Vishal Narang of Airhead DC on Music and Mythology

Photo by Eva Knowles

When Vishal Narang–aka Airhead DC–started writing the songs for his upcoming EP, Busted Sermon, his thoughts were drawn to the narratives that underpin life in a capitalist consumer culture. As he explained in a press release for the first single, “Condo 2”: “Some people will never have enough. Even when they have everything that somebody else doesn’t have, they want Condo 2. It’s the vicious cycle of what we’re being sold, but that new thing usually complicates our life.” 

In a year of unfolding crisis after unfolding crisis–one that’s left millions unemployed in the wake of a global pandemic and still managed to enrich a handful of greedy billionaires–it behooves us to take a closer, more critical look at those narratives. Busted Sermon offers a lo-fi pop clearing of the mind: thoughtful music to help you chew over the meaningful questions in the way you live.

Compared to his last Airhead DC release, the louder and highly-collaborative Crush Hi, it’s a more intuitive and minimal affair, built on breezy bossa nova guitars, drum machines, and a hint of synth wobble for good measure. Aside from mixing and mastering by Max Gowan, only one other musician features: Narang’s father, who recorded a meditative tabla beat for the second single, “Amphora Jam.”

Ahead of the virtual release show for Busted Sermon–streaming live on December 15–Narang spoke to The All Scene Eye about the analog equipment that shaped the EP and the thinkers who inspired him to look closer at the mythology at play in his day-to-day life.

So here we are, about nine months into pandemic conditions. How are you doing?

I’m good–I’m great. I’m not happy about the pandemic, but I’m finding ways to be happy.

Tell me more about that for you–about finding ways to be happy in the middle of what’s going on.

It’s been a nice break. I mean, first of all, I had a break from work because of the pandemic, and that was good for me, to take a step back. I had been working at the same place for a while, so breaking away from routine was a really positive thing for me. 

Otherwise, I feel a little confused all the time, but it’s given me a chance to try to understand this historically, and then gave me an opportunity of some time with my family. I spent quite a long time with them, which doesn’t happen very often these days. There’s no other time I could really see myself going back to be with them for more than two months or something like that, you know? Even more than a few weeks. 

And then I just feel like I’ve been able to concentrate on my health and wellness, take things at my own pace, and not have to get up in the morning to do something I’m not super thrilled about. And, you know, spend time in New York City. I was living in New York when the pandemic first started, and already was thinking about trying to get out of the city, so it provided a good time, I guess.

[laughs] No better time.

[laughs] Yeah, seriously. But I can’t complain. I feel really happy to be able to exercise and be able to set down roots in a new place and focus on what really makes me happy, which is staying healthy, making music, thinking about other things I want to do in the future, and not really living a day-to-day grind, which is what New York City felt like for me.

You’re in Portland now, right? What has that been like settling in there?

It’s been nice. At first I thought it was kind of a–it sounds funny to say, but a weird place. You know, people always say “Keep Portland Weird.” When I got here, it was only two and a half to three months ago, and it’s been taking me a second to figure it out. I think there’s a different kind of person or culture in general–different values, in a way. I think a lot of people are more outdoorsy here than where I grew up, but there’s also the hallmarks of a city, and that was sort of surprising to me too, at first. Like, my idea in my mind of Portland was kind of a more natural, suburban type of thing, but it does have a city vibe, and that’s a funny clash.

When I was thinking a year ago of moving here, I was really psyched to get in touch with people through friends to play music and work with a new scene. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic I haven’t really been able to develop much of a social life, but I do think it’s been influencing me a bit. I always thought that when I moved to Portland, I’d make trippier music [laughs] like the Portlandia theme, Toro y Moi kind of stuff. I recently bought a sampler, and without really consciously thinking about that notion I had, it’s weirdly happening. I’m not sure why. [laughs] I guess it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I just feel like everyone’s kind of, like, high here, and everyone’s outside, and it’s not the same feeling of winter that I usually get on the east coast where it feels like everything’s dying. Over here, it feels like everything is thriving super hard in the winter and the fall, so that’s cool.

Your last record, Crush Hi, came out in 2018. When did you start working on the songs for the new EP, Busted Sermon?

