“I’ve enjoyed listening to Armenian classical compositions thanks to my mother” - Lara Sarkissian

Lara Sarkissian

Lara Sarkissian is a composer, DJ, filmmaker, and record label owner. Born and raised in San Francisco, her Armenian family immigrated from Iran. Infusing her traditional roots in everything she does, Lara Sarkissian is a genius in expressing a story while proving many different elements in sound can come together in harmony. In high school, Lara was the drummer in a post punk, garage rock band with friends. Her passion for radio and DJing was ignited when she was a student at University of California Berkeley while volunteering with KALX radio station. She is also known as her DJ alias FOOZOOL, and in 2016 co-founded an underground record label, Club Chai in Oakland. In the middle of Silicon Valley, Club Chai is a revolutionary, inclusive movement, that connects modern Western culture with non-western sounds and hosts gender non-conforming, femme and diaspora artists. 

In 2017, she performed a boundary defying Boiler Room set in Club Chai published on YouTube. This set brilliantly travelled through different eras and places, utilizing transitions such as bells, afro beats, minimalistic sounds, the Spice Girls, and traditional instruments. She masterfully keeps the crowd on their toes and engaged with her playful, rhythmic, energetic style. 

In December 2018, Lara dropped her EP “Disruption”, which was imagined as a soundtrack of a fictional film inspired from Armenian mythology. “Disruption” is experimental, electronic, traditional and without boundary. Impossible to be put in a box, this album rather can be remembered in the feelings it invokes. Electronically infusing traditional Armenian instruments, tribal beats, and nature sounds, “Disruption” cinematically and beautifully paints a futuristic, apocalyptic, and mythological story that engages the listener from the first track. With artistic ground in music, as well as having worked as an artist in residence around the world with different visual and sound artistic installations, Lara also works in film. In 2018, Jaddoland was released, in which Lara worked as an associate producer. Jaddoland is an independent film by Oakland based director Nadia Shihab presenting an Iraqi immigrant story which meaningfully explores themes such as home, art, identity, and traditional culture. 

Finally, her most recent track “The Girl, Leopard and Trees'' is named after an expressionist painting by Armenian painter, Martiros Sarian.  As an ode to her Armenian roots, this song synthesizes kanun sounds from Karine Hovhannisyan, “Concerto No. 2 for Kanun and Orchestra: Adagio,” with a heavy growl bass, and unique rhythmic tones. Lara changes tempo throughout the song which creates a cinematic, apocalyptic, and captivating experience. This latest work by Lara creates a dark, suspenseful, and dramatic image with its smooth use of varying sounds and tempos, and cool bass structure. It is refreshingly original and intensely visual. With a tendency towards dark and apocalyptic style in her art, Lara Sarkissian is particularly relevant in the current climate of Coronavirus and quarantine.

In the current quarantine times, the club scene is obviously suffering. I wonder if and how you think music can survive long term beyond the live venue setting? And, how do you imagine the future of the music scene in general?
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought to light in what several years of our societal infrastructures, governing systems and industries have been lacking or failing us. 
With the amount of people in music and entertainment who have completely lost work, putting the industries to pretty much a halt, it has also reminded us of the number of crucial roles and people that exist in creative industries beyond just the artist. Since social distancing and shelter in place began, musicians and artists have taken their work online, self-releasing projects on platforms like Bandcamp, live-streaming performances and talks on Instagram and Twitch, promoters hosting streamed parties on Zoom…Film festival curators hosting screenings online. Not only are these the only options right now to carry on this work and make some income as an artist, but these have been really creative and engaging ways to take our work to where we can pretty much only exist and communicate now [online]…and also create online spaces to be together and just process what is going on. However I worry for all the other roles in these industries that are just irreplaceable in the digital world. Venues owners, sound engineers, bouncers, bartenders…Programmers, agents, managers, and hundreds of more roles that hold this industry up and make it physically present and beyond. There was a lot that was not working in these industries pre-pandemic, and I think this time is going to allow us to reflect on that and hopefully come out of this wanting a change and something better for all of us. It’s unfortunate that it has to be at a cost of peoples lives and jobs. I hope that coming out of this, more people will realize how much we need each other's support, how every player in the industry matters, not just artist - consumer…more resource sharing, and less individualized mentalities…drop hierarchies!! Specifically with our industries I have many questions, but one of the broader ones I have for the future -  how can we invest and also put more monetary value to people’s creative labor, roles and artistic output that is a value in society and so heavily consumed, when we come out of this? What outside resources will be willing to invest and see that value?

