Interview with Mehdi Safa (*shels)

Shells Mehdi

*shels are going to release their much anticipated second album Plains of the Purple Buffalo soon and Love-It-Loud were lucky enough to grab an interview with vocalist and song writer Mehdi Safa.

Fans are expecting big things from Plains of the Purple Buffalo after their brilliant debut Sea of the Dying Dhow exceeded all expectations. Mehdi and Tom met whilst in their previous band Mahumodo and when Mahumodo split up they went on to form *shels.

Thanks Mehdi for taking the time to talk to Love-It-Loud. How exactly did you get into the business of making music and who would you say are your main influences?

Oh wow… big question… I’ll try not to dribble on here.. but no promises.. you asked for it! I started very young… first song I learned to sing along to was the Gambler by Kenny Rodgers.. still love that tuune! I think I was 2 or something… I got my first toy keyboard when I was 4 and figured out how to play my fav TV show theme tunes… one of my fav’s was a western called “Paradise”… I loved it! had a HUGE crush Jenny Beck, who played Claire in the show.. here’s a clip of the theme tune – after a that I had recorder lessons, which I eventually hated coz I sucked at it… then teh flute coz I thought it looked cool.. and I sucked even more on that… and when I moved to England age 10 I heard Baker Street and just had to learn to play that Sax lead line… the first thing I wrote was when I was 10 at school in a music class project… we had to create a band and write a song… I called it Deserted.. and the song was the same name… pretty deep eh? The prize for coming first in class was getting it recorded on a 4 track! wish I had the tape of it! I had lessons for a few years on sax and eventually hated my teacher so much I had to quit… plus, cleaning out a sax is pretty disgusting with all the saliva that gets in there… nasty!

When I turned 13 I bought my first guitar from loot magazine (like Craigslist).. it was a black Washburn and came with an amp… for some reason I thought only black guitars sounded heavy… This time I made it a point to learn it myself… I was worried that a teacher would just ruin it for me.. to this day I’ve never had a single lesson, and to this day it’s still fresh to me.. and I love playing.. I got really into Guns N’ Roses and Metallica and started writing some songs… my friend Richard (ex Mahumodo guitarist and currently plays guitars for Devil Sold His Soul) was really good on guitar.. he could play the lead parts to the Metallica songs.. so he’d come over and we’d jam… I’d play the chords and easier parts.. and he’d do the solos and difficult bits… I was hooked! I bought a 4 track recorder when i was 13 and we started recording covers of One, or Fade to Black… in my bedroom… haha.. it was fun times…. recording cover songs was good practice.

But I was eager to write and record some of my own music.. and by the time I was 14 I was looking to form a band and start playing live… I started playing with a few friends form school who kinda had a band together.. and we mostly played Silver Chair/Nirvana/Offspring covers… it was called Airflow and we sucked so hard! it seemed more about looking cool than the music.. ha ha… and after hearing a few recordings of our jams I decided to leave it and do my own thing… Rick was the first person i talked to about it.. and he agreed.. and I got a long with the drummer from Airflow… Leon Neufville.. and once we had a bassist (James Day) we started practicing and those were the first days of Mahumodo…. the band was called Bruise First.. we needed a name because a friend of mine got us a gig at his school talent contest… it was Chilli Night at the American School in Cobam ha ha.. one funny night! we recorded our first 4 tracks as Mahumodo in 1996, I think…. but we never released it… had no clue how to! After that.. we recorded a pretty ambitious album called Born… which was full of melodies and parts that eventually went into the first official Mahumodo release entitled Shels, I was heavily influenced by Will Haven at the time.. they were, and still are one of my fav bands ever.