I started working on Busted Sermon in December of 2019, I think, so coming up on a year now. The last song for the album I made was “Amphora Jam,” and I finished that one up in–I think in July.

What kicked it off for you, the new project?

I really wanted to share some music with people–it had been a while since I’d shared anything fresh besides live shows. I wanted to figure out a way, without putting too much emphasis on the production end for myself, to just record some things and put them out, and I had been playing guitar a lot more. 

The past few things I’ve done have been less guitar oriented, before Busted Sermon, but guitar is something I grew up playing and I think I had my first really soulful musical experiences playing guitar. I was living with a friend of mine who had an acoustic, and I was using that and writing a lot of acoustic songs. I ended up doing an acoustic set for the first time–I think it was on 11/11 last year. November 11, 2019. After that, I was like, “Dang, I should really try to record some stuff,” and then just tried to record something that would be easy for me to record and put out there.

You made this project on a four-track tape recorder–I’m curious if you could tell me a little more about that setup, and what you used to make the album, physically.

Yeah, I bought the four-track, and these were some of the first songs I made with the four-track. I had never really used tape before, so that was a fun experiment for me. Otherwise, I think all the guitar on the album aside from “Nominator” is acoustic. Even some of the distorted-sounding guitar is just an acoustic guitar with a pickup going through pedals. In the song “Gee Prayer,” I think there’s some flanger, chorus, so, effect-ed acoustic guitar. I think there’s a little bit of synth from a Roland MC-303 I’ve had for a long time.

I wanted to make it bare-bones. I used this drum machine that I downloaded for my computer called DM1. I’ve been really into analog stuff for a long time, and kind of didn’t think about using anything but analog equipment, but when I got this four-track, I just wanted more ease, really. That’s kind of why I bought it in the first place, because I didn’t want to intimidate myself with recording into Logic and having to process it a lot. The tape machine kind of processes your music for you, and saturates it, and makes it heavy and warm, so originally, I was inspired to have a really simple drum beat and a really simple guitar and see how satisfying that could feel. Because as much as I love layered recordings and electronic stuff, I also crave listening to something incredibly simple sometimes–something that has power in simplicity.

Was there a point during that process where you realized you could make it satisfying, and you could make this work in this orientation?

Yeah, I think the most simple song I have on this EP is “Chins Out.” It’s really just guitar and drum machine, and that was probably a moment where I understood that I don’t really need to throw that much stuff on. When I’m working with synths, I feel like I could layer them forever and it still might sound empty because it’s a digital thing, and it’s different with acoustic instruments. I think they carry a little more weight, and they’re much more pronounced when they’re just on their own.

And on top of all that stuff, I really love to sing. I do love making instrumental music and zoning out to just synthesizers, but I also really, really love to sing, so recording these songs–there was kind of a restraint I had on my singing, which is, I was in an apartment in New York City for a lot of these songs, and sometimes my roommates were home, and I had very thin walls. I think it almost makes it more intimate to know that I was hovering over my microphone and trying to get the vocals out in as little takes as possible, being a little less experimental with my vocals. 

Sometimes, if I’m in a practice space, I’ll let my voice go crazy until I hear something I like, but I was a little bit more purposeful with these songs, trying to come up with vocal melodies without jamming on the song too too much–mainly coming up with vocal melodies after listening to a song a couple times, or walking around the city, listening to it in my headphones, and trying to map out a melody.

On “Amphora Jam,” you have your dad playing the tabla. How did that percussion find its way into the project?

I had written “Amphora Jam,” the guitar part at least–I had been sitting on it for maybe three months before I wrote lyrics to it and was able to find a vocal melody. For a while, it felt like a very quiet, somber, mysterious song to me, and I wasn’t thinking about drums. But because of the pandemic and spending time with my family–I was able to go to Virginia to be with them, and when I was working on music, my dad took an interest. He plays tabla, and for the past year or so, he would sometimes mention the tabla and joke around like, “Oh, I gotta take those out. I gotta practice those things again.”

