Symren Gharial, formerly of Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and Piano Wire is set to unveil his latest project, the dark industrial, bass heavy pop of Primitive Ignorant with the release of a deeply personal new album of collaborations featuring a host of Joyzine favourites including Le Junk, Daisy Coburn (Clever Thing), Joe Talbot of IDLES and Mick Jones of The Clash. John Clay caught up with Sym to find out more.
‘The words, and the fact that he’s saying them, make me feel genuinely emotional when I listen back to it. It’s very powerful for me…stirring.’ – Symren Gharial discussing IDLES vocalist, Joe Talbot’s collaboration on the album.
Hey there Sym. Thanks for granting me this interview time regarding your new album. One of the standout tracks features indie legend Daisy Coburn. Tell us about the shared vision you had for her voice in track ‘Beautiful Scum’?
It’s about the search for identity in a British right wing society. The sad desperation of wanting to be anything but yourself. Bleaching my skin to integrate. Joining gangs and wanting to be accepted. Self harm. Addiction. The doomed existence of a pleasure seeker. The fight against racism is a war against ignorance and unabashed brutality…
Why choose Daisy specifically for this track? What quality would you say her presence brings to the music/project?
She’s immeasurably authentic and utterly unique. The idea is for music and art to obliterate the standard and she’s the voice of a generation and a cultural phenomenon.
That’s a bold statement. Would you say the idea behind your project is to obliterate the standard and has it always been thus?
With such inflammatory world leaders, the surge in right wing support, the significance of the devastating murder of George Floyd, police brutality, a broken Britain after Brexit and covid, the disdain shown towards refugees and immigrants, gang violence, war and famine it’s vital and seriously so, that music is used as a portal to freedom and equality. There is so much power in music, we don’t even know it. A song or even a few words can change someone’s life if it’s grounded in the truth and an authentic belief in something better.
Your latest material is overtly political. Do you feel the London Underground community’s leading blogs could celebrate bands of colour more?
Absolutely. However, I know you and those you work with are doing a lot of work to increase coverage and challenge the convention John, so a lot of people appreciate that a lot. Thank you. What astonishes me is that I’ve only ever met three people of colour who work in the music industry. That is unbelievable. That has to change! But that change needs to happen in all areas of society too, in order to create equality and harmony.
Depends what you mean by work. There are a few out there, especially on the festival circuit that ought to get high praise. It’s amazing how such festivals such as Decolonise Fest don’t feature as much in our community’s collective awareness. Do you think that will change and are you ready for brands that will seek to use you as a tokenistic offering?
Music is so powerful because it generates hope and hope can manifest change. Change is always possible. We have to believe. Tokenism is a sickness. A disease created by capitalism and the greed and superficiality of our society. An inability to exude a comprehensive truth or wish to drive authentic change. That’s why artists have such a huge responsibility now. You can’t fuck about with your music. We need to use the songs to drive society. The politicians aren’t gonna do it.
On the topic of societal change, your album has a number of different vocalists and thus the potential to access more than a few bubbles of people. What was the thought process behind choosing many vocal identities and not just the one?
The record narrates the search for identity and the struggle against racism and self loathing that compels the adoption of a million personalities across parallel lives. It’s beautiful, unique and riveting to hear them sing such intimate details about my life and struggle. Some of them may have experienced similar things but the lyrics really drill deep into my past and expose my most private sufferings and fears. I’m proud that I shared my experience with them. It really makes me emotional.
Can you give a brief example of a private suffering vocalised on the record, perhaps citing the lyric that pertains to it?
Trying to bleach my skin is discussed in “Losing this skin” in ‘Beautiful Scum’. Also “If I cut my hair will I be like them?” in ‘Worship Art’ which talks about me cutting my hair and ceasing to wear a turban in order to feel accepted by British society. The struggle for identity and peace in Britain came at an extraordinarily high price for me. I’ve sacrificed everything.
Did you face resistance or – perhaps worse – apathy from family on these transgressions?
