by Don Maguire
Photos By Bruce P
I discovered Acrassicauda via Google. I was in my hotel in Dubai, watching the Iranian students rioting on Al Jazeera, relaxing after being shot at in Baghdad earlier that day.
I wondered, “Is there a music scene in Iran that is behind these protests?” So I Googled “Heavy Metal Iran” and the list of hits included a movie, Heavy Metal in Baghdad.
When I returned to the U.S., I bought the movie and watched it. The movie was about the band Acrassicauda, and what it was like playing Heavy Metal in Iraq. The movie struck a nerve. The sectarian violence and the burned out streets in Baghdad seemed all too familiar to me.
It reminded me of my visits to Northern Ireland. The sober realism of the band seemed familiar too. Something about them reminded me of my conversations with my father about “Bloody Sunday” after I played the U2 song of that name to him.
There was something else, something harder to put my finger on, that got my attention about the band, and I did not figure it out till much later. I do not consider myself to be a metal head, and although I listen to some metal,there is not much of it in my collection.
My musical tastes were largely formed before the term “Heavy Metal” was even used, back in the days when Led Zeppelin and Van Halen ruled the world. I rarely listen to thrash metal, yet I felt drawn to the band and wanted to hear what they had to say.
I remember the generation gap when I was in junior high. Kids listened to rock and roll and parents did not. Rock and roll was very counter culture. The Vietnam War had only recently ended, and the attitude of kids, was “Trusting grown-ups can get you killed. We are going to change the world when we grow up. It just can’t go on this way.”
We had our own culture, our own style, and we flashed the peace sign as a symbol of our unity. That was it! The thing that was hard to put my finger on, was the feeling that I had in those days!
Acrassicauda ran the risk of being killed for playing Heavy Metal, and some of their fans were killed for listening to it. Their risks are very real; it is not safe for them to return to their own country, and they can’t be sure that they are safe in the U.S. either.
The book Heavy Metal Islam describes the metal culture throughout the Middle East. The youth of the Middle East see the world differently than their parents do. For them, Heavy Metal is a way to voice their feelings, bond with each other, and bond with the world outside the Middle East. With the “Arab Spring” uprisings throughout the Middle East, the world has become aware of the discontent of youth in the Middle East, but is still largely unaware of the music coming out of that region. Acrassicauda is the first, and as far as I know, the only band to date, from that region to arrive in America.
I travelled from Houston to Austin with veteran rock photographer Bruce Patten to see Acrassicauda. I met the band before the show at a meet and greet. They were all very friendly and quite open. Rachel, the bands manager, greeted me with a hug, as did the members of the band. Tony, the lead guitarist of the band wore a cross. Mohammed, the touring guitarist, made a point of telling me that Tony was a Christian and that Firas, the bass player, was a Sunni and his wife was Shiite.
The fans in the record store had seen the movie Heavy Metal in Baghdad and wanted to talk to the band about their adventures in Iraq. The band talked about some of their brushes with danger in Iraq, and the previous cities that they had visited on this tour.
Their tour schedule was intense, and they were running a little bit late that evening. We all left the meet and greet and went to the venue, Red 7. Marwan bravely volunteered to sacrifice taking a shower before the show in order to make the time for the interview, and we sat down at a table in Red 7 to do the interview.
I found it rather ironic that I was seeing Acrassicauda performing in Austin. Two months earlier Bob Geldoff was speaking at South By Southwest and commented that rock music was tired, and that it lacked purpose. He said that:
"Rock 'n' roll needs to be against something. It can't just BE . . . It always needs a function in which to function. Of course there are great songs. There will always be great songs that don't suggest anything other than being a great song. But … where are our Ramones or our [Sex] Pistols today?” Acrassicauda was not at South By Southwest. Massacre and The Tyrant’s Philosophy are every bit as dangerous as Anarchy in the U.K. and God Save the Queen; it is too bad that Bob Geldoff couldn’t see Acrassicauda perform. This band has something to say and they matter.
They have lived through things that most Americans will never see, and what they have been through matters to the whole world. Acrassicauda is well worth listening to; they are the most significant band in America today.
The band consists of Faisal Talal Mustafa (lead vocals), Tony Aziz Yaqoo (lead guitar),
Firas Al-Lateef (bass), and Marwan Hussain Riyadh (drums). Muhammad Al Ansari (rhythm guitar) has joined them as a touring guitarist.
The band has been living in the New York/New Jersey area for two and a half years. This is their first U.S. tour. Previously they played local shows and performed at two concerts sponsored by Scion. They have released one EP, titled Only the Dead See the End of War on Vice Records. They are currently recording for their first LP.
The following interview was conducted at Red 7 in Austin, Texas on May 24, 2011. Donald Maguire interviewed Marwan Hussain. Bruce Patten was present for the interview and took photographs of the band before and during their performance
D: I would like to go back and hear a little bit about your band’s musical development.
