Aram Bajakian is a New York based guitarist of many styles. He has performed or recorded with Lou Reed, Diana Krall, Yusef Lateef, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Nels Cline, James Carter, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Sean Lennon, Steven Bernstein, Billy Martin, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Mat Maneri, and many others.
Bajakian leads several of his own groups, including Kef, a chamber string trio that plays arrangements of traditional Armenian Songs, “Beat Down”, an Afro Punk Ensemble, and “Killing Floor,” a blues/RnB Project. He also plays in the improvisatory power hardcore band, Pirates, with comedian Ethan Fixell on vocals, and Billy Delgiudice on drums. Bajakian and vocalist Julia Ulehla have a group called Brno, which performs Moravian folk songs transcribed a century ago in Czechoslovakia by Ulehla’s great-grandfather.
His latest album, There Were Flowers Also in Hell, is coming out soon on Sanasar Records.
Guitar has been such a popular instrument over the years and there have been so many iconic guitar players. Do you feel any pressure or incentive to play in a way that makes you stand out in the crowd?
That’s an interesting question, because I was listening to my 7th grade band a few weeks ago and it hit me that I still pretty much sound the same. Certainly I have more facility now and more awareness, but the energy is pretty similar. That being said, I spent years trying to be Wes or Grant Green or Frisell. I realized at some point that there was no way that would ever be true – it would always sound lame. I had to start trusting my own instincts and doing what I heard. I don’t really make any conscious effort to try and sound a certain way. I just do what I do. And if it’s “on” I know it. And if it’s not, I really know it. I know that a lot of people have compared my playing with Ribot’s and obviously he’s a big influence. How can he NOT be. But I also think that one of the reasons why there’s similarities in our playing is because we both have a real love for old school blues. Hubert Sumlin, Skip James, Steve Cropper.
Combine that with an interest in punk and a love of fuzz pedals and twelve tone rows, and there’s going to be similarities.
But I really don’t know if I stand out in the crowd or not. I’m really just trying to make something beautiful. And trying to wake people up to be aware of that beauty as well. If it makes me stand out, great. If not, that’s great too.
Not only have you played with a wide range musicians, within your latest album, There Were Flowers Also in Hell, there is a mix of styles across or even within tracks. Blues, rock, jazz, funk, noise, surf…and you’re always ready to take it up a notch. When you write do you consciously think of these styles or does it just come out that way?
It just comes out that way. And not to burst any bubbles about deepness, but I wrote a lot of the tunes just a few days before the session. I was so crazy busy with touring last year that I put everything off.
But this is an interesting thing. Because a track like Medicaid Lullaby has this very moving melody. And I wrote that in five minutes on my couch. I wasn’t really emoting or anything, but I recognized that it was a beautiful melody. But it’s an amazing track. So something happened in the studio. It’s not the notes or the melody but the energy behind the notes and melody. The melody and the people playing it somehow enabled something ELSE to happen. There was a transformation. There’s this middle section where it becomes so intense! So that’s what I’m REALLY interested in exploring and practicing. Originally I had just titled it “Lullaby” but when I heard it I realized that this was in fact a “Medicaid Lullaby.” And I think if you listen to it with that in mind, it brings it to a whole other level.
But with some of the songs also, it’s just what seems right. Like Rent Party just HAS to be played that way. Same thing with Orbisonian. Orbisonian is based on this awesome Roy Orbison lick I figured out and Armenia-ized. The music just plays itself in it’s own way. There’s some conscious decisions for sure, but in reality musicians have very little control over what is happening. It’s some other thing that takes over, at least if you’re doing it right. It’s really just a matter of TRUSTING that other thing, and practicing enough so that it can turn on when you’re playing.
Parts of your latest album sounds as if it could be a soundtrack. Is your writing influenced at all by that style of composition?
Not so much, though I’ve secretly always dreamed of hearing my music in a Jim Jarmusch movie. When I was figuring out a way to promote the album, I downloaded these vidoes of the 1920s Queens World Fair and vintage clips from the LES.. They’re beautiful. And the music seemed to work very beautifully with them as a soundtrack.
So I would definitely like to start doing some film scoring at some point.
You can see them here:
You’ve got a free weekend in a secluded cabin. You’ve brought your entire music collection. What do you listen to?
You know, I’d like to say that I’d have all this awesome obscure stuff, but I’d probably pull out the mono version of Revolver I got this summer in France. And then Sgt Peppers. That stuff is just so great, let’s face it. I love the Beatles. And some Tom Waits and Dylan.
I’ve been listening to a ton of Lou since his passing. I was on the subway and broke down listening to Berlin.
But even more than listening to albums, I might just go for a walk and listen to what’s just out there in nature. I remember when I studied with Yusef, he told me that I really need to hear the inner sounds, and if there’s too much other music in your head, it can block that. So while I try and listen to at least one or two new records a day, I also really love going for walks and not listening to anything. Just observing.
Can you summarize the influence that playing with Lou Reed has had on your own work?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who really cared as much as Lou. He was just always trying to make things alive and spontaneous. And that pissed people off sometimes, but he wasn’t afraid to wake people up.
Also, I remember one time listening to Don Cherry with him. We listened to the same section over and over for two hours. It was beautiful, his love for that music.
But I think what it really did was to make me hyper aware of when something is happening or not. I remember leaving a show at the Stone last year. It just wasn’t happening. It was boring because the musicians weren’t playing as if their lives depended on it. They had their heads in the charts. It was so complex musically, but it was empty and dead. No spirit. Nothing that was ALIVE! Going outside and seeing just life on Ave C was more interesting.
And trying to keep yourself to that same standard is a whole other process. So I kind of still feel like Lou is looking down at me, kicking my ass. Saying, “Do you really want to do that Aram?” And the thing is, sometimes I say, “You know Lou you’re right. It’s lame.” And other times I’m like, “Lou, fuck off, this is my work not yours!”
But in both instances, there’s a real love there, both from me and him.
This year I lost Lou and Yusef Lateef (my teacher for four years at Umass) in a matter of months.
And I think the best way to honor them both is to make more beautiful music. We can NEVER live up to what they did. But it’s the effort and spirit behind our new work that matters.
Aside from the album release, what have you got coming up in 2014?
Abraxas is touring in February, and then I have some Masada Marathons in March and at the Newport Jazz Festival in August.
In May or June I’m releasing another album of obscure Moravian folk songs that I recorded last year with my wife. Her great grandfather was friends with Henry Cowell and Janacek and amassed a book of over 200 songs. We arranged them and it’s AMAZING.
And I hope to release a solo guitar record at the end of the year. I have lots and lots of beautiful little pieces I’ve written. I call them Nocturnes. I used to send them to my wife when she was in Italy and I was sad at night. They would just come out very quickly but they’re BEAUTIFUL! So I want to share them with people.
And I’m also working on a record of hip hop beats. It’s a bit of a secret, but I love making beats. And my beats are pretty cool. When I was playing in Diana Krall’s band I had the honor of playing with Karriem Riggins on drums. He’s worked with everyone in the jazz world and was also really close with Jay Dilla. So we would stay up every night on the bus listening to unreleased Dilla beats. It was so inspiring! So I decided I need to put out my own beats. But that will probably be for 2015.
I’m also writing a book of music called Sasna Tsrer for my other band, Kef (tzadik 2011) with Shanir Blumenkranz and Tom Swafford on Violin. Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. So this book of music will be to commemorate that. Should hopefully be out on Tzadik sometime in 2015.
So it’s a lot of stuff, but what the hell, you only live once!!!!