Interview with Symptom.Error
by Alyna Loucine Paddon
Yerevan-based experimental electronic duo Symptom.error are continuously producing original music, in addition to boldly creating space for new interpretations of traditional melodies, giving them a notable presence in Armenia’s flourishing Underground electronic music scene since 2017. This month, they are traveling overseas to play shows at La Poubelle Magnifique in Montreal on November 19th and at Drom Taberna in Toronto, December 5th. I sat down with longtime friends Sonia and Amasia to discuss their upcoming Canadian tour, and the November 4th release of their debut album, Ex-Crisis.
How did you two meet, and when did Symptom.error come about?
Amasia: The band started as a project in high school. At first we were actually a punk band. We began making electronic music when a teacher encouraged us to experiment with Ableton, and we started pursuing electronic music because we felt that there were fewer limitations in sound.
Sona: When we began to experiment with Ableton we felt that electronic music gave us more freedom to distort and manipulate sound to convey specific feelings.
How would you describe Symptom.error?
Amasia: It's hard to describe because it changes with us, and compared to what we were doing a few years ago it's very different. It still keeps its core identity, but this project is really a reflection on our experiences and our growth.
Sona: I feel that Symptom.error is an experience to be shared with the audience. To be at the concert and to experience the sound and energy in the room is a beautiful feeling.
Is that something that drew you towards the Underground culture as well, being able to share an intimate experience like that with such a tight knit community?
Amasia: For sure. In the Underground scene, there's freedom to experiment, to explore, to make mistakes, and to be in that close intimate space and experience those feelings.
Could you speak a bit about the shows you’ve played so far?
Sona: Our first ever performance was on the rooftop of our school, to an audience of children who were no more than 8 years old. Our music teacher encouraged us to play the opening of a school event. Nobody came except for the kindergarten kids and their parents.
Amasia: Sona's mom came too. She was recording us on her iPad.
Sona: At that point the music was really experimental, we were singing traditional Armenian songs and turning them into electronic music, I think we only had one individual song. Then, when we did our first solo show and played for 2.5 hours, we were surprised by how many people were there. We figured that our audience would be mostly friends, but so many people that we didn’t recognize at all showed up. This was when we began to think, ‘ok, maybe Symptom.error is something more than a high school project.’
The Underground electronic music scene in Armenia is fairly new, right?
Amasia: Yeah, there have been attempts before in the early 2000's, but I think it really got hardcore when we were in high school. There are 3 venues in Yerevan now that are strictly underground electronic music, which we didn’t even have two years ago. Before, it was just clubs or random venues, and it was a bit awkward and difficult. Now we have venues that are representative of the underground music culture.
How does it feel to bring your music outside of the Underground scene in Armenia, to Canada?
Sona: It's a huge step for us. Although we love the community in Yerevan, constantly playing the same venues with the same people becomes a comfort zone. It's going to be a hugely new experience that we hope will trigger new emotions and inspiration, and influence our future work.
Amasia: We'll also be able to experience a new form of communication with a new diverse audience that we don’t really know. It's a big deal, especially because during our performances we work really hard to create an energy that somehow transfers a sense of safety, and that's the safe space that we create - but of course in Armenia it's more hardened and rigid from the repetition. The underground community in Armenia is really small, and really close-knit, so everyone knows each other. When we look into the crowd now 80% of people are people we know.
You're also about to release your first full length album, Ex-Crisis. How does that feel?
Amasia: We've been working on releasing an album for a long time. The album is called Ex-Crisis because it's a collection of songs that we’ve performed so many times in Yerevan, songs that were written from 2017-2019. We’re looking forward to releasing them and finally being able to work on the new music we've written since then for our next album, some of which we will also be performing at our Montreal and Toronto shows. This album is like a memory box for us, for people who've been to our shows and also for people just getting to know us. We chose the name Ex-Crisis because it's a reflection of our past teen angst, our sound has developed a lot since then. It’s because of all the music we produced in previous years that we're now able to move forward with a more mature sound. We're not teenagers anymore, so of course the music is going to be different.
