Edward Burnett chats to indie-rock act Howlin' Circus, aka Jafar Sandouk, about his motives for starting a musical career, his favourite food and his love for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
RnRR: Hi! First of all, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers and what you do?
HC: Hey, I’m Jafar from Howlin’ Circus. I sing, play guitar and write the songs.
RnRR: So where are you based and how does that, if it does, play into the music that you produce?
HC: I’m based in Toronto now. I moved from London, UK a few years ago. What I write and produce tries to connect to the core of the emotions that bind us, irrespective of place although it’s always grounded in the present. Toronto has an incredible music scene. So many good musicians pushing each other to improve.
RnRR: Yes, we’ve had a few guests from the Canadian music scene feature on Spotlight before showing the country’s knack for being the hub of quality indie-rock music. What’s your favourite thing about living in Toronto?
HC: Well during a pandemic it ain’t too fun. Yesterday I saw a grown adult woman taking a shit right onto the street just outside my window. I miss the good live music venues. The city has a lot of cool neighbourhoods which are all pretty self contained so you never need to venture too far for whatever you need.
RnRR: So how did you first get into music? What made you decide to do it for a living and not just as a hobby?
HC: There’s a lot in life that can’t be easily expressed. I always found it easiest to tune into my vulnerability with a guitar on my lap. Pain is that universal constant. You can’t really avoid it and I think music’s that one thing I’ve always been ok suffering for. It’s also a lot of fun obviously!
RnRR: Do you find other motivations other than pain when writing music? Does love ever factor into the process and your own personal experiences of this?
HC: Love and light are always there even in the darkest moments. And it’s always personal in some way. The very act of recognising the pain we suffer can be cathartic. It’s a recognition of some kind of truth that often goes unspoken. I feel like that’s what music is often about: tapping into the truths we so rarely feel comfortable acknowledging. And that includes “all you need is love”.
RnRR: So while we are still covering your earliest musical memories, what was your first ever guitar? What did it mean to you having the tool to create on a musical level?
HC: It was my sister’s acoustic guitar that she was learning on. It was one of those very cheap starter guitars. She gave up on learning years before and I found it in storage one summer and decided I’ll try to learn. It took me a long time to get any good at it. There wasn’t any moment where it all came together - I just kept trying and failing to get good at it and when I was ok on guitar I couldn’t quite sing with it. I’d lose hours playing it and nothing else really mattered when I got into it.
RnRR: On a similar vein, let’s talk about your musical influences. I know that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were a big one for you, tell us more about the impact their early albums had on your musical career. Also who else inspired you to follow suit and perform music professionally?
HC: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are a big influence for me. Growing up I was always looking for music that had honesty, heart and soul, whatever the genre. They can have a heavy rock song and a sweet acoustic folk song played on the same night. I was also into a lot of old blues. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Etta James. That got me playing blues bars in London. I’d join these jam sessions every week to learn how to play with other musicians. Someone just shouts at the key and counts you in. I’ve always loved the spontaneity of music.
RnRR: Is Howlin’ Wolf where you got some inspiration for your act’s name? On this line of inquiry the occasional song of yours bares reference to B.R.M.C. with ‘Let Your Love Burn Out’ which is both similar in name and nature to ‘Love Burns’. Would you say this similar style of indie-rock has always been your end goal when it comes to genre aspirations?
HC: The name Howlin’ Circus was inspired in part by Howlin’ Wolf. I liked the idea of a circus. A sort of place where misfits and outsiders call home. I always felt a bit like an outsider. I liked the love songs that focused on regret, pain, that had a more real view. You can’t have incredible love and romance without that part too. I always appreciate honesty in music. Though as much as I’m inspired by the past I think we’re seeing across the board in art a desire to try new things and give a platform to new ideas. I’m trying to put my reality and experiences into my music as much as possible - and also the reality of the world as it stands today.
RnRR: Could you tell us more about your perspective of being the outsider and it showing in your music?
HC: As much as I can find a way to connect in a lot of the music I grew up with I didn’t really hear music from someone like me. Maybe that’s what ultimately got me into playing music. I’m the son of Iraqi immigrants who moved to the U.K. from Baghdad. That city has been bombed so often and that’s a big reason why anyone in the west even knows it exists. We’ve been demonised and considered less worthy than those we grew up around. I never really felt accepted as British growing up and I didn’t feel like I was fully accepted as Iraqi either. Art, be it music, TV, or whatever, is always richer when we get a new perspective on things. And some people out there might find it interesting to hear my perspective.
RnRR: So would it be fair to say you found solace in art when you felt rejected from the world? What are your plans moving forward with your music career as well? Any plans for new singles or gigs?
