July 15, 2019

New Age Band Opium Moon Scores Grammy Nomination

Opium Moon, Photo by Michele Mattei

Los Angeles-based Opium Moon had just finished an all-day video shoot for BBC Persian service when three-quarters of the band — violinist Lili Haydn, her husband, bassist Itai Disraeli, and percussionist MB Gordy (Hamid Saeidi, who plays the santoor, had another gig) — met with the Journal at a local restaurant to discuss their work and their Grammy Award nomination for Best New Age Album for their self-titled debut record. 

The Dec. 5 announcement was something of a surprise for the band. Haydn was up early and ran into their bedroom screaming, “We got nominated!” Gordy had no idea the nominations had been announced and was initially puzzled when congratulatory texts popped up on his phone. Two days before the nomination, Saeidi told Disraeli he was experiencing a crisis of confidence. After the nomination, “he realized that what we’re doing is right. The universe was telling him to go on,” Disraeli said, adding that a band of Americans and Iranians, gentiles and Jews being nominated for a Grammy shows “that music done in freedom and peace has value and is recognized.” 

Opium Moon’s music sounds very much in the moment. It’s hypnotic but alert. Touches of jazz, rock, Middle Eastern and African sounds flit about, but it never settles on a specific sound.

Haydn, 43, said the band, which formed about three years ago, “came together to create something that had no form, that had no particular destination. It was very important to all of us that it feels like we’re discovering something in the process.” 

It’s a sound she called “world music from another world,” but it has found some high-profile fans on this planet. Bob Boilen of NPR called their album “a rare pleasure,” while Tom Schnabel, host of KCRW’s “Rhythm Planet,” described it as “enchanting music that sounds contemporary but has ancient roots.” 

Opium Moon’s distinctive sound is a melding of the members’ diverse backgrounds. Haydn, who has been performing since she was a child, is the Canadian-born daughter of Lotus Weinstock, a comedian and singer who wrote a best-selling memoir, “The Lotus Position.” An in-demand session player, Haydn has collaborated or toured with, among others, P-Funk, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She has released five solo albums and also scores for films. She turned her recovery from neurological damage after being exposed to the pesticide Chlordane into a popular TED Talk.

“For a band of Americans and Iranians, gentiles and Jews to be nominated for a Grammy sends a message that music done in freedom and peace has value and is recognized.” 

— Itai Disraeli

Disraeli, 58, was born on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in Israel, where music was a family affair. He played traditional songs but was influenced by the blues and Indian music. Since moving to the United States in the late 1990s, he’s played in many projects, most notably with his brothers in the trio Maetar. 

Sixty-something percussionist Gordy is not Jewish but considers himself a “Jew by osmosis.” He is married to a Jewish woman and estimates he’s played “every temple in town.” His wife, he said, jokingly calls him “the drummer to the Jews.” 

Iranian-born Saeidi is considered a master of the santoor. He has composed scores for over 30 films and has toured the world leading his own ensemble.  

Haydn said what makes Opium Moon special “is that we all listen. There’s no map or destination. Rather, it’s like a magic potion. It just comes together. You let it go anywhere it needs to go.” 

Gordy concurred, adding, “Everybody in the band is a producer, a composer — we know how to do that other stuff.” Disraeli finished the thought, calling Opium Moon “a conversation between four people talking and listening at the same time.”  

Disraeli said the first time the band played together, “we didn’t even have to talk to each other. We don’t tell each other what we’re going to play, we just feel it. If it goes somewhere, it’s just natural. When we listen, we become the center of the universe. When we listen, everything comes to us.” 

The band members admit they sound as though they’re speaking about a religious experience and that they also connect with spiritual elements and the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. However, Haydn said she didn’t really connect with her Jewish background until she was an adult caring for her dying mother. She said she fell in love with “the process of inquiry and wrestling with God.” 

Disraeli said he grew up in area of Israel that is “all about peace. As children, we learned how to speak Arabic, we’d visit Arab villages, Arab kids would come visit us. It’s a whole, idealistic view of how the country could be. We came here to live in peace. You don’t really hear a lot about that in America.”

Gordy, who usually can be found Friday nights playing at Shabbat services, has come to appreciate the tradition of Shabbat. “It’s about taking the week and putting everything aside and honoring the day,” he said.

Disraeli believes Opium Moon’s music can serve a similar function. “We’re so scheduled and tied to technology,” he said. “Our music gives you a chance to catch your breath and be with each other.”  

The Grammy Awards will take place Feb. 10 at Staples Center and will air on CBS at 5 p.m.