Culture & Medium: Joel St. Julien and Sepehr
Talking independence, indifference and muse in the context of music and beyond with two uniquely talented artists.
It’s always fascinating to observe the creative process and inspiration behind musicians and producers from differing backgrounds.
This year has seen prominent contributions from both Joel St. Julien and Sepehr – they’ve each released material over the past twelve months which has acted as a unique representation and reflection of their own creative influences and recent experiences.
Joel St. Julien’s album “Empathy” was critically acclaimed whilst Sepehr ventured into new and uncharted territory with the release of a mini album on his own record label, Shaytoon Records. Independence, ownership and creative freedom is of importance to both artists and in this conversation the pair reflect on the value of such ideals.
Tell me about what you’ve been up to musically?
“Currently, I’m getting ready to release my album and performed with an ensemble of electronic musicians and dancers on this project called Radius. It was fantastic – we all improvised to a very loose score and it fell into place really well. Playing with actual musicians for the first time in over 18 months was a huge high. I also started grad school at Columbia University in their School of Social Work and that is taking almost all of my time. With that said, I have a documentary that I’m wrapping up the score for. If I can actually get those done – I’m gonna concentrate on school, work, and family until the semester is over. I’ll be itching to work on a more beat-centric project I started this summer over my break!”
Film composing is something I’ve always dreamt of doing/breaking into – how did you get into film composing?
“Film composing is one thing I do but I compose for a lot of different mediums. I honestly started helping a friend with his passion projects. Then someone would ask me to score their documentary…and then another commission would come. It’s been fairly organic as I can only take on so many projects because I’m working a full-time job, an amazing wife and kids, etc. I do a mix of film, podcasts (full scores and themes), music for dance companies, and every now and then an interesting sound design gig. Honestly, I’ve kept my options open to whatever I have time for. I’ve been blessed to have surrounded myself with a lot of creative people in many different artistic disciplines and music is always needed!”
How do you feel about the current state of the electronic/dance music “industry”?
“I am a homebody and haven’t really been out in the club scene at all so I can only speak from my industry experience which is more in the ambient electronic scene. I’m excited for all the Black folks doing stuff – there are people who I look up to who are doing amazing work: folks like Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Colloboh, Moormother – folks that are doing their thing and pushing it. I’m excited about influencers like Make Techno Black Again and the Black Artist Database who are uplifting Black voices in the industry to promote more visibility and call out some of the archaic “norms” of the industry.”
How does social media affect artistry in your opinion?
“This is a great question. At this point, I’ve stopped using my Facebook page completely and use Twitter sparingly. Im really into Instagram because it’s given me a way to put out random ideas and sketches and people actually respond to them. I’ve found that exciting to push myself to make visuals to accompany my sketches and test which ones get the most feedback. Every now and then I’ll find some cool people who just love music and create some nice connections with them. With that said, at my worst, Instagram can be a drag because sometimes it feels like there is this unsaid pressure to put out “content” or you will be forgotten…then I have to remind myself that I don’t make content – I’m an artist and at my best that’s how I interact with that platform. I also really suck at networking in general so there you have it.”
Lately, I feel that we have slowed down culturally in terms of innovation in music, do you agree or disagree, and why?
“I think I’m indifferent. I’m never really expecting any innovation from mainstream music as it’s entertainment. I’m also really faithful to music that I like and can sometimes bury my head in the sand. With that said, I’m more concerned with authenticity than innovation. There are musicians in every genre who are putting out honest authentic music that moves and challenges me. But yes so much of it is garbage that you have to sift through – there is so much good music out there though.”
Have you felt motivation throughout the pandemic to be an artist/creator? How do you think we, as artists, will evolve post-pandemic?
“Music has been my saviour over the pandemic. If I didn’t throw myself into it as I have been, I would be in a much different place. I learned to stop listening to my inner critic and just wrote music to process everything I experienced. I released 3 EPs on Bandcamp and released a full-length in October. I also dove into modular synthesis which was awesome. Now with all that said, this was how I coped – I have friends who did nothing. I think that’s ok too. We have been living through an unbelievably traumatic time and there are seasons for everything. As artists, we are flexible and nimble. I’ve seen so much amazing community built out of this through livestreams. We make do with what we have. It’s not a permanent fix though – we have to be able to connect with each other in person.”
“I think I’m indifferent. I’m never really expecting any innovation from mainstream music as it’s entertainment. I’m also really faithful to music that I like and can sometimes bury my head in the sand. With that said, I’m more concerned with authenticity than innovation.”
You recently released an album – can you tell me about it?
“This record is a special one to me, in that it’s my first release that I completely did everything for artistically. The music, the artwork, the printing, etc. Releasing a drum n bass record for the first time also. The themes of the album just have to do with utilising music as an actual tool to give your life purpose and meaning, using that to keep you afloat forever.”
What caused you to start your own label?
“Two main things:
1) I felt pretty boxed in artistically with my opportunities for releasing on other labels. Dark Entries (Josh Cheon) was great to work with because he gives loads of creative control, but besides that I felt other opportunities didn’t give me as much artistic breathing room, so I needed to create an outlet. Also, I have hundreds of unreleased tracks that are sitting on my hard drive and need to get out.
2) I wanted to create a label that could grow into something that sheds light on the Iranian / Middle Eastern diaspora making underground music, hopefully eventually turning into an agency as well.”
How does have the experience of being part of two distinct cultures influence your music?
“I think I didn’t really explore the Iranian side of my heritage through music until just recently, which is actually a reflection of me letting go of loads of colonialist subconscious thoughts that I have had since I was a teen. So before that, I think just having subconscious influence of the Iranian music I grew up listening to, which is super psychedelic in nature, affected the arc of my music. Now, I am making a point to dig and find artefacts of Iranian music that I can repurpose and sort of reclaim that sound for myself with a fresh perspective. Obviously the American side that I grew up in musically is the bigger majority of my sound, but i’m excited to meld both my identities and hopefully create something unique, beautiful and seamless from it.”
Why do you do what you do? What motivates your art?
“Hmm. This is a tough one, I often ask myself this question. Like any artistic expression, it comes in phases and is determined by what my brain and soul are experiencing in the moment. In general, creating music is the thing that has grounded me the most throughout my life, guided me through trauma, and given me a sense of purpose. Other times, I feel disconnected from it, as if we are going through a break up. It is such a driving force for me though, that it permeates throughout my life even if I didn’t want it to. The weight of the human condition in general I think is a prime motivator for my art, because the art helps me navigate through it. The art helps me to create a dialogue between me and my existence.”