Speaking with Self-Similar, a Cincinnati group keeping it real all the way
Self-Similar has what it takes to fill a room with vibes and appeal.
Although Self-Similar have been together for only a couple of years, they have the sound and self-assurance of groups within at least three fully-formed albums under their belts. Coalescing producer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Sara Similar and producer/multi-instrumentalist Darshan McMahon’s talents into one sultry puree of sound, Self-Similar has what it takes to fill a room: both with the vibrations of their reverb-rich, trip-hop-style music, and with just how appealing their sound is. We spoke with Self-Similar about their formation, inspirations, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did your group start?
Sara Similar: Actually we met a while back at Common Roots while he was playing for another project he was in, Liquid Hologram. I was there just kind of on my own, just hanging out. And somebody approached me and said, “He’s trying to play a couple more songs! He’s looking for people to collaborate, just go on up and do your thing!” By the time I got up there, it was the last song. So, there wasn’t a collaboration that day, but we ran into each other at the Mockbee later on, and I was like, “Hey, if you are really serious about looking for a collaboration, I’m down.”
Darshan McMahon: Then, it actually happened. Unlike a lot of artists that you talk and say, “Hey, we should collaborate,” you know. But everybody’s so busy, and it’s understandable. The intentions are really there. But it actually happened, and it was a good chemistry. I enjoyed what we came up with together, and it went from there. We continued collaborating on Liquid Hologram tracks, and then, Sarah really wanted to go in kind of a different direction, a little less dance music, a little less genre-specific, and a little bit more broad and open, a little more chill, a little more thoughtful. And so, she came up with the idea of Self-Similar, which [speaking to Sarah] I’m pretty sure you’ve had that idea rolling around and that name for a long time. But we implemented the name, and came up with the new project here.
So, when did the group start?
SS: In 2018.
And then you released the EP last year?
SS: And our full album will be released, hopefully by the end of this year. It’s got 4 or 5 unreleased tracks coming out on it.
Will that also include songs from the EP?
What do you like about mixing organic and synthetic instruments together?
SS: So many things. I think it really brings a human feel, while still allowing for some of those bouncier beats. I think it speaks to our generation, too. We’re in a techie time right now and so being able to incorporate that and have that represented in the music while still going back to our roots and getting in touch with the human feel is really nice.
DM: Absolutely, I agree 100 percent, the chemistry of both things together. You have to have a human element, or it’s just algorithms and robots. The human touch is crucial, especially because we are musicians. We do play a multitude of different instruments. And that’s the other fun part too, the level of creativity on both sides. Because once you have something acoustic, then it’s the fun of manipulating it with the computer, and seeing what new places you can take it…That’s the fun of it, just playing with it, and seeing what new magic happens with the computer side of things.
What have you been up to lately, just with all that’s been going on right now?
SS: We’ve been building our studio, actually, a livestream studio, here in our house. Darshan moved in, so we have the Self-Similar Productions and Self-Similiar Media thing going on. We’re working on a couple of music video ideas, trying to get that through the hatch, since I also do multimedia, and just trying to get all of our own DIY album completed. We had plans to have someone else mix and master, but at this point, with all the financial strains of the pandemic, it’s looking like DIY all the way. [laughs]
DM: That’s true. I think it’s really up to everybody’s livestream game. It’s something we really just started doing, and have gone full force with this situation, because really, we don’t want to play anywhere. We’re trying our best to be safe and quarantine ourselves.
SS: But we still want to be able to bring our energy to everyone. I think, right now, like having a music aspect of our lives is keeping things going for a lot of people. It’s nice to still be able to connect with an audience in that way… We were just getting rolling with shows pretty regularly and getting out there, so we had to cancel some of our bigger festival opportunities this year. But we’re looking forward to making the best of it. I think sometimes the challenge can bring about something completely new that you didn’t expect.
How did your flutist, Gwyneth Ravenscraft, get involved in the project?
SS: That was a fun story. We were playing a festival, called Starwood, and it’s in this gigantic inflatable dome, where some friends of our projection map imagery on top of a round dome that you can see from the inside and the outside. And of course, that draws a lot of people to come check it out, and our job as musicians was to kind of like, jam and make music, and draw people in. And she was one of those people that was drawn in. So, we just invited her to riff about and to kind of improv with us, ‘cuz we love improv, and it stuck. We were like, “let’s make this a thing.” And we’ve been really happy to have her along, I think she’s on five tracks for the new album, maybe more if we have some time.
DM: Yeah, I think it both situations it was that openness, just the open jam idea. Liquid Hologram is a project I did with Brian Moeller, who went to New York to work on VJ stuff because he creates content. So, look up Wizard Eye Visuals, his VJ handle. So in trying to reformat my performing live as just a solo act, I did miss collaborating with people. And there’s a multitude of talented acoustic musicians around. I’ve just kind of always thrown out that, “Hey, come up and perform, let’s make some new magic together, here on the spot.” And so that was the idea behind both people. Gwen was the same way. It’s just the fun of opening that magical bubble up, and seeing what fits.
