Hardly a week into their nationwide tour, SAFIA frontman and all round nice guy Ben Joseph took some time to chew the fat with me on the beauty of remixes, SoundCloud, and Canberra’s emerging music scene—as well as spilling the beans on one particularly tasty collaboration in the works.
SAFIA are simply three young dudes from Canberra bringing something fresh to the busy BBQ of Australian electronica.
SAFIA’s a name we’ve been hearing a lot lately around the traps. What’s the story behind that name?
(laughs) Nothing too special—it’s a bit of an anti-climax. There was a solo project originally by myself and I wanted something that could be the name of something or the name of a band. And then I had a song called ‘Sapphire’, and I kind of just reworked it one day into ‘Safia’—and it stuck.
There’s been a lot of love for your track ‘Paranoia, Ghosts & Other Sounds’, consisting in a bunch of remixes from some pretty cool artists like PACES and YOUNG FRANCO. Do you guys make an effort to check out all of the remixes that get done?
Yeah man, we’re very involved in the remixes and everything like that. We make a concerted effort and we put forward our ideas of the artists we want doing it.
Oh really? So you kind of throw the first stone on those?
Yeah man we organise it. Because we’re independent, so there’s no label pushing this kind of stuff—it’s all us thinking who would be our ideal remixers, and what’s the best theme for a dynamic package kind of thing. So yeah, we’re always looking out for new and cool artists who would be perfect to remix us.
Yeah sure. So it’s kind of more of a collaborative effort on the remixes, rather than someone just taking it up—?
Oh no they do their thing, and we’ll just make sure it’s the best it can be.
Okay. So how does it feel—I mean you’ve said that you choose the musicians—but how does it feel to have someone else kind of putting their fingerprints all over your creation?
I think it’s cool—I think it’s probably the best part of electronic music, a scene that’s so open for people to remix and show their interpretation. It’s really cool when we hear a version of our track the complete opposite way that we intended it, and seeing that it can work that way as well. It’s a special thing.
Sure. I guess I just always wonder whether original artists ever feel protective of their sound at all, especially when some remixes do completely flip things on their head…
I dunno, music is a thing to be shared and if you feel that protective of your songs then you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons. When we want someone to listen to our lyrics and melodies we don’t want it to be interpreted the way that I wrote it, like the direct meaning—we more want them to interpret it their own way. So it would be hypocritical if we didn’t want anyone to change that original version, because that’s our interpretation of the song. So it’s cool when another artist puts their spin on it.
Well you guys also, in addition to your own original stuff, have your hand in a lot of remixes of other songs. Is there some kind of particular credentials a song needs for you guys to see it as fit for a rework? I mean, what would you say it is in a song that makes you stop and think that you could do something with that?
Well it’s definitely gotta have a place that it could go. I’d be more comfortable remixing something that sounds nothing like our sound than something that sounds exactly like us. Like if we were to remix an artist that had a similar kind of sound to us I’d find that a lot harder, and probably kind of pointless. Whereas getting a song like, say [‘Tear It Down’ by] THE ASTON SHUFFLE, which was essentially a big room club track, getting that kind of thing and bringing it into our style is kind of what we look for in a remix.
So is that kind of the aim with your remixes? To give it a distinct SAFIA flavour?
I suppose. With remixes we give ourselves more room to move. We’re not too concerned about “does this sound like a remix where we can go super outside the box”. If you listen to all our remixes some of them sound completely different to what our original stuff is. We tend to try and rewrite the track as an approach to a remix. Especially a remix with a vocal, I’ll often take the melody and just loop that playing, or I’ll learn it myself and sing it.And then we’ll deliberately not learn the chords and I’ll kind of sit down at the piano with that melody and put my own chords in there.
Kind of looking at it like rewriting a song: rather than sending it straight to “This is a house track for night clubs”, we look at doing this more strong thing like “Let’s make another song out of this”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dancey because it’s a remix.
Yeah I think that’s a really cool approach—I mean it seems like a lot of remixes are a bit of a copout, insofar as they just kind of add a synthy overdub and leave it at that…
Yeah well we’ve been told by people “Maybe you should aim to get this more into the club theme, your remixes” and we’re just like “Nah, we’re not gonna do that, (laughs) we’re just gonna make a song out of it”. And if it turns out to be dancy well then that’s a bonus.
In terms of electronic music, Australia’s becoming a pretty big worldwide player of late. Canberra’s probably not the first city that comes to mind when people look at this music scene. How do you define the significance of Canberra within this scene?
I think Canberra’s popping its head up a little bit more than it used to. There is a scene, definitely—there’s a small but very strong community for it down here. Canberra doesn’t have the biggest music scene in general, but out of all music the best community would have to probably be the electronic community.
