The quintessential guide to everything AJJA
AJJA returns to South Africa for Alien Safari Flying Circus on 25th November and this will be his first visit back to our sunny shores since his epic set at the Masqued Ball in 2009.
He is one of the most revered psytrance acts, one that everybody from Astrix to Arjuna acknowledge as being a true psychedelic head.
We had a really in-depth chat with AJJA ahead of his highly-anticipated return to Alien Safari.
I suffered from the common misconception that it couldn’t be “real” music because it was programmed rather than performed live.”
You grew up in a nomadic environment, traveling around the world. Is there any one particular place you remember as a child being somewhere you would not have minded living long term?
It’s difficult to pin down any one place. The beaches of Goa have obviously left their mark, although I must admit that when I lived there as a child it was very different.
We lived on Baga beach, set back from the beach a bit, but you could see all the way to the sea through the palm trees. I remember glorious days of running around pretty much naked playing with coconuts in the sand.
Even though it’s crowded these days it’s still a lovely spot and quite relevant in our scene.
At what age did you do your first tattoo for someone?
Ajja: I must have been in my early teens when my brother let me try a couple of lines on a tattoo he was doing. It must have been on a friend or a very trusting customer.
The first actual tattoo I did by myself would have been on a friend in Goa in 1991 or 1992. He was a tattoo artist and so had the machines there with him.
It was a little cartoon of a cat’s face. It’s something I’ve been doodling since my childhood and generally add to all my personal notes – I guess he thought that gave me the best chance of not fucking it up, ha-ha.
You were born in London, but your family is Swiss? What does that make you? Swiss or English (it seems to be a never-ending debate when AJJA is mentioned)
Ajja: I was born in London from a Swiss father and an Italian/Yugoslavian mother who grew up on the road (my grandmother was an opera singer) and eventually settled in the States.
I also grew up traveling until my family opened a tattoo studio in the French part of Switzerland. So, I guess that makes me a big mix!
Having lived in Goa when trance was in its relative infancy you would have surely been familiar with all the original Goa producers, yet you weren’t particularly interested in the music at the time?
Ajja: That’s putting it nicely. Back then I suffered from the common misconception that it couldn’t be “real” music because it was programmed rather than performed live.
I was a guitar player and into rock, funk & blues. I was sitting in my room with headphones on pouring my teenage angst into my songs.
The main reason I went to parties was to try and meet people and socialize a bit. I was aware of the music as a tribal trance rhythm of course, although I was too shy to dance mostly. Luckily some part of me must have been soaking it in, as when I started making psychedelic trance many years later I seemed to have this endless database of ingrained patterns.
And your family was more rock n roll oriented, yet you were drawn to electronic music. I’m sure you must still have or enjoy some good old psychedelic rock music now and then?
Ajja: I love music of all sorts, although I am definitely partial to ’60s and ’70s music as that’s what was playing in the tattoo studio when I was young. J.J. Cale, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, ZZ Top, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller, Van Morrison, George Clinton, Bob Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughan…. The list goes on. I’m listening to J.J. Cale right now. I’m a huge fan.
Me and my wife Tanya rarely listen to electronic dance-floor oriented music at home, and when we do it tends to be stuff from over a decade ago.
These days I’ve been enjoying discovering ’80s pop music through her. I kind of missed the ’80s musically speaking. Some say that’s a good thing but there are definitely some gems in there.
Being blessed with a creative upbringing and an obvious gift for art, did you find music an easy enough art form to learn as a craft?
Ajja: I’m still learning now.
It’s hard to say how difficult it is because I started very young, so I think the same principle as languages applies. I was very lucky to have smart parents who gave me a choice when I was about 9 years old. They told me I had to pick something artistic that I would practice for an hour a day.
I picked the guitar as I thought music looked easy, and to be different from my siblings who were drawing or tattooing already. I used to read comic books while I played basic chords, just to fill that hour up, but after a while my dexterity improved and I started to enjoy playing guitar for its own sake.
Around 14 I started to compose and record, and another dimension came into it. I have notebooks full of scribbles and arcane notation that I created to work out all the arrangements and melodies. Then, when I started to make electronic music in the mid-nineties, it changed again as my sonic palette became wider.
Now I have high quality equipment to work with, and have got into computer technology to the point where I’m writing my own effects in C++ and the like, so the possibilities have become infinite. I’m very grateful that I started on such basic equipment and worked my way up to this, as it’s given me a solid foundation.
What I have learned along the way is that every art form has its own set of intrinsic harmonic rules, once you know how to spot them and understand them, it’s easier to pick up the craft and techniques required.
The other trick to becoming a successful artist is to realize that any form of art becomes hard work at some point, you just have to keep on going. Starting a song or a painting can be easy, finishing it can be a whole different story.
