Celestial Iris is a Cypriot guitarist that combines rock and world music influences. His compositions are centred on the classical guitar, infused with acoustic percussion, creating a multi-layered instrumental acoustic rock approach with elements of ambience. Ubvia first featured Celestial Iris in November of the previous year as part of a presentation of his album ‘Solaria‘. I had the opportunity to meet him in person to discuss a variety of topics, including experimentation and creativity, future plans, aesthetics in music, the effects and importance of marketing, and more.
I meet Celestial Iris, née Christos Themistocleous, on a bright late December day for a midday coffee. The Limassol coastline is in full view. Christmas is a few days away but it doesn’t particularly feel like that’s the case until much later during our discussion when a young group of carollers swings by to sing a handful of Christmas songs.
At this point in time, Celestial Iris, along with two fellow session musicians who often accompany the act for live performances, had been gearing up for a show in Nicosia’s Sarah’s Jazz Club. I had the pleasure of being invited to a practice session a few days before our own conversation and was able to witness first hand the amount of work it takes to deliver a well-thought-out and smoothly-presented live performance.
Christos and I know each other from high school, so our discussion began with a respective recollection of the past ten years. Despite the scant times of contact during the previous decade, resonance and informality were easily tapped which helped in the transition towards himself as an artist, as well as his thoughts on his music, including an inevitable segue into streaming. Within that topic, I asked him about his fanbase and which locations comprise his core following.
“Cyprus, naturally. That’s where most of my fans are. Then it goes United Kingdon, London mostly. Spain and Latin America due to the instrument and general sound. Following that, it’s mostly Middle Eastern countries and it even reaches India. The United States are kind of hard to penetrate.”
I asked about his experience and outlook when it comes to reaching US audiences. I expected the bulk of his reasoning to centre around marketing and outright exposure, however, Christos focused on his core offering, music.
“I think the music can still be improved. I’ve listened to the songs countless times and I find elements that can be better. I want to improve the formula. It’s difficult to get into the mode of crafting an album, though. Because you need to put down one layer, then another, then another. It takes time. But in every session, you have to get into the groove and find that energy all over again. Because once you get into it, you enter a particular state, a particular mood, where the energy is different and the music flows better. So every time you go into the studio you have to work, in a sense, to get back into it.
“IN EVERY SESSION, YOU HAVE TO GET INTO THE GROOVE AND FIND THAT ENERGY ALL OVER AGAIN. BECAUSE ONCE YOU GET INTO IT, YOU ENTER A PARTICULAR STATE.”
For example, when it came to the recording of ‘Solaria’ (the eponymous song), a longer and more complex composition, it was challenging to maintain that energy, although it was ultimately achieved in the end.
Going back to your question, on breaking through in the US or any market for that matter, it always goes back to the music. The product has to be strong for you to feel confident and comfortable in telling people to check your music out.
Regardless of how compelling your story is, how nice the album art, how neatly you present yourself. Yes, all of those are important and need to be considered, but the music needs to resonate with people. And to expand on that, I want my songs to take you on a journey, that’s why I worked hard on elongating and developing my songs. That’s my prog-rock background showing there. I want different elements to come in and out as you listen along.”
I ask Christos what is it about progressive rock genres that he finds appealing. “I like things to be multifaceted. Even in songs that are 3 or 4 minutes long. They can have a punch to them. It can be quick, but you can work them out so that they keep grabbing your attention. And indeed, managing to do that in such a limited amount of time takes a lot of mastery and skill, compacting all of those ideas in a 3-minute song, it’s incredible.”
“I LIKE THINGS TO BE MULTIFACETED.”
We talk about trying to find the golden balance between complexity and memorability, length and punch. Celestial Iris is aware that this is not easy and demands a lot from himself in this regard.
“In terms of songwriting, and if you listen to the structure of some of the songs, there is a chorus segment in there, even though they don’t have lyrics. Other songs, whether due to the tempo or the general composition, have a more solo approach built into them, again even though all songs are instrumentals. There’s differentiation. That said, being able to translate certain pop music elements into your music without compromising on what you want to do with it, it makes it easier for someone to listen to it. Perhaps it’s more focused and helps retain attention. To keep someone’s attention for 6 or 7 minutes, it’s a challenge, definitely, but a rewarding one.”
