exclusive interview with the Seb [Studio Mogul]

interview by dimmSummer
date: 11.01.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
print-hugger: print

ET: OK, this is ethnotechno's interview with Seb, the visual mastermind behind everything Asian Underground and forward in the UK and beyond. A lot of people don't put these visual elements together when they see these albums, like Calcutta Cyber Cafe and State of Bengal CDs and Fun-Da-Mental CD covers and all these little bits and pieces that you've done over the past 5-10 years, and beyond that, some of the conceptual ideas behind some of the albums. A lot of it comes from one person, beyond the actual musician that the music is being represented. So I think it's due time that we pick your brain and we understand who you are and why you're doing it. Where do you get your ideas from?

Seb: OK. Well, I was originally trained as a painter, and I wanted to be able to express what I felt growing up in an alien environment. Alien, I felt, because I had no choice. I was picked up from one part of the world and dumped into another and asked to deal with it. I felt that passively fitting into that society and functioning within its norms just seemed outrageous, so art seemed to be...it could have been writing, it could have been whatever, but for me, art, drawing, visual things was the real zest in my soul so I pursued that. But quickly I found that basically art history has an enormous weight. You were just talking about that earlier, about avoiding too much of what has already gone on, because that weight makes you stop even picking up the pencil. So I felt that again I was just going through the motions, and this is outrageous. I need to be able to speak about my own kind of experiences, my own past, the cultural synthesis that I embody. When I thought of that, I thought well actually, there's a lot of people around me who must be going through a similar journey, so I sort of basically flunked out of art school. I mean, I didn't, I finished it, but I was so uninterested that I didn't even bother turning up at my own degree show because it meant nothing to me. Looking around, I thought, I need to talk to other people, get near to other souls who are on a similar journey. I'd actually grown up in an area that didn't have that many Asians, and came from a family who were quite insular as well, so this was like starting from scratch. Like anything, it's all about people, people you meet and they energize you and whatever. Through my girlfriend at the time, I was introduced to a guy called Talvin, and he seemed to be talking about the same sort of things, and I was just like, "Oh wow! But you're a musician, and I'm an artist, so how do we synthesize these two experiences?" My god, this must have been like '95 or something, around then. We just met up and he talked about his music and the inspirations, and he was coming from a similar experience of the enormity of musical history, particularly him as a tabla maestro, and there's an enormous weight of history in that alone. He needed to find a new formula, a new language, and he saw a similar spirit in me.

So that's the thing, you see, ideas are formed faster than the technique to be able to implement it, so I was really young and kind of awed by this other young musician Talvin, and thinking "Wow, my god, I need to be involved," and he very generously sort of said yes. But then the world is a complex place. Right in that little scene was another designer who was already armed to the teeth, he's huge in the UK and he's been trained by the very best designers. But in a way this was what we had to fight, all the musicians the same. There were huge world-famous DJs that they were up against, you had to just ignore that and go "I want to do this." Same with me, I thought, well I want to do this as well. I remember there was a meeting where Talvin and his promoter Sweety brought me along with my ideas about what Anokha should look like, and this other guy came in with his stuff. They came out and said "Well, you know, you understand, it's sort of David and Goliath, and we've got to go with this guy." Looking back on it, of course I was very bitter then, but I had a consolation prize. Talvin understood some of the things I was talking about, so he was like, "Well, I've got my first album coming out, which a lot of people don't know about, Calcutta Cyber Cafe, why don't you come get involved with that instead?" And I cut my teeth on that. When anyone does anything creative like that, it's the sum total of many minds that they suck in, and I became very engrossed in the whole thing because I felt so energized. Like him, I realized we were both beginning a new journey where each step had to be recreated because obviously we couldn't simply always just use whatever had gone before. At the very least, it had to be tweaked to say the things we wanted to say. Calcutta Cyber Cafe, although it was my first work, I still hear people come back and say it had some impact. To me, that shows the validity of what all of us had been talking about and thinking about, and that is a constant that just energizes me if I feel "Oh my god, there are great artists out there," and yes they're saying something, but we're saying something as well. It takes this long, it's taken all of these musicians this long to get where we are in this journey. I've been privileged to be with them and use them as sounding boards as much as they have me. I've brought some of the historical and cultural things into it as much as I can, and hopefully had an influence to sort of... (trails off laughing as one of his roommates shrieks in the background)

ET: Hang on, hang on..... SHUT UP!....Thank you. Wanna keep going?

