Visitors to Istanbul’s innovative live music club ‘Salon İKSV’ find the foyer illuminated by a large and appealing Art Deco style lamp. The warm and atmospheric glow that it emits welcomes them towards the live hall, which also has plenty of charm and character. It brings to my mind a nocturnal jazz club that has been appealingly infused with a gloomy rock video ambience. Recently, whilst returning to this extraordinary city, I paid another visit to the venue to catch an impressive line-up of acts perform.
A stylish and chatty crowd of fans from the local alternative music scene gathered before the performance. Sipping a pre-show drink we scanned the band merchandise, enthusiastically checking out the new t-shirts. The designs advertised that evening’s line up which featured some icy minimalist darkwave from UK, German act Lebanon Hanover, plus the charismatic and theatrical Greek / German electronic noir duo Selofan and Turkey’s very own masters of modern gothic tinged post-punk, She Past Away.
The fairly compact venue was pleasingly packed out and the crowd seemed on buoyant form. The upper balcony that surrounds the hall also appeared to resemble some kind of dancing caterpillar at times. There were dangling, disembodied boots which swung in the air to the music as patrons sat on the higher level floor and hung their legs through the railings.
All three acts performed impressive sets, and I was very taken with She Past Away. They projected an engrossing and immaculately recreated atmosphere of early 80s post-punk with their sharp, satisfying songs. An influence of Martin Hannett’s spacious Joy Division productions could be clearly heard, as could the expressive drawl of Alan Vega and the desolate, hypnotic compositions The Cure circa their ‘Seventeen Seconds’ and ‘Faith’ era. But this was more than just a purely retro inspired affair, it transcended these influences to sound fresh and vital with some haunting and impassioned Turkish vocals and pounding electronic percussion added to the mix.
A few months after the concert, I started researching this article to present a small but varied sample from the ocean of exciting left field music currently being produced in the city. Of course 2016 has unfortunately become another dark and troubling time for world events, and Istanbul has had more than its share of recent trauma and tragedy. Whilst this isn’t something that I especially wanted to dwell upon in a musical primer, it feels like it must at least be acknowledged. In the wake of the shocking events that happened in Istanbul over summer during the failed coup attempt, ‘Salon İKSV’ was keen to point out that now “daily life has returned to its normal pace in Istanbul”. They also state that “we feel that it is important to underline that cultural, commercial and social life and all public entertainment are continuing as normal”.
This article is, in the main, concerned with speaking to three bands based in Istanbul who play different styles of music, in order to find out more about their work, their inspirations and how making music in this city affects their creative process. I also wanted to ask them about their own favourite artists and places in Istanbul. I decided to interview the aforementioned She Past Away, plus two other acts for this piece. I also spoke by email to the eclectic experimental group known as Nu Park and a powerful female fronted black metal project called Beyond Reclaim.
(Video link – She Past Away – “Asimilasyon”)
She Past Away told me that they derived their memorable and grammatically curious name from one of their favourite song lyrics, and that the band originally formed in 2009 in Bursa, which is located in north western Anatolia. The current line-up is based around two musicians called Volkan and Doruk, and I asked them where they usually took their song writing inspiration from.
Many sources really. Movies, songs and personal experiences. 80’s wave is a fountain of inspiration, minimal wave, darkwave, italo disco etc. The whole ‘dark and retro’ thing is a fetish for us. Vincent Price, Dario Argento, Jean Rollin movies...Gothic, absurd literature from Poe, Baudelaire, Lovecraft etc. Song writing can happen any time in the day, usually when I am alone in my room, same goes with lyrics. Night rides are also good for inspiring lyrics.”
(Video link – She Past Away – “Sanri” )
Their music meditates upon gloomy aspects of urban life recognisable to various degrees in many cities, with the band remarking that ‘besides being rich with history’ , Istanbul is a chaotic place and this is depressing. I think that is reflected in our music.” The band has a growing international fan base, and when asked about their own favourite parts of the world to perform in, they replied that they “play Europe mostly, we performed a Latin America tour, and a Mexico tour, unforgettable memories.”
Whilst they say they are not be directly influenced by other Turkish groups, they do rate the music of the (also excellently named) contemporary underground acts , Reptilians from Andromeda, Ugly Shadows, and The Raws. The also expressed a love for collecting vintage vinyl, with The Sound’s 1984 EP “Shock Of Daylight” being a recent favourite purchase.
