Hiatus/Profile

How old were you when you started playing piano?

Really young. Four or five? I went to a friend’s birthday party and the kid had a piano. I remember my Mum turning up and I was playing Three Blind Mice, and the mother of this kid was like ‘Yeah he’s been doing that since he got here’. So my Mum was like ‘OK, he’s obviously some kind of piano prodigy’. I had lessons, but I was completely incapable of reading music. I tried for a while, but I’ve played by ear ever since. It’s always been a huge release for me.

Did you grow up with music around you? 

Well I grew up with a lot of Iranian music in the house. When my Dad came to the UK, all the Iranian music he had was on these old tapes. We listened to them loads, particularly when we were driving. He’d put on one of these old scratchy cassettes. And I loved – still do in fact – that over time they’d get so warped, speed up, slow down. There’s this beautiful old distortion, like you can hear the history of the music as an artefact. Breathing, with all this dust in it. I loved that. So when I started sampling stuff it seemed like a natural thing to do, to go back and play off that as a nostalgic influence. But western music not so much, although I was obsessed with film music. I used to record music from the television and the soundtracks of films through a phono lead to a tape. I was very into doing that.

Were you in bands when you were younger?

Not really. Only when I went to Uni and met Matt Falloon, who I formed a band with and have played music with ever since. Playing music got me through Uni really. I DJed a lot, got really into drum and bass, clubbing and raving. And played piano in what was then Holy Smoke before it became Smoke Feathers. So performing music became a huge part of my life while at University.

When did Hiatus come about?

Pretty much straight after Uni. I moved to London, and a friend of mine sent me a copy of Reason, which is a programme I still use. That was it. I sat in Parklands, the building in Peckham Rye I lived in for years, and rattled off three EPs over the space of a year. Four tracks on each one, burning CDs, handwriting the titles and mailing them to friends. It was Hiatus from day one. No idea why really.

So what are you working on now?

I’m working on another record now which is fun but kind of terrifying at the same time. With my second album, Parklands, I felt like I was setting out and making ‘An Album’. Which I hadn’t with the first one. That was just a collection of stuff I’d accumulated over the years that I decided to put out. Whereas with this third record I’m doing now, I’m building it up with live bass, strings and drums, me playing piano. So it feels quite daunting.

Why have you gone for the different approach?

I’ve kind of got to the point where I feel like I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in a lot of hype cycles, the whole stuff surrounding scenes and all that. Electronic music for me has always had a huge appeal, but I find a lot of it doesn’t have much staying power or longevity. There are a lot of hugely exciting post-techno records that are playing with the form and caught up in very specific scenes, but I wonder if we’ll come back to any of it. I definitely feel like that about my own music, particularly the last album I did. Is it too of its time? Will people still listen to it in five years time?

How are you trying to do that?

Well, the stuff that I love listening to the most hasn’t really changed since I was a kid. I love soundtrack music, ambient music, a lot of Iranian music, stripped back melancholic Middle Eastern stuff. What I want to do is make the music that I think the kid in me would recognise and would understand. And there’s a risk that it might alienate a few people, but to be honest I would rather do that and make a record that I feel satisfies that part of me.

How do you balance that with trying to make a living?

To be honest I haven’t ever come close to making a living from making music as Hiatus. I’m doing stuff now for publishing companies, writing music for television and ad spots. I’m doing stuff under the name Shenidan, which pays the bills. It’s early days and sometimes it can be daunting. But I’d like to think that I could make an album as Hiatus that would garner me enough attention to not have to do that any more. But I honestly don’t believe that would happen if I made another Parklands. The only way something like that could happen is if I make a record that is so uniquely me, that really harnesses the music that is trying to get out but has been smothered so far. I mean, I’m not going to abandon the electronic music process – it’s the only way I know how to make music. But I am going to use live musicians and I am going to write songs. We’ll see what happens. I have my moments of crippling self doubt. But I don’t want to carry on running to stand still with music.

Sounds like you’re striving for creative honesty more than anything. Like Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence idea. That a ‘weak’ artist can never leave their influences behind, while a ‘strong’ artist must, in the end, transcend them to create something unique. 

