Damian Lazarus' car is still in Los Angeles.
The British DJ, who spent several years living in the city, no longer has a place in town. Right now, his base is Italy, where he's renovating a farmhouse that has become his retreat in between globetrotting DJ gigs. But the 1966 Mustang, which he bought two days after making his 2008 move to the West Coast, is still here. “I can't seem to part with it,” he says.
To be fair, Lazarus points out, he still pops in and out of Los Angeles often enough: “It's a place very close to my heart.” It's also one of the points of interest in the making of Lazarus' latest full-length, Messages From the Other Side. Released under the name Damian Lazarus and the Ancient Moons, the album is an eclectic, world music-influenced dance trip that features the contributions of a wide range of musicians, from percussionist Hossam Ramzy to pianist ELEW to L.A.-based singer Moses Sumney.
Lazarus was still living in Echo Park when a friend called him at the last minute to ask if he could check out a Moses Sumney show. He was immediately taken by Sumney's voice — “so much talent,” he gushes.
After a few dinners and meetings, the two got to writing. “Vermillion,” which has already been released as a single, is one of the products of their collaboration. They also worked together on “Tangled Web,” a lullaby-smooth number makes only a brief, minimal use of a beat.
This isn't Lazarus' first full-length, but a good while had passed since he released the 2009 album, Smoke the Monster Out. The break wasn't premeditated; with a life on the road and his duties running the label Crosstown Rebels, he simply got caught up in doing other things.
“I forgot how important it was for someone like me to be in the studio making music,” he says. But if Lazarus was going to present a collection of new songs, he had to answer a few questions, the big one being, “What do I have to say about my life?”
Lazarus also thought about his favorite gigs. They didn't happen in the usual nightclub settings. “I realized that I was most happy as an artist when I'm DJing outside in the open air, under the stars,” he says. He started brainstorming, came up with some ideas that leaned “very spiritual and mystical” and brought in James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, who had just produced Arctic Monkeys' hit album AM, to help.
The list of collaborators came together partially by chance and partially through social connections. Hossam Ramzy, the famed percussionist who has worked with everyone from Robert Plant to Marc Almond to Shakira, simply sent Lazarus an email. “God knows how he came across me,” says Lazarus, “This guy, he's a legendary Egyptian percussionist.” He met ELEW, a jazz musician who specializes in treated piano, through mutual friends who had booked the two to play an event in New York.
A movie got Lazarus interested in qawwali, the South Asian devotional music. He was able to track down the singers Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram through friends of friends. “Next thing I knew, I had this session happening in Karachi,” he says of the development of “Lovers' Eyes,” which was released as a single last year.
Making the album, much like Lazarus' touring life, was an exercise in globetrotting, taking him primarily to studios in Los Angeles, London and Mexico. Near the end of the process, the DJ/producer started to think about how he would get the music to people. “It's got just enough for the dance floor. It's got enough for more alternative heads to get into,” he says. “It's got a little bit of potential.”
Taking the show on the road was the obvious solution, but that can be difficult when your collaborators are spread out between various countries and have their own music-making and touring schedules. But this album wasn't something that Lazarus could present on his own. “I am a performer, but I have a certain skill set,” adding that his skills do not include playing guitar on stage.
In the live setting, Lazarus puts himself on sound effects duties. “The whole mad professor thing really suits me,” he says. Then he formed a new band with a percussionist/drum programmer, a pianist/synth player and a vocalist. At the time of this interview, Damian Lazarus and the Ancient Moons have only played three shows, one of which was at San Diego's CRSSD Fest. This summer, the band will be hitting up festivals in Ireland, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and other spots.
Meanwhile, Lazarus is still keeping up his DJ gigs. But becoming a bandleader is an unusual turn of events for him.
“I'm a DJ, so I'm traveling the world on my own with my headphones and my USB sticks playing music,” he says. “I'm not relying on anyone else.” Lazarus is learning how to be part of a band. “We're relying on each other to create what we're doing.”
He adds, “If you said to me a few years ago, Damian, in a few years, you're going to have a band and you're going to be performing on the main stages of festivals, I would have laughed at you. Now, I'm actually doing it. I couldn't be more excited.”
Damian Lazarus and the Ancient Moons' Messages From the Other Side is out May 19 via Crosstown Rebels.