Sami Chohfi, the lead vocalist of Blue Helix sat down for a phone interview with Creative Control. Chohfi shed light on his past, his Grunge rock influences, and provided some enlightening details on the band and its creative process.
CC: The name of your first album it’s Tale of Two Halves, is there a story or a “Tale” behind that album (title)?
Sami: As far as the album name, have you seen the album cover?
CC: Yes, I have, well, I haven’t seen it up close. It looks like you guys are on the street.
Sami: So, the homeless guy on the street, he’s walking with his head held up high looking to the sky with pride and hope in his eyes. You know? And all the businessmen surrounding him are in shambles even though they have all the money in the world with their happy family life. They have all these things but they find that they’re miserable and the guy that has the littlest, the guy that has nothing has found pride in what he does have and hope in his life. That was the significance of the album cover for Tale of Two Halves. If you flip the album cover around, you’ll see the poor man begging and then the three businessmen on their feet walking past him, walking over him and then in the front(cover) you see the complete opposite.
The original concept when I did the songs on the album, a lot of the songs lyrically, it talks about having hope, not giving up. You know? Very fundamental, very simple concepts that we forget very often, so (on the album), six of the eleven songs were literally recorded and written two years before the other ones. So, it was like two different parts of my life.
CC: That’s neat, with Grunge, a lot of the ‘90s bands they had kind of, well, not really a negative outlook but they struggled a lot. They had a lot of demons and a lot of personal issues to deal with. What exactly about those bands inspire you? Is it their sound or the fact that they were from Washington or was it some other reason?
Sami: I was inspired by them at the age of about 14, when I was turning on MTV and I saw Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Radiohead; I connected with them. I had a rough childhood, my father was an abusive alcoholic, he was horrible to my sister and I and I had it rough in school. I went to an all-black school in South Florida where I was a victim of a lot of racism and I got bullied and messed with quite a bit. So, it was easy to identify with the music that specifically Nirvana was doing at the time because it was angry. It was a sad anger but there was like a rebelliousness to it and that was why I was able to connect with the ‘90s Grunge-era music. Specifically, my favorite album of all time is from the Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream. I think Siamese Dream was the reason that I really wanted to start writing my own songs. When I heard that album, it gave me the majority of my inspiration for what I do today. Wolves, which is actually on Tale of Two Halves, Wolves is my oldest song. I wrote Wolves when I was 15; pretty much all the music and I have kept it all these years and was able to finally create some lyrics to identify what I was feeling at the time when I wrote it. Wolves is about my childhood and what is was like for my mother and my sister and dealing with all that. If you listen very closely, there’s the sister and the brother praying and you can hear it in the background. It’s kind of haunting, but at the same time, they leaned on each other, you know?
CC: Yeah, I did hear that, that’s a very uplifting song. Would you describe the sound of your band as Grunge or would you describe it as something else?
Sami: I’d call it more of a modern, melodic Grunge, right? It’s… I don’t know. … Well, It’s hard to describe music isn’t it? (laughs) But, you know, it’s definitely influenced by Grunge. I don’t know if we’re really in the Grunge category, I think it’s a little bit too polished for Grunge, you know? Vocally speaking, I don’t think my vocals are too Grungy anymore. They were on my first album. My first record that I sang on which was called Coda, (my vocals) were a lot more Grungy, it was very Nirvana-esque. But on Tale, it’s more like a polished Grunge. How would you describe that? It’s almost like modern Grunge. Right? It’s like modern rock meets Grunge, but again, what’s interesting about Tale of Two Halves, and I know you noticed this, was the element of the acoustic guitars and violins. There were violins in Six 8, there were violins in Gemini and Carry Me and Aliens. These songs all had an element of strings to (them) and acoustic guitars mixed into the mix which gives it more of an Earth-ish feel and gives it more of a smooth and less abrasive attack. You know, Grunge has got a lot of the feedback and the really overdriven guitars. Tale of Two is a little bit more polished.
CC: (The album) is very clean-tone, very technical. As far as the (Grunge) bands that I’ve listened to, not a whole lot of the Grunge bands that I’ve listened to are as technical as you guys, you guys are very clean, very tight, you know? You sound very precise and as far as the music; there’s not a whole lot of Grunge bands that I’ve listened to that do instrumentals and things like that. (Grunge) is just very noisy for the most part. And for this album, what was the creative process for Tale of Two Halves? Can you describe that for me?
Sami: Even (for) the heaviest (songs) I literally sat down with my acoustic guitar and kind of worked out riffs. Six 8, for example, was the heavy instrumental with violins. (For Six 8) I was sitting with my acoustic guitar. I think we were at a (bonfire) outside, I was just kind of messing around with an Arabic scale. It’s like a pentatonic Arabic scale, and I kind of fell into playing that song, playing the beginning of that piece. (I was playing) in the time signature of 6/8 and so, that lead to me going in the studio, recording the acoustic, and I was like, Oh, shit. And I just started layering the electrics and it just kind of happened, kind of fell into place and you know, the majority of my songs are written that way. I usually will sit down and I’ll have an idea on the acoustic guitar and then vocals, 90% of the time, Bullets or Abuse especially songs like Abuse or Aliens, I’ll just sit there, I’ll be strumming on my acoustic and all of a sudden the vocals kind of come to me.
