Imaad Wasif had planned on making his sixth solo album in an abandoned mansion but wasn’t happy with the results from the initial sessions. Then lockdown hit and forced him to continue recording it in isolation. Working remotely with producer and long-time collaborator Bobb Bruno of Best Coast, Wasif found himself inspired to write on piano for the first time, something that proved to be a major creative spark. The resulting album, “So Long Mr. Fear,” has an intimate and atmospheric feel, with Wasif’s vocals and guitar bringing unique nuances to timeless songwriting. Several collaborators bring in their own touches: Evan Haros plays sitar on “Elemental” and “Regeneration”; Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O sings on “Poet of the Damned”; and Jen Wood (the Postal Service, Tattle Tale) sings on “Fader.”
Beyond his solo career, Wasif has been very active with other musical projects. Among other things, he’s been a touring member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in Lou Barlow’s project the Folk Implosion, and a member of bands lowercase, ACID and alaska!
Over a Zoom interview, Wasif talked about his career and his new album.
Did the pandemic influence your decision to do another solo album at this point in time?
Imaad Wasif: It wasn’t a direct influence on me deciding to make the record. I had been in the process of making it for a while, but obviously, the state of the world had a direct influence on the course of the record and sort of the path that it took.
Could you talk a bit about the differences in making this album? From what I’ve read, you did more songwriting on the piano? How did your overall creative process differ this time?
Imaad Wasif: Yeah, that was a huge part of it. I had originally started making the record in an abandoned mansion that a friend of mine had access to. We had this idea of kind of breaking in and setting up mics and some basic recording gear. I was going to do this very stripped-down, raw acoustic record. I had a lot of these songs that were written in that vein. We started recording, and after a few weeks, I just really was feeling like everything that I was hearing back was very static and it wasn’t quite capturing the tone of where I was at or anything that I was really feeling anymore. As is often the case, I think the recording process is extremely brutal and kind of revealing. So I was a little bit shattered by this whole initial process and I went back, and it was kind of around when the initial phase of heavy lockdown came in. All of a sudden, the piano just called to me. I’d never really written on the piano. So that was an entirely different thing for me. I started staying up really late working on the piano and writing and I realized that a lot of the limitations that I actually felt in playing the piano were directing me in other ways, to think about the origin of music within myself and how to bring it out. You make all kinds of different decisions and feel harmonically and melodically moved in different ways.
So at that point, were you reworking any of the previous material, or were you starting fresh, writing new music?
Imaad Wasif: There were definitely lyrics and ideas that got shifted over. Part of my process, normally, is that I write a lot of songs and a lot of them mutate and transform into other things. These songs just seemed to all of a sudden tap into a very minimalistic kind of spectrum for me that was cutting to this idea of full transparency. I’ve always been trying to understand how to simplify, to get to the core of what it is that I want to say. So rather than being a maximalist, I started pulling away from things and really stripping things down during this process of writing on the piano. Then I actually started recording on my own. That was also hugely transformative for me because I was able to then realize that I could record at any moment that I felt the inspiration. That’s also another huge thing for me, for recorded music, being able to hear that moment in the recording or hear that energy within the recording. It’s really kind of what makes records resonate in a certain way for me.
When you were doing the initial writing, did you have a sense of the overall sound you were going for?
Imaad Wasif: Well, my sound is my sound and I’m well acquainted with it. I’m never really trying to divert from that because I feel like it’s something that exists as a way for me to … sort of reveal this kind of alien self within. I feel very fortunate that I have that facility within myself to tap into it. My good friend, Bobb Bruno actually got into this record with me and I started sending him the songs that I was recording. Really what I realized was I needed to figure out how to record my vocal and base everything around the vocal rather than the other way around, which is kind of the modern way, to record the music and then your vocal afterward. There’s a disconnect there. I would make these recordings that were first take or second take. After sort of rewriting and rewriting the song and going through and understanding the sound and if it was capturing what I wanted to capture. Then I would record, and generally, it was the first or second take that I end up sending to Bobb. Then we just have this kind of psychic connection. The things that he added would then really just kind of enhance the spectrum that was already there. That was one of the most beautiful things, kind of having a Christmas gift or something come back to me. He would send me his tracks and I would be like, ‘oh God, this is like so beautiful.’ There were a few songs like “Elemental” and “Regeneration” that I knew I wanted to have sitar on. I’d always known that I was going to ask a friend of mine to play on those.
Are there any particular songs that you feel may have evolved or changed once you started sending things back and forth with Bobb?
Imaad Wasif: I recorded, I think, like 26 songs. We did a lot of songs together. As I started kind of listening to the majority of those songs, I could see a through-line and was able to kind of edit down. I would say ‘So Long Mr. Fear‘. That song was a huge kind of breakthrough for me, because it had in its original incarnation been from the abandoned mansion sessions. It was this open modal guitar song. I had this modal tuning that I was using and it was very different in feel, and also the concept of it was different. I think the pandemic and my relationship to a lot of the fear that I was feeling at that time, that seeped into it. So that song, I felt underwent a huge transformation through the course of making the record and that was really why it became kind of an emblematic piece of the album for me, or the reason that I felt like I was going to title the record that.
You mentioned you knew that you wanted sitar on those tracks. What about the tracks where you had additional vocalists? Was it obvious you wanted them on those songs? Or where did it fit into the creative process?
Imaad Wasif: I didn’t have them in mind initially, but added them as we got close to sort of understanding the record and the depth of it. I mean, everything is a duality for me. I feel like I even inhabit a duality within myself, like a feminine and masculine, and some other kind of unknown species. With that, with those songs in particular, they really felt like … in talking to Bobb, we were like, these songs really do need this kind of feeling. Karen had heard an early incarnation of the record and she actually responded to that song ‘Poet of the Damned’ kind of on her own.
And so it was a huge honor, when she was like, ‘I’d love to sing on that song.’ With Jen, her vocals are amazing on ’Fader’ and strangely, I did not know her before that recording. We were both in bands, in similar kinds of worlds in the past, but I didn’t actually know her. Bobb introduced me to her, and we did this all remotely. I didn’t actually meet her until I was performing the song and she came to the show and came on stage. That was the first time that I’d met her and she sang with me for that song. So it was really kind of amazing.
When you perform this solo material live, what type of instrumentation do you use?
Imaad Wasif: I have a band. It can change depending on who’s available because a lot of my friends that are musicians are also touring in various incarnations of things. I’ll have drums, bass, probably additional guitar, and then sometimes guitar/sitar. I’m going between piano and guitar as well.
You’ve played with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and many other projects. Did you always see yourself primarily as a solo artist? Or was it your intention to always balance solo work and other projects?
Imaad Wasif: From day one, it was always about my songs. Like, how do I get my songs out? But it wasn’t really until like 2006 that I decided I wanted to start putting out records under my name. But yeah, it’s always been a solitary pursuit of expression for me.