The Callused and Raw World of Gonjasuf
I've written earlier here at Weirdo Music Forever that "weirdness" is not simply being outlandish for the sake of being outlandish, but rather, occupying a creative space of integrity that is truly individual, even if that means sacrificing mainstream approval and the material rewards that traditionally accompany that approval.
Few artists embody this sacrifice, integrity, and commitment to the creative spirit as much as Gonjasufi does. His music has been filed under hip hop, psych, and lo-fi, but all those categories only capture fragments of the breadth of his work. I caught up with him again recently to talk a bit about success abroad, elusive recognition at home, his new album Callus, what lies ahead, and more.
Bobby Weirdo: Good talking with you again. Fist, let me ask: In the early days, you performed under the name Sumach Valentine, right?
Gonjasufi: Yeah, that’s my birth name.
BW: So, was performing under the name Gonjasufi the result of something particular that happened personally, or was it an intentional professional move?
G:. Under the Sumach name, I put out the records, Dead Midget on Stilts, Garlikillz, Flamingo Gimpp, and Jungl Built. When I started singing, I took on the Gonjasufi name too, which turned into a rap group with my boy Bushbat, Complex, and me. Then me and my boy had a falling out, so I just started rocking that shit [solo].
BW: Going back even further, you were a college radio DJ, right?
G: Yeah. Back when I was at San Diego State, I used to DJ at KCR. I would DJ there from like 10 to 4 in the morning. It was good times, man!
BW: Did you have a DJ name, or a particular program you hosted?
G: I was going by Irie Fly, and the show was called the Night Owl. It was me, DJ Wolverine, and then Oracle would come in and guest DJ. I would bring a bunch of artists through, and we’d just hotbox that fucking room! Like, I’d bring a cat who could play trumpet -- or thought he could play-- and I had a standup bass. I got kicked off that shit, though. People got pissed off, ‘cause it smelled like weed every time I left (laughs). I was there ’96 and ’97, when the Internet had just started. It was fucking raw, man!
BW: When I talk to my friends from Europe about you, they’re generally really interested, especially compared to the awareness of you here in the States. I know your record label Warp is over in Europe. Do you feel you’re received better over there?
G: Oh yeah. It’s like night and day, man. There’s a reason I don’t tour the States. I always wanted my music to enter America as an import, so I jumped at the opportunity when Warp hit me. They told me, “It’ll take three years for America to catch up on what you’re doing". Like, I’ll drop a record, and three years later they’ll catch up on that record.
Well, as soon as A Sufi and a Killer dropped, Europe was wide fucking open. I was selling out venues all across Europe. They were acknowledging my work. They just appreciate the artist. They hold the artist as like a high priest. They don’t cover up all the graffiti in the fucking streets out there. You know, like they gave Gaudí all of Spain to do his art, and there’s a reason Miles [Davis], Jimi [Hendrix], and Bob [Marley] had to go out there, because here in the States we’re brainwashed, and we believe in the media shit. It’s hard for me to get any love out here [in the States] -- to get any press. I get ripped by the critics [in the US]. I’m not drinking Lean, all tattooed up, and using the N-word every goddamned lyric and shit. I could do that shit, but [this way] I don’t feel that I’m contributing to the Western poison. I feel completely slept on out here, but when I go to Europe, I get recognized.
It’s crazy, ‘cause I’ve been on the BBC, and there’s a good market there for me [in Europe]. Like, I sell most of my records in Germany and the UK, and I just feel blessed. I’m on these planes, flying to Denmark and shit, and then I come back here, and it’s back to the shit grind. It’s hard not to get depressed. Seriously.
BW: If you were going to pick the standout track on Callus, which one would it be?
G: It didn’t even make the record, man.
G: Yeah – the song that I love the most, they didn’t even put on the record, and I was bummed. It was a hard-ass song called “Killing a Hater”, and it was me on the guitar and the drums, on some like, hard punk shit. Just some decrepit-ass notes, and it’s real distorted. It’s me just banging on the haters and shit, and it’s off beat, and you kind of have to find the rhythm. But that’s the one that I had wanted, and it’s the rawest shit I made on the record. But they didn’t want it, man.
BW: Is there any way to hear this track?
G: Yeah, I’m going to release it sometime. I should’ve put it on the cassette they pressed up, but we have a plan to put out a little flexi-vinyl and I’m going to push for it on that. If not, I’ll just leak it, and put it out there.
BW: You’re playing more guitar these days, right?
G: Yeah, and in fact, that’s really what the new record is [about]. I’m almost finished with the new record right now. On Callus, I played [guitar and drums] on “Your Maker”, “Manic Depressant”, “African Spaceship”, “Old Man Sufferer”, “Last Nightmare”…that’s all me on the guitars. And then Pearl [Thompson, formerly of the Cure] played on “The Kill”, “Poltergeist”, and “Vinaigrette”.
BW: Speaking of the upcoming album, what can you tell us about it?
G: Callus was like me pushing everyone away; this one is kind of me pulling everyone back in. Callus was me saying, “You know what? Fuck you. I don’t want to play sheep anymore.” That’s what that record was for me. And then the new record is like, “OK, here’s sheep again” -- a whole record like sheep [laughs]. Just to kind of confuse. The new record is kind of like weird folk shit. Me on the acoustic, singing with my old lady at the same time. That’s really what I’m moving towards, and I’m excited about that shit, you know? It changes, man.
BW: How did guitar start working its way into your music like this?
G: The reason I picked up the guitar is because all my gear was in the pawnshop for so long as I tried to fucking survive and feed the family over the last couple of years. I lost so much gear in the pawnshop; I ended up left with only a guitar. It was like the universe’s way of forcing me to pick up the guitar. It was like, “I’m going to take all this equipment away from you and leave you with just this. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
BW: Are you writing a lot on the guitar these days?
G: I can’t read music. Like, I don’t even know what fucking key I’m in. I could figure that shit out if I thought about it, but what I’ll do is I’ll just track while I’m freestyle playing, and then I’ll go back and go “OK, let me go grab that [idea]”.
I stopped using a pen to write new rhymes around 2002, and just started free styling rap. And what I’ve found is that through the process of free styling over the last decade, I've built a muscle that helped me with the guitar. When I play, I play slow, and I’m going through this mental Rolodex of different words while I’m playing. And because I’ve been free styling for so long, I’m able to improv shit so easily. Every time I grab the guitar, I get excited, bro! I just press record, play some chords, and I just come up with some content.
BW: So do you have a title yet for the upcoming album where all this content is going to end up?
G: Not yet.
BW: But it’s coming out in 2017?
G: Yeah, probably [released in] like March. My plan is to finish it by the end of October.
BW: You and I have spoken a bit about jazz, and you referenced [drummer] Elvin Jones to me recently, which I thought was cool.
G: It’s all about jazz, man. You know, like, that’s what I’ve been into a lot – especially lately. I grew up and it was like jazz, jazz, jazz. The records that changed me the most during my high school days were probably [the Miles Davis albums] Bitches Brew, the Jack Johnson record, Live Evil, In a Silent Way, Sketches of Spain, On the Corner, and of course Kind of Blue. I was heavy into Miles. The space in his music is what kind of changed me. That was the first head I ever saw perform, you know?
BW: Wow - You saw Miles live?
G: Yeah, I saw him in ’86 at the Playboy Jazz Festival when I was eight years old. That same year, I was also in my first performance, playing Helios the sun god in an opera. I had two singing parts, and then a month later, I went and saw Miles. So 1986 was a pretty powerful year for me, man. It’s been hard to top any shows since then, you know?
Gonjasufi's 2016 release, Callus, is out now on Warp Records