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Interview: Vexillary

by François Zappa

Through six interesting EPs, we have followed the musical evolution of Vexillary, an American electronic music producer with a dark soul. We have reviewed his latest works, but today it is the man behind Vexillary, Reza Seirafi who explains the properties and behavior of his art. On October 31st, he will unveil his first album, Full Frontal Lunacy that will be released on cassette and digital format.

Cover Photo: Tuek

Photo: Nick Starichenko, effects by Tuek

—When did you get interested in electronic music?

—I’ve always liked electronic music to a certain extent, but I really got obsessed with it with the rise of Warp Records stuff. Around late 90’s, Aphex Twin, Autechre, and others on that label were leagues ahead in the genre in terms of technicality and futurism. So, they sparked an interest in me to learn how this sort of music was created.

Luckily, there was an electronic music program at my college where I took a basic recording class for which we had to make a short electronic song on cassette as the final assignment. It didn’t take much more than a few hours of experimenting with synths and sequencers to realize I had a true passion for it.

I ended up with a few academic accomplishments by the end of college but that cassette, with this bizarre dark ambient song that I made on it, left the biggest impression on me. Since then, it was a matter of time before I put some studio gear together and I’ve never looked back since.

—Why did you choose a name like Vexillary, did you see like the bearer of the flag of electronic music?

—I was going with a different moniker in the beginning, but right before my first EP was to be released, I panicked and thought I should give the name thing a real thought before I was stuck with it. I remember having a bad cold just a few days before cover art was to be finalized. I reached for the dictionary and read pretty much every word in there. Came up with couple of good ones and some interesting word play too, but almost everything worth entertaining was already taken one way or another.

Then I stumbled on Vexillary, read the meaning (bearer of the flag/vexillum in Latin). Didn’t care for the meaning but loved the look of the word. It just sounded and looked really witchy, and it wasn’t taken. There’s also a mathematical meaning and application of the word too which intrigued me given the IDM stuff I was into at the time. Shared it with label just in time for final art and here we are almost a decade later and still using it.

—In your first EP, Taste Masking, there are some drum n bass influences, I would say that specially in “Extinct Genus Mammuthus”. Were you interested in this style of music? How big was drum n bass in America? You know, here in Europe we got mainly d n b from the UK and don’t know much about the American one.

Photo: Nick Starichenko

—Definitely, I’d say bass music at large had and continues to have an impact on me. I was always into live bands and concerts but after the shows I wanted to continue to listen to music and stay out, so I’d end up at either Techno or Drum n Bass parties depending on the night.

Back around 2010 ish bass music was in a very healthy place and in New York, there were lots of DnB parties early on the week and they’d usually go on pretty late which suited my lifestyle at the time. Dub War party on Fridays was the most exciting and I rarely missed any of those for their entire run, pretty much saw all the UK bass innovators come through and remember geeking out in the back of the room staring at the sound system and trying to figure out how many bass layers there where on each track.

Although US has its share of great bass producers and labels I was also mainly into the UK stuff like you mentioned. From the DnB side, anything from labels like Metalheadz and Renegade Hardware did the trick and the early dubby stuff on Hyperdub was a favourite as well.

Ultimately, I’ve only made 2 “DnB” songs as experiments and “Extinct Genus Mammuthus” is one of them. I still experiment with half time DnB beats with “Annihilation” being the latest example of it from the previous EP. The dub influence is more common on my releases but for the upcoming album it’s been largely put on hold. I have a feeling I’ll return to it in a big way in the future, we’ll see.

—Why did it take you so long to release the second EP? This EP was supposed to be a full album, right? What happened?

—That’s an interesting story, frustrating for me at the time but a great education non the less. Right after the first EP, I came up with the Chemica Divina concept, a record about how our lives are influenced by chemistry. This was an inspiring direction that lend itself to a variety of interesting tracks which soon enough I had an album’s worth of.

Although the tracks where all glued together with this unifying theme, they were too many different tempos and styles under one roof. It’s safe to say there was a lack of musical focus there which looking back is very apparent to me now. Ultimately, Blaq Records chose to release it but as an EP featuring only 2 of the songs and few remixes.

I definitely think this was the right call, but it did end up setting me back a few years with quite a few unreleased tracks on hand (few of which are still on my sound cloud page dating back to early to mid 2010’s).

On the plus side, this experience gave me a true education on making albums and how tracks should work together and react to one another when grouped for a full-length release. Fast forward to now, and my first proper full-length, Full Frontal Lunacy, is coming out in a few months and happy to share that it’s a much stronger record because of what I learned from the Chemica Divina era.

The original tracks that did end up on that EP did however, work together really well. They were created one after the other and using a lot of the same sounds. One of the main sounds being this clean, clinical ambient lead that is not unlike some of the sounds on Autechre records.

