Youssef Abouzeid takes his PanSTARRS project on the road
By Angie Balata
On a late-night excursion into one of Cairo’s posher suburbs over a year ago, I met Youssef Abouzeid for what was supposed to be a quick interview. I’d known Abouzeid from his other, more popular project El Manzouma, tripping onto his bedroom project PanSTARRS quite coincidentally, as is always the case with good music in Egypt. Much like his personality, his music and his relationship with it is not so straightforward — by the end of what became a four-hour chat, which covered music, life and much of the gray in-between, I walked away feeling less on solid ground about my ideas about music than when we had started.
A year later, Abouzeid, his music and PanSTARRS have evolved dramatically. What started with ethereal creations on his guitar and keyboard alone in the bedroom has become a full-fledged band with regular gigs around Cairo and a third new album in the works.
Now 24, Abouzeid started experimenting with art and music in his late teens, when relying mostly on YouTube, he learned the basics of the guitar. In the summer of 2011, as the country ran into the path of turmoil, he focused on developing his music.
“In August 2011 till very recently was the rock bottom period in my life…and music was my only outlet. I spent a lot of time inside my head, creating music,” he explained in our September 2013 interview. “This came at an important point in my life because I was frustrated and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. During this period, I spent a lot of time just figuring myself out. And living on the edge really forces you to get to places in your head and to learn about yourself. There are a lot of people living today who don’t spend time with themselves or try to understand themselves, but this period was great in helping figure out who I am and what I want to do. And I really knew want I wanted at the end of it.”
During this time, Abouzeid got himself a keyboard and started writing music. “This was the greatest time I played music. […] I also realized that I didn’t have to play guitar for the sake of playing the guitar well. I mean I got the guitar at 19 and during this time I began to realize that I didn’t need to play like everyone else or like how it should be[played], but rather the kind of music that Youssef Abouzeid should be playing for himself. I knew what I wanted from the guitar and this is the part of the punk that is in my music.”
Abou Zeid is, at first glance, a child of benefit — an upper-class kid with lots of opportunity and the freedom from the daily worries of pensions and bread. In reality, he hates the idea of money, and while he accepts its necessity in our current daily lives, the idea of making art for money is just another step in the cycle of commodification. Music is art and art is about pleasure, so what kind of price tag can you put on this?
The musician is easily liked but not so easy to get to know and difficult to understand. He is a mixture of particular, incredibly critical and intelligent and is known to throw reality back in your face without a care—a seemingly acidic combination that can be mistaken for snobbery. But, as we move through the topics that come up in our conversation that night, from music to Nietzche to God, his relaxed smile belies a very complicated personality. An adamant supporter of his own individuality and his right to be, whatever it may mean at that moment, Abouzeid, beneath the many layers, is really just a laid-back guy who prefers to not waste time with the nonsense.
His intricate personality combined with his rapid progression from guitar, to guitar and effects, to song writing and music production landed Abouzeid on a very exclusive list of talented musicians and led to the release of two albums — making him and his bedroom project PanSTARRS, now a fully-formed band a much-talked-of affair in Cairo’s very small, nascent indie scene.
PanSTARRS was named after the non-periodic comet of the same name that becomes visible to the naked eye when it is at a point of orbit closest to the sun — an occurrence that takes place every 200 years or so. While one would expect there to be a story behind the name, in reality, Abouzeid says he simply thought the name was interesting.
The music sits comfortably in the indie rock genre and is often described as dream pop or shoegaze music because of the guitar effects, the distortions, melodies present under the layers of vague-sounding guitars and subdued vocals that are mostly inaudible. It is the audio equivalent of looking at abstract art, where the emphasis is not on the clarity of form to reach understanding, but rather on the fluidness of structure forcing you to leave the need to understand behind.
For Abouzeid, PanSTARRS is very much about his subjective self and his own personal connection with the music — an outlet to express himself and to channel the thoughts and ideas in his own head. On his Behance site, he explained, “It began off the incompetence of putting the why of reality into words, every word is a pale imitation, a mere ripple in the vast ocean of being. The aesthetics of PanSTARRS offered much freedom and allowance, that merely existed in nowhere. It sounds how it sounds.”
