In Conversation: PanSTARRS

In Conversation: PanSTARRS

Under the guise of PANSTARRS, Youssef Abouzeid has been a fixture of Egypt’s underground music scene for almost a decade. Originally coming to prominence in 2013 with his debut EP ‘Nothingness’, Abouzeid has continued to adapt, shift and experiment in both defiance and deconstruction, an unpredictable artistic force in parallel with the fascinating recent history of his city, Cairo. After a shoegaze-indebted beginning which earned international attention in The Guardian, Abouzeid easily and fluidly moved forward in style, working alongside local producers such as Nader Ahmed and Zuli, collectively pushing each other’s vision towards the unexpected. We spoke to PanSTARRS following the release on vinyl of his best known work to date ‘Ghaby Ghaby Ghaby’ via our sister label Lost Futures.

Semtek: Well I’m gonna start by asking about the title of the recent release. Someone said to me “Ghaby” translates as “Stupid”, is that accurate?

PanSTARRS: That’s right… but it’s not literal in any sense and it’s why I usually refrain from putting English translations on my work, I get pigeonholed in some meanings that I really didn’t give it that much conceptual thinking. Do you ever feel like writing without knowing what you’re doing?

S: Yes I think it’s really important to disconnect from a conscious sense of meaning when you’re writing music especially if it includes lyrics. Last night I was listening to ‘Get Wild In The Country’ which is a huge hit from the early 80’s that the band from Adam & The Ants were involved in. It’s an amazing track and you can tell the lyrics were written on the back of a napkin after a late night or an early morning perhaps. It just catches whatever stupid shit was going on in the room at that moment.

However I have to ask out of curiosity what do the other titles of the tracks on the LP mean?

P: It was all stupid stuff that really doesn’t matter… like “don’t forget that you’re going to die” – other titles had meaninigs like “without a female” (break up lyrics), and  “ant cake” was mostly about things I don’t like and how you can get attacked for being confidently hateful to some stuff. I was mostly suffocated and it was all coming out like that.

S: I think that was what made me love your music so much. I love music that feels like it’s an expression of something that’s suffocated. It’s also why I felt your music was so relevant to this pandemic. Talking aside from the pandemic though, is the situation around freedom of expression in Egypt quite suffocated or not so much?

P: Well that’s a tricky question… because from what I see there is no freedom of expression anywhere on earth. Countries that allow ‘freedom of expression’ only allow it because they can afford people to say whatever shit they want, while governments will keep on pursuing their agendas. In Egypt, everything is affected by our political situation, which dates back to almost a hundred years of colonial history in the whole Arab world. So yeah, I don’t know if freedom of expression is a worry, I mean we live in the internet times, of course there is freedom of expression in different forms.

S: Of course we know that politics is mainly bullshit and so any music that is connected to politics will generally call out the bullshit. But, aside from politics, do you think it’s possible in Egypt to talk about other aspects of life freely, for example love?

P: Yes, you can do anything, but within your small playground. Speaking of having a small playground, doesn’t everyone just grow and live in their own bubble eventually? I think that freedom of expression is an outdated term that doesn’t make sense anymore. I’m curious to know what you think about that.

S: I guess I would say that within the bubble you have some freedom. Speaking again of the pandemic, it has made those bubbles smaller. I miss sharing experiences, like parties. Even if I might not be dancing or speaking to anyone and maybe I’m not listening to the music, I still feel that being together in a shared space helps us to find some common freedom.

Speaking of this, you mentioned a venue in Cairo that Zuli and some others set up called VENT. I think it is closed now but you said something that really resonated with me. Which was that artistically anything which has some purity in its intention is of course going to fail. Can you tell me about that venue a bit? It sounds cool.

P: VENT was a world of its own – so much freedom and familiar alternative mentalities – it was easy for everyone to find their soul in that space. Managed with love and some wit, it went on for more than a year, but reality kicks back soon enough like always. The place owners, like most business owners or event organisers, lack the vision for the right investment because they think about money as an end. So they want a fast turn over, they’re not into suffering you know. They see no meaning in any artistic value, and I don’t blame them.

I remember the first PanSTARRS gig there in 2014, there were actual gas bombs and clashes 5 mins away from the venue, and people were still coming through from other routes. It was packed that night, can you imagine.

S: I wish I had been there. So finally, do you think we’ll have the opportunity to see PanSTARRS live in the future? I wonder if it’s just you on stage? Or is it a band?

P: Yeah it was a real moment of people power. With Panstarrs we either perform as a trio guitar/bass/drums.. Or a duo with my cousin and life-long music partner on electronics and me on guitars, which looks like the next step already.

I am taking my time with things to kind of preserve its soul without consuming it to the last drop a la capitalism. So yeah, we will see PanSTARRS live, I’m very excited for that actually… and I’m trying to keep myself composed because like you I get easily excited and I lose focus haha.

S: How do you know that I easily get excited and lose focus?

P: We have been writing each other since 2018 Benji – you have been almost my best friend.

S: I’m happy to hear this, we have had some great conversations, including this one. I hope we’re going to collaborate on some music soon as well. And I hope that we can see the band live in Europe as well. It’s really urgent that there are resources for challenging music which is more than just capitalism in a jumpsuit with a pitcher of cocktail.

P: I’m lucky to be able to work with people who still run with passion.

We meet soon after the end of the world.

PanSTARRS – Ghaby Ghaby Ghaby is out now via the Lost Futures bandcamp

Photographs: Nora Khorshid