What was the history of the music that you listened to when you were in Iraq.
M: I think it started when I was a little kid, if that is what you mean. My dad had always been listening to western music. I would say, more like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Englebert, and kind of stuff like that. I kind of grew up where western music was influencing; and then when I was growing up, my sister actually started listening to various types of music. I believe at the time it was Madonna, Ace of Base and Michael Jackson, all these like kinds of pop culture music. And I believe the first time that I listened to metal music I was fifteen, listened to Sepultura, I guess and it was a weird kind of feeling that I had. I just feel . . . I don’t feel raged, but I feel like it was a perfect . . . it was quite a dose that I needed.
D: The dose that you needed? Like it was a fix?
M: Yes, it was a fix that pop culture couldn’t fulfill that. And especially when you are a teenager you go through a lot of phases, whether you are in Iraq or anyplace in the world. It was good, and from there we took to Metallica and Slayer.
D: So in your dad’s music - was he playing only rock and roll music, or only Elvis . . .
M: I think he was more into the classical. My dad is more like the 40s generation. His actors were more like Rock Hudson, and Clark Gable, and all these people. There was rock and roll, not as much as jazz music and contemporary styles such as symphonies.
D: How did you get access to metal in Iraq when you were in Iraq?
M: Bootlegs. When you get into a city, metal is not always the scene that you find - you need to look for it. It has always been an underground scene. It has been always an underrated scene. I don’t know what is the reason for that, because a lot of people take the message the wrong way - it is violent, its insane, but it is not. I guess in a way there was an underground community in Iraq itself. Somebody left the country, came back with a couple of cassettes, and some of them actually like two years or three years old. So we never got them on time. But this is how we got them: a friend of yours gives you a cassette, and you go and you copy it, and you listen to it. And so that is probably the main access. There wasn’t very legit access.
D: And you never heard the stuff on the radio?
M: No. We had an FM back in the 80s and the 90s, and something happened along the way, I guess. The country been through a siege - I believe in ‘91. After the Gulf War, and everything just changed from there. Iraq suddenly became anti-western culture.
D: Before then, when you had the FM radio, did you ever hear metal or hard rock or anything like that on the radio.
M: It was more like, I would say popular culture. Metal, you had to look for it. I believe one time I heard Metallica, they played it on TV. I think it was by mistake or something. I was blown away. Seeing James Hetfield on TV - WOW! I didn’t even know the name of it. What is this?!! So yeah, that was the one and only.
D: How did guys you learn to play? Were there teachers who had been in rock bands before, or did you learn from teachers of other styles of music or did you just kind of figure it out by ear.
M: A couple of guys in the band, Firas, the basist, and Tony, the lead guitarist, they actually had been taught to play music by a guy named Saad Zai. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he was in a band. He was in a band called Passage. It was a project band that did like a couple of shows in the early 90s. But he always loved music, and he played everything. He played base, guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, he played drums, and he played keyboards. This guy mainly dedicated his life to music, and he didn’t even get married. He was born in ‘68 and he is not married yet, because he is full dedication to the music. So this is how they learn how to play their music. Me and Faisal are self taught. I remember my dad made me...actually my mom. She is a school teacher, and she asked me to play marching for the kind of school event. And she was like “You always like to bang on stuff. Why don’t you do it?”
I was like ten years old, I believe. “Yeah, cool I will do it.” But I was super shy for some reason. I remember my dad taught me [beats out a rhythm on the table]. And he spent the whole night trying to teach me that.
D: Your dad played the drums before?
M: Never played the drums before, but, because he was in the military, he always heard it. He always played the keyboard, but he always put it on the pre-tunes and just bummed around with it. I can’t say that my dad actually played an instrument.
D: Describe the social scene that surrounded metal.
M: I wouldn’t say social. It was more like an anti-social.
D: Ha ha. Well there was a group of people that all knew each other, that connected, and were doing the underground thing, and sharing the tapes of metal.
M: Yeah, yeah. It is an underground scene. You need to look for them, and the minute that you look for them, they will become your best friends. It has always been isolated. It is funny we found a way out of this because we are very social. We talk to everybody. But it is funny - it is kind of the superhero kind of thing. Because you always kept your identity [secret]. You never told them you played music. I was dating this girl for two years, and I didn’t tell her that I was in a band or anything. It didn’t matter. It was not normal so they never thought of asking these questions. The main thing that you will most likely get in Iraq is to play in weddings and stuff like that. It was different, a change in our time.
D: Of all of the people that were in the metal scene, how did you guys figure out who would be in Acrassicauda?
M: That is a good question. Never in thousands of interviews, nobody has asked that. Faisal gives me a call, he was trying to put a band together. It sucked. He is a very emotional person. The minute he has a friend, and the minute he likes that friend, he asks him, “Do you want to play in a band?” And the dude probably doesn’t play anything in his life. So they bring him (into the band). So by the time he [Faisal] wanted to set a concert, it didn’t work out. We had about twenty people in the band - about six playing guitars, three base, ten vocalists, and no drummer. So we called it “Faisal’s Symphony.” One day he called me up. It was like three o’clock in August, and he said “I heard that you played percussion.”
