For those people who are not familiar with Armen Ra or the Theremin you are in for a treat. Being one of the premier Thereminists around he has worked with Current 93 on HoneySuckle Æons, Grinderman, Antony and The Johnsons, and Marc Almond to name a few. So we finally decided to conduct an interview to see what goes on in the head of Armen Ra. Expect gorgeousness!
P: Where are you from originally?
ArmenRa: I was born in pre revolutionary Iran… while vacationing with my family in Europe one summer, the revolution happened and we not able to ever return home. So we came to the US where we had some family, and thought we would would wait for it to subside, alas we are still here… and some of us in “heaven”
P. You were very young when you left Iran, was there a sense of culture shock when you came to the United States in any way?
ArmenRa: Yes and no. We had already been to the US several times on vacation, and we had family here. My mother and sister already spoke English but I didn’t. The shock of not returning to Iran was most severe. It didn’t seem real. Also being separated from my Father who was to remain in Iran for many years after unable to leave the country.
P: What was your childhood like? Was your family interested in music?
ArmenRa: I was immersed in music. Mother and Aunt were classical musicians educated at Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome. My aunt was a Musicologist and famous Opera singer who taught piano as well. So I was always at the Opera or playing under the piano, while she was
My Father played the sax and listened to jazz r&b blues etc… and my sister was listening to rock and roll and pop and disco… meanwhile Armenian and Persian music was everywhere since we are Armenians who lived in Iran at this time. I sang, played the drums and piano, mostly playing around and “improvising” The ear was always very good, probably because of the environment.
P: Would you say that growing up in an environment with an appreciation for music, and being exposed to music from different genres and cultures gave you the foundation to pursue music?
ArmenRa: Yes, absolutely. I would never have the ear or references etc… My mother and aunt really set a foundation for me to do whatever I want with. Not necessarily because I was supposed to be some great musician, I had no real talent in playing anything as a child. What I did have was interest and that is what they fed.
P: When you were in school did you have music classes? And if so was there a particular instrument that you were drawn to?
ArmenRa: Yes I sang in choir and had a good voice and pitch. I was drawn to the violin as well as the piano, but was not serious enough to get anywhere. Over all I was always just drawn to sublime classical and melancholy music. I had no idea I would be playing this magnificent contraption one day.
P: What would you say initially drew you to the Theremin?
ArmenRa: The haunting sound and manner of playing without touching. It still excites me when I think about it. It’s the voice I always wanted. Music conjured from nothing.
P: For quite some time you were based on the East Coast in NYC, were your first performances there? what would you say was your ‘big break’ into music performance? How did that first performance come about?
ArmenRa: I was a part of the downtown drag, art and “theater” scene for many years. Working and performing in clubs. I got the theremin in 2001 and three months after starting I was asked to play with Antony and the Johnsons. It was a beautiful show, everyone in NY was there, one of our friends was dying or had just died of an OD and I played a solo with the orchestra. After that I started getting local bookings in NY. I really learned how to play it in front of people. I practiced all the time, but the dynamic of having an audience is so different.
P: After learning the Theremin for only three months you were asked to play with Antony and the Johnsons, were you nervous at all? I saw Antony around the same time and those earlier shows mere nothing short of magical.
ArmenRa: I played for Antony over the phone and he asked me to do a solo, while our friend Sister Dimension did a bizarre lip synch to it. Antonys music and voice are truly Magik and always were. Indeed I was nervous as all hell! I had never played in public! I wore lots of make up, jewelry and a backless sequin gown to “dazzle” the audience in case it was a flop, I played very well though.. The audience exploded. Perhaps for the jewels? ha.
P: After so many years on the East Coast, why the change of scenery for LA?
ArmenRa: Several reasons. Mainly my family had relocated to LA from Boston. I was very tired of NY after being there from the age of 16… I had been coming to LA all my life even when we lived in Iran and ALWAYS wanted to live here. The weather, flowers, colors, isolation, vast space, and not to mention it’s the ENTERTAINMENT CAPITOL OF THE WORLD! hello?
P: In addition to releasing your first cd, you have also toured with Grinderman as well, how did that come about?
ArmenRa: David Tibet introduced my music to Nick Cave and he asked me to join the tour. It was some trip I tells ya. The tour was very good for my career, and one of the most difficult experiences of my life. I was not used to playing for thousands of people who were NOT there to see me. I had to win over the crowd at every show, and I did!
P: If I recall correctly your Theremin suffered some damage as well, hopefully that situation was remedied.
ArmenRa: My poor Octavia was beaten back stage. No one knows “what happened” I heard a few rumors, alas it was smashed and no one would take responsibility for it. Thanx to the guys at Moog in Asheville and a few thousand dollars from my silk purse it was remedied.
P: You also played on Honeysuckle Aeons by Current 93, how did this come about? What was the recording process like, being that the band members are spread out globally?
