INTERVIEW: Shelsmusic’s Mehdi Safa (Part 2)

Two weeks ago, we ran the first part of our interview with Shelsmusic’s Mehdi Safa in which we discussed, among other things, how he finds bands and his label’s history with vinyl (you can read that here). In the concluding half of our interview, find out about Shelsmusic Studios, Safa’s views on streaming services like Rdio and Spotify and more. And while you’re perusing his answers, listen to a track from *shels’ debut album Sea of the Dying Dhow, which Shelsmusic recently re-released on vinyl and is available here.

How does Shelsmusic Studio fit in with the label? Are they completely separate entities or is studio time one of the perks of being on the roster (assuming a band resides in or around California)?
The studio is totally in-house and part of the label and has grown out of us producing our own music for mahumodo and *shels. We started producing our own music in the late ’90s and having our own studio for recording, production, mastering, etc. has been vital to what we do. With our first releases like Black Sheep Wall, Sons of Noel and Adrian, we mastered everything in-house prior to manufacturing. We found it a lot more convenient and we saved a lot of money that could go towards the releases, merch or tours. Our bands are totally free to use the studio for anything. For example, with the Ancients debut album, all the vocals were recorded in-house for free and the album was mixed and mastered here, by myself, for free. We saved a ton and had a lot more time and control over what we were going for with the overall sound. The studio gives us more freedom and since we recently opened it up to other groups not on the label, it has also been a good way for us to discover and work with new groups.

You just released the latest Latitudes record and put out the new Ancients (which you’re also in) record this week. Tell us a little bit about each release.
Latitudes is one of those rare groups that take its time and keeps getting better with age and with each release. The band’s last album, Agonist, featured vocals by Adam Symonds of Eden Maine and for the first time they had beautiful organ style keys that worked perfectly with their bleak, hard-hitting and progressive brand of metal. Their new album is by far their best work. Symonds’ vocals are all over it and it’s haunting and dark. For me, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a post-apocalyptic drive through a dead world. There’s also something distinctively British about their sound that I love and can’t get enough of—it makes them more interesting for me, plus they are some of the nicest mofos alive. All of that just makes this group one of my favorite bands on the planet. It’s nuts and awesome that, like a slow spit roast, they just keep getting better and while I’m still totally hooked on their new album, I already can’t wait to hear what their next will be like.

Ancients is very different. I’m extremely lucky and honored to be involved with this project. And everything about it has felt so pure from day one. The people in the band, the vision, the colors and the feel and where it’s all going—it’s just totally what I’m into, all about the universe, the stars; about birth and the beauty and vastness of existence; about seeing things with new eyes constantly and that feeling of doing something incredible for the first time. It’s blissful and peaceful and very mature to me. It sounds cheesy, but for me it’s very spiritual and cleansing music and I can’t wait to play it live. I’m super honored to be making music with the dudes from Rinoa and Crydebris as well as the extremely talented Dan Hoang (Ancients’ drummer) who also does professional video game design and all our album artwork.

Your music is streaming on Rdio and Spotify. What are your thoughts on those and other similar services, and how do they fit in with your model overall?
We’re big fans of sharing and making music accessible to people around the world. And services like Spotify are just other ways to help folks listen to the music they want and to discover new music from labels like ours. We know that if folks can afford to pay for an album they really like, they will. Our job is to keep working hard to put our best into every single release and ensure the music and artwork is delivered with all our heart and the utmost care and attention to detail so that when folks purchase something from our store, they’ll know that everything was crafted with a lot of care and attention and that a lot of love went into everything.

You have a lot of stuff going on between your bands, label, studio, artwork and touring—how do you find the time to involve yourself in all of these projects? Do you ever sleep?
Haha, yes, there’s a lot going on, and sleep is an important part of it all for me, It’s actually one of the things I enjoy the most. I love going to bed and dreaming, and I’m even considering getting a tattoo of Morpheus (the Greek god of dreams) at some point with someone sleeping in his arms. It’s just me running the label and all the operations, and since there’s no staff and limited resources, including money, we’re forced to be a lot more selective about the projects we choose to undertake. For example, I’m trying to focus on fewer releases each year and to put more effort and focus into each one rather than releasing more as we have done in the past. Three albums a year would be ideal. Balance is very important and doing a little of everything every day keeps me interested and passionate. I can get a bit burnt out if i do too much of one thing for a while, like too much designing or producing or writing or too much accounting (can’t stand accounting). But doing an hour of production, moving on to designing a poster or album cover, then doing some financial stuff and then maybe moving onto web work keeps it interesting for me and that way I’m able to tackle doing a lot of things and be happy.

Energy is our most valuable resource and how you nurture and use it is super important. It’s easy to waste energy on the wrong things like arguing, worrying or stressing, and I try not to waste any of my time on that sort of thing. I don’t even own a cell phone and prefer not to spend more than five minutes on a call. It also helps free up more time for me. I take quick lunches, maybe five or ten minutes, and it’s usually at my desk. Rest is super important, and proper rest is what helps me the most. I’m lucky to train at one of the best Mixed Martial Arts Schools on the planet—Team Quest in Temecula—and you’ll learn quickly how important rest is for building strength and conditioning, plus you can burn yourself out and start picking up injuries and start falling behind if you don’t rest properly. The strongest fighters know the importance of resting.

It is funny, but taking a step back like resting can really help you take stronger steps forward. It’s exactly like a Formula 1 pit stop. No one wants to stop, especially if you’re at the front, because you don’t want anyone else to shoot ahead. But the drivers who are wise enough to take a pit stop will eventually come back stronger.

I try not to think about what other people do or how they do it. I do my best and go at my own pace. I focus and put all my heart and soul into every detail of my work and when I get tired, I rest…and if I’m lucky, I’ll get to hang with Morpheus for a while too.

In an ideal world, where would you like to see the label in five years?
Our ranch will be a fully operational working farm. Our in-house studio will have a steady flow of bands flying in from all over the world and staying here to work. All our releases will be on vinyl, as well as CD and digital. We’ll have a full-time staff of five people, including some hot interns who know how to make great homemade pizza. Worrying about money will be a thing of the past, since our bank robbery was a success. There will be more regular *shels tours and we’ll start making our way into the movie world. I’ve always wanted to make a movie. It would be great to release our albums as movies or hand-in-hand with books. And I’d love to do a Shelsmusic festival at some point and make it an all day thing with all of the bands from our label as well as having new bands perform and make an awesome event out of it. There’s so much exciting stuff that can happen, but it all boils down to that bank robbery though, so wish us luck!

For now, though, I think we’ll settle for just being here in five years.

*Check out here!