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Motez: migrant, musician & mighty

19 April 2019 | 5:19 pm | Caitlin Medcalf

If you're well-acquainted with electronic music here in Australia, the name MOTEZ is one I'm sure you're well aware of. With his first single out in 2010, he's had a steady career trajectory across his nine years in the industry that's seen him build a strong relationship with the crew at Sweat It Out, tour the globe and collaborate with some of the best in the game, including fellow Adelaidean Tkay Maidza, English MC Scrufizzer, tech-house whizz Wax Motif and heaps more.

A few weeks back, I headed over to the Paramount Coffee Project in Surry Hills to meet with Motez while he was in Sydney. He's got a new single out with Zimbabwean singer/songwriter KWAYE called 'Steady Motion', Motez's first track in a little while. Since 2018's Late Thoughts EP to be exact, a release that saw him look back and pay homage to his club roots.

I sat down with him to chat about the new single and how his interest in music has been shaped and enriched by his migrant experience.

I've interviewed him previously for another project that fell through, but it continually strikes me how open and willing he is to share his story with others. His story serves as a humbling reminder of the positivity and rich complexities of migrants, one that doesn't often see the light of day in Australia due to both the current political climate and the whitewashed concentration of media ownership.

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Motez's story began in Baghdad, Iraq. I asked what some of his earliest memories of his hometown were, and he talks about having his family around him, but also a feeling of unsafety, uncertainty and loss.

"I think just having that feeling from a really early age, that of lost opportunity of so many people around me who have bright minds and are driven people that can't channel that into something that is meaningful because of the instability that they're going through."

His family - made up of himself, his sister, mother and father - were living in Iraq when the first invasion happened in 2003. This was the first stage of the Iraq War that would later escalate into a pseudo-civil war from 2006, and force many to flee to safety. But the road to safety was not an easy one.

"The only way to leave the country was not through the air because it's a no fly zone around the country, so we had to travel through land to Amman, the capital city of Jordan. It takes around 12 hours to get there through the desert, the western part," he explained. 

So, his family traveled to Amman and there they had to make a conscious decision. Upon arrival, they realised that it would be too dangerous for them all to travel at the same time, so it was there that they split up, his father setting off to try and find a way via people smugglers to get to Australia and Motez returning to Iraq with his mum and sister.

They arrived back in Iraq when Motez was around fourteen, to his excitement. "I was actually loving it because I was a young kid, so I was very happy. I wanted to go back to my friends. I didn't know what the future implications would be or what the future would be, I just wanted to hang out with them."

And while his father tried to find a way into Australia and the country they called home descended into war around them, they waited.

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His father had found a way to get on a boat that was headed to Australia, but after some time, was put in what was the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia. He would send letters to Motez and his family back in Iraq, but it was dangerous. The incoming mail into both Iraq and the detention centre were consistently being checked. He was locked up for almost a year until he was granted any sort of temporary residency.

I said, "Seeing his family come to the country would have been worth it."

"That's what he says, it's always worth it. "If I could do it again, I would do it again. I wouldn't do it any differently"."

Once his temporary residency was granted, he then had to wait to be granted permanent residency before he could bring the rest of his family over to Australia. In a process that took six years, his father was finally granted permanent residency. I asked Motez what that felt like, knowing they were going to be reunited in their new home.

"It was a relief. Because finally, it was worth it. Things in Iraq were getting worse and worse, because Iraq was kind of descending into some sort of a civil war after the 2003 Coalition. We left the country before it got really bad. We're an ethnic minority so we would have been the first to go. So, it was a good relief."

And so with word that his father had been granted residency, they began the journey by foot back to Jordan and to the Australian embassy. It was here that they would apply for Australian residency, but that stay wasn't without its own hurdles.

"We still had to stay there for like nine months. The Jordenian government doesn't give anyone more than six months of Visa, so we had to be in hiding for like three months because if we were discovered on the street, we'd have to leave the country."

He shared with me a memory of how he was picked off the street by Jordenian police after they had overstayed their visa and was interrogated. "I just somehow got off. They threw my passport in my face and said, 'Go away', they didn't want to see me."

Their application was in and they were accepted, so they made their way to Australia to meet with his father. This was six years after he had set off.

They arrived in Adelaide and within a month or two of being in Australia, he began volunteering with Oxfam. "I wanted to find somewhere safe and find my feet gradually, and see what I could do to help."

Four months in, he began his first job, very aptly at a music store selling musical instruments. Of the job,  he said "I was totally overqualified for it, but what more can help me understand the complexities or lack thereof of Australian culture than working in retail.

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"I'll always remember those years as my favourite. Those people are like my brothers and sisters that I grew up with because they were so amazingly welcoming to me. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am I don't think. They were tough on me, but I understood the sort of Australian sense of humour which is a very essential thing of the Australian identity. Yeah, that meant a lot to me. That changed me as a person."

We talked about the lack of migrants in his life growing up in Adelaide, and how he saw it as an opportunity to get to know and understand those in his community. "I needed to know what they're about to not only survive, I'm not planning on surviving. I'm planning on doing something with my life now that I have all of these opportunities."

His working at the musical instrument store was an extension of the love he has for music.

"My dad was a big music fan, he kind of dabbled in guitar when he was at university. He always played good music, good pop music, so I kind of grew up with that."

His experience of popular music growing up was entirely different to that of someone living in the West. The access to music in Iraq was much different to that of Australia.

