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If you run a high-level survey of the United States’s dance-music scene, a few clear hotspots spring to mind: New York, Detroit, Chicago. Zoom in just a bit, though, and you’ll find it everywhere: retrofuturist acid and breaks in Colorado, steely-eyed techno and drum-and-bass in Minneapolis, wigged-out IDM and Latin electronic in Miami. In that context, Seattle’s club scene stands tall: Over the decades, the city’s countless DJs have created a universe of creativity, with umpteen ideas blaring from speakers in abandoned buildings and basement parties. Its musical legacy may be tied to grunge and alt-rock, but the Emerald City has nurtured an everything-goes and deeply inclusive approach to club music, too. Some of the best DJs on the planet—CCL, livwutang, Succubass—cut their teeth there, and its best club nights rival those of far larger cities. You’d be forgiven for being unaware of this. For all its talent, the city hasn’t yet broken out on a national level. But maybe that’s okay. Music scenes are built and maintained by the people who stick around: Local promoters, DJs working desk jobs, and ravers meeting up with their friends every few weeks.
‘nohup’, a.k.a. Seattle club-night mainstay Bobby Azarbayejani, is well aware of this. They grew up going to hardcore shows, listening to noise music, and making wigged-out techno. (Their introduction to electronic music came early; their older brother was a trance DJ.) They hit the decks at the University of Maryland’s WMUC as they were getting into dubstep, and by the time they graduated, they were all in. They moved across the country to Seattle and quickly found their way into the local scene, going to club nights and meeting with label heads. Their musical practice has always been indelibly linked to their communities, whether it’s afterparties at friend’s homes, carefully curated college radio shows, or back-to-back sets with other local DJs.
Since moving to Seattle, Azarbayejani has only deepened their roots. A few years ago, they founded Illegal Afters Tracks, a label dedicated to oddball club tracks from fellow Seattle club-night producers, and they help run Ground Hum, an experimental music festival that recently finished up its third year. Their DJing has gotten deeper, weirder, and more exploratory: tune into a ‘nohup’ set and you’re liable to hear wigged-out dubstep, vintage deep house, and turn-of-the-century breakbeats, all delivered with an undeniably madcap energy. A friend of Azarbayejani once likened their style as a one-person back-to-back, and that assessment still holds.
On a purely aesthetic level, Azarbayejani’s style recalls what makes Seattle’s dance-music scene so great. It is playful, historically minded, and carefully constructed at once; at its best, each blend comes off like a contained explosion. But it’s Azarbayejani’s unrelenting focus on community that makes their work so critical. It’s present in their hyperlocal label work, and it’s central to their focus on involving Seattle’s dance-music community; it’s in their own gradual immersion in Seattle’s club culture. This kind of slow-and-steady growth, eventually, pays dividends. This is what a blossoming dance-music scene looks like.
Back in September, we caught up with Azarbayejani ahead of their performance at Kremfest 2023. We went wide, digging into their history with DC’s hardcore scene, how they try to bring joy to experimental music, YouTube wormholes, their relationship to humor on the dancefloor, and plenty more.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
How are you doing?
‘nohup’: It’s been a pretty stressful week—work stuff. I’m excited for the show, but also—I’m a pretty extreme practicer for any show I play at, and I haven’t really had the time to get into it before this weekend. So, sometimes, you’ve gotta be like, “There’s no point in cramming.” Whatever will come out will come out.
What’s practicing look like?
‘nohup’: A lot of it is just being in Rekordbox for long periods of time. I’m pretty extreme about recording, listening, and re-recording my own mixing. I do that for when I’m making mixes, but also for when I’m playing shows. I’ll play for 20 or 30 minutes and say, “Okay, did I create a vibe there?” It’s pretty hard for me to know that in the moment. As much as I DJ, I still feel pretty inexperienced in that sense. So it really helps to bring me back into that and know what transitions are good; it’s a way for me to listen to things from an audience perspective.
Do you listen back to sets of yours once they’re out?
