I admit that I am not usually much of a fan of rock music. I don’t necessarily dislike it—it’s just that that particular instrumental combination doesn’t usually do it for me. But Ahmed Elian‘s progressive rock music was somehow different. I was drawn in and enthralled by his intricately arranged and gorgeously developed progressive rock tracks. Lucky for me, he eagerly accepted my interview request! We had an incredibly fun and thought-provoking conversation, from Cairo to California, where the humble and good-natured composer talked about inspirational games (particularly Undertale), odd time signatures, and compositional option anxiety.
How did your career in music start? Do you have any formal training, or do you play any instruments?
Ahmed: Yeah, at about 8 years old I was really into The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. There was one episode where Zach was playing an electric guitar, and I thought it was really cool. So my Dad was going to Spain, and I asked him for a guitar, and he got me a classic guitar, which I still have here! And I went to Cairo Music Center, the only music school in Cairo. I was taught how to read sheet music, major scale, minor scale, basics… They were extremely boring… I remember this very vividly: I would learn very slowly how to read sheet music, and they would get extremely boring, hours on end… I went to CMC for three years, and then I was self-taught after. Now I play guitar, bass, keys…
Nice! So what was your very first composition, and what made you want to write music for the first time?
Ahmed: When I was about ten… Everyone in their adolescence wants to start bands and stuff. Me and my friends had this little band, we called ourselves… Zatacrust, I think. And we’d cover Metallica songs, and that’s kinda the music I grew up listening to. One day we composed this really power chord-y song, you know just root-third-fifth. It was very simple, but we were very proud. We would drum on books! That’s how basic we were.
But my first real composition, I think I was fifteen. It’s called False Reality. It’s the first song on my soundcloud. And the production quality is absolutely horrible. It’s okay for a fifteen-year-old!
(laughs) You gotta start somewhere? So what or who are some of your main musical influences?
Ahmed: I listen to a lot of progressive jazz, progressive rock, and a lot of classical music… I love Chopin, I love Erik Satie, the French composer. I love obviously Beethoven and Mozart, all of that… My favorite, I think, is Erik Satie—I love his ideology on how to compose. He never lets go of the sustain pedal, he just lets everything ring out very slowly.
Aside from that, what I actually listen to on a daily basis is The Reign of Kindo, and Snarky Puppy—they largely influence my style. Snarky Puppy is a jazz fusion band, an incredible 21-man band. They’re based in New York. They’re very big now—they won 2 Grammys. Incredible music. Very busy, but incredible.
I also listen to video game music, obviously. Do you know the game Undertale, by any chance?
YES. Oh my goodness. So good, so good.
Ahmed: I can’t tell you how much I love this game… And the OST is genius!
And it’s the same guy! The same guy… That’s so incredible to me.
Ahmed: Yes, to be able to be this good at game design AND music.
Ahmed: Yeah… So I listen to progressive rock, too. Karnivool, Rush… You know like old progressive rock bands.
Cool, so what kinds of things inspire you outside of music?
Ahmed: Everything! I’m a film minor, and I absolutely love film… I’m working with a director right now to produce a web series called Pulp Culture. But let me focus on one thing at a time!
I love Quentin Tarantino, I love Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan… Their composer’s musical scores are incredible, absolutely beautiful. When I’m sitting there, I like to watch films very critically—I don’t like to miss anything, including the music. I feel like sound is very intimate; it’s HERE. Visuals, you see them across from you. But sound is like… All-encompassing. I also listen to a lot of OSTs, film scores, by Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat…
Interesting conversations with people. I’m also a philosophy minor, so I tend to read a lot of old texts. When I read those, I somehow am inspired. I just love that I can read something that was written so long ago: the temporal bridge between then and now is inspiring.
And the night. The night is inspiring! I like to work at night.
Nice. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Ahmed: I use Logic Pro X as my DAW. I have a Epiphone Les Paul Prophecy that I use as my main guitar. I also have a Suzuki electric guitar, very old. I have my Fender acoustic. I have this little Akai keyboard, and a Yamaha bass. I have many sound libraries as well! What I use for samples and stuff.
Yeah. So what’s your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece of music, if there is a formula?
Ahmed: I wouldn’t formulize it, but I love to work with reverb. I like building blocks. Let’s say I pick a key—D minor. And I play the first chord. I let it ring out, and see what other notes my right hand would play—I compose on keys, then transcribe to guitar. I just see what comes from that first chord.