What is valuable for you about Art and Music?   
What is valuable for me with art and music is the time it gives with ourselves. And with each other. Being in conversation with our inner selves and others.... Connecting with our souls and others. 

How do you think experimental art influences culture, politics, and gender? 
Experimental art, both in creation and consumption, allows us to think outside of rules and structure, outside of normative ways of being, and what we are told is accepted and to be. It allows us to think critically and question what is given and what we want for ourselves. I think the non-normative and critical ways of it can inform the way we personally navigate culture, politics, how we want to identify and our greater purpose in society.

You are striking because you seem to reject the rules and break out of anything that would restrict your freedom as an Artist. Do you have any rules you do follow with your Art? Which are the rules that you believe are important to break? Also, how do you preserve your freedom and authenticity while dealing with the pressures of the culture and society you are in?
I think the most important advice I’ve taken for my practice is to not be afraid to take risks with your work. Every person has a different story to tell that can be told in many ways, and not everyone’s can fit into some kind of rule or structure, nor can it always do it justice..it can still be understood and felt if working outside of that. It’s important for me to stick with my intuition and gut feelings in the direction of my work, even if it’s something I don’t see too much of out there. My interdisciplinary practices in film/video art, music, installation and writing have definitely helped me work and think in this way. Allowing different mediums to inform and crossover to one another and not giving boundaries between them. These different practices and mediums definitely allow me to think of space and time in many ways that become foundational in both sound and visual work. 
A couple other really crucial processes in creating are reaching out to peers for feedback and collaboration with other artists. Even if you are working on your own project, your work is something that unconsciously has involved many other people beyond you. Being in dialogue or collaboration with others about it helps you find your language around it all and be in conversation with something beyond yourself, a community.

Your new track, “The Girl, Leopard and Trees”, blends Armenian kanun and bass in such an exciting way. How did you decide to name this track? What was your inspiration for making it and choosing the kanun sound? Will there be a project that extends on this in the future?
I named this track after the Martiros Sarian piece that always stuck with me. It seems like a minimal illustration, but something about it makes me curious about the character Sarian illustrated and the setting, there’s a level of mystery and fierceness to it.
At the beginnings of my work in music, I always wanted to see Armenian sounds and narratives pushed into the electronic sphere in new and experimental ways. I was really inspired by producers from South America, Middle East and Asia or diaspora artists who were doing this, and was curious about taking elements from Armenian sounds but creating something new that isn’t necessarily nostalgic or looking back, but more so imagining it in current times and future. It’s sort of a reflection of the lived experiences and place I’m in, and the communities I am a part of in San Francisco and Oakland. 
I’ve enjoyed listening to Armenian classical compositions through my mother, and one of my favorite albums she introduced me to is Karine Hovhannisyan’s “Classical Music for the Armenian Kanun” featuring the Armenian State Opera Orchestra. I fell in love with “Adagio” on this album, and how the abrupt and then vanishing kanun brings tension, and kind of suspends you in time. I imagined chopping up parts of the orchestra and kanun, and sampling that tension within bass and modular synth elements, some suspenseful light percussion, to emphasize that feeling even more. I also put parts of the kanun in a guitar amp and pedal plug in for a distorted and vintage sound. I am slowly working away at a project that synthesizes kanun and other string instruments, but am looking to work with more instrumentalists in person or online to have a more collaborative process rather than sampling.   

The last song on your album, “Disruption”, “Tell Me, Where Do the Butterflies Live,” feels like the peace after the storm, like a looming moment of transition and a new beginning. It is a hopeful ending to a suspenseful and apocalyptic album. When you begin a project, do you have a vision of the whole picture and the whole story or does it unfold while you are creating it?
When starting a project or a track, I generally know the feeling and story I want to tell, or concepts I’m exploring whether I’ve found this through reading or through visual material, or inspiration from another artist’s work I’ve heard. I start composing and testing out different sounds, instruments, and experimenting until it goes towards that feeling I initially was looking to satisfy. I have to be ok with letting it unfold during the production process, be ok with stripping down a lot of elements and not get too attached to a certain sound or idea as well though. 

Interview by Hannah Kazanjian Brewster