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Feature: SpeakOf [Interview]

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Since breaking out in 2017, Montreal-based Hamed Safi aka SpeakOf has been blazing a melodic trail with like-minded souls on his False Face imprint. Described as a producer who has an ‘uncanny knack of creating music that sits comfortably in a broad range of DJ sets’ it comes as no surprise he is championed by tastemakers as diverse as Kolsch, Hernan Cattaneo, and Blond:ish. Now as his much anticipated ‘Enterprise’ album hits the shops we catch up with the Canadian artist in this exclusive interview.

Hi Hamed, thanks for sitting with us today! Tell us where in the world you are today and what your plans for the week are.

It’s my pleasure! Thanks for having me. I’m currently enjoying the summer in beautiful Montreal, still staying indoors and social distancing as much as possible. This week my album Enterprise finally hits the stores, so it’s been exciting to receive feedback and chat about the album and the music with everyone.

Tell us more about your story. How did you discover electronic music and what led you down the path of becoming a producer and DJ?

I started attending electronic music events in the mid-’90s in Toronto, and I was inspired by the culture, the people, and the power and energy this music delivered. I think I purchased my first set of Turntables in 1998, and then I started going to the record stores in the city every week and listening to as much music as possible. Big shout out to Release Records and the crew in Toronto ♡. Who inspired and shaped the future of many young local artists. I slowly started doing some local shows and practicing my craft more. I was paying attention to how the crowd reacts to the music in the early days. After a while, I felt that I am not expressing my thoughts and ideas enough through mixing records and that I needed to start learning how to produce music. My first production setup was a massive Windows tower with FL Studio and Cubase running. It took a few years to find my sound and figure out what direction I wanted to take my music. I think I released my first official record in 2007.

Tell us about your record/music collection, where do some of your early influences live?

I haven’t purchased many physical records in a few years now and buy most of my music digitally. But I still hold on to my record collection, and from time to time, I love sitting back, listening to them, and maybe sample a few elements for my production. As far as early influences, the first Global Underground series, and Back to Mine collections were amazing listening experiences. Sasha’s early work, like Xpander and Airdrawndagger, were eye-opening pieces of music for me. I was (and still am) a massive fan of bands like Faithless and Royksopp. I was always attracted to the blend of electronic music with other genres. Maybe even subconsciously, I was on a mission to produce electronic music with a twist of pop to it.

Can you name five tracks that were influential in your musical development?

You know.. As I think about this question, It’s much easier for me to come up with album names as pieces of influence, more than specific tracks. There are much more than 5 I can name; I’ll just look back at recent years: Cubicolor – Brainsugar, Rüfüs Du Sol – Solace, Charlie Cunningham – Permanent Way, James Blake – Assume Form, The Weekend – After Hours, Solomon Grey – Human Music.

Are you musically trained? And do you think it’s necessary for success in writing electronic music?

I think being musically trained helps in writing any music. I did not go through any musical training when I started producing. But as time went by, it felt necessary for me to learn the basic musical theory to improve my writing abilities. When I first started mixing records, a good friend taught me how to key my records for mixing. That was one of the very first steps for me to learning music. I used to sit for hours with a keyboard and manually find the musical keys to every track in my record box. That’s how I started my musical training. There are many tools and applications available now that can help producers fine-tune their work. I tend to rely on my ears most of the time.

Has growing up and living in Canada had an impact on the music you make?

Definitely! Long winters, cold weather, plus spending most time indoors allow for a lot of creativity. The vibrant and ever-evolving electronic music scene in Canada’s last 15/20 years has been incredible. So many unique and forward-thinking artists, venues, events, etc. Anyone from Toronto can tell you about their amazing experiences at the Guvernment complex back in the day, or Footwork, and Coda. A massive shout out here, by the way, to guys like Charles Khabouth and Joel Smye for introducing so many people to the culture and the music through their venues and events for many years in Toronto. The scene has come a long way and still growing.

How have you been dealing with COVID-19? How has it changed your daily routine?

I’ve been working from my home studio for a few years now. So I was kind of used to this lifestyle before COVID-19. But it’s been an unreal experience going through the last few months, and it has changed a lot of my perspective on life. I cherish small moments, pay more attention to loved ones, live more passionately, and be honest and sincere to yourself. It’s also opened up a lot of time for creativity and recording new music for me. I was able to finalize this album and work on a bunch of new material that I’m pleased about.

Once nightlife eventually resumes, what kind of effect do you think this period in our history will have on the clubbing experience?