Seb: (laughter) Because there is that tendency for artists, and you'd know this as well, to get really so absorbed that you start being in danger of losing touch with something else, the greater audience, the people who would hopefully get energized or feed off your work. So for me that's the other difference between being a painter and a graphic artist...I'm getting ahead of myself. What I thought was, here are these musicians and they're working with this technology which allows them to quickly produce a feeling, a vibe, and get it out there and then gauge the reaction. I couldn't do that with paintbrush and canvas alone, so I had to find a new way. The obvious thing was what was happening then -- computers were just coming to the forefront in all areas of life, particularly commercial design and stuff. So I rolled up my sleeves and I thought, my god, I'm such a technophobe, but I've got to go down this line to be able to communicate with these artists and people that I want to, which is all the Asian diaspora, or anybody who feels that it's about time culture went beyond "I'm a European, I'm an Asian, I'm an African," to another level, and took the speed of that movement, because it's a pretty fast one as everyone knows, world communication. So having spent a few years mastering, and still mastering, the technology side, again that parallels the journey that the musicians had. Now, the advantage of working with musicians is that if you're an artist, you've got the gallery system, the media system which is all locked in place, they can feed off each other and send it out. This movement doesn't have any of that infrastructure, so working with musicians has allowed me to use the alternative infrastructure of clubs and e-mails and websites and flyers and album covers to spread this feeling and hope that it resonates. This many years on, it's finally coming back, it's like throwing a stone in the pool, the ripples are finally arriving. Hence you're here and you're talking to me, and there's like 6000 miles or whatever. I've heard similar things like that -- this guy I met last year, he was travelling somewhere in India and had bought this album. We met at a party and were going "Who are you? What do you do?" and I was describing stuff and he went "Dude, I got that album! You did it!" and I was just like, "You don't know what that means to me!" I was almost in tears. I thought, that's what makes it worth it. Hopefully they then take it away with them. The other thing which I missed out in saying was that it was like, white men can't jump -- Asians can't dance, Asians don't do clubs, Asians aren't cool. When we first used to go to bars and stuff, we were barely able to have a couple of nights in obscure places. You'd go to these burgeoning bars and clubs and say, look, we've got this idea of an Asian night and you'd be laughed out of the house, like, "No, no way!" Now, every bar and club up and down, certainly in London, virtually the UK, has an Asian night. It's coming around, and I feel it's the energy that these people have started. It's still a minority of people, but they're the vanguard and it's redefining who we are. OK, in numbers, as I said, we're still a minority, but the attitude is already global.

ET: So the first night you did start a long time ago was with Pathaan, right? Stoned Asia?

Seb: Well basically I've been in the background getting involved with all these artists and musicians and promoters who would want to put stuff together. So they'd come to me and I'd sit down and say "This is the visual aspect of what you're doing, it's very important because that's the first draw that entices someone to come through the doors." So when Pathaan broke away from Swaraj, wanting to create a new project, again the two of us were talking about the theories, "What does it mean? What's it about?" So together we coined this idea of Stoned Asia, from another guy Imran Khan who was running a magazine then. So he was heading the writers' vanguard, trying to talk about what it was like to be second generation. With Ibiza and Goa being a supposedly white province, this is what they would do, hang out, and we thought no, we do that too, we love chilling out. So this idea of Stoned Asia back then was kind of quite fresh. So we found a place and started doing these nights, and like anything else, back then it was the vanguard of everything else. People were barely understanding what Asian music and fusion music was about, and then there was already this kind of splinter idea happening. There were other guys doing other stuff, and we had people constantly coming up to us going "What does it mean? You Asians smoke a lot of pot?" We said "Well..." (laughter) It's about a state of mind, translated through art and music. Making the music that these musicians are producing, giving them a worthy suit of armor, visual armor, that they can be proud of and can represent them and what they're about. And also at the same time, because it reflects some of my ideas, it's a happy marriage between the two.