“I love to work with reverb. I like building blocks. Let’s say I pick a key—D minor. And I play the first chord. I let it ring out, and see what other notes my right hand would play [on the keyboard]. … I just see what comes from that first chord.”
I love writing in odd time signatures too, so that’s something I’ll start with—7/4, 7/8, 9/8… There’s never really a formula. But if I listen to something I like in my music library, and I really like it, I will register it. And the next time I make music, I think “I liked that, I want to try to do something along those lines.”
Cool, so what kinds of things do you find appealing about video game music? What about video games makes you want to write for them?
Ahmed: Well, do you know Mario’s soundtrack came to be? It was made on only four different tracks: a sawtooth track, a square track, sine track, and noise for percussion—cymbals and snares and stuff. When I learned that, it was absolutely insane. I loved the Mario soundtrack, I grew up playing Mario, Sonic, Zelda, all those games. They were all just composed on four tracks, and they have such an emotional incentive within almost everyone from that generation who grew up playing them. So the minimalism and effect that it has is insane. The music is very minimalistic but is done so well—it hits home. I firmly believe that any game would not be what it is without its music.
“Mario, Sonic, Zelda, all those games [were] all just composed on four tracks, and they have such an emotional incentive within almost everyone from that generation who grew up playing them. … The music is very minimalistic but is done so well—it hits home. I firmly believe that any game would not be what it is without its music.”
Ahmed: No game would have the same effect if it had different music. So games that go distinctly well with their music, like Undertale—it’s just an instant masterpiece. I’ve broken down many times in this game, because of the music. (laughs)
Ahmed: So I work with 8-bit compositions now: every album or EP I’m gonna put out from now on is gonna have one 8-bit track. The minimalism makes me work harder to get a better composition.
Yeah! And so is the 8-bit track gonna be an original, or a remake of another track that’s on the EP?
Ahmed: That’s actually a very interesting question—I didn’t think about that! It could be a repeating motif from a previous track. I was thinking it was gonna be original, but thank you, I’ll think about that now! I want it to act as a palette cleanser, an intermission.
Okay, cool! So speaking of progressive rock, you have some really awesome progressive, ambient rock on your soundcloud. How did you get into that genre?
Ahmed: Thank you. Well when I was around 13 or 14, getting into the production of music on Garageband, I had a friend called Rommi Hassanain. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my entire life. He was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and then he came to Egypt. He was a skater, so I skated with him for fun. He’s actually in California right now! Studying at USC. Before that, I was listening to generic rock: Metallia, the Scorpions, the bands that are huge. But he introduced me to the avant-garde scene, in all genres. He would go on bandcamp, the website for distributing independent music. We would pick out artists we found interesting and listen to them. And they’re just people—they were just people in their rooms, across the globe, making great music.
I started listening to that and I got into the concept of time signatures, and I found it amazing. Time signatures are central to my compositions. 4/4 is fine… But to neglect the waltz, 3/4, or 7/4, or 5/4… Is a crime. They just have a different pull to them… So that got me into the progressive scene. If I had not met him, I probably would not be listening to the same music that I am now.
Okay, cool. So how do you think progressive rock and video game music are similar?
Ahmed: What does progressive mean? Essentially, deviating from the norm. And in that sense, video game is definitely deviant. You’ve played Undertale, Pacifist, Genocide, all that?
Pacifist, not Genocide! I know what happens in Genocide, but I haven’t played it—I refuse to!! (laughs)
Ahmed: I’ve played it. It was horrible.
I don’t want to!! I’m scared!!
Ahmed: So in the Genocide path, the music changes. It’s the same soundtrack, but it’s like downscaled, slooowww, everything is way creepier, and way scarier. It’s horrifying. As soon as you kill everyone in the village, the music instantly goes like 75% slower, and much creepier. I don’t know how he does it—it’s genius.
Just the playing of perception of the sound, not just the timbre or the actual melody or rhythm. How you perceive the exact same soundtrack: it’s distinct only to a medium like video game music. You wouldn’t see that in an album put out by a pop artist.
I think progressive and video game music are alike in that they both really, really push music to their limits. It makes us question what exactly we like about music.
Interesting, cool! So which composition of yours are you most proud of, if you can choose just one?
