“I’m a psychedelic luv monkey,” says guitarist and music producer Youssef Ashraf – a.k.a. Pharaoh – when asked to describe what he does.
It’s certainly hard to pigeonhole the multi-talented Anglo-Egyptian. First tasting success as guitarist for metalcore band Shvpes, before setting up a music studio and record label in his native Birmingham, the prolific 26-year-old recently released his most personal project yet: the 5-track EP ‘Cairo Boy’.
A More Spiritual Process: The 'Cairo Boy' EP
Ashraf is a natural and engaging storyteller. Our conversation flows easily, covering many topics - from his early days making music in his garage, to his hopes for the new EP, to being a happy nerd.
‘Cairo Boy’ is a musical journey through Pharaoh’s life, experiences, and musical influences. His first solo recording, it blends infectious guitar riffs with experimental hip-hop to create a fresh and mellow vibe.
“After moving on from Shvpes, I was craving a new musical outlet,” explains Ashraf. “I wanted it to be a more spiritual process. One that was more introspective. My aim with ‘Cairo Boy’ was to create music that contained a part of my soul, and that was a true reflection of myself. It’s a personal exploration of my own sonic playground, with guitar, and a lot of hip-hop!”
Ashraf’s career in music began in his teens, forming the band Cytota in 2009 with schoolmate, neighbour and aspiring drummer Harry Jennings. “It was true destiny,” says Ashraf. The band released several EPs and toured extensively, supporting the likes of the Chiodos, The Color Morale, and influential Japanese metalcore outfit Crossfaith.
Pain. Joy. Ecstasy. Despair: Shvpes and Beyond
A change of line-up in 2015 prompted a change of name. Cytota was dead. Long live Shvpes. The new-look band played Download in 2016, and their first studio album - ‘Pain. Joy. Ecstasy. Despair.’ - was released that October.
Sitting with us backstage at Dead Wax, a pint in one hand and what appears to be a cigarette in the other, Ashraf remembers, “Shvpes and Cytota was a 10-year career. We toured the US and Europe and had multiple releases on Sony and Universal Music. I’m deeply grateful. So many great experiences. Playing with bands like Bring Me the Horizon, Bullet for My Valentine, and Trivium. Reading and Leeds Festivals. And the US tour. All unforgettable!”
Shvpes disbanded in 2020. It did so amicably. It had simply run its course. The band’s line up moved on to new projects – Ashraf’s neighbour and schoolmate, Harry Jennings, is now drumming for metal band Defects – with Ashraf opting to create his own music studio: Luvwax. This is where Ashraf, in the guise of Pharaoh, would tackle his first solo project.
‘Cairo Boy’ was written, recorded, and mixed by Ashraf at Luvwax in Kings Heath, Birmingham. “My main influences for the EP were contemporary London jazz musicians like Mansur Brown, Yussef Dayes, and Moses Boyd,” he explains. “You’ll also find references to the hip-hop and rap I grew up listening to, as well as faint echoes of my background in metalcore and rock. And I have to credit the great guitarists Tosin Abasi, Mark Speer from Khruangbin, and Jimi Hendrix. They’re my totem poles of understanding.”
The Luvwax Collective
Ashraf it notably laid back, despite being due on stage in a little over 60 minutes. Unfazed and unhurried, he pauses to consider our questions before answering. But his calm exterior belies his passion, drive to create, and willingness to graft to get his music ‘out there’.
The Luvwax recording studio soon evolved to encompass a record label: Luvwax Records. The label boasts a diverse roster of talent, including DJs, singer-songwriters, and hip-hop, garage, and house producers. “The artists are the label,” says Ashraf. “You may be the Ten of Clubs Collective, but we’re the Luvwax Collective!”
The gig Pharaoh is about to play includes label-mates Sassi, Joul, Monsieur Crowe, and rapper ParkView. “I’m especially excited for people to hear ParkView. He’s an amazing rapper, singer-songwriter, and guitarist. His debut EP – ‘Sounds of the Soul’ – will be out soon. We wrote and recorded it all in-house at Luvwax. Really happy with how it turned out. We captured something special.”
Bringing Back the Oaky, Smoky, Tokey Vibe
Joining Pharaoh on stage at Dead Wax Digbeth is our Skev. Ashraf explains, “Skev and me, and Harry from Shvpes, were all in the same music tech class at college. It was a dream! Good times. The college parties stand out! Skev’s name was also in the frame when we were looking for another guitarist for Shvpes. I don’t remember why it didn’t happen. But it was only right that for this show, Pharaoh’s biggest to date, my good brother Skev should be heavily involved.”
“I’m real proud of what Skev’s doing at Ten of Clubs,” says Ashraf. “He’s a talented son-of-a-bitch! I’ve been repping the Jaws Tee a lot. I’m gonna wear it for the gig tonight. Might also have to cop a Kong at some point and start beating my chest.”
Briefly adopting a mid-Atlantic accent, Ashraf proclaims, “Ten of Clubs is bringing an oaky, smoky, tokey vibe back to the grungy skater masterpiece that is the club!” Obviously pleased with his marketing soundbite, he adds, “It’s only right to get behind our fellow art collective. Ten of Clubs versus Luvwax. Club Wax! That’s definitely something we should do.”
Ultra-mellow throughout our conversation, we nevertheless ask Ashraf how he likes to relax. “Oh, I’m a nerd,” he explains. “I’m a very happy nerd. I enjoy gaming and painting Warhammer miniatures. You can switch off for a few hours and think about nothing but what you’re doing at that moment. There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd!”
Loving What You Do: The Next Chapter
Is there something Ashraf knows now that he wishes he'd known when he began his career in music? With hardly a pause, he declares, “Concentrate on the macro, the music, the art, the enjoyment. That’s all. If you’re not enjoying it, it shows. Love what you do and keep pushing forward.” It's hard to disagree with his philosophy.
With the minutes ticking by, we ask what’s in the pipeline for Pharaoh and Luvwax. “Hella features are coming next," Ashraf explains. "All very exciting. We’ve got ParkView’s EP, and music from Sassi and Joul. It’s going to be a crazy year of releasing new music at Luvwax, after a couple of years of writing and refining. And we’re playing more shows in Birmingham, London, and Leeds later this year. Go follow our socials for updates.”
The night’s gig drawing ever closer, we bring to a close our chilled-out hour in the company of Pharaoh – a multi-talented musical polymath and a surprisingly introspective rock and roller.
‘Cairo Boy’ by Pharaoh is out now from Luvwax Records, streaming on all platforms.