This was just a really good opportunity for us to collaborate on something fun together, but also, I genuinely love the tablas, how they sound like water drops that make music, you know? That make notes. I think they fit really well with the song, more than any other percussive element I could think of. The tablas have this–yeah, almost underwater, leathery quality.

I played the song for him and asked him if anything came to mind. He asked me to make a voice memo on his phone so he could listen to it in the car or practice tabla to it, and he ended up coming up with the rhythms that were used. There are some parts that I looped. But yeah, I just set up the only microphone I had, this dynamic microphone [laughs] right on top of the tablas and let him rip. I think it turned out pretty cool, pretty spacy.

I’ve read that you were taking influence from some non-musical sources, and one of the names that you cite is Joseph Campbell, who I think a lot of people know from Hero with a Thousand Faces, heroic archetypes in mythology–how did his influence find its way in front of you?

I think there was a period where I found the video Power of Myth. I’ve always been aware of his book Power of Myth, I think since early college or even in high school, but I didn’t know that there was this video interview that he did with Bill Moyers which ended up becoming the book. My sister had a copy laying around, so I think I had seen it, you know, in my late teens and 20’s, and after I watched it, it just blew my mind.

There are some great animations, really good illustrations along with stories that he tells, and it just opened me up to a kind of wonder about what myths are trying to say–what stories stick with people? What kinds of rituals make a difference in people’s lives? I just kind of fell in love with Joseph Campbell, and I suppose the way that his influence makes it into the album is not sonically, but more so when I was writing lyrics. The things he was talking about in Power of Myth were the things that were on my mind the most when I was writing these songs, and kind of still are. When he talks about mythology, and rites of passage, and dreams, and fantasies, and references Carl Jung a lot, they’re things that really keep me excited and sort of seeing my life more as a mystery than anything. 

“Amphora Jam” is probably the song that tries to evoke the sense of wonder and mystery by illustrating a fantastical scene, and “Condo 2” is sort of about trying to live your life in accord with your values. I think that’s something that also–you know, watching Joseph Campbell makes you look at your own life. I mean, I say watching Joseph Campbell. I guess what I really mean is confronting the mystery of your consciousness, confronting civilization, and understanding your place in history and why we tell the stories we tell. Those are things that make you think about, “Am I living in accord with what I believe? What am I doing on a day to day basis that I don’t believe in but kind of have to do?” I think we all do that. Since the moment this country was colonized, currency was a big part of it, and what things are worth monetarily was sort of the baseline for how things operated.

I think that also brought me closer to wanting to spend some time outside, and I think living in New York City, it’s easy for me to neglect natural beauty. I mean, if someone were to come up to me in New York and be like, “Do you care about the Earth? Do you love being outside?” I’d be like, “Hell yeah! I love to go on hikes,” and whatever, but I spent a little bit more time upstate when I was writing these songs. My girlfriend was living on a farm, so I was visiting her, and we both were really into Joseph Campbell, so it just pushed me to talk about the things that were on my mind, which were–I guess heavier ideas, but I think the way I talk about them and the way the songs sound are actually quite light.

Versus those myths of colonialism and currency, what stories or myths do you find more resonant with you, or more in line with the way you want to live?

I suppose myths or stories or experiences that bring me closer to the Earth and help me not see humans as the only smart thing on the planet–and also maybe experiences or stories that make me not see humans as a cancer on the planet. Rudolph Steiner is another person, whose ideas I was introduced to through my girlfriend while she was living upstate, and he developed an amalgam of a lot of pagan religions, eastern religions, called anthroposophy. 

He developed some ideas about farming, so already he emphasizes a connection to the Earth and understanding how it works, and understanding that we actually work in a similar way, and–yeah, some mysterious stuff too. He tries to give a lot of language to, “What is the soul? What is the spirit? What are the different realms that we live in? How does energy that keeps us alive go between our bodies and the area around our bodies and through lifetimes?” Things that unless you have to really sit down and talk to somebody about them, you might not go very deep into it on your own. 

