Talisk — Interview
Facing The Dawn With Talisk’s Mohsen Amini Ahead Of Their North American Tour
Scottish Modern Folk Trio Talisk were forced to return home on one of the last flights out of Nashville during a tour due to the pandemic in 2020, but happily are now are returning to the USA in February of 2022 for a North American tour kicking off in Alaska before making their way south. Talisk are particularly known for their high-energy live shows and this tour will feature Mohsen Amini, Graeme Armstrong, and Benedict Morris fusing concertina, guitar, and fiddle to produce Talisk’s multi-layered sound.
2020 and 2021 were not without some high points for the group, crafting and building their third album Dawn, out February 11th, and also playing on BBC Scotland for their New Year’s Eve celebrations. We spoke with Talisk’s “mastermind” and concertina player Mohsen Amini by video from Scotland shortly before New Year about all the things that Dawn represents for the trio and their current creative direction.
Americana Highways: I understand Talisk had an interesting New Year’s Eve with the BBC.
Mohsen Amini: Well, we actually prerecorded it, so I was in Vienna. I also timed it so that I could watch it on television while I’m there.
AH: That’s the best of both worlds! Did they have requests about what you should play?
MA: We got asked to do it, and they said, “These are the tracks we’d love you to play.” They looked at what they like, and if there had been songs we really wanted to play, we would have asked them, but they actually picked our two favorite sets. We were happy with that! We had to shorten them a little bit, which meant going into the studio to work that out, because they generally wants sets to be three minutes thirty seconds, and ours tend to be six minutes.
AH: I noticed that you do have longer sets! I did also see on Instagram that your song “Echo” is getting a new release as “Echo 22.” What led to that decision?
MA: The thing is, when we started the band, it was myself and a different guitarist and fiddle player. The song “Echo” is our biggest track, so we reworked it a little bit to feature the band who is currently playing the gigs. We had some versions we’d played through the years, so we combined them to make it what it is now.
AH: That makes perfect sense. I’ve known artists to rerecord their early albums entirely due to changing key or approach. You mentioned changes in lineup. Can you tell us a little bit about Benedict joining Talisk, since he’s your newest member?
MA: Benny has played whenever we’ve had to get someone in to play fiddle, and he’s one of my best mates. I’ve known him since I was very young. Even in my other bands, we’d get Benny to play. I had actually encouraged him to join another band, telling him that he’d be an idiot not to do it! Then, when Hayley Keenan knew that she would be leaving, she suggested we ask Benedict. I had to tell Benny that I took back everything that I had said! But it literally took us about a week to write the new album and then we went into the studio to record it.
AH: You almost shot yourself in the foot with that one! Tell me a little bit about working on the album Dawn in comparison to your previous ones. Was your songwriting impacted by Covid at all?
MA: I would say that Covid had no impact at all on the songwriting. We could get into rehearsal studios and recording studios and there was no problem with writing and recording. The only thing is that we usually make music, take it on the road, then gage the reaction, and then we come back and record it. We don’t change it to a great degree, but we change it to the degree that it works for us and the crowd. That was the only difference. Instead of that, we showed the music to a few friends who we respect musically before recording, and worked like that.
In regards to the music, Talisk changes with every single album, not exactly in style, but in terms of how it has progressed towards being Talisk. With the first album, we were finding our feet. Then with our second album, we started using loads of effects and pedals with a more produced sound. Then with this one, the production values have increased even more, with more effects. It includes our use of live samples and sounds. One thing, though, is that we always want to be able to play the music live, so that’s always a little tricky to maneuver.
Nowadays, it’s hilarious because I have something like twelve different pedals on stage. Honestly, there’s so much to it for a trio. We have something like eighteen channels, so there’s a lot going on. I think most people in lockdown got software to record on, like ProTools, and we all got that, too, and got really into it. We all have a basic knowledge now of how to do things ourselves. That opened up a lot of options for us. I think the production values on Dawn are more in tune with what we want to do, and I’m delighted with the results.
AH: Listening to Dawn, I was wondering if you were making life hard for yourselves in terms of live playing, but the layers are so interesting and bring so much nuance to the songs. This album reminds me a little bit of a concept album due to its structure with an introduction and an interlude. Where does your interest in that set-up come from?
MA: I think of albums as journeys as opposed to ten tracks. I hate the idea of putting on an album and each track being completely different. Any album that’s made can have connections that take it from being an assemblage of tracks to being a whole piece of music. Scotland, in general, pushes the boundaries of traditional music and runs gigs more like shows. I suppose we’re just influenced by the people around us and what they are doing. I also listen to soundtracks of movies, where songs flow into each other, and it takes you to a specific place. I think it’s a result of being in the Scottish music scene and wanting to tell a story as opposed to playing a tune. It’s quite hard to tell a story when you’re not using words.
AH: It occurs to me that your experience planning sets for live shows might influence how you present an arc of music on an album, thinking about what audiences can handle in terms of pace and process.
