Immigrant Rights Lawyer Natasha El-Sergany, of Seattle's somesurprises, On Finding Balance
Hot off the release of their three-track EP Alt, Seattle's somesurprises are steadily building a name for themselves amid the city's eclectic music scene. Buoyed by meaningful collaboration, somesurprises are creating music that is simultaneously shelter and freedom. Taking cues from krautrock legends like NEU!, and more recent contemporaries like Brightblack Morning Light, somesurprises' sound shimmers with echoes of lonely nights and long days spent in the hustle and bustle of the city.
At the center of the band is Natasha El-Sergany, principal songwriter, guitar player extraordinaire and a lawyer working for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. We talked over the phone about the politics of being apolitical; Naomi Kline; Chopin; keeping your art separate from your day job; and why Amazon is trash.
Why don’t we start by having you introduce yourself?
I’m Natasha El-Sergany. I live in Seattle. somesurprises was a project I started by myself in Virginia about five years ago now, which is crazy. There’s been several permutations, but I did one solo release that was just phone recordings that was called ‘voice memos’, on a label called Happy Accidents.
And then Serious Dreams was recorded by myself and Josh, who still plays guitar in the band now.
We recorded Serious Dreams on a 4-track, and our friend Brenan Chambers mixed it and made it sound a lot bigger than it could have on a 4-track alone. That album was very special to us. It was my first—what felt like proper—release.
We just released our EP Alt on Doom Trip, which is a three-song kind of overflow from the same sessions that make up our upcoming record, which is coming out this summer. So basically, these are three songs that wouldn’t fit on either side of an LP. So we felt like we should use them, and they all kind of went together nicely.
It feels like a nice stop-gap in between the long gap between album releases, 'cause they always take longer than you think they will.
So yeah, that’s where we are now. Right now we have four members of the band with a new keyboardist, Patrick Latham, who is starting to play shows with us.
On the most recent recording there’s four of us: Nico Sophiea, Josh Medina, Emma Danner, and myself.
You mentioned you started playing music in Virginia five years ago.
That’s actually when I started this project. I’ve been playing music for much longer than that. I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning at all, but I had a folk band when I was in school in North Carolina called The Last Track. We recorded a little EP and promptly broke up, because everyone moves or gets married right when you record something, usually.
I’ve been playing music since I was like 14 or 15 in my bedroom. And then it didn’t really become a thing I performed until my late teens.
Did you learn a bunch of covers to start, or did you get right into originals?
I did learn a couple covers when I first started, but mostly I wrote original material because I couldn’t play the covers well enough sometimes. They were too hard for me, and it was easier for me to come up with things that I could play and enjoy playing. It was a meditative exercise writing repetitive things.
You mentioned that some of your first recordings were with the folk band, but now the sound of somesurprises is quite amorphous. Would you mind giving me some insight into how these songs come about? How do you go from folk music into what [somesurprises] is now?
That’s a really good question. I guess it all feels pretty natural. There’s a common thread; I really like repetitive drone-style music, but in order to stay interested in it I like for it to have some kind of strong melody. I’ve found that sometimes repeating those melodies, they kind of take on a different form as the song progresses. So it’s like the opposite of it getting more boring, if you can add more elements in that help someone have a point of focus, but then other things are happening without you noticing. The ideal is that you can get to later in the song and everything’s changed, but you didn’t notice it happening.
“The ideal is that you can get to later in the song and everything’s changed, but you didn’t notice it happening.”
So those are the things I really enjoy. Building and having bandmates and a having strong rhythm section who can help us get to that point has been really awesome. I feel like I get to use the tools I have, and then collaborating with other people—everything grows from there. And being open and receptive to that, rather than trying to control every part of the music, has been a big part of seeing it expand into these other full-band sounds. But always keeping that core of repetition and atmosphere.
It sounds like the genesis of the band draws parallels with your music. You’ve always been at the core, but by adding people you’ve expanded the sound physically as well as sonically.
You mentioned they’re all b-sides of an upcoming record. Would you say that Alt is an indication of what to expect from the coming record, or is it more of an outlier?
I think it’s a good sneak preview. There’s a song that I think is quite poppy—well, I think it's poppy—that I jokingly call “the Spice Girls song”. And then we have another song that’s an almost-country style, and then another really krauty song on there. I think it’s a good mix of things. I think Alt is a good sampler of what’s to come. The album just has more variety, and different ways of exploring songwriting.
Was the writing approach to this record different than the last ones? Did you write this with the full band, or do you come to practice with a riff, then bring it to the band and expand on it?
Yeah, usually I write at least the music first, the core of the song, and then bring it to the band with a vague idea of where I want it to go. Then we just jam on it for a while, and I take it back and try to write lyrics.
