Lament of the Shapeshifter

From a social media perspective, I sure kicked up a bit of a dust storm – by my humble standards, that is… forgive me – when I posted a veritable sob session about my busted production machine and the overall dilapidated state of zykomazika at large. It was met with an expected range of reactions… some support from long time friends and fans, some lament, some casual well wishes towards new paths… but in the end, I felt fairly crummy about how it all came across.

About “failing” as a “musician”

I’m just doing something I really ought to have done a long time ago.

Story time!

In “beginning” my musical journey as a young child, I did what most other budding musicians do and picked up an orchestra instrument at school. For me, it was the Violin that spoke to me most. After randomly experimenting and exploring music with my father in my early formative years, this was my first step into the world of music outside of the home.

It really was at this very point that I think everything went to shit for me, to be honest. I realize a lot has happened between grade school Waleed and the zykO that committed artist-suicide the other day but I really can pinpoint my troubles as a musician to this very specific point in my musical development… and the chief cause of the disconnect between the zykO I am and the zykO I wished I was. I had an earnest desire to play the Violin and to be great at it but did not receive the support and encouragement I needed to pursue it. I’m not saying I was particularly discouraged by anyone in particular – although I can say to some certainty that I was not fond of my Violin instructor who, by my recollection, wasn’t very fond of me neither – but I malfunctioned in the single area that has held me back all these years and has just about torpedoed my musical career.

My failure with the Violin was my failure in classical training.

I know what I am and what I am not.

I am a creative, natural storyteller. I am an exceptional arranger. I can paint images with sound. I can create layered soundscapes and sonic backdrops as well as anyone in the game. I am adept at opening a direct channel between my heart and my audience. I am such a prolific well of ideas, my ideas have ideas. I can improv for hours on end if unchecked. I can jam with just about anybody. My vocabulary, due in part to my penchant for rambling, is vast which has aided me as a lyricist. I have a unique sound that is non-genre specific and is a smorgasbord of influences and tastes curated across three decades. I am obsessed with instrumentalism and strive to play as many instruments as I can.

I also may be tone deaf… and if I’m not, I have a grossly under-practiced ear. I am, relatively speaking, quite lazy and don’t study and can’t practice for very long without losing interest and wanting to create, instead. For years, I didn’t even tune or change strings on my guitars though, thankfully, in my advanced age that is no longer a challenge. Music theory – something I still ardently believe is “understood” far more than it is “known” – has eluded me completely since my adolescence when I rebelled against it to be a “rock star.” As a vocalist, I am self-taught beyond a few years performing in choirs as a child… so my intonation is whacked out, I often stubbornly force myself to sing out of range and I have a tendency to have a latent Arabic accent unintentionally come out in some of my voicings. As a guitarist, I cannot shred by any conventional standard having never taken the time to practice scales and modes. On any manner of keyboard/piano, I’m a total sham which is actually consistent with my total abolition of classical music theory in my life so I have no discernible chops there, neither. In fact, across the many instruments I’ve collected over the years… be it the guitar, piano, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, oud, drums, various percussion, etc… I’ve demonstrated a consistent mediocrity even on instruments, such as the guitar, that I ought to be virtuosic on by now. I am also probably the world’s worst audio engineer. 

As you can clearly see, the bad greatly outweighs the good.

When an artist says something to the effect of “I’m not where I feel I ought to be,” there is the added element of failed expectations that colors the picture with a heavy handed hue.

Here are a few…

For example, I wanted to study music in school. I’m not holding any reticent grudges against my parents, don’t get me wrong, but they put the kibosh on that real quick. I had applied to a variety of music programs at several schools while I was in high school including stalwarts such as Eastman and Berklee and was very serious about going. I was talented enough and skilled enough to get there, at the very least. However, they felt I was throwing my future away. The crazy thing about that, of course, was the most prominent voice in that was that of my late father’s, who, ironically, had abandoned his veterinary medicine degree and career in his early 20s and ultimately left Egypt altogether to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career in art. My earnest desire to acquiesce his paranoia that I needed to pursue the sciences instead of the arts was altogether a confusing but understandable dichotomy for adolescent Waleed and it shifted my focus from being a career musician to being a hobby musician whether I was aware of it or not.

