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Internationally-known poker commentator Ali Nejad shows all his cards when it comes to revealing the songs that help keep him calm at the table and give him a fresh perspective on life. He has a taste for deeply personal music – whether its R&B or a singer songwriter. Ali is the voice of “Poker After Dark” on NBC and ESPN’s “World Series of Poker” and is a Friend of Full Tilt Poker.
1. Telepopmusik - Breathe
Raul Campos: Hey, it's Raul Campos here from KCRW and I'm here with Ali Nejad, the internationally-known poker commentator who adds color to NBC's Poker After Dark and ESPN's World Series of Poker, among others. We’re going to be playing tunes and excerpts of the songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Ali, what did you bring in for us today and how're you doing?
AN: I'm good, first off. Although, I'm a little frustrated because you're asking me to pick 5 songs out of all the music that I've heard over the course of my life, so much of which I like, but I figured I'd kind of pick an underlying theme. This is 5 tracks I think that helped me get through life at various points when I was having a tough time with something or sort of gave me a little bit of perspective on whatever adversity or difficulty I may have been facing.
RC: So this first song, Telepopmusik's "Breathe," one of our favorites here at KCRW. We take honor in saying that we broke this artist here in L.A.-
RC: -and now you see them on commercials and all kinds of stuff
AN: Of course
RC: But why Telepopmusik?
AN: I actually didn't know about the band, but I head the song from the commercial. One of the really cool things is that commercials, and the music that they're putting on them now, has become really, really cool and avant garde, so I heard this song and I was instantly drawn to it. It just had such a smooth melody, such a relaxing kind of vibe about it, and then when they're talking about ‘just breathe’… I mean, it seems really simple and it's got the repetitive lyrics and what not, there's not a lot of verses in the cut, right?
RC: It's house music *laughs*
AN: Right, exactly! But, in a way, it kind of gets you into a chill state and it takes you from…if you're annoyed and playing poker, obviously there are times where I can be very frustrated and it's tough to set your mind to something that you think you're so good at and end up with the wrong outcome -- you know, losing money or whatever it is -- and I would just play this cut while I was playing online poker and it would kind of simmer me down and I'd be chill. It would give me that vibe, that mindset that I'm looking for, in order to kind of reverse the trend and create a win out of a session.
Song: "Breathe," by Telepopmusik
RC: Talking about poker and talking about songs that inspire people or that you use to get into a zone -- you see all these guys that are so intense on TV or at the poker table and a lot of them, like you said earlier, have head phones on. Some people don't, but do you have any kind of insight as to what they're listening to? Like what's Phil Ivy listening to while he’s trying to school somebody and take hundreds of thousands of dollars away from somebody?
AN: If they're actually listening to headphones, which a lot of them do when they're playing tournaments -- if they're playing cash games, I don't think most of them are listening to any music while they're doing that -- but, you know, across the board, most poker players are listening to higher energy music type music, stuff to keep 'em going, keep 'em sharp, keep 'em focused, keep 'em driven, not stuff that's gonna put 'em to sleep or relax them too much. You know what I mean? I'm the weirdo with all the relaxing playlists when I'm playing so that I don't have a coronary when I lose a big pot. (laughs)
RC: The song is called "Breathe" by Telepopmusik. So, now, Mary J. Blige -- going from house music to a soulful R&B singer, whatever category you want to put her because she kind of transcends different categories.
RC: But why Mary J. Blige?
AN: Mary, wow. I remember the cut "Real Love," way back in the day when I was in high school and it was just really awesome. That's when she came on the map for me and I kind of went back through a lot of her archives because she is a very soulful artist and she's also one who sings about her life. She's gone through a lot of different stuff and you can feel when an artist has brought something personal to the table in a cut, that sort of, that emotion and that passion to what they do. So I'm a big fan of that and this particular song is just another real simple thing, right? We went from "Breath," to "Be Happy," it's like two simple commands right?
AN: All you gotta do is inhale, exhale, and put a smile on your face. Obviously, this song came from a place where she was going through a hard time in a relationship. At the end of the day, I think a lot of us lose sight in the rat race and the struggle to be successful and do very well for ourselves of the essence of what it is ultimately that that's supposed to lead to, which is happiness. So this sort of simplified things and boils it down to a common denominator. And when I hear her flow on this cut, I'm just like, ‘Wow! Sing it girl!’ She's a diva and she definitely knows how to put a cut together. This one was a favorite for sure.
Song: "Be Happy," by Mary J. Blige
RC: So that was Mary J. Blige right here on KCRW.com, "Be Happy." Ali Nejad is our Guest DJ, Poker Commentator and the voice of Poker After Dark on NBC and, like I mentioned earlier, we're just going from genre to genre here because, this next tune here, I'll let you introduce it.
AN: This next band is an emo band, or at least they were when they first started out. Obviously everyone makes it big and then they sort of get tweaked in whatever direction their label wants them to go in, but I still have a lot of love for them and I was introduced to them while I was going to college at Berkeley. This particular band, I loved a lot of what they did. Their first album was called "Clarity," and then they went on to have an album called "Bleed American," and then "Futures." If you don't know who I'm talking about already, it's Jimmy Eat World
This particular song I don't think ever debuted as a single and its probably one of their more obscure cuts, so I was really pleased to hear that you guys had it in the library. I should expect nothing less, right, from the good peeps at KCRW, but it's called "23."
