Aram Bajakian backs Lou Reed during the Bažant Pohoda festival in Slovakia in July of 2012. Photo by Sasa Huzjak
Few guitarists cover as much territory, both stylistically and literally, as Aram Bajakian. Not long ago the Queens-based guitarist found himself copping James Hetfield riffs for the late Lou Reed, playing in Freddie Green mode with singer/pianist Diana Krall, and improvising on works by maverick composer John Zorn—all in the same week.
Bajakian is part of New York’s Downtown scene, a group of improvising performers and composers such as Zorn and guitarists like Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell that emerged in the 1970s. Their music, which sometimes receives such oversimplified labels of “experimental” and “avant-garde,” is in fact quite catholic, drawing inspiration from many sources, both high and low.
Bajakian has similarly wide-ranging tastes. In his formative years he was equally curious about Javanese gamelan music, Ewe drumming from Ghana, Prokofiev piano concertos, the introspective rock of My Bloody Valentine, and the blues stylings of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
The blues influence is especially apparent on there were flowers also in hell, a trio outing with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Jerome Jennings. The record reveals Bajakian as a sardonic composer, a masterly improviser, and a purveyor of excellent tones who finds new wrinkles in one of the most traditional musical forms.
What did you set out to do with there were flowers also in hell?
I wanted a record that wasn’t just about having great tone and amazing songs and solos. I wanted a record that really expressed my day-to-day life in Queens. “The Kids Don’t Want to Sleep” is a reflection of what it’s like when you’re trying to get your two-month-old to sleep at three in the morning, and there are kids outside your apartment screaming. All the songs on the record reflect some personal aspect of my life.
What was it like to work with Shahzad Ismaily and Jerome Jennings?
I wanted to work with Shahzad because I’d never played with him, and I felt he could teach me some things. He’s a masterful bass player who always plays really hip-sounding things. Plus he’s such a sweet guy, and that energy comes through in his playing. Jerome is also a sweetheart and plays his drums as if his life depended on it, which is similar to the approach I take. He also reminds me of Mitch Mitchell.
What was your compositional process like?
It was mostly organic. I’d come up with a riff, often referencing the blues, and then develop it on my own or with the band. “Texas Cannonball” is based on a Freddie King riff. “Orbisonian” sounds nothing like Roy Orbison, but is based on a riff I borrowed from one of his songs. “Loutone” just has this really catchy melody. Same with “Rent Party.” I’m really into writing catchy melodies, and then combining them with messed-up sounds. This is probably because I love the Beatles. I wrote “Medicaid Lullaby” just sitting on my couch in five minutes. I remember joking with my wife that it came out so easily, probably because I had been singing so many lullabies to our daughter at that point. But it’s also one of the most powerful compositions on the record. We got into the space and created this really moving piece. Some great work comes from slaving at it, and other pieces come easily. You just have to be open and flexible, and know how and what to listen for when it’s coming. It’s important not to get hung up on the process.
How did you record??
I only recorded for one day for two reasons: First, I couldn’t afford to hire a band and a studio for longer than that! But I also like to keep things alive and fresh. So much music now is calculated and perfect, but that’s not my aesthetic. If you get into it for days and start doing multiple takes, it just sucks the life out. On the other hand, all those great Stax tracks were recorded in a few hours, and they kill, so I’m trying to keep with that aesthetic. I tried to keep things simple. For example, there were just three mikes on the drums and a mike on each amp, and that was it.
You make interesting use of repetition.
Yes—on “Rent Party,” the way Shahzad uses the looper pedal during that solo is insane. These are not pretty-sounding loops, like you hear a lot of people do. He takes it out! On “For Julia,” I just repeat that line again and again. It’s a real minimalist approach, but it creates a beautiful place and tension.
"For the Lou Reed/Metallica songs, I went through a dozen or so high-end boutique pedals trying to find the right sound, but the Metal Muff was what really got it, especially when blended with the other guitar player's (Tony Diodore) Green Big Muff,” says Aram Bajakian of this pedalboard he used while supporting Lou Reed. “They sounded huge together and provided a great base for Lou to play some of his amazing feedback solos over." Photo by Aram Bajakian
Were there happy accidents while recording?
One thing that I love happens on “Sweet Blue Eyes.” Originally I did one take of the solo, but it was bugging me, so later in the day I took one more pass at it. Afterwards Shahzad said, “Why don’t we listen to both takes at the same time?” It sounded killer, and then at the end there’s a point where the two parts play this great line together as if it was planned out. It’s really amazing when things like that happen.
Talk about the guitars you used.
I used my Rick Kelly Tele and Strat. Rick has a shop [in New York’s West Village] on Carmine Street and has made instruments for Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and a bunch of other well-known players. His guitars are really great and totally handmade. My Tele is made of old pine that came from the beams of Jim Jarmusch’s New York loft when he had it remodeled. It has a massive [Douglas] fir neck with no truss rod that’s just insanely great. The fir came from the Chelsea Hotel, so it’s really a New York guitar. The whole thing vibrates and is just beautiful. I have Don Mare Super Sports in both my Strat and my Tele. Those pickups sound so good.
"I also used a 1937 Gibson L-50 with a 1940s DeArmond pickup. It too sounds amazing. I picked it up for $1,000 on Craigslist a few years back—there are still some deals out there in the insane vintage market. I used the L-50 on “Medicaid Lullaby,” “Japanese Love Ballad,” and “For Julia.” I had a [Neumann] U 67 condenser on the acoustic guitar, and at the same time intentionally bled the amped sound from an adjacent room into the mike. It’s a really beautiful effect."
What about amps?
I split my signal between my ’64 blackface [Fender] Deluxe Reverb and a cranked ’67 blackface Vibro Champ. Through each one I had a signal chain consisting of delay, distortion, fuzz, and a “crazy fuzz.” That way I could do one take, but have a bunch of different sounds to work with. A lot of stuff that sounds like layered guitars is really just one or two separate takes, blended in different combinations.