I said “I was like a kid. I was ten years old, I am sixteen now. I don’t know.”
I figured out that my cousin sold drums and musical equipment. He was a bassist. So I go and I talk to him, and I ask him “Can you hook me up with some drums and stuff?” So me and him started that thing together. He [Faisal] was a bassist at that time so we started rehearsing at my place. After that we made a couple of bands. It is funny we have this thing between us.
He [Faisal] says “I hire them and you fire them.” So I fire them - I never have a problem with that. So it was quite a combination between me and Faisal. He is the nice guy; I am the asshole. Because I just wanted this thing to work out. I saw Faisal and I just figured that his way was not working. So I was like, “Oh yeah, let me take it from there.”
So we did a couple of projects and didn’t work for some reasons, and I believe all of the right reasons. One day I kicked a good friend of ours out of the band, because we just couldn’t do anything with him. That is when we hired Tony. So Tony came in the band and he was like, “Well, I know a bassist, and I want him to play with me,” and that bassist was Firas. We were like “Ok, but Faisal is playing base already,” so he switched to guitar.
That is when the band first started in 2000. I guess in July. First three days we came up with Massacre, and a couple other songs, in a couple of days. This is when everything is going right, and we are on the right track, and that was the birth of Acrassicauda. The four of us and there was Waleed also, who we wind up kicking out of the band. A very good friend of mine. A really good friend.
D: I thought he basically left and went to Canada, and wasn’t with you guys anymore.
M: No, Waleed leaves the band to Jordan for some reasons. We had these three songs recorded. Simple recordings, but we were happy with it, because that is our first time recording. So we record one song, and he leaves two songs. So we are thinking of hiring a vocalist because Waleed leaves for 3 months and we have these three songs on hold that we want to give to our friends or something like that. So guess I go and I sing the songs, because I write the songs. I text Waleed and I e-mail Waleed at the time, and I was like “You know, dude, I didn’t want to bring in anyone new.” So I thought I was doing him a favor, and he gets mad at me.
He says, “You betrayed me,” and stuff.
I was like “Don’t make such a big deal. You are in the band; I am in the band; we are all the band. I know that I am not a vocalist. We just needed to put a voice on it.” I wasn’t happy, because I never wanted to be a vocalist.
That was a conflict. Faisal started being the vocalist, and he was very shy. We just didn’t want to bring anyone new into the band, so we put Faisal to sing. So he [Waleed] shows up three days before the show that we practiced for five months, and he says that he wants to sing for the show. I was like, “No. First you acted like this to me, and second you didn’t practice with us and we made new songs.”
He was like, “I just sing the songs that I know.”
I was like “No, you are not staying in the band either way.” We didn’t actually have this conversation like this, it was through Faisal. Because it was just very hurtful to me, what he said.
D: What Waleed said?
M: I guess he was just pissed that somebody else did the singing. But he wasn’t there for three months. I just saw his side of the story. He didn’t see the side of four other people, craving. That is the thing about this band, we are always pushing forward. So yeah, it was a misunderstanding. It is all cool now.
D: One of the things that I noticed in Heavy Metal in Baghdad is that that I didn’t see any women at the shows. Is metal a guys-only thing in Iraq?
M: I don’t know. Hopefully we will change that tonight
D: Well, this is the U.S. It isn’t Iraq.
M: But still, we always thought about it. You see bands like Exodus and etc. . . and you see the main majority of death metal bands, thrash metal bands, hardcore bands, and it is dudes. You go for other styles, like Nickelback, and other rock and roll lighter generes and you see more girls there.
D: I understand that. I understand that well. I am from an era before metal was metal. There were a lot more women at the shows. Zeppelin had tons of women there.
M: Well, Zeppelin is about the line we cross. Zeppelin was rock. Rock and roll - it is like the whole evolution that happened to Metal. It is like now, even for me, I have played drums for twelve years now, and some times I just want to take a break. Like, when I go to clubs, I don’t go to metal clubs. More like salsa, or jazz clubs and stuff like that.
D: What was it like getting musical instruments and equipment in Iraq?
M: It is very tough. The first drum that I had belonged to the 70s or 60s probably. I didn’t even know the name of the drums. It was really hard. Faisal always wanted to make his own guitar, because he could not get the guitar he wanted. So, it was very tough. It was very expensive too. It changed after the war, it was more equipment available then
.D: But you could somehow or other get used or old stuff, or pay at lot of money to get some instruments.
M: Yes, but I mean we were all come from middle class or working class families. None of us are really rich, we don’t have the advantage, so we all had to work for everything we own, and that was the deal of it.