I don't know why it's called "23," but if I had to guess, and I hope I'm not completely wrong if anyone from that band ever gets wind of me mentioning this, but if I had to guess, it has something to do with that age. When you're in your early ‘20s and you've sort of finished college and you assume that you would know what you're doing and where you're headed in life and that everything would be sorted out for you. I used to think that I'd have two kids and be married by the time I was in my early ‘20s 'cause that's what my mom and pop, where they were at, you know what I mean? And there I was in my early ‘20’s going, ‘I am a long way from being there…’
AN: And this song sort of talks about self reflection and realizing that, maybe I'm a little bit selfish right now and maybe I don't have everything figured out. Its almost apologetic to a certain extent, you know, maybe I've made some mistakes and maybe I don't see the world the right way but, I'm only 23, and I'm not always going to be 23. That's sort of what it said to me. It's just awesome and it's really smooth and it just makes me feel and think and reflect. Isn't that what music's supposed to do?
Song: "23," by Jimmy Eat World
RC: So that was Jimmy Eat World and "23" was the tune. Now Damien Rice - talk about Damien Rice and why this next song is on your list.
AN: Well, I heard this song for the first time when I was watching a movie, probably one of my favorite movies around, “Closer,” with Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. That was a rough movie to get through, but if you've had your share of tumultuous relationships or ups and downs in life when it comes to the opposite sex, it's definitely one that'll grip you. It was such a splash of cold water. I think that on many occasions, you know, let's face it, we're not all good all the time and we don't want to admit it, but we've all made our mistakes. We've all done things that we aren't proud of and this really went deep into that, sort of , being in a manipulative S.O.B. and not being completely forthcoming or honest in a situation.
And it was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, somebody actually told it like it is’ on certain occasions for certain people. When I heard this song, which I think is in the opening and ending montage, I just about lost it. It was just so incredibly moving, it was almost like poetic. He’s a lyricist and, when he's singing, you can tell just him and an acoustic guitar'll get the job done. I can almost picture him.
I think he's from Ireland, if I'm not mistaken, and you can kind of picture that neighborhood pub and just a group of people from the community and him sitting up there with a mic and a single speaker and a guitar sort of singing about his life and different things that are going on. And I like that non-polished, raw feel in an artist. It's not a lot of synthesized stuff, it's not a lot of gimmicks -- it's just raw passion, emotion and, again, that's one of the themes that I really like.
Song: "The Blower's Daughter," by Damien Rice
AN: One of the lines that really jumps out at me is, ‘And so it is, just like you said it would be.’ You know, there are times where your mom would tell you ‘Hey don't do this, you know this is what's going to happen.’ And, of course, you don't learn until you stick your finger in the fire and it burns. On many occasions in my life, I've been stubborn enough to have to experience things on my own but, again, that's important, you know what I mean? It'll never stick with you, the lessons in life, when someone tells you, ‘Hey, this is how it is,’ unless you actually do it for yourself. But yeah, it's powerful stuff and definitely one of my favorite cuts.
RC: Mr. Damien Rice just telling us exactly how it is. We're going to get into one of my favorite cuts as well, U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
AN: Right. Well, first off, I hope people don't think I'm like acutely depressed.
AN: When I'm looking back at the first four cuts so far-
RC: Come on, you're happy, you're breathing…
AN: But, you know, they're kind of really emotional, like, ‘hey, you're going through a dark place’-type of songs that you're kind of reaching out. And even this one, this next one, right? "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." But I feel like this one is a little bit more uplifting, right?
AN: Even just the nature of the cut, it just makes you more upbeat, it makes you smile, even though what they're singing for … its kind of like you wish they would have found what they're looking for.
But I think life's a big long journey, right? And you know, I've had my ups and downs in my career, as I'm sure you have, and there have been moments where I've looked back and been like, ‘Is this really what I want to do? Am I really making an impact.’
One of my favorite quotes of all time actually is by- and I'm not sure if this is correctly attributed -- but Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he talks about the definition of success and leaving the world a little bit better whether by a redeemed social condition, a healthy garden patch or a child's smile or any number of different intangible things that you could plug in there. But not the typical sort of way that people think about a footprint or a legacy. But we're not getting any younger you know, we’re not necessarily in the twilight of our lives but as you begin to put the time in and you realize how quick it goes by, you want to make sure that you're in line with leaving the world a little bit better, at least I do.
I think that's a great thing to aspire to and that journey, you can kind of change how you want to get that job done but, nonetheless, that should be one of the objectives. And, for me, I want to believe that most of the people who cross my path are going to feel better off for having done so in my life, even if it's an hour long conversation on a flight or a life long friendship. Just to know that I've had that impact. And, if you don't happen to have that set of circumstances in your life right now, that you feel like you're not doing what you're doing, don't feel bad, because even U2 hasn't found what they're looking for yet, right?
AN: It's all good and you figure they've got all the money in the world and all the fame, so you're in good company
Song: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," by U2
RC: U2 right here on KCRW.com, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Some tunes selected from our Guest DJ, Ali Nejad, poker commentator. Man, just great stuff. Thanks for coming in, I really appreciate it and continued success. You do a great thing for the game of poker and I really appreciate what you're doing.
AN: I appreciate it, thanks for having me, Raul