interview by dimmSummer
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
ET: This is EthnoTechno's interview with Karsh Kale.This is our second interview, it's been five years since the first interview. I was a meek, wide-eyed lad in the back of Joe's pub... and Karsh showed me the way. (laughter) No. So yeah, we're back in New York City and second interview. This is his third studio album -- why don't you tell us a little bit about the theme behind the album Broken English? Tell us what led up to the album and what the album is about, because this is the first time you're really incorporating English lyrics... what made you make that decision? Were there just things that you had to communicate that way?
KK: At the time I was completing Liberation, actually experiencing what Liberation did out there and how people reacted to it, I felt like the next thing I wanted to do was to create an album of songs. But it's also the audience, it's such a wide audience, and it's people who speak a lot of different languages as well. The idea of Broken English itself, just the concept of those two words, for me it was kind of the universal language, the language that everybody speaks, everybody speaks some form of broken English. The idea was to create songs in English, but to give them a sentiment and a sense of universality, so it works in places where English is not their first language. But at the same time, you still understand the sentiment of the songs. That was the original idea of Broken English.
ET: So what is it now, after it's been completed?
KK: Now it's just a rock and roll album. (laughs) No, now it's that, but a lot of the inspiration also came from how people are misunderstood. Especially being in New York you hear a lot of people getting out of taxis or walking out of stores saying, "I couldn't understand that guy, why can't he learn how to speak English?" So it's playing off of that kind of stereotype, trying to be as eloquent as possible and saying yeah, this is broken English, this is what you were talking about -- you didn't understand what I was saying? So that kind of sentiment was definitely there, there was a bit of sarcasm in the use of the word broken English.
ET: So what is the sentiment in the album overall? With every song is there a common thread?
KK: There's no real theme to the album in that there's no one theme to the album. More than anything, it's the most honest picture that I could have taken of my own reality. It's kind of all of these songs that are pertaining to everything -- falling in love to falling out of love, to the political situation of the world. These two songs that are the bookends of the album -- this is the political situation of the world. This is where we live -- we turn left, we turn right, this is what's going on. And then everything in between is what the songs are dealing with our fears of going to a new status in our lives... all these different things. Those were the things that I was playing with with the album, I didn't stick to one particular theme, I was just going for really good songs, stuff that I felt was honest.
ET: When did the songs first arise? It's been almost three years since Liberation. Did you already have a cache of songs that just morphed into these songs? Or was there a certain point in your life where things started streaming out of you and it happened very quickly? Was it a long process, or something very very recent?
KK: I think if you look at the whole album, yeah, it started right after Liberation was finished. Some of that stuff was starting to be worked on. Some of the music that I had created, they weren't songs yet, they were just sentiments - ideas of tracks. When it came time to work on the album, I probably wrote half of the album that exists on the actual record right now. But I wound up getting rid of more stuff than what I actually used for the record. So I would say probably about 70% of the album was done in the time that I actually worked on the album, within those four or five months. But there's a good 30% of the album that exists on the record that I was working on for a while.
ET: Why did you get rid of a lot of stuff? Was it just because you were in a transition and it just didn't sound right with some newfound ideas that you had?
KK: I think it just came down to... there's a standard set on the album. On anything that you're working on, when one song reaches a certain level... for me it was really about searching for honesty in the songs, then all of the songs had to be that way. So it was really the stuff that I felt was a little more conceptual, that would have worked in other collections of songs, didn't necessarily work within this collection of music.
ET: Did you write all the lyrics, or did you work with the various singers on the different tracks?
KK: I worked with songwriters, people who write songs. What I wanted to be able to bring to the picture was bringing to life the aesthetic, so I kind of treated them as actors and gave them a rough script, and then they rewrote it. So all of the songs, I had spoken to the songwriters. Some of the songs I did write the lyrics, some of the songs the other artists who wrote the lyrics -- basically we were bouncing off of each other, like, this is the idea of the song. The song Beautiful, originally the lyrics that are in Urdu are from a MIDIval PunditZ track (Dark Age), where it started as a remix. I was working with a singer named Sophie from Australia -- we were working on some of her own material and then I played her this piece and told her the sentiment. I was kind of trying to, in the music itself, create an idea of love in the dark age, or love right before the dark age, that moment right before everything goes to shit, where everything seems beautiful. That sentiment was what I conveyed to her, and created this picture of these two little kids sitting on a park bench right before a bomb goes off, and that's what she came back with. "Remember how you looked at me and smiled," it was this little moment that she took that snapshot of. So that's how most of the songs came.
