An Interview With Canadian Electronic Music Creator Alyag
Alyag (Alexandre Popravko) is an electronic music artist from Calgary, Alberta. His music is something he's called "electro-psy-funk-blues-disco-synth-metal." His sound is richly layered and takes listeners on a sonic journey. I talked to him about his passion for music, his creative process and how he stays inspired to make music.
Interview with Alyag
Karl Magi: What was the genesis of your interest in making music?
Alexandre Popravko: While it's definitely a tad tricky to pinpoint exactly when the drive to make mellifluous (albeit sometimes angry) noises had initially sunk its talons into every fiber of my being, there are certainly a handful of key moments throughout my existence that I can trace back to for obvious symptoms of the innate and welling desire to turn to music production as my primary medium of self-expression.
I distinctly recall persistently mucking up the tuning on my dad's old nylon-string acoustic as a rapscallious wee childling; the feeling of utmost badassery that washed over me when I first heard the driving riff of Dire Straits' Money For Nothing shortly thereafter; hearing some kid play the unplugged rendition of Layla at the back of my school bus in junior high school and thinking to myself, "Holy shit, I HAVE to learn how to play the guitar" -- partially because thirteen-year-old Alex wanted to impress the ladies via presenting himself as a vaguely rebellious and hopeless romantic troubadour, but even more so due to how utterly gratifying it was to try to replicate the favorite riffs of the hard rock (and later Scandinavian melodeath metal) bands that had comprised my teenage musical obsessions.
I'd also grown up with electronic music and my appreciation for it had definitely evolved in parallel with the raw adoration for heavy guitar-driven riffage, so even early into my production tinkers I'd sought to try to fuse the two. The deeper I waded into those waters, the more immersed I would become and the hunger -- to discover more, to unravel the layers, to reverse-engineer and re-assemble the elements I'd loved most into my own custom combination -- ever-growing. Ultimately though, it boils down to the fact that music has always been my greatest ally through the good, the bad, and the ugly; as the soaring soundtrack to moments of tremendous triumphs and effervescent bliss; my personal venting ground when I'd literally scream into the darkest night; and, yeah, definitely an excuse to flail in front of a bunch of strangers. The more I perpetuate it, the more I feel like I'm giving back to everything it's given me, y'know?
KM: Talk about your approach to music.
AP: My approach to music, especially under the Alyag moniker, is one of unabashed eclecticism. Rather than try to box myself within any particular genre, I'll try to fuse as many of my personally favored elements of highly varied styles of music as I can fit together in a way that flows comfortably, and as seamlessly as possible -- hence the whole "electro-psy-funk-blues-disco-synth-metal" thing.
A drum-n'-bass drop here, a seven-stringed pinch harmonic there, a bossa nova-esque jazzy beat elsewhere, a big band / swing drum breakdown that leads into some funky bluesy interlude, later erupting into a dark trance bit. Absolutely anything goes, but only so long as it can flow and dance together. A lot of the tracks might not end up anywhere near where they began, which is kind of half the fun, as I often feel like the arrangement takes a mind of its own and bolts off on some frantic unpredictable trajectory, dragging me along for the ride as I barely hold the reins.
There's definitely a yin to the yang of that equation though, in the sense that, while that kind of open-sandbox approach to composition is super liberating it can also lead to creative stumps really easily. However, those instances are precisely where it gets fun to reach for some far-off aspect of a completely unrelated genre and add it in, not only purely for the hell of it, but also to throw a sort of curve-ball to the entire arrangement, and see how effectively possible it is to tie everything together in a cohesive way that makes a semblance of sense.
Within the context of the instrumentation itself, I usually strive to play as much as I can on my own. The guitar bits are always performed and recorded; sometimes there's a live bass element, though for the most part, for rhythmic tightness' sake, it's written in MIDI. Drums are programmed by hand via clicky-mouse, and oft times layered with other sampled percussion which includes everything from rapping on a thermal coffee mug with my fingernails, to cinematic Vikings-inspired war drums, to smashing old electronics against concrete, to the sound of an arrow whizzing by and embedding into a chunk of wood used to add impact to a bass drop.
I'm a hack vocalist at best, so vocals are rarely integrated. I’m also relatively new to the world of keys, so I play what I can and program the rest. When I eventually bring this project into the realm of live performance, the aim is to recreate as much of the live instrumentation as possible, with my switching between both acoustic and electric guitars, synth patches, the occasional vocal snippet and a blend of miked and triggered percussion. That's currently in the works, so more on that later.
KM: Where do you get the ideas for your music?