ArmenRa: Due to the generosity of my friend Baby D for introducing my music to David Tibet and Marc Almond. It was an honor to work with C93. I also recorded on Marc Almonds album Variete’ on the track My Madness and I. Marc is another artist that I am honored to have worked with. He is very kind professional and generous, we will be working together again soon.
The process was very “modern”. I was emailed basic tracks, played whatever came to me over them, and sent them back… all through the interweb. Fabulous! I love recording at home more than anything, because I can do it ALONE.
P: In addition to you being a stunning Thereminist, you are also visually stunning, are there any videos in the works?
ArmenRa: Thanx. Well I’ve made some videos myself which can be seen on my youtube page,… Also there is a big film project in the works… much more than just a video, but it will include complete musical performances.
P: Now that you are on the West Coast what does Armen Ra do for a good time?
ArmenRa: Stare at myself in the mirror, what else? Also I have been hosting parties with my friend Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons at chic hotels and lounges, so there is a new injection of socializing and friends that has been very inspiring and refreshing. Creative young people who appreciate and respect me… I love my babies.
P: Any performances?
ArmenRa: For the most part I have been recording and learning new pieces and planning. There were several illnesses and subsequent deaths in the family which required a lot of my time and nerves. I needed a break from performing. I played at The Sunset Strip Music Festival and several private parties and a few appearances with musician friends. I have a new manager now and we are working on a lot of exciting projects at the moment. As soon as they are confirmed there will be information on my website ARMENRA.COM and FB fan page.
P: The Theremin is considered the first electronic instrument but it is also an instrument that doesn’t need to be touched in order to make a sound, is there in a sense, a special rapport the player has with the instrument?
ArmenRa: It is indeed the first electronic instrument, and the only musical instrument played without touching. I immediately had a rapport with it. It seemed the instrument and I are both equally unique/strange. Regardless of the instrument, a musician must achieve great technique, then be able to be free and able to play with soul, and that creates an emotional experience and connection with the listener.
P: I love your interpretation of The Crane by Komitas, it is an exceptionally moving piece, what drew you to his work?
ArmenRa: Komitas is the “patron saint “of classical Armenian music. He was responsible for collecting and transcribing the ancient folk and religious music for posterity. He was also a composer, conductor, singer and musicologist. He was educated in Europe and well known and respected. His music is very important to all Armenians. He went “mad” after witnessing the atrocities of the genocide and died in an asylum. I was moved by his music since childhood and always felt a deep connection with him.There is a lot of information about him on the internet
for those who are interested..
P: Where does your inspiration come from?
ArmenRa: Beauty in all of its forms….
P: Not to delve into politics too much, what are your views on the Turkish governments denial of the Armenian genocide?
ArmenRa: At this point the entire world knows what happened regarding the Armenian Genocide.It is fact, with media and witness documentation. There are NY times articles from 1915 asking the world to step in and stop the massacre of innocent Armenians. Newsreel footage, survivors…Much like the Holocaust, the world did nothing but watch.The more denial there is, the more publicity and discussion. Its quite counterproductive for turkey to continue their ignorant and egotistical denial. It makes them look like fools and uncivilized, which they are. History will not be re written this time bitches.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler, 1939
P: Are you working on new material? Will there be any promotion? Guest performers?
ArmenRa: Yes I am working on a new album with classical musicians yet to be determined,and the previously mentioned film project. There will surely be promotion… I also recorded with Horror Queen Sharon Needles on her first album. Dear friends Amanda Lepore and Jayne County are also on the album. Jayne and I played at CBGB’s together years ago and did a show with Nina Hagen…. Amanda is one of my best friends, it was great being in the studio with good friends,we all had a blast! The album will be out soon.
P: Any favorite films?
ArmenRa: Oh dear, here we go…… too many to mention, but these are just a few….
Nazimova’s Salome, and Camille
Whatever happened to baby jane
Color of Pomegranates
Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra
Night of the iguana/anything Tennessee Williams!
The Scarlet Empress
I could go on and on….
P: You mentioned that the new release will have classical musicians, would this be Eastern or Western classical? Although your new release is still in the works, could you possibly give us some idea what to expect sound-wise?
ArmenRa: Expect gorgeousness! I’d like to do an album of European classical and operatic material. In my concerts and videos I play a lot of Arias and interpretations of Chopin and Bach etc… Meanwhile working on modern sounds with beats and synths for other projects which will be available to the public next year.
P: A question about time travel. If you could travel back in time, what time period would you go to? Would there be a particular person you would want to speak to? Would this be wisdom gained or wisdom imparted?
ArmenRa: Talk about a loaded question! I could write a book of answers to this question…. The obvious answer is both gained and imparted. Ancient Egypt, Paris 1926.Perhaps I would go to my own first incarnation and speak to it and try to be as innocent again… or visit Marilyn Monroe to reassure her…. embrace Chopin warmly soothing his frail body with compassion…I’d also like to talk to someone about Mozart getting a proper funeral!
Photos courtesy of Tim Palen
Interview conducted by Paddy