Ahmed Gallab takes his musical cues from literally everything he’s ever done or heard. There’s nothing uninteresting about his life either, and the same goes for his laundry list of musical influences, dizzying as it might be. Gallab’s most recent album under the Sinkane mantle, Mean Love, is a testimony to the sheer variety of places and events – musical or otherwise – constituting this guy’s life.
It’s typical in writing about Sinkane that journalists will require at least four genre titles, and just as many recognizable names from frequently segregated corners of the musical landscape. It’s no surprise, then, that Mean Love is supremely difficult to “pin down.” An album with elements of afro-beat, soul, pop, country, reggae, jazz and funk should be. But it accomplishes more than just being “interesting,” if only because it’s very easy to enjoy at face value. The added academic scrutiny, in this case, just happens to pay off.
His “thoroughness,” we established in a conversation earlier this week, comes largely from his parents, both college professors, both teaching badass subjects, both originally from Sudan. He spent his childhood traveling between the United States and East Africa before attending Ohio State University, where he toured with a hardcore band. During that same period, he listened obsessively to Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane.
From there, he would find work as a session musician and touring member of various groups, most notably Yeasayer, Of Montreal, and Caribou. But since release of 2012’s Mars, he’s been part of the DFA family and distinguishing himself, both on a label most known for its analog disco and well beyond. He’s also been living in New York, drawing inspiration from doing things like just walking down the street, where there’s a shot he might run into labelmate Nancy Wang or James Murphy – who’s referred to simply “James” if you’re lucky enough to breathe that rarefied DFA air.
Gallab is having a moment with the release of Mean Love – a moment where Sinkane’s identity as a band has taken full shape, and certain bylines can be appropriately ditched as a result. I asked Gallab whether he thinks it’s time to jettison the roll call of acts with whom he’s played. “Well, that’s certainly up to you guys,” he responded. “I have a lot of respect for those guys. They really helped me understand how to be a band and how to be a musician. I’m highly indebted to every one of those guys. But I feel like I can stand alone now. I can be within the same plane as them.”
As he says later in our conversation: “It’s that time.”
Mars was a record that you made and then subsequently got distributed. Did having a home on DFA – and knowing that people would hear it – have any effect on how Mean Love turned out?
Actually, it didn’t make it different at all. I started working on this album right after I was finished working on Mars, and I finished Mars a year before it was released. I had a really good time working on Mars, and I felt like I was getting somewhere with the idea that I kind of started with for that album, as far as the music was concerned. I was pretty eager to start working on the follow-up to it.
By the time we started touring for Mars, we were already playing songs from Mean Love, so it was just a really exciting time. I felt like my creative energy was flowing pretty quickly, and I was on top of my game in that regard. It was certainly inspiring to go on tour and have a year’s worth of touring under my belt with DFA and City Slang involved. And then that kind of informed me going back into the studio to work harder and know that the next album would be that much better.
Which songs came first?
“Young Trouble” was the first song. “Young Trouble”, “Yacha”, and “Mean Love” were all written one after the other. But “Mean Love” was put on the backburner initially. I was working with my friend, Greg Lofaro – as I did with the last album – and we had this idea: Once a song is written, take it to the band, and see what would come out of that. Would that inspire us to change the song a little bit? Or would it show us that the song isn’t that good after all? With “Young Trouble”, it really did inspire us; it made the song a lot better. But with “Mean Love”, it took some time. I had to go back and work on a few things before taking it back to the band.
Your vocals feel much bigger here. They’re much clearer, higher in the mix.
That kinda came from touring, ya know? I was really shy at first. Also, I felt like there wasn’t that much to say on Mars. There’s a lot to listen to, but there wasn’t that much to say, and with Mean Love, I really wanted to focus on a message.
When that becomes your priority – if you set those parameters – it informs how you play everything. The songs are simpler. The arrangements are simpler – just to leave room for the vocals to really shine and be clearly understood and listened to.
Was there something you were trying to accomplish lyrically?
Well, that’s the interesting thing, because that’s where the partnership between Greg and I really flourishes. He wrote all the lyrics to the songs, but I definitely came at him with the music and the idea of what I wanted to do.
We talked a lot about this being a personal record, and the idea of something that is very close to him and myself, but that can also be related to by anyone else. So, we kind of use these broad topics, like love and nostalgia and sadness and hope and family – that type of thing.
Your parents are professors. What do they teach?
My father teaches African Studies and Religion, and my mom teaches Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic.
Does having smart parents come into play when you’re making music? It goes without saying that your sound is really multi-cultural.
I’d say their influence would just be to think about things more, and understand – to do the research and just know what you’re doing.
The “multi-cultural” thing comes about more naturally, I think. Like, my family has moved around a lot, and I’ve been able to experience a lot of different things. So that’s just kind of like a subconscious thing that I do with whatever I want to do, be it art or just communicating with my friends.
My parents have definitely really inspired me and pushed me to think about what I’m doing and understand it holistically. I think that comes through in this record, and as I continue to write more music I see it becoming more of a prominent feature.
So, being their kid made you thorough.
