Exploring Intentionality with Tamino
Tamino’s first New York show is sold out, and the crowd is enraptured. Throughout the performance, the audience seeks to establish a connection with the towering 22-year-old dressed in black. At every bout of silence, they ask questions, they request songs. “Play ‘Crocodile’!” one fan screams, and though he’s about to start another piece, Tamino switches chords and bends to our will. “I didn’t know that worked,” a surprised fan replies.
When he’s not touring with Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, playing with the Nagham Zirkayat Orchestra, or being personally requested to perform with Lana Del Rey, it’s just Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad and his instruments.
When asked which guitar is his favorite, he answers like a proud father, “I can’t pick,” as he slings a black electric over his shoulder and secretly whispers “this one,” before heading into another song. Skipping octaves, his voice is like velvet, passing through Arabic vocal and tonal inflections.
Music is in the blood for the Belgian-born artist; with a name inspired by the prince of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and a revered Egyptian grandfather nicknamed “The Sound of the Nile,” Tamino was born into music.
Before his show at National Sawdust and as he gears up to release the deluxe version of his debut album Amir [out October 18th via Arts & Crafts], we met Tamino at his hotel in Brooklyn. Just a day before the passing of Daniel Johnston, we spoke about the importance of authenticity in songwriting. We explored Tamino’s lyrical journey and the meaning behind his newest singles. It’s striking how thoughtful and specific he is with his words – in both his work and his spoken language.
So you have your show in New York tomorrow, you’ll be touring in the US and Canada, then you go into the Middle East, North Africa, and then the EU — you were also on tour at the beginning of the year as well. How are you faring with being on the road so much?
I’m very lucky because I have an amazing crew: my sound guy, my tour manager, if we’re with the band, we have a slightly bigger crew, we have two musicians and a backliner, and light guy. They’re all good guys; without them, I wouldn’t be able to bear it, I think.
I like being home; I like to be alone, and I like to write and work on music. So being away from that is sometimes hard. The good thing, and also, the kind of weird thing about playing shows is that you’re kind of dedicating your life to that: being on the road. You travel the whole day and then in the evening, you have your show. It all comes down to that. You have to make it work because otherwise it’s been for nothing, you know? You kind of push all of your energy into that, and you receive a lot of energy back from the crowd, which is what keeps you going, I guess; that interaction, the energy.
How do you recalibrate before getting on stage? How do you get in the correct mindset?
I do like to warm up my voice. I think that’s something that’s important. It’s good to get into the right mindset, and also to just get my body ready. Apart from that, I think am somebody who does well with routine, but right now I don’t really have one. When we tour, it’s not like we have the same production each evening. It’s like, “Oh, now we’re playing for 200 people…Oh, now we’re playing for thousands of people.” It’s always different from each other. Also backstage, it’s always different, so it’s difficult to maintain a routine. But I think maybe in the future, meditation would be nice, or just something to get me in the moment.
I must say I’m doing better and better on stage, in terms of being there, and not being stuck in thought. I did have trouble with that in the beginning; sometimes I was just thinking about stuff.
Stupid stuff like tasks I had to do; nothing that has anything to do with the show. Hesitations like, “I wonder if the crowd is liking this or..” just stuff you shouldn’t be thinking about while you’re performing.
Lately, when I’m on the stage, I really feel like it’s not that much of a problem anymore. I can just let go. Those are the most beautiful moments, when you are really led by your own music; you just feel that the crowd is reacting to that, and I really like that; it’s something I’m always after. It’s kind of a transcendence feeling. If it works, it’s better than meditation, for me. My whole evening is different after that.
It makes sense, you’re fully in the present.
One of the main aspects of music is connecting with other people. Is there a specific crowd that really resonated with you? Or a specific fan, or show? I’m sure that they’re all great, but if there’s, one that comes to mind…
They’re all great, yeah, that’s the diplomatic answer. It depends, probably some cultures are more keen to show emotion.