ET: You mention two bookends, the two tracks... the first track has an MC, Napoleon Solo, and the final track -- which is actually in the same key and the same BPM, so it makes the record circular if you listen to it over and over again -- the last track features Shahid, who returns from Realize, the first CD. What's the content, lyrically, of the first track, and how does it relate to the last track?
KK: The first track was definitely a piece that I had in mind for a while. Last summer I went on tour with Ming & FS, and Napoleon was on tour with us. It was right before elections, and we were all constantly in dialogue about what the fuck was going on. Also in the context of making music about what we were talking about, I had spoken to Napoleon about working on stuff for my new album. Before we came to the studio I had sent him the rough track of what I had of the music, and originally the song was called Resistance. It just came out of the sound, it was really about the sound, and from those conversations we were having, and then of course he came back with that same kind of sentiment. What he came to the studio with was just pages and pages of really wonderful stuff. And then we together sculpted that into what it was.
ET: Now how does it relate to the lyrics in the last track, Rise Up?
KK: Rise Up, funnily enough, that's the track where I got to have fun right before the album was finished, it was one of the last tracks I did. Usually when I make an album there's always one track where I wind up sampling everything else on the rest of the record and making a new track out of it. So I took the drums from Manifest and wanted to play with rhythms from all over India, so there's Punjabi rhythms, there's garba rhythms, there's Marathi lauvni rhythms, so it was actually an instrumental piece that wasn't even necessarily meant for the album. And then Shahid came to my house, just to come and listen to the tracks that I was working on, and kind of got inspired to pick up the mic and do a freestyle. And it was a freestyle that at the end we were like, "That was cool, but anyway... " So he went home and a couple of days later I went back to that freestyle and heard what he had done and what he was saying, and I found just that line, "rise up." And when I heard it, I knew right at that moment that this was how to punctuate the album, this is what I was trying to say. And that is completely pertaining to how the album begins and kind of, at least for myself, takes myself through all the changes that I've had to go through to get to the point where I've been able to say that to myself. I felt like it was a linear journey that got to a point when he said "rise up," so that's why that track happened.
ET: That's dope. Let's talk a bit about taking a journey in your own life, the ups and downs of life -- how did that relate to the making of the album, the kind of sentiments that are in there? For example, would something happen in your life and then you'd go write a song? You know, kind of how songwriters work, in a sense?
KK: I think all of that happened. I mean, there were songs on that album that happened a day after something profound happened in my life, and then there were songs that happened after reflecting upon things that had happened in my life after a few months. So it wasn't necessarily one exclusive way that the songs unfolded, but they all had something to do with something that was going on in my life. Just from my ability to interact with my environment... my environment was changing rapidly, so I had to catch up with myself, and inevitably you stumble, you fall, you get up. That was really that journey -- stumbling, falling and getting up -- that was captured on the album. Some of them are reflections of that, and some of them are directly coming from that experience.
ET: Let's talk about City Lights -- like I said, it sounds like Sting, it's interesting. I mean, obviously now the cadences are different, but when you first hear it you're like, WOW, how did he get Sting? First of all, what was it like singing and representing that way on the album, and what's the meaning of the song and the lyrics?
KK: This song is actually one of the songs that came from a direct reaction to what was going on in my life. There was a time where I had to leave New York City. The city in and of itself, what it contained for me in my life, and I lived here for 12 years, just exploded in my face in a way that I had to change my relationship with it, and leave to see it from afar. I moved to Los Angeles. And as soon as I got there, I went to a pawn shop and bought a $40 acoustic guitar and I wrote City Lights. It just kind of came out, it just spewed out. The chorus, it's basically talking about how beautiful the city looks from far away. It's not just the city, but it's what it represents to me living there. And as inviting as it is to come back to it, I don't know if I could stay there. That's basically what the meaning of the song is. What it was like to sing on it -- I've always been a singer, that's how I convey what I do as a musician to other artists, I sing them my ideas, whether I'm working with Indian or western artists. It's something that I feel is my greatest strength -- it's not something that I utilize as a performer, but it's what I utilize as a producer. To be able to really talk about it, I don't have to write it down, I don't have to create some sort of picture for someone, I can just sing it to them. So this is the first time that I was actually convinced by everybody who I was working with, "Why aren't you singing on the album?" So I sang on one song. (laughs)
ET: Well you have a really nice voice! Did you just not think you had a good voice, or you just didn't really see yourself as someone who should be singing on a track?