MA: That’s the thing, if you listen to the “Intro” on the album, that’s what we now use live and play while we’re walking on. That makes for a great live show. We played the songs from Dawn at shows in November and December and there are only two tracks we haven’t played live.
AH: You have a nice live video out for “Aura,” and I get a sense from that what your live shows are like. Was that a goal when making the video?
MA: We probably won’t do this for America, but we generally take a light tech wherever we go. It’s more like an EDM concert when you come to see Talisk rather than a traditional Folk concert. [Laughs] We have live videos out there, and the best one is the Cambridge Folk Festival, where we play “Dystopia,” which is on the album. It’s hard to get that vibe without having a crowd there.
AH: I have to ask about the song “Beast” from the new album because it sounds like you’ve played that live. That’s a very extreme song in terms of pace and energy and I can see it becoming a favorite. Where do you put that in a set?
MA: We build the set up. We start with the “Intro,” then we build it up, bring it down, then build it right up. And then it’s “Beast,” “Farewell,” then “Dystopia.”
AH: When writing a song like “Beast,” that has such a driving energy to it, does it start with that premise?
MA: Sometimes they start differently. Our last album had one that was really gentle that then became really massive. But I think “Beast” was always quite a big one. There’s a riff about half way through it that’s how it started. Then we put loads of octave pedals on it and it became really massive, so we thought, “Let’s absolutely slam the life out of this!” It is about 140 BPM, about as fast as you can go.
AH: It sounds like the maximum of what a human can do. “Dystopia” is a two-parter, which is really fits with the whole idea of a more structured album. Something that was surprising about “Dystopia Part 1” is that, based on the title, I expected it to feel like a downer, but it didn’t. How important are titles to you?
MA: I do like having a good title for a song, and I like when it means something. “Dystopia” is a cool name, but it came from the idea of a dystopian future where everything is mechanical, and a bit crazy, and a bit too wild. I do think the track comes across as exactly that. But I do also think tracks grow into their names.
AH: How do “Part 1” and “Part 2” fit together for you? If they were put together, would they really just be all one track?
MA: Oh yes, it is one track. I’ve always wanted to put a song on and for it to be banging right away. At that part, where you go from Part 1 into Part 2, it is absolutely massive. That’s Talisk. It just goes “Bang!” Though when you see on an album that a track is seven and a half minutes long, that’s pretty daunting to play, so separating it makes sense.
AH: I do feel like “Dystopia Part 2” gets almost electronic. There are some experiments there that you’ll have to pursue.
MA: Yes, that became the sound of Talisk and what we’re pushing towards now. Basically, it’s just a synth pad that’s connected to my computer, and I just play with my feet. It’s a quality techno vibe and I absolutely love it. I love the idea of being a three-piece with no drum kit, and just a concertina, guitar, and a fiddle. People are thinking, “What’s happening here?” And I don’t know, either. [Laughs]
AH: How would you feel is something like “Dystopia” was part of a soundtrack? Do you like the idea of the music working with visual elements?
MA: I love it! Absolutely. Maybe someone will take us up on that and put “Dystopia” in the next Transformers movie.
AH: Is there a storytelling element on the album that relates to the dawn of the album’s title?
MA: It all kind of works towards light. “Aura” is the light you give off. “Surya” is the Greek god of the skies, or the sun god. So it works as introducing your own light to the sun god, to the light of day, then it starts getting dark. That’s when the storm comes, and then there’s “Beast.” Though it’s not exactly meant like this, I supposed it’s kind of creation to destruction. When you listen to the album, everything on the album up towards the mid-point is major, happier, and quite high energy, then it starts getting gritty and dark. That’s the sort of idea we had for it. It’s almost like a night out!
AH: That’s everyone’s New Year’s Eve, I’m sure. I noticed that on “The Light of Day” you used actual water sounds, which made me think of storms on the ocean. There’s a major elemental feeling there.
MA: We wanted to make that happen. Originally, we were going to base things around a nature theme with a nod towards climate change. We did have that idea in mind, but more generally, we think nature is amazing, so why not bring it into an album? It’s so powerful. There’s nothing more powerful than a storm. It’s the most powerful thing in the world, so we wanted to bring that and the music together.
AH: Are you going to be playing most of Dawn on the North American tour?
MA: Our plan is to play most of the album since it’s the Dawn tour, but I don’t know that our best show would be playing an entire album. We have certain sets with the same vibe that we can interchange, so over the course of the tour, you’ll hear the whole album. We’ll also put some stuff from the first and second album in since it makes for a brilliant show, but we’ll definitely play “Dystopia” every single night! That is the highest, smack-in-the-face energy that we’ve ever come up with, so until we find something better than that, it’ll be an absolute staple. But I guarantee that we will find something better than that!
The album really is brilliant and spectacular. Discover more about Talisk and their popular new album here:
Find more new Americana music on our playlist, here: New Americana Music playlist by Americana Highways