Ahmed Gallab, the Khartoum-born, Provo-, Boston-, and Kent-raised multi-instrumentalist behind Sinkane, is a perfectionist. For starters, he re-recorded Mars, his latest release, three times before being satisfied with its sounds, and then spent months poring over the details with co-producer Greg Lofaro. But it was worth the pickiness.
The album, which is Gallab’s third record and second full-length under the Sinkane moniker, is very much a new beginning for him, a reflection of a musical re-education that took place in his adulthood. After finishing university and spending some time finding his musical self, Gallab landed a chance job playing drums for electro-psych band Caribou (as if in a scene taken from Hollywood, Gallab got the call while he was on his way to a job interview and turned straight for the airport). He later joined indie stalwarts such as Of Montreal, Born Ruffians, and Yeasayer, experiences which gradually informed his approach to music.
“Playing in the bands that I’ve played in really affected my understanding of music. With Sinkane, I’m still doing exactly what I want to do but I really want people to relate to this music,” he says, using a tried-and-true euphemism to mean he was ready to re-conceptualize the experimental, esoteric leanings of his previous releases to make them more palatable for a larger audience.
“For example, I was always afraid of singing because I was self-conscious about it. I made an honest effort to sing more because I knew that’s how people relate to music through vocals,” he says of Mars, which is the first of his albums to feature significant, though unconventional, vocals.
Mars, the bulk of which was conceived and written a couple of years ago, is deeply personal. “When I moved to New York, I was in a dark place for a while,” Gallab says, echoing the almost-clichéd depression many new New Yorkers confess to experiencing during their first few months and years in the city. “I couldn’t relate to anything. I felt like I wasn’t conscious, like I was in another place, on another planet,” he says, describing how the concept of outer space came to be a running representation of his sense of isolation.
The album’s lyrics, too, are fed from that dark place. “Pretty much every song is about something that was making me depressed or was on my mind at the time,” he says. And indeed, the forlornness is palpable on songs like “Making Time” and “Lovesick,” on the latter of which he sings in despair, “What more can I say, what more can I do?”
Mars is at home on James Murphy’s DFA Records, whose other releases include equally thoughtful projects from Holy Ghost! and YACHT. Despite Gallab’s indie-insider status, Sinkane is a clear departure from the irony-laden, somewhat detached music being made by many of his peers.
The inter-planetary metaphor could easily be a tedious concept, if not for the genuineness of the record, which features detectable knolls of loneliness and confusion coupled with panicked bursts of sunshiney optimism. Despite the heavy emotion of the album’s conceptual driving force, these are not sad songs. In fact, while his lyrical themes are dark, Gallab pairs them with warm, upbeat, psychedelic rhythms and melodies. “It’s a strange juxtaposition,” he says of the unconventional divergence between Mars’ lyrics and its sonic atmosphere.
On a macro level, the album lithely mashes up a range of unlikely influences: songs that hint at ’70s jazz, dub, funk, Spaghetti Western scores, krautrock, Cumbia, and Latin grooves, among a handful of other references, on which he plays all of the instruments, aside from guest appearances by Casey Benjamin, Jason “Jaytram” Trammell and Ira Wolf Tuton (both of Yeasayer), and George Lewis, Jr. (of Twin Shadow).
Gallab’s personal history, itself a composite of seemingly opposite elements, is where a lot of that synthesis is drawn from. As a child, he moved to America with his family as political asylees from their native Sudan, newly flung from a country whose slow implosion would follow. Growing up in the suburban USA, Gallab came to meld diverse worlds such as the Sudanese and Arabic music of his parents with the punk scene he threw himself into, with the jazz and funk he discovered on his own, and even with hip hop (the name Sinkane is derived from a mishearing of a lyric on a Kanye West song that refers to Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the Amistad slave rebellion). The result is an ethos, and an album, that has tinges of the political, but remains refreshingly subtle, ambiguous, and as close to the Red Planet as we’ll likely ever get.
Mars is out now on DFA in the US and on City Slang in Europe.