One To Watch: Hassan Abou Alam

The sound of Cairo-based producer, Hassan Abou Alam is immediately gripping. An arresting synergy of noise-inflected club and traditional folk music, his productions are forged out of spontaneous experiments with both digital and analogue instruments. His live performance for Boiler Room last year, a cacophony of pummelling drums, rugged basslines and frenetic kicks, offered us a glimpse of the artist in his most concentrated, productive state. Even when mediated through a laptop screen, it’s infectiously energetic. 

For Hassan, each live performance is an opportunity to approach his productions from a new angle. A chance to destroy everything and, in so doing, allow his sound to transform into something entirely new. His release on Violet’s Naivety label soared up Bandcamp’s best-selling list earlier this year. Since, he has been busy working on a new release for the Cairo-based outfit, Rakete. The result of months spent producing under Egypt’s national lockdown, this latest EP is a testament to his extraordinary ability to find inspiration in the minutiae of his immediate environment. 

Freya Caldwell had the chance to catch up with Hassan. Re-tracing his journey into electronic music, unpacking the intricacies of his productions and reflecting on the transformative experience of collaboration. 

What first sparked your interest in electronic music? And when did you begin producing music yourself?

I got my first release in 2008. I was fifteen then so I must have been making music a year or two before then. My uncle got me into music, he DJs and he does a bit of music as well, just for fun. I think I was eleven or twelve and Virgin Megastores had just opened in Cairo. He took me to get my birthday gift from there. They had ‘Say Hello’ by Deep Dish on and it was my first time listening to music of that kind. I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” and then he was like, “Oh, I have a bunch of gear, I’ll show you how it works”. That’s how I think it started, oddly enough, although I’m very far away from that now. Even just one track can be your introduction into electronic music, that’s all it takes, to be like, “this is really cool, I’ve never heard anything like this before”.

Let’s talk a bit about, T44, your release on Violet’s label, Naivety, from earlier this year. It did really well on Bandcamp, which must have felt amazing! Can you tell us about how you became affiliated with the label?

I’ve played with a lot of people here in Cairo but for some reason, when I played with Violet, I felt very comfortable with her. Normally I don’t send out demos to anyone. I just go with the flow and whatever happens, happens. I just decided that I felt very comfortable with her, so I sent her ‘Elevate’ and ‘T44’. She loved them! We’ve been friends since we played together, exactly a year ago, I think. She had this compilation that came out, for Black Lives Matter, ‘No Justice No Peace’ and I was truly honoured to be a part of that too.

Now you’ve got your new EP, Hope Amidst Despair’ out on the Cairo-based label, Rakete. Could tell us a little bit about the title? It seems very fitting for everything that’s going on right now.

Basically, during Corona part one I went to my friend’s place in El Gouna, on the Red Sea. Everything was very confusing, you’d hear about all these people catching Corona, and you’re like, what’s going on in the world. For some reason, I woke up every day and I was super inspired to write music. So, I started writing music. I used to work every day. 

I didn’t know where all the inspiration was coming from. I’d been with them for like four months, we were quarantining together. These friends of mine actually got married recently, a few days ago, so that actually had something to do with the title; the hope. El Gouna is also on the sea, so you’d wake up everyday with this amazing view. It’s inspiring and everything, but at the same time, there’s chaos happening in the world. 

The new release weaves beautifully between techno, breaks and touches upon elements of noise. The tracks also feature playfully manipulated vocals. Can you tell us more about how you gathered and used these obscured, background sounds?

With Hope Amidst Despair’, you can notice there’s ambience in the beginning of most of the tracks; there’s noise and people talking and a bunch of things banging and clanging. That’s actually from my voice recorder. I got this field recorder and I just used to tell my friends “I’m gonna record this conversation, we’re going to just put the voice recorder on the side and record what’s going on and I’ll use parts of it in my productions”. 

There’s a layer of my vocals in ‘Tool 3’ because, during Corona, I had to do this presentation and I had it recorded. I tuned the vocals to the track and cut them up into little pieces so that’s the vocal layer in the background.

I love this idea of recording everyday situations and drawing them into your music. Is that where you get a lot of your inspiration? from the people around you? 

Yeah. For that period of time, I felt like we were in this together. We were a team waking up every morning and surviving together. It was a nice feeling. Obviously, they were inspiring, they played a big role in all the music. I actually gave them a song for the data x press vol. 1 compilation on Casa Voyager, ‘N+B’ is the initials of the friends I was staying with. It was a tribute to them more or less. 

So obviously your immediate environment is a big source of inspiration for your music but, more broadly, how has growing up in Egypt influenced you as an artist

I don’t know how to pinpoint that at this point. Egypt’s a beautiful place and everything but when I go to make music, most of the time, it’s based off feelings I get. I just suck in that energy, that feeling and put it all in the music I make. I can’t find the right words for this. But growing up here, I have these feelings every day and I exert them into the music.

Moving on to talk about your live work. In 2017, you played a live performance with the Red Bull Music Academy called Jamhoureya. Can you tell us about your experience there? Did the way you produce change for that collaboration?

It was a very interesting experience, the whole thing. I had to go and pick talent from around Egypt. I went to Luxor and collaborating with them really opened a different part of music for me, it was like a gateway into music. After that performance specifically, I saw music differently. I was more willing to experiment and think of music with an open mind.

Even when we rehearsed together, it was very different. I took a completely different approach than I would when I create my own music alone. It was very tricky in the beginning and we found understanding each other in terms of music a bit confusing sometimes, but it turned out to be fine!

In your interview for Red Bull’s Jamhoureya documentary, you mentioned that your dream one day is to score a Christopher Nolan film. What is it about writing film scores that appeals to you?

Well, a lot of the time when I’m watching movies I’m just chilling and then all of a sudden, I get this urge to work on music, I pause the movie, and then go to work on a bit of music and go back to the movie later. 

Are there any films in particular that have inspired you?

When it comes to Christopher Nolan, obviously Hans Zimmer’s work is impeccable. A movie that really inspired me musically is Arrival, Jóhann Jóhannsson did an amazing job; the sound design is impeccable. Another movie that recently inspired me visually is Midsommer. It’s a terrifying movie, but I enjoyed being in that world during that duration of time.

Video games also inspire me a lot, almost more than movies. Specifically, games made by FromSoftware. Their game Bloodborne changed my perception of life and heavily influenced my music.

Your set for Boiler Room last year was also performed live. What is it in particular that appeals to you about doing a live set, as opposed to a more standard DJ set? 

During a live session you can experiment, and you can innovate tracks. It opens up new ideas for a track to develop in a different way because you can experiment with the stems that you already have. You have full control, and that’s very cool. You can go to different places and destroy everything sometimes.

Within this, after you’ve played live, do you ever have the urge to go straight back to your computer and start forming new ideas for tracks?

I do, but not on the same day. Sometimes I can’t even redo what I did back then, during the performance. I guess that’s the beauty of it, and the curse of it as well! 

When playing live, you use a mixture of analogue and digital instruments. Could tell us about some of the hardware you use, and why you like combining these instruments?

The main two instruments I use live are the Digikat and the Octatrack samplers. The Digikat I use for short samples. I use it when improvising live in my performances, it is very intuitive and user friendly. And the Octatrack is usually my main clock in my performances, I import my main stems to the Octatrack from Ableton, where I can also destroy the stems and turn them into something else completely. The assignable crossfader and the scenes in the Octatrack are my favourite part of the machine. The scenes need a bit of preparation beforehand but in the end it’s totally worth it.

I also use Bastl Instruments’ Thyme Delay to process sound and make weird noises and then I re-sample that noise in my music. Like for example, I pass on the signal of a drum pattern I’ve done on the Digitakt, and I pass it through the Thyme at a completely wet signal and tweak around with the parameters. I then re-sample that wet signal in my music. I also love processing sound through my Sherman Filterbank 2, it gives out a sound unlike anything I’ve heard before. It sounds like chaos.

I use my Elektron Digitone FM Synthesizer for leads and melodies. The best part about the Digitone is that it can sound very destructive and can also be very lush with dreamy soundscapes and pads. It depends on how you program it. I’ve also been using Eowave’s Quadrantid Swarm for almost all my basslines since the beginning of 2020. It helps me make ridiculous basslines. I enjoy making drones on it as well. Alongside my granular synthesizer, GR-1 Tasty Chips, which I use to make ambient sound and noise. I also have an Mbase 11 by Jomox designed to make killer kicks. I use a MIDAS DM 16 mixer to mix all the instruments and gear. It’s a great mixer!

So, it’s about working over these sounds, processing them again and again, until they transform into something new?

Yeah, I’ve been processing most of the stuff I record nowadays and making weird noises. For example, I’ll pass a drum sequence or pattern I’ve recorded through a delay or filter bank and it adds a specific richness, a different layer. It turns it into something else completely. The input into the delay could be, for example, drums. But then when you process it, it has nothing to do with drums. It’s like noise and it’s bonkers. It’s going insane!

Hassan’s ‘Hope Amidst Despair’ EP is out now via Rakete. 

Grab it here

Words: Freya Caldwell

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