D: Was getting musical instruments almost like an underground thing, much like CDs?
M: You could say so, yeah.
D: How has getting access to better instruments and equipment affected your music?
M: Everything - it has to do with everything. I am experimental, dude. I play with new stuff, and it gives me new sound. I am not speaking of drums, for them effects and distortions, - for guitars. It helps you, because it is an extension of your soul. If you have something that can help you reach the bridge, that you can reach to the people with, you are good with it. We played with shitty equipment before, and it is funny some people say “You can play with that.”
We are like “We paid the dues, actually.” I have played with flying base drums you know.
D: What kind of new musical influences did you pick up during your time in Turkey and Syria?
M: Turkey has a HUGE, HUGE influence on us. Great, great musicians out there. And the only reason is, is because it is like East met West. There is the eastern culture, which is more dedicated to Islamic culture, and there is the western culture, which is more liberal and wants to be in the Europe Union and stuff like that. So this whole mix put a great stamp on their music. I guess that is when we realized, being in Turkey, we should become closer to our roots - not only lyrically, but musically. So we start bringing ethnic taste to music. That is when we wrote Garden of Stones, that is the head of what we did in Turkey.
D: How much of your lyrics are in Arabic?
M: Not much.
D: Just like the little intro in Massacre maybe?
M: Massacre and another song called The Unholy Lie. We are trying to incorporate more Arabic. It is kind of like testing the water first.
D: Do you feel that metal has to be performed in English? When you were performing in Iraq, did the audience understand your lyrics?
M: Yeah. Most of the audience came specifically because there is a band there. We didn’t just hand out flyers. We knew certain places where we could put our flyers - otherwise we are going to be in trouble. So we put it on the hush hush. So we knew who we were handing flyers to, and they knew exactly what they were up against.
D: Gotcha. Do you feel that metal has to be performed in English?
M: Not necessarily. Hopefully we will bring something new to the table.
D: How and to what degree have you incorporated middle eastern traditional music into your songs?
M: More yet to come.
D: How has going from being the only metal band in town to being around many metal bands affected your music?
M: I think that it is bittersweet. We love it. Sometimes we feel jealous, but there is a lot of great bands. We feel like blown away; we feel excited. And it is great; it is an influence. They influence you, you influence them. It’s a great mixing. You put in the blender and you come up with new riffs and stuff like that. Not necessarily stealing but getting influenced by. I think it is a great thing.
D: How much new material have you written since being in the U.S.?
M: Not much. That is the thing - we have 35 songs before. Consider like C-minor and G and whatever - three chords now. The process is more thoughtful. And hopefully we are going to write new stuff in California.
D: Are there artists that you would like to collaborate with?
M: So from the kind of like previous era, Testament, Slayer, Metallica, Sepultura if they ever exist again, or else I should say Cavalera. From the new era, probably Animals as Leaders, Baroness - there is a lot of good bands, you know. That is what comes to my mind.
D: If you were to work with artists completely out of your genre who would you want to work with?
M: I gotta be careful on this one.
D: Careful huh? You could get yourself in trouble with your bandmates?
M: Not bandmates - I would say with people that are going to see this interview.
D: Hey, Slash did an album, and he worked a lot of people out of his genre.
M: I love Pearl Jam. I love Stone Temple Pilots.
D: That is not completely out of your genre.
M: Completely out of my genre . . . Jason Miraz. Who else? The band that I always drum to, a Turkish band called Lacutaifa, they are really great. I am not good enough to play with that band. And jazz, definitely jazz. Any kind of techno, kind of jazzy kind of feel to it, I love it. Jojo Mayer - he does a lot of stuff like you know like that. Jazz techno - I will pick that.
D: If you were to do cover versions of songs that were completely outside of your genre, what would you choose? By this I mean something like Type O Negative’s cover of Cinnamon Girl or Summer Breeze. Something really outside of your genre.
M: I don’t know. We did Lynyrd Skynyrd. Is that completely out of the genre?
M: Maroon five.
D: I have heard of the band, but I don’t know their music.
M: Good for you. Sometimes we goof around. We play disco, we play hip hop, we play punk. But it is within the music’s boundaries.
D: Have you had exposure to Taqwacore?
M: Excuse me?
M: Attack-wa what is it?
D: Maybe I am mispronouncing it?
M: Taqwacore. No.
D: How would you compare the relationship between rock music and political activism in the Middle East today with the relationship between rock music and political activism in the United States in the 1960s?
M: They are pretty much similar. I guess, in a way, we are living it right now. I was thinking the other day, that is why metal is so repressed, because we are so anti.
D: You are what?
M: We are repressed because we are anti-government, anti-politics, anti- like you know, big fat bellies who want to make money and stuff like that. It’s anarchist. They either don’t take it seriously or they say like we’re satantic. Either this or that. We are neither one, you know. We just want to tell you, like, what you are doing is wrong. We are doing it peacefully.
