Technique: Sinkane – ‘Mean Love’

01.09.14

Collaboration is essential to the work of Ahmed Gallab, better known as Sinkane. He cut his chops playing in the live bands of groups like Caribou, Yeasayer, and of Montreal, and earlier this year he led a tribute band to William Onyeabor, which saw him work with artists like Damon Albarn, David Byrne, and members of LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip.

On his second album, 'Mean Love', Gallab takes this spirit further, with each song exuding the sort of confidence that comes with working with other skilled musicians so tightly as a unit: the grooves are slow, the basslines are taut, gospel choirs are deployed, and there seems to be a willingness and ambition to experiment without constantly checking yourself. Here, Gallab gives us a track-by-track tour of the album, the inspirations behind its songs, and how those songs evolved over time with the help of his bandmates and friends. 

01. How We Be

Sinkane: "Greg Lofaro co-produced this album and 'Mars' with me. He also wrote the lyrics. When we started working on 'Mean Love', we knew that we needed a very strong opener. Something repetitive that would serve as a segue from 'Mars', as well as a greeting and sort of thesis statement for the album. Initially, this record was going to be called 'Life in the Pocket', something our friend, Evan, said about Jaytram’s drumming. 

"The original demo of the song came from the 'Mars' sessions. I tried to desperately write it for that album but it never went anywhere, but as songs for 'Mean Love' began to develop, this one started to take shape as well. 

"One day, at Jaytram’s house, he played me a beat that he had been working on that contained this really funky, weird sounding 8-bit piano melody. I was instantly amazed by it and started singing Ohhhhh we’ve got life right in the pocket on top of it. I knew that it would fit perfectly on top of my old demo, so I asked him if I could use it. He obliged, and it worked. The title was an unused leftover from one of Greg’s college classes. He felt it fit better here."

02. New Name

Sinkane: "I really like how brooding and tough Ethiopian music sounds. The melodies are so rich and melodic, but cut through like a knife. They sound amazing! I wanted to write a song that had that kind of energy. I was also obsessed with Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller' during this time. I loved how those songs were arranged and wanted to take note from that on this record. Those notes were mainly showcased on this song. Specifically, the transition from the verse into the pre-chorus. Funny thing about that is that it happened by mistake – I record everything on my computer and sometimes I edit down too much of a section, and that kind of mistake will yield an interesting transition between two different parts. 

"When I passed the demo over to Greg, he came back and said that he wanted to write the lyrics about illicit relationships, gossip, and intrigue, but we pared it down to, basically, a pick-up line. 

"I think our favorite part came at the end when Sinkane guitarist Jonny Lam rips a gnarly guitar solo."

"I really like how brooding and tough Ethiopian music sounds. The melodies are so rich and melodic, but cut through like a knife." – Sinkane

03. Yacha

Sinkane: "I was in the studio trying to write a clavinet line similar to that of a Parliament song. I’m a huge Bernie Worrell fan. The engineer of the album, Albert Di Fiore, was there, and asked if he could take a stab at it, and he came up with the line that you now hear on the album. It was crazy! The song became written around that line. It wasn’t until Sinkane bassist Ish Montgomery came into the studio to track bass on this song that it actually came to life. Before then, this song seemed like a chore – I hated working on it because it never sat right. I wanted to conjure up the spooky nature of SA RA Creative Partners with the vocals, and what better person to do that than Jaytram. His voice has the depth for that. The moaning lap steel in the chorus also helps.

"Now the song was in tip-top shape. It sounded tough! In our minds, this was always the closer; the broad message is a nice bookend to How We Be, and the abrupt energy would hopefully leave ‘em wanting more. That idea didn’t really fly, so I figured we’d get the party started early."

04. Young Trouble

Sinkane: "This was the first song written for 'Mean Love'. The melody came from a sample, but after playing it on tour so much, this song turned into something else altogether. I really like how some songs can ride the same melody for the entirety of the track and still stay interesting. You have to get creative in those instances, and I felt like we did that well with this song. I’d always say, 'I like how many different ways we skinned the cat with Young Trouble.' Parts would get taken out, brought back in, and Jonny Lam’s pedal steel moaning over the choruses really helped make this a unique track. Our old guitar player, Mikey Freedom Hart, came up with the part between the first chorus and second verse at rehearsal. It’s a magical part!

"This is one of maybe two songs written about someone specific, but she’s not that young, just someone I was interested in, even knowing it wouldn’t work. Initially it was called Rupunzel. After some thought, we decided not to make it about anyone in particular, but rather about chasing tail… Oops."