‘nohup’: Totally. I mostly DJ for myself, you know? When I record anything, it’s because I’m like, “I love listening to this.” [laughs] I’m probably guilty of upping my SoundCloud play count because I’m constantly listening to it.
Before we get too deep into club music: What’s some art that you remember connecting with you when you were young? Let’s rewind the clock a bit.
‘nohup’: The first thing that came to mind, which is not music, is Mrs. Doubtfire. That was my favorite movie as a kid. When I was growing up, we would go to Iran pretty frequently; my parents immigrated from Iran. We’d go every two years or so, and I was allowed to bring one VHS. One year, I ran it out because I watched it so much.
Going towards music, before I really got into electronic music, or club music of any kind, I was more of a hardcore kid. I grew up around the DC area, so there was a lot of that. It’s funny—there was a pretty strong scene there; I was really young. I was 13 or something, and I saw that, and I knew that was what I wanted. That reflects from then to now, a bit.
Talk to me about that connection.
‘nohup’: Part of the reason I really like the Seattle scene is that it’s pretty DIY. I don’t really see myself leaving here; I really desire that small, close-knit scene. I prefer underground raves; I prefer a locals-only thing to something with big touring acts. So when I came here, the first couple of things that drew my interest were—I was more into noise music when I moved here. There’s a local noise and ambient-music label called Debacle Records, and they used to have a sub-label called MOTOR. It used to host a monthly club night, and it was awesome. It was a mesh of this music scene and Seattle’s techno scene.
That’s how I started to get involved here. I used to do visuals; I did visuals with a friend of mine, [Aashish Gadani], who lives in New York now. [The visual project Bobby and Aashish collaborated on was called Coldbrew Collective.] We were doing, like, one show a month for them. Slowly, though, we wound up doing three a week for all sorts of other parties. We have a community that comes together to build stuff without much outside help—not to discount the fact that there’s clubs and such in Seattle. But we worked together, and that’s awesome.
The main narrative I’ve heard around Seattle is that it’s super vibrant, and it’s producing all sorts of incredible stuff that you will never hear about. [laughs] Which—that’s part of the appeal, then, for you?
‘nohup’: Yeah. It’s not “I have something cooler than you.” It’s more that there’s something deeply personal to it; it’s something that can’t exactly be shared when it comes out of that group. Of course, some people—some close friends of mine, like liv[wutang] and Ceci [a.k.a. CCL], who have found their voice without this. And that’s awesome. But there’s a voice within this, too.
So: You’re in DC, and you find hardcore shows and say, “This is what I want my future to be.” Now, you’re in Seattle, and you’re at noise and techno nights. How do you get from one to the other?
‘nohup’: My brother fed me a lot of electronic music when I was younger. I was listening to electronic music to this simultaneously, though; I just wouldn’t tell my friends.
When is this?
‘nohup’: My brother gave me his first mix CD when I was—eleven? He was a trance DJ. It’s sad that there’s no memory of him online. He went by DJ Rouz. He’d send me that stuff, but it never really stuck. It was, like, “Oh, here’s my brother’s stuff; I’m not gonna go find this music on my own.” When I was 16, though, he showed me two things: Venetian Snares and Nathan Fake. Which are totally different things! It’s weird, because I was making electronic music at the time. I didn’t have any instruments; I had a piano, and I played tuba. But I couldn’t really be in bands with people, because I didn’t know how to play guitar, bass, or drums, and I didn’t really care about learning those. I was more into making music on my own. I’d send stuff to my brother, and he’d say, “This sounds like Nathan Fake.” That’s when I started to say to myself, “I like electronic music. I really like breakcore. I really like prog-house.”
Two wildly different worlds.
‘nohup’: By the time I was in college, in 2008, that had developed into an interest in dubstep. My brother had a radio show at the University of Maryland; he’s eight years older than me. So I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. I really want to do that.” So I started to have a radio show, and I learned to use VirtualDJ. I got more into that kind of music. By the time I graduated college, I was into house music, techno, dubstep, drum-and-bass, and more experimental stuff.
