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Destined: Soft Circle

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Dusted's Jake O'Connell speaks with Hisham Bharoocha about his new project, Soft Circle.

Destined: Soft Circle

Download "Ascend" by Soft Circle.

Whirl. Ascend. Sundazed. Moon Oar Sunrise. Shimmer. Shores. Stones and Trees. Earthed. Certain song titles can be misleading. In the case of Soft Circle, they’re not.

Soft Circle is Hisham Bharoocha, former member of Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. He laughs out loud when I ask if he’s spiritual. “I would definitely say so, I was telling my friends some of the titles for these and she was laughing because she thought I was so new age. That is sort of my background, my mom was totally a crafts artist and sort of new agey, she would blast Kitaro all day. It’s one of those things that you don’t think about your influences until your older.” Lee Underwood, Tim Buckley’s freewheeling guitarist-turned-Downbeat scribe, once said New Age music provides “emotional, psychological and spiritual nourishment. It offers peace, joy, bliss, and the opportunity to discover within ourselves our own highest nature.” It’s as apt a depiction of Bharoocha’s sound one is likely to find. Much of his music comes across steeped in mysticism: percussion continuously approaches, guitar lines meander like mist, sequencers trickle, ethereal chants echo like calls from a mountain, rhythms lull. His musical mantra is simple: “Try to show the beauty of what you enjoy in life”.

We meet at his Williamsburg loft. After turning off At The Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul, we sit down over a cup of Rooibos tea to discuss the importance of spirituality in his life and music. “I guess I’ve always been sort of interested in that kind of stuff. Trying to project in my creative means this feeling that you get when are completely blissed out or happy… those moments that have this sort of bright feeling. I try to express those things. I try to make the ugly things kind of beautiful too … and that’s what my music is about.”

Bharoocha practices Vipassana meditation – the word means to see things as they really are – and attended a 10-day silent retreat last year. During the later part of the process he entered a seclusion chamber to meditate for an extended period. Describing the experience “as extremely powerful” it’s hard to separate this sense of mindfulness from his art. “There is a center - this really clear place that you go to – and then outside of that there are all these different levels and dimensions of consciousness.” On a recent unreleased DVD featuring two new tracks, Bharoocha sits at the kit with a guitar appearing as though he’s physically going inside himself – his music a pure visualization of his meditation practice. On the more percussive track he appears almost completely unaware of outside surroundings. To Bharoocha, the rewards of two seemingly dissimilar actions (or non-action) are identical, “Playing music is an incredible release. After I play I feel so high, like the softest thing floating in air. Music is the most immediate sort of medium.”

Although he engages in group meditation occasionally, he finds meditating alone more beneficial, “It’s less distracting,” he says. The same could be said about his latest solo undertaking as Soft Circle. “On these recordings I played everything myself, I just wanted to see how much I could do on my own. And that’s pretty much what Soft Circle is about for me, not like an ego thing, but more as a pure expression of how things sound inside me, and also the challenge of trying to do this by myself. It was a pretty interesting process to record this stuff because I was so used to just going into the studio with a band, with friends, with other people to bounce off of, and I had to make every single choice of where I was going to go. Some of my songs are structured, but I play off of little things that I do. Like I’ll improvise off of a mistake. My emphasis is on seeing how far I can go without depending on somebody, to have this pure expression.”

Hisham hopes to have his latest unreleased material – which he calls “on the experimental side even though pretty easy on the ears” – out this summer in the form of an album-length EP. In his words the music is “pretty mellow” with “some heavier rhythm stuff,” but it’s also got that “big sort of swooping crescendo type stuff.” He elaborates: “The beauty in this kind of music is hearing those little nuances that happen in between spaces. It’s really important to have those spaces.” Utilizing only voice, guitar, an electronic drum/synthesizer, and a slew of psych-guitar effects, the new songs are filled with “those spaces”. He lists albums as varied as The Enlightening Beam of Axonda, Kulma, and Ultimo Trem as influential to the new material. The results are truly music for a new age.

Hisham grew up in Japan before moving to the U.S. He studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, a breeding ground for the Brooklyn scene that also produced Les Savy Fav and the aforementioned Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. “It was a cool experience to be in Lightning Bolt from the beginning (he played in the band’s second show, continuing for a year and a half) because from the very first day that we played everyone went crazy.” His main role in the band “was doing a lot of abstract vocal stuff with effects, making stuff feedback, more on the noise side.” At RISD, “party people, tribal people and noise people were all so into it.” An amalgamation – at once clamorous, festive and meditative – that foreshadowed Bharoocha’s more celebrated connection to Black Dice and his recent recordings.

After hearing the latest Black Dice LP Broken Ear Record, it’s not hard to extract what Bharoocha took with him when he left, just before the release of 2004’s Creature Comforts. His ambient tendencies, primal drumming and oblique guitar phrases helped produce the watery soundscapes of the landmark Beaches and Canyons, a element virtually absent on Broken Ear. On the Black Dice breakup he hesitates, then explains: “It was just poor judgment on my part with some decision-making that involved the band … it was a mistake I made basically, and they couldn’t deal with it, so they let me go. Obviously that stuff is hard, but the hardest part is when you’ve been hanging out with people for six years straight, everyday pretty much, and then suddenly not being able to hang out with them. It’s pretty rough.” Discovering a newfound freedom in solitude, he explains “My music career is now restarted, like my computer crashed and I have to start over.”

After playing in bands since middle school, and finding that he was “always afraid of doing my own stuff,” he lets go of that dynamic almost entirely with Soft Circle. “It’s a pretty extreme way to do it, because live, I will play guitar and play the drums and sing at the same time.” The distance from Black Dice has also allowed Hisham more time to focus on visual arts, mainly drawing, collage and wall paintings. Not surprisingly the foundation of this artistic side is embedded in the ethereal and comes from the same place as his music. His pieces attempt to translate the “certain textures” of mental experiences and feelings. “I feel like everything is creative. Whether it is how you pick up your cup, there’s always an element of personality in the actions that everybody goes through in their life. Say you are an accountant, there’s a beautiful way to do accounting, there’s also a beautiful way to strike a cymbal. It’s nice to feel those in different mediums whether it’s trying to write something or trying to take a photograph. The nuances are so exciting.”

On top of his solo release, he has big plans for 2006. He hopes to record with a group he’s formed with friends Scott Mao (Jane, Other Music), Mark Borthwick and David Aron called Usun. The band plays “open-ended acoustic stuff with more trance-inducing formations.” He’d also like to make a record with Pixeltan, who released a single on DFA a few years back, adding, “I’m just the rhythm section in the band.” He’s recently toured with Lichens (solo project of Rob Lowe from 90-Day Men) and Grizzly Bear, and was invited by clothing line Nom De Guerre to play an event in Tokyo later in the year. Although his usual live spot is Tonic, he’s playing a show at Cake Shop in early February.

Bharoocha has come to realize that he’s into “a lot of music where people had to sort of struggle or music that comes from a place where people had to work hard to get somewhere. You can tell it was this emotional release or spiritual release, where you can tell (they are saying) that this is the only thing that makes me happy.” Another apt description of Soft Circle.

Photo courtesy of Michael Schmelling

By Jake O'Connell

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