Members: Zohra Atash (vocals, songwriting) and Josh Strawn (production)
From: Brooklyn, by way of the American South
Sounds like: Industrial goth-pop with hip-hop sensibilities and world music influences
For fans of: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fever Ray, The Dream, Ministry
It’s easy to imagine Azar Swan‘s latest single, “For Last and Forever,” pumping through some vampiric club, a small masterpiece of tension and release. Zohra Atash’s bright vocals shimmer against Josh Strawn’s distorted, industrial-metallic beats and it’s clear this isn’t the first time these two have collaborated. In 2011, Atash and Strawn started the now-disbanded goth-rock outfit Religious to Damn. With Azar Swan, they embrace contrast, whether it’s the way Atash’s ethereal voice cuts through a blackened bassline or the way she and Strawn “squabble like an old married couple” (a fiercely opinionated and intelligent old married couple, mind you). Azar Swan’s sophomore album And Blow Us a Kiss will be released on Dee Dee Penny‘s Zoo Music label on October 28, just in time for Halloween.
We talked to Strawn and Atash via a three-way call (Josh is living in New Orleans, while Zohra remains in New York) on a rainy day when Atash was “amped up on coffee.” She was eager to explain how her Afghan background and near-Washington, D.C., upbringing lent themselves to both her diverse musical tastes and her indomitable warrior spirit and, subsequently, how she really feels about all those Kate Bush comparisons.
1. Zohra grew up in the South.
Zohra Atash: The riot grrrl movement is so important to me. I had such a difficult time growing up in the South, not fitting in. I can look at it now with such a sense of humor, but at the time, I hid in the bathroom every day during lunch. It was painful. But then I found these records where it felt like somebody embracing me, and it didn’t matter whether or not nobody else was. [The music] kind of spoke to that part of you that feels like, “I have nobody. I am nobody.” Having someone like Kathleen Hanna meant the world to me. When you don’t have a friend, you can listen to a record, and I think that’s important. I hope that tradition goes on for years, whether I’m providing it or someone else is. White Lung is an amazing current example of that tradition, both sonically and message-wise. Mish [Way] and Hether [Fortune] together are so fucking amazing and when they play, you can feel the energy in the room. I’m like, “Yes, this is important!” This is an important thing for people to be able to access. That’s a big deal for me.
2. And Blow Us a Kiss is about embracing the female energy.
Atash: My family got in a lot of trouble in Afghanistan because they had a hard time with authority. We have these principles and we’re steadfast about them and I would even say, as dramatic as this sounds, I would die for my principles. If you can’t die for what you believe in, then there’s no glory in life. That’s what our records are about. I’m a feminine, sensual person, but I’m also super fucking aggressive and sometimes I feel like people don’t allow women to be that without it being like, “Oh, she’s PMSing.” [On And Blow Us a Kiss,] I’m trying to marry all my ideologies into one thing, which is to embrace the female energy. It’s kind of me celebrating my own brand of what it means to be a woman, and kicking against shit that is unfair. I’m a hairy, aggressive woman. It’s not how I would have built myself; if I got the chance to build myself, I might have done it differently. But it’s important for people to not have these unrealistic expectations of women. It can make you crazy. It’s a lot of pressure for any one person to feel, and I had the pressure from two separate cultures. And it got me to a point where music, and these powerful women, were the only things that helped me get through the dark times.
— Zohra Atash’
3. Azar Swan is frequently compared to Kate Bush.
Atash: I always wanted to sing in a really aggressive, punk way, but I didn’t have that voice. I picked up smoking at 12 years old to try to get my voice more gravelly. I was like, “Dude, I’m gonna sound like Courtney Love!” That’s what I wanted, but it was just not working. And the fear of losing my voice was real; singing was the one thing I was able to do since I was a little kid, the one thing that I had that was pretty. No one else thought I was pretty. My voice was only thing that was pretty about me — did I really want to mess that up? So then I started looking for people who were proper singers, just this side of weird. And Kate Bush did that. So if people are going to pigeonhole, then that’s fine, I guess there’s no better person, but I can honestly say I think it’s very close-minded. We do get the Kate Bush thing a lot. And I love her…But as a sensitive artist, I have a laser focus on the people who have, in a very sexist way, put us in a box that we don’t belong in.
Josh Strawn: It’s definitely been interesting for me, having been in bands that are like, four dudes, and then being in a band with Zohra and seeing how things work in those different contexts. It is in music exactly the way it is in politics — the conversation’s never going to shift to what a senator’s suit is — whereas we’re consistently lumped in with other girls who dress the same way or similarly. I’m like, musically, what on earth do we have in common with those people?
4. Zohra loves “jump” therapy.
Atash: One of my vices is that every day I have to dance and bounce up and down. I call it “jumping.” It’s my therapy. I get shin splints sometimes, and my knees are completely fucked up. I’ve been doing this for years. [Our first record] Dance Before the War has a lot of different meanings, but one of them has to do with this traditional spiritual dance called the Zar. It’s done by women in Egypt and where I come from, and it’s actually kind of like an exorcism, a strange pulling out of dark energy through drone music and circular movement. When I make music, I’m like, “Can I dance the Zar to this?” And if I can do it, then I start talking to Josh about it. I’m like, “I gotta go jump!” and then I lock him out of the room and jump up and down. It’s something I used to be really embarrassed about, but I have to do this, otherwise I feel really upset and unsettled. I’m a mild synesthete, and it makes me feel like I’m moving with the music, and I’m moving with these shapes and colors. Part of making music, for me, is that kinetic energy.
5. David Lynch has listened to Azar Swan.
Strawn: One of our friends DJ’d at a David Lynch party and played one of our songs in David Lynch’s presence, and he [David Lynch] came up and asked who it was. And you know, music journalists are great, and good press is great, but at this point, I don’t care. I don’t need anybody else’s validation. David Lynch’s will do.