Well, sounds like a nailed on summary of how I feel about this stuff. Have I always been this thoughtful about it? Ha ha. I’ve always been this thoughtful about everything. It’s why I’ve often had trouble finishing so much stuff. Wondering why I’m doing it, whether it’s writing or music. But then I have also been caught up in the excitement of making the stuff that I’ve done up to now, the joy of the creativity involved and that feeling it gives you. But it’s like anything, that recedes the more you do it. And with making music, that part is actually a tiny part of the process. Maybe a few hours of composing and writing, followed by endless months of mixing. And like a lot of producers I do suffer from a form of OCD. I think I’ve got it worse than a lot of people, I spent thousands of pounds mastering and remastering my last two album. There are tracks I got mastered five or six times, literally turning a snare up by one decibel or something between masters. It was a nightmare. Then again, there are parts of me that feel if it isn’t an extremely painful process, it isn’t a good piece of music.

Fortune’s Fool, featuring Shura

 ”Any art, if you do it honestly, should be about making sense of your existence and your limited time on earth.”

Sometimes ‘creativity’ is knowing you worked as hard as you could and put everything you had into it. Do you feel like that?

The problem with that is knowing when to let go. One of my old teachers once said to me that a poem isn’t finished, only abandoned. I didn’t really understand it at the time but it was only when I started with music that I did. You get to the point with it where you’re like, if you don’t finish it, you’ll literally go mad. When I mixed Parklands, I took all my stuff back to my parents’ house in Kent to do it. Because I knew if I did it at my studio in Soho, I would go mad. I mean, I pretty much went mad over three months at my folks’ place. But the good thing was they would occasionally come in and be like ‘Er, think you should come down now. We’ve made, you know,  food’.

Doesn’t sound too healthy.

Well I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m beginning to think that the single most dangerous idea in music production is this idea that there can ever be perfection. It’s the thing that’s wasted the most time and money, chasing this idea that a song could be perfect. Because everything is flawed. The more you look at something, the more you’ll find something wrong with it. And by contrast, there is a kind of perfection in music in that any track that is finished is sort of perfect. When I listen back to tracks from my first album, which is so flawed, because I didn’t know what I was doing, the imperfections are the things I like the best. Because those are the moments where I actually hear me. Parklands, which I overproduced, I now think to all intents and purpose I almost erased myself from the record by getting rid of as many of those imperfections as I could.

Maybe it’s only at this point in your career that you have the confidence to let those mistakes stay there. Be less precious. 

I think you value the process more. Rather than focus on the end result. I think this is another problem with the internet age. You get so obsessed with this idea of the product and its reception. You stop actually seeing the experience outside of its description online. There is still a process of making music that remains pure and it should do. When I was recording piano parts like I was doing this morning, I can get in some kind of meditative state.

Cyrus and Shura

You collaborate a lot. How do you choose who you collaborate with?

Well,  I’m really protective of the whole creative process. I get really anxious when people start trying to write their own parts. I’m not great to collaborate with in some respects. Because I’m a complete control freak. Then again, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing musicians, and I think it’s good for me. Gets me out of my shell a little bit.

Tom Jobbins’ award-winning video for We Can Be Ghosts Now, a key collaboration with vocalist Shura

How did you end up working with Shura?

I met her at a Smoke Feathers gig in Highgate. I just knew she was the one musically I wanted to work with. Before long we were working on an EP, then working on an album together over a couple of years. It was fun, because we were both wet behind the ears. And we enjoyed the synchronicity of it. She’d been looking for a producer, I’d been looking for a singer, and it just clicked.

With your music, the whole package seems well thought out. You use your friend Spencer’s imagery for each cover, there are recurrent themes – family, the past, nostalgia. How conscious is that? Is it part of it for you?

I’ve never really thought of it as a package but yes, it is really. Working with Spencer is a blessing; we’ve been best friends since we were kids, and in many ways we grew up together doing many things, and we’ve been really into the same films and music all our lives. And we’re exploring the same themes through our work now – his images, my music. And it does work really well. His images are so striking and beautiful, and there’s a melancholy that works really well with the music I make. Which is really melancholic and nostalgic. I am obsessed with passing time. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy, but for me music is just a way of making sense of life. Any art, if you do it honestly, should be about making sense of your existence and your limited time on earth. And for me the easiest way of doing that is to think about the past, rather than the future. The past is there, and surrounds us. It’s everywhere. It seeps into everything. And making music is a way of exploring that.

Your family’s past in particular?