What differences have you noticed between the crowds?
In Italy, they are very enthusiastic, but they are very respectful at the same time. It’s very special, they will be quiet for the whole song, and then they will want to shout, and they will throw roses at you, or whatever. It’s very romantic, the French are like that as well. In America, I feel actually very welcomed. It’s very inviting here, I don’t know how else to put it. I have the feeling, maybe I’m wrong about that, but as a European, it is like the new world, you know? And so many people move here. Of course, it was all a very long time ago, but people are still moving here. There are so many cultures coming together, and that’s why the crowd is very receiving. They’re open for other cultures; let’s say, it’s not an island.
I haven’t had many bad experiences, to be honest. I think I’ve been very lucky so far. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a worldwide hit song or something like that. I think that’s the moment where you get crowds that are only there for that one song. And so far, I think I’ve always had crowds who have really invested in music. They’re there with a purpose, they want to experience something. Until I have this hit song, I don’t know if I’ll ever have one…I don’t know if I ever want one, to be honest, because of that reason…but until that time comes, I think I will always have good experiences.
What’s the first thing that you want to do when you’re done touring in December?
I’m moving to a new house. I feel like I just want to decorate the place. It’s the first time I will be really designing what it looks like. It’s in this very multicultural area, a lot of Arabic families live there, but lately, a lot of other Belgian families have been moving there. It’s kind of becoming this nice clash of cultures, and I like that. It feels like it’s a vibrant place.
Antwerp is very, very small. You can cross one corner, and then you are in a totally different area. It’s this very small area of a lot of cultures coming together and I really like that. I would say some parts are too gentrified, which wouldn’t have been a good place to go and live for me. It doesn’t really inspire, it’s not a vibrant place. It kind of feels boring.
In Belgium, lately, because it’s such a small country, it’s not difficult to become known, so they recognize me, or whatever. It’s not like they bother me, but I prefer to…
Just go about your day.
What are your inspirations for your new place? What do you like?
So many things, I know this designer he’s called Jan Jan Van Essche. He is really, really cool. Of course his clothes, I love; I wear a lot of what he does. But the way he decorated his shop, and his office where he works and where he draws, it’s so beautiful. It’s a mix of, say a lot of different ethnical inspirations coming together with kind of a roughness, a bit more industrial. But very humble. It’s a very humble appearance. It’s not too over the top.
You have two new songs, “Crocodile” and “Every Pore,” but only the former is out at the moment…do you want to talk about them?
The second one’s out next month. They’re both quite old songs. So when I chose to record for my album, I had a lot of songs, and I chose these possible candidates for the record. Those two made it to the last 15-16 songs I would say. But then, in the end, they fell out. When I listened to them again, and sometimes I played them live, I always had a good reaction on the songs.
I really like them, I just think they’re true B-Sides; they are kind of odd songs in comparison to the other ones. I really felt like I wanted to release them anyway, so with the deluxe version, I felt that was a really good opportunity. With the song we just released, “Crocodile,” for me it was very weird listening back to the song. I wrote it so many years ago, and it kind of perfectly talks about the situation I’m in right now, not literally. You have this crocodile, and he looks at the songbird and offers the metaphor. Crocodile could be the person that has yet to be awakened, and the songbird is what he could be.
I guess any artist goes through that; you see a version of yourself, you want to strive forward, but you also know everything that comes with that because of history, because of stories you’ve heard so many times. And you know that there is a truth in those stories because they happen over, and over, and over, and it can happen to you as well.
I read in another interview that you said, “Someone can play three chords or maybe even one chord and move me. It’s because of the person that plays it, and how they play it.” When’s the last time that happened to you?
Let me check my Spotify because I always forget whatever I’ve been listening to lately.
Okay, my daily mixes are the singer-songwriters from America, the new ones, the ones who are still alive. Then, the ones who are a bit older, or dead. And then Arabic music. The more Alternative stuff, some Hip-Hop, all kinds of stuff.