—In Chemica Divina I see more the influence of IDM, I also read that Autechre was one of your influences. How have they influenced your work?

To me Autechre, holds a very interesting spot in my influence list. First off, they always had a techno side that was at the core of their beats (although heavily processed and mutate beyond recognition but still there) but they were/are also kings of abstraction. They are electronic music’s version of Rothko or Pollock, where no matter how abstract their themes get it never loses the meaning. And finally, they feel like a futuristic version of classic dark music with Coil even referencing them as a modern/updated take on what they were doing.

—Instead, your music got darker with CrossFire. As “dark” influences you have named Coil and Skinny Puppy. Were these bands important during this part of your life? What did you like of them?

—Dark electronic bands like Coil, Skinny Puppy and others in the same vein from the original batch or 2 of industrial pedigree were the first and foremost musical influence on me. In fact, one of my first songs is pretty much a direct descendant of Coil’s dark ambient mid 90’s sound. The truth is when I was getting more serious about releasing music it was important to steer away from the things/sounds that I loved the most.

I thought I had something new to offer in other directions in the beginning which is why the first 2 EPs are so different from CrossFire and what came after. I had too much respect for these types of acts to rip them off or try to do a poor imitation, so I just stayed away. But my dark soul ultimately found a way to tap into that sound.

With CrossFire EP I brought some of the influences from bass and techno and IDM to that dark music platform and the results felt fresh and it sounded like my own version of the dark genre. You can say I started finding my own sound with that EP and since then the growth’s been in that same direction.

—This is the first time you started working with voices. How did your way of working change with this?

—CrossFire EP gave me a voice in more than one way. The vocals seeped in simply because I had more to say and I felt like expressing it. It started with few vocal parts on the last track of that EP but it was enough to give me the confidence to do more. I don’t consider myself a “vocalist” in the traditional sense, but over the years I have learned to use my voice as part of certain songs as a proper musical element.

The big boost in vocal production and inclusion was having Dictatress perform on ‘Heart Attack’. Being in the same room as a proper singer and having her nail the parts is a special feeling. That collab set the foundation for having more vocalists on the upcoming album. In addition to WARTERAUM who contributed to the ‘Scent of Torture’ single, Angela La Strange, from Italy, is also featured on a track called ‘The Descent’.

The Full Frontal Lunacy sessions where quite inspiring in all aspects and that included lyrics and vocals. In total, 5 out of the 8 tracks on the album feature voice and words and that gives each track a unique personality.

Photo: Nick Starichenko

—I read that you like the music of Foetus. Sadly, I don’t have too many occasions of talking about him. How did you start being interested in him?

—Jim Thirlwell is one of the most underrated artists of our lifetime. From early industrial adopter, to composing scores, he’s done it all and somehow remains tremendously humble about it. I was lucky enough to run into him over the years at shows and record stores in New York and he’s been always approachable and open to talk music. Somehow, we always end up chatting prog rock but we should leave that for another time.

I got into his work when I got into industrial, and his albums were standouts in the genre. He’s great at bringing in different styles in unexpected ways and that always stuck with me. Obviously, his music is very different form mine, but I was heavily inspired by the spirit behind his records. He made his most complex albums pretty much all on his own at a time when studio gear was far harder to operate than the tools at hand today. Definity one of the acts that inspired me to get up and try my own thing, no excuses were allowed after I learned about what he had accomplished all on his own.

—I saw a big improvement in the composition in The Brutalist. Were you more interested in songwriting in this EP?

—It’s interesting that you picked up on that. Not to get too nerdy about music theory but that record was the first time I started working in predefined music scales. Meaning, the notes all stuck with the same key throughout. There are surprises on the title track still, but all done more methodically.

Up until that record everything else before it was pretty much all put together by ear. Making unrelated riffs and hoping they actually work together. It’s crazy that I went on so long like that given that it was too time consuming to work that way. But with The Brutalist, I studied music more and the result shows. My mind already works in a chaotic way so sticking to a smaller group of notes per song is a much welcome limitation. And since then, it’s become a key part of my writing technique, one that has helped the song writing aspect of the project more for sure.

SurViolence was based on what happened to Snowden. What do you want to transmit with your music? Do you think that music can change society or at least make people think?

—I think it’s perfectly fine to create music without a clear story or concept but for me that’s just not enough. The concept stage of the record helps build purpose and momentum behind the project and each song becomes a character in the larger story being told. The concept behind SurViolence was about the sort of stuff that Snowden was/is warning us about.

I know people that are not the conspiracy types but still cover their device cameras cause they think they’re being watched all the time. The paranoia and the social implications of surveillance culture is inescapable, so it became the driving force behind that record.