For bands and general DJ’s and stuff, there’s a really strong community down here in Canberra and there’s a couple of small venues like ‘Trinity’, who put on kind of relevant electronic acts every weekend, and there’s a new place up in the city doing it as well every now and then. And you get that kind of community at all these shows, this strong little following, which I don’t think you really get with a lot of other music in Canberra. I know there’s kind of a metal scene down the other end of Canberra, but apart from that it’s just a pretty strong electronic scene.
I understand you recently performed onstage with some fairly well-known Canberrans: PEKING DUK at ‘Groovin The Moo’?
Yeah man, I’m currently in the studio with Adam right now!
That was actually my question: there’s been talk of a collaboration, can you confirm that?
(laughs) Yeah I think we can now (talks to someone in the background—laughs).
So are you literally in the studio as we speak?
I am literally in the studio with Adam, at his place, as we speak. Just, y’know, writing tunes. Not necessarily the one we were performing, but some other tunes as well.
So is that gonna be a PEKING DUK track or is that gonna be a SAFIA track?
It’s gonna be PEKING DUK’s next single. Super super happy with it. It’s gonna be really good.
SAFIA recently passed the 150k mark for spins on Soundcloud, which is pretty huge. How do you guys value this kind of free music streaming service?
I think SoundCloud’s, to me anyways, a stronger one. Finding music—people kind of take pride in a Soundcloud find. It’s more-so now an avenue for people to really find that new music, and with things like ‘the Hype Machine’ and stuff like that, you can go from someone who’s never even put out a song, and if you put out something decent and then a couple of blogs pick it up—and you’ve never put out anything before, no one knows who you are—then instantly you can have two or three thousand people listening to your music that way. So it’s a very good avenue for that.
There’s that massive advantage, but is there a point where it becomes the other side of the coin—where there’s a whole lot of people who are able to access your music without paying for it?
I think the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, there’s so much music out there, so much coming through, that just to be heard now amongst the huge quantity of stuff, just to have your stuff heard and be recognised… and you’ll have your links too, to things like iTunes and sales, and the people who do want to buy music and own it still do.
Obviously music sales isn’t a big part of revenue for bands these days, but despite being able to stream it for free anywhere—pretty much any song on Soundcloud these days—the people who want to buy it are still gonna buy it; if it’s played on radio people are still gonna Shazam it and buy it. So I don’t think it’s too much harm having it streamed for free.
Well if the journey so far is anything to by, you guys are on the road to some pretty green pastures. If in the future you had the chance to collaborate with any artist on one of your tracks, who would you choose? Living or dead?
Living or dead… that’s a hard one. We all come from like a rock background. So me personally, if I could ever do anything in collaboration with Dave Grohl, I could put music right there.
The nicest guy in rock n’ roll.
Yep. I grew up with FOO FIGHTERS and NIRVANA being my favourite bands—so I’d have to go for the childhood ‘me’ and go for that (laughs)
Would you say that they inspire the sound of SAFIA at all? Like is there any kind of inspiration there?
Not really the sound. It might come across more in our live show. We all come from rock bands and stuff, so we really try to focus when we play live on that band element. Rather than just a laptop and controller we bring drums, everything. The interaction on stage probably feels more like a rock show, when you see us and what we do on stage. So I suppose that comes into it there. The music itself, probably not.
So who would you say are some artists that do inspire you musically, in terms of SAFIA’s sound?
We’re pretty open-minded. We’ll listen to anything, not necessarily just electronic stuff. I think even people like THE GORILLAZ—that wonky kind of pop sound where each song feels different to the other but kind of fits in.
Yeah, well you guys definitely seem to channel this kind of soulful, R&B thing that THE GORILLAZ like to tap into as well.
Yeah, that kind of avenue as well. Vocally I’ve had inspiration from anyone from JAMES BLAKE to NINA SIMONE, that kind of stuff. But yeah, anything that’s kind of weird and wonderful, and next-worldly… I like GORILLAZ because they’re almost not a band. Their songs are theatrical pieces going into this big animation which is a thing we try to do, make it feel more theatrical rather than just a band playing it back.
Yeah, for sure. So just one final question: you guys have just kicked off a big run of tour dates all around the country. In about five words, what can we expect from your live shows?
Five words… Shit…
Is that one of them?
Nah… I hope not (laughs). Um… ‘Loose’, but also… ‘emotive’ as well. I need to sell this tour majorly (laughs). I think ‘epic’ is a good word. We like to go big. ‘Sweaty’. It got sweaty in Canberra. What’s our final word… ‘dancey’? That’s just undersold the tour, but yeah. It’ll be a loose, good time, with good songs you can sing along to…. (laughs)
Words by Gavin Butler