We revisited the topic of streaming and talked about the change in medium, the algorithms in use, the way playlists are crafted nowadays. I expressed a concern about the trend to keep chasing views and dance to the tune of an algorithm.
“If you look at the history of music, it didn’t start with the medium dictating structure. Of course, you can also say that music in the 50s could also be short and crafted for radio limitations but still be iconic. Say Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. It’s a short powerful song, under 3 minutes.”
“IF YOU LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF MUSIC, IT DIDN’T START WITH THE MEDIUM DICTATING STRUCTURE.”
Christos continues with how he tries to manoeuvre this ever-changing landscape.
“Personally, I try to keep up with the way certain artists handle certain situations. That’s my guide. You see Metallica, the way they started and how they evolved. A better example, actually, is Tool. The 13-year gap between albums. Long songs. Still embraced. Amazing.”
I mention rapper and producer Roc Marciano and his approach to releasing music, where albums initially only become available for purchase via the artist’s own website, with only singles being released on YouTube and streaming platforms.
“That’s very smart, his approach. Sometimes artists rush to put everything out there all at once because they worked so hard on the music, it’s hard to restrain yourself from drip-feeding it to the public.”
“SOMETIMES ARTISTS RUSH TO PUT EVERYTHING OUT THERE ALL AT ONCE BECAUSE THEY WORKED SO HARD ON THE MUSIC, IT’S HARD TO RESTRAIN YOURSELF FROM DRIP-FEEDING IT TO THE PUBLIC.”
We continued our discussion on the bands Celestial Iris mentioned earlier, Tool and Metallica. I somewhat challenged him on that, pointing out that not everyone can do what they do and still retain an audience, let alone any significant mainstream success.
“It’s not so much about the romanticism of bands being able to manoeuvre how they see fit and craft an album without restrictions. It’s just that, yes, there’s a dilemma when thinking of an approach to making music. But as I was recently telling another musician, if you focus on the music and making it better, good music will find its way, it will find listeners.”
“GOOD MUSIC WILL FIND ITS WAY, IT WILL FIND LISTENERS.”
I added that he didn’t really touch on marketing in all of this, something which resulted in a comment on the importance of networking.
“You may occupy yourself a lot with marketing and all that, and that can be interesting, thinking of a strategy and putting yourself out there, of course, but beyond that, networking is also important. A network can introduce you and your music to an audience a placed ad may be unable to.”
I mention that artistic integrity and music quality help fans to advocate for you to non-fans. Christos agrees and adds:
“When you say to someone “hey, you need to listen to this”, you’re bearing the responsibility for its quality. Because that reflects on you and your ability to identify something worthwhile.”
“WHEN YOU SAY TO SOMEONE “HEY, YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO THIS”, YOU’RE BEARING THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ITS QUALITY. BECAUSE THAT REFLECTS ON YOU AND YOUR ABILITY TO IDENTIFY SOMETHING WORTHWHILE.”
Celestial Iris expanded on the quality aspect here: “It’s pivotal. You need to keep improving as a musician. “Oh, I can play a fast riff or a fast intricate solo. I’m great.” No, believe me, you’re not. There are so many things to learn. Celestial Iris is, at least for myself, a way to improve and learn, genuinely. Because I didn’t formally study music. Which made me enshrine music in myth and legend and magic.
Through my music, I’m trying to demystify it a little. Like, you learn a part of a song, you replicate it. But then it doesn’t quite sound like the way you heard it from the original performer, not as special. But there’s value in replicating that and learning it because you educate yourself on the technical process of crafting the song.
Music has so many mechanics. Pure mechanics. It’s fascinating to explore. But to understand it at a high level? It’s very challenging.”
I inquired if at this point there’s something particular he’s exploring and experimenting with, or if there’s something that he plans to dive deeper into.
“Polyrhythms. Again, Tool do this so well. Whereas pop is more about four-four. It’s interesting to see how you can try to bridge something like polyrhythms with something closer to what you’re already doing which may be technically simpler. The point though it’s for whatever you do, to make it sound natural, all finely meshing together, polished, not just intricate for intricacy’s sake. Even though it’s complex, it needs to be refined for the listener.”
“YOU NEED TO MAKE THE MUSIC SOUND NATURAL, ALL FINELY MESHING TOGETHER, POLISHED, NOT JUST INTRICATE FOR INTRICACY’S SAKE.”
I asked what specifically drives an artist’s ability to experiment. Is there a particular part of the process that facilitates this?
