“..it’s not really for everyone” | Interview with The Mask Of The Phantasm

We feel we do not want to say much about this one. The artist himself is an emotional torrent.  For us, “New Axial Age” is simply cathartic. 

Read our discussion below.

Describe your sound in three words:

Uhh I could probably do it in two. Honest and anxious.

There is a story behind your album. Could you share it with us (if you are comfortable with)? Can songwriting work as a healing process?

It’s a bit difficult trying to think of the best way to answer this knowing other people will read it, but the whole record is ultimately the exhaust produced by the death of my father, and close friends in the years following. When I was 20 (2011) my dad was killed in a botched robbery attempt and the whole event effectively derailed any notion of what I thought my life would end up looking like.

It’s maybe not something everyone can connect with, given the culture surrounding family in America is very “once you’re 18 you’re on your own”, but it’s very different growing up in a South Asian household. Especially when you’re a first generation immigrant. The sort of unspoken rule is that you’ll take care of your parents when they can’t take care of themselves. Dad was the breadwinner but the bread was always being distributed, and my mom spent her life supporting family back home in Pakistan.

The anxiety was crippling and sometimes still is, so figuring money out to try and take care of everyone became a priority. As bad as I wanted to just move to L.A. or whatever and figure it out it wasn’t really in the cards.

In the next few years I lost a lot of friends in really shitty ways. The only friend trying to help figure out finances took the wrong mix of PTSD medication with alcohol and killed himself. One of my best friends from high school got back from two tours in Afghanistan and was shot in a bar fight and left brain dead for years until finally passing. Another was found floating dead in a lake here in Austin. There’s more but without getting into it, it was all just fucked.

By the time I came to grips with any of it I had just decided it “fuck it, I might not be able to ‘seriously’ chase playing in band but I can at least make a record I’m happy with. I know what my favorite albums sound like, so let me at least do that much.

To answer the question about songwriting working as healing, I think that was definitely the point of all of it. I realize not everyone will “connect” with the art, but to be blunt it’s not really for everyone. It’s for people who’ve lost family and friends. People who’ve had to deal with anything truly difficult. Women who’ve had to put up with bullshit for being a woman. Black and brown people who weren’t born into wealth that came up the hard way. I feel like that’s ultimately who it’s for. It’s been a while since I wrote any of these songs, but it’s humbling to listen to them and be reminded of the obstacles that had to be overcome to make them in the first place.

In a purely rock oriented sound you incorporate some moments with horns. Tell us a few things about your creative process.

With respect to the horns specifically, I’ve just always been a big fan of soundtrack. I grew up obsessed with the theme songs to Terminator and Batman because they had super dramatic elements in everything. The intonation, melodies, string sections, etc. were all so big. So much of the tension and release you feel watching a movie wouldn’t be the same without the string swells and resolves. That’s where most of that comes from I think. Stuff like The Seatbelts and Danny Elfman.

The process is probably subject to change, but for this record each song just started with recording a single riff. I probably listened to each one a million times before I felt confident it was something I could listen to over and over without getting bored. From there you start getting ideas of what all of the other instruments should maybe sound like and just go through trial and error until it feels as good as it can. The 5th track on the record was completely improvised, and there was a last minute decision to re-record the last track in Am vs. Em because I just got bored of it. A lot of it is intuitive and just revolves around “what would I like to hear that I don’t hear enough?”. I think just being honest with yourself about what you like is probably the most important thing.

Which is your most personal and honest lyric?

That’s tough to say given Alexa wrote most of the lyrics. They’re interpretations of what I told her the songs were about, but if I had to say it’s probably the chorus in “Caught in a Trap”. I think I still feel the weight of not being around family a lot. Like my own mother who made the decision to move to a foreign country with no real plan at the time, it’s probably the line I relate to most still.

Which track of the album represents you the most and why?

I don’t know there’s a single track that encapsulates me and every experience I’ve had – but How to Make It Through Act III is probably the most current. It’s sort of just about not giving up and trying to push through to the other side of your pain, whatever that looks like. Not always being so hard on yourself too maybe. It becomes really easy to feel guilty for being happy when you go through a ton of loss I guess. That song is kind of like a reminder that people who really love you wouldn’t want you to be miserable forever because they died. I don’t mean for this to be so dark and heavy either, I’m just trying to be honest about it hah.

We feel that your work can be greatly appreciated as a whole. But do people listen to full albums nowadays?

Thank you for noticing!!

Anything I say would be speculative, but I think evidence suggests the answer is no.

The way the internet and social media specifically have evolved throughout the last 10-15 years has exacerbated what was already a bad problem.

Growing up you understand that singles are cut for radio and supposed to be “short and sweet” or whatever but no one really listens to the radio anymore. Outside of that we weren’t exactly writing songs for fans of The 1975 or Greta Van Fleet. Everything “big” or well funded is produced out of safety.

The reason you get 20 Marvel movies every year is the same reason every trap song has an 808 snare + 808 clap + 808 clave pitched up. It’s safe. The #1 song on the Billboard charts right now is Way 2 Sexy by Future and Drake which sadly proves that point, even without the played out snare sample.

With all of that said, what the fuck are these songs about? We’re facing more problems globally than at any other point in human history. Add up everything between never ending wars, corporate governance, and the fact that we’re likely going wind up with an uninhabitable planet due to excessive consumerism caused by the former two items mentioned and it leaves you scratching your head. I’m not exactly interested in listening to bubblegum bullshit flavor of the month pop. Hip hop and punk were both born of struggle and ultimately I feel like that’s where the truth is. I’d rather have 100 people really into what I do vs. a billion that hear it as background noise in their offices or at coffee shops or whatever. Streaming services have bottlenecked a lot of people into producing muzak and that by definition is death to me.

I didn’t deliberately make the record to try and be inaccessible or anything like that, but how many Pakistani-American’s are playing guitar in big rock bands? I’m happy other people are enjoying the record, but I made it for myself first I guess.

Favorite album of the past decade?

It’s a tough call between RTJ 2 and Blackstar by David Bowie. There are so many great songs I’ve heard like Taxis for the Galaxies by RSS Disco, Lifetime by Yves Tumor, Harm by Ioanna Gika, and a really great band called Combo Chimbita – but in terms of records it’s between those two.

What would you say is your biggest vice?

Dirty iced chai with oatley.

Thank you!

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