A Cynical Eastern Gathering
CoC interviews Santiago Dobles from Aghora
by: Paul Schwarz
Let's note that cynical is present here in its ancient use: as a means to achieve virtue. Aghora are no depressive, frustrated, baggy-pants metal brat pack, nor some violently thrashing death troupe; they have both a positive outlook and a wide-ranging musical scope. Aghora also have the talents of Sean Malone and Sean Reinert (Gordian Knot and ex-Cynic bassist and drummer respectively) filling their rhythm section, and a female vocalist, Danishta Riviera, on vocal duties. When one adds the guitar playing of Charlie Ekendahl and Santiago Dobles (who is also the band's central figure) the result is a progressive, eastern-tinged but defiantly riff-laden journey which has proved to be one of the few truly original and creatively unrestrained releases I have heard in recent years. Aghora really are on to something different with their self-titled debut release [CoC #47]. I caught up with Santiago Dobles to discover from where this technical and unusual outfit has emerged, how things came together for them, and where they might hopefully be taking music and people in the future.

CoC: How would you describe the style of music of your self-titled debut album?

Santiago Dobles: It's hard to really describe, but to me its like putting World music, fusion and metal in a blender and creating a balanced concoction. I think the style is actually something new.

CoC: It would be fair, I think, to say that there is a strong influence of prog-rock/metal (with elements of jazz) running through your music. Why did you choose to combine female vocals with the this rather technical and somewhat instrumental tapestry?

SD: It was what I was hearing in my head. I was fascinated with the idea of trying to fuse all the elements I listened to into one sound. Danishta, to me, has a wonderful voice. Her tone is very sincere and angelic-like.

CoC: Whom would you say are influences for you as a player? What records would you say have most influenced the style of _Aghora_?

SD: I am very influenced by Allan Holdsworth. He completely leaves me mesmerized. I am also always inspired by Steve Vai, Frank Zappa, Jason Becker, Brett Garsed and Greg Howe. As for the _Aghora_ sound, these following albums had a deep impact: Cynic's _Focus_ and the later _Portal_ and _Aeon Spoke_ demos, Mahavishnu Orchestra's _Visions of the Emerald Beyond_ and _Inner Mounting Flame_, Shakti, Tool's _Aenima_, Meshuggah's _Destroy Erase Improve_, Peter Gabriel's _Passion_, Bjork's _Post_, Alanis' _Jagged Little Pill_, _Supposed Infatuation Junkie_, Dead Can Dance's _Aeon_, Steve Vai's _Passion and Warfare_.

CoC: Are Aghora spawned of a "scene" of similar music?

SD: No, unfortunately the legendary metal scene of south Florida no longer exists in the way that it used to. Aghora is spawned out of the lack of a scene and out of every artist that has inspired us.

CoC: How did you first come into contact with Sean Malone and Sean Reinert of Gordian Knot / Cynic and how did you come to use them as your rhythm section?

SD: I met the entire band [Cynic] when they performed live in Miami to support the _Focus_ album. This was back in 1994. Afterwards I began taking guitar lessons from Paul [Masvidal]. As time went by I made friendships with all of them. They are all incredibly cool people. I pretty much stayed in contact with Paul and the rest of the band. After Paul left to California, I began to communicate more with Sean Reinert. At that time I was writing music that would later be used for Aghora and I needed to form a band. I asked Sean if he wanted to play drums. He listened to the music and showed interest in developing what later became Aghora. As for Malone, things with our original bassist didn't work out; so Sean and I both suggested to each other to contact Malone and see if he would be interested to join. I called him in Oregon, and he said it would be an honor. Of course it's been a dream come true for me to work with both Sean Reinert and Sean Malone. Not only are they amazing musicians, they are truly unique and down to earth people.

CoC: How much did Sean Malone and Sean Reinert contribute to _Aghora_?