Ahmed: Yeah, I can. Inkling, without a doubt. It’s on soundcloud. I really enjoy composing music as if I’m telling a story. That’s why Tranquil Eyes and Inkling start very slow, very ambient, then the drums begin, and everything joins. But Inkling… The tune is me. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. The tune… I will never not enjoy it. Tranquil Eyes, I got very bored of very quickly. They’re my two main compositions.
Inkling’s tune… I just love the chords. The bridge and the end is in 5/4. It’s different—it’s something I can actually say I’m proud of, in terms of production quality as well. The bass is very punchy… Everything prior to that, I’m iffy about.
Okay. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while composing music, and how did you get through them?
Ahmed: Oh, so many! It’s overwhelming—you can do anything. You can pick any scale, any mode, any tempo… There’s just so much, and I want to do it all. I want to compose it all. I want to just let everything out. I get overwhelmed, and I end up not doing anything. That’s one of my biggest problems: I look at that blank Logic project, and I’m stuck with the keys or the drums, or just some ambient sounds, and I don’t know what to do…
In the case that that doesn’t happen, it’s usually a very inspired time in my life. I’m very inspired, I’m like “I want to do this, and this exactly, and I don’t want to change anything about it.” That’s what happened with Inkling: I made that tune, that chord progression, the melody. I was like “I’m gonna record it as it is, I’m not gonna change anything.” And I like it, I still like it!
Now, I’m getting more advanced theory. And there’s just so much you can do. It’s overwhelming, you know? I guess to overcome this, you have to stop thinking about the music, and just play. I know that’s a cliché, I understand that. (laughs) But it’s true! The times where I didn’t think, and just played, I come up with better stuff!
Yeah, that’s great! All right, now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Okay, favorite video game protagonist!
Ahmed: Uhhhh…!!! Crash Bandicoot!
Favorite mystical creature in any video game.
Ahmed: Napstablook, the ghost in Undertale.
Okay, favorite video game series!
Ahmed: Series!? Oh my god… Super Mario Bros!
All right, favorite Pokémon!
Ahmed: Ah… My brother plays Pokémon, but I’ve never… I guess Pikachu? (laughs)
(laughs) Okay, pick one: magic, defense, or strength?
Okay, favorite time signature!
Ahmed: 7/4… Ugh. So hard.
(laughs) Okay. Courage, wisdom, or power?
Ahmed: Wisdom, definitely.
Okay, favorite battle theme.
Oh, which one, Spear of Justice?
Ahmed: The one from the Genocide route!
Battle Against a True Hero?
Ahmed: Yeah, that one!
Okay, if you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?
Ahmed: Nero from Devil May Cry. A very old video game series.
Okay, if you could make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose to fight with?
Ahmed: The tuba! It would shoot lasers when you play a note.
Awesome! That’s cool. (laughs) Okay, end of rapid-fire questions!
Ahmed: Great! They’re so stressful!!
Okay, so what are some of your future plans? What are you working on at the moment?
Ahmed: Well right now, I’m giving a lot of attention to Upwork. I want to produce for people I don’t know. What I’ve been doing thus far, I’ve been producing for a lot of friends who want music for their short films. And just people that I know, or friends of mine have told them about me. But that’s not use for me really, because I potentially want to become a professional musician or composer. I cannot imagine doing anything else—even though my major at university is psychology, doesn’t have to do with music. Music has always been that thing, that thing I’ve always loved.
Yeah, there’s a lot of psychology in music!! (laughs)
Ahmed: Yeah, there is! That’s part of the reason why I took psychology: a lot of artistic affects go into psychology. So right now I’m working on the web series “Pulp Culture”, with Salim Abubusalom, he’s the director. And I’m working on Upwork, producing for clients. And my new EP “Bittersweet Winter Night”. I love writing concept EPs, that have a story to them, not just random.
Cool, so what is one rule that you like to live by?
Ahmed: Ooh… Be extremely passionate, and not let potential consequences get in your way. That’s something I tend to use in every action I ever make.
“Be extremely passionate, and not let potential consequences get in your way. That’s something I tend to use in every action I ever make.”
Awesome, cool. Those are all the questions I have! Any final thoughts, anything else?
Ahmed: No, that’s it! Thank you so much for this!
Listen to Ahmed Elian’s insanely good progressive rock music on his soundcloud: