Every time we go to work, I love it.
Is improvisation key to your work?
Azari: Extremely, extremely. A huge part of mine, anyway. Maybe Alixander is more technical. For me it’s massive, I even had a band once called Improvise. That moment in time when you create something is so special.
Alixander: I think it’s all improvising – you sit down, you have some kind of idea, but one thing you do leads to another and next thing you know it’s not quite right, it’s not quite right, you’re fine-tuning—
Azari: The machines are trying to control things, you’re trying to control things, there’s this weird dynamic that’s happening. You never know what’s going to happen. And that brings us all the way round – that’s the mystery of Azari & III. It’s universal subliminal consciousness that just…happens. And it’s very modern, it’s exactly what we’re feeling in that moment. You can say we’re throwbacks, people have called us ’80s or ’90s– I’ve seen so much of that –but we’re modern. It’s some thing that’s happening now.
And finally – what can we expect from your debut album?
Alixander: Approach with an open mind.
Azari. Don’t expect anything. Because if you do, you’ll be disappointed. You’re going to hear some stuff in there that’s gonna confuse you.