Ilirjana Alushaj: A One-Girl Revolution
Published June 15, 2011
ILIRJANA ALUSHAJ. PHOTO BY MICHAEL NIKA
Chances are good you’ve seen Ilirjana Alushaj around. Whether you get draw inspiration from FACT or street style blogs, or simply roam about Bushwick warehouse parties, you’ve more than likely had an Illy encounter—or five. Just at a glance, she seems like someone you should know: tall, commanding, omnicultural. So, what does she do exactly? The short answer: probably more than you do. Illy is a striking Australian-raised, Brooklyn-based creative powerhouse who boasts the most exotic name in indie music: a one-girl revolution who actively runs three music projects, not to mention her own magazine and record label. She’s a popular musical ambassador to the New York fashion tribes.
A busy summer awaits: Illy will be DJing in Europe, releasing a single under her solo alias Typical Girls, and touring and recording new material with her tribal pop band Apache Beat. Between prowling stages and hijacking studios, she’ll be focusing on her duties as mistress-in-command of The Pop Manifesto, her fringe culture quarterly and record label. Interview caught up with Alushaj recently—as she prepares to take off for Los Angeles to DJ a show with art collective NewVillager. She tells us to be on the lookout for two debut EPs from Blood Diamonds and Magic Mountain, as well as the launch of the Manifesto‘s eighth issue, which features avant-pop artists Puro Instinct, Geoff Barrow, How To Dress Well, and Gang Gang Dance, among others.
COLLEEN NIKA: Let’s discuss your magazine, The Pop Manifesto, since you’re about to launch a new issue. What is the Manifesto?
ILIRJANA ALUSHAJ: It’s an online quarterly intended to capture new, up-and-coming creative people and ideas that aren’t necessarily being covered by other magazines. Originally, The Pop Manifesto was going to be a literal manifesto—I thought of the name years ago, in school, when I was heavily interested in social and political theories. I liked the idea of producing a piece of personal propaganda. Instead, I decided to make it a magazine. [laughs] NIKA: So, The Pop Manifesto is really another name for The Ilirjana Manifesto?
ALUSHAJ: Kind of. I do cater to my own tastes. For example, I really love to feature strong women as often as possible—I’ve featured Hanin Elias [German electronic crusader; former Atari Teenage Riot member] and Cosey Fanni Tutti [high priestess of industrial]. This issue—our eighth—would have featured Poly Styrene, but she died in between interviews. It’s always going to be a celebration of what I find interesting, rather than what’s trendy to cover.
NIKA: When and why did The Pop Manifesto also become a record label?
ALUSHAJ: Well, you know, I’ve also liked music for many, many years. The idea of starting a label appealed to me for awhile, but it became a reality last year. I have so many friends with labels, obviously, and I realized as someone who already has handled press from the editorial and talent end, that it wouldn’t be that hard to add a label to the equation. The costs are minimal, as it is all digital. So, I have five artists signed to the label at the moment. The first was Magic Mountain, who creates beautiful tech-house music. We have two new EPs on the label coming out—for those, I am considering trying to release some sort of tangible product. Not necessarily a CD or vinyl, but something strange, like an installation.
NIKA: What else is on the docket for this summer?
ALUSHAJ: Apache Beat will be touring as a band at the end of the summer. We’re not a heavily touring band, because we all have really different schedules. And we’re working on upgrading our live set-up, to keep it fresh. We’ve added a lot of electronics to our own live sound—we’ve incorporated a modified drum kit, synths, various effects. And we’re always writing new stuff—it’s a continual process. There will probably be a final single release from Last Chants this summer while we tour and work on new material. I’m also going to be DJing in Europe and doing press for all my projects.
NIKA: Last Chants came out last year, but seems to have grown legs—people are still talking about it. Can you walk us through what the recording of that album was like?
ALUSHAJ: It took us a year-and-a-half on and off to make it. I went to Australia for a month, plus all five of us have day jobs, so finding time to write the record together could be a bit challenging! We finally sat down and figured out a month to finalize everything. We produced it ourselves in Brooklyn with the help of Martin Bisi and John Agnello, who produced The Kills and Sonic Youth. We felt like they were kindred spirits and understood our music. We’re all really indecisive, so having that outside influence helped us make the record we wanted. It would have taken us even longer otherwise!
NIKA: You’ve claimed you never intended to be a singer. So, how did you end up as Apache Beat’s frontwoman?
ALUSHAJ: I didn’t sing when I was younger; I played instruments. It’s not like anyone in my family thought of me as a singer or anything. When I started to play in bands with other people, I learned I could hold a note… and so, I sort of defaulted into that role. I know what I sound good singing: I’m not going to sing falsetto. I know my range pretty well and how to use it effectively. But I’m not a conventional vocalist, at all.
NIKA: Apache Beat’s sound also is unconventional—at times it seems to be the product of non-Western influences. Do you find your audience equally eclectic?
ALUSHAJ: Well, a lot of our influences are non-Western: we listen to a lot of Asian, especially Cambodian music. Our sound is tribal and bass-heavy—we use a lot of reverb. It seems like our music does translate well to a global audience: the Europeans seem to really like our music, especially places like Spain. We like looking on Twitter and seeing people in varying languages commenting on our music.
NIKA: Unlike many musicians, you formally studied sound engineering in school. How has it impacted your ear for good music?
ALUSHAJ: Back in Australia, I earned digital media degree in sound design and installation. I have a good ear for mixing, I’ve been doing it since I was 17. I know keys, how to play instruments—it all helps. I play bass, drums, and keyboards. I’m really interested in how music is made and mixed—which is why I love a lot of commercial pop music other people dismiss. From a production standpoint, it is often amazing. My advice for writing an instant hit: write a killer wordless chorus!
NIKA: Outside of your own label and music, what are you listening to these days?
ALUSHAJ: Lately, I love The Weeknd, Greatest Hits, Laurel Halo. But I also listen to a lot of James Blake, Fantastic Mr Fox, Guido—all those kids who do insane mixing; it’s like punk dance music. Oh, and I love Jamie Woon—mainly the way he uses his vocals. It’s pop but really weird, provocative pop.