CC: Has the creative process that you have now, has that changed over time since the first EPs that you released?
Sami: Well, you know, I have new band members now and the creative process, it’s just different for everyone, you know? My band members are writing musical pieces and as a band we’ll sit down and we’ll hack at it, try to come up with something collectively. I have more of an easy time when I’m sitting with my acoustic or even an electric guitar once in a while. Just sitting there in a very simple format and initially starting off with something so seriously simple. I think a lot of the times, what’s difficult for me when creating music with others is I like to start things at a very simple, ground level. You know, I like something to start off simple and build into something complicated. A lot of the time when working with my band members and other musicians, they may get very progressive. You know, and (the songs have) a lot of texture and a lot of intricacies. So, it’s a little bit of a challenge for me when I’ve been used to writing music with just a simple idea on the acoustic, right?
So, there’s a new song called This Tragedy that we did as a band and the way the creative process went on that is, I was inspired because I was on (an) extremely turbulent plane that, um, the wing dropped and people were panicking and you know, freaking out. It was semi-traumatic for me cause it was my first extreme turbulence experience. So, I started thinking about all the things that were going through my head and then that kind of turned into, metaphorically speaking, what everybody else would be thinking in their last final moments. For instance, all the things they could’ve done or didn’t say or, you know, unfinished business, if you will. At the time, I was playing a show in Eastern Washington and I came back home and I picked up my good ole acoustic and just kind of, just started messing with this riff. And the riff lead to me starting the song and writing the lyrics. I took it (to) the studio with the band, and generally, I find the best songs are written where you’re just sitting there jamming them out. And (for) This Tragedy, I went in there with all the core ideas and the band started writing their parts. The bass player started writing a bass line, the drummer started doing his thing, finding a pocket and a groove. My lead guitarist Cicero wrote a brilliant solo for it, you, know and that’s is how that song was made.
CC: So, when I called earlier, you were in practice with your students and I read from an interview that you did previously with a Seattle radio station that you teach music and teach students how to sing. As far as that goes, what would you say is the most valuable lesson that you could teach your students?
Sami: Vocal students specifically or all my students?
CC: Well, you can go into as much detail as you’d like. Just in general, is there a general rule about music or….you can approach this anyway you’d like.
Sami: The most valuable lesson I always teach them is, specifically vocal students you know, past the fundamentals, of how to do something fundamentally speaking, how to breathe properly, how to project your voice properly. I always tell my vocal students the most important thing is learning how to emote, how to genuinely sing like yourself, not sing like someone else and be able to emote and be able to identify what it is you’re trying to say and mean it. So, when people hear you singing they feel it and they find it genuine. …I give them examples of Kurt Cobain a lot. You know, even Shannon Hoon, a lot of guys in the ‘90s era; there’s a lot of great songwriters, but a lot these singers weren’t the best singers in the world. Kurt Cobain, for instance, cracked his voice all the time, no one cared, no one gave a crap; it was because he was emoting and people relate to that. So, that’s why I always tell my students, you don’t have to be the most technically perfect singer in the world. You want to try your best and do the best you can with every performance, but the most important thing is the general emotion that comes from your voice.
(For) my guitar students or my bass students, I always tell them, clean up your right hand. Your rhythm hand is going to be really what keeps you playing in the pocket and so it’s going to help you write songs, you know. I really enjoy teaching kids who want to be songwriters. Everybody wants to play guitar (and that’s) great. Everybody wants to play like Jimi Hendrix and you know, Steve Vai, but it’s not necessary to write a great song. You can write great music just with four chords on the acoustic or electric guitar.
CC: I read on Facebook that you tried out to be the lead singer of STP.
Sami: Right, that’s correct, they’re holding open auditions and I submitted two songs and by March 7th, they’re going to basically go through the next process of choosing, I think, 10 or however many they choose to meet in person. Whoever they pick. Obviously it would be a dream come true to sing with a band like that. To be able to front the Stone Temple Pilots in front of those massive crowds, which is something I’ve dreamt about doing my whole life with my own band.
CC: One other thing that I noticed (in live photos is that) you had a unique thing going on with the megaphone, but you also use two microphones.
Sami: The Bullet mic, yeah. I do that both live and on the album. You can hear really predominantly on Bullets and Runaways. Runaways is our new track; I believe that you’ve heard that. Runaways is now on our Soundcloud and it’s also on our Artistecard. I’m not sure if that was something that got sent to you, but yeah, Runaways and Bullets both have that. I always wanted to do something live where it was like two personalities, right? Like the clean, pretty (sounding) vocals, and then with the full sound and then some things got like a radio, kind of like (an) Elvis Presley vibe (like) Jailhouse Rock. You know what I mean? Where it’s got that real trebly kind of high gain, no bass sound. So, live I go between the two in different sections of the songs and I do it on the album too, on Tale of Two Halves. I do it all the time; I’m going to continue to do that. I think it’s a unique thing. I’m sure other musicians have sang through the Bullet mic, but you know, I have a little stand for both the microphones live. So, when people see us play live they’re like “Oh, there’s something different.”