KK: I don't think it's just about being good at something. I think it's about, once again, feeling honest about it. I think that when I'm playing drums, playing tabla, I don't feel like I'm making anything up, I feel like I'm saying exactly what I'm trying to say. I'm good enough on my instrument to say what I feel like I need to say. As a singer... I work with too many great singers who are so true to who they are, for me that was what always made me self-conscious about singing. Not because I don't think that I'm a good singer or anything like that, it was more about do I think this deserve to be conveyed onstage, or can I find someone to do it better? That's always what I've done as a musician. If I come up with a beautiful line, I know that I could just sing it, but if I get Ajay Prasanna to play it on the bansuri, he's going to just kill it. Sitting back and letting the music get bigger than yourself -- for me, that was really the way to enjoy the music.
ET: Let's talk about the newest addition to the Realize family, Todd. How did you meet him and how did you know you had to work with him?
KK: I was working on the album and we were driving down to DC for the DC Kollektiv and I was in the car with Vishal Vaid and Zakhm. I was playing them some tracks from the album and he right away was like "You've gotta check out a CD of my friend's band called Catecea." I heard his voice and I was right at a particular time where I was working on music that had a sentiment that just vibrated off of what he was doing as a singer. And then Atul [Zakhm] told me he was aware of what I was doing and that he was a fan of my work, so I got his number and I gave him a call. He came to the studio to just work on one piece, and then wound up working on four songs on the album and then now he's playing with the band.
ET: So you have a vibe onstage now, there's a definite chemistry, it seems to be more of a unit now with Todd there. How does it feel for you after so many years of doing this -- did you have it before at a certain point? Because the band has kind of had rotating members and vocalists come in and out depending on what they're doing, but now it seems like you guys have something where you can kind of tackle everything confidently.
KK: Well that's the thing, I think it's really about tackling everything. When I first created Realize I always wanted to be able to handle everything that I was doing in the studio because when I'm in the studio I'm so free with my ideas, I'm not thinking about how we're going to do this live. So I'm like sure, let's go record an orchestra -- anything that's possible, if it's possible then we'll do it. And then getting on stage for me, I come from so many different places -- I love playing classical music, I love playing with jazz artists, I love playing hip-hop, I love to DJ and I love playing rock music. As a drummer, that's where I come from. And all of these things had been happening at separate times in my life and Realize was the only place where I could start to... and maybe Tabla Beat Science, projects where I was able to bring a lot of those things together. I think this particular band is the first time that I feel like so much of what I do as a musician in the studio, I'm able to do with this band. And it's not about actually having an orchestra onstage or having all of the instrumentation that we use on an album, it's more about finding chemistry with a group of musicians who understand the sentiment of a song. It's not about reproducing that part, it's about reproducing the sentiment. It's live on stage now, it's like getting up and doing a theater version of a film -- you can't just do the same thing, you've gotta do it differently.
ET: Do you see a difference in the reaction of the audience now you've done a couple of gigs? Have you noticed the audience is maybe into it a little bit more than they were previously, just because they notice there's a very tangible chemistry there and they feed off that?
KK: I don't think we've done enough gigs to know that for sure. I think this is very early stage as far as what this band is going to do. But it's really about what the album is going to do, what the band is going to do to support the album and how that all works together. When we came into the last show we did, we played in front of a whole room of people who had never heard most of the song we played that night because they were all on an album that hadn't come out yet. So that's where we're going to really find out what this particular version of Realize can do.
ET: So who is Karsh Kale in New York City or in the U.S. in general, and who is Karsh Kale in India?
KK: You know, I can't really answer as well what I am in India, because in America I feel like, all the environments that I exist in are environments that I helped to create, or at least I was a part of creating. The venues that we play at, the places - the parties that we play, the concerts and the festivals and all of these things -- all of these outlets are new, and they kind of appeared as we appeared. Whereas in India I feel like... I'm seen much more as a fusion artist, as a fusion musician, as a drummer and tabla player who's played with Zakir Hussain in Tabla Beat Science, and that changes their perspective. Whereas over here, it's more of an electronic artist/producer. At least that's the kind of sentiment that I get back from people here, where their appreciation is more about what they're listening to on the albums, and in India I feel like it's more about me as a musician. And there's always the grey area of people just coming down who think that all I do is DJ, and that's all good too. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. So they come to DJ gigs and they're like, "Oh, you play tabla!"
ET: We all just came back from India, so what's your favorite part about India? Your favorite city or your favorite thing?
