Occlusions explores identity and outrage from blown speakers - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Occlusions‘ self-titled debut LP opens with singer Leigh Bahari extolling “I wanna hear my bones crack…so pull me apart” over a murky, stretched out drone that gives way to heavy kicks, staccato snare hits, and even murkier electronic pads. Drifting on producer Alex Gorischek’s industrial inspired beats, the duo create an immersive world from the outset. It’s an unshakable sound that continues through the album’s twelve tracks of dense, trapped-out 4AD styled experiments. While it could be easy to imagine them as the Cocteau Twins injected with whatever haze-inducing potion The Weeknd or FKA Twigs are presently indulging in, it’s Bahari’s voice — echoed, shaped and morphed like an instrument weaponized that give Occlusion’s their distinct sound.

Hailing from Seattle but with Bahari now settled into Philadelphia, the duo is primed to make noise on the scene, joining other ethereally inclined local artists like St. Sol, Avhsoj and Camp Candle in blending electronics, noise, and a punk rock ethos while carving out new spaces in the music landscape. Like all of those bands, Occlusions create dynamic soundscapes to sing about social strata from a deeply personal perspective, and usually a Black, queer, feminist one. From the dizzying, dreamy dirge of familial lament “Cut the Cord” to the sci-fi inflected “Irresponsible,” a track that sounds like Battle Angel Alita got hold of the aux cord, all to end the record with the record’s most playfully poppy track “I Find You Again”, Occlusions’ debut is a record with the dial set permanently on dream, making it one of the year’s best so far.

The band creates loops and fashions immersive stories in lyrical form with a range of topics that feel organic; strings of silken intimate tales that feel like a web we can live in.  We sat down with Occlusions for a chat about minimalism in music, switching genres, and using one’s voice for the greater good, to find that body euphoria.

Occlusions - Sleepwalker

Alex Smith: Who are Occlusions, and how did you all form both as a band an artistic entity?

Leigh Bahari: Oh gosh what a question! Alex and I have been working together for many years. We met a party, must have been 2011 — we struck up a conversation about music, I was in a band, a rock band, and we talked a little bit about potentially working together. We tried to do a little pop project, worked on maybe two songs together, didn’t really work out at the time so we put that away. I continued working on Power Cassette, which was an entirely different project, I was like screaming in a rock band so at the time it was a little difficult to make the switch to pop. But as that band ended, it was Alex’s start of this project.

Alex Gorischek: Yeah, like you were saying we tried to do some pop stuff and it wasn’t lining up at the time. I needed like a change of pace, I needed to do something darker and more textured, more sultry or something. I was like, I know somebody I need to reconnect with. The timing ended up being right and we gave it another shot, we came in with a different aesthetic mindset this time around and it lined up. The whole project — Leigh and I are very different people, very different lives, but the project is all about this really small overlap between our differing head-spaces and trying to find as much material in that space as possible. I think it’s proven really fruitful.

AS: It seems like it really works when you are able to meet in this weird Venn diagram and sort of strip everything away, you come up with your true identity. Was the approach to this ghostly RnB sound, was that deliberate or did that just sort of happen based on you hearing some lyrics or vocals?

LB: I think it was very intentional.

AS: Sometimes you have to be.

LB: Yeah! We threw a bunch of ideas at the wall– Alex has been doing production in various genres for awhile, so we started out with Alex just sending me beats and I picked the ones that I vibed with. Some of them were more poppy, like he sent me some trap beats. There’s definitely some half-written, half-recorded songs on Alex’s hard-drive somewhere, but as we kept going things just really solidified and gelled. In the time between our first EP and now with this full length record,  our sound has also evolved to be even more dark. What I have realized is that in our efforts towards this dark, grungy sound, a lot of my rock influences are seeping in there, in the production and also in just the way that I sing. It’s really cool to blend those worlds.

AS: How has the transition been for you? Is there a learning curve to singing versus the more yelling style? How does punk energy inform what you’re doing now?

LB: So I will take this way back! I grew up singing, my whole family, my grandmothers were in the church choir. My mom is a classically trained opera singer. I grew up with lots of music so as a kid, and I remember this really vividly, I had my Lou Bega album and my Papa Roach album that I just blasted in 5th grade. I grew up with all these influences, writing songs in 6th grade. So I went back and forth really, between different genres because that’s what was in my home. I went to my mom’s opera recitals and I also went to punk shows in Seattle. But I also loved Nelly so much growing up. [laughs]

So the transition — it didn’t really feel like a transition, it felt like — I just feel that I wanted to be really well-rounded in my music experiences, so I’ve sorta gone through phases. I went through my folk rock phase, sort of singer-song writer guitar in high school. I also did Power Cassette, later changed to Dirty Neon. The lyrics have always been the driving force. I started writing poetry at a really young age, doing slams; always writing from my heart and my personal experience and sometimes those personal experiences are really sultry and sexy and sometimes those personal experiences are really political and so I’ve been able to express different parts of myself through different genres.

AS: Has there been any pushback (from audiences)?