CC: Well that’s a cool thing. I really haven’t seen too many people do that. Of course, I’ve seen the megaphone, but as far as you know, I remember seeing Tool and seeing Maynard from Tool use two microphones when he was onstage. But he wasn’t using a Bullet mic, I think he was just using two Dynamic microphones. So, I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Sami: Yeah, Maynard does something cool live with his voice too for sure. I don’t know, I think it’s like a little voice box that he uses. (Starts singing the opening lines of Eulogy from Tool.) That song, is that, I think that’s Eulogy, right? Yeah, (sings) “We’re gonna miss him.” It’s kind of like that…. God, what’s that word I’m looking for? It’s almost like a decimated effect to it.
CC: And as far as you go, you have your own unique thing with your vocals, but are there any other unique elements that the other band members throw in or any unique elements that you haven’t mentioned?
Sami: Well, you know our guitar player, he’s got a certain patch of effects that he uses that gives his guitar like this really powerful, like solo sound where it’s got just the right amount of like chorus and delay on it. It’s unique in the sense that, you know, it’s just toned. He’s got a really unique tone and his amp setup is really unique. My bass player, he wears this cool mask on stage that’s like a gas mask with lights on it. You know, we just had a radio interview recently and they asked him “What’s with the mask?” And he said, “I just thought it looked cool.” You know, and I always tell people something cool, like a cool story. Like, which it’s true that (the bassist is) a vet, you know, and he went to the Middle East and he got shot. Not only that, but he got cancer from going out there and when he was trying out for the band he basically was coming right after chemo and the guy really gave everything. You know, not feeling well, feeling sick all the time and just to learn the material and that was the commitment he made while he was going through that. That’s how much he wanted to be a part of the band.
CC: Well, as far as the questions I had lined up, that pretty much covers it, but is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d to say?
Sami: Well, I guess not. You pretty much covered it, right? I mean, I assume you were recording the conversation?
CC: Yes, sir.
Sami: Yep, so that’s how you pretty much how you got all the information. So, yeah, you know, I appreciate you taking the time and making this interview happen.
CC: I appreciate you as well; I don’t really get to talk to very many successful musicians. You know, we used to have a few in my local area but they’re pretty much moved on to other things now. So, it’s not very often that I get to hear any music or get to see live shows anymore. So, this is a really cool experience for me.
Sami: Where do you live?
CC: I’m actually located in Alabama.
Sami: Alabama, wow, and you work for which company? Which article?
CC: Creative Control Magazine
Sami: I’ll have to check that out, Let’s see here, (looks on the internet.) Oh, cool… “The Other Side of Jackie Venson,” “No Doubt – Settle Down.” No, that’s cool! So, this interview, where will it be?
CC: I will be working on it over the weekend and you should see an article on this website on Monday about your album and hopefully the interview will be included.
Sami: If people like anything they hear from Tale of Two Halves is probably a good thing to have…. What was your favorite song on Tale of Two Halves? I’m very curious.
CC: I would say…. probably Abuse might have been my favorite song.
Sami: Abuse? Cool! Cool! What was your least favorite?
CC: My least favorite…. I would say Wolves. That’s only because I’m more into the heavier stuff, but I enjoyed the album overall. It really, like I said, it really made me drop my expectations of what Grunge was and it was really eye-opening to say the least.
Sami: Right on, did you hear Runaways by chance on our Soundcloud? I think that you would really like Runaways. It’s about as heavy as Abuse. It’s actually a really cool song. It’s the newest recording we have, it’s on our Soundcloud, it’s the first track.
CC: I tried to just focus on the album the best I could but I did listen to, just to get a reference, I did listen briefly to some of the older EP music that you recorded before.
Sami: Quite a bit different, yeah? (laughs)
CC: Well, yeah, like we were talking about, you had kind of that Middle Eastern sound before and you guys have grown a lot since then.
Sami: Yeah, totally, totally, well, that’s cool, I really appreciate you, you know, giving me your feedback on that. It’s always fun to hear what people’s favorite songs are. I hear all sorts of songs. I hear sometimes people say their favorite song is Wolves. Primarily, the majority of people, their favorite songs are Bullets and Carry Me or Aliens, you know, or Six 8. So, I don’t hear a lot of Abuse so that’s cool, (laughs) that’s super cool.
CC: Well, it’s really cool talking to you and it’s been a pleasure. So, if there’s nothing else you’d like to have (said) – again, thank you and I hope I get to hear you guys again in the future.
Note: The original version of this interview mistakenly called the album A Tale of Two Halves. It has now been corrected to be Tale of Two Halves, along with a few minor phrasing edits to make the points more clear.