Destroyer and War On Drugs collaborator Joseph Shabason is an ambient saxophone genius
FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, Miles Bowe talks to Joseph Shabason, saxophonist for bands like The War On Drugs and Destroyer, who transforms his instrument into a weapon for ambient delight on his debut album, Aytche.
Name: Joseph Shabason
From: Toronto, Canada
Must-hear: Aytche (2017 Western Vinyl)
For Fans Of: Jon Hassell, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Colin Stetson
Joseph Shabason may not have a household name, but his atmospheric saxophone lines have already made a powerful mark on experimental rock, having featured on Destroyer’s Kaputt and The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream, two of the most critically acclaimed indie albums of the last decade. This past August, Shabason showed how much he can stretch the sound of the instrument on his debut solo album, Aytche. It’s a collection of ambient music that strips the saxophone of its recognizable sounds by running it through different electronic effects pedals to create otherworldly textures.
The album is a culmination of Shabason’s passion for ambient music and minimalism, which began with Brian Eno before branching into Terry Riley, Gigi Masin, Japanese innovators like Masabumi Kikuchi and Midori Takada, and in particular Jon Hassell. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for something to sound like this,” he says, recalling the first time someone played him Hassell and Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1. “When I heard that album I just immediately set off on a ‘how the fuck did he do this?’ journey.”
Now 35, Shabason’s relationship with the saxophone has changed significantly since he picked it up as a child. After first learning guitar, he was drawn to the sax at 11 when he enrolled in the Humber College Community Music Program, a youth jazz organization still running today. He fondly remembers being taught Thelonious Monk tunes from a young age and playing standards in the program’s ensembles after finishing private lessons. Saxophone was Shabason’s life until he experienced an “existential freakout” with the instrument in his 20s and found himself drifting away from jazz.
“I’d been practicing for so long and so hard and if I didn’t practice for a day I’d feel guilty,” he recalls. Ultimately, he decide to leave the instrument behind. “I bought a DX7 and Roland JX-3P and then I started writing pop songs. Aside from occasional gigs to pay the bills, I put my sax away.”
It was one of those sax gigs that led to his big break playing with Destroyer, a relationship that continued on the Vancouver band’s latest album, this year’s ken. Shabason had previously toured with Destroyer, playing in his friend Andre Eithier’s opening band, so during a trip to to Vancouver in 2010 he reached out to the project mastermind Dan Bejar to catch up. Bejar replied mentioning he was working on new album that was “a bit jazzy” and asked Shabason to bring his sax.
“So I went in and just improvised over these songs. It could not have been more casual. I recorded for a few hours, I never heard the songs in advance,” he says. “We went for lunch and then I walked away. Six months later he came back with the masters and I was like ‘Holy shit.’”
Like any saxophonist growing up in the era of George Michael, Shabason was nervous about edging into “‘Careless Whisper’ territory” or that his contributions would be seen as ironic. Instead it formed the weary heart to Kaputt‘s coked-out ’80s excess, helping the band reach new fans and universal acclaim. “I spent so much time thinking nobody wants to hear a saxophone solo. It’s the most indulgent, played-out possible thing in rock music,” he says. “Why the fuck would anybody want to hear me do anything over a song? So to see the reception to that album and specifically the saxophone playing was like a wake-up call.”
Shabason soon found more success when those pop songs he’d been working on with synth led to the band DIANA, who made the Polaris Music Prize longlist with their 2013 debut Perpetual Surrender and released a follow-up last year. They’re all qualities that perfectly coalesce into Aytche‘s vivid soundscapes. Some begin with a synth tone, such as his Korg MS-20; others with a field recording that he might improvise over, on a saxophone that is nearly always fed through old Eventide pedals. “It’s all just piecing things together and seeing which sounds fit with one another,” he says.
The healing qualities tied to ambient music also played a key part on Aytche for Shabason, who suffers from ADHD and found medication only made him feel worse. “My coping mechanism has always been I’m an expert organizer and filer. If I don’t do that, my shit falls apart,” he says. While that often led to a detail-oriented obsessiveness on other projects, Aytche is the sound of Shabason embracing “shit falling apart.” The album was a chance to lose focus, forget recordings and continually return with a new perspective.
The Eno-coined concept that ambient should be “as ignorable as it is interesting” became essential in his experience as both listener and composer. “It allows you the freedom to not obsess and get precious about stuff. The freedom to walk away from something and come back with new ears,” he says. “It has the feeling of being disposable and something you can zero in on. It’s like a thoughtful casualness. It’s not flippant and it’s not saying you don’t value the thing you’re doing.”
His album’s touching ‘Westmeath’ draws inspiration from his grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust and came during a period intensely studying its history. It features the only vocals on the album, an archived recording of a man reflecting on the death of his father, a survivor who committed suicide after the war. The sample is muffled, with only sections coming through clearly, but it joins the other ambient tones to convey a sense of peace and healing.
“I don’t want to be someone flippantly using the testimony of survivors,” he says. “It was as if this one interview encapsulated so many things I was thinking about and vocalized them. I thought if I could capture that essence in a song, it would be a meaningful exercise to deal with these feelings.”
It’s a track driven by instinct – something Shabason is learning to do more, especially when it comes to his saxophone. Looking back at the ups and downs over the experiences that made Aytche, he embraces them all.
“I feel grateful that I put it down so I could play synthesizers, I feel grateful that Dan made me pick it back up so I can play in Destroyer,” he says. “I feel grateful for the sum of all those experiences which lead me to this point and hopefully I can keep trusting my gut to make music that feels meaningful.”
Miles Bowe is a news writer at FACT. Find him on Twitter.