I think this period will significantly shape what will be the next decade of entertainment and nightlife. The music industry has always been one of the leaders in innovation and technology. So I think this scenario is no different. Just a few weeks back, I watched Maceo Plex perform remotely on Beatport’s Youtube channel. Listeners could tune in, and every so often, they were featured on the green screen behind Maceo’s setup from their home, listening and dancing. The experience felt different and new to me. I felt like I was witnessing a new kind of entertainment and engagement being born. I’m excited to see how these ideas will evolve and perfect themselves soon.

There are many other examples of these new digital experiences online. We can’t talk about this subject without mentioning the guys at Cercle. What they have accomplished with their YouTube broadcasts in the past 2/3 years is incredible! So there will come a time, as we slowly go back to normal again when these new experiences and ideas bind with the personal club/nightlife experience. More venues will invest in resources to stream live shows, and the size of the live audience will gradually split more and more between in-person and online. This could mean that smaller venues are now capable of hosting bigger events by inviting the online viewers, which could potentially mean more revenue for the host and the artist. As streaming becomes more popular, it opens up more opportunities for artists to get in front of their fans directly and bypassing hosts and venues. So I think there will be an overall shift in the process and interaction in the music industry, especially the engagement between artists and their fans.

Your first studio album ‘Enterprise’ was recently released on your False Face Music. It’s a stunning collection of music. Tell us how it began to take shape? Was there an initial goal of writing an album from the beginning, or did this happen organically in a way?

Thank you! I’m very proud of this album and happy to have it out finally. This album took shape over a long time, maybe a few years. I’m always trying new ideas and concepts in the studio, and I usually end up with several finished projects that never get released. I knew for a long time that I wanted to create a full-length album; however, I never felt “right” about the collection of music I had until recently. The last track I recorded in the studio that made it on this album was “Odyssey.” After this track was done, I played the final 12 songs together, the flow and the theme felt right, and I knew the album was ready.

Tell us what studio tools featured heavily on the LP.

I tried to mostly use analog gear to record the elements for this album. Roland TR8 was my primary source for drums. I used Dave Instruments’ MOFO, Moog Subsequent 37 for melodies, and bass. Yamaha MX was used for all piano and strings. Songs were then arranged and mixed in Ableton Live.

Vocalist Kyla Millette also played a significant role in the album appearing on four tracks. Tell us how you met and why she was such a good fit for many of the tracks on the LP.

She did! The original idea of the album was inspired by the songs Kyla and I wrote together. Kyla is a fantastic singer and songwriter. She has a unique style of arranging words beautifully and bringing them to life with her voice and method of delivery. She is an absolute treat to work with and brought so many ideas to the table. We met around six years ago and started writing songs together with really no plan at the time to release them anywhere. But over time, while I was refining our songs together, I also wrote complimentary instrumental tracks, which later ended up as the collection of music you hear today.

How difficult was it deciding on the flow from a listener’s perspective?

It was a challenge. I had some ideas, for example, the first track Kyla and I wrote together was Satellite. This track also starts with a very hypnotic and distinctive synth, which I thought would grab the listener’s attention right away. I always wanted to start the album with this track. I was looking to have a very cinematic ending, and “World Inverted” seemed like a perfect fit for that. I also wanted Kyla’s storytelling to spread throughout the album in a way that makes the most sense. I listened and re-arranged the order a few times before reaching a conclusion.

I would guess the writing of the album was a long process. Now that it’s done and out, what are your thoughts reflecting back on the process?

Indeed it was, but now that I look back and listen back, I feel great about the results. When you work on the same tracks for too long, sometimes you lose perspective of the final results. So after taking some time off from listening to the records and then going back to them in a few weeks, that’s when I got the listener’s perspective of the music. Then come the constant refinement and mixing of tracks, exporting, and listening to them on different platforms, retuning, and so on. So I learned to be patient and take as long as needed to feel that a track is completed. I enjoyed the process; going back and refining the music every few weeks, coming up with various renders of the same song, changing keys, or melodies in an arrangement. Nowadays, for me to come up with the final idea, I must always draft at least 2 or 3 versions of a song.

How would you feel about these tracks being remixed? And will they be?

I haven’t put much thought into the remixes yet to be honest. I still have a few other records with Kyla that I plan to release as singles later, and those will have remixers. But there are no plans of having remixes from this album just yet. Maybe sometime in the future, it is possible.

Was there ever a thought of shopping the album to another label, or was False Face always going to be the landing spot for it?