I better stop now.. otherwise this will go on forever… but.. to cut a long story short… it took a long time to get our shit sounding good.. no one really knows about the first EP we recorded or the album… they were good experience, warm up for us to start making some serious noises… the Shels EP happened when I was at University.. during my first year… for me the focus at the time was to try and combine the most heavy sound possible (and to me it was bands like Knuckle Dust, Stamping Ground, Vision of Disorder, Deftones, Sepultura, Metallica and Will Haven (at the top of the list)… with beautiful delicate melodies… film scores and the Smashing Pumpkins were a big influence in my teens… and then later on bands like The Bad Plus, A Silver Mount Zion, Godspeed, Elliot Smith, folk music… and more film scores…. mostly I listen to a lot of music from movies… James Horner, Zimmer, Williams and so many many more.

I discovered *shels, then found out that you both used to be in Mahumodo. Why did the band last such a short time and release EPs but no full album?

Well, like I said above… people started hearing about mahumodo a few years after we had been busy getting our shit together… we were a bunch of kids learning to be a proper band and by the time we released our first EP (Shels) in 1999… people were taking us seriously… nu/rap metal was the big thing at the time…. Korn were huge, Limp Bizkit, Coal Chamber and pretty much all the bands in the UK were emulating those bands, except for a handful, like Johnny Truant, Kneejerk and Abjure (later became Palehorse) and a handful of others… and what we were doing was more instrumental and more Minimalistic.. fewer vocals.. more about epics passages of music… with lots of melody and emotion and dynamics… I had always been heavily influenced by movies and film scores and The Thin Red Line had just come out.. and the score to that movie, along with Will Haven‘s El Diablo… were extremely influential on my song writing.

I felt it was important to release something every year… so, every summer we’d record all the new tracks that had been written… in 1999 it was the Shels EP, 2001 it was Bythewaters EP, 2002 it was April’s EP and 2003 we released the Waves EP, which had re-recordings of a few of the previous EPs along with all the tracks from By the Waters and a new Track *Waves… it just felt more natural doing it like that.

After you relocated to the US, have you found it easier to promote and spread the word regarding your music, or is your music more suited to the UK scene?

One thing I’ve noticed living here is most alternative/metal/rock bands have very little if any following here, especially when it comes to live shows, bands like Will Haven played small venues here, nothing like following they had in Europe. Even today, most bands make a living touring outside of the US, in Europe, Asia, there’s a big fuss about bands being from the US. And sure, some of the greatest alternative/heavy music has come from here since the early 90s. But, most of the folks banging their heads to it and loving it are in Europe so, to answer your question, we’ve been promoting our music the same way since the Mahumodo days. Mostly it’s through word of mouth, but we’ve had a lot of help from great magazines like Rock Sound, Terrorizer and probably the person that helped us the most right at the start, Sean Organ at – that man is a legend and is still working his ass off for original music today. He deserves a lot of respect and appreciation. He’d seen it all form the start and unfortunately, because he’s not a capitalistic, PR leachy, trendy kinda guy, he doesn’t get the respect he should be. But yeah, most of our following is from Europe, that’s for sure!

Does playing live in the US differ from playing live in the UK? Do the audiences differ with enthusiasm?

Never played in the US, only the UK.

Sadly I am yet to see *shels perform live, with Plains of the Purple Buffalo coming our way (soon hopefully), do you have plans to play shows in the UK to promote it?

Absolutely… hopefully some shows on Mainland Europe as well and the US.

Plains of the Purple Buffalo is an interesting title, can you shed some light as to how it came about?

It’s from The Neverending Story. Atreyu, the Hero of the story, hunts the purple buffalo… the plains of the purple buffalo represent the fairytale world of Fantasia… where there’s no fear or evil and The Nothing is the evil force that destroys hope. If you get a chance read the book, or watch the movie, I highly recommend.

What got me into *shels was the clever way that you guys go from calm melodic sections on classical guitars to build it up into a wall of sound. Is Purple Buffalo going to blow our socks off?

