I first met Az Samad several years ago when he was backing a singer at a Songsalive! showcase. He had literally just arrived in California from his native Kuala Lumpur and was ready to take on the Bay Area with his finger style guitar playing virtuosity. Few of us knew he was regarded as somewhat of a national treasure in Malaysia, but the Bay Area music community quickly took him in. A few months ago, we ran into one another at a Freight and Salvage open mic and I again was struck by both his personable and easy going nature off-stage, and his musical excellence on. Now a firmly established and in-demand guitarist in the US, Samad discussed both his musical beginning and current projects.
Q: How did you start playing guitar?
AS: A friend told me about Nirvana's Nevermind album and I was introduced to grunge. After getting the 'Unplugged in New York album, I was set on learning guitar. My grandma bought me my first guitar which was this blue sunburst Kapok guitar (a made-in-China, plywood guitar - commonly found in Asia). I started learning from my friends and from different chord books. Three months later, my dad realized that I hadn't quit yet, so he offered to buy me a better guitar if I took lessons and learned how to read music. After that, I started taking classical guitar lessons and it became serious.
Q: What prompted you to come to the US and what has it meant for your music?AS: For school —I did my undergrad at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating, I taught the summer guitar program there in 2007 and 2008. Being in the US has made a tremendous difference in my music — mainly [it's given me] the opportunity to study with my musical heroes and also perform with them. This is particularly the case since I've been in the Bay Area. There's a long history of instrumental guitar music here. Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi developed their music careers here. I feel really blessed to be based here. It's such a colorful scene!
Q: Who were your big inspirations influencers and who do you look to now?AS: When I started off, Michael Hedges and Don Ross were my primary influences. Later on, it was Eric Roche and Thomas Leeb who inspired my guitar playing. Their music and guidance led me to explore more percussive fingerstyle guitar playing. Right now I'm really deep into a lot of indie rock and pop. I love Death Cab for Cutie, Jose Gonzalez and very recently Shugo Tokumaru. I also read novels and poetry for inspiration. Some of my favorite writers include Nick Hornby, JD Salinger, Chuck Palahniuk, Neil Gaiman, Paulo Coelho and Tao Lin. For poetry, I was really into Neruda and Emerson a while back.
Q: Describe your approach to composition? Do you sit down and simply play? Have an end in mine or?AS: For the most part yes. I just grab my guitar and start playing — usually I start with a simple idea, the smaller the idea the better because it's portable and I can mess around and develop it over different chord progressions and bass lines. Most of my music that tends to be my favorite material is usually very clearly inspired by a person or event — a love interest, a friend, a situation I'm in — then I find an initial idea that captures that feeling. Later on, most of it becomes craft and I start figuring out how to make it work as a coherent piece of music.
Q: I believe you've been recording--can you discuss your latest (person) project and where you've been recording? Do you work with a producer?AS: Yes, I am — which is kind of funny because in some ways, I'm always recording really because I work at home. I'm not working with a producer at the moment, at least for my own solo project. It's a gradual process for me. I record and then analyze and dissect the recording. That usually leads me back to editing the arrangement. After some time, I settle with a version and that becomes the version I practice and refine. I'm most likely going to record the whole CD in a day after I get all the arrangements down. My last CD, Emo Attack Turtle was done in one afternoon. The first album, Acoustic Gestures, was recorded in three days, mostly three takes per song and then choosing the best one. It's a kind of luxury that's mainly possible because I play solo guitar. It's more intricate when a band is involved — both logistically and financially.
Q: What can fans expect this year? Touring or other projects where we can see and hear you?AS: Two new solo records are in the works: an EP and a full-length album. I'm also going to record a few tracks with Planet Loop, a Jazz-Funk-Improv duo, who are working on their next album. In terms of touring, I'm planning to tour with virtuoso classical guitarist Steve Lin in the spring, and with singer-songwriter Tara Linda in the summer of next year. I toured with both of them separately earlier this year in August and it was really fun.
It's been a real delight performing with Tara — the current album we're promoting was co-produced by Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs who won a Grammy for best Tejano album. I've had a chance to perform with Los Texmaniacs and multiple Grammy winner accordionist Flaco Jimanez via that project. The big show this year was the 25th Annual Cotati Accordion Festival. I never imagined I'd be performing in an accordion festival (twice in fact, I also played there last year!) but life's full of surprises. I hope to get a chance to perform with Max again in the future. He's such a great musician.
I perform all-around the Bay Area, as a soloist and in different projects. I'll also be making my debut at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur as a special guest for my friend Malaysian singer-songwriter Reza Salleh in June 2011. It's a real honor to get a chance to perform on that stage which is the home of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. It's sort of like getting to perform at the Carnegie Hall. Super excited!
Visit www.azsamad.com for current shows and information. Live photo of Az by Albert Ng (www.glaringnotebook.com)