LB: It’s been nothing but love! I just moved to Philly, like, last year and as far as this music community I haven’t really formally introduced myself! But the Seattle community was just so welcoming. It’s a really diverse community of Black queer artists who are — some of them in the punk space, but also rappers, RnB artists, pop singers, jazz. Everybody is just so welcoming.

Occlusions - Cut The Cord

AS: Modern soul seems to incorporate a lot of sparser soundscapes. Why do you think that is? Is there some kind of social relevance in these starker sounds in modern RnB in general and maybe Occlusions music specifically?

AG: I mean, I can’t comment on any social context for it? I’m pretty heads-down when it comes to production. I just want to find some weird sounds that I don’t know what to do with and see if they can be turned into something. I think if you start with sounds that are just really weird, maybe they just stand on their own and just don’t need that many other things going on production-wise or else it just gets too busy. For me, there’s not a whole lot of other context than I just want to find some weird and challenging sounds and see what they can be turned into and see which ones Leigh has some stories that go with them. Yes, there are hundreds of unfinished loops sitting on my hard-drive — there wasn’t a story that needed to be told that they supported and so they got left behind as weird experiments. Hopefully what was left over let Leigh tell the right story, but for me it’s just getting some raw materials to work with and seeing what I can do with them.

AS: Leigh, what about Alex’s sound lends you to be comfortable telling your stories in that setting?

LB: We just work so well together. I think that Alex has some very grungy influences, as much as he doesn’t like to say that there’s not necessarily rock influences. I think he listens to a lot of electronic music and hip hop and so to some extent distortion is a theme throughout our sound. [to Alex] What did you say awhile back? That you wanted to make things sound like they’re being played through a blown out speaker? That really resonates. I wanted to do something that was a really unique blend of genres, that people hadn’t necessarily heard before. To this day, I have a hard time figuring out what genre we are.

AS:  Sure. I just mean, do you feel compelled as a trans person of color to embody those experiences in your art? And do you feel like this kind of industrial, edgier sound as opposed to something like Monica or Brandy, denotes what’s going on in the world with you specifically and what’s going on in the world as a queer POC?

LB: Yes! You know, I have very much a rebellious spirit, not just in my identity but also in my politics. Like, I’m reading Huey P Newton’s autobiography right now. I just really want to express who I am in a way that is very clear [in a way that] might bring a different perspective than people are used to seeing. Even though in many ways my music speaks in metaphor, there’s definitely parts of my identity in there. “Hunger” is a song that’s about water, but it’s also about being trans. “New Day” was inspired by the things that were happening in the world, and the things that were happening to Black folks. There’s a line, “all this Black death hangs over our heads” and that’s something that I was really feeling at the time. I realized that was the one topic I hadn’t really touched on with Occlusions and was something that was very hard to do without yelling, honestly, because there’s so much to be mad about. I think in that moment, I was exhausted.

AS: Seeing you pull back in that song actually adds to the power of it. The line you sing, “how long must we sing ‘Strange Fruit’ waiting for a new day to arrive.”

LB: Yeah, that song has been in my heart, particularly since what we’re calling the George Floyd rebellion. That’s when that song was written. At the time, the Seattle local radio station had that song playing every single day. That was just really heavy in my heart and I felt, particularly as a disabled person and as a Black person, not really being able to participate in the streets the way I’d seen. There was a street occupation for almost three weeks and I really wanted to be out there. My heart was there but I felt a little bit stuck. That is not necessarily the message of resistance and fire — I wanted to be there and the song was just really honest in that “I’m exhausted”.

Occlusions - Body

AS: You mention “gender euphoria” in your bio. How does that work with your music?

LB: There’s a couple things that I want to bring out in this. One is, I really resisted the idea of being a “pop femme icon”. I consider myself somewhat feminine, but when we started playing shows I didn’t know how I wanted to present myself on stage. I have gone through various places in my gender journey and sometimes identifying and feeling much more masculine or feminine, and as we started to perform I got really nervous about how people were going to perceive me on stage, particularly with the idea that “sex sells” and oftentimes what sells is hyper-femininity. That was something that made me incredibly anxious. And I feel lucky now that I have discovered where I am now gender-wise, I feel very comfortable. In writing this album, I was in the middle of it. I only came out as trans like, five years ago. We were still writing and I was all over the place. I didn’t know how people saw me and I was very anxious about how I wanted people to see me.

At a certain point I just decided screw that and I started writing and started putting that into the music. The song “Hunger” is about gender euphoria and it’s something I experienced when I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the very first time. I saw just this vastness of the sky meeting the horizon and that was my gender euphoria. That vastness of just existing there in endless possibilities. “Let the cup overflow, I’m ready for a new vessel” is really about: I’m so much bigger than what my body is or the way people perceive me and I think that message is really important in the music.

Occlusions’ self-titled album will be released on Friday, May 13th, and the duo will play a Seattle release party on Saturday, May 14th at Cafe Racer; for more on hearing the record, and to find out about Philly events, give Occlusions a follow on Instagram at @occlusionsmusic.

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