Hope so. This new record is a continuation in the evolution of our music since the first Mahumodo recordings. Until now it’s been slowly and steadily evolving and we’ve been lucky that many of our original followers have stuck with us, and understand and accept where it’s all going. For us, our understanding of “Heaviness” has matured a lot. Heaviness is NOT a sound that can be produced, there’s no recipe or formula for it, and it’s difficult to teach it. Real heaviness can be silence, it’s a feeling, not a sound. Even a shitty recording of a single acoustic guitar can be so heavy it’ll make you cry or frighten you with it’s evil intensity. What’s important is the essence and the feeling, that’s where it all stems, otherwise you’re just listening to a sound. It’s like the difference between an organic, grass fed, slow roasted spit roast and a crappy fast food burger that looks pretty and glossy, but would probably commit suicide if it could.

Why did full the version of Water not make it onto Sea of the Dying Dhow, but made it onto the EP Laurentian’s Atoll instead?
We could tell you that.. but then we’d have to kill you.

How did creating shelsmusic come about? Do you feel as though you have more freedom without a record company breathing down your neck?

The label made it’s first official release in 2002/2003 out of necessity, with the Waves EP by Mahumodo. The offers we were getting from most of the labels at the time were pretty shit, offering us some money in exchange for the rights to the music and other things. Mahumodo was much more than just music, it was a way of doing things, treating people. Everything was done with love and attention to detail; the t-shirts, the artwork for our releases, the way shows and tours were booked, interactions and relationships with venues and their staff, sound engineers, lighting technicians, other bands, the music press, radio… everything! And for me it was and still is important that everything, every aspect of the band was done in accordance with the principles of the band. So, yes, it offered us more freedom to do it our way. And there was really no reason why we couldn’t do it ourselves… hell… we were doing everything ourselves anyway! So we just kept on the path and so Shelsmusic was born.

Your music has changed and developed a lot since Mahumodo, where do you see it going in the future?

I’m already anxious to start writing our next album. I want this album to get done asap so we can start working on the new material. Things are changing a lot and there’s a whole new world ahead. As I said before, with Plains of the Purple Buffalo we have started to experiment with a different way of thinking, feeling and delivering the Heavy/Epic passages, and with our next record we’ll most likely take journey to another level. Ultimately, we want people to feel what we are feeling and with every release we’re inching closer to the source.

*shels strike me as a band that should be a lot bigger than they are. Are you happy with the bands progress, or do you wish more people were aware of you?

I’m personally extremely grateful for how things are and couldn’t ask for more… it’s a privelage to be heard and understood by one person, let a lone 50 or a hundred or a thousand. And the fact that people are interested in what we do means so much. We are determined that our fans and friends get the best from us. We’ve been truly blessed to have great friends and family who have helped us get to where we are and since the beginning of Mahumodo it’s never been about trends, jeans, haircuts or all that silly shit. The objective has never been to be “cool” or have millions of fans. We’re more interested in improving our abilities to express ourselves through music and establishing a real connection with people through our music. We love that, and when it’s done properly it’s extremely rewarding and energizing. I remember loving Mahumodo shows because our fans ranged from 14 to 50 and sometimes older and sometimes younger. That’s what it’s all about for us; the music, the feelings… the friends we make along the way… and I’m blessed to be in a band now that connects with people in that way. I love our fans because they are so diverse, they’re extremely open minded and into all kinds of music and all kinds of things, and mostly very peaceful chilled people. We interact with them a lot, ask for their advice on things and love them being a part of the creative process. As long as we’re able to write, record and express ourselves with music I think we’ll be happy. But I don’t want to speak for Tom, I’m pretty sure he’s in it for the strippers and burgers!

I hope the answer to this question is yes. Will *shels survive longer than Mahumodo did, or do you already have other projects in mind?

Well, it already has – nearly double the life of MahumodoMahumodo lasted 4 years, less than that if you only consider our official releases (Shels, Bythewaters, April’s and Waves). *shels was first conceived in 2003, but I don’t really see it all like that. To me, the music has been evolving since the first Mahumodo recordings and before that even and it will keep going and evolving whether it’s through *shels, Mahumodo or another project that might come along.

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