KK: As a performer, the best gigs in India have always been, for the same reason as the best gigs anywhere else -- it's just been whatever's happening on that night, when the particular chemistry on that night between the audience and the show itself has just been electric. The fact that it's possible in India that people actually understand it on so many levels is really exciting. There was definitely a time growing up when I never would have imagined that what we're doing now would actually make sense in India, let alone make sense here. So in that way it's really amazing. But the best part about India for me personally as an artist is how much music I can make there with the people that I collaborate with. As a musician I can get into a studio or in a comfortable environment where I'm sitting with musicians and I can just convey musical ideas while playing tabla or singing or whatever it is that I'm doing. Or sitting and playing a couple of tracks, how quickly that manifests into something that's a finished piece of music. That's my favorite part about going to India -- when I come back, I've got armfuls of music that I've been involved in creating, or created myself.
ET: Let's talk about some of the music. You want to talk about some upcoming projects, maybe people that you work with, or sneak peeks at all these armfuls of music that hopefully we'll get to hear? Sometimes a lot of this stuff only gets released in India nowadays because there's a market growing there. Sometimes you just won't see it here, and if you're lucky enough you hear it on my station, but you won't be able to own it.
KK: We're going to try and make more of that stuff available over here now, because there's been stuff that I've put out in Japan that's not available here, and stuff that I've done in India that's not available here. It's all about waiting until there's a proper collection you can make. Otherwise, some of them are available on other compilations and things like that, but individual tracks... like, I haven't made a collection of those b-sides yet that are released as singles. What I got to work on there, I was working on a couple of tracks for the Shalom Compilation -- Shalom is actually a lounge club in Delhi that they've now opened in Banglalore and Goa, and they own a bunch of really great clubs, really high-end dance clubs. They've started putting out music and they've put out a first compilation which was compiled by the MIDIval Punditz and this one is for the second compilation. So I did a couple of new tracks, one with Anoushka Shankar and one with DJ Jayant. We're working on a new project actually right now with myself and Anoushka and Salim Merchant, who I worked with on Broken English and Liberation as well, and the Punditz. And then we have a whole bunch of special guests who are going to be working on this album, and it's going to be recorded to be released in 5.1 Surround Sound, and it's also going to be a film. Right now it's very much in its infancy, but it's definitely a very exciting project. Probably hopefully by the end of the year, it should come out. And there's the Kollektiv compilation...
ET: Oh yeah, I've heard about that...
KK: (laughs) It's called Kollektiv Confidential, which has been kept confidential for quite some time now. That's going to be coming out this year as well. Kollektiv has exploded all over the country in the past six months, it's just all of a sudden sprouted this amazing network of parties and artists. It's not just about Kollektiv, it's about everything going on around Kollektiv in all of these places as well.
ET: What was the idea behind Kollektiv? What does Kollektiv mean? Because there was a Kollektiv party two years ago over at the old Kush, and that was you and Derek Beres and pretty much any guests you could lay your hands on -- we had guests from the UK coming in, and every guest in New York and abroad came in. But what is Kollektiv now?
KK: I think it's what it claims to be -- about making a larger collective of like-minded yet individual artists who are... right now it's very much a DJ party in every city it's existing in, because all of the people involved are not only DJs or producers, but are all involved in the music and the scene and influencing the music in a lot of different ways. So it's a great platform and showcase of what's going on. These guys are the archeologists, and people are coming in and checking out stuff that's really getting dug out. That's the kind of music that I feel represents Kollektiv -- the stuff that's scooped out and shown in its own light, not in the context of where it comes from. Because it's trance music, it's drum and bass, it's Indian classical music, it's music from all over the world, it's hip-hop, it's dub. There's no definition as far as a musical genre of what Kollektiv is, it's more of an idea, a feeling. But you see that consistent feeling there at every party in each different city, even though people haven't met each other, it feels the same, especially for those of us who've been to all of them.
ET: Now that your album is finished, what's on your plate besides this project with Anoushka Shankar and all the other players? Is there anything else as a personal project, or do you already have an idea for the next album?
KK: Yeah, I mean I always have ideas, it's just about whether I want to release an album. I never stop making music, I never stop creating stuff. What makes sense to put out at that particular time is a different story. It doesn't make sense, I know for myself I say way more than people can handle. As far as being able to put, I don't want to say a label, but at least be able to put their finger on what I do as an artist... so in that way, I have many albums in my mind, but right now I'm going to concentrate on Broken English, that hasn't even come out yet... concentrating on this record and what Kollektiv is doing. Like I said, as a musician, as an artist, I want to do everything, I want to create classical albums and I want to do psy-trance records and I want to do thrash metal albums. And not that I even want to do albums, but I want to just keep on making music and doing it in a way where I don't feel like I have to be put in a box - put in a box is the coffin you die in.