“Hello and welcome to LA,” intones a woman’s voice during the intro to Armenian-American producer Bei Ru’s third album, LA Zooo. “It’s another beautiful day, with sunny skies and highs in the mid-90s. So enjoy your stay, and remember: it’s a zoo out there.”
So begins an album that, with track titles including Tigers on Tujunga, Animal Pharm and Do Not Feed the Cannibals, not only evokes the idea of an urban jungle and survival of the fittest, but also suggests an element of theme-park voyeurism and being caged.
“It’s all really a reflection of LA,” says Bei Ru. “It’s known as a bit of a cut-throat place, which it kind of is, but there’s this joy within that and there’s playfulness within that.
“But at the end of the day, I also felt like the way people are in LA is very much parallel to a zoo – as far as our homes and our cars and everything being reflections of the cages that we choose to put ourselves into – and people’s behaviour was very similar to the animal kingdom. So that was definitely a big part of the concept.”
Bei Ru was born Baruir Panossian in Los Angeles to Lebanese-Armenian parents.
While California is a big influence on the recording, Bei Ru’s signature sound is his deft blending of the traditional Armenian music of his childhood with diverse influences, including hip-hop, funk and jazz.
“Armenian music was something that my parents would play around the house, but when you’re a kid you kind of rebel against what your parents listen to, so it took me a while to get into it,” he says.
“Not that I wouldn’t enjoy some of it when I was a kid – it’s just, when I was younger my musical tastes were more contemporary and more American I guess. I was into hip-hop, electronic music, so Armenian music was not really my thing for a while.”
It was only when he became a teenager that Bei Ru began to build a relationship with Armenian music.
“Later, I returned to it, but on my own terms,” he says, “in the sense that I would start picking apart these old records and taking bits and pieces and sampling them – similar to the way I would hear some of my favourite hip-hop producers do with jazz or R&B records. It was kind of out of necessity really. These were the records that they had and I just dug through my parents’ collection”. His research later led him to discover new Armenian music that was more to his taste.
“Once I actually started to consciously look for Armenian records, I was blown away by the possibilities of what was out there,” he says.
“I found some of these records that had elements like psychedelic music and electronic music and funk and jazz – that’s what really began my personal relationship with Armenian music.”
LA Zooo continues in the vein of Bei Ru’s first two albums – 2010’s Little Armenia (LA) and 2014’s Saturday Night at the Magic Lamp – both of which were heavily inspired by the Caucasus nation. As the title suggests, however, his third album, released in October last year, sets out to explore his hometown, featuring a much more diverse range of influences, including electronica, funk, jazz and soul sounds, as well as obscure pop from the 1960s and 1970s.
“I still am very interested in Armenian music, but I just had this idea for this concept,” says Bei Ru.
“It just so happened that the music I felt illustrated that concept was the stuff that you hear on the record, which is a little more diverse as far as the influences.”
Hypnotic drumbeats are overlaid with upbeat, Armenia-inflected melodies on a mostly instrumental album. Periodic voice-overs, mostly observations about LA by a couple, act as a guide of sorts to the city.
The album’s 20 tracks, all lasting less than two minutes, make for a fast-paced but cohesive listen, yet each piece retains its own mood.
“I have an affinity towards concept records because, for me, concept albums are like an audio version of a story,” says Bei Ru.
“The fact that it was an instrumental album was a bit challenging, but I felt like it really did illustrate the idea of this place and what happens there and the vibe that you get there, which changes from kind of ominous to playfully psychedelic.”