Musically impossible to pigeon-hole, Lalalar’s sound is a futuristic mash-up straddling punk rock, Anatolian psychedelic funk, and dirty electronic beats. Iggy Pop is a fan, describing them as “Turkey’s most innovative alternative artists”.
The band’s name is adapted from the Ottoman word ‘Lālā’ (meaning “wise man”), used to describe the teacher of Sultans. It’s an apt name for this three-piece politically and socially conscious group, whose lyrics are deeply metaphorical and steeped in dark humour.
Since forming back in 2018, Lalalar’s riotous moody vibe and show-stopping live performances has propelled them out of Istanbul’s vibrant underground scene and on to some of Europe’s biggest stages.
In September, they release their second album, En Kötü Iyi Olur [The Worst Becomes Good], and embark on a mini UK tour, culminating with a date at London’s Jazz Café.
T-VINE caught up with two of the band’s co-founders, Ali Güçlü Şimşek and Barlas Tan Özemek, this summer for this exclusive interview, asking them about the energy behind their rebellious edge, their musical inspirations, and Lalalar’s most memorable moment of the past five years.
Q. Retro Turkish music is all the rage, but Lalalar are so much more. Your music is very fresh — and difficult to categorise. Is it important to incorporate the music of your roots?
AGŞ: We totally understand and respect the hype though this music is nothing quite new to somebody who has lived all their life in Anatolia with an open mind. So, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say it’s already in the blood.
The rest of our taste comes from what we’ve collected and digested along the path, from Rage Against the Machine to Depeche Mode, Can to Portishead, Ruhi Su to Saltuk Erginer, Moğollar to Nekropsi. Of course, it would be a bit short-sighted if we only look from a musical perspective, because the social and political atmosphere you live in, shapes what you see in the mirror more than you’d think.
BTÖ: This is a journey we have drawn for ourselves in the light of the music etched into our ears since childhood. In short, it is a journey where we prioritize being true to ourselves and strive to evolve into better versions of ourselves.
The geopolitical position of the lands where we were born and raised is the meeting point of the harmonies of the polyphonic West and the depth of the monophonic East. Here, we are talking about a rich musical heritage. Setting aside the intellectual realisation of this, feeling it in our souls is a great advantage for us, and we appreciate its value.
Q. Which artists inspired you growing up?
AGŞ: Aşık Veysel, Aşık Mahsuni and Neşet Ertaş are the main guys feeding my unconscious childhood, then I discovered a Queen cassette in my mom’s drawer, which opened the rock ‘n roll curtain forever. Impossible to make a shortlist of my influences, but it’s stocked like a supermarket. From fresh vegetables to roast beef, cheap underwear to a pencil sharpener.
BTÖ: I can say that I was obsessed with Barış Manço as a child. During my teenage years, I discovered rock ‘n’ roll and got pulled into that world. There were periods when I listened to heavy bands like Metallica and Pantera. I was influenced by eras where blues and electricity converged, such as The Beatles and Hendrix and Cream. The list goes on with Queen, Bowie, Iggy and more.
I’m fortunate to have always been surrounded by exceptional musicians due to my uncle [Bülent Ortaçgil] being a beloved composer in Turkey. Erkan Oğur is one of those musicians. Thanks to him, I discovered Anatolian music.
The list expands with folk music figures like Aşık Veysel, Neşet Ertaş, as well as classical music composers like Minür Nurettin Selçuk and Saadettin Kaynak. Additionally, one of the most influential people in my learning process has been my uncle, Ercüment Ortaçgil, and his approach to music. I must give credit to him.
Q. What’s been your most memorable experiences of the past five years you’ve been together as a band?
BTÖ: Trans Musicales stage performance was probably one of the most memorable concerts for me. It was supposed to be the third stop of our first major European tour. The previous night, Ali couldn’t perform at the Paris show due to food poisoning, and we were struggling on stage as a duo. It was quite embarrassing.
As we travelled from the Paris show’s aftermath to the Trans Musicales Festival, with Ali groaning and lying in the back seat, we were anxiously contemplating what would happen next. But when we arrived there suddenly all the dark clouds dispersed. It was 3am, and there was an incredible energy in the air. Ali had recovered somehow, and we gave one of the best concerts in our history there.
AGŞ: Even though I can’t recall too much, that night in Paris was definitely one to remember.
Q. Your music and lyrics have a dark, moody and rebellious edge. Where is that energy from?
AGŞ: I believe the answer has a strong connection with the old saying “geography is destiny”. No matter how privileged you are, it’s hard to distinguish a person from their society and the reality that comes with it. And if you are not afraid to ask new questions in a place where it’s common to accept what elders say or the book dictates, then you need to create yourself some headroom to breathe, sharpen your words to survive, as solitude overtakes your soul and melancholy becomes a daily standard.
I mean, I feel like our music and lyrics are almost totally natural. Like bread and butter. But it’s like Istanbul where almost 30 million individuals live or a traditional Turkish breakfast, which may look like a lunch and dinner at the same time. Chaos and peace, trees and garbage, innocence and evil, kingpins and beggars existing together in a harmony of their own. Eventually this kind of contradictions are all engraved within, so I feel very lucky that I almost need nothing to write, but to look inside.
BTÖ: I think the dark side of human nature holds a lot of creativity and energy. We are using it in a healthy way. We are trying to shed light on our dark side through music. We can see that this light also illuminates the dark side of others.
Q. The Turkish underground music scene seems to be really buzzing at the moment, with so much great talent is emerging. How is it for yourselves on the inside looking out?
AGŞ: I feel a bit lucky as I know we are dealing with a music industry where the artists are categorised under the “world music” slot if they are not singing in English.
BTÖ: I have been involved in album productions in the studio for such a long time that I may have missed out on certain things. I have been dedicating my time and energy to our own creations for quite a while now because it’s part of the production process. As a result, I haven’t been able to closely follow the developments in the Turkish underground scene and how things are evolving there.
Q. Iggy Pop (pictured below) described Lalalar as “Turkey’s most innovative alternative artists” on his BBC show. How did that make you feel? Is it important as artists to get this type of in recognition?
AGŞ: It was crazy special and another proof that dreams do come true.
BTÖ: We are well aware that we chase creative and original ideas, but to receive the approval of someone like Iggy Pop, who has shaped rock ‘n’ roll history, is truly gratifying and an honour. Hopefully, this connection goes beyond admiration from a distance, and one day we have the opportunity to work with him in the same environment. Who knows? The world is small.
Q. Ali, you once said, “A person tears him/herself apart to try and find a new self” [“İnsan kendini yırtıp yeni bir tane daha bulmaya çalışıyor”]. If you could reinvent yourself at this moment and time, what would you be?
AGŞ: I would like to be a manager in the Premier League. But if I could go back, I’d try being Bruce Lee.
Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given or heard?
AGŞ: I like this one from Oscar Wilde: “be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
BTÖ: Do whatever you want to do! But do it consistently and well. Push it to do better every day. While doing it, be good to yourself and those around you.
Q. You’re doing a mini tour of the UK which culminates with a gig at the iconic Jazz Cafe in London. What can people expect from a live Lalalar show?
AGŞ: Tension, release, tension, release, tension, release and passion.
BTÖ: They can get ready to go crazy!
Q. What’s next on the horizon for Lalalar?
AGŞ: Second album will be out in September and we are very excited to step into new territories.