Omar Khan’s new album, Berkeley Blues, sounds like a faded, crinkled Polaroid of Downtown Berkeley. The songs flood your mind with nostalgia, down to the antiquated recording processes. A UC Berkeley music major, Khan takes painstaking effort to create the music he gives away on his Bandcamp website. Influenced by wispy, weepy anti-stars, titans of literature and everyday occurrences, Khan synthesizes genre-bending indie pop that sounds like your most inspired diary entry. He sat down with The Daily Californian to talk about making music, exploring and growing in Berkeley.
Daily Californian: So you just released Berkeley Blues, and it’s great. How did Berkeley influence your songwriting as opposed to (your native) LA?
Omar Khan: I guess the experiences were shaped by the city itself. I spent a lot of time living in Downtown Berkeley, a lot of time visiting CZ (Casa Zimbabwe student cooperative) — I wrote a lot of those songs before I moved in (to CZ) about the parties I’d go to or the friends I’d meet there.
So the city, I think, is just coincidental — just where I was at the time. My first album was about childhood, growing up, and I felt like this was the next chapter. I have no idea what the third will be like (laughs).
DC: You have no idea at all?
OK: Not even sonically. Like the first album was strictly acoustic, this one was limitless in terms of what instruments and sounds I would use. So, I really don’t know where to go right now.
DC: What kind of instrumentation did you use on Berkeley Blues that you’re especially proud of? What innovations meant the most to you?
OK: I think the most innovative thing I did was the use of backwards, or reverse, audio. And I even sampled myself, like old recordings I had made of acoustic instruments — reversed the audio itself. And it produced this strange, electronic sound, because all the natural decay of the instrument is being heard in reverse.
So if you say the word “cat,” you hear the attack of the “cat” and the decay of my voice in the ambience, in the root. If you hear it backwards, it fades in naturally and then stops abruptly. It’s really interesting if you apply that to a guitar or vocals or a flute.
DC: Do you like to use abrasive musicality as an antithesis to the melody of your voice? You have a soothing, melodic voice on your album.
OK: Oh, yeah (laughs). Which is very inspired by Sufjan and Eliot Smith and all those soft-speaking guys with throaty voices. I love that. I love the contrast. I was working a lot with contrast for this album.
DC: Can you talk a little more about contrast and how it affected you on this album?
OK: The use of contrast was inspired by using instruments symbolically. Because lyrics can do that really easily, but if you can turn instruments into a symbol, I think it penetrates you a lot harder.
A good example would be “Another Party.” About, you know, feelings of loneliness and isolation at a party. The entire time that song is playing, you have these huge, blaring drums. And people that I showed that song to beforehand told me to take the drums out, because it sounds so much better as an acoustic ballad. But the drums symbolize the party. It’s supposed to be abrasive; it’s supposed to contrast.
DC: More importantly, what’s your favorite cat meme and why?
OK: My favorite, and I have an answer for this (laughs), I put a lot of thought into this; it might be a tie now, but my favorite cat meme was, you know, the kitten with the really wide eyes that says, “You think this is a motherfucking game?” (laughs) That one. And my new favorite is almost exactly the same, it’s a different cat and in captions it says, “(Heavy breathing).”
DC: I’ve seen that one! (laughs)
OK: It’s so great! It’s just staring into an abyss!
DC: Do you have any last, burning thoughts you want to get out?
OK: Well, since a lot of my friends in Berkeley and LA are going to read this, I wanted to thank them for all the encouragement and support. A lot of people think they don’t contribute to something like this, but they totally do.
Even just five minutes of conversation or company on the balcony might inspire me musically or change me as a person. So I’d like to thank them for all the beautiful moments. I kind of co-run this art collective in LA called Paper Covers Rock, and those guys have helped me a lot, too. Because none of us are really in the music game, it’s a collective, not a label. I’d like to thank all those guys.