AP: A lot of the tunes are borne of a spontaneous idea like a sound, an interval, a melody, or a new chord I'd randomly stumbled across while fiddling around one day. The idea will snowball and 60-80 tracks of layered sounds later, it becomes a full-fledged arrangement. Usually it's more about the experimentation process and the ongoing tinkering journey. It’s less about the end point “Look-Ma-I-wrote-a-song-about-whatever” destination. It's completely open-ended.
That's not to say it’s a modus operandi I stick to religiously — there are exceptions. The track Quicksand Vampires, for example, is a heavy bass / dark psytrance-ish track that trails the subject of toxic relationships (romantic, platonic, whatever) and the ups and downs thereof. It’s about the sincere desire to help pull someone out of their abysmal hole, only to realize that you're constantly being dragged down with them and that, ultimately, the only reasonable and sanity-preserving thing to do is to let go of the gnarled hand and walk away from the quicksand pit altogether. It's one of the few lyric-heavy tunes I have in this project so far, and the intention was for each section to explore a different aspect of the aforementioned hypothetical relationship. That one was particularly heavy for me emotionally and musically; albeit somewhat ironically, its the least guitar-laden one thus far.
The only other thing I have to say about the themes explored in the music pertains to the titles: they're stupid. They’re so, so stupid but, I don't know, eye-catching maybe? At the very least, they’re brow-arching. Most of these titles come from a list I've been amassing over the past couple of years, new additions thereto usually being derived from some nonsensical wine-fueled ramblings between my ridiculous best friend and myself. There are moments where we'll go, "Whatever we just said is so pedestrian and mind-numbingly idiotic, but it'd make a great song title!”
A part of me hopes that some random passerby on “teh interwebz” will take note of one such stupid title and their curiosity will be piqued just enough to actually listen to the track. Another part of me takes some amusement away from the fact that it’s instrumental electronic music and it doesn't matter for a hot minute what you title it. Occasionally, there's a zany after-thought story that I'll make up to suit the title. For example, Public Restroom Justice Warrior, is an ode to one man's noble, borderline-OCD quest to front-face all the toilet paper rolls in the world (because if you back-face yours, you're wrong).
Burned By Kiwis is a classic Count Of Monte Cristo-esque tale of vengeance as enacted by a sour kiwi avenging its fallen brethren who'd perished at the hands of a ravenous hippie. The kiwi then rides off into the sunset in a convertible, blasting classic 80's-inspired synthwave on the stereo. It makes for additional creative fodder when I eventually design my own artwork for the single or EP or whatever.
KM: Tell me more about the creative process and how it works for you.
AP: When it comes down to the actual creative process, although I usually have at least a few ideas on the go, either as MIDI-mapped riffs in saved Ableton project files or as ongoing things that rattle around in the back of my mind at any given point, I’ve been really adamant about only focusing on one track at a time, and seeing it through to completion. Many of us producer types are heinously notorious for sitting on myriad piles of unfinished ideas and all's it does it perpetuate indecisive procrastination. I've been there more times than I can count and I hate that feeling.
To me, following through allows me to unburden my artistic psyche by setting a specific project free, not unlike releasing a caged creature into the wild and letting it thrive on its own terms. I feel like the more I sit on a pile of unfinished tracks, the more I have to think about; more decisions, more distractions, more avenues to scatter my attention, and inevitably I'm like the hound that tried to chase too many rabbits at once, and ended up with none. So I'll pick a lone rabbit, and chase it down till I catch the fucker and then the next and the next. Soon enough, not only is my creative hunger adequately sated, but I also have a collection of trophy pelts to show for it.
Potential vegan-triggering metaphors aside, I think that striving to regularly practice that kind of discipline in my art has allowed me to make enormous leaps as far as learning and honing my craft, conjuring a finished product, and attaining a particular peace of mind in knowing that, in that instance, I truly did work my ass off to the best of whatever ability was known to me at that time, and everything henceforth will only continue to be better.
To poorly paraphrase Steven Pressfield in The War Of Art, what he calls The Muse -- the goddess of creativity and flow, if you will -- doesn't care whether you show up terrified or hesitant or whether you have absolutely no idea what you're doing in that moment; she only cares that you show up; the fact that you'd made the conscious effort to actively place your posterior within a specific physical space, with the specific intent of dedicating the time to your craft. Because if, after a while, nothing happens, that's fine -- at least you showed up. Or maybe something does happen. Maybe an idea sparks; maybe you suddenly notice some tinder in your periphery, to add to the flame; maybe it erupts into napalm or calms for a bit before you return to it with more fuel later. None of that would've happened if you hadn't showed up to begin with, so the only real point there, is to continue to show up and keep chipping at it.