Around the time I was writing this album, those were the things that I was confronted with. Hearing my girlfriend talking about that made me step back and think a little harder, and those are the things that inspire the most awe in me. That’s when I’m the happiest–when there’s something to investigate and something mysterious. Like, I really love Twin Peaks. It’s probably my favorite show, and I could watch it over and over because it feels like there’s an activity. There’s something unexplained, and I think that’s the beauty of it, is that you can explain a lot of it. You can go online and watch a four hour explanation of it, but [laughs] there’s still parts of it that are just wondrous and weird, and nobody understands, and I think that’s what life is.

Life is really boring if you think you understand all of it, and the more you get other people’s ideas in your head or introduce yourself to myths from the past and understand how other cultures saw the Earth or themselves, or how Rudolph Steiner saw the electricity in your body–those are the things that make me really excited. I don’t know if they’re always going to be subjects I want to tackle in songwriting, but it was fun to try.

You’re involved with organizing a mass musical drone event in Portland–how did that come to be?

Yeah, that I am going to do on December 5, I believe. I had heard of this thing a while ago, I think there was a series of them, 77 Boadrum, or 88 Boadrum? And I think they’re two events where one had 77 drummers all in a park in Brooklyn, in Redhook or something, all drumming away. I think it was to the same beat or sort of harmonizing a little bit, doing polyrhythms–but yeah, people playing together on a large scale seems really fun. 

I really like drone in general. I like spacing out to one tone. I like entering a world of continuous sound. That’s just a fun part of music for me, and I think it’s kind of also a desperate wave to the people of Portland, and maybe a last-ditch effort for a social life. [laughs] No, not really, but I thought it would be a fun way to meet musicians and just something fun to do. I’ve never really organized anything on a mass scale, and I doubt this thing that I do in December 5 will be on a mass scale, but I’m hoping to just have a nice droning orchestra in the park, and then do it quarterly–do it every season, so maybe after that, the next one could be in February.

I think a lot of people are afraid to be together right now, and I think that’s really, really sad. If anything’s affecting me the most, it’s the fear that I sense in people. I think there’s a lot of nuance in this world, and there’s a lot of nuance with this coronavirus situation, and I think people really want to make sense of it and be on one side or the other. They want to do the right thing and they’re very scared, so they don’t want to be flexible in how they do things, and it sucks to see fear.

Not that I’m not also afraid, but I think that also made me want to do drone in the park. I’d love to get people together and I want to play a show so damn bad. I really miss playing live. It’s when I’m the most excited, is when I’m creating a live set, so yeah, having people together to play music, that’s what I’m craving.

While more traditional live performance isn’t happening, what’s next for you? You mentioned that you’re working on new music and kind of switching up your style now that you’re in a new place.

Around the time I made Busted Sermon, I also finished recording an Airhead DC album with my friend Nate Mendelsohn, who plays in a band called Market. We recorded it at his apartment in Flatbush, and I’m still working on that, just finishing up vocals, but I’m hoping to get that out next year, and it’s predominantly electronic. It’s stuff that I’ve been playing live for about two years after Crush Hi came out, and I’m really excited to get that stuff out.

It feels really complete to me as far as an electronic album goes, and I was a little more patient with it. I think Crush Hi has something going on where I just wanted to make quick pop songs or something, and make them glitter and shine and be easily digestible as pop is while also having experimental tunes. I think with the stuff that I did with Nate, I wasn’t really afraid or trying to make something as poppy. It veers off into some longer songs, which is cool. Hopefully I can get that mixed pretty soon after I finish the vocals.

I’ve been writing a lot of new material with samplers, and that’s been really, really fun for me. I haven’t used a sampler for music since I recorded as Nirvanus, and even then, I don’t think I was using my sampler in the same way I’m using it now. It was maybe a little more freeform back then, but I’m trying to make more loop-based songs, so that’s exciting for me, still really enjoying singing. It’s one of my favorite parts of making the new stuff.

We’ll be doing a live release show virtually on December 15 for Busted Sermon, and I think I’m gonna play predominantly new material. I’ve been also making music on Zoom with a couple of my friends, where we all plug in our interfaces and jam, and we’re in the process of going back through the jams and trying to find material that we can transform into songs that we’d want to listen to. It’s been pretty fun. And I still have the acoustic guitar around, and as long as the acoustic guitar is around, I’m always writing songs there too.

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