Words: Stephen Flynn
When it comes to electronic music, few of those in the contemporary domain can hold a candle to Damian Lazarus. Having caught his first big break at the City Rockers label, Lazarus’s shrewd A&Ring meant that it soon became synonymous with the electroclash sound of the time.
Later on he repeated the trick (albeit on a larger scale) on his own label, Crosstown Rebels, which over the past decade has become one of the scene’s focal points for consistently excellent house and techno. A brief look at the careers he’s helped launch are testament to the fact, with Maceo Plex, Seth Troxler, Jamie Jones and Art Department just a flavour of the talents he’s fostered over the years.
A DJ first and foremost, Lazarus’ production career began in earnest back in 2009 thanks to an album, ‘Smoke The Monster Out’, and a slew of accompanying cuts for the seminal German label, Get Physical. A string of releases on Crosstown soon followed, but it’s perhaps testament to his immeasurable skill as a DJ that he’s racked up almost as many commercial mixes as he has EPs. All of which makes his latest undertaking — a grandiose album project alongside The Ancient Moons — an even more curious proposition.
“I’ve travelled to so many exotic, faraway places as a DJ,” says Lazarus. “In each city I spend time in record stores, I listen to the radio, I talk to people. My ears are always on the alert. I make notes. One of the best-loved artists of all time is Bob Marley. His music came from a particular place outside the mainstream, with a particular sound — but it still connected. Yes, the 4/4 sound of house and techno connects everywhere but there’s room for something more. I needed to move from the technical to the more organic and musical.”
One listen to Damian’s album, entitled ‘Message From The Other Side’, and it’s immediately obvious that Lazarus has emphatically achieved his goals. Produced in tandem with the production powerhouse that is Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, the album features a host of intriguing guests — more of which below.
It’s an impressively diverse listen that touches on everything from Qawwali-flavoured techno (‘Lovers Eyes)’ to African-tinged house to dense, dark ambient tones (‘Inner Core’) and even bubbly afrobeat (‘Sacred Dance Of The Demon’). A real triumph in eclecticism, it’s a refreshingly far cry from the often-monotonous tones of your average dance music LP.
Lazarus, of course, has never been one to rest on his laurels. It’s a part of his being that’s helped shape him not only as a person, but has also had a fundamental impact on both his own musical career and dozens of others. When we catch a glimpse of him after his headline slot alongside The Ancient Moons at Ibiza’s IMS (where he performed tracks from ‘Message From The Other Side’), he’s beaming from ear to ear, understandably delighted with a live show that felt fresh, challenging and invigorating throughout.
“Music is one of the major forces in my life,” he tells us. “[With The Ancient Moons project] I wanted to create an energy onstage that replicates the power of a DJ set at sunrise in the desert or at moonrise in the jungle, like a team of musicians crossing musical borders between the beauty of our songs and the spirit of the underground.”
It’s quite the statement, but judging by the reaction of the crowd at Ibiza’s Dalt Vila, it’s a task he’s achieved with some gusto. Similarly, it doesn’t escape our attention that Dalt Vila — a UNESCO-certified world heritage site — is precisely the sort of setting Lazarus had in mind for a live show that proved the set of the night.
Like him or loathe him, there’s little doubting that the London native continues to be a true pioneer of the scene, pushing the boundaries of music to new heights thanks to an almost obsessive infatuation with taking the unconventional road. In an age where sounds and trends come and go with increasingly reckless abandon, it’s unlikely we’ll see his type again for some time yet.
Succesful DJs are privileged to travel all over the earth. They dip into many more cultures than most of us experience in our whole lives. Yet how many explore this opportunity? How many look beyond their own electronic micro-genres to other traditions? How many absorb the thrill of global music into their own? The list is short, and topping it right now is Damian Lazarus and his new band, the Ancient Moons.
His album is a truly original piece of music from a DJ/producer always driven by a desire to break new ground and, as importantly, have fun with such adventures.
Lazarus is no drippy hippy dilettante. The man has pedigree, as well as a wry cackle that announces his rogue-ish sense of humour. From defining electroclash in the UK with his City Rockers imprint, to launching the careers of a who’s who of deep techno and house (Jamie Jones, Maceo Plex, Art Department etc) with his Crosstown Rebels label, to his quirked-out, experimental debut album ‘Smoke The Monster Out’ on Get Physical in 2009, Lazarus has never stood still for long or followed the pack. Ever since he was a little boy in London, collecting vinyl with a view to who-knows-what, he’s wanted to leave no musical stone unturned. With the Ancient Moons, he sets off, yet again, on a voyage of discovery.
