Imaad Wasif’s house is haunted. We’re sitting in his Echo Park writing studio, the midafternoon sunlight streaming over his rail-thin frame perched on the edge of a wooden chair. As we discuss music and more ethereal matters, ghosts start flitting about the room, curling around his guitars and whispering past lyric sheets pinned to the wall. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill fright-night spooks, though, but the kinds of phantoms that are earned through a lifetime of pondering roots and identity, engaging in creative endeavors, and facing the exhilarating apprehension that comes with exposing your inner world to a larger audience.
Wasif doesn’t need a priest to battle his spirits; music serves the same purpose. Growing up in Palm Desert, he immersed himself in the SST-approved punk-rock world, and by the time he moved to L.A. at 18, he was set on a path and made his mark in the local indie-rock scene and beyond with Lowercase, the New Folk Implosion, and Alaska! Recently, he’s been touring the world with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as the group’s second guitarist and opening act, spending sleepless nights writing music in hotel rooms. “I put myself in weird states of mind,” Wasif says. “[But] for sanity’s sake, you have to do that. It’s too difficult for me to break the discipline of waking up every day and playing music.”
This month, Wasif will self-release his second solo album, Strange Hexes, recorded with Two Part Beast, a band made up of some longtime friends. Unlike his solo debut, an acoustic affair that showcased his singer-songwriter leanings, Hexes is an unabashed rock record, with hints of classic rock, prog and post-punk underscoring Wasif’s euphonious vocal melodies and fascination with the spiritual.
“It’s just love and madness, and the madness that comes from love,” he explains. “That has been the one thing in my life that has overtaken me and has also really been behind every song I’ve ever written. ... It’s just not possible for me to exist and not have those illusions or distractions flowing in and out of me.” Wasif is dressed in black, his long, curly hair obscuring his face. He’s thoughtful and slightly timid, occasionally pausing to sort out his thoughts, but he acknowledges his desire to reveal himself, nerve-racking as that may be. Case in point is a companion piece to the record, a collection of what he calls aphorisms, titled Letters of a Suicide Profiteer. When I ask him to read a selection, he hesitantly obliges, asking me to choose a number. I go with 86. “‘Necessitate the parallels if you want, but there is really no way out of this mess ...’ I’m gonna freak out if I have to read this,” he laughs. “But I should deal with it. It’s just this idea that what’s completely confessional or obvious to me is not to you.”
Throughout our conversation, the spiritual world comes up repeatedly — his Indian heritage, his Muslim/Hindu parents’ reluctance to “inflict” religion upon him, and his fascination with a book he’s reading on an esoteric Christian sect called Rosicrucianism. “I’m really frightened about talking about religion,” he admits. “I’m thinking about it, but I shouldn’t be. I mean, I think about stuff every single day, but tomorrow I might burn that book. I just think it’s interesting to explore a lot of different ideas and be open.”
Wasif pulls out a box of old records passed down to him from his father and plays one, a scratchy recording of East Indian classical music. “A lot of this music influenced my desire to explore guitar,” he explains. Wasif then demonstrates, playing the first song from the album, “Wanderlusting,” to a Raagini, an electronic tanpura that digitally approximates the droning sound that is the background of many ragas. He looks down as he sings, his voice softly ringing out. “There’s a spiritual essence to this music,” he says when the song ends. “I haven’t really figured it out. There’s a weird, not fully understood past-life connection to it. I immediately gravitate toward something like that when I pick up a guitar.”
A few nights later at Pehrspace, a small art gallery/venue near downtown, Wasif’s onstage. The jerking, spastic, rocking musician up there, tearing out song after song with his tightly rehearsed band, casts a different shadow from the timid musician I met a few days earlier. The record’s stripped-down feel, built around guitar, bass and drums, plays powerfully in a live setting, and it becomes evident what a talented guitar player he is. I’m watching catharsis in action, listening to a rock & roll exorcism, and as the music takes over the room, there’s not a ghost to be found.
IMAAD WASIF | Strange Hexes | Imaad Wasif Records
Imaad Wasif performs at the Smell on Fri., March 28.