KM: What are your views on the electronic music scene in Alberta?
AP: It’s no surprise that electronic music is definitely flourishing. Here in the Calgs, in particular, I think we have a very thriving underground(ish) electronic scene that caters to all manners of bass-tickling genres thereof, propelled by some of the most incredibly passionate curators: BassBus, Sub Chakra, The Genesa Project, Evolve[-]D Productions and 403dnb to name but a few of many. They all absolutely excel at creating an inviting, non-exclusive, mutually respectful, crowd-participatory atmosphere, Both newcomers and veteran ravers are encouraged to attend and fly free sans judgement from their peers.
It's exactly the kind of self-liberating environment that's the primary driving factor behind why electronic festivals are in such bloom, and growing ever more popular; sure, letting loose and making party is a blast, but the thing that resonates most with me is that there's a perpetuating spirit of attendees wanting to contribute and give back to the community experience — be it through donating art installations, volunteering, harm reduction, building renegade stages or even throwing their own mini-festivals or by becoming DJs and musicians themselves. It's a self-amplifying movement and I really, really dig that about it.
Musically, I'm definitely excited to see where it goes. There are so many producers on the leading edge, who repeatedly push the boundaries of the adjacent possible, and completely re-map the existing soundscape. The ever-accelerating growth curves of technology have not only landed everyone with a much wider palette of tools to tinker with, but have also made the very same tools just as available to everyone, apprentice and master alike. Any kid can wander into a Long & McQuade and pick up a cheapie MIDI controller, software included, for $129, pay a $25 per month subscription to incredibly well-formatted, easy-to-follow pro-level tutorials online and go nuts on their laptop or a mobile device.
If you step it up a few notches and look into really badass analog-modeled plugins which put the sound of thousands of dollars' worth of high-end studio gear previously unavailable to the common consumer right in your lap, often for another totally affordable monthly subscription. A lot of these tools weren't available (let alone at that price point) when I was starting out, but now any fledgling producer with a half-decent computer can make a hit in their bedroom and bestow it upon the world. I think that's all kinds of dope and I am definitely jazzed to see what the future holds.
KM: Tell me more about where you want to take your music in the future.
AP: I’ve just finished the music for a new three-track EP and I couldn't be more stoked on the results. I'll definitely be posting news about its eventual release on my website, as well as my social media feed, but in the meantime I've still got some work to do on the art, and a few other boxes I've gotta tick before it's officially ready.
Beyond that, I feel like I've finally amassed enough original material to start piecing together a live set, which is what I'm working on now -- the plan is to have it ready before the summer's out, and then start finally booking some shows. As mentioned before, the idea is to have as much live instrumentation as I can muster on my own, atop a bedtrack of stems from the existing tunes blended together as cohesively as possible.
If any given individual track flows between a series of varied genres and styles, the live set will essentially do the same on a macro scale, telling a larger story from the melodically pretty to the charged and heavy, fast and slow, light and dark. I very much look forward to filling that canvas especially because the live show will feature even more new, original material (i.e. song transitions) that otherwise wouldn't be heard anywhere else, hence the incentive to see it live. The gear that I'll be bringing to the stage will also play a part in the live aesthetic. It should be neat.
KM: How do you keep your creative batteries charged?
AP: Check off answer "E": all of the above. Part of it is the fact that I've a natural tendency to get contact-high from seeing cool people doing cool things, especially if they're my immediate peers, but also just about anyone who's actively, fervently pursuing their passions. You see someone do something neat, you get inspired to do something neat yourself, and thus, in the right company, everyone ends propelling each other forward. That's why it's hugely important to seek out and surround oneself with good people (not to preach an aeons-old cliche, but we literally are the company we keep).
The other part is the love of the grind, as Gary Vaynerchuk so vehemently puts it, by showing up and putting in the time every day, even if only for a little while. The oft-convoluted conventional work/life balance is hella hard to navigate at times, but most of us can find fifteen minutes here and there or sometimes an hour or maybe even the opportunity to book off an entire day to our craft, turn off all distractions, and hone. It's not easy; it takes practice and discipline; but if you start small and work in increments with each step you get closer to the goal, and subsequent steps become that much easier. It's not unlike riding a bike — the first few pedals take some hefty pressing, but before you know it you're cruising, propelled forward by inertia. If you fall off the inertia wagon for a minute, that’s cool too — just persist in getting back on it when you can, remembering to cut yourself some slack when you very much deserve it and a break when you need it, then get back to it. Onward and awkward.