Interview with Leila Abdul-Rauf (Vastum)

From the first day I heard their first album “Carnal Law” Vastum stroke me as a very intelligent and artistic band performing slow old school Death Metal, extremely authentic and organic sounding, intense and atmospheric like none else I’d heard in years. As Vastum being definitely one of the bands whose new releases I look forward to hearing the most, I got a great opportunity to speak with the singer and guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf.

Greeting Leila! How’s life in California?

Life is good, thanks. San Francisco is sadly not the artistic city it used to be, due to the technology boom, but I’ve made a good life here. And the natural beauty is unlike anywhere else in the world.

You have played in different artistic bands from Hammers Of Misfortune to Amber Asylum (besides Vastum), and you also create Ambient music under your own name. How do you see Vastum compared to your other musical work, is it as demanding or more of an easy enjoyable ride, when thinking of creating and performing Death Metal?

No projects of mine are anything alike. Each come with its own challenges and pleasures that provide a necessary balance in my life. It’s hard to compare them because they’re all so different aesthetically and culturally, and my level of involvement varies between them.  I’ve probably learned the most doing my solo project, writing and producing everything myself, and learning new recording software. The bands are a different story. The music in Vastum is technically less challenging than say, what I do in Hammers, but I’m not involved with the writing in Hammers, whereas I write a lot of the music and lyrics and also manage much of the band business for Vastum. My newest band Ionophore, an ambient-electronic project with folks from London and SF, is the first band I’ve ever co-produced and goes back and forth between being a live band and a studio project. Considering there is so much down time with doing a band (people leave town or cancel rehearsal), it’s nice to have several projects to go back and forth between so I’m always keeping busy and evolving.

Photo by: Nathan Verrill
Photo by: Nathan Verrill

If you form a Death Metal band, is it hard to find similar kind of people in your area, or is San Francisco full of people into old-school Death Metal?

The music scene has become more active in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, because it is more affordable to live there. I’m not as active socially in the metal scene as some of my bandmates, but from what I can tell, there are a lot of people interested and involved in making death metal here. The Oakland Music Complex where we rehearse is brimming with death and doom metal bands.

You play a very old school but slow style of Death Metal, without too many fast parts, but still intense and heavy as hell. Has the decision to perform this particular style of Death Metal been made in the beginning, or did it kinda form on its own at the rehearsal place?

I would say the choice to play dark, mid-paced death metal was a conscious one from the beginning, but became its own thing as a result of what the original five members brought to the table.

I know some of the (previous and current) members of Vastum have a past in Crust Punk. Does this still influence the music of Vastum much, or do you see you as purely Death Metal in almost every way?

Musically there isn’t much of a crust influence, not since the Corpus demo, but the social values among the band members past and present are punk in a lot ways, since most of us grew up with punk and hardcore in our teens.

Is your crowd mostly made of Punks or Metal people, and these two groups intertwined in your area? San Francisco has a reputation of being very open-minded, and perhaps this shows in the musical scenes there as well?

The music scene is definitely more open minded here than in many other parts of the country or world. But punk and metal scenes don’t overlap too much here. Though still having mostly a hetero male fanbase, Vastum does have a lot of female and LGBTQ fans and this makes for much of the diversity.

What can you tell me about your past, growing up, backgrounds, and musical tastes? Have you always been into extreme music like Metal? What would you say your biggest influences from the world of Metal, as a band and as an individual?

I’ve been heavily involved with music since the age of six. I studied flute and trumpet as a child and teenager, and had music theory and composition education in high school and college. But I started teaching myself guitar at age 13 as a rebellion against this formal training.  My extreme music “explosion” came at the age of 14, when I immersed myself in all sorts of industrial, goth/wave, noise, prog, death metal, and some punk. My desire to play in a metal band came about ten years later, while I was earning my master’s degree in audiology and speech sciences. My life took a sharp turn when I realized what I loved doing most was making music and not writing papers. Sacrificing a secure income to pursue creative endeavors was a decision I did not make lightly, but never regret to this day. Artistic influences may change, but my most consistent influences are the friends and bandmates I’ve had throughout the decades. They are the ones from whom I always learn the most.