"We got albums like two years after. It wasn't prohibited, but because we're under sanctions, you didn't get the flow of cassettes and records coming through. But Iraq used to be a big musical country. I remember my parents saying things were better in like the 50's, 60's, or 70's. Iraq had that history and all of a sudden that was gone, so it's part of the Iraqi identity to be hungry for music."

The first piece of electronic he had heard that piqued his interest was one from Jean Michel Jarre, 'the godfather of electronic music' and an artist whose inspiration became integral to his career path. It was his 1978 record, Équinoxe, a piece of music lauded for its early use of synthesisers.

From there, he began to listen to left-of-field, big beat electronic artists like LeftfieldFatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers who would continue to spark his interest in electronic music.

DJing came later for him. As someone who grew up with making and playing music, DJing was an accessible way for him to be able to play his music in clubs.

His very first show was in Adelaide at a bar called Moskva Vodka Bar, fondly known as Vodka Bar. Today, the bar is gone. He had a few mates who ran an event there, and one night, they put Motez on the bill as the headliner. It was a time where electro house was huge and electronic music was having a global moment. In that period where he first began performing, he would play music from artists like Switch, who were integral in fostering fidget house as a genre.

"I remember listening to his remix of 'Champion Sound' by Fatboy Slim. I love it. It's so wacky and weird. That was a changing point for me, so that's the kind of music that I was playing."

You can hear from his early works too, the influence that artists like Switch had. His 2010 EP Raves Are Dead takes the quirkiness of fidget house and injects that into a house context, creating a high-energy pastiche that may have softened over the years, but the gritty complexities have remained. Since his childhood, he'd always been interested in creating and building tangible, logical things which makes sense as to why he's been drawn to electronic music. There's a satisfying mechanical aspect to it that comes from the programming element.

He didn't grow up with any sort of exposure to house music, and even outside of writing his own music, he listens more to abstract electronica from artists like Boards Of Canada. "It's influenced my musical choices and the way I make music and what those core structures are. In a lot of them, it's the grit, adding a bit more grit to what you're making and making it sound different." And you can hear his passion for this kind of electronic music dotted throughout his own works too, like the spacious, complex soundscapes of his Late Thoughts EP or the careful compositions of his split single, Ride Roof Back/Take Off.

He creates with vivacity and a fierceness that comes from a lifetime of pursuing freedom. His move to Australia was a fresh start, a way for him to connect with his passions. I asked how his childhood experiences have helped shape who is is today, and he said "I think it was more not taking things for granted and striving to make the most of what you have now because you don't know what's going to happen next."

There's a sense of detachment that comes with living within the diaspora, Motez said "There's this sense of worrying all the time. You're conditioned to do that. So I'm trying to take a healthy approach to worrying, which is making sure I'm doing the right thing and that I'm doing right by me, my friends and what I'm doing. Trying to be good and trying to make it with purpose. Trying to make the most of it."

His music has always been emphasised by its uplifting nature, but his last few releases have felt markedly different from his usual four-to-the-floor sweaty club bangers. There's a newly explored sense of immediate purpose, and it feels as though he's hungry for it. It started with his collaboration with Antony & Cleopatra, 'The Future'; a thoughtful, warming dance number that has as equal a place on the dancefloor as it does through your headphones.

His new single 'Steady Motion' follows a similar trajectory. Zimbabwean born singer/songwriter, KWAYE, lends his vocals and lyricism to the track. Motez said the track was initially just an instrumental, before it got sent around to a few artists to do some vocal takes. It was KWAYE's take on the track that caught their attention out of the few that got sent back. "There was something that he was singing about that I really liked, so we stuck with him and asked him to elaborate on those themes a little bit more. That's how the song came about. It was just really good musicianship from his end."

The track delves into introspective, personal territory for both artists, the narrative detailing that feeling of being so caught up in your work that you forget about yourself and how to stop working. I asked how he gets himself out of that rut, and he offered "Take a step back. Don't be afraid to take a step back. That is the general gist of what I've been doing."

It explores this core, central problem that those who live volatile work lives have. Motez explained "It's so fickle, so personal and inherently emotional that you're always putting yourself out there and things don't go your way all of the time. But you have to keep pretending that everything's great when it's not sometimes."

This new-found expression of introspection from Motez on his last few tracks really puts his life as a migrant and a musician into context. Here you have someone who spent longer than the first half of their life in a place where opportunity was non-existent and their life was in constant danger. A constant state of flux. His life since that period has been spent learning and seizing every opportunity as they come, and staying true to himself and his artistry along the way.

As a migrant, his experiences of living in Australia are entirely different to those who were born in the country. His contribution to the culture in this country is rich, and his story is one of many. The visibility of harmful anti-immigration movements feels like it's at an all time high right now, and I asked him, as a migrant, how he feels about this. He said "I feel very strongly about it because not that long ago my Dad was that. I started working within two or three months of moving here and contributing. My parents are both working here and contributing, helping to build this country and adding a little bit of flavour to it. We all do... People use Australia as an example of how to deter asylum seekers. Is that really what we want to be?"

You can catch Motez over the Easter long weekend in Canberra and Adelaide.

Saturday, April 20

Fiction Club, Canberra

Sunday, April 21

Motez & Friends Easter Sunday Takeover

Fat Controller, Adelaide

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Words & photos by CAITLIN MEDCALF