Fulltone: Half the Story
Timmy Mowafi sits down with Amr Khaled, the bright brain behind Fulltone, to talk about unlikely beginnings, his equally unique journey and why he's not a Deep House DJ...
I walk through a dilapidated side alleyway, between balconies of clothes lines and scrap material lining the dusty, aged tiles. I'm there to meet Fulltone's Amr Khaled; 'Deep House' DJ and producer, but find myself at a deeply decrepit house in Agouza.
Then I enter a space that could easily have been the humble abode of a bawab, but past the facade of the crumbling exterior of the building, lay an incredible sound-proofed modern studio space built by him, an architect by trade, from scratch, and what I was soon to find out, past the facade of a Deep House DJ, lay an incredible polymathic musician. Thirty minutes later I am getting a demonstration on recently acquired obscure Tibetan instrumentals and an improvised orchestral piece akin to the Braveheart theme on a Midi by the man himself.
"Nooooo, no, no!" Amr Khaled gasps almost laughing, "Don't say Deep House," when I ask him about the common perception.
Coming into recognition following the Student DJ tournament in 2013, the hype pigeonholed Fulltone, at the time a collaboration between Khaled and producer Yousef Hegazy, along with organisers Electrum Records' current roster of four to the floor DJs, but in actuality he was never really a fan of House music before. The massive Pink Floyd poster hanging in the studio reflecting off his iMac was a bit of a giveaway. "For me House wasn't even music, I used to tell people it's just sound... where's the guitar solo?!"
His path to becoming a musician starts off with some cinematic fate. He attended a concert at the newly opened Sawy Culture Wheel featuring Egyptian Rock band Four Sticks.
"I was blown away, thinking is this even possible? I can play guitar and create my own music on stage with a huge audience and all these girls going crazy... just from owning this instrument... it never crossed my mind," Khaled remembers. After convincing his father to buy him a guitar and his younger brother Mada a bass, they wasted no time excavating their new found talents. "We spent the whole summer in Studio 32 in Mohandessin, jamming with anyone we could, metal, blues, death, hardcore, doom, rock, learning covers, everything."
Khaled then entered the institute of Fine Arts in Zamalek where, lo and behold, the guitarist of the band who inspired him and the first of seemingly three main influences on his career, Sary Hany, also attended, and in a moment of perfect synchronicity, a month after seeing Khaled jam in the studio, Hany called him up and told him that they needed a new guitarist to play with Four Sticks.
"A year before I was in the audience, and a year later I'm actually in the band! I was about 7 years younger than anyone in it," Khaled explains before reminiscing with an air guitar rendition of My Sharona...
After two years of gigging around at a spattering of Cairo's staple venues such as Cairo Jazz Club, Sakia, Le Plage and Rio de Cairo with the band and Hany, in 2006 his friendship with Hegazy started to influence his taste in dance music and added another dimension to his burgeoning talents, "Electronic music for me before meant the likes of Air and Booka Shade but I slowly started to understand loops and repetition and how it's all about the build up." Like so many bedroom producers before them they stumbled upon Ableton and experimented with the program for years before releasing some "primitive" tracks with a bunch of random labels under the pseudonym Moon Island.
"I told Youssef we can continue like this and sign to some shitty label or we can kill Moon Island, stay another three years in the studio and learn how to do this seriously, and mix and master properly."
And that they did, remerging from the studio in 2013 with a new name, Fulltone. "The name came to me in bed just before I slept and it made sense; we're not minimal, we're more melodic." They got their break when Electrum Records rep Omar Sabh visited them at the studio and started churning the excitement around the two, presenting them at their first live gig together as Fulltone in Katameya, which was also his first time to include live guitar into the mix, contributing to their reputation as a breath of fresh air in Cairo's saturated (usually Deep) House scene.
"It was one hour – all production. We made a rule that we won't play DJ sets, we'll only play our own productions," Khaled recalls before ranting about the state of modern day beat-matching, button -ressing DJs. Their blend of accessible dreamy melodies, House beats and Rock riffs became hugely successful eventually making their way to the semi-final of the Student DJ competition. But the hype is never something that would get to the ego-free musician. "After five years of being an architect, I don't want to be an architect. I want to be here. Not on the stage, playing. Here, in the studio... it's all about making music."
Shortly after the competition the duo broke up. I ask him what happened; he takes a long contemplative thirty second pause before ambiguously explaining that "[their] friendship was more important than anything else..."
Khaled then broke off from playing the more khabt music Electrum was advising them towards. Whenever he says the word there are still remnants of his previous attitude towards the genre, but it's all part of his 'vision' for Fulltone, a term he brings back on more than one occasion, giving you the impression that it's much more than just a singular performer but an artistic institution that is constantly developing and diversifying. "I want there to be Fulltone the DJ, Fulltone live, Fulltone chill, Fulltone project... Fulltone is music. It might be film music, it might be a concert at the Opera House or Azhar Park, and it could be in Sakia... anywhere and people shouldn't expect one thing; if I play in a club, I'll play khabt, if I play at the beach, ill play beach music."
His previous gig before talking to him was at 3alganoob festival where he fittingly performed his "Flip-Side" EP amongst splashes of World music, a "special" one for him. "We gained a lot of fans from [among] normal people, not just clubbers. We were playing for people who were awake, even veiled women... and everyone loved the music. This was so important for me."
He was now preparing for a different kind of beach gig, Heineken's massive Sandbox alongside incredible international acts such as Jan Blomqvist and Hot Since 82, organised by Nacelle's Tito Kachab, his third big influence, or his "breaks" as he fondly calls him.
"He gives me a lot of advice. At a time when all I wanted to do was gig, gig, gig he was telling me to hold up and work on music, and recommending the right gigs to take." A while after first sending Tito their demo, he gave them a big break at Red Bull's Quarter Tone Frequency at the Temple alongside a host of big regional acts such as The Wanton Bishops and Jadal. With his brother on bass and harmonica and Sherif el-Gharib playing drums live, Fulltone came out of their box for all to see with a morphing set that had hundreds rocking the boat "After that gig people started to get it, the other bands were playing Rock and Blues so it was never going to be a khabt set. We kicked off at 100BPM and ended with some Break-step Dubstep-y tracks."
Khaled then took us around the studio, his haven, like a kid in a playground, presenting all his toys, old and new. Starting with his vast audio library where he revealed an abundance of orchestral samples which he uses regularly in khabt, revealing his ultimate dream of playing with a full orchestra, to a singing bowl purchased whilst trekking in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, to a xylophone he had just bought from Mohammed Ali street Downtown which he can't wait to play live "drowned in reverb."
Khaled is utterly pleasurable company, meandering between articulated calm and mad scientist, sometimes composed and wholly thoughtful with each word, whilst at other times frantically playing out the score to his own dialogue with imaginary instruments. I ask him finally what it's all about, what is it about music... "It's a release", he retorts with an analogy of hot water bubbling under the floor boards needing to get out, and it's fitting, because with Fulltone I don't think we've even come close to scratching the surface.