Not sure if music holds the position of power it once did to inspire change but it can definitely get people to think. Art in general can help people see things differently by putting a mirror in the face of society. It’s funny that you don’t have to reach too far to find and stay inspired by wild concepts. The craziest things are happing right in front of our eyes, we just tend to look away a lot. My stuff puts it under the microscope.

Photo: Andrii Didyk

—Somewhere I read that, at the very beginning, you wanted to do only five EPs. Why?

—After I put out my first EP, 5 sounded like such a huge accomplishment. But soon enough I reached that stage and realized that I’m really just getting started. I just finished my first full length and at this stage 3 of these seems like a satisfying number but I’m sure I’ll do many more.

Think overall, the rapid music consumption of the recent years is pushing artists to release more and more music. People now have 5 EPs out in under 2 years, so I guess it says more about the school of thought around releasing music 10 years ago vs now.

The challenge is to edit oneself and put out the best stuff and highlight the statement pieces.

—The first single from the new album is more darkwave. Is this a genre that interest you at the moment?

—I’ve been getting into Darkwave in the last few years, but I didn’t see my project as that until ‘The Geneticist’ single and its remixes came out. The press coverage on that started tagging me as Darkwave which surprised me since I thought I was trying something else.

But the inspiration behind ‘Scent of Torture’ was indeed darkwave with a techno twist. I remember watching the Ellen Alien set for HOR Berlin last year as she dropped a Figure Study track form 8 years ago to a techno beat and it just worked. The minute I heard that I wanted to do a track like it and ‘Scent of Torture’ began. It says a lot about the position of influence that DJs hold, again like all good artists, helping us see things differently. Of course, BPitch Control and her original productions have been in a position of influence for a while now but it’s incredible when DJs look outside of the latest trends and breathe new life into different musical styles.

I have to credit WARTERAUM a lot for bringing the Darkwave vibe and killing it on the vocals. I wrote that song for a female voice and thought it would be more provocative from a female point of view. Having worked with Dictatress in the past I just assumed she’d be on this track as well but once I did the song, I couldn’t track her down. Soon enough I thought: -“Damn, who’s gonna do this?” I’m not the type of producer with a rolodex of singers to reach out to. But then I remembered having met Misha AKA WARTERAUM from a producer forum a little while back. I wrote her a desperate message to do this and luckily she agreed before she even heard the song. And I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. Big thanks to her. I’d encourage your readers to check out her stuff too for proper synth pop greatness.

Photo: Nick Starichenko, effects by Tuek

—This song was inspired in your work in the perfume industry and we know that you have studies in Chemistry. How do you think that these studies influenced your work?

—The work in labs and studies in science shaped the way I approach every project in life. There’s a scientific mindset there that will never leave me. I start by conceptualizing (theorizing), experimenting and analyzing the result over and over until I’m ready to come to a conclusion and my music creation process is no different.

Fragrance design structure and music production share many attributes as well. Both are highly time sensitive languages that demand the right balance in order to work. It’s no surprise that fragrance ingredients are commonly referred to as ‘notes’. The bass and lower frequencies are similar to the bottom notes of a fragrance, mids and rhythms occupy similar space as the middle notes would, and the higher frequencies are similar to the top notes of the fragrance—first thing to catch the attention like the vocals and lead parts but riding on a bed of lower frequencies/ingredients.

—I find a new element in your music, especially in the first mix. We Europeans would call it New Beat, but also I read that you were interested in “club culture’s recent appetite for faster BPMs.” So, how would you call this new element?

—I think there are 2 elements at play here, one is the BPM and the pace of the song and the other is the mixture of styles. In terms of BPM, it feels like everything is a bit faster in the recent years. Probably most evident in techno at the moment where some of it is virtually indistinguishable from 90s trance or even hardcore.

Mania being a common theme of the album, it made sense to create a manic feel and aggression through the faster pace of the songs. I welcomed the 140 bpm plus techno style as one of the ingredients for the sound of the record as it was the best device to convey those aggro vibes.

It’s interesting that you’re picking up on New Beat vibes too. That’s more of a coincidence. If I’m not mistaking the traditional definitions of New Beat had a mixture of house and EBM going on and it probably rings true here on the original mix of ‘Scent of Torture’ with its mixture of EBM like basslines and traditional dance beats.

—The second single from the upcoming album is called Burnt Leather and together with the original track, we can find a remix. As with the previous song, I prefer the remix. You are also making a video for the remix. How do you approach the remixes of your own songs?

—I’m probably one of the few electronic artists that’s been remixed several times (7 times to be exact) but has never done a remix themselves. That’s until I did the remixes for ‘Scent of Torture’ and ‘Burnt Leather’. I knew these would be the first singles form the album but didn’t want to release them as a single track, so thought a unique remix would give the single releases a stand-alone feel and give the listeners something to come back to.