His times at the Burning Man festival and DJing during a solar eclipse in the Nevada Desert made Lazarus realise he’s at his most inspired “playing in the open air – jungles, beaches, deserts.” From this realization, he was further galvanised by a range of influences: the freedom of his own eclectic Lazpod radio shows; the wide-ranging metaphysical ideas of 20th Century Californian mystic Manly P Hall; and, most directly, the enthusiasm and encouragement of Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, who went on to co-produce the album.It took one final spark for the Ancient Moons to take off...
“My Day Zero event in Mexico began on the date the Mayans predicted the apocalypse would be upon us, 21st December 2012,” he recalls. “All the planets were due to align. I thought that was a powerful idea, the moons becoming personalities, setting themselves up in formation. That struck me as a really strong motif, the planets and moons gathering for a big dance-off.”
The project kicked off in LA, where Lazarus was living (although he’s since moved to a converted farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside). It moved onto London where he and James Ford started piecing material together in the latter’s studio. Finally, they went to a friend’s studio at Casa del Arbol, a gorgeous wooded artists’ retreat north of Mexico City.
Lazarus brought together the widest range of musicians to achieve his goals. Initially there was Moses Sumney, an LA singer-songwriter and guitarist whose vocals light up the dynamic deep house groove of ‘Vermillion’, and the epic orchestral closing number, ‘Tangled Web’. Also, another singer, perhaps more to be expected, Lazarus’s long-standing friend and associate Ali Love, contributes vocals that add another dimension to the soulful groove of ‘We Will Return’.
Other collaborations came from much further afield. Hossam Ramzy is an Egyptian master-percussionist, most famous for his work on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s extraordinary 1994 re-working of Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, the ‘No Quarter’ album and tour.
He sought out Lazarus online and laid down amazing rhythm tracks for the Ancient Moons. ELEW (Eric Lewis) is an American jazz pianist who’s pushed the boundaries of what can be done with a ‘treated piano’, ie, not just playing the keys but playing the whole instrument in unexpected, experimental ways. He came on board after meeting Lazarus at a festival in upstate New York.
For the string arrangements Lazarus required on some songs, he and Ford turned to Andrew Waterworth, double bassist with the acclaimed Penguin Café. He journeyed with them to Mérida in Mexico and scored string arrangements for the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra. This is the lush backing that can be heard throughout the album.
Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram, meanwhile, are Pakistan’s leading exponents of Qawwali singing, the hypnotic sacred Sufi music which Lazarus has fallen in love with. He was exposed to their music during the opening sequence of the 2012 political thriller ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. The film stars Lazarus’s friend and occasional musical ally Riz Ahmed who helped put the DJ in touch with the trio. They appear not only on ‘Lovers Eyes (Mohe Pi Ki Najariya)’, but also the spaced out, sitar-laden ‘Amber Palace’, a piece that also features the sitar work of Sidartha Siliceo, a former student of Ravi Shankar.
One contribution happened almost by accident. Lazarus wanted to include an Afrobeat-flavoured track and, while working at the Casa del Arbol studio, the wife of the owner’s brother, a princess of Guinean origin, began to sing along. With encouragement, her vocals became the centrepiece of the bubbly, joyful ‘Sacred Dance Of The Demon’. Adding to the vibe on the same track is an appearance by Mozambican guitar prodigy Neco Novellas.
By gathering this gumbo of music from across the globe, Lazarus has created a collection that’s as happy on the dancefloor as off, a set of songs and moods that work both as an album and, when cherry-picked, as a groove that would move from Ibiza to San Francisco to the UK festival circuit. It’s also a body of work which will be coming to life and touring.
To do this he’s pulled together an exemplary band. It consists of Ben Chetwood of indie outfit I Am Arrows on electronics, the Heritage Orchestra’s Rob Gentry on keyboards, Lazarus himself on modular synths and “a new young vocal discovery” Zulu fronting the whole ensemble.
“I needed an outlet to present musical knowledge, music from around the world that people may not ordinarily hear,” Damian says. The joy of ‘Message From The Other Side’ is that he not only succeeds in this goal, but he does so with a real verve and sense of fun, with an energy that carries the listener up from the dancefloor and off into the cosmos.
Damian Lazarus & The Ancient Moons ‘Message From The Other Side’ is out now on Crosstown Rebels/!K7.