Q&A: Damian Lazarus

With his Ancient Moons project, the man from Crosstown Rebels takes a mystical path to dance-music bliss.
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Photo: Jamie Rosenberg

Photo: Jamie Rosenberg

He's one of the world's premier DJs, exuding an air of confidence from behind the decks—but when it was time to find his role as the leader of a live band, Damian Lazarus was, perhaps, a bit less sure of himself. "I play a few instruments…badly," he admits. "I was having trouble trying to figure out what to do. All I knew was I didn’t want to be the typical DJ in a band, hiding behind a laptop. I want to actually be doing something. So, among other things, I’m using modular synths—which is probably the most stupid thing to be doing when you are playing with a new band. They are the most unpredictable instruments you could possibly imagine; sounds that you’ve never heard before can start coming at you. But I really love the challenge."

The challange he's referring to is Damian Lazarus & the Ancient Moons, a combo that connects Lazarus's public love affair with hypnotic and heady late-night grooves with his slightly more private penchant for all things (or, at least, many things) spiritual and mystical. On the face of it, that convergence could be—if Lazarus were a less committed artist—a typical production ploy to add a bit of depth to one's sound: Add a bit of world-beat flavor to your house rhythms, and—poof!—instant otherworldly grooviness.

But Lazarus went a few steps further than download a few percussion sample packs—he's gone and put together a collective of incredible, globe-spanning musicians. The Pakistani Qawwali virtuosos Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram; the Mozambican guitar genius Neco Novellas; Hossam Ramzy, the Egyptian percussionist who worked with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on their ’94 album No Quarter; the leftfield-jazz pianist Eric "ELEW" Lewis; sitarist Sidartha Siliceo, a onetime student of Ravi Shankar; Penguin Café double-bass man Andrew Waterworth, who provided string arrangements for Mexico’s Yucatan Symphony Orchestra; vocalists Moses Sumney and Ali Love; and, helping Lazurus tie it all together, producer James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco—they all appear on the Ancient Moons sprawling debut album, Message From The Other Side, coming out on May 18 via the !K7 label and Lazarus's Crosstown Rebels. (Lead single "Lover's Eyes (Mohe Pi Ki Najariya)" came out last year; the more recent "Vermillion" was one of Pete Tong's Essential New Tunes in April.)

It's a great piece of studio artistry, a rich and fulfilling work—but it's in the live setting that the joy that Lazarus gets from leading this project really shows. XLR8R recently had the pleasure of catching him and the Ancient Moons live at Brooklyn's Verboten (rescheduled from March, thanks to the usual delays with visas)—and Lazarus, replete with flowing robe and wizard's beard, was a wonder to behold, whirling between banks of equipment, percussion and the mike, always deep in concentration and intensely focused, and seeming to be fully in his element. (You can see a few photos from the night here.) From the outside, one gets the feeling that his whole career trajectory has been leading up to this enterprise—and Lazarus doesn't disagree. "I couldn’t be happier," he says. "I didn’t realize I was going to be this happy! I feel at home, really at home, with this."

What was your original motivation for launching the Ancient Moons project? It seems like between your DJ schedule and running Crosstown Rebels, you already had a pretty busy career.
I guess it had been long enough since the release of my first album—which, let’s be honest, was a little bit self-indulgent. [laughs] For a long time, I had been playing around with ideas and wondering what would be the next move for me would be as an artist, outside of DJing. I took my time figuring that out. I had to come to terms with a few things in my career and my life, and I had to figure what it is that really makes me tick.

And what was your conclusion?
Well, there were a number of years of a lot of playing in dark, druggy rooms, doing long after-hours sets, and I kind of molded myself into that character. Which I love—but I finally started to realize that there is a lot more to me than just that. The times when I feel most artistic, lets say, or when I’m most natural, is when I’m playing outside in the open air. Under the stars, on beaches, in the jungle, in the desert, soundtracking the solar eclipse at festivals—I love doing stuff like that. I realized that’s the kind of thing—nature, I guess—that I feel most closely connected with. Once I established that, I realized maybe I should be making music for those kinds of moments. After that, everything started to fall into place for me.

And how do you think that realization manifests itself in your current music?
I think it freed me from making music for those dirty after-hours, and also from trying to throw all my influences and inspirations into the pot in one go—which I think I had perhaps done before. I established that I wanted to make music that just felt right for those times when you’re watching the sun rise, thinking about the universe and beyond. That’s when the penny dropped. I started thinking about the wider picture of dance music, and how I could bring outside voices—world-music influences, different kinds of musicians and collaborators, different instruments—into this project. It felt right and natural to me, which I guess means I took the right turn.