Were you mixing?
‘nohup’: Sometimes. We—WMUC FM—were a completely freeform station. For the first year, I did an ambient and noise show. I eventually got into learning how to mix. But other people would bring in CDJs for their shows, or mix on the terrible and really ragged 1200s we had.
When you moved here, how did you find your way into the scene? You’re describing a really tightly knit community—how do you get in?
‘nohup’: When I first moved here, I had just graduated college and moved here with Aashish. The two of us were making music together and starting out these visual experiments. I was running a tape label—Tapdup—with my friend, Andrew McClymont. It was bedroom-beats kind of stuff. Some of it was a bit of synchronicity. I remember, the first month I moved here, there was Decibel Festival. It rocked. It stopped in 2014 or 2015.
Just in time.
‘nohup’: Exactly. I got here at the end of August, and this was in the middle of September. It [wasn’t long] before I knew a lot of people; Seattle’s a pretty small town. I went to Decibel with a friend, and there was an audiovisual event at The Triple Door, a jazz club downtown; I forget who was playing. It was standing room only—they were like, “We found a seat for the two of you, but you’ll be seated with someone else. Is that okay?” We ended up sitting next to Rachel Kramer, a pal of ours in San Francisco. We started talking to each other, and they worked at The Vera Project, an all-ages nightclub in Seattle. They were like, “You guys make tapes. You should come to this holiday fair that’s happening.” [At the fair, MOTOR] asked us, “Would you like to do visuals?” Of course! We did it for free.
We did that once a month for two years or so. At the same time, around when I arrived here, it seemed like there was a graduating class of people that arrived, and everyone was really into electronic music. The secondnature crew had just basically all graduated from college. I made friends with them. It’s funny; nobody knew that I made music until 2017 or so. I wasn’t really talking about it. [laughs] That was the turning point: This part of myself was seen.
Were you DJing at all from 2013 to 2017?
‘nohup’: No. I didn’t even learn how to use CDJs until 2016. I played a couple of shows. I was making music, which I do less of now. I was making music as part of a noise duo called Slow Drips, and I had a project called ‘sighup.’ I played a couple of shows with that. That was stuff I’d been working on since I was in Maryland. A friend of mine—Simone [Pierson]—let me use their CDJs, and pretty much immediately after touching them, I said, “Oh, shit—you can really do a lot with these.” I immediately started saving to get CDJs. This was at a time when I was partying a lot, and I’d go to afterparties a lot. I’d see my friends come back home and mix for hours, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Talk to me about your relationship to multimedia and experimental music.
‘nohup’: Across all of that, I’m really just having fun. Even with the more serious stuff, we’re a little cheeky. Experimentation, to me, is about play rather than some high-minded idea about breaking new ground. It’s: “Would this sound good?” A lot of that stuff is really interesting to me because there’s playing by yourself, and there’s playing with another person. When you’re working with other people, there’s a kind of one-upmanship part of it: “Look at this crazy track!” This is true by myself, too. One time, a friend of mine described my DJing as sounding like two people B2Bing and playing completely different styles of music. And that’s the point! Even for myself, I’m asking, “What can I do to make this harder for myself so it’s more fun?”
Especially with Ground Hum, it feels to me like there’s a distinction being made between “dance” and “dance music,” and there’s an attempt to complicate what experimental music can be, or at least how it’s presented.
‘nohup’: Ground Hum is deeply inspired by Corridor. We all loved Corridor; it was a big thing for us in the winter to have a winter hang. It gave us the feeling of a rave in the daytime in the winter, and the coziness, without the f*cked-up night parts of it. A Seattle University student wrote a piece on Corridor 2018, asking, “Was it a rave?” I hate to drag this person, but they had clearly never been to a rave, and that’s where it felt off the mark. It kind of is a rave! Ground Hum is us looking at what an ambient or experimental music festival can be from a raver’s lens.