D: In the U.S. we had a rock music scene happening and then protests kind of following a little while after that. If you were comparing the U.S. in the 60s and the Middle East, what year in the U.S. 60s would you say that music is at in the Middle East? The Beatles Era, ‘61, ‘62, ‘63?
M: Yeah, I would say the early 60s actually. I am not really quite sure, because we have the peace activists and stuff like that. It is happening in Turkey right now. That I can tell you, all this hipster and peace stuff, smoking weed all of the time, getting high, and you know, pulling off the broken hopes and dreams - we are not and have never been like that. We are too realistic. We know war exists, war is needed, and weed might get you high . . .
D: And weed might what?
M: Weed might get you high, or anything might get you high, but you will be sober.
D: You might get too high but . . .
M: It might get you high for a while to think that everything might be OK, and what you are doing is right, but you will be sober later, and you will realize that you just wasted more time. So I am not against that;I am not against any of this. I am just saying that we lived it and we have a different perspective. Actually, [in] one of the songs, called The Tyrant’s Philosophy, we mention that. Peace is just a line. Iit is never a good day to die. There is no peace. There is just recesses between each war and another. Because, I mean, if you call peace, peace is very short term. It is long term, actually, but all we got is short term.
D: What would you say are the differences between your generation and your parent’s generation?
M: Huge difference. Huge.
D: What would you say the differences are?
M: The generation before us was more educated. More self aware of its surroundings, more intellectual. They had an access to various stuff, more countries. They had access to a lot of things. I feel sorry for our generation. They didn’t get to experience any of this. I mean a very repressed, a very damaged generation. Definitely my family’s generation was more aware.
D: And how would you say that has affected the lyrics that you write? Does that come out in the music that you are making?
M: It is tough because English is not our native language. First time I got to the states I was twenty-three. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was, like, a man. But I think the main thing is that my family is kind of strict, and my family is very kind-of, like, open-minded. “You should read, read all the time. Read, read, read.” Starting from short stories and comic books, to novels, to dictionaries. That is, like, the last hobby. That helped me. I write all of the lyrics for the band. So that helped me a lot to kind-of express myself. Because I always felt short handed with grammars, and I have never been shy of asking people.
So I was blessed of having really intellectual friends surrounding me, like professors and stuff like that. That I go to and I ask. I show them the lyrics and I will be like “Tell me what you think of this?” So they read it, and regarding the fact that I am from Iraq and I did not write it in my native language, they fix the grammar-like stuff, and they tell me “You are good to go.” Hopefully it is getting better.
D: How is connecting with the audience different in the U.S. than in Iraq?
M: What you give is what you get. So it doesn’t really matter. Except, the Iraq fans; we call them die-hard fans, because they know the fact that they might get bombed or killed or somebody will trail them after they leave the show, and get shot. That is what happened to one of our friends; somebody shot him in the head.
D: Just for going to one of your shows?
M: Just the fact that he was a Metalhead and stuff like that. So I heard. But, on the stage man, it’s a fight. Sometimes I am tired - I am still keeping the rhythm, but I don’t give them one hundred percent. Just kind-of like saving energy. You can see the fans, and they go “unnh.” Sometimes we go nuts on stage, and you can feel that. So, it’s “what you give is what you get.”
D: What are some of the challenges that you face in succeeding in the U.S.
M: Music industry is way downhill now. Some of the headliners out there, just heartbreaking. This is not foreign to us, you need to know that. This is not foreign to us. We have followed the special American music since we were kids, since we were really tiny kids. My dad listened to it, and I listened to it, and my kids will listen to it. We didn’t just come to the States and say “Oh they have this, they have that.” We knew all that.
D: You knew that the music industry was tough and it was . . .
M: No! We didn’t know about the Music Industry, but we know how the music was here. Now we can just shift it. Now it is more about exposure than talent. It became more like a cooperative kind of thing. It became more about who WE want to put, and we will just keep feeding you, brainwashing you, so that you get used to them. So that the day that you don’t see them on T.V., you will miss them. This is not necessarily a good thing, because we are creatures of habit. That is the main thing. So music industry now is heartbreaking. It is so hard for us. We have been on a label for two and a half years, and it took us two and a half years just to get on tour, and we have been internationally promoted already since we were in Iraq. We got lucky with it. We have been blessed with it. We turned our situation from a fucked-up situation to a situation that everybody will go, “Wow!” It was a great twist, a major twist in it.
Still we are facing a hard time, but we are not the only ones. There are a lot of great bands out there that are facing a hard time. It is heartbreaking for me, because I see them, and I am, like, “Dude, you are not on a label yet?” A label is not necessarily a good thing. Label means sometimes the doom of a band.
D: The Kidneythieves put out an album, and they were not on any label.
M: The Kidneythieves - God bless you! I love Kidneythieves. Zerospace, Black Bullet - I love Kidneythieves! That is one of the bands that I actually always put on headphones and played. Then I go to their website - that is it, and they are vanished.