SD: Sean Reinert and I have had more time to play together than with Sean Malone. Reinert has been contributing to Aghora since 1997. I have always given him the freedom to be the backbone for Aghora. In my opinion, he is the one that sets the vibe and the power. For the album, Reinert had a lot to do with the feel and helped in making the songs come alive. He added the dynamics. Also he helped with writing "Jivatma" and "Anugraha". As for Sean Malone, he came into the band in the second week of recording the album. I sent him charts in Oregon along with basic tracks of the album and demos. In less than three weeks he learned the album and created his bass parts. His bass parts completely filled the vibe missing in Aghora. Sean has such a unique style and control over his instrument and expression. When he was recording the album I was very confident that his contribution would turn Aghora into something higher or more evolved. He came down during the mix down sessions and helped mix down and produce four songs. He has an incredible talent both as a musician and as a creative force in the studio.

CoC: How did Aghora come together as a band and when?

SD: I always had the idea to form a group where together everyone was extremely tight and yet as individuals everyone would shine. The idea to create this band was cultivated while I was attending school in Berkley in 1995. At that time, I was beginning to sketch ideas which later evolved into music for the band. It wasn't until I moved back to Miami in 1997 that the band became a reality. Originally the band consisted of Charlie on rhythm guitar, my sister Danishta on vocals, Andy Deluca on bass and Sean on drums. Because Andy lives in Chicago and everyone was extremely busy with school, our rehearsals were limited. While we recorded the '98 demos we got to rehearse only once. For the '99 demos, we had to rely totally on faith in each member because rehearsal time was non-existent. At that time, Sean Reinert moved to Los Angeles, so we only saw each other a few times in that year. When the opportunity came to work on the album we had to hurry and prepare everything for the recording sessions. Sean came back to Miami for rehearsals. At this time, things didn't work out for us with Andy and we parted ways with him. Two weeks into the recording of the album during the summer of '99, we asked Sean Malone to join the band. His entrance definitely helped Aghora evolve towards the direction we wanted to go. In my opinion the band started to sound like a band and come together while we were creating the album.

CoC: In writing the music for _Aghora_, were tunes penned by you and brought before the band in a mostly-finished format or is it primarily a project based around jamming and improvisation like much jazz, for example, is?

SD: Basically, I tried to give the band a very complete "rough draft" of the songs. It's a bit of a long process, but I think it helps to have some form of foundation before you actually make things "final draft". The album is very structured. The music was composed for the musicians involved. Most of the music was written between 1997 and 1999. After I completed the basic structure of the songs, I would sequence them with MIDI and record a demo with guitar parts and melodies. After this process I'd give the band their copy of a demo and charts. I then had them mould their sound and style into the music. After that, Charlie, Danishta, Sean Reinert and I would rehearse it and get it ready for the studio. Most of the parts stayed the same but some things ended up coming out more and feel more alive. It ends up getting the band's sound. This was basically the process we used for recording the album and our demos. Sean Reinert and I would rehearse together to bring the dynamics out and to get the overall feel right. The only songs that were based around jamming where "Jivatma" and "Anugraha". For these two songs we wanted a breath of fresh air to the album. "Jivatma" was completely improvised. We wanted something different from every other song.

CoC: What is the lyrical focus of _Aghora_? I notice elements of what I think is Hinduism and certainly a focus on "the divine".

SD: The whole album has an underlying message of looking within or "unplugging from the matrix". Ever since I got into eastern philosophy I began to think and desire a goal of self-realization, detachment and compassion towards everybody. It's difficult now to be a "detached" person because we easily get caught up in things that keep us within the "Veil of Maya" or the "Matrix". Every human being has the potential to do great things. So my idea was to present a message of positivity and self-discovery based both on philosophies and on personal experiences.

CoC: Are the lyrics of Aghora important or are they merely to give backing to the music and a wider scope for audience acceptance; could Aghora have been an instrumental project?