When people realise the person behind half of Vastum’s vocals is in fact female, they get highly interested, or shocked perhaps. Did you perform harsh vocals like this before joining Vastum? 

I’ve been doing extreme style vocals ever since I started playing in hardcore bands in the late 90s. Saros was the band I started when I moved to San Francisco in 2003, and it was my first time being a front person, so I concentrated on making the death vocals better, but it was more of a blackened style than what I do in Vastum. It’s true, many people don’t realize I do almost half of the vocals for Vastum.

The lyrics of Vastum deal with complex psychological issues such as sexuality, and feature the thoughts of George Bataille (as does another great band featuring Vastum-members, Acephalix). Who came up with using his thoughts as inspiration, and are you going to continue along this path in the future?

Dan our singer also sang for Acephalix, so his lyrical influence stemming from his passion for psychoanalysis carried over to both bands. Although my own previous studies in psychology overlap with his a little bit, my approach to lyric writing has been far less academic. I think the experiential nature of my lyrics combined with the intellectual (and also experiential) nature of Dan’s create the unique lyrical tapestry that we have. With the new songs we are writing, the lyrical style is evolving away from the purely academic ideas to something less literal/concrete, more personal, more poetic.

There has been many problems and tragedies along the career of Vastum with dear friend leaving the band, or even passing away. Has there ever been moments when you’ve decided to end the band?

There have been many moments when I’ve felt like ending the band, and I still have them on occasion. It’s easy to get frustrated and lose sight of the vision when members leave, practices are frequently canceled or the full band isn’t present. These things are not within my control, and I know many folks out there doing bands relate to this. I’ve only been able to get through these times because I keep busy with other projects, or I would go crazy. Despite all of its problems, Vastum gives me something that my other projects don’t: an outlet for making something extreme, intense, heavy yet simple. I would miss it a lot if it went away entirely.

How has the response been to Vastum so far. Do you get a lot of invitations to play abroad and so on? You seem to enjoy live-performances. Do you see this as necessary part of band culture?

The response to Vastum continues to overwhelm me. We have received several invitations to play nationally and abroad, some of which we’ve sadly had to turn down due to schedules not allowing for them. Vastum is very much all about the live experience and I wish we were able to tour more often.

Photo by: Erika Osterhout
Photo by: Erika Osterhout

How have the sales been on this age of digital releases and people not being (buying?) records that much in general. I’m, guessing money is not the biggest motivation for you to create music?

You would be hard pressed to find any musician out there who is solely motivated by money, because there isn’t any to be had. If it isn’t for the love, it simply won’t happen. I’m not so sure about the digital sales about Patricidal Lust, but Carnal Law is still selling digitally. We tend to quickly sell out of vinyl at our shows. Even so, doing a band is so expensive between paying rehearsal space rent, transportation, recording and merch costs, etc, that we’re lucky to even make those expenses back.

Thanks for this interview Leila! How do you see the future of Vastum, are you playing a lot of gigs, planning an new full-length perhaps? How about your other projects?

Thank you! The future of Vastum is always hard to predict because things are always changing with us. However, we have written over two thirds of an album worth of new material, but the format for release remains to be seen. We are on hiatus from playing shows so we can finish writing the new batch of songs. Our new members Shelby (guitar) and Chad (drums) have been a big part of the songwriting, and I’ll often get together with just the two of them to write. Shelby is a great songwriter, a true riffsmith. As far as my other projects go, Ionophore is searching for a label to release our second full length, Sinter Pools. Hammers is about half way done recording a new album which Metal Blade will release in 2015. I just completed my second solo album, Insomnia, to be released in 2015. On this album, I’ve had the honor of recording several guest performances by very talented musicians Nathan Verrill (Cardinal Wyrm), my Ionophore bandmates Jan Hendrich, Ryan Honaker, and even my mother, Kat Young. I’ve also been doing live solo shows for the first time and performing guest vocals for my friends Cardinal Wyrm (recently signed to Svart Records), and working on other various collaborations.

Vastum (Facebook)

Leila Abdul-Rauf (Facebook)

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