05. Moonstruck

Sinkane: "I wrote this song right after we finished touring for the 'Mars' record. Jaytram and I went to Asheville, North Carolina for a month. He stayed with his lady, and I stayed with Greg. I’d wake up at 9:30 every morning, walk down the mountain from Greg’s place, through the highway, then back up another big mountain and end up at Lara’s house. All-in-all, a 40-minute walk. Jay would be working on his own songs and I would put my headphones on and get to work on Moonstruck. The atmosphere of Asheville really influenced the vibe of this song. I wanted to write something sun-drenched – happy, but with unusual sounds. I had just purchased a Moog Sub Phatty, so all of the sounds on this song come from that (save a nylon string guitar, bass, and wonky sounding percussion, and a couple of modular synth tones… OK, so actually, not every sound came from the Sub Phatty). 

"This is also the only truly romantic song on the album and it’s to the moon… the actual moon. It winds up being more a reflection on isolation and loneliness… Oh, man!"

06. Mean Love

Sinkane: "The original demo of this song only contained my voice and an electric piano. I wrote the chorus quickly and easily, and Greg and I balked at how much we liked it. We liked its simplicity, its sound, and its sentiment. But love songs often seem hyperbolic and insincere. So Greg knew he wanted to use a simple format and the presumption to talk about something more. It was only after finishing the song that I realized how thematic that was to the whole album. Life is really like a relationship with a significant other: it challenges you, but at the end of the day, it’s something that you love. 

"The slow, ballad-y version didn’t really translate that well, so I tried to give the song more life. I added a prominent beat and that gave way to more and more layers. It wasn’t until my friend Max Hart came in and played pedal steel that the song started to sound like something interesting. 

"Now when we play the song live it’s come back to the ballad. Who would’ve known?!"

"Life is really like a relationship with a significant other: it challenges you, but at the end of the day, it’s something that you love." – Sinkane

07. Hold Tight

Sinkane: "I was at my local coffee shop when the bassline of this song came to me. I instantly recorded it on my phone and left for my studio. About an hour later, the song was written. 

"The working title for this song was Obvious Sex Jam. Which, honestly, I still think is pretty dope – and really funny! – because it’s just that. I like layering a lot of stuff in my songs, and this one has nice thick layers on the drums. Heavy electronic kick and claps on top of a thick snare and kick drum. It gives the song urgency and tenacity. 

"Greg was watching a moody Ingmar Bergman movie at the time I sent him the demo and that informed the lyrics."

08. Galley Boys

Sinkane: "I wrote this song, initially, by cutting up a Junior Murvin song he played on the radio. The drums and piano were so loose that they sounded drunk. It sounded too straightforward though. I didn’t want to write a simple reggae song, so I had Max play pedal steel on it as well. Then it started to sound interesting. 

"When we went into the studio, we realized that we needed to replace all of the samples with actual instruments, but we didn’t want to lose the energy of the demo. Jaytram and I spent some time making our own sample of us playing various percussion, glass bottles, stomping our feet, etc… Then Jonny re-played pedal steel, Ish laid down the bass line and we had something totally unique. The game changer was when Albert cut out the reggae skank piano line I was playing. It made it less cheesy, but then allowed everyone to hear so many different songs out of this one. I Shall Be Released, Police and Thieves, Jealous Guy. So many different songs. Hopefully, now, when people here any of those songs mentioned they will also here my song."

09. Son

Sinkane: "I wanted to experiment with how I wrote a song on a piano by recording several chords and then cutting them up and pasting different parts of them together. I knew that it would sound weird, but I wondered if it would work. That said, none of the piano on this song was really played traditionally, but rather chopped up and played on a sampler. It was a lot of fun, and an interesting approach to writing. The weird synth stabs were initially me singing Shoo-wop doo-wop. It made the song sound a lot less modern and, at Greg’s insistence, we went for something more interesting. He was totally right. 

"It took me until the very very end of the recording session to get a bass line that I actually liked. Nothing sounded right at all. I tried to play it, Ish tried, Albert tried. They just didn’t work. Then we called in a friend. Michael Rosen, who plays in the great band Ice Water; they also back up Eleanor Friedberger. He brought in a Bass Rhodes and nailed the line in three takes. What a relief!"

"This is the most blatantly Sudanese sounding song that I’ve ever written. The horn line, the drum beat and guitar melody are very Sudanese, especially reminiscent of the music my parents would play at home while I was growing up. Every time I hear this song I feel like it sounds like music from a Sudanese wedding." – Sinkane

10. Omdurman

Sinkane: "This is the most blatantly Sudanese sounding song that I’ve ever written. The horn line, the drum beat and guitar melody are very Sudanese, especially reminiscent of the music my parents would play at home while I was growing up. Every time I hear this song I feel like it sounds like music from a Sudanese wedding.

"Several songs on the album have similar ambient tones that serve as a bedrock for the choruses. This one, Young Trouble, and Moonstruck all have loads of smooth sine wave modular tones and a nasally sounding synth running underneath the tracks. They give the tracks some sort of ethereal and visceral element and energy to them. 

"Kate Fink’s harmony on the bridge is my favorite part of this song. It still gives me the chills. 

"The group vocals were the last thing we recorded for this album so it was fitting that this song became the closer."

City Slang/DFA release 'Mean Love' on September 1st 2014 (buy).