D: They are on Facebook now.
M: I will check that out. Even when they did Queen of the Damned soundtrack, I had it. That was a bootleg CD that I got in Iraq.
D: That is where I discovered them. I was in Baghdad, at the army base and the song Before I’m Dead was on that, and that is how I discovered them.
M: “Moon surrounds me and all I dread, reminds me of what to do before I’m dead.” [He taps out the beat of the song on the table as he speaks]
D: Exactly! It is kind-of a little bit disturbing, but that one shot to being number five on my ipod and it has only been on there about a week. So I was like, “This is psychologically affecting me being in Baghdad.”
M: Wow! I can’t argue with that. I love the band. I think they are a great band, a techno metal kind of thingy they use. I love it. That is one of the main songs on my ipod that I practice on. When there is no band and I fuck around, it is one of them.
D: They have a new album now.
M: Oh really?
D: It is called Tryptofanatic. They now have eight of the top twenty-five songs on my ipod. Six of those songs are from Tryptofanatic. It is really, really good.
M: I have to check them out. Is it the same line-up?
D: Nope. It was just Bruce and Free. Bruce did all of the instruments himself.
M: They are like married or something?
D: I don’t know. I don’t think they are. They dealt with the label issue by going out on their own. They produced their own CD. They are releasing some stuff on iTunes. They kind-of came to the realization that the music industry isn’t the way it was when they were on a label. I think that they are a pretty good example of making it in this day and age without being on a label.
M: That is what happened to us, exactly the same thing. We got off the label. Both of us had a mutual understanding, that it is not working for each one of us. So we did this whole tour ourselves.
D: How do you make ends meet financially and still find time to be a band? You guys got to have day jobs somehow, don’t you?
M: We have night jobs. I wait tables, in Manhattan for two years almost. I quit my job before I come here. We had to do this. I didn’t come all the way from Baghdad to wait tables. Understand, there is nothing wrong with doing a job, but if I had this, that is what I always wanted. Time is not getting any longer, you know. Some of the stuff you do on stage you won’t be able to do pull it off when you are like fifty years or sixty.
D: I am forty-four and I can’t do everything I could do when I was in my twenties. I know how that goes.
M: That is a curse. I believe in the mental status, but this, some of us, we are sore after the show. You burn a lot of calories, and you are tired and hot. There are all of these environmental reasons that you stop from doing it. That is why we called it the “Make It or Break It Tour.” We either make it or we break it, and go wait tables or do whatever the fuck you want. That is why, like, one guy was out - Tony was in Virginia for a year. We were calling each other back and forth.
He was like “Should I come back in the band?” That is the only reason we have the kid, Mohammed, 19 years old. Tony was out, we saw him there, we still wanted to play shows, he was a fan of the band. He was a fanatic of the band!
We were like “All right, we will make your dreams come true - come play with us.” He couldn’t believe it. So we teach him the songs. He start playing the songs - some of the songs he already knew. He start playing them, and then Tony came back. He [Mahommed] had already learned the songs, so just keep him for the tour and stuff like that. It worked out great. Great line-up.
D: How are things going with making friends in the U.S.?
M: Not a problem, whatsoever. We have been blessed with a lot of people that have helped us, and reached out to us. It would not have happened without them. We are a friendly band. We are a super-friendly band. We don’t have this metal kind of gimmick. We are not afraid of saying like this and that, and getting closer to people.
D: Is there an Iraqi ex-pat community in the New York/New Jersey area?
M: Yes. Everywhere. Mostly I see in New York I see Yemenis, but in New Jersey I see a place called Patterson that is full of Arabs and stuff like that. Iraqis will be mainly in California and Michigan, especially Detroit, Michigan.
D: What comforts from home, like food, dvds, newspapers, etc., have you found in the U.S.?
M: In Chicago, where we were playing we found a place called Baghdad - we found a place that sells kabobs, and some of the mainstream food like we have in Baghdad, and the owner was Iraqi, so we were like really happy. The two nights that we spent, we went and ate there. That is the good thing about the states. It is multi-cultural, diverse - that is what I like about it.
D: When you were in New York, were there grocery stores that you could go to and pick up your favorite food, and can Tony get his falafel that he wants there?
M: Yeah, I work in a middle eastern restaurant, so have an access.
D: How would you describe your experiences with peanutbutter, root beer, okra, jalapenos, Barney the Dinosaur, David Letterman, and Jerry Springer?
M: Ha ha! OK. David Letterman, he is always funny on the roasting, because everything they always say is true. Peanutbutter, ewwww. A lot of water, a lot of bananas, a lot of fiber comes after that because I am having a hard time after that. Dissecting, digesting and defecating.
D: How about root beer?
M: I love root beer. Guiness!