Was definitely anxious when approaching these and didn’t have a ton of time. I took on ‘Scent of Torture’ first, dropped the tempo, stripped out the lead parts, added a driving chord and new lead lines for a much moodier effect. I was surprised that just a few changes led to a totally different vibe and loved the result so much that I chose to do the music video for this remix version.

I took on ‘Burnt Leather’ the day after, replaced the bass line with a much simpler roll bass, put the main vocals on repeat, and added a simple chord progression and a couple of new lead lines for a more energetic take. And again, ended up with something totally different even though it shared the same chassis as the original. I liked this version so much more that in fact it appears on the album instead of the original and once again I’m making the music video for the remix version.

I’d love to do more remixes, both for my stuff and others’ thanks to how well these 2 turned out. The goal for the next remix is to do something vastly different form the original track and see where that goes.

—For the visual aspect of your work you have worked with Luqman Ashaari and Svitlana Zhytnia. How do you “see” your music?

—There’s a strong visual side to my music, having partly been inspired by soundtracks. For a long time, it begged to be matched with visuals. After a few missteps on the video creation side, I finally caught a break when Luqman offered his original digital art as the ingredient for the ‘Maritime Panic’ music video. Luckily, I stumbled onto Svitlana’s work as a video creator at the same time and we worked together to edit that first video.

I must say, since ‘Maritime Panic’, the project as a whole has been rejoiced and I’ve gone on to produce 10 videos in a little more than a year (with videos for ‘Burnt Leather’ and ‘Full Frontal Lunacy’ coming out very soon). I now see the visual aspect of the project as a key element of my work and hope to continue to evolve and push the visual side as the music progresses. I also have to credit dith_idsgn who is a video creator that I turn to for my starker looking videos.

It’s great to be a in position to come up with ideas and see them come to life through the hands of the right expert. I think much like the different musical styles of my sound I’m enjoying experimenting with different video styles as well to tell a unique story with each single/video.

—What can you please tell us of your future full album, Full Frontal Lunacy?

—I had the title in my head for a while and thought it would only be a song title. The first song I made after the SurViolence EP was ‘Burnt Leather’ and it happened to fit the overall madness theme. Then I followed it with a song called ‘Absinthe Minded’ that further explored the same direction. Soon enough I realized that I was making an album without really planning for it.

Heading into the 2020/2021 winter there was not much change in terms of pandemic restrictions and I was starting to feel the cabin fever from the mounting isolation. Needless to say, I had the perfect backdrop for creating an album that explored mental demise.

A very focused few months of recording followed. I stayed in the zone, working around the clock often through caffein-fueled sessions to stay in the manic state needed to arrive at the intensity suggested by the title of the record. This was by far the most efficient recording period I’ve ever had and having learned from the Chemica Divina era, I knew what it was gonna take to make an album in the right way.

The resulting 8 tracks on the album document the demise of a protagonist from flirting with madness all the way to the point of total breakdown. There’s also nods to the overall madness of the society so there’s a few layers of meaning as always. I’m beyond thrilled to share that as a whole, it’s the best body of music I’ve ever created, and it announces a new stage of the project in a big way.

Photo: Andrii Didyk

—After recording six EPs, is making a full album a big challenge?

—It’s a huge undertaking that took some getting used to. The biggest challenge was to stay focused and listen to where the music wanted to go rather than forcing it. Fortunately, the concept of the record lend itself to many ideas, approaches, and sounds.

It was a surprisingly inspired time even though I didn’t work in a healthy way and grew obsessed with the album and its creation process. I became so obsessed with the record that I ended up setting up my own label (con:trace) just to see it through all the way to release without any interference.

Another challenge was to not get too excited about the work and avoid the temptation of stopping halfway to put it out as another EP. I’ll definitely put out more EPs after this album, but the larger ideas and statements will be reserved for the full length format.

—How do you think that your music has evolved until this album?

—This album is without a doubt the apex of the Vexillary project up until this point. Every little bit that I learned from my previous releases was taken into consideration and I took the hard road to make sure it’s the best thing it could be.

Sonically, there’s a bit more reliance on analogue gear which has given the album a warm and at times noisy feel. I’m sticking to the same tools here and stay in very similar genres and tempos for added continuity. The album is a healthy mix of darkwave, techno, and industrial. It leans more on one side or another depending on the needs of the song.

For instance, the more aggressive sides of the story are told through harder techno songs like the title track and ‘Maniac’. And if I were to convey a feeling of loss there was no better approach than the colder industrial sounds used on songs like ‘The Descent’.

Looking back at the recording process, all decisions were methodically thought through to convey the strongest story possible and I ultimately ended up with an evolved version of the darker sound I first tapped into with the CrossFire EP a few years back.

—Any possibility of seeing you playing live in the future?


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