When I was researching Ground Hum, I noticed you making a distinction between “dance” and “dance music.” I was curious if there was something dedicated to that as another of the multiple media there.
‘nohup’: Last year, we had two dancers come, and that’s part of the distinction. We want performance to be a part of it; it’s gonna be a part of this year’s Ground Hum as well. It’s a little bit more of a “Let’s watch movement” thing rather than “Let’s do dance.”
Is any of that a conscious effort to bridge worlds—connecting a warehouse rave to an experimental music collective and a tea place? Or is it more a product of “These are the things I like?”
‘nohup’: For me, it’s the latter. Other people in Ground Hum would probably have different answers, but for me, we felt like there was a gap. It’s not that nobody else was doing it, but nobody was doing it the way we wanted to do it. We’ve all been working together for a long time on other stuff, so we said, “Let’s try this.” Corridor was more experimental than what we’re doing with Ground Hum, but we wanted to carry that spirit forward.
That ended in 2018, right?
‘nohup’: Yeah. We also wanted to carry forward the spirit of doing things in temporary spaces. The last Corridor was hosted in a building that was torn down three months later. They reached out to the building’s owner and said, “Can we have this for a month?” People were living there and stuff. And they said, “Sure—it’s getting torn down anyway.”
Earlier, you mentioned that, ideally, there’s a back-to-back sound running through it. Is there a point where you noticed that start? How has your approach to mixing changed over the years?
‘nohup’: That comment was pretty early on in my mixing, to be honest. A lot of what I like is syncretism, of sorts; it’s a lot of different things at once. That’s one part of my mixing style that I think is gonna stay. In terms of how it developed: I used to think of myself as a pretty jokey DJ. There had to be a joke in every set; something had to make people laugh. I’ve grown out of that, I think. That came out of conversations with friends, where they’d say, “You love to joke around, but that’s not you.” It’s like how so many people use humor to avoid getting personal. I like to use humor in my DJing, but I think that humor was about reaching some kind of climax, which I still try to do. When I think about DJ sets in general—if I’m playing a set for an hour and a half, I try to reach a slap-in-the-face moment around minute 45. That still exists, but it’s less about feeling that there has to be something funny about what I do. What I was trying to express then, I think, was that I was serious about having fun.
Have you become more confident after moving on from that?
‘nohup’: I think so. In preparing for a show, I’ll give myself a set amount of time to prepare, and I’ll probably figure it out. That confidence has really built more recently. That ties into another development—I used to retire tracks after I played them out once.
‘nohup’: It’s stupid, too. [laughs] Because, like, these are tracks I really like! So, that’s been really freeing. First of all, nobody’s gonna notice; not everyone comes to every set. Friends and people I know are paying attention, and they’ll ask after the third time I play a track: “What was that? I heard that at the last few shows, but didn’t notice until now.” It’s all context, right? That’s been freeing: I don’t have to dig a crazy amount for every show. It’s better to know your tracks really well and tell different stories with them.
Tell me if I’m off base, but I would imagine if you’re working with a pretty local scene, you know your folks, and there’s a certain extent to which you’re going to know your audience. Is there a trust-fall there at this point: “We know Bobby’s good, so they can take bigger leaps?” Is that the case?
‘nohup’: I actually don’t have much experience playing outside of Seattle. It’s awesome. There have been times where not many people showed up, or I got a wack audience. Those have been terrible experiences; sometimes, people just don’t get it. But that’s been good—I don’t have to depend on the scene’s trust.
Previously, you mentioned that you would pull up new stuff for every night out. How has your approach to digging changed?