At this point it is worth noting that all of the acts that I spoke to for this article were very generous in recommending other modern underground Turkish artists that were mostly new to me. I am still exploring the various scenes myself and I will present links to some of these acts as I go in case you are curious to join me in my voyage of discovery ! I certainly enjoyed Reptilians From Andromeda, who have a nice line in Banshees-esque lo-fi post punk dream pop :
(Video – Reptilians From Andromeda – Psychic Girl)
And the female fronted punk band Ugly Shadows sound like a formidable and exciting live force, with a musical aesthetic somewhere between the surf-punk guitar of The Dead Kennedys and the full on vocal attack of Bikini Kill, they are seen performing here at Peyote, one of She Past Away’s favourite venues in the city.
(Video – Ugly Shadows Live At Peyote)
She Past Away also recommended my own favourite Istanbul music bar, Karga, which is one of the most beautifully atmospheric venues I have ever visited. Named as it is after the Turkish word for ‘crow’, it’s the kind of place in which you could almost imagine the spectre of Edgar Allan Poe lingering, perched in a dark corner swigging from an ectoplasmic flagon. Its stunningly gothic multi-level interior design is a must see and the place is even worth visiting just for the sublime jukebox playlist alone. Should you be interested, below is a link to some views of the interior from the Karga website (click to enlarge them) :
Finally I asked She Past Away to select some personal favourites from their own releases, which you can listen to on their Bandcamp page below, and I also enquired as to what they were up to next. They recommend “Soluk” and “Hayaller” from their second album especially, and say that they are currently working on a video for the song ‘Katarsis’ and a new album and tour.
Link to She Past Away – ‘Soluk’ on bandcamp
She Past Away Bandcamp & Facebook Links
By way of a musical contrast to She Past Away’s darker tone, the next group I spoke to, Nu Park are very playful and eclectic by nature. Below is a video of the group performing for the SoFar Sounds project in Istanbul to give a taster of their incredible sound.
Video link : Nu Park – Büyülü Bohça for Sofar Istanbul
Oguz from the band had many intriguing things to say about both the group and life in the city, and I will quote his responses to my questions at some length below. Firstly I asked, by way of introduction, if he could explain a little about how the band formed and why they chose their band name :
“Our past goes back fifteen years, to when we were childhood friends from Koşuyolu Mahallesi, a district in Kadıköy, İstanbul. Oguz and Uran first started making music by recording sounds and then applying super simple effects such as fast forwarding/reversing recordings, then mixing them all together and laughing at them all day. Those days were so full of fun and playful, with nothing to prove, no need to show ourselves to anybody. The little sound games were just things to explore.
Then of course things got more serious as we grew up. Little bit of competition and fights between us also boosted our creative power. We started to have some reason to show each other – and other people too – what we had been making separately.
Later on, our great guitarist brother Ozan, our talented & beautiful sister Nilufer and our virtuoso violinist pal İlker came in the group. They added so much to our music with their unique in-depth knowledge and harmonious improvisation abilities. The band became stronger. We all discussed together about our wills and desires and accordingly created a common vision, which was basically about revealing our creative energy and sharing this experience with other people. That is something we really want to preserve.
Nu Park takes its name from the park in which we spent our childhood (Koşuyolu Park/Istanbul). So, our music represents the union of the new, the modern, the technological; with the emotional, the natural and the nude. In Nu Park’s music, electronic elements are used to enhance the emotional elements. Our performances are enriched by improvisations and theatrical shows too.”
I asked next how he would describe the sound of the group, they have such originality and diversity that it is tricky to categorise them. To me, they evoke the fearless genre melting and wild creativity (if not sonically then at least ideologically) that groups such as Os Mutantes, Gong and Can also possessed. Oguz concurs that pigeonholing them is pleasingly difficult:
“Today it is really hard to name an artistic work and categorize it according to a specific genre. But we describe the music we like to make as indie / electronica / theatrical /romantic /avant-garde-pop / improvisational.. Some people also call it ambient pop or electro-rock. So it all depends... We don’t decide at all. The mood we are in, the stage we are on, the audience, our country, culture, conflict, chaos, love…They all unite and decide. “
I then asked them to recommend some of their key works :
“We like our earlier compositions like ‘Promise’, ‘Living Dead Man’, ‘Walk in the House’. Our recent works that have more different tastes like ‘Tutankamon’ and ‘Heybetli Umutlar’ (our most recent work) are really making us excited, and improvisations too, of course. We rarely know the beautiful surprise coming with improvisations and that is a very thrilling feeling.”
Link to Nu Park ‘Walk In The House’ video :
Oguz was also forthcoming about the group’s song writing process.