A lot of the songs on the new record are very, very collaborative, and wouldn’t sound like they do if it was only my ideas. It’s definitely strongly influenced by my bandmates. We write a lot together, and we’re always limited by time. Yet somehow everything comes together in only a few practices. And deciding to play the song at a show kind of helps us to finish the song by putting it in a place where we feel like we can present it to people, so it’s a good deadline to have a performance or a recording coming up. The songs change a lot live, too.
I noticed you play a lot of shows as well, so that gives you a lot of deadlines to work towards.
Yeah, we’re trying not to play as much, but we’ve been trying to play more out-of-town shows. Not like full touring, but mini-tours throughout the Pacific Northwest. That’s been cool too, ‘cause it gives us a fresh perspective on what we’re doing when we play for people who we don’t know and [who] haven’t heard us before.
What’s the scene like in Seattle these days?
It’s super supportive, people are really great. I feel like we’re friends with people we really respect musically. Just to shout out a few things, Emma Danner, our bassist, is in a band called Red Ribbon, and she writes beautiful songs and has a record that just came out called Dark Party. And then we have friends in a band called Zen Mother, and they’re in New York right now recording their second LP. I’m really excited to hear it, it’s gonna be amazing.
It’s interesting because the scene is built up of all different styles of music, and I like that there isn’t just one genre that’s dominating. We routinely play shows with electronic artists, more traditional rock bands, some psych-rock and even ambient artists. There’s a really good mix of music, and people are generally pretty supportive and care about things “feeling right”, rather than just looking good or being hugely successful.
I really appreciate the scene in Seattle. It [has] helped me grow a lot musically and personally, for sure.
When did you move to Seattle?
I moved here five years ago.
And you’re originally from Virginia?
I lived in Virginia for a year, but I grew up in England and Florida. It’s an odd mix. It feels more like British weather here in the Northwest.
While we’re talking about Seattle, how do you feel about Amazon?
I hate Amazon; Amazon is bad. I’ve seen a lot of very insightful posts talking about what Amazon is gonna do to New York and DC and what it's already done in Seattle, and I feel like the basis of all these things is that Amazon has just proven time and again that they’re not trying to develop communities that are already there, but are really seeking to replace them. It’s pretty sad.
I haven’t been in Seattle long enough to complain about how much Seattle has changed, but everything I’ve heard from everyone who’s been there since they’ve grown up—it has taken a toll on local businesses and it has caused a lot more gentrification and homelessness in the city. It’s just kind of a dark force.
I saw a cool initiative someone put forth; instead of using that money to give a tax break to Amazon, you could use it to cancel student debt instead.
Oh man, wouldn’t that be great.
I’d move to New York if it would cancel my student loans.
What kind of guitar do you play right now?
It’s an Ibanez art-core semi-hollow body guitar. I’ve had it for about 7 years now, I really like it— it’s got a nice full sound.
Any reason you chose an Ibanez over something else? Or was it just around?
It was what was around. I was visiting my hometown of Jupiter, Florida, and I went to Jupiter Music and they had it there. I knew I wanted a semi-hollow body, something a bit lighter than a full Gretsch, but [that] would still have those warm tones. I’m not a guitar nerd by any measure, so I can’t tell you much about it, but it just felt good.
So your day job is as an immigrant rights lawyer. Talk to me about that.
I work for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and I’m in the removal defense unit, so we do deportation defense in the Seattle and Tacoma immigration courts. So if someone has removal proceedings initiated against them we see if there is a “defense to removal." Well, first we see if there is a basis for them to be placed in proceedings in the first place, and see if there is any way we can terminate those proceedings. We see if ICE initiated those proceedings fairly, if that’s even possible. And then if the removal proceedings are initiated we see if there are different forms of relief—that could be asylum, or if someone has been here a long time and has qualifying relatives, they can apply for something called Cancellation of Removal. There’s a lot of options for people that they may not know about so we represent people in court with that.
Have you been quite busy recently, then, with everything going on in the current administration?
Yes. Things have been rapidly changing with the new administration. Jeff Sessions is out now, but while he was Attorney General he referred a lot of cornerstone decisions to himself—meaning he was changing and trying to eliminate what little protections immigrants have under the law. Even knowing that his interpretation of those cases might get overturned by the circuit courts, he just made these pronouncements that limited protections for people. So trying to work around that and figure out ways to challenge that has been a lot of what we’re focused on. To begin with, in the Obama Administration, there was a lot that needed to be fixed and improved for the better, and now we find ourselves two steps back and no steps forward. It’s very challenging for our clients, and something we’re trying to fight very vigorously.
Does your job affect your music at all? Do you find that you’re writing about this stuff directly? But you mentioned [songwriting] is very meditative, so is it separate enough to keep you sane?