‘nohup’: Discogs, Bandcamp, and YouTube. YouTube rocks; it’s been a constant. It’s so cool to me that people are archiving music there. It’s kind of like getting to know a record shop, where you’re getting to know one person’s collection. I follow a few people on YouTube who post tracks every once in a while, and I’ll find really cool stuff there. I’ll then take that and go into a Discogs hole, exploring the label it was on. There’s a breaks channel on YouTube that I really love, called djvinylo, which really opened my eyes. Apparently, nu-school breaks is gigantic in Spain. There’s no documentation of this online, but half the comments on this channel are in Spanish. He’s the only guy posting these older breaks tracks. It’s like, “What happened there?” That’s something I do when I dig: I try and uncover scene histories. I’ll look at a track and say, “Can I find this track on anything in MixesDB?” Who was playing this? My digging is research-oriented, I guess. I’m a software engineer; I like using my computer a lot. I used to have these scripts that I would write to help with digging. I had a really good system of organizing what I needed to buy, or listen to again, or stuff like that. I wish it was built into these sites a bit more, but maybe I’ll do something like that for Bandcamp in the future [with Bandcamp Tempo Adjust].
What are some rabbit holes you’ve been falling down recently? What histories are you exploring?
‘nohup’: I pulled this whole channel down—UK Bassline Classics—to archive it for myself, because I’m afraid it’s going to go away. It’s kind of a sad story. The poster for the channel started posting really weird stuff: they’d post a cryptic video where they wouldn’t ID the track, which a lot of these channels do. In the comments, they’d say, “I’m selling USB sticks for all these tracks.” They started to share a personal story: They were dealing with a health issue, which is why they needed the money. Then, they basically posted something like a suicide note, which was so jarring, given the music. I was really concerned about this person, and a month later, they said, “I got care for my mental health, and I’m ending the channel.” But there’s thousands of tracks on this channel.
I used a YouTube downloader to download everything, which took a crazy amount of space. So I’ve been digging through that; it’s a lot of bad music. That’s another thing about digging: one of the things I say about digging is that I’ve listened to hours of terrible music to give you this DJ set. I’ve listened to a hilarious amount of terrible music. I’m just sitting around, going, “Nope. Nope. That’s good. Nope.”
Talk to me about your label, Illegal Afters. The story I’ve heard is that you heard Sketch Artist’s work and said, “I need to platform this.” Is that the whole story?
‘nohup’: Yeah, kind of. Sketch Artist is a real close friend of mine. I heard him play one of the tracks from the first EP—I don’t even know if it was even fully completed. It was awesome, but we didn’t know anybody who would release it. It was missing something, but in a really interesting way. It wasn’t appropriate for the afters. That’s the name—it’s not tracks for illegal afters, it’s tracks that would be illegal at the afters.
That’s pretty much the story. I printed the logo on a bunch of T-shirts five or six years ago, and I gave those to a few friends as a joke shirt to wear to a music festival. It’s been great—other people, like Xminus1, who used to live in Seattle, and now lives in Minneapolis. Especially since this is our second Sketch Artist release, I joke that it’s the unofficial Sketch Artist label.
How has the label surprised you? Is it still what you thought it would be when you founded it in 2020?
‘nohup’: When I sent the tracks out for mastering on 001, this was before the pandemic. I sent these out to be mastered in January of 2020, and I thought I’d have the records back in April. And then they were delayed for three months. Looking back, I had no clue what I was doing. I know more now, and I still have no clue. For example, I didn’t really understand how distribution worked when I started the label. I just went into it; I ordered the records and said, “I’ll figure it out later.” It was June, and it was really hard to ship things to Europe. We got written about on RA, and there were tons of people saying, “How do we get this to Europe? Do you have a distributor?” A couple of friends offered to help; I remember I reached out to a company and I didn’t even understand how the process began.
So you learned a lot.
‘nohup’: Yeah. For this release, it’s all digital. The economics just weren’t working out. The label is basically me saying, “Hey, I’ve got some cash lying around.” Pretty much all of the revenue goes back. It’s just, like, “I have $1000; I’m gonna print a record now.” I don’t really care about the money. And then, last year, our distributor shut down, and good riddance. A third of the vinyl shipment got lost in the mail. I don’t really want to get into that. I also wanted to try a bit more creative stuff. I wanted to be a bit more unique in what we were doing with the label—stickers, that kind of thing. Hand-stamped records are a bit self-serious.
