Marrying rock and world music can be a fashionable thing, but not as easy as it might seem: the fusion must not lose any of the two elements yet make a whole of them. That’s why there’s only few artists who managed to take the prize – and to copy them not is another challenge. American band JANAH rise up to the both occasions, making a buzz for a couple of years now, when they release their second outing, “Swan In The Monsoon“. It’s about time, then, to cue in what’s happening, and the group’s singer Keith Johnston lends a hand to step into the JANAH’s world of music.
– How would you weigh your music against old Kipling’s maxim, “the twain shall never meet”?
In 2004 East and West are colliding all around us. Are we diluting each other’s cultures? Certainly, but there can be some positive side effects. You may have noticed some of JANAH’s lyrics are in different languages, but some are simply combinations of syllables and sounds, communicating what the writer feels. These sounds are foreign to everyone, not just people who speak English. There will always be a mystery about other cultures no matter how much we learn about each other and assimilate into each other’s worlds. As long as we respect that mystery and uniqueness of other cultures it’s okay to borrow from them.
– What does it take from the point of musicianship to embrace the tunes quite removed from the Western canons?
We have definitely had to expand our musical horizons to play this music. The Sitar is a difficult instrument to play, as are Tabla, Mizmar and Sarangi. But we are not traditionalists in the world music sense. We are all Americans who played in American rock bands for many years before creating Janah. You cannot escape your musical upbringing. It’s like trying to teach yourself to lose your Southern accent. You may fool most of the people most of the time but every now and then it just comes out. You learn these instruments the best you can. But with the technical limitations you have to be creative to accomplish your goal, which is to contribute something meaningful to the song. Combine those limitations with the creativity and whatever influences are lurking deep within in you and something special happens.
– Is it hard to play such incandescent music in studio surroundings?
Actually, the studio is in many ways our preferred medium. And we go out of our way to create a pleasant environment in which to work. I would assume a novelist would enjoy the process of writing and perfecting his story to reading the finished product aloud. Performing live is very exciting but that is an interpretation of what we created in the studio. There are five of us on stage playing our instruments. In the studio the five of us can play many instruments creating sounds that cannot be created with one person on one instrument. The first album was created almost entirely in the studio. Then as we began touring we had to learn how to translate that sound to the stage. We enjoy the production aspect of recording and view it as a creative process equal to the actual musical performance.
– There are some exclusions amidst the prevailing Middle Eastern motifs – like amazing Spanish ballad “Luna De La Tierra” and Balkan “Leavened Heart”, both on your first album. Why there was no development of those themes on the second one?
As I said before. the first album was created almost entirely in the studio. The new album was recorded after a few years of touring. I think that touring changes a band in many ways, the way you write, the way you play, etcetera. And you see what the audience responds to. Which is not to say the audience doesn’t respond to the songs you mentioned. “Leavened Heart” is probably our most well known song and people seem to love “Luna”. “Swan In The Monsoon” is more a reflection of what we developed over the years on stage. It has a more “water” sort of sound, whereas “World That Surrounds You” was more of a “sand” album.
As far as revisiting some of the themes from the first album, there was no conscious effort to include or exclude any sonic landscapes previously explored. We are proud of “Dragonfly” which reflects an Asian feel and “The Rock With Wings” for the Native American atmosphere. None of these influences are apparent on “World”. So as we were creating the new album, there were new sounds and ideas that we wanted to capture. Once we got a feel of what the album was developing into. we used the songs that we believed created a snapshot of what JANAH wanted to communicate.
– What determined this ZEPPELIN-esque ring of the “Swan In The Monsoon” album?
The term “Zeppelin-esque” has been used to describe JANAH by many people since the first album. What an awesome and undeserved compliment! And there is no denying that “Tomorrow Keeps Us Happy” certainly has a ZEPPELIN tone.
None of the band members ever played in a ZEPPELIN tribute band or studied them extensively. Like most musicians, we respect and appreciate their incredible contribution to music. Perhaps there is a subconscious influence at work here throughout the band. As long as people are using the term “Zeppelin-esque” and not “Zeppelin-ripoff”, we’ll be happy!
– The title of the new album somehow corresponds with CAMEL’s imagery, while camel does correspond with JANAH’s Eastern flavor. A coincidence?
Purely unintentional. While working on “Swan”, we tried putting up a pad on the wall at the studio for all of us to list potential album titles. After the first few months it became apparent that musicians with too much time on their hands come up with some very funny yet disturbing ideas, most of which cannot be printed. We eventually took the list down for fear of offending any visitors.
On “World That Surrounds You” we did not choose the album title until the album was almost completed. This has become and will probably remain our method of creating album titles. “Swan In The Monsoon”, both the album and the song, are about the struggle of life: something beautiful being tossed about in the throes of the storm.