The first PanSTARRS EP Nothingness was a culmination of everything he had been going through during the period in which he was discovering his own head and the music. The overall sound of the album is dreamlike and melancholic, and its four tracks are simple in their sound and vague in their lyrics. Allowing for very little certainty, Abouzeid forces you to make your own decisions and arrive at your own conclusions. It feels as if he’s telling the listener that music, at least his music, is more about your personal connection with it and where you want to go with it, rather than some clear rendition of a life you’re supposed to have.
While the album received little attention at the time, it was for Abouzeid a turning point because it led him to meeting other people and, as he describes it, “becoming another person.” His second EP Yestoday is the product of a collaborative process with his cousin Nader Ahmed (from the electronic duo Vent) recording and mixing the album, and Zuli (from the trip-hop duo Quit Together) mastering it. This eight-track album takes a much more philosophical approach lyrically and combines it with a sound that is on the one hand more aggressive and on the other hand more defined than Nothingness.
Both albums reflect Abouzeid’s metaphysical search beyond the confines of time and rules. Much of his work questions the things we hold as true, and Abouzeid himself does not believe there is anything true in the absolute. He would rather live in the abstract, not defining things — having the listeners come up with their own ideas about this music.
“I like to play music by myself, there is no one I really want to play with and no one I really want to be like,” he explained in 2013. “Any music I can’t relate to I reject. I like anything real, anything that sounds real. The truthfulness of music is very subjective. Anything that allows me to perceive my own ideas, I like. I like music that is loud, that is vague, because it allows me to imagine it in the way I want.”
In “Fools (Down),” off the Yestoday album, Abouzeid says, “ I talk and I find a friend in myself, try to do the same.” His message is always about taking that leap inside of yourself to discover who you are and what you want. Musically, he recognizes that the end goal is not fame or money. The world, he insists, doesn’t want this; it wants us to be the change both in ourselves and in the world around us.
More than a year after that night of conversation and debate, PanSTARRS has moved from the bedroom onto the stage and expanded to include a drummer and a bassist — the added layers making the experience a lot more interesting. In December 2014, Abouzeid and I talk again about the changes in PanSTARRS sound and line up.
In the last year, the band has gone through three stages, each leaving a new imprint on its approach and sound. Abouzeid explains that at the beginning, the sound was simple, melancholic and minimal.
But, the sound changed when he was joined by Hazem El Shamy and Karim El Ghazouli on drums and Ismail Arafa on bass guitar, and they started playing live sets. He discovered that the upbeat compositions were more fun to play and more audience engaging.
Abouzeid credits the dramatic change in the mood of PanSTARRS’ music to critically reassessing the direction of the first two albums and having greater input from other musicians in the band. He says he realized the melancholic sound produced an effect through its delays that was akin to thinking about something for a long time and then regretting it. It wasn’t a feeling he wanted to continue walking away with from the music.
At the same time, the overall music-making process became more collaborative. While Abouzeid remains the source of the ideas, the song writing has been infused with different ideas and influences. “After playing the Cloud9 Festival, we’ve moved to a tighter and more structured sound,” he explains, “as opposed to what we were doing before, which was more flexible and more experimental.” This change he credits to Yestoday’s producer Nader Ahmed, who as a band member for a brief period helped make the output more technically organized and professional, rather than the fluid lines Abouzeid had been leaning towards.
Another significant change is Abou-zeid’s experimentation with Arabic lyrics. With only one previous track in Arabic, it’s hard to predict if this move will hurt the project’s direction. For now, the few tracks out in Arabic seem to be getting lots of attention.
In general, however, Abouzeid’s approach to lyrics has been that the vocals are not meant to be the main character; rather, he prefers the vocals be subdued and interwoven within the melodies. Lyrics are like the other instruments, sometimes they are broken, scratched or clear, but they all fit into a scheme of organized chaos.
PanSTARRS is gaining more and more listeners with each album and each show, and the group is working on a new album, which will have 10-12 new tracks and is due out by late spring. Even still, it remains within the indie rock niche. While many musician would be disheartened by this, Abouzeid is unaffected by it. PanSTARRS is his baby and he won’t compromise on the music — even if it means not reaching a wider sector of audience. He is resigned to the fact that most Egyptians won’t get it, so, for him the music is as much about his enjoyment and his creativity as anything else.
In any case, Abouzeid’s head is elsewhere. With changes to the band’s lineup due to study, work and army duties, the music is bound to take another turn in the near future. The lack of consistent musicians usually ends projects and bands, but for Abouzeid each change is another phase of development. His music, he says, is like having a child: With each phase it develops and matures and becomes something new and interesting.