Sona: Yeah, we're waiting to release this album so that we can let go and get a fresh start.
Is there a song on Ex-Crisis that is especially meaningful to you?
Amasia: I think that would be our cover of Armenian folk singer Komitas Vardabed's song Tsirani Tsar, or "Apricot Tree" that we did as a tribute for the anniversary of his birthday. We collaborated with a viola player and worked on the song for a long time, and built an entire performance with a wine-making ritual, and decorations - we were able to do this performance in the basement of the Yerevan State University, which was a huge deal for us. We wanted to break the institutional idea that music had to be vocals, instrumental or jazz - we wanted to show that electronic music can be just as moving and meaningful as other more accepted genres. The show was free, and we made sure there would be no alcohol or any kind of drugs. We wanted to speak to the fact that Komitas was an innovative artist, and if he was alive today he would have appreciated electronic music. We opened our show with Tsirani Tsar, but we never got to finish the set, because the student council shut down the show and called the police on us. Unfortunately in Armenia, electronic music is only associated with clubs, drugs, partying…but for us it’s about the music, and we work really, really hard on our music.
Sona: When they called the police they were accusing us of having drugs at the show, putting psychedelic drugs in the grapes and performing satanic rituals. The next day we woke up to see several photos of us in the news alongside photos of Komitas, upside-down with evil horns… and articles claiming that we were performing a satanic ritual. I think our version of Tsirani Tsar is really important because that song has such a rich history, and we did it out of love for Komitas and that song. But of course, every song has meaning to us because they all come from our heart and experiences.
That's a pretty extreme reaction to a cover of a folk song that's been passed down for generations in so many different forms. Why do you think the university and the media were so against your electronic version of this traditional Armenian folk song?
Sona: I think a lot of people are trapped in their comfort zones, trapped by their fear of new interpretations of religion and traditional music. They're scared of the younger generations taking their place - the root of it is hatred and fear that something new is coming that they don't understand. Our interpretation of religion, God and Komidas, is new - and theirs is very rooted in old traditions.
Amasia: After that concert, we realized that there's a lot of work to be done. As students, we’ve come to learn that the institutional structures in place, in music, art, film... in general can be very rotten.
Sona: We need to destroy old ways of thinking at the root, and create something new, if we want to see any real change.
Amasia: We love that song, though.
Sona: Yes, we're happy we did the show and the cover, because a lot of young people did come forward and thank us for creating something new, and in a clean environment, so we hope that we motivated people. I think it was a huge step for us.
I think that’s an important step in the right direction. It’s powerful that you’re able to use your music to challenge antiquated interpretations of art within academic institutions. You each have your own individual artistic pursuits as well, could you speak a bit about your individual artistic practices?
Sona: I'm doing my third year at Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinematography, studying film directing. This year I get to do my first feature film and I'm super excited - I've been working on the script for years. In my program you don't get to choose your genre for the first few years, and you have to spend them making documentaries and commercials. Finally, this year, I get to do what I want and produce the film I’ve been writing for years.
Amasia: This year I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Arts and Experimental Media in Prague. I draw, paint, and lately I have been experimenting with animation.
So do you feel like you'll bring these practices together with the music, maybe create a music video with animation?
Amasia: Yeah, we were thinking of creating an animated video for our next album!
Sona: We also have a few music video clips that we're storyboarding right now and working on the concept for.
And I just have one more question before we wrap things up; If you could collaborate with any artist, musician or otherwise, who would it be?
Sona: For the last few months we've been doing a David Lynch Marathon, so definitely David Lynch - based on his style, the colours, themes and the music he chooses for his films. I think our songs would fit in with that. We also really love Tricky, he’s a huge inspiration for us.
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Symptom.error performs Saturday Nov 19th
At La Poubelle Magnifique
1221 Crescent Ave
Doors at 10pm, performance starts 11pm
10$ or pwyc