Once you are able to consistently go beyond the initial creative impulse of a piece of art and see it through to completion in a reasonable time-frame, you become what I call a “producer”.
By the time I was 16 I had written, recorded and registered over 150 songs. Most were totally shit but they taught me how to produce a body of work.
Easier than tattooing?
Ajja: The main difference between music and tattooing is that bum notes usually don’t last as long, ha-ha.
That and the blood and pain of course.
But there are a lot of similarities. Both require you to be totally concentrated and yet not let your conscious mind get in the way of your flow or you will wobble. Once you start pulling a line, or launch into a solo, or even start to mix those two tracks when DJing you are past the point of no return and any doubt will make you wobble.
The funny thing about tattooing is that I was never taught officially how to do it – I just started when I needed to. Even with help from my family it was hard, of course, but I had watched them teach a few people how to do it, so the theory was already in my head.
My first customer was a friend who wanted two huge tribal dragons on his calf. That’s also how I met Gaspard who later started the Yab Yum project with me. He got his arms lined by my brother and then was happy to let me fill in the tribal designs’ black section for a reduced rate while I learned.
Any other creative talents we don’t know about?
Ajja: I love to paint and draw with pencil, ink, watercolors, acrylics and also digitally.
The digital ones are made in Artmatic mainly. It’s like a modular synthesizer for light. The idea is that you bend the light spectrum using transform modules without ever drawing a line. It’s amazing what you can come up with once you start applying a bit of math mixed with a halfway-decent sense of aesthetics.
Oddly enough I’m fascinated by databases and love working with them. I’m a self-taught code-monkey and am proficient in quite a few languages and frameworks by now. I love python and c++. I write software of all sorts, for personal use mainly. These days I’m focusing mainly on DSP algorithms and audio effect units for Mac and Windows.
I also do graphic work, by myself and with Tanya. We have done over 20 releases for our label Peak Records by this point and a few for other labels. I love the challenge of making a beautiful object that is also readable and well balanced.
Recently I have gotten into video editing. I have been editing the footage of our Novelty Engine: Psyrie Vibes gig at this year’s Ozora Festival. The whole performance was recorded from 6 angles and I am having loads of fun doing rough edits of it. A couple of them are already online, although the plan is that the director will do a proper version, once I’ve finished mixing the audio down for him.
Also, I’ve been learning to cook properly these days and am loving it.
MUSIC AND CREATIVITY
A tap dripping can be psychedelic under the right circumstances. I’m speaking from personal experience there, ha-ha.”
Who are some of the very first psy producers that you followed and were influenced by?
Ajja: Hmmmm, does “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb count? I really love that track. I also remember “Techno La Droga” from those days and tracks like that.
The first electronic music that I considered psychedelic was stuff like Leftfield, and even Bjork’s “Violently Happy” album. Then I became aware of David Bowie’s “Earthling” album as being very technologically constructed and quite trippy. I was also drawn to crossover bands such as Primal Scream, The KLF and The Shamen.
There was a period of time when I was going to parties but not producing yet, so all I had was a few copied Minidiscs and CDs with no names on them. I later found some of the music again and discovered it was stuff like The Green Nuns of the Revolution, Man With No Name, Shakta, …
When I started consciously making psychedelic trance I was listening to Parasense, G.O.W., Hallucinogen, Astrix, Total Eclipse, Astral Projection, Cosma, Kindzadza, Shpongle, Azax Syndrom, Rev, Penta, Mubali, Spacetribe, Cosmosis, Naked Tourist, Ocelot and E.V.P.
Once you started going to parties, which I know you weren’t that keen on did it take long before you were hooked?
Ajja: Exactly one party.
I was going through a rough time in my life and really needed to let off some steam. Gaspard took me to a small party in the mountains in Switzerland and I danced my ass off all night. I was amazed at how much this music that I looked upon with disdain in my youth had evolved.
The thought struck me that not only was this a valid form of musical expression, but that it had a much wider range of sonic possibilities than my classic rock/funk/whatever song format ever did. I was also struck by the similarities with funk music. I think that was my doorway to understanding it a bit more.
And at what stage did you start thinking about producing the music yourself?
Ajja: I had already been into sequenced music using drum machines and synths since the mid ’90s.
But I think that party really concretized what I wanted to do next. By the time I got home I was already having those childhood memories of trance rhythms bubbling up in my subconscious and knew I would try to make some myself, but using modern production techniques.
I hijacked the family computer and installed Reason on it and started making some awful stuff that I hope stays buried. It was quite a while before the first halfway decent tracks started coming.