SD: The music and lyrics are very important to the whole picture because they give you the imagery and feel for the struggle we constantly battle against our own Ego. I don't think Aghora could have been an instrumental project. It wouldn't seem right without Danishta's voice and the lyrics.

CoC: What do you consider "capturing the individual soul of music" (as you credit Shakti and the Mahavishnu Orchestra with doing) to be, and do you think you have achieved it? Is it your aim to achieve it?

SD: Well, I think it means to capture your self within a moment of true expression. Bands that inspire me such as Allan Holdsworth, Frank Zappa, Shakti and Mahavishnu Orchestra relied heavy on improvisation and being in the now. It's as if they channel a higher state through their instruments. You can hear it on albums like _Shakti_, _Shut Up & Play Your Guitar_, _Inner Mounting Flame_. To me it represents the idea of life. You have to always be in the moment. I don't think being in the moment is a state that can be mastered, but it can definitely be achieved and experienced. I think on songs like "Jivatma" and "Existence" Aghora experienced those magical moments of being eternal in the moment. "Jivatma" is full of this feel. It reminds me of a modern day raga from India. You can also experience the soul captured in Sean's drum solo in "Existence". In my opinion it's a classic moment of true expression. We hope to go deeper into this "experience" in the next album. We found out later that Aghora in Portuguese means "now". It's an interesting coincidence with the vibe we wanted. [In fact, the Portuguese word for "now" is spelled "agora" and not "aghora". -- Pedro]

CoC: Why do you create the music of Aghora? (E.g. success, your own musical fulfilment, to bring a message to the world, etc..)

SD: There is always the want to satisfy your musical thirst. I have been very dissatisfied with the heavy community because everything nowadays tends to sound the same and has no inherent value to it. I wanted to compose what I hear in my head. I wanted something that satisfied my thirst musically. As for the message, I think a lot of music today tends to be very negative and gives of a very violent message. I don't think there is anything wrong with aggression or raw power, but I do think it should be harnessed and sublimated to a higher state. That type of energy can have a strong impact on kids if it is fused with intelligence and something positive. We didn't want any negativity around the music. I think it's time for people to somehow uplift themselves and begin to find ways to evolve. If Aghora makes some kids somewhere in the world think and open new doors to things like philosophy and evolution within the arts, you will have a higher resonating consciousness moving towards great potential. And before you know it, a "new" scene will arise.

CoC: Why did you decide to put out your debut record on your own (or your brother's?) label? Did you try to get a record deal through normal channels?

SD: My father has been supporting our efforts since day one. Together out of frustration we established Dobles Productions in order to secure the rights of the band and not get screwed by the industry. We grew tired of waiting around for labels to simply play around with us. A lot of labels either wanted to exploit our creativity or simply wanted to change our ideas. We wanted to stay true to ourselves and maintain integrity in our work. A lot of labels turned us down because they felt the vocals weren't "metal" enough for the heavy labels and the music wasn't "progressive" enough for the prog labels. They would also complain because the lyrics' message hints towards eastern thought. Some even went as far as to say that the message of the lyrics is religiously controversial and offensive to Christian beliefs. They all came back telling us they would be risking a release that was so different from everything else they have released. It seems they are afraid of change or anything new. Everything has to sound like something that has already been done. It's almost as if they set the standards on what is considered "good" in the scene. So they are the ones that start the trends and keep up the cliches that end up polluting the industry for good artists.

CoC: Is there a meaning or a connotation to be derived from the rather understated artwork and presentation (grey is not the most striking of colours...) of the _Aghora_ CD; does it give a message of some sort?

SD: There is no hidden meaning, we just wanted a simple album cover. We wanted this album to be as organic as possible. The entire album has a rawness to it that seems as if the band is in the same room with you while you listen to it. This is what we wanted to achieve.

(article submitted 12/8/2000)

5/25/2000 A Bromley 8 Aghora - Aghora
6/15/1999 B Meloon 5 Aghora - 1998 demo
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