Do you know The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski? It’s crazy. So he has tapes of existing music, and he manipulates them. But this one was broken, and it just kept on looping, and every time it looped, it got more broken. During this session, 9/11 happened. So he was looking, out and the album cover is a photo from where he was working.
It’s the same thing over and over, but it moves me like crazy. Do you know Daniel Johnston? I think what’s so cool is that he’s not a virtuoso, but he moves me more than 99% of all virtuosos.
Yeah, he’s authentic…how do you say it? We say, he has (literally translated) “saying power,” power in what he says… His songs are beautiful, the lyrics are heartbreaking…
What are you reading right now?
I just started A Brave New World which is cool. I think he was really young when he wrote it, it’s just insane to realize he wrote it then. It’s so accurate. If there were people who wanted to create this Utopian society where everything is perfect, it would be like that. I haven’t read 1984 though which is similar I think.
Your writing is very rooted in emotion. I’m assuming it could be cathartic to perform, but I’m wondering if there’s ever been a moment where it felt like too much.
I’m not sure. I don’t think so, actually. Maybe like once or twice, it’s usually when you just finished writing a song, and you perform it for the first time, that’s usually a very special moment. I don’t really feel like it’s ever too much though, that I can’t play it.
I feel like there is also a certain sense of letting go once you’ve performed it. Once you’re ready to release it to the world, you’ve almost come to terms with whatever you were writing about.
Absolutely, that’s true. You realize it’s not yours anymore. Have you listened to Mount Eerie’s record, A Crow Looked at Me?
He had a child with his wife, and then his wife died. It’s really, really terrible. That record is really beautiful. I’ve never seen a concert of his, but he did this concert in the Netherlands once in a church, and that was so emotional for everyone there, apparently. If I listen to that record, I’m always wondering, “Whoa, how does he do it?”
You’ve previously discussed the idea of letting go of performing the exact recording of your work, and moving more towards letting the music evolve through playing it. Has there ever been a time when you’ve wanted to change a lyric or something?
Of course, I mean, it’s actually funny because in the foreword of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley is talking about looking back at old work, and you, of course, want to change stuff, but that it’s also beautiful in a way, that you cannot.
And it’s this moment in time, where you were that person back then, and you were that kind of artist back then. I think some of the lyrics on my first record are very naive and very bold, in a way. Naive is kind of the more negative way of looking at it, and bold is the more positive way of looking at them.
Probably, I’m less naive in my songwriting right now, but I’m also less bold. That’s something that I feel right now, the older you get, the more you think; you have more in your archive, you overthink. But, I have no trouble performing those older songs. Even if I’m not very proud of certain lyrics, I still feel totally behind them. I’m still comfortable representing those songs. I stand behind them.
Because your words are so intentional, when you’re actually writing them, is there a revision process or do you just kind of get tapped into something and write?
I hope to just write, and then stuff happens. The lyrics, I go over and over it, until they are just right. So far I’ve written more out of music. So the music came first, and then the lyrics. I’ve done it the other way around as well, but I feel like those initial melodies and structures, they’re always the best when they just come out of this flow.
It’s like a gift, you just have to be open to receive it. I went to see Nick Cave, and he said such a beautiful thing. He said there’s no such thing as writer’s block; too many people think that there’s something inside of them that they need to get out, but it’s actually something that’s out there that needs to go through them.
If you are open for that, so if you try each day, then eventually those things will flow through you. Or maybe you’re in a certain moment in your life, where it’s not really going through you.
Last question – if music did not exist what would you do?
I wouldn’t know. I did acting and theatre when I was a kid. I really liked that, it was my first passion. I like writing as well. As long as I have a creative outlet, then it’s fine.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Dana Boulos
PRODUCER + EDITORIAL DIRECTOR: Ella Jayes
HAIR + MAKEUP: Heather Rose Harris
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Henry Fey
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