What I lament about that, of course, is that I wish I was truly a “music nerd.” I wish I was able to sight read. I wish I was able to do barbershop quartets with my friends. I wish I was able to easily and quickly mock up lead sheets and transcriptions. I wish teaching music was an option for me when job hunting. I wish I was a part of that life.

I’ve also always wanted to be in theatre. I have a natural talent for performance in general and, to be honest, specifically acting. I’ve been a big fan of theatre and musical theatre for as long as I’ve been alive and I can honestly say that it was one of my childhood dreams to be a singer/actor. That did not happen.

I also would have wanted to become a composer, specifically for film. Video games was the natural segue here considering where I cut my teeth musically and seeing as how many of my friends have gone from video game music arrangement into productive careers as composers but as much as I obviously have an affinity for that format, my true passion lies in film scoring. Of course, I haven’t at all come close to that and never will.

I would have liked to have settled into a genre early on. Literally, anything. The random patchwork of textures and tones that make up zykomazika was a clever party trick when I was younger, impressing folks with my range… but it has turned out to be more of a curse than anything else. For truth is, when you are genre-bound, you’re part of a community and a cast that allows you to grow within that mold. The expectations of you artistically are far more attainable so long as you provide quality substance within the anticipated format and tone. The inherent categorization of music allows for music to be enjoyed within its context… and having no context is death for an artist trying to make a living out of their art.

Piggybacking off that… I wish I hadn’t bailed on the band life. As a young man, I often played in bands and zykO was simply my solo side project where I mostly just experimented with my wilder ideas in the video game remixing scene. Then I became arrogant in my abilities and felt I could shoulder the burden and be a solo artist. Granted, life circumstances – because my poor decisions are not restricted to the arts, of course – also derailed some of that… but generally speaking, I stepped away from the band life so early on that I became studio-bound and thus the artistic equivalent of a house kitten. I feel that most when I am out in the “street” with the real cats. I’m working through those rusty kinks with my band, Ozymandias, thankfully… but I’m reminded of my absence from the “road” and “stage” every time I take it.

Where does this all bring us?

Well, it brings us to the reality of the present state. I may have had something brewing in my mid-20s when I was younger and more hip, more energetic but I wasted that window of opportunity if it was actually there. It’s hard as fuck to get that back now, knocking on the door of 40. The constant nagging voice in the back of my head that reminds me that I ought to be on a stage somewhere peddling my zykowares is not so easily quieted. The truth is, I failed to make something of that particular zykO.

Because of that failure, however, zykO is only really synonymous with video game remixing… which is of course tragic because I’ve also released 11 original albums and am getting ready to drop my 12th lol I wonder sometimes if I had only bailed on the video game remixing back when I had a chance to in ’04 or ’05 – the funny thing being that I actually did “retire” once during that era with a big ol’ dramatic post just like the FB one from a few days ago announcing that zykO was done and moving on to an original career – or if I had simply abandoned the zykO pen name at that time and started releasing my original music under my real name, instead.

I gambled on zykO’s marketability and what I thought was an awesome, fitting and memorable moniker.

Truth is, what’s resulted is that hardly anybody who is a fan of the vgm zykO particularly cares for the original stuff and vice versa… except far more people are into the vgm stuff than the original stuff. FAIL.

That puts me in a quandary where all the effort and funds I keep pouring into zykO has put me upside down in debt with basically nothing to show for it. Take Sad Man on a Rock for example; I’ve been working on it for the better part of half a dozen years and have spent ridiculous amounts of money on it – and still spending – and, probably most importantly, have stressed many of my interpersonal relationships if not outright destroyed them. To what end? Sure, I have a sincere goal with the album and a good cause to be doing this for… but what’s the point of an investment over $10k to raise awareness and charity if only 10 people listen to it?

The fact of the matter is, I don’t have a problem with artistic self-identity; I know exactly who I am. I just don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.

I know what I am. That hasn’t really changed that much in two decades. I’ve gotten better at being certain parts of me but I’ve remained relatively consistent with what I am and what I do and how I do it. I’m just not a very good musician. I may have a lot of creative ideas and a lot of accumulated skill and experience but I’m worthless and illiterate as a musician.

The challenge for me is to try and salvage whatever parts of Waleed are left to be salvaged… and, frankly, I’m afraid that zykO is both unsalvageable and not really all that important in the grander scheme of things.

When my production machine came up lame a few weeks ago amidst two unfinished songs, mere days before their deadlines, I felt a pang of defeat to be sure. Since then, I had been trying to salvage the computer, wiping it and installing a fresh OS and loading a reasonably recent backup that at least had protected all the progress on my album, and most importantly Cubase and my production stack. There was yet hope on the horizon…

Until of course, I discovered that my machine was not going to cooperate, its damage running too deep and Cubase rendered unusable. At best, my laptop can be used for general internet browsing and maybe some word processing.

Yes, I have a PC – upon which I am writing this blog entry – and it is a powerful machine rocking a healthy 32GB of ram, a 4.0 GHZ processor and a fully functional copy of Cubase albeit lacking my, now, Mac-based stack… annnnd has crashed three times this morning alone within the course of this blog post. It, also, despite being built for gaming and having bonafide horses under its hood is best suited for general internet browsing and maybe some word processing.

Ideally, I would want to buy a new lap top and load up my backup and carry on, unadulterated. That’s fine thought, of course. My Macbook Pro was a 2013 model and I would want nothing more than a new, powerful, streamlined model. Sadly, that costs a pretty penny… a penny I simply don’t have. Sure, I can slap it on a credit card like I’ve done with everything else over the years further encumbering myself in debt. I could even accept the several offers from dear friends to help crowdfund a computer for me.

But to what end? See, that’s the thing that had been nagging me for years and is now finally coming to light when I am, again, faced with a decision to either give up altogether or persist and rack up debt and further put myself in a hole I’m not really climbing out of… and for what? For zykO?

If zykO was all that, then sure, it might be worth it… but how many of y’all even actually care? I love all fifty of you, believe me, but at some point I have to consider that I’m not doing the smart thing anymore.

I’ve shortchanged my professional career outside of music by relentlessly chasing music all these years and, as such, I bring home less than almost all of my friends. I’ll likely never own a home. After the failure of my marriage and the epic obliteration of my family, I’m likely to be alone for at least some time more, carrying the load entirely on my own. It would quite rationally behoove me to sell off a substantial portion of my gear, downsize to a one bedroom apartment – again – instead of dedicating a room to a studio that simply costs way more than it is worth.

As much as my friends and fans are the best thing to happen to me and knowing they are sincere when they say they want to help, the truth is, I can’t do that to them. To you. Why invest in a failing product?

The computer croaking on me – yet another technical difficulty in a long, historic line of them – was the final wake up call.

Ok, ok… so much sob story, not enough positivity… let’s be clear about some things:

Music is forever a part of who I am. I may suck at music but I don’t suck at loving it. Music is like oxygen for me, like water; I cannot hope to survive without it. I will always play music. I intend on focusing my creative efforts into Ozymandias as, quite honestly, I hadn’t been carrying my own weight as of late in writing since I was so preoccupied with the zykO stuff. I should be contributing more writing to the band and not just lyrics and my notorious improv lead noodling.

I love music. I may not be able to sight read or explain the salient concepts and notions of music theory but I understand music, more so today than I ever have at any point in my life. I just can’t call myself a musician anymore because I’m not sure I am one.

I’m something else. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, and hopefully one day I will figure that out. I feel like I’m wasting everybody’s time and my blood and sweat on something that just isn’t for me. And I understand that, now. And I accept it.

After all, if Waleed is going to do anything moving forward, zykO has to get out of the way.