Did you get a feeling of relief when you made that turn?
I don’t know if it was really relief. As a DJ, you have the constant opportunity to take the easy road. You play in a club for a couple of hours, and you know ahead of time that there are a couple of tracks that will make the people’s hands go up in the air, and everyone shouts and screams. And there are easy way to make those tunes, the kind that might go to the top of the Beatport charts. But that’s not the kind of artist I am. I don’t really go for that kind of easy sound; I think I’ve always been a bit more subtle. So working in the studio, for me, has always been a slightly more difficult process. I don’t have an end game in mind, and I want to experiment. I mean, I knew how I wanted this project to feel, and I knew what kind of reaction I was looking for, but I wasn’t sure how to get there.

"I think that it’s the kind of music that lets you slip in and out of other dimensions."

So instead of relief, it was like wandering into the unknown.
Something like that, yeah.

And now that you’ve made the music, how do you think it does feel?
I think it feels like there’s a lot of mysticism there; I think it feels quite spiritual; I think it connects you to other possible life forms out there. [laughs] I think that it’s the kind of music that lets you slip in and out of other dimensions—all that, and with the dancefloor very much in mind.

Yes, it’s definitely good dance music.
It is, but instead of just the usual kicks and drums from sample packs, I wanted to work with musicians and live percussion to get a sound that I guess you could say is a little tribal, but more in a ceremonial sense rather than the usual way.

As opposed the big-room tribal-house sort of way?
Yeah, we’re not doing that at all. And the songs can be interpreted as stories. There’s a track from the album, for example, called “Trouble At The Séance”—the idea there is that there’s a group of people sitting around a table, with their hands on the table, trying to call the spirits. And something goes wrong, and all hell breaks loose. The idea is that we’re playing around with these little vignettes that might work as a film as well as a piece of music, combined with some experiences I’ve had—playing in these amazing locations, and these discoveries I’ve made along the way.

What kind of discoveries?
Like finding out about Manly P. Hall, who wrote this amazing encyclopedia of all things esotereic, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. I’ve always been a little bit interested in the dark arts and mystical beings. I think the music is an extension of all that.

It really seems to fit you well. From the outside looking in, it certainly doesn’t seem to be forced.
It’s really not. People tend to comment about what I wear, and call me the Dark Lord and all this kind of nonsense. I guess I was that, a bit—but it wasn’t like I just decided one day to dress in black, wear a hat and look mysterious. That kind of just happened. But things happen for a reason, and what I dress like does fit my thought processes, I guess.

You have so many amazing performers on this album, from so many different worlds. Was it hard to put this all together?
It actually happened quite effortlessly—there was a lot of serendipity involved. It was as if the universe was saying, “Okay, this is supposed to happen. This is the right direction to be taking.” And that gave me a lot of positive vibe to move on with the project. At that point, all I needed to do was to find someone who would help me take this project, with all these different people and sounds and ideas, and make it a cohesive body of work.

And that person was James Ford?
That’s right. I do have experience with musicians, but I wanted to take it to the next level. For instance, I wanted to work with a full orchestra, but I haven’t had experience in doing that. I needed to find people who knew how to do that kind of thing. So I took my time, getting my ideas together—lyrics and simple melodies and whatnot—and finally, I just came across James at a festival in Berlin. We just kind of bonded over a bottle of whiskey, and by the following morning, I had him committed to working with me.

Photo: Jamie Rosenberg

Photo: Jamie Rosenberg

You recorded this album all over the place—but one of those places was Mexico, which seems like a special locale for you.
Yeah, we’ve been doing the Day Zero festival there for three years now, among other things. But something really special happened to me a little while ago in Mexico. It was a moment I experienced on the beach in Tulum. I had a minor stomach operation, and afterwards went down there to have a little holiday. While I was there, I went to see a shaman, a healer kind of guy, who I’ve seen before. He’d lay his hands on me and get all the dirt out, basically, and give me a moment of purity. So I went to see him, and I told him I had this operation, and he said he wasn’t allowed to put his hands on me because the healing process had to fully do its thing. Apparently, if he did put his hands on me, it would interrupt the process. I was pretty disappointed, because I had just been through a pretty heavy period and felt like I needed some help. I asked if there was some alternative, and he said, “Go to the edge of the ocean tonight between the hours of ten and eleven. Put your face up to the moon with your arms outstretched. Call on the moon to give you good energy.” So I was hanging out on the beach that night with some friends, and went over to do what he had told me—and I felt this kind of energy, this force, that I had never experienced in my life. It was ridiculously strong; I felt like I was being electrocuted, but not in an unpleasant way. He had warned me that something like this might happen, and he said, “If it does, don’t worry. Just enjoy it—it’s the universe giving you the energy that you need.” That’s potentially bullshit, of course—and when it started happening to me, I couldn’t quite believe it. I called one of my friends over—it was Greg [Oreck] from Thugfucker—and I told him what I was experiencing me, and asked him to put his hand close to my body. Without touching me, he put his hand close to my back. And he caught the energy from me! It was the most incredible thing. I realized at that moment that Mexico plays a very strong role in my life. The universe is just so clear there.

That’s quite a story!
And it’s a true one, too, so it's even better.