When was the last time you saw a rock band that took a meat cleaver to everything you thought you understood about live music? For State, that moment came earlier this year after we met tireless New Yorker Ani Sarkisian and went along to see The Bambir, the group she manages. Describing the Armenian fourpiece is no picnic. One could mention Jethro Tull, The Mars Volta and Gogol Bordello and only give half the story. The spaces in between are filled with as much sensuality and grace as outright wildness. All four are virtuoso-grade musicians, yet they never resort to masturbation. The Bambir don’t so much play rock ‘n’ roll as voyage through it. Watching and hearing them do so is what you might call a dear diary moment.
Since crash-landing in Dublin at the start of the year, they’ve made a real impact. Dublin’s Dame Lane rock scene didn’t know what hit it and any band who’s seen them has since been possessed by “must try harder” voices in their heads. They played to one of the biggest crowds of the weekend at Knockanstockan and are now lined up to play five sets over the weekend at Electric Picnic. Ahead of their big festival debut, State decided it was time to track down Ireland’s hairiest and hardest-working band to find out more about them. Their story turns out to be a good one.
We found out, for example, that guitarist Narek and bassist Arman have been joined at the hip since infancy, growing up in Gyumri, the second capital of Armenia known for its arts and culture (and a devastating 1998 earthquake). The two began playing music at the age of seven. Yes, seven. We also learned that they were nine years of age when they began to play and write music with flautist Arik, using one of their mother’s phonetic English books for lyric writing (“I’m in the garden, I’m crazy!/I’m taking a walk, I’m crazy!” was one early example). No covers were learnt.
The truth is that The Bambir was actually formed in the 70s by Narek’s father, and as youngsters they all cut their teeth playing with the older musicians. This incarnation now considers itself an extension of that original band (they even went under The Bambir II for while). In their own charmingly quirky English, they elaborate on life in Armenia.
Narek: For Armenia, when it comes to rock music, it’s not so popular. Playing rock music is very alternative and a very unique path. Some people play covers and then quit after that.
Arman: It’s hidden in pubs.
Narek: Rock music, because of maybe the structure of Soviet system, wasn’t popular because it wasn’t marketable, and maybe 80% of musicians get into it because they want to be famous. Gyumri was a more alternative, rock-able city. Yerevan [the capital] was this pink, pop, not even jazz or something… I remember us putting our first music video on TV. It was probably the first rock band that had a video and a song that appeared on the charts. Other rock bands were angry and started accusing us of being pop. After a while, when stations stopped airing the video, a lot of bands appeared with their songs on the radio and TV.
Arman: It was the same with the Armenian National Music Awards – they thought it was unacceptable for a rock band to enter this.
Narek: It was 2003. We were nominated as a rock band and we took the prize. And the next year we won again.
That prize was apparently broken in a hotel foyer over the head of a TV presenter, but this cannot be confirmed. Gongs aside, The Bambir were now drawing a mixed audience made up of lovers of not just rock, but jazz and classical too. Spells in the US followed. There, they once crossed paths with fellow Armenian Serj Tankian of System Of A Down (“his singing blew me away, it was a new approach,” recalls Narek). By 2007, they’d found jaw-dropping drummer Vardan and The Bambir line-up was complete. A few years later, Sarkisian and old friend Tigran Paravyan had come on board to manage the group. The next logical step was… Dublin?
Narek: Because we made a program of songs and we wanted to perform as much as possible. The only country that wasn’t in a system of music business and you could perform as much as possible was Ireland, and is. UK is more structured, and the first stage for us was to find some place with more anarchy, that is more open to everyone. Besides that, we know that culturally Ireland is more musical than other countries.
Arman: It fulfilled our expectations, maybe more than we were expecting.
Narek: When you present your music in US, if you play this or that type of music you have to go to a certain place, to New York or Seattle or whatever. Dublin doesn’t have that structured system. Probably in the pop scene they have, but in the underground scene, when you can play every day, it’s not so restricted.
Arman: We’re playing here almost seven months. It’s always something new. You find something new in every concert even when you’re playing every day or all weekend.
What did you make of the music scene here when you arrived?
Narek: Rock ’n’ roll scene here is more about imitating what is popular and what is nowadays fashionable for ‘big’ countries like in UK or in America. That’s the sad thing about rock’n’roll here in Ireland; for example they’re telling us: ‘Oh, your time signatures are so strange.’ But if they look back to their own traditional Irish music, they’ll find even more complicated time signatures and structures.
Initially, Sarkisian remembers, gigs – or more precisely, audiences – were tough to come by. They would physically have to be dragged off the street to hear the band, and took much convincing to part with admission fees. But word slowly got about. Soon, Fibbers and Gypsy Rose couldn’t contain them. After a while, Balcony TV, Knockanstockan and a Friday-evening residency in Whelan’s were pencilled into the tour diary.
What sort of reactions have you found from Irish audiences?
Narek: Hmm. I can see that, I don’t know, somehow audience is audience, it doesn’t have any nationality or specific… In Armenia, when people come to your show, it’s always the same; you’re playing the music, they are the audience. If there is vibe connection, it’s good.
Arman: Mostly we hear “that was cool, that was great, we’ve never heard this before,” which is good. You want that. We never do something special or behave in some special way to get more attention. We’re just ourselves.
What can Electric Picnic audiences expect this weekend when they come to see you?
Narek: Already after playing so many shows, for you it doesn’t matter if it’s Electric Picnic or the basement of someone’s house. You have to do it the same way. You have to. It’s not, “I’m going to keep my energy for Electric Picnic,” you do what you do. For me, that’s the key to rock ’n’ roll compared to other styles. For rock ’n’ roll, you keep it simple, keep it natural, wherever you are, just do what you’re doing.
What does the future hold for The Bambir?
Arman: Living the life, as we did. Maybe live a better life than we did, I don’t know.
Narek: Not in terms of being rich, but always thinking “oh let’s change some stuff and everything will be better as a person.” By education, Arman is a cinema director, I’m a theatre director. We’d like to include all these parts; sometimes you can’t just get something across only in sound – there has to be movement. Always to never be restricted, to be open to everything, that’s the way to make sense for you and for the audience. I can’t see myself being 50 and still singing ‘Imitate’. Every era brings something too. I don’t want to be like a museum – ‘One day these guys sang this song and they will always sing it.’ Things change, and you have to be open to this. You didn’t hear The Beatles constantly singing ‘Please Please Me’.
While creativity and wowing strangers is effortless for the hirsute quartet, the group have some very real challenges to overcome, namely visa complications and making enough to sustain their seven-man touring operation. Even if they themselves don’t sound too worried, Ireland should cherish The Bambir while we have them here. We may not see their kind around these shores again for a long time to come.
The Bambir play Body & Soul’s Earthship Stage @ 12.15pm on Sunday, Jimmie Lee’s Juke Joint on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights (times TBC) and The Bog Cottage (days and times TBC)