Imaad Wasif may be the last underground American rock star left in our media-saturated moment. Sure, he's the touring guitarist in the still-white-hot Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and even co-wrote and performed a number of songs with the band's frontwoman Karen O for the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack. Despite such relatively high-profile gigs, the name Imaad Wasif is perhaps only familiar to hardcore readers of, say, Pitchfork. That will change as the singer/guitarist joins Dead Meadow for an extensive musical journey across the United States this month.
It will change because of the massive, cosmic-desert-country-folk-rock punch of his latest album The Voidist, released late last year by Tee Pee Records. Bristling with galloping rhythms, fuzz-guitar leads, and mystical lyrics detailing the yearning for oneness — with a lover, the whole world — The Voidist stands as the top psychedelic-rock effort of the last decade. For instance, songs like the pulsing "The Redeemer," with its interstellar-overdriving buildup and collapse, will make you reach for a cigarette afterward. Or consider "Fangs," which rips away the distance between Black Sabbath and Neil Young & Crazy Horse thanks to Wasif's haunting falsetto and an arsenal of dark, distorted riffing.
However, Wasif, who claimed an Oakland residence for a year, insists he's more influenced by the East Indian classical music that he grew up listening to — particularly raga, a cluster of five or more musical notes that shape melodies.
"Ragas don't necessarily function in the same way as Western music," Wasif explained during a recent phone interview. "I love it all, and yet I feel very much torn between my love for both musics. I know that I write rock or folk music, but I just don't conceive of it that way. It's just what's most natural to me."
Being caught between two worlds is an ongoing and eternal predicament for Wasif, and it overlaps in all areas of his life. Having grown up a bit isolated from others as an Indian kid in Palm Springs, he always found it easy to work as a lone-wolf artist. His eponymous 2006 solo debut on Kill Rock Stars — a minimalist acoustic folk effort — cemented that image, especially with the cover photo: Wasif pulling a sheet of paper from an old Underwood typewriter with lyric sheets taped to the apartment wall behind him.
Still, he's a constant collaborator, working with everyone from Karen O to Sebadoh founder/Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow. Wasif has been in a band in one form or another since his teens, and his two previous indie-rock groups — lowercase and alaska! — were acclaimed, even though they were influenced by Eighties post-punk circa SST Records.
"Sometimes, when you've worked alone for a length of time, it's necessary to switch gears," he said. "You know, otherwise, the walls start getting higher and higher, and you can't climb your way out or see anything. You become too introspective. A great collaboration comes through knowing a person on a different level or having played music with him. You can't just walk into a room with a stranger and write anything meaningful."
Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dead Meadow is a critical darling, yet Wasif, who opened for Jack White's Raconteurs at one point, says he's not part of an indie-rock clique. "I'm just always crossing paths with great and well-known musicians," he said. "I don't really have a crowd that I fall in with. I also lived in San Francisco for a while, and the scene was very self-supporting. I've met a wide range of musicians, and I hope to go on growing musically. I want to explore all these different avenues."
Those avenues continue to expand and lead to new if somewhat obscure terrain. Wasif enjoyed a well-attended and positively reviewed residency last month at Silver Lake's Spaceland. Plus, the DVD of Where the Wild Things Are dropped a few weeks ago. But Wasif isn't interested in all that. He'd rather talk typewriters.
"Something about that machine feels like an extension of my writing," he said of his process, which involves wallpapering his room with lyrics. "The editing is where a typewriter really helps. So much of it comes from a romantic view of antiquated items. People like Henry Miller and William Burroughs write really lovingly about typewriters. You know, I always thought I was going to be a writer."
Speaking of antiquated, does Wasif stay up late shedding a tear for the dying record industry that has yet to make him famous?
"Everyone's freaked out about where the industry is going," he admitted. "I'm so far outside of that now. I just write, record, and put out music in any way I can. I don't know if you could ever really rely on anyone else but yourself. Keeping the momentum going, staying on top of the music that is coming out of me, is my focus."