“We collect stories from our daily lives, and with this inspiration we start to improvise. During improvisation, sometimes we tend to make up some rules. Then we play around with them. Another approach that we have is more structured and production-based. Taking the stories of the elements we are inspired by, and knitting them slowly with vocals , instruments and machines. But this is a slower process.”
I mention that the music scene in Istanbul has produced so many exciting and diverse artists over the years. I asked how the band takes inspiration from being based in the city and who are their own favourite Turkish artists, past and present ?
“Istanbul has been the multicultural cradle of the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. This is a cliché sentence but it is also true. It is inevitable to be inspired by this big city with a deep history. Besides this, we are inspired by different eras of Turkish music and we like to transform it into Nu Park’s unique cosmology. 30s-40s young republican breeze, 50s-60s cabaret life.. Nu Park’s soul is somehow relating itself with the spirits of these eras.
Song link – Nu Park – Living Dead Man
I then asked about some of their favourite places in Istanbul, which I have very briefly annotated the locations of in brackets for those unfamiliar with the city.
“Our favourite places in the city include Burgazada, Sedef Adası, (both are in the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara), Bosphorus (the waterway that divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul), Kadıkoy (the cultural centre of the Anatolian side), Demircikoy and Besiktaş (the latter located on the European shore of the Bosphorus). They all have their own character and mostly preserved their natural form, texture and taste. The best music venues would be : Karga, Dunia (Kadıkoy), Arkaoda, Coop, Nardis. “
I also asked them what question they would most like to be asked about their music, to which they creatively replied – “If you were an architectural form, what influences would you embrace?”
The answer they then gave was :
Turkish Republican Architecture (Second National Architectural Movement) , Soviet Architecture, Romanticism, Modernism, Contemporary, Kitch/ Novelty Architecture, Neo-Gothic.”
At the risk of over-stretching the remit of this article into territory covered in much greater depth elsewhere, the group certainly takes influence from the classic sounds of the 60s-70s Turkish music scenes. Oguz mentions the legendary likes of Zeki Muren, Barış Manço, Esmeray, Şenay, Ajda Pekkan, Fusun Onal, and Timur Selcuk as favourites. She Past Away also added the work of the mighty rock icon Erkin Koray to their list of beloved Turkish artists.
As a slight diversion here it is certainly worth familiarising yourself with some of these names if you are at all interested in exploring Turkish music and have not already. You will be richly rewarded by hearing some of the most beautiful, entertaining, melodic and exquisitely performed popular music ever recorded. Of course, like many vintage sounds this music is fashionable again now and is finding a wider audience once again these days via Youtube, vinyl re-issues, mash ups etc. Manchester’s Andy Votel of Twisted Nerve / Finders Keepers Records has been a long time champion of promoting Turkish music in the UK, and John Doran from The Quietus is also a big fan. There has been a deserved revival of interest in the truly magical sounds of this scene for retro music lovers both in Istanbul and abroad.
A personal favourite artist of mine from this period is Barış Manço, the charismatic and sartorially sensational song-writing genius whose diverse body of work looms large over decades of Turkish music. An icon on par with David Bowie or Serge Gainsbourg, with a back catalogue every bit as rich and complex as theirs, to hear his playful, diverse, and innovative music is always a delight. Also recommended for a visit, should you ever find yourself in Istanbul is his former mansion which is now a museum located in the fashionably hip Moda district. It is a surreal and extraordinary archive of the heroic man’s life, music and costumes and is an unforgettable experience.
(Video link – Barış Manço – Nick The Chopper)
Returning back to the present, Nu Park listed some of their favourite current Istanbul acts as : Fuat, Saska, Nada, Kara Orkestra, Erkan Oğur and Gevende.
All are worth researching and an immediate stand out for me from this excellent list is this remarkable video for Saska’s superb track ‘Tingla’
(Video Link – Saska – Tingla)
The band are working on a new video which will be launched in November, and to conclude my chat, with them, I asked what other cities would they like to perform in.
Kyoto, Shanghai, Stockholm, Reykjavic, Sydney, Manchester, Stonehenge, Lisbon, Santiago. And soon, we want to perform in Capadocia / Turkey! Plus many other places that have historical and spiritual content.”.
Nu Park Soundcloud and Facebook links
I thought I would conclude this brief dip into the waters of Istanbul’s musical subcultures with an interview with a band playing in a more extreme style. Beyond Reclaim are a black metal duo from the city called Pinar and Barış. Pinar describes their band name as coming from a desire to “create a dark atmosphere that was beyond imagination”. She is a multi-talented artist who records other work in a variety of styles, but in relation to this project she says “I have been infatuated with Black Metal since I don’t know when, especially Atmospheric Black Metal and DSBM (Depressive Suicidal Black Metal)”.