Yeah, I would say I keep them very separate, and I have to do a lot of time management to keep them separate. I don’t think that they influence one another, but in a very general sense, how do I put this…It’s hard to come up with an answer to that.
My work is a big part of who I am, so I’m sure that how I’m feeling about things that are happening to our clients, about efforts of mass deportation, might creep into the music a little bit. I do have one song that’s obliquely about migration and how, if we’re going to have capital crossing borders very easily, then labor should be able to cross borders. But it’s never explicit, and it’s always in a wide, general sense and not about specific cases.
Are you, in essence, trying to make apolitical music? I guess one could even say all music is political regardless, just because it exists, but is it important to you that the music itself stay apolitical?
I don’t believe in making apolitical music. Being apolitical is political in a sense, right?
Yeah, that's fair. Well said.
If you’re saying, “I’m not trying to have an opinion about anything,” that’s still an opinion that you’re maintaining the status quo. I think my music is political in the sense that its creating a space to be meditative and to think about what’s possible. That’s what I get out of krautrock from the 70’s. Coming out of that post WW2-era, it was giving people a way to be forward-thinking and to imagine a way out the mess they were in. I think music can really do that. I don’t mean to be cheesy or naïve about that, but I think that you still need a space to be human in order to realize what you’re actually fighting for. So, not to sound too grand or anything like that; I think it’s related in that sense that we need art hand in hand with political movements to make change.
You can’t tell but I’m nodding in agreement and being like “Yes, yes, I get it, I am here for you." Thank you for answering that.
Cool, yeah, it was a good question.
Are there any books you’re reading right now?
Yeah, I’m in the middle of a book about—which is really funny, 'cause it's exactly what we were just talking about—but it’s called Music and Its Secret Influence: Throughout the Ages, by Cyril Scott. But it’s by someone who leans towards theosophy, which I don’t know that much [about], and I haven’t gotten to the ending chapters where I think it really hammers in on those things. But it talks about, basically, the effect of music on morality over the centuries. So talking, for example, about how Chopin was actually influential on women’s rights because people were able to open up to certain sides of themselves, listening to the music made people have more empathy. And then talking about the nationalism of Wagner and how that was harmful because if people didn’t listen to it the right way, they would just get really prideful and nationalistic. So I think that stuff—maybe there’s something to it. Maybe its convenient to look back and tie those meanings on to those things, but I thought that was really interesting.
And then, on a very different note I read an advice book by the columnist Dear Sugar [Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar]. And the author is Cheryl Strayed [and co-author Steve Almond], and she just gives this really wonderful advice on personal issues, so it’s like reading a long magazine but it’s great.
I guess if you’re thinking about [music] over the course of the ages, how would your music fit into what you’re reading about in the book?
Well, it makes me think of how Howard Zinn gave a really good compliment to Naomi Klein about her writing, that when he reads her writing—she wrote The Shock Doctrine and No Logo—about these sort of horribly well-organized efforts for privatization and using crises to exploit marginalized communities—and he says that when he reads her books, he feels calm, because she lays everything out in such an organized fashion that you can see ways to fight against it. And in the same sense, I feel like being really calm with music is kind of like a way of saying that you’re standing strong against whatever is happening. You know, either more broadly or in your personal life.
“I feel like being really calm with music is kind of like a way of saying that you’re standing strong against whatever is happening. You know, either more broadly or in your personal life.”
Is there any music you’re really stanning right now?
I really like the new BEAK> record. That’s a project of Geoff Barrow, who’s in Portishead. So it’s a trio, and they just recently toured around the U.S. But it’s really good, it’s really krauty. And I really love Melody’s Echo Chamber. I especially love her first album, but she just came out with this EP that’s really crazy. It has Auto-Tune in it, and like Arabic music breaks, and it’s really cool. I would also plug Red Ribbon’s Dark Party, they’re really good.
I’m pretty boring—I always go back to NEU! and those classics that I love. I should mention also that I’m here at Kranky Fest, it’s the 25-year anniversary of Kranky, that music label, so I’ve been here at Ambient Church and listening to music on that label too.
I know it’s hard ‘cause of your day job, and everyone has day jobs, but do you have any plans to tour outside of the Pacific Northwest anytime soon?
We want to do a U.S. tour, and we’d also love to go to Europe.
Oh, I bet you guys would be huge in Europe.
Thank you, that’s very kind. We actually played in Paris this summer, to about two people, but that was really fun still.
But yeah, just working out the DIY tour thing is really hard, and I really admire people who do it. It takes a lot of work and a lot of…grace, I feel like, to make it work. Emma has been really inspirational and gone on three tours this year, and a lot of those have been really self-driven. I realize it takes a lot work, but it’s something we’d love to do more extensively at some point.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
I guess just stay tuned for our record coming out this summer!