“If you have an opportunity to make an album or an EP, which are essentially a collection of ideas, you have to try things. Some of those ideas need to be different from some of the other ideas. When it comes to crafting singles though, it’s basically you catering to different entities: your own desire for creativity and personal aesthetics, as well as the sensitivities of the general audience. You have to bring those things together.”
“SOME SNARE HITS CAME FROM THREE DIFFERENT CAJONS. SAME SNARE SOUND, THREE DIFFERENT SOURCES, ALL LAYERED ON TOP OF EACH OTHER. IT GIVES THE SONG SOMETHING UNIQUE.”
Continuing on the theme of experimentation and creativity, I asked how does one balance experimentation with technical structure, and how does instrument fidelity blend with sonic exploration.
Celestial Iris explained that though he does believe and work for instrument fidelity, there is an admission that a listener needs a proper sound system or good headphones to really register that particular aspect of studio work.
“You can hear things in the background that work to enrich the song overall. Such elements are hard to reproduce when someone else tries to play your songs. On ‘Solaria’, for example, when we recorded the percussion, some snare hits came from three different Cajons. Same snare sound, three different sources, all layered on top of each other. It gives the song something unique. The sonic output becomes more comprehensive, more inimitable. That said, there’s a wave of postmodern sonic experimentation that doesn’t add much to the music. It’s just postmodernism for postmodernism’s sake.”
I asked Christos about what’s next in line and if a new album is already in the works. He mentioned that he’s working on creating new songs all the time. The next Celestial Iris project will be different from ‘Solaria’, including the artwork. I asked him to elaborate.
“I write all the time. I have some songs that I need to think about a bit more, to finalize the structure in my own head a little more. Some melodies go towards different directions and I’m contemplating whether they should be split into two songs or if they can somehow be blended together. I’m refining ideas.”
Christos continued, “I’m working on crafting pre-production arrangements. But mainly, I’m trying to think about a single. Which might help to narrow focus and act as a catalyst for an album. If that one song reaches its full potential, perhaps it will help create an audience that’s more receptive to an album. A new chapter begins with the completion of the ‘Solaria’ album cycle. New artwork, new themes, new ideas. I want something new with every release.”
“NEW ARTWORK, NEW THEMES, NEW IDEAS. I WANT SOMETHING NEW WITH EVERY RELEASE.”
“In terms of the artwork on ‘Solaria’, it was based on the album having some rock and prog-rock compositional structures. I always liked intricate album art. I liked its abstractness, the combination of earthly elements [the deer, the wheat] with something alluding to the stars, to space [black background]. Which is a reflection of my own use of a wooden guitar with electronic instrumentation and other tools and sounds.”
My final question went back to Celestial Iris’ main instrument, the acoustic guitar, and Christos’ own beginnings in music.
“I picked that up from my sister. My sister was going to lessons, and I just used her guitar when she wasn’t using it. It was really interesting. [laughing] I think the first melody that half of all people who pick up a guitar learn to play is the introduction of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’.
But quite quickly after that, I bought an electric guitar, which I played almost exclusively for 6-7 years. I actually think that what I did, going back to acoustic after using an electric guitar, is quite uncommon. Plainly, electric guitars are sometimes easier to wield. Thinner neck and that.”
“ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS CAN BE USED IN MORE DRIVEN, MORE INTENSE WAYS WHILE RESPECTING THEIR PROPERTIES. THAT’S MUCH RARER. I LIKE THAT SUBVERSION.”
I asked Celestial Iris about his return to the acoustic guitar, especially after inadvertently implying that it would be harder to use in certain ways than the electric guitar.
“I think it’s related to a feeling of staleness I had at some point when it came to listening to metal and rock and other genres that predominantly deploy the electric guitar. I just started gravitating towards more acoustic sounds, like Rodrigo y Gabriela, Al di Meola. Or even Paco de Lucía. I really admire some of the stuff he does.
Beyond that, it’s not just about genres. I liked the acoustic elements across genres, metal included. But I do consider my musical background to be metal. Which made me be aware of the use of acoustic music in metal songs. It was used in the more emotive parts, they dropped back to acoustic, it was so mellow.
I think that’s fine but somewhat limiting. Almost like an interlude. You can reverse that dynamic. Acoustic instruments can be used in more driven and intense ways while respecting their properties. That’s much rarer. I like that subversion. ”