We were quick to fall in love with his minimalistic yet funky rhythms, his erudite and entertaining lyrics and, of course, the raw honesty with which he talks about his work. But Canadian drummer, producer and lyricist Alexander Cook AKA Azawka may just be his own best critic.
Today we are delighted to have had a chance to interview Azawka and have him answer, with utmost honesty, questions about his life, his unique sounds and processes, collaboration with the powerful vocalist Deanne Matley.
So, Alex, what's your back story?
I grew up in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on the East Coast of Canada. I got started in music by asking for a set of drums for Christmas when I was 12 years old. I really don’t know where that desire came from, my family didn’t have a history of musicians and it seemed to have come pretty much out of nowhere. I remember my parents being a bit sceptical and asking me several times if I was really positive that was what I wanted. Instruments are a commitment and big expense so I understand why they wanted to be sure it was something I really wanted. I was committed though and kept saying I wanted those drums, I’m not sure why but I was convinced I wanted to play the drums. I’m sure happy I got those drums though because drumming and music has been a central part of my life ever since!
During high school I played in a rock band and a jazz combo, and played in the school band. I went on the study classical percussion and musicology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I earned a Bachelor of Music and a Master’s of musicology. As I was studying music academically I developed an interest in electronic beat-making and rapping. During that period I played drums in a unique group called Dead Last. It was a live band with funky beats and some incredible MCs. That band continues to influence me to this day. After spending several years in Halifax I decided to move to Montreal and make a go of music as a full-time career.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your unique sounds?
The inspiration behind the sounds is basically a willingness to explore the possibilities with any sound, and that pretty much any sound can succeed musically under the right conditions. My musical sensibility is highly directed by rhythm and as a result I focus on finding rhythms that allow a particular sound to find its place in the music. I tend to shy away from harsher sounds; part of my commitment to groove involves staying away from too many high frequencies that may grate on the ear. As a result I do tend to go a bit overboard on the low end at times, but hey, we’ve all got things to work on, right!?
How about your stage name Azawka? Where did that come from?
The name Azawka originated with my interest in rapping. Rap is of course very rhythmic and uses lots of rhyming, but it’s also about the overall sound of the words being moulded together. So the words in rap are super important, but so is the sound of the words being strung together. I tried to create an interesting word that was fun to say and sounded cool, and had some less common letters all smashed together!
We absolutely adore Deanne's voice and Trapped reminds us so much of our trip-hop days! What led to the collaboration?
After a chance meeting in Montreal's Mile End, Deanne Matley and I quickly became friends. At that time I had recently relocated from Halifax, and Deanne was living in Calgary while making regular trips to Montreal to record and perform. Deanne decided to relocate to Montreal for her career, and we decided to live together as a way to support and inspire each other as we established ourselves.
Deanne is a professional jazz vocalist from Calgary, and I am a rock/hip hop-inspired drummer and producer from the Maritimes so we are kind of an unlikely match. Doing a collaboration track was not part of the original plan, but it developed organically, and we were both very satisfied with the results! We don’t live together anymore, but we loved working on “Trapped” and are in the process of working toward another collaboration.
What do you do when you're not making music?
When not making music I like to spend time with my girlfriend. We make food, we chat, she’s a furniture designer and artist in her own right so needless to say we live in an environment charged with “ideas” about “things” haha. We challenge each other’s ideas and processes, and although it can be challenging I think it forces me to be better.
I hang with friends too, but most of them are musicians or artists of some kind, so even though we’re just hanging out it almost always has some discussion of things that are at least somewhat music-related.
As you can probably tell, for the moment I’m pretty committed to musical pursuits. I’m working hard to make my love for music translate into a full-blown career. For the moment I’m happy spending most of my time doing some combination of creating, performing, and teaching music.
What are your greatest challenges making music?
I think my biggest challenge is accepting the music I create. I work hard to make the music as compelling as I can, and I am normally happy with the result, but I wouldn’t say it is my favourite music. It is strange to make your own music and for it not to be exactly what you love. But it’s what comes out, and I try my best to make it good, and I accept the end result.