D: No, no. Root beer is not liquor. It is a soft drink It is a very American thing. I guess you haven’t tried it. You would know what it was if you had tried it. You guys will have the opportunity to have some okra and jalapenos later if you haven’t had them already.
M: I love okra. Jalapenos, sometimes.
D: I guess I should probably ask Firas about Barney the Dinosaur. I think that he would probably know more about it than you.
M: Oh yeah! Barney the Dinosaur - this is like the educational guy.
M: I never actually watched it, I am more like Muppet Show.
D: I will check with Firas on that one. How long do you think it will be before you are able to go back and visit your family in Iraq?
M: We are hoping. We are waiting. There is no time sheet for that. There is only hope.
D: Is it still not safe for you to be back there?
M: There is still a civil war. Especially now that we have the kind of exposure. It works both ways.
D: Are you still in touch with the metal scene in Iraq?
M: Yeah! They are in touch with us actually. That is funny. Kids in colleges listen to us and stuff, and they think of us as the Metallica of Iraq. It is funny. It is overwhelming seeing those dudes. Someone was telling us that they have all of these rumors about us. Every neighborhood says that they know us, and they are friends with us and stuff like that.
D: Are they going through the same things that you went through? The bands there?
M: Hopefully not. I don’t really have an access, but hopefully not. It was very rough.
D: Are you in touch with any other bands in the Middle East?
M: Middle East. Not necessarily.
D: Have you met any other bands from the Middle East in the U.S.
M: A band that we played with called Althowra - there is, like, two guys that are from the Middle East, but they were born in the States. That is the closest that we got.
D: Who is your fanbase?
M: Intellectuals. People who are interested in the politics in the Middle East. Not your typical metalheads. Which is good and bad. Our fans have day jobs and families and stuff like that. We are hoping that this tour will promote. Because everybody who came to see us came either through the movie or the book, or through the news, or Time Magazine, or the CNN stuff. Through the stuff that had already been previously published about us. I am not saying that I am underrating the metal community. They are very smart and self-aware kind of people, but I am saying that it is not their kind of daily conversation that they want to have. But mainly that is our audience. Still there are some Metalheads, but not like we expect. Hopefully this tour will balance everything. Because we want to keep both.
D: Do the people who come to your shows already know the lyrics to your songs?
M: Some of them, yes. Some of them just heard us and just come to check us out. Hopefully the new one we will keep and the old one we will keep.
D: Is there anything that your fans see as distinctive and unique about Acrassicauda?
M: The ethnic sound. The energy that we give, because we are like jumping on stage and we feel it more. I am not saying that other bands don’t feel it. We are just like “Agrrrgh!” I don’t know if you got that “Agrrrgh.”
D: Have you guys ever played at a university?
M: No. We have been looking forward to it. We have had a couple of offers, but we have never did that. At a meeting for us, we were actually talking about it. That would be a cool thing. We played in a university in Iraq, actually. It didn’t turn out as good as we thought. It was mockery after that.
D: How would you feel about talking to a university class about metal in the Middle East?
D: What would you want to tell them?
M: Whatever they want to know. If they already have questions, we will answer. If they want to talk about something, it is not about preaching. It is more like having a conversation. Definitely if they want to ask something, we will be there.
D: What would you like to communicate to Americans about Iraq that they don’t already know or understand?
M: Don’t trust the news. The news are corporations. They have daily jobs and they get paid. They got bosses, and their bosses got bosses. If their boss is not happy, they are fired. So they have to keep a balance. There is a lot of reporters, a kind of fifty-fifty percent, unfortunately the fifty percent that dominates is the kind that you shouldn’t really trust. There is like the integrity of reporters, and I have been there, and I have seen them work. They work their asses off to be the ears and eyes of the people. Unfortunately, there is some of them who will take whatever and edit it. They will just twist it around, and they will give you whatever they want to give you. It happened to us. In a lot of interviews.
M: It happened in a lot of interviews. We were like, “We didn’t say that! I didn’t mean it that way!” Because they just cut stuff. They didn’t share the whole thing.
Talk to people, don’t be afraid of going out there and saying “hi.” They will say “hi” and talk to you. Because you experience a lot of knowledge.
D: So it sounds like you need to get a friend on Facebook to really find out what is really going in Iraq rather than in trusting the news?
M: Yeah! It could be Facebook; it could be anything. I always believe the analog way is the best way. You go the old-style way and just talk to them. There is a lot of Arabs people down here who have actually left the country recently. There is a lot of intellectual people and a lot of non-intellectuals here too, a combination of both.
D: Now that you are living in the U.S., how do your feelings about the U.S. media’s portrayal of what is happening in Iraq affecte your music?
M: I gotta be kinda diplomatic on this kind of thing. We owe a lot stuff for the news and the press, because it helps us a lot exposing. A lot of stuff they say is probably bullshit. They are pulling fucking shit out of their asses. Just fucking throwing it out there. Some of the stuff is really true. Some of the stuff is manipulated. Be honest.
