VI∙ZA is an amazing rock band based out of Los Angeles, CA, with a huge fan base from Europe. Their music has influences from the Armenian culture and is truly like no other. Besides the normal rock instruments, VI∙ZA has an oud player and a percussionist who plays the bongos, chimes, or any other auxiliary instruments.
In preparation for their show at the Gaslamp on September 11th, I interviewed oud player Andrew Kzirian, who has some interesting comments on music, the industry, and advice for younger musicians trying to make a name for themselves.
LBI [Zoe Adler]: Where and why did you learn to play the oud?
Andrew Kzirian: I learned the oud as a teenager back in Philadelphia, my hometown. I first started guitar around 8 years old, then switched to oud after 10 years when I started college – but I did about 8-10 years of classical guitar study pretty intensely which gave me a very solid musical foundation in theory overall performance. I made the choice to switch over to the oud because of my passion and appreciation for its mystical artistry (still played guitar though). It was such a huge change – although the instruments are similar in that they are both plucked and have strings – it pretty much ends there. The oud is fretless, tuned completely differently, uses a different plectrum (no pick) and has different dimensions and resonance, not to mention the technique needed to play the instrument properly is completely different than the guitar. It was such a challenge that I relished it greatly given how prominent the instrument was in my community. As a young Armenian American growing up in Philly, the oud was really something that caught my attention and struck me as so cool, unique and mysterious, and that’s why I decided to tackle it from such a young age.
I actually have done academic research in ethnomusicology on the instrument and its history. Here is a link to my work: http://www.theoudplayer.com/2010/06/01/my-paper/
Growing up in the era of my youth, I played in rock bands and was really influenced by groups like Tool, Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. So what I do in VI∙ZA with the oud, where I get to blend it with guitars and bass and drums and some aggressive musical writing is really inspirational and super awesome.
Where did you all meet?
In Los Angeles, although our singer K’noup is also from the east coast (NYC). We all joined up at different times, but I am the newest member of the group, coming aboard in 2009.
How did you end up playing a show in Long Beach?
We have a team in the UK that does our show booking and they had contacts here in SoCal – one thing led to another and we had new friends in The Burning of Rome and decided to do some shows together in Corona (Sep 4), LA (Sep 5) and Long Beach (Sep 11). Then we wrap up the short tour run at Aftershock (Sep 13) with bands like Weezer, AWOLNATION, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, Seether, Rise Against, Pennywise, Five Finger Death Punch, Mastodon, Buckcherry, Bad Religion, Offspring, Chevelle, Limp Bizkit, Butcher Babies – pretty awesome lineup!
How come you mostly play in 21+ venues?
I think that has more to do with what venues are booked based on availability in a certain city than being deliberate. The Troubadour, where we play frequently in the LA area is an all-ages venue. It really just depends on the city, timing, routing and overall situation…
How does your fan-base in the US compare to your fan-base in Europe?
I’d say it’s definitely bigger and more active in the UK and Europe than here in the US. Has a lot to do with our touring there, and having opened twice for Serj on his tours overseas. And also a little bit to do with the music scene there as opposed to here. Trends and cycles of the industry and what is being pushed at different times make an impact as well.
Say you are going to sit down right now and write a song; what would your first steps be?
Just playing/singing something and seeing where it goes. The best is when a random thought for a melody or chord pattern just forms spontaneously in my head, and I try to hum it repeatedly so I don’t forget until I can whip out my phone and record it and develop it more when I have some free time…
What is it like to tour and work with someone as successful in music as Serj Tankian?
Serj is awesome. A great person and talent – and a good role model for how to be a responsible artist that has insightful things to say and communicate to people. I got to record with him on his last record for “Ching Chime” – and playing it on tour with him every night was really an incredible experience. Joining him on stage was a great memory… beyond all that, he is a great friend.
What is the last show you paid to see?
Man it’s really been a while – been so busy with writing and sessions to complete the 3 songs for our kickstarter campaign (2 covers and 1 original). It may have been System of a Down last summer right before our own tour with Gogol Bordello. That was a great show!
What are the top-five most played songs on your portable music device of choice?
I have Spotify on my phone – it’s pretty easy to use. Right now I think it’s something like:
1 – Talking Heads – “Naïve Melody”
2 – Miike Snow – “A Horse is Not a Home”
3 – Azis – “Sen Trope”
4 – Big Mountain – “Baby I Love Your Way”
5 – Seether – “Careless Whisper (Cover)”
Not what you were expecting maybe? I listen to all kinds of music. That’s just the past month or so. I listen to various bands in several genres, and really enjoy classical / folk oud music especially.
What advice would you give to young musicians trying to make it in the industry?
Work hard. Understand how things work in life and in the real world. It is a business, just like any other business and the same, tough realities apply in music as well. Try and use them to your advantage. Network as much as possible. Spend wisely on things that can help create meaningful big movement in your career. Be creative in trying to generate revenue so you can pay for everything that is happening and make some money to really be a successful artist. Remember that being an artist these days means hustling more than ever before – making it is still possible of course, but much more complex and difficult than before…
The industry has been changing a lot in the past decade or so. Where do you see it going in the future?
Unfortunately, I see the current trends as more one and done type artists. I don’t think it’s in music labels’ interest to want to create strong branding and “images” of artists anymore – because an artist that is successful in the long term means less leverage for the label. So the focus is more on breaking a “song”. Honestly it looks like a label would want an artist to make money (for the label), and then the label would ideally move on quickly to the next artist to take advantage of the next artist’s youth and energy and willingness to “sacrifice” for future success. I think that’s why we don’t see any big bands anymore really. Earlier, bands more frequently became “mythical” in stature because labels built them up to be that way and created larger genres of musical styles. At one point people would wait anxiously to go buy a tape or CD of a band they saw on MTV and/or heard on the radio. There was something special about the artist – something “far away” in that they were not accessible so easily and were up on a pedestal. With the internet/social media age that is completely gone now. Everyone is on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Youtube – which also leads to massively huge quick spikes in popularity – just as massively huge downfalls into fading from memory soon after a “hit”.
Plus the alternative trends (i.e. what is considered “mainstream” rock in the US) point toward getting away from guitars/drums which are the traditional rock instruments and going toward retro electronic style music and acoustic folk type music – and that’s what you currently hear on KROQ and that’s where labels are spending money so that is the dominant style now. Maybe it’s just a cycle that will end and start with some new trend – who knows? Of course I deeply respect and appreciate the difficulties that all artists face in trying to succeed – and those that have deserve a lot of credit for climbing up that nearly impossibly difficult and steep mountain to get to the top. But there’s a reason why several other stations exist aside from KROQ. It’s just a matter of taste I guess – after all – it’s music right?
You tend to vary your setlists, which I know your fans really appreciate. How do you create your setlists?
Interesting observation – we tend to come up with a skeleton setlist in rehearsal sessions to at least have a guide. Then we’ll use that as a template and go with whatever it is we are feeling on any given night based on energy, the crowd, etc. It’s actually kind of fun to call audibles on stage because it makes it more interactive with the crowd… and we love our fans and their passion so that is fun for us.
Be sure to get your tickets for this amazing show! I promise you won’t be disappointed.[adrotate banner=”4″]