Azari & III have always been outsiders and iconoclasts. Alixander III, Dinamo Azari, Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full first came across each other in the mid-00s Toronto underground club scene, to which they’d all gravitated on moving to the city to pursue their creative dreams – and it was their sense of being misfits even in a community of outsiders that drew them together.
In their words, Alixander and Azari used to “take on the warehouse scene” in Toronto, throwing dark, late-night parties that would attract a clientele ranging from Hell’s Angels to Catholic schoolgirls – “bad-ass bitches”, remembers Azari. Their music-making ranged from fusing modern technology with native folk music in previous outfits, and both were heavily into improvisation and crazy old synthesisers – all of which continue to influence the spontaneous, instinctive way in which Azari & III now make music.
Meanwhile, Helder and Starving Yet Full had different reasons for making their way to the cosmopolitan, tolerant city. Helder was raised by his Jamaican parents in Whitehorse, Yukon, where he was the only black kid in his high school class. “For a kid, it’s amazing,” he says. “Your back yard is the forest and mountains. But as soon as you hit puberty, you can’t do anything without everyone knowing your business. Any access to anything contemporary was…not available.” Starving Yet Full, meanwhile, divided his childhood between his native Burundi and Rwanda, travelling to Canada with his mother for a “better life”. (She has since returned. “She had enough,” laughs Starving Yet Full. “She said, you guys are grown now!”)
Azari describes Helder and Starving Yet Full’s bond with each other as a “spiritual connection” – one borne from neither feeling quite at home in the scene they’d come to Toronto to find. “We were both outcasts from the gay scene,” says Helder. “It’s so compartmentalised – you’re a bear, or you’re a twink, you almost have to wear a nametag. That doesn’t suit our personalities.” What does suit them, though, is the no-rules, anything-goes ethos of Azari & III: whether vogueing on impromptu catwalks during live shows or chanting incantations – half demon, half diva – on stage, the group defy stereotypes and categories.
At all times, Azari & III are spontaneous and hedonistic – qualities that, for Alixander and Azari, stem back to their first ever musical projects. Prior to the quartet coming together, the two instrumentalists were already taking advantage of Toronto being a cosmopolitan hub for creative kids from across the world. “We were working with these young artists to create sounds totally unlike modern ones,” says Azari. “We didn’t know each other then, but we were both using similar sounds – from samba beats to steel drums, mixing native folk music with modern technology.” Experimentation with vintage synths and improvisation were key to their work – and even now, that’s how they prefer to work. “Sometimes
I’ll be fiddling around with analog gear and it’ll just start generating this weird noise,” says Alixander.
“And it’s like – press record, boom!”
Fast forward to 2010, when they first thrust their way into the attention of international dance cognoscenti: again, the foursome were like no other dance act around. Their music was bold, brash, packed with hooks and full of character – and they had the visuals to match: debut video Hungry For The Power was a feast of imagery, an American Psycho meets Paris Is Burning extravaganza that was so explicit that the full version was banned from Youtube. Their eponymous debut album followed in August 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with raves coming from all quarters: the dance press (Resident Advisor, XLR8R), the indie press (Pitchfork, NME) and mainstream reviewers such as the BBC and the Guardian. Alongside their two anthemic singles, Hungry For The Power and Manic, there was the demented shamanistic spiral of Indigo (“It just turned into…moans,” says Starving Yet Full of his vocal on the track. “Sat in the booth trying to get something deep, deep, somewhere in the pit of my body, incantations from somewhere, calling to some sort of being out there – an energy or a spirit…”); the cavernous, maximalist propulsion of Undecided; the sleek, abstract house of Infiniti; and the unexpectedly gorgeous ballad Into The Night, which they habitually play as a last dance at their live shows.
The slow dance is as important to them as their uptempo house workouts. Azari describes it as a “lost love”, while Alixander rolls his eyes at “people who go out there doing drugs all night and not having sex – there used to be slow dances at the end of the night to give people a chance to enjoy something other than drugs”. They link it to what they see as a “puritanical influence” that has slowly gained a foothold in Western culture over time: “You have to train yourself to be in tune with your desire and transcend it while you’re living in a material world,” says Alixander. It is this that they aim to aid with their music.
Remixes for the likes of Cut Copy, Robyn, Creep and Booka Shade further reinforced their credentials across the worlds of both techno and pop – and the growing demand for a sound that was equally at home in a warehouse or at a fashion show, combining grit, glamour and a fierce, politicised attitude: the group speak frequently about the dancefloor’s historic role as a place of liberation for marginalised communities, and throughout their work the feeling persists that something is at stake beneath the furious kineticism of the beats. (They’re outspoken about plenty of issues, to say the least: from protest movements to nutrition, the four have much to say.)
Such is its appeal that it’s no surprise that the band have moved up to the next level: formerly on independent label Loose Lips, Island have now snapped them up and will re-release the album in January. So far, Azari & III have done everything their own way – and don’t be surprised if they have a long way to go yet.