D: For example, what have you seen that is really upsetting?
M: You gotta understand that we never really watch the news. Whenever I have it, I get frustrated, and I just leave the room. It’s people’s takes on stuff. To be a journalist, you shouldn’t have an opinion. First you need to deliver the story the way it is. Because the story speaks on itself. You are a messenger, just like what we are doing on stage. Don’t give opinions; let people form their own opinions. Don’t go out there and either be cynical or be a smart-ass, or be curving to that side rather than to that side. I am not nationalistic that much. Stuff bothers me even like the local news here. Here like in the States. Because I live in this country now.
D: I take it that you can’t stand watching a full episode of Jerry Springer then?
M: No. What is that dude that I like? What is his name? He makes fun of Fox News.
D: John Stewart?
M: John Stewart. He is funny; he is a smart ass. I think he is entertaining.
D: He is a comedian.
M: Yea. He is a comedian, but I am not really interested. If the shit hits the fan, it hits the fan. You will just make us panic more, more stressed, and make blood pressure go higher. What do I want to do? I will do my thing and be nice to the people, and hopefully, the people will be nice to me. As always, I believe in karma and stuff like that. “What goes around, comes around.” That is my shit. That is my motto in life. I don’t need the news to tell me what to do. We got a brain for our own. Fire bad, this guy no good, that guy good, this business bad investment, good investment, stuff like that, you know. We will learn it, because it is funny - five or ten years out of this life, that is what we get out of this life. The rest we are on autopilot, and we listen to whatever people tell us.
D: So are you saying that for five or ten years of your life you are basically dealing with shit, and after that you don’t . . .
M: Not necessarily dealing with shit. That is your learning process.
D: People are open to learning new things for five or ten years. Then after that they are on autopilot.
M: Then they are just, “Ok. The news said that, it must be right. Oh, he said that. He gave me an opinion at a conference on that.” Look it up; don’t just one source. Go search it. La la la la la. You got internet access. You got everything. I don’t know, back in the days, 90s, 80s, you didn’t have what you have now. Now we have the whole world in an iPhone. That is more and more intellectual stuff, I guess. I don’t know man. I am a drummer - what do I know? I am always pissed at the world.
D: This has been really helpful. What got my attention about you guys was after I was in Baghdad - I was leaving there and we got shot at. When I got to Dubai, I was watching Al Jazeera, and I saw some of the protests in Iran. When I saw that, I was really shocked, and I thought, “Don’t they have a music scene?” We had one in the 60s in the U.S. So I typed in “Heavy Metal and Iran,” and it threw up a bunch of things, including Heavy Metal in Baghdad. I thought, “What is this?” So I looked and saw that it was a movie. When I got back to the U.S., I watched the movie. It really fascinated me. When I saw some of the interviews and the kinds of things that you were talking about, in some of the conversation, I thought “I can see songs here.”
When Firas was talking about how “Under Saddam we had one thief now we don’t know what the situation is. Now we have a saying we went from Ali Baba to the forty thieves.” It went on into a lot of other conversations. There was a lot of sectarian violence. “We could get killed just walking to see our friends.” I was just thinking about this, it strikes a chord. For me, my dad is from Northern Ireland, and when I heard about the song Sunday Bloody Sunday, it kind of struck a nerve. I thought “These guys are the real deal,” and I got very interested in finding out more about you guys. I am very excited to get the chance to meet you.
M: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
D: It is great that you were able to take the time out to go over my long list of questions.
M: Not at all. Good questions.
B: But he didn’t ask the one question that I asked him to ask.
D: Uh oh. What did I forget?
B: Why the hell did you come up with a name for the band that is so hard to pronounce?
D: Ha ha ha. You didn’t tell me that one!
M: Ha ha. We got it out of a book. We were never interested in naming the band. We could have called it Acrassicauda, or Sparky, or Pearl, for all I care. I care about the content of the band. Then Firas one day was like, “Hey I was looking up this name one day, in my dad’s book,” and his dad is a veterinarian, “and it says, A-crass-i-cauda. It was cool because it starts with an ‘A’ and ends with an ‘A.’” I remember, we were walking down the street and we just had got sandwiches. That was like eleven years ago. We were, like, crossing the street, and he was like, “What do you think?”
We were like “Meh.” We kept walking. And when came the first show, it was time to put a flyer. We were like, “OK, just type in this name, and we will change it later.” But it stayed. Doesn’t really matter to us. It is a name, man. It is a name. For me, it is like spelling Mississippi backwards. Especially when you are doing the signing.
B: It is really tough for me. I have a hard enough time with my own name. Much less . . .
M: Ha ha. Then you got the band members’ names.
D: I am very much looking forward to seeing you play tonight. Thank you for taking the time.
M: Thanks for the care box. Thanks much for the care package. It means a lot to us.
D: You are welcome.
M: Great conversation!