HC: Definitely. And it’s a way to find your place in the world. I’m working on new songs at the moment. I’m not sure when it’ll be possible to play shows. In Canada there’s talk of doing social distanced shows. There’s already been a few drive-in shows but if we can’t do it right then I’m happy to just wait it out. What’s positive about this period, if we can find something good in it, is it’s been a lot of time indoors, which has allowed me to just focus on the music and nothing else. I’m playing around more with different sounds, taking my time with it.
RnRR: So while we are on the topic of the future and your music, where would you like to be? Would you want to have a few albums released and be attracting larger crowds or is it more important to you to improve the music rather than fame? Aim in moderation or is the sky the limit in your opinion?
HC: All you can do is focus on the music. Once you start thinking about how people will receive it and if they’ll like it, share it, and all that, then being true to yourself becomes more challenging. Part of why we get drawn to artists is the authenticity. It’s hard to stay true when you’re thinking about whether or not this person or that person will like it. It’s definitely hard to keep your mind from going there. I guess we all want some sort of validation but you have to be content with your own.
RnRR: Let’s move away from the music now for a second, what would you say your biggest interests are other than music? Have you picked up any new hobbies or talents throughout this year’s lockdown?
HC: I’ve been reading a lot lately. Maybe it’s all the time spent at home. I’ve definitely got more patience to sit and finish a book in a day or two than I did before. Since lockdown restrictions relaxed a bit I’m back playing football (soccer over here). I’ve also been cooking a lot more. Making my own pasta from scratch and even pesto. There’s time for all that now but it would also be nice to go hug friends and family.
RnRR: What have you been reading? Are you a big football fan? Do you support a team in particular?
HC: 'Say Nothing' by Patrick Radden Keefe which is all about the Troubles. Unsurprisingly there was no mention of it when I was at school in London, so I really wanted to learn more about it. I also recently finished Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, which is about the effort to uncover Harvey Weinstein's many crimes. And most recently Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Music-related, I recommend Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom, all about the early 2000s rock n roll revival in New York. I'm a big football fan but the kind that watches pretty much any team in the Premier League. I grew up supporting Blackburn Rovers because they had Alan Shearer, who was my favourite player at the time. I still try to catch their games but they're rarely ever on TV here in Canada.
RnRR: Staying on this break from music, what would you say you’re go-to meal is? Our last guest, Nina Anto, is a big fan of Italian food and especially pasta. Whereas other guests like Charity Shop Pop are more supporters of pizza. What’s your favourite meal?
RnRR: Great choice! So back to the music side, whats your next project, do you have something in mind, or is it a go as you come scenario? Any grand plans for delving into different genres or stick to what you enjoy?
HC: I’ve got a few songs in the works at the moment. I haven’t yet decided how I’ll be releasing them, whether it’s just singles, an EP or a full album. The process of doing it all at home during lockdown has given me the chance to delve into all kinds of sounds. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop lately, taking inspiration from the drums. I’ve been listening to old Arabic music, hearing some of the beautiful vocal melodies and string sections. With the home studio set up I’ve got in lockdown I’ve been able to play with all types of sounds. You might hear those influences on the new songs.
RnRR: I look forward to hearing them. I know indie-rock always benefits from a heavier presence of drums thanks to hip hop such as the first album released by the Arctic Monkeys. We’ve mentioned BRMC already but would you say that the Arctic Monkeys are also an inspiration in many of your songs?
HC: Maybe they were an inspiration by osmosis. I wasn’t a proper fan but they were always on the radio or a friend was playing their songs when I’d go over. You can’t always be certain where all your inspiration comes from but they’re a great band and if anyone thinks Howlin’ Circus sounds like Arctic Monkeys I’ll take that.
RnRR: So one of the biggest casualties that COVID has dealt the music world is the postponement of live gigs and festivals. How much have you missed both performing at and attending live shows and venues? What are your plans for returning to normality on this front?
HC: I’ve missed it a lot but not as much as being able to hug friends and family. Maybe normal wasn’t so great because independent venues were closing down even before the pandemic. But going out to see live music is so important. Hopefully this moment can help everyone appreciate that and figure out a way to bring back live music in a way that was even better than before and we can do more to protect independent venues. I’m trying to put it out of my mind for now because it’s impossible to tell when we’ll be able to all hug each other at a show and let loose and spread love rather than worry about spreading a virus.
RnRR: Finally, the signature Spotlight question and arguably, most important. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only pick one album to play for the rest of your days, what are you choosing and why?
HC: ‘Howl’ by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I’m actually listening to it right now. It’s got some blues and gospel influences, a lot of Americana and folk. From start to finish it’s beautiful. There’s not enough of that vulnerability in rock and roll. And it’s a courageous record, considering there was all this expectation on them to just release a loud punk rock record. I think it showed me you can be more than just one thing.
RnRR: A perfect choice which is befitting of your own musical act. Thank you for your time and we will be sure to update the page of news of any of your upcoming releases.
If you would like to find out more about Jafar and Howlin' Circus, all his socials, including his YouTube channel with his music videos, are below via the icons: