Saros' Acrid Plains (Profound Lore, 2009, reviewed here) is one of the most unique metal debuts in a while. It weaves death, black, and prog metal into complex journeys, yet retains the grit of its origins in San Francisco's metal underground. Vocalist/guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf's roots go back further: formal training in school, hardcore bands Sutek Conspiracy and Memento Mori (who did a split with Kylesa in 2002), a period of wandering before alighting on the Bay Area. (She also plays in Amber Asylum, a dark chamber ensemble.) Here she explains how her current home has shaped Saros.
Interview by Cosmo Lee
Photos by Brandi Valenza
How did you get into metal?
When I was 13, 14, it was all about going to the record store and looking at whatever album cover had the most intriguing artwork and then just buying it. And then I got out of [metal] and got more into punk rock for my teens. [Then] I got bored of playing punk rock and was more interested in playing a more technical kind of music. [At] 19, 20 years old, I started getting into playing [metal] and hanging out with friends that were turning me onto a lot of the bands from then, like the melodic Swedish bands. The death metal that was going on in the early '90s got me back into it.
How did you come to start doing harsh vocals?
When I was living in Indiana going to graduate school, I formed a hardcore band called Sutek Conspiracy. It eventually became more metallic towards the end. We had a lead singer that was doing really high-pitched, scream-y vocals, so I thought it would be cool to do backups.
Actually, I've never fronted a band until Saros. We spent the first few months auditioning vocalists. It was pretty ridiculous, what we came across. After a while, it was just such a dismal process that [vocals] kind of defaulted onto me. Since I was writing half the songs anyway, I figured I would do a better job than some person who was coming off the street and didn't know where we were coming from musically.
You're formally trained in music. How much of that do you bring to Saros?
Probably not as much as people would think. I grew up playing jazz and classical trumpet when I was in middle school. That's really the extent of my training, besides doing a minor in music in college. I would say I use more of that in the writing than anything I did with trumpet or piano or flute playing — I played a few different instruments as a kid. We don't score our music or anything, but I probably have some awareness [of that aspect] through my composition training.
Is it true you moved to the Bay Area just to start a band?
Why the Bay Area?
I had been couchsurfing for two years before I moved to the Bay Area. It was a time in my life where I had no idea where I wanted to be. I was traveling coast-to-coast that whole time. [I chose] the Bay Area because my friend, who's the bass player in Saros, Tim [Scammell], was already here. He just called me up one day during that time and said, "Let's start a band." Nothing was working out for me where I was living before, and I didn't want to stay on the East Coast, which is where I'm from originally. Tim had an extra room in his house, so it was as simple as that. I had somewhere to go.
Would Saros sound the same if it were somewhere else?
I think lyrically it would be what it is wherever we were. The bands here do have an influence on our sound.
It's a combination of the Bay Area thrash bands and classic metal bands that originated here. We're inspired by other bands, by their creativity — bands like Hammers of Misfortune, Ludicra, Grayceon. These are bands that don't trap themselves, and that's inspiring to be around. We don't do what those bands are doing, but the fact that they're unique and we have a really unique scene here is inspiring to us. We're less afraid to go off and do our own thing, because that's pretty much what the bands we respect do here.
I hear a bit of Ludicra in Saros.
We've been compared a lot to them. I think we share a lot of the same black metal influences, and we [both] have two guitars with female growlers. They're highly influenced by Weakling, and our drummer was in Weakling [laughs].
Did you know of his background before you hired him?
I had no idea. I hadn't even heard of Weakling before I started playing with Sam [Blood Eagle]. I met Sam on Craigslist. He was looking for guitar players.
What did the ad say?
It said, "Looking for two guitarists with the following influences." I think it was, like, Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Death, Mercyful Fate, Enslaved — a lot of the shit I liked. I answered, and the rest is history. It was like, "Oh, by the way, I used to be in this band Weakling. Here's a burned copy of Dead as Dreams" [laughs].
Do you find that people that people who listen to you are not as open-minded as you are?
There are definitely people that are, but there's a huge majority that's not. It depends on what you mean by open-minded. Musically, yeah. But in terms of where they are on the sociopolitical spectrum, I would say they're way less open-minded [laughs].
I've always felt that musicians are more open-minded than their fans. I go to shows where the bands are perfectly valid, and then I see their fans, and I'm, like, "Oh my god."
And I wonder if bands ever feel, like, "God, we hate our fans."
I put my guard up. I would never talk to these people on the street or at a party. If there was no connection with the music, I would have nothing else in common with these people. If I was playing with an anarcho-crust punk band, I probably would have more in common [with fans] in terms of non-music stuff. But I don't want to play that kind of music. So I have to make my own bed, so to speak [laughs].
How did the logo come about?
The artist was this neighbor of our bass player's ex-girlfriend. He was a comic book artist. I don't think he'd ever done a band logo. He's not even a metalhead. He's this random guy who heard that we needed a logo and just made a crack at it. He got some background on what Saros meant, the whole astronomy thing, so he incorporated that into the logo, which is the three moons.
Do you ever get tired of questions about gender?
I get tired of certain questions about gender, like really generic ones: "What's it like to be a woman in a metal band?" [Laughs] I would never get sick of talking about gender. I'm very interested in studying gender. But it depends on who's asking the question, and what the question is.
That is a very generic question, but the fact it is still being asked means that it is still an issue.
San Francisco is pre
tty female-friendly for metal.
Right, totally. People don't really think about it here.
But you go out to other places, and you see a woman up there doing something, and it's unusual.
And even the bigger shows here in San Francisco — I saw Mayhem play last night, and it was such a meathead scene. It was the suburban metalhead scene. It's just funny, because those package tours bring that element. Really, the female element is strictly local, like San Francisco and Oakland, which I find pretty interesting.
What did you think of Mayhem?
I was very entertained. I loved Mayhem. I love Attila [Csihar, vocalist]. I think he's a fucking brilliant performer. He's pretty much the reason I went. The rest of the band I could take or leave.
When you saw Attila, did you wish that you didn't have to play guitar, and you could just sing?
No, no, no. I'm a guitar player first, totally. Vocals are really new to me. I'm a total novice. I didn't even want to be the lead vocalist, and it just happened that way. Now I've kind of grown into that role, and I enjoy it. But I'm definitely a guitar player first.
What do you hope to achieve with Saros?
I hope to not just be a local band. I really want to tour. I eventually want to write an album that we're all happy with [laughs].
Do you want to make a living off of Saros?
That would be nice. But I'm realistic, and I don't think that would ever be achieved because of the kind of music we play. I don't see us being the kind of band that would compromise our sound or the way we want to project ourselves just to make money.
What does Saros mean to you?
Saros is a band that's not afraid to transcend into unsafe territory.