Yes. Definitely. I spent the first two years of my life in Iran, before the revolution, then we left. I was brought up in Maidstone, and like many Iranian kids I think I spent most of my childhood being embarrassed by my heritage. Certainly embarrassed by the fact that my Dad didn’t speak great English, that he didn’t really understand that I was going out smoking and drinking with my friends. I was negligent of my Iranian past. I’ve since realised that if you can lay claim to two countries you’re infinitely luckier than somebody who can only lay claim to one. Because the world is ultimately filled with goodness. People are inherently good, and countries are the world. And you go to a place like Iran, and you realise that this is the reality of our world. Not the Kardashians.

When did you reconcile yourself with your Dad’s past and culture?

Early 2003. That’s when I started trying to learn Farsi, for an hour before work each day. I started doing classes in 2004, which I still do now cos my Farsi is still quite basic. It was that realisation, the world suddenly opened up. I realised I’d been pretty blinkered, and I suddenly wanted to see the streets my Dad grew up on, and meet his friends. I’m very similar to my Dad. We look similar and have similar habits.

The video Cyrus produced and directed for Iran Air featured members of London’s Iranian community

Let’s talk about your actual creative process. Do you have an ideal routine?

Yeah. When I’m writing, and that could be music or actual writing, I can’t have any contact with people. I can’t deal with televisions, radios, phones, emails – if I’m going to sit down and write, I will have to get up, go into the living room, earplugs go on, headphones go on, I might have white noise on. It’s basically sensory deprivation. I’ve got to the point where I’ve stopped drinking tea when I write, cos I find that too distracting. I just can’t have any distraction at all.

So the hum of white noise helps you concentrate?

Yeah. The best piece of music I’ve found actually is a track called Rhubarb by Aphex Twin from Selected Ambient Works Volume II. I’ve made a one-hour mix of this – I can send it to you if you like. Ha ha. It’s not even the whole track looping either; it’s one eight bar section perfectly looped so it’s seamless. And if you cue it up on MP3 on repeat it’ll go longer than an hour. You’d never even know that it’s looping.

Er, so when do you listen to that?

Er, well if I’m being honest I have it on all night, every night. I sleep to it. I have it on when I’m on the bus if I want to drown out voices or distractions.  I sound mental don’t I? I certainly have it on when I’m writing.

How do you decide what you’ll work on that day?

I have to make myself write these days, so I’ll stick an idea for a story in my diary and then make sure I sit down and write it when the day comes around. Generally with music, I’m trying to do album stuff in the morning, and then work on TV stuff in the afternoon. I’m an obsessive diary planner, strange seeing as I’m supposed to be creative.

It sounds like control. To create the ideal situation to allow you to create.

I’d actually put it down to fear to be honest. That I’ll fuck it up, or waste a half hour slot. I’m incredibly bad at resting, like my father. I can’t take a day off. If I’m in London it’s work, every day. Music or writing.

So how do you relax?

I watch documentaries. I read, now that I’ve quit Facebook. I’ve stopped drinking actually, which means I’m reading a lot more. I’m really into films. I can’t do box sets though. I can’t see myself dedicating the time to it.

Do you still skate?

Cyrus at Stockwell

Skating growing up was an obsession. I started when I was 14. I was talking about this recently actually, I just always took everything too far. It was the same with skating, it just consumed my life, long after my friends gave up. There was so much beauty in skateboarding, it was magic. Being able to do even the simplest tricks myself made me happier than anything growing up. Do I still skate? I do, yeah. When I was in Peckham I’d go to the park in Peckham Rye Common. Before that I lived opposite Stockwell so I skated there a lot. Skateboarding these days is about the enjoyment of it. It’s not about impressing people any more, which is a nice feeling. I realised a while back – what makes a real snowboarder or skateboarder? Is it the tricks you can do, or is it the fact that you’re 35 and you still get that gut feeling that makes you want to go skateboarding and snowboarding? I think if you’ve still got that then you’re as true a skateboarder as anyone.

 ”What I want to do is make the music that I think the kid in me would recognise and would understand”.

What would success look like?

Success would be finishing my life and being proud of what I’ve done as an artist. I said recently I felt like I was going to spend my life trying to be a writer and a musician, and then on my deathbed realise that I’d been a musician and writer my whole life. I guess to accept that I’m making the music I was meant to make. But practically, I have to be able to support myself. I don’t want my Dad to think I’m just drifting. I’d like to make enough money to survive. I mean, I’d like to score films. But in terms of the kind of ‘success’ that matters at the end of your life? I don’t think you’re ever going to understand or explain existence or life as a human being on earth. I just think you can hope to reflect it, to try and interpret it in your own away, and decide what a good life is and try and do that. And I think making art is one way of doing that, and I would like to try and do that through my music and writing.