By the time the album was finished, I felt close and personal to it, and I was confident that False Face would be the best fit for it. But I did send some of the tracks individually to a few labels, maybe two or three in total during the production of the album. I don’t think the music was ready yet, and I’m glad that I kept this collection together as one package until now.

Do you think the digital era changed the way we perceive artist albums? Do they still carry the weight they once did?

Yes, for sure. With much more volume of music and resources at hand, shorter attention spans, and music platforms like Spotify and YouTube that can suggest music to listeners, it is harder to convince someone to listen to an entire album. But I enjoy artist albums, and most of my music purchasing is full albums or compilations. I like the flow of songs and the journey an artist can craft for the listeners in the duration of an entire collection. As I mentioned earlier, when I think of music that influenced me, I usually think about albums and complete music pieces. To me, some records are meant to be listened to as one long music piece, and some tracks do not even make sense without the other tracks in the album.

When you finish new music, how do you decide what gets released on False Face as opposed to sending them out as demos to be released elsewhere?

When it comes to sending demos, I’ve narrowed down my choices of labels that I want to work with. So recently, there are only a few labels that I can see my music being released on, and I continue to share my demos with them. But I initially start most tracks with the thought of having them published on False Face first and foremost. I love my label. We work very hard on each release, and I feel very confident about how we create awareness and promote our artists on False Face. One of the main reasons I started False Face was to speed up the process of putting out my records.

Who do you show your music first before introducing it to a broader audience or sending it out to labels?

My partner Tania is always the first one to hear the new music. She is also the visionary behind the design concept and visual strategy of False Face. I need to listen to her feedback and her design vision for the music we plan to release. There are a few musician and producer friends who always provide honest and constructive feedback to my work. I’ve also built great relationships with some of the label owners, who are still happy to give feedback and give me tips on how to improve my music. But I find that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to criticism, haha. While I do take all the feedback on my work, I need to feel good about the work myself. If I do not feel satisfied at the end of the day, the project will be revised.

The industry and how fans discover new music has changed dramatically in the last ten years or so. How do you discover new music nowadays?

I still spend a lot of time manually searching for music online. I enjoy the process of finding a new artist. I’m always interested to know about the story behind the music and the artist. However, Spotify AI algorithms are getting great at discovering relevant music. Lately, I use Spotify as a music discovery tool more often than before. It’s much easier to see international artists and world music through their platform, which I find extremely useful.

Is there a movie you would have loved to have produced the soundtrack for? And if so why?

It would be a Sci-Fi or space movie. Moon (2009), or “The Last Winter” (2006) or “The Marian” (2015). There is something eerie and captivating to me about loneliness in space or somewhere remote in the world. I’d love to capture those feelings with sound. Besides, since my music tends to be more melodic, I think it would be a great challenge to push myself creatively in that sense.

There are a lot of factors that affect the perception of an artist other than his music these days, social media for one, how much emphasis do you put on stuff like this? And what are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?

I never got too involved with social media personally. I only use it to post about the label and stay connected with the music community. I mainly use our website for posting news and information about the label and other projects. I think social media can sometimes saturate a person’s perception quickly and lead them to a counterproductive and harmful state of mind. The world is going through a lot of changes these days in general. We live in a post-truth era, where facts no longer seem as crucial as misinformation. So being able to understand facts from fiction and staying focused and in control of your thoughts is more important than ever before. I prefer to put my voice into my art and music instead. This is why this album is very close to my heart because these tracks are a reflection of my thoughts and emotions about the current state of life.

Current five favorite tracks?

Mathame – For Every Forever
John Talabot – Espècie Invasora
Colyn – It’s All Over
Solomon Grey’s cover of Rozalla 90’s classic “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)”
And finally Paul Kalkbrenne’s fantastic SpeakUp EP

Apart from music, what makes you happiest?

Being creative is a huge part of my happiness. Aside from producing music, I spend a lot of my time working on drawings, paintings, and writing. I feel the need to be creative at all times. Creating art is a sort of meditation for me. It allows me to focus, express my emotions, practice paying attention to detail, and be more organized.

What can we expect from you for the rest of the year? Any releases or special dates you can tell us about?

There is a followup album to the Enterprise LP, which will be out later this year, titled “Keys To the Future.” I think of this album as the B-Side to “Enterprise.” While recording Enterprise, I came up with a lot of techno and house tracks that did not make the final cut. Odyssey and Apparition were actually amongst those tracks. This follow-up album will be a very energetic, DJ friendly album, filled with massive dance floor tracks! It should be out sometime in Oct / Nov 2020.

‘Enterprise’ is out now via False Face Music: : https://bit.ly/2WVYIup

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