It is certainly a musical style which provides a powerful vehicle with which to explore the inner city blues that can manifest in a sprawling metropolis. She says that she sometimes finds city life crowded and quite dystopian, reflecting that :
I would probably be inspired by different themes if I was living in a forest, instead of the city. Living amongst 20 million people changes your perspective in an interesting way.”
She also adds that “Life itself is an inspiration, I don’t search it in particular places because it comes to me naturally with all the things happening in life, I find inspiration in the littlest things. When I am inspired I can’t think of anything else but compose music. I don’t eat, I don’t sleep. I just write until I think I am done, that’s how it works with me even if it takes hours and even nights because I don’t want to lose that spark I have when I’m inspired. I feel like I must finish what I started. Once I’m done I feel peaceful.”
Beyond Reclaim, bandcamp link to “XVI”
Pinar and Barış compose together, bouncing their ideas off each other and are both talented multi-instrumentalists. Pinar’s vocals are also extremely diverse and striking, shifting from soaring operatic melodies to raw, guttural black metal howls, which adds some beautiful textures to Beyond Reclaim’s exciting sound.
Pinar expands about their recordings, including the “To Wake In Another Universe” EP featured above :
“I think my favourite songs would be ‘And When The Wound Bleeds’ which is my first Beyond Reclaim song and is in my first album ‘Hopes They Die’ which was released from Deep Lake Records net label in 2014 and I think that the song is quite raw in comparison to the songs I currently make, and the others would be the ones from the ‘To Wake In Another Universe’ EP which I released recently in the spring of 2016. I wrote the song “Still Feel” for my grandfather, so it has a special meaning for me. ‘XVI’ is about suffocating in city and life in general”.
Beyond Reclaim, bandcamp link “And When The Wound Bleeds”
Despite the desire for rural retreat that sometimes fuels her work, Pinar also expressed her fondness for Lille in France, where she performed two concerts recently and also for the lively and cosmopolitan district of Kadıköy :
My favourite place in İstanbul is undoubtedly Kadıköy. There is something special about that place for sure and I still haven’t figured out what it is, but I can find everything I look for in Kadıköy. For me it is the heart of the city, plus it has an authentic feeling. Many would probably say the heart of the city is Taksim , but for me it is Kadıköy. “
When asked about what music she enjoys from the city, she says :
“There are very talented and creative artists in Istanbul. I can’t name them all as there are too many, but I like Radical Noise, Flört, Sattas and Peyk. I listen to what is original and creative. I admire musicians’ ambition and love for the music they create. People are trying hard and I have respect for that.”
Again, many of these artists were pleasingly new to me, and whilst checking them out I came across a gorgeous, mellow song from Flört called ‘Istanbul’. This video is an interesting visual mash up too featuring vintage scenes of the romantic and picturesque city from classic films like ‘From Russia With Love’ and ‘Topkapi’ :
Flört – Istanbul
Pinar’s other listening tastes are highly eclectic as well :
Many artists inspire me. Not necessarily in the metal genre, but in all genres including classical music, metal and electronic music. I like listening to many styles. I like baroque music a lot and I also like composers like Satie, Glass and Debussy. I like rock and metal a lot and artists like Opeth, Dark Tranquility, Dissection, Rotting Christ, Anathema, Watain, Primordial and many more. I like 90’s rave music and acid and techno a lot, too. I also like psychedelic music and drone/dark ambient. These all come together inspire me.”
To round up, I asked Pinar what was next for her music ?
“I am working on new songs and projects. I also make electronic music and drone so I am also working on those projects at the same time. I am currently working on a drone split with an American musician “Floating Spirits”. I will also be working on new material with Beyond Reclaim.”
Beyond Reclaim, bandcamp, facebook and website links
So there you have some portraits of just three impressive groups from the current rich and varied Istanbul music scene. There is simply so much creative work happening in the city in every conceivable style and genre (and the food is just as impressive !). If your appetite has been whetted in any way, then a much more expansive introduction to the Istanbul music scenes can be found in Fatih Akin’s extraordinary 2005 documentary “Crossing The Bridge : The Sound Of Istanbul”. Presented by the mighty Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten it features footage and interviews with many key artists such as seminal psychedelic band Baba Zula and the aforementioned Erkin Koray, one of the major pioneers of Anatolian rock. Happy listening !
Trailer – Crossing The Bridge : The Sound Of Istanbul