I also deal a lot with evaluating my processes and priorities. Questioning my techniques and beliefs about making music. I keep my setup extremely simple, and approach the music with a minimalist, concise style. Sometimes I wonder if it’s too simple. Why is it so simple? Am I really demonstrating anything with this? Is this what matters? Is this what I’m about? Does it even matter? No, Alex, it doesn’t.
Can you share a little bit about your music making process with us? Oh, and also a little about your songwriting inspiration for each one of your tracks?
My process for making music can take different forms, but generally I start with either a bass line or a chord progression. Lately it has been bass lines, but that changes. I normally don’t bring drums in until I feel like I have something pretty funky without them, because if it’s funky before the drums come in then we can be sure it’s going to feel pretty darn good when they do. Azawka’s beats normally begin with sequenced sounds, I don’t use many loops that I didn’t create or samples. I enjoy composing from scratch, plus I don’t have to worry about clearing samples or infringing on anyone else’s work.
For the lyrics I tend to write verses over beats that inspire me, without necessarily committing any of the verses to a particular beat until it’s time to finalize a song. For hooks (choruses) I write more precisely for a specific beat. I put a lot of effort into trying to writing tight, concise, catchy hooks that are more targeted with their meaning than a verse (which can be a bit looser with jumping from idea to idea and different meanings). Once I have a hook I’m happy with then I will go through the verse raps and try to find something that fits. If I do then that’s great, if not I will write verse raps while keeping the hook in mind.
When I perform solo I use a super simple set up and run through the sequences on my beat machine while rapping. In the studio and for some live shows we commonly add some combination of live guitar, bass, and additional percussion.
“Random Eye”: Random Eye is basically just a happy-go-lucky funky jam. It’s fun and a little cheeky: two important elements in the Azawka’s style. The hook is a bit of a celebration of the fleeting nature of music, and how we revel in it in the moment and lost sight, albeit temporarily, of our earthly problems and concerns. We’re all groovin’ on this one, and that’s all there is to it!
“Ducks in a Row”: Ducks in a Row is like the Azawka anthem. It’s what I consider the entry song into the sound. The verses are a little on the heavy side considering the light-heartedness of the chorus, but they are also compassionate verses that highlight the importance of care and understanding. The hook is an all-out party, playing on the well-known theme of getting all your ducks in a row and reaping the rewards!
“Love Song”: The beat on Love Song is one of my favourites, and seems to resonate with a lot of audiences. Lyrically this song is a reflection of challenges associated with a variety of topics including family, friends, addiction, and overcoming painful experiences. It’s heavy, but it’s a hell of a jam!
What are you listening to at the moment?
For me this question is far more complicated than it should be. I took a long time to answer this one and I’m still not quite sure what to say. I don’t think I listen enough by most standards, and I should probably listen to more music. There are definitely some things I find that I really enjoy, and some go-to classic stuff that I’ve enjoyed for years. I tend not to listen enough and I think it’s frustrating for everyone, including me. I’ve heard some stuff over the years though, thankfully. In summary, if it has a great groove I’m always in to give it a listen, if not, I’m out the room, down the hall, and out the front door!
How have things been during the COVID situation in Canada? How has it impacted your work?
COVID has had a huge impact on the performing arts in Canada. Where I’m living (Montreal) there are no shows allowed, no gathering for shows at all. The inability to perform live has been really challenging, but it has pushed me to produce at a rate I have never achieved before. I’ve produced a ton of beats, so many that I’m now opening an official Azawka Sound Beat Store where rappers/artists will be able to have access to the Azawka sound for their own projects!
What's the future looking like for you?
Azawka has a single coming out in spring 2021 that I’m really excited about, and with any luck another EP in the summer. I’ve started producing a ton of beats during 2020 and am now producing for some talented rappers that have an appreciation for what I do. I absolutely love producing beats for other artists and trying to help them along their journey as I pursue my own. So lots of beats, and lots of producing.
As a drummer I hope to go back to performing once the pandemic has eased and live shows make their glorious return. It’s hard to know when that will be, but I’ve been practising and keeping my chops up, so I’ll be ready!
I also love teaching what I know, which is basically only music stuff, but I plan to continue teaching drumming and producing as long as I am able.