Remember Imaad Wasif from the movie Laurel Canyon?
The first time I saw Imaad Wasif play guitar, I could have sworn it was Jack Butler, the devil's ax-man from the climactic scene of the 1986 movie Crossroads (which stars The Karate Kid's Ralph Macchio, BTW). The two moments could have been superimposed—a darkly cloaked bone-thin frame, head back, hair in eyes, fiendishly lost in the moment and ripping through riff after riff good enough to steal your soul.
But appearances really can be deceiving. Wasif is a six-string shaman instead of henchman from hell. He's able to play like a demon but is far more interested in healing your soul than taking it.
I caught up with him on New Year's Eve as he was preparing for a night of tarot readings, séances and a run through the I Ching.
“I'm actually very much involved with the duality of all things,” says the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “But it seems like now, for a few years, I've been really immersed in the idea of trying to find the center of my soul, my existence and the reason for being.”
When not searching for the meaning of life, Wasif has kept busy with a multitude of big-name musical projects. He's been in the bands alaska! and Folk Implosion. He toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and contributed to their latest album, It's Blitz. He appeared on both of Lou Barlow's solo records and performed on the recent soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are. And through it all, Wasif has also found time to release three records of his own.
His latest, The Voidist, is a psychedelic rock and freak-folk epic that looks to reconcile his multiple musical personas.
“It's hard for me to view my records in a linear way,” Wasif says. “But The Voidist captures the entire spectrum of the songs I write. I really wanted to put out a record like that after putting out the more singularly focused last two. I feel like there's a schism between two personalities that are constantly going in my head. The Voidist looks to connect those two.”
From the expansive, cinematic quietness of “Another” to the peppy, barroom chug of “Daughter of Fire,” there are plenty of disparities between the album's songs. And when the sedated pace of “Fangs” moves into a refrain of “move against the stream, moving fearlessly” before disintegrating into a wallop of screeching guitar, Wasif does his reconciling within the framework of a single track.
“That lyric's definitely where I am right now,” he says. “And it's also one of the main messages of the record.”
Wasif's upbringing was as disparate as his latest offering. Born to Indian parents in Vancouver, B.C., he moved to Palm Desert, Calif., when he was a small child. Steeped in everything from traditional ragas to Tim Buckley and punk rock, Wasif formed his first band in high school. They were lucky enough to be involved in a few of Josh Homme's infamous desert generator parties.
“Just being a part of them was amazing and inspiring,” Wasif says. “You'd see things like The Dwarves play way out at a nudist colony and they'd smash their instruments 15 seconds into the first song. I also have a lot of pain associated with those memories. I got the skin ripped off my arm by a guy who put grip tape on his hands and jumped on me while I was watching Kyuss play.”
His various experiences have produced a guy who likes to talk about Carl Jung's Red Book and Vedic scriptures but still likes to let loose and get raw.
“There's also an insane primitive aspect to all of this that makes me feel like an animal,” Wasif says. “Playing an instrument can clear out the entire space I exist in.”
But, ultimately, Wasif remains cautiously optimistic about everything.
“I don't think that music can save the world,” he says. “But I do think it can save the self. And by doing that, I think individuals can contribute in many ways. Music is the most powerful expression I've found in life, but communication is what will change the world.”
Imaad Wasif plays with Vision of a Dying World on Friday, Jan. 15, at Bar Pink. www.myspace.com/imaadw.