Your 2017 album on Tip Records – Spira Mirabilis – was something quite different and certainly more of a listening experience than dancefloor fodder. Were you happy with the outcome and do you feel you achieved what you wanted from it?
When Raja Ram asked me to make an album for TIP Records, it was a great surprise and honour for me as he, through TIP and Shpongle, has been such a huge part of my musical path.
I asked him what kind of album he wanted, and he gave me carte blanche. After thinking about it, I decided to create a musical journey like the ones I’ve enjoyed so much on other TIP releases.
Something that wasn’t tied down to dance-floor dynamics, leaving more breathing room to tell a story and transport the listener to another time and space. I hope I’ve succeeded in that. The eventual plan for Spira Mirabilis is to perform it in its entirety with a live band.
Collaborations seem to be becoming more and more frequent with different artists; you’ve done quite a few lately too. Is this just a quicker, more efficient way to get tunes out quickly or is the fun factor the biggest drive behind this trend?
Ajja: Collaborations are the best way to learn something new and have fun too – Having a new track to play is also a bonus of course. I love working with other people as it gets me out of my rut and I think about what I’m doing in a different way.
For example, a collaboration track with Tongue & Groove is in the works which is sure to be fun as they work at a different BPM range then me in general, which will force me out of my usual patterns. Working with artists in different styles is always a good idea as it stops you from becoming set in the rules of your usual genre.
How much of your nomadic upbringing exists in your life today outside of traveling across the globe for gigs? When you’re not touring, do you like to simply stay in one place?
Ajja: I work quite a lot as it’s always high season somewhere in the world, so when I have a few days off I love being at home with Tanya and our cats. We live in the mountains in Switzerland and it’s very peaceful and close to nature.
I enjoy the contrast of our quiet mountain home compared to the hustle and bustle of parties and traveling. We do try to go away together for a couple of months every year, usually to Goa, and we also have a few of combined work/pleasure trips every year.
Finally; what makes a track psychedelic? Surely with the right psychoactive ingredients any track could sound psychedelic?
Ajja: A tap dripping can be psychedelic under the right circumstances. I’m speaking from personal experience there, ha-ha.
But yes, I do think that there are some things that help a track feel better in the psychedelic state. One of them is how many layers it has and how they interact. The more evolving levels you can cram in there, without it becoming a sonic soupy mess, the better.
When your senses are heightened, you really benefit from those layers as they help to split your consciousness into multi-leveled thought patterns which are much more natural to those states. An old shamanic technique uses two shamans that talk to you simultaneously in each ear to achieve the same effect.
Another thing that helps is a cohesive story line that carries you from one section to the next in a natural way. Don’t put a break or a new lead just because it’s been 16 bars. Don’t change sounds every 2 seconds. Keep things flowing and fluid, and the odds are that people will enjoy it all the more when the break naturally hits.
I’m really looking forward to my set at Alien Safari Flying Circus this year and I’ve written a lot of new tracks by myself and with friends that I really hope everyone will like.”
You were last here in 2009. What do you remember of the party and the people?
Ajja: Alien Safari 2009. Oh man that was a good one. I played a live set and one of my rare DJ sets too. I remember being struck by how full of energy and happy the crowd was. I was lucky to play in the daytime, so I could see everyone and say hi after. I saw a great community of friends who were seasoned veterans in the art of having a great time together. I’m really looking forward to coming back.
It has not been easy to get you back here. I know several promoters have tried over the years. Any reason for that?
Ajja: Over the years I have heard loads of rumours about the reasons why, which I always enjoy hearing, ha-ha. Very often it’s quite simply a matter of conflicting schedules.
But also, years of being too tall for airplane seats have taken their toll and resulted in hip troubles and inflammatory problems that have forced me to pay attention and manage my time and energy better.
So, I tend to avoid long trips for single gigs. When Colin and Liza asked, I realized it had been seven years since my first and last gig in South Africa. And as I had really enjoyed my last Alien Safari it seemed fitting to come back again for this event.
You will be playing at Alien Safari Flying Circus on 25 November. We were all bummed when they were forced to postpone their 21st celebration party last year which you were set to play at. What’s changed in your life since last year this time and now?
Ajja: I know it was a hard decision to postpone the event last year, and I’m very happy that it’s happening this time. All I can say on my side is that I learn new techniques at every gig, as every dancefloor is different.
A huge part of our task as musicians is learning the art of psycho-acoustics; so, the more you play, the bigger your database of possible reactions to particular frequencies based on current conditions is.
My live sets are always a bit of a mix of the latest tricks I’ve learned, and I like to change my setup a lot to keep it fun and fresh.
I’m really looking forward to my set at Alien Safari Flying Circus this year and I’ve written a lot of new tracks by myself and with friends that I really hope everyone will like.