IN JUNE 2006, Imaad Wasif played a show at the Towne Lounge (now the Ella Street Social Club) following the release of his debut solo album on Kill Rock Stars. Imaad Wasif was a largely acoustic affair, with delicate songs given gently shaded solo renditions by Wasif. But when he took the Towne Lounge stage, guitar was firmly plugged into amplifier, and his backing bassist and drummer were in heavy power-trio mode. The three delivered a blistering set that conjured up ghosts of rock's mythic past, situated in a realm of psychedelia often striven for but rarely attained, where the air is blue-thick with incense and other kinds of smoke. It was a welcome shock for those in attendance expecting Wasif to gently pluck the folky tunes from his (excellent) record.
At the time, the lion's share of attention being paid to Wasif was due to his bill-paying job as the touring guitarist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But it quickly became clear that the journeyman musician had a very distinct artistic vision of his own. In 2008 he released his second album, Strange Hexes, recorded with his backing band Two Part Beast. Hexes ranged closer to the roiling fury that characterized Wasif's live show.
"I do have an idea of whether I want to do a song electrically or acoustically," Wasif explains. "But all my songs I write, for the most part, on acoustic guitar. They're very, very simple shells because that's ultimately what I still want to convey through everything—through the volume, through the energy, and anything that I might add to it. I still want it to retain that raw essence and the lyrical thread. But I don't really necessarily write stylistically to a sound. It's difficult when you're traveling as well, because I write when I'm touring or when I'm traveling around, and usually I have just an acoustic guitar with me. A lot of things come from that."
Wasif's third album, The Voidist, is also recorded with Two Part Beast, and it contains Wasif's heaviest material to date, along with some mellower songs that recall the first album. It also deepens his mystic sound, one that mixes Western blues-based classic rock with Eastern modal tones, encompassing raga and an undercurrent of spirituality that firmly guides its moments of transcendence, where the music writhes almost without thought or purpose—reveling purely in its own sound. It's very much an album filled with moments of "rocking out," but with a bit more to offer the soul than headbanging and devil fingers in the air.
Parts of the album even sound like old-school heavy metal, particularly the ferocious climax of "Return to You." Furthermore, the label that released The Voidist, Tee Pee Records, certainly has its share of stoner metal bands on the roster. I ask Wasif if it's a term he's comfortable with. "Heavy metal? I don't know," he says with a laugh. "Yeah, I'm comfortable with it. I don't know that I would call anything that I do 'heavy metal,' though. I think any real heavy metaler would kind of laugh at me, you know? But there's a heaviness to life that I think transmits itself in music.
"Those other two records," he continues, "they weren't necessarily calculated in terms of me going like, 'Hey, I'm going to put out this acoustic record.' At any point when I make a record, it's almost that the record informs me. At some point I just know that I start feeling totally out of my mind, and I need to go into the studio. Recently songs come in streams and are all sort of connected, and the overall scope of the record is revealed to me through those songs. I'm always writing songs and I think The Voidist definitely was more of a conscious effort to include the entire spectrum rather than to pick a select group of songs."
For all the many pleasures of Wasif's music, the most elemental is that of his remarkable guitar playing, certainly the equal of any guitar-torching '60s rock god you'd care to name. And he rarely succumbs to flashy showboating; his playing always has a very inward gaze, as well as a purposefulness that reminds me of the heavenward reach of Sufi musicians—or of an old Southern gospel service.
I ask if he thinks spirituality plays a role in music. "Well, I mean, it is a very spiritual thing to me, but I would definitely never, never try and—there's no kind of dogma involved with it. I wouldn't even go so far as to say it is a real religion, but...."
Wasif pauses for a second, then says firmly, "There would be no life without music."