SS: Yeah, definitely a different magic happens when people are willing to collaborate and allow the moment to come to them versus to contrive anything. So I think that’s really been what the three of us have in common.
For your recordings, I was wondering, how do you achieve your spacious sounds?
SS: Yes, we record all of our things ourselves. I went to Cincinnati State. Darshan practically grew up in the studio with having a parent in the music industry. And so we both have kind of structured what we know into what we want to hear. We use a lot of reverb and effects. We use Ableton Live, different things. I definitely love reverb and echo. It’s almost like another partner you’re writing with, the ways they can influence what you’re making.
DM: Absolutely, it’s hilarious because we almost use a shoegazer level of reverb. I put reverb on everything, just about, except for bass. And then, even then, maybe a little bit on the high end. Reverb and delay are crucial to creating space and texture. And that’s something that I personally love about music is when it creates an atmosphere, when you can almost feel the music, it’s so thick in the air, that it’s like, you can see the music. That spaciousness is something that I’ve been drawn to, and we both, when mixing and engineering, try to achieve that.
SS: I would say too, just imagining the feeling. I believe music can be a space you can belong into. So, trying to imagine that, using that imagination, definitely helps too.
DM: I think that’s the key thing behind all of our songs, is trying to create some kind of an atmosphere, some kind of a heady mood, whether it’s fun and light, Or if it’s mysterious. Whatever it is.
Sarah, I was wondering. How did you develop your vocal style and how did you determine whether or not to have tangible words on songs, and when do you just have the melodies?
SS: Thank you for asking. I think that’s definitely something that I’m doing uniquely. I started singing as a young kid. I’ve not had a lot of classical training. Recently, I’ve taken three lessons with the fantastic Kate Wakefield [of Lung], and hopefully will continue that. I think my vocal style developed over years and years of listening to multiple genres of music, everything from rock music. I was really into trip-hop and electronica growing up, but I was also into metal and industrial music and world music and pretty much anything. I just couldn’t get enough. I was like a little sponge.
So I think for me, it really started to take off as a vocal style once I stopped listening to music as much, I started listening inside of myself and allowing myself to pour out what’s inside of me versus what I think something should look or sound like, from a musical perspective. A lot of just resonating with my emotions and my feelings and trying to get out of my head so much and more into my sensation of singing. And, lyrically, I used to write a lot of poetry, and I love writing in general. I think words are a fantastic thing. I do a lot of speaking. I love philosophy and sociology and psychology as well. And I find a lot of outlets for me to use words in other ways that aren’t musical. So, when it comes to music, I really only want to say what can’t be expressed. And I want to express a lot of things that can’t be said. So I stopped using lyrics as a must, and I started using them when they feel right. My poetry went from having this long form to having more of “let’s see how concise I can make things.” And I also enjoy the sort of cryptic side where people can relate to it more universally. So, one thing I love about not using lyrics, is anyone from any language can hear it and kind of get the same feeling that I was feeling. And I also enjoyed performing a lot more when I can remove lyrics from it and add any kind of feeling that I’m having that day. It just makes it more interesting for me to keep my thoughts fluid as I’m performing versus having it stuck on the biggest particular storyline.
If you could let anyone remix one of your songs, who would it be?
SS: I would say Glass Animals, I think… or Shpongle.
DM: Yeah, that would be my answer.
SS: Okay, if there’s a collective band answer, let’s say Shpongle. [laughs]
Is there a specific reason why?
DM: Well, I feel like they’re always a great influence for exactly what we’re trying to do as far as that merge of electronic and organic music. I’m sure there’s other people out there doing it, but they do it so well, that that’s been a huge influence for us.
SS: They embody the atmospheric sense in music, I think, for me.
DM: The journey, the adventure. It’s very much like, as far as my favorite classic rock, definitely Pink Floyd, you know, these solid albums, their stories, their concepts, and they take you on a journey from point A to point B, and you might never touch back. It doesn’t have to conform to a structure, a pop-song structure. That’s what I love about it, just the adventure. And love writing music that is just an adventure.
What should people look forward to with Self-Similar?
SS: Definitely our next album. We’re already working on album two, so, who knows how long that’ll take, but the release of our first full-length album is coming up. We are going to have a full website launch with YouTube videos and our Bandcamp is up and coming. And we’ll have a full store and hopefully some merch and possibly some handmade art to go with that as well. So, I think people should look forward to more multimedia experiences as we progress and grow.
DM: And part of that would be the media company, too. So, if people looking for production, Audio or video editing, help with their music videos, help with live streaming, any of those things, we’re gonna be offering services there, on the website.