That’s almost recalling another era of dance music—white labels from ’92, that kind of thing. What would an illegal afters sound like? Is part of the point that it’s tough to pin down?
‘nohup’: Part of it is that you can’t pin it down, yeah. The description on the Bandcamp page reads, “a label for party people everywhere, whether they’re keeping the party going… or going home.” To me, the afters I’m talking about is when you go home with your friends and you’re showing each other tracks that you like.
The stuff you were doing before you bought CDJs.
‘nohup’: Yeah. It’s about going to your friend’s basement and mixing for hours, showing each other what tracks you’ve found.
What scenes or sounds are you really looking towards right now for inspiration?
‘nohup’: I think I’m looking inward right now. We’re talking in Seattle, and it’s been raining like crazy for a week. It’s such a roller coaster right as the summer ends: “All that happened; I had this set of ideas going into it. Let’s think about that.” I’m going back to listening, rather than putting things out. I’m yearning for some time to listen to records on my own again.
What’s something you recently came to realize about yourself?
‘nohup’: We were talking about how there’s a part of having a close-knit scene that’s deeply personal, and that it’s hard to translate that. That’s a conversation I’ve had with myself; it’s about learning how the artistic process also works that way. You create all these ideas personally, on your own, and when you share them, they can lose the meaning they had to you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it moves from being a personal thing that has one meaning to something that has many meanings. There’s a sense of loss in that. I actually talked about that in therapy this week.
I imagine that’s especially complicated if you’re coming from a space that’s so deeply interconnected. Some of the tracks you’re playing you might have really deep associations with, and then you put it on the floor, and people say, “This is a cool tune.”
‘nohup’: That’s part of the reason why I used to retire tracks. It would take a lot for me to allow a track to be played. I’d say, “Have I gone through the full emotional story of this [track] with myself?” Now, since I’m less anxious about replaying tracks, it’s a bit more like, “I’ll play it to these people, and it’ll mean something to them, and it might mean something to me at that time, too.” I’ll play it for some other people, or for myself at a different time, and it might mean something different. That’s a new experience, and it’s fun.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
‘nohup’: My focus is shifting towards Ground Hum this winter. Next month, we’re doing something with a Seattle art collective called ANTiPODE. They’re bringing a bunch of Iranian musicians and artists, and we’re doing a co-presented thing with them in November. Some of Ground Hum’s residents are going to be playing that, and two people from Calgary, and an act from Iran. I’m really excited about that. Later in February, we’re going to be doing Ground Hum #3. We’re trying to figure out where that’s going to be this year. In terms of DJing and label stuff, I’m really excited about Sketch Artist’s latest release. I’m still working out what the next thing will be, but that’ll come.
One sidebar, if you’ll indulge me. You mentioned working with Iranian artists on that upcoming thing in November. Is that something you try to be cognizant of, as an Iranian American? Does that filter through into your work?
‘nohup’: Sometimes, I kind of feel anxious about working with Iranian people. There’s this anxiety around being a good Iranian person, and it’s the difference between Iranian people who grew up there and Iranian-Americans. So I’m excited about this, because I have some friends in Seattle who grew up Iran. They’re helping to bridge that gap a bit for me. A month or so ago, I accidentally played a show [where the bill was] three Iranians out of four people: Me, Sepehr, and wngdu. That was so cool. I don’t think that my work is necessarily focused on elevating people in the Iranian community; it’s so cool that other people are doing that. Sometimes, I feel like I should be doing that too.
My production work interfaces with that anxiety more, and especially my ‘sighup’ work. That was me primarily using music from the Islamic Republic. I didn’t have any connection to this, because I didn’t grow up there, but I experienced racism, ridicule, and associations with terrorism when I was younger. It was me being, like, “Okay. What if I was associated with that?” I grew from that, because it was a bit of an edgelord project. But, with the ambient stuff as ‘nohup,’ I drew upon [traditional] Persian music. The question, there, was, “How can I bring this into the story of myself?”