I think maybe some of my extended family were disappointed and my dad was definitely a bit sad. But they saw how much I was suffering so I think they understood. My parents have always been very liberal. It wasn’t the act of cutting my hair that was deemed so bad but the extreme behaviour and ensuing chaos that devastated the family and isolated me even more. I was only ever looking to feel part of something but I ended up doing more damage. The plan failed.
Arguably you came out of the chaos choosing your culture rather than simply accepting it as per expectancy. Do you detail such domestic friction, or will you do so on future records?
I think the pain and the suffering and the victory is oozing out of the pores of the lyrics. However when discussing deeply sensitive and potentially divisive issues it’s important not to bring too many other people in. I don’t want to hurt them anymore.
Your stance is understandable. Are there some lyrics that are perhaps tough to examine but nonetheless better out than in, and if so, which ones?
I think the whole idea of being that ashamed of who you are is heavy and there are certain aspects of drug taking that followed that self loathing I was nervous to relate. Bleaching my skin is crude. Harsh. Dark. I wanted to talk about self harm to try and bring more understanding to it. It manifests in so many ways. I wanted the record to embody the truth because the truth creates freedom. Shared experience creates freedom. It’s where the power is. This is not about being a victim.
Can you give an example of words that perhaps offered comfort in getting out, but paradoxically and perhaps unconsciously you wrote without having the burden of singing yourself?
I think there’s comfort in utter collapse at depth. Freedom in absolute deflation and degradation. I like “19 lives in vain” in ‘Worship Art’. It delivers peace and humour to the idea of deemed failure. Nothing is ever a failure, that’s the point I think. There are moments of pure innocence in the darkness too. When you are a kid you’ve got no experience to draw on. That’s the adventure of an unbounded, free minstrel unleashed from morality. So I like “They were young and almost free” in ‘Dress Like Me’. I think it lets me off the hook. But the whole record was immensely comforting. I think I may have died had I not made it.
Thank you for your candid response. You speak of a similar no holds barred conversation you had with IDLES frontman Joe Talbot in regards to his vocal contribution. Care to tell us more of that two hour phone call?
Those two IDLES records blew the door off the hinges. Got everyone to wake the fuck up. The new stuff is brilliant too. I can’t wait for the record. They’re a formidable band in so many ways. Joe Talbot is a very special frontman, lyricist and human. I felt really comfortable talking with him about anything really and it was beautiful to chat to him about life, being in a band, music. I think he’s revolutionised what it is to be a great frontman.
High praise there. How did your conversation with him impact his vocal contribution to Sikh Punk?
I think it’s beautiful the way he delivers it. There’s a magic to it because it’s so emphatically unique. The words, and the fact that he’s saying them, make me feel genuinely emotional when I listen back to it. It’s very powerful for me… stirring. There’s a feeling of melancholy and regret superseded by courage, truth, renaissance and victory.
… And the piece itself? Why use that poem in particular with Joe’s voice and your sounds?
I’ve taken the “two outcast men” idea from the poem and reinterpreted it to refer to both the young me that was outcast because of the colour of my skin and also the person that I created to cope with being that young outcast through drugs and harrowing deception. We were both outcasts in the end. We meet each other in the album. it’s a beautiful moment because we were both terribly lonely and scared.
And how did you choose the sounds to run beneath the poem? Is there a particular essence in Joe’s voice that served your prerogative?
Jon Natchez from War on Drugs is playing some Jerry Dammers style sax to give it that Sandinista vibe. It’s set in a parallel universe really. The 11th dimension. But it’s littered with sounds from Portobello market to bring you back to West London. The scene of the devastation and the renaissance. Joe Talbot is the most important voice of our generation and it’s that, coupled with sensitivity and a melancholia, that strikes only with the wisdom of a known too well shudder of experience that makes his vocal eternally gripping for me. There’s layers of aesthetic to it.
Some big accolades handed out there, and I’m thankful for your consideration of the questions. Thanks again for your time.
It’s always so wonderful to talk to you John… thank you so much!
Sikh Punk is released on 23rd October via Something In Contruction on red vinyl, with a limited edition version featuring photography by Steve Gullick also available. Pre-order your record here.
Interview by John Clay
Photography by Steve Gullick