[Laughs] Yeah, there was no way around that.
“New Name” feels almost theological to me.
That song is kind of about the mystery and the idea of when you’re longing for someone more than anything. I mean, in that way, it can definitely be theological. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with these songs: They definitely mean something to me, and they definitely mean something to Greg, but at the same time, it’s really nice when someone can understand them for what they’re worth, while also relating to them on their own terms and making them their own songs.
Your music can have a very ’60s and ’70s feel to it, but you’re a child of the ’80s. What’s your connection to that era of music?
It comes a lot from my parents. My parents love soul music and pop music from the ’60s, and jazz. My dad was a big jazz head, so I grew up with a lot of jazz. When I was in college, that music really started to speak to me in a way that it hadn’t before, and in a way that other music that I was listening to – indie rock or whatever – hadn’t before.
So I started really kind of getting into the spiritual jazz from the ’60s and ’70s, Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane. Like, Archie Shepp records, Impulse records. The wacky Miles Davis stuff, Don Cherry – all that kind of stuff. And through that I was introduced to the funkier stuff, like, Herbie Hancock records, which got me into Motown and Stax and soul music from that time. And I realized that that music was what was really speaking to me, more than any other kind of music. That was more where my heart and soul was. I just didn’t look back at that point. I just became obsessed, and spent a lot of time listening to that music, dissecting it.
Was Sudanese music something that was played around the house growing up?
Absolutely. I lived in the United States and Sudan growing up. I spent three months out of each year in Sudan. That was a big part of my growth, and in the United States, whenever I was home in my family’s house, I was definitely in a Sudanese household. My parents made a really conscious effort to connect with other ex-pats around the country, so there was always a Sudanese community around me. Whenever we’d go hang with them, it was always like a little Sudanese community. So it was a prominent part of my childhood, and it still is a prominent part of who I am and how I do things.
As far as the uniquely American elements of the record, the pedal steel is a very welcome addition to your sound. What’s your relationship with country music?
When I was working on this album, I was listening to a lot of different kinds of music – specifically reggae, soul, country western, and east-African music. And as I was listening to them, and digging deeper into them, and learning about the people who started those traditions, and the founding fathers of each genre of music, I made this connection: They all come from the same place. They were all struggling people who use music as an outlet to express themselves. I found that that kind of longing and sense of urgency was very similar between all the different kinds of music.
African people who dealt with their own struggle express themselves in a similar way to American people – like, poor white folks in the United States when they were making Americana and country music. They expressed themselves in the same way as the founding fathers of soul and R&B, and also the Jamaicans who expressed in that way with Reggae.
I was surprised to find that country western musicians were influenced by reggae music, and vice versa. I figured that if the sentiment was there, then it would be really interesting to bring the heart of these kinds of music together to create something that might be unique. Like, when you listen to an old Patsy Cline song or a Tammy Wynette song, and they’re just pouring all their emotions into it, I feel the same way as like an Otis Redding song, or even an east-African song.
That’s really interesting.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s the thoroughness, from my parents.
The video for “How We Be” looked really fun to make. What was it like shooting that?
It was great. Nick [Bentgen] is a really talented guy. He’s very focused. He has a good vision. He’s very thorough. It was just really nice to be around him. I came into the video, and he just pretty much told me what to do. He found the essence of the song and portrayed it in a very beautiful way.
It almost seems like a more tasteful version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” video.
I was wondering if anyone was going to bring that up. I didn’t know if that was gonna happen. I haven’t really seen that video, but I know people have a lot to say about it.
How’s DFA life?
It’s like being part of a family, ya know? It’s small enough that everyone knows each other, and we can all communicate with each other very easily. A lot of the artists on DFA live in New York, so that’s really nice, to see a person like Pat Mahoney or Matthew Wang or Holy Ghost! guys or even James [Murphy] around town. And the label’s based out of New York, so if I ever need anything I can always just go down to their offices and talk to them face to face. That’s a really important thing for me to be able to do.
So, I put together these parties. They used to put on these parties back in the day, but since people started getting busier it’s been kind of tough. But I came back and started rebooking their parties, starting with the Christmas party, and we had one this summer, and it really showcases how powerful the music is and how beautiful the camaraderie between everyone is. We all decide to came together and decided to do this just out of our love of the label and each other.
A lot of labels can’t really do that kind of thing. There are too many people that are assigned to the label, or no one really lives around town to get together and have like, a hang, you know? Community’s really important to me, and it’s really important to that label – as it is with City Slang [Records] in Europe. It’s really nice to be a part of a family and a community.
Are you taking inspiration more from New York?
There’s no doubt that I’m taking inspiration from here. New York is just a giant ball of energy. There’s inspiration just walking down the street. You can literally be inspired by anything. It would be sad if I didn’t. [Laughs] But there are also all the places I visit on tour, and I’m really just meeting diverse people from all around the world.
We just finished a big long European run, and we’re about to do all of October in the United States. And then it’s back to Europe in November, then Mexico, and hopefully Australia next year.
I’m just saying yes to everything, ’cause it’s that time.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.