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Ballads of the Thin Man

Photos by Eric Fermin PerezSet eyes on Imaad Wasif and you’ll think, “This is the skinniest guy I’ve seen in my whole entire life. I bet he could be a practicing guru to the stars. Or wear a convincing praying mantis costume next Halloween.” But then you figure it out. The front man for Silver Lake’s alaska! is actually a rock star. He so bespeaks the role he got cast as a member of the band in the 2002 film Laurel Canyon. (He regrets that.) Fortunately, when you see Wasif perform, you’ll realize his talents are better suited to playing his own band’s heavy, yet emotionally accessible, rock. He made his first impression in the mid-’90s while in noise rock band lowercase, a band he formed after escaping the desert rock scene he grew up around in Palm Desert. alaska! began in 2000, as a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Russ Pollard. Drummer Lesley Ishino joined in 2002. This power trio is largely out of step with any contemporary scene — they’re a bit like a multiethnic, Americanized version of Cream — but they quickly gained a profile touring with Elliott Smith, Sebadoh and Folk Implosion (which briefly included both Pollard and Wasif). With the release of their second record, Rescue Through Tomahawk, alaska! have further honed a spacious sound, touched with moments of grace. They split the difference between Black Sabbath’s paranoid heaviness and Neil Young’s fragile beauty. As a person, Wasif is similarly contradictory. He’s like a penknife or a switchblade, vulnerable yet sharp, as he alternates between revelation and secrecy. And, yeah, he’s very, very thin. You were friends with Elliott Smith and are friends with Lou Barlow. Do you feel like you’re part of something larger now? I don’t even know if the concept of the scene is the same as it was in the ’90s. I don’t feel a sense of belonging. I don’t feel like there is a musical community, or maybe it’s just that I don’t have an interest in it. Your music does have this out-of-time quality. Most bands today seem stuck in 1980-something, while you sound like you’re from 1970-something — like Neil Young fronting Black Sabbath. Well, thanks. Do you identify with that? I do have six Neil Young records near my stereo right now, and I do believe in heaviness and beauty. I think that our new record focuses on being open. There’s a lot of space. It’s a fight record. It’s a celebration of life, and a celebration of love. What is the fight against? It’s not a fight against, but a fight for. I think I’m drowning a lot of the time, so I really feel like it’s a fight for my life. Is that sense borne out in the title Rescue Through Tomahawk? It’s complex, and a bit obtuse, whereas the title of your first album, Emotions, was dangerously clear-cut. Everything about this record is extremely specific. It’s a thank-you to someone who saved our lives when we were in this van wreck on tour. We had a day off, and were driving to Denver, Colorado, from Seattle to try and make a radio show. All day we had been traveling through treacherous weather. Lesley was driving. I won’t normally drive through the snow, because I’m paralyzed by fear. I had a previous accident on tour, which was very similar in that we hit some black ice and spun out. But Russ and I were sleeping on the benches. I was actually really sick. And somewhere in Wyoming, all I remember hearing was someone yelling, “Lesley, don’t!” then the van spun around and went over on its side and into this ditch. It was completely bizarre, the most frightening experience I’ve ever had in my entire life. We ended up not missing any shows. A friend came up and rented a van for us, and we ended up making it to the next night’s show on time — okay, 20 minutes late. It was a point where, all of a sudden, the shows became about this complete celebration of life. So who is Tomahawk? Is he the guy who rented you the van, or the name of an emergency medical technician? He’s this guy who supported us for a very long time, and sent me a tomahawk in the mail. This is completely before the accident. I saw a tomahawk on his wall, and later got it in the mail. It carries me through on a daily basis, and I’ve actually come to walking around with it. People have been telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, and I’m starting to agree. The other day there was this person walking by my front door with an ax, and it really freaked me out. It turns out he was only coming to chop down the tree, but it really scared me. But you know me; I wouldn’t swing my ax at anyone. It’s undeniable that you look like a rock star. That kind of showmanship is a bit foreign in indie circles. How did it develop in a skinny kid from near Palm Springs? Well, my parents were both born in India, and I grew up in an incredibly disciplined household, but we were the misfit Indian family. Most were doctors and lawyers, but we weren’t rich and my father didn’t really subscribe to any of their values. This made me feel like a total freak, so I focused on the things I felt like I could be. The first person I was aware of who inspired me musically was Jimi Hendrix. Was it because he was black, and you identified with that? It didn’t have anything to do with color. There tends to be this focus on the exterior — the way things sound and the way things look — rather than the core of how they were created. I’d like to talk about the songs themselves, but I don’t know if people are willing to communicate on that level. That’s the only way I could fully reveal myself, though, even if it opens an entire abyss of possibilities. We could talk for hours, and it’s something I’d like, even if it’s really dangerous. You throw shit like that out, and there are vultures in the world, and they’ll tear you to shreds, but it’s a chance I’d be willing to take. I would absolutely die for my songs. You know what? I just had a flashback to the job I hated most, scooping ice cream in Palm Springs. Because it’s like 128 degrees in the summer, everyone wants ice cream . . . Before you started talking about ice cream, you were getting really dark. I was reminded of Yeats, “The best lack all convictions, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” I haven’t read Yeats in years, but I love Rimbaud. When I was developing in the desert, I didn’t have a lot of that stuff accessible, so that mentality didn’t reach me until I moved to San Francisco and really started finding records, and reading books, and absorbing everything I got my hands on. I became really obsessed with the idea of who Rimbaud was, and a whole combination of people, like Bob Dylan and Hendrix. I’d finally found a group of people I could speak to, even though they couldn’t hear me. I figured out that everything I love cuts through. I felt like all those people, and it made me feel almost sinister. I used to feel like I would kill myself if I didn’t get to that theme, of death and life becoming really interchangeable. And I was obsessed with the age of these people. I was really aware of it. Well, that’s no good, seeing as you’re 29 already. Yeah, I started reading Rimbaud at the same age he quit writing. If I lived like them I would be dead, I would have killed myself. But I can experience that feeling entirely through my own writing. I want to continue to write songs. You know, I have a tremendous fear of being misunderstood, and in order to fend that off I’ve become very sarcastic. As I’m talking to you, though, you don’t sound sarcastic, you sound more like someone obsessed with Jungian psychology. Are you ever afraid you come off like a hippie? In order to get to the meat of anything you have to tread on dangerous territory, but lately I have been thinking of moving to Amsterdam and becoming a baker. alaska!’s Rescue Through Tomahawk will be released on April 12.