ET: So Swaraj was before Stoned Asia, then?

Seb: Yes, that's how I met Pathaan. Ash I met one night, he was giving out flyers, I think it might have been snowing, and I thought, amazing, there's an Asian guy giving out flyers outside this club. That was still quite a rare event. So I said "Hi, what are you? Who are you?" He goes, "Well, I'm just starting this night," and he had these terrible flyers, cheesy. And to me it was like, Asians are not cheesy, we have five, ten thousand years of a visual heritage and we can take it to another level and this is outrageous. I said, "Man, I've got to talk to you. Let's do something." So we hooked up and basically this whole story of trying to find an identity for what Swaraj does, then finally distilled into these logos, this girl and the boy who represent every girl and every boy, specifically and hopefully every Asian boy and Asian girl that exists on earth. Every project that I've been involved with has been pretty much like that, that they push their music to the frontiers and they're now looking at artists like yourself, like some other young ones who are coming in, who are going to be equally pushing all this together. So it's a whole package, and that's got to be much more powerful. So I feed off the music, and the musicians feed off me. It's actually gone beyond that now, it's always difficult, because at the same time you're expanding something, you're limiting something as well because you've gotta put boundaries around it. So I find sometimes, and I'm sure musicians do as well, now that we've created this idea of Asian Underground, it limits you from doing some other stuff. I want to do some really conceptual things, but you can't because then it will go beyond other people's abilities to just read it and they'll lose the link. So one sort of has to go slowly and you have to move as a mass movement, a step at a time. And so that's a little bit frustrating, but it's amazing looking back on it how the visuals have become so sophisticated compared to what it was right at the beginning. And it's a joy to see, now I'm seeing through the wonderful web people doing work, whether it's in Bombay or San Francisco or New York, and coming across these other guys who are on a similar thing and they're just kind of resonating in these little points around the earth, and feeling their ripples and going "Wow! This is what it's about." And I do think artists will inherit the earth, so...(laughter)

ET: There's plenty of us not making any money.

Seb: Well of course, of course. That's the thing about the creativity, if your central energy is just about making money, then you're in the wrong business. Of course you've got to feed the habit, you've got to be able to implement your work and that costs, for instance. You've got to go out and live in the world and stuff. But just living without saying something back to the world, what's the point? And what is difficult for us is that in some ways, we have no history. That's exciting as well as profoundly scary. And working in the West, for instance, you're using technologies that have been developed to actually implement Western aesthetic sensibilities, and there's a complete dearth of information about the heritage that we're supposed to be coming from. So it's a tricky balance between subverting Western aesthetic ideologies and technologies and trying to eke out whatever information you can get about your heritage, about your history, and then trying to blend it in a way that makes sense. And sometimes you just think, what the fuck, it should just be a raw cut and paste and see what goes on and I would like to develop onto that stage, have a bunch of artists who are just doing that, in a very painterly way, where you're ignoring the rules. But even then, to ignore the rules, you have to have had them in the first place. So we're at stage 1, where we're creating the rules for ourselves, and then we're gonna break it, and that's going to be fucking amazing.

ET: Yeah. So how do you feel about labels, like for example Sam's first album Visual Audio, where you created this huge package and it was very meaningful to the music, and then it goes to Six Degrees and they change the music, and then they change the artwork. So how do you feel about what they did to the packaging?

Seb: On a basic level it hurts, I mean maybe it's like, I'm not a parent, but imagine that you've carefully nurtured a child who's sophisticated, educated, moral, whatever, and then suddenly something happens to the kid and it just goes wild and hangs out with tramps or something, and you think, "Oh, my god!" I feel that now I'm older and wiser, this is what's inevitably going to happen, it's a great dialectic between everything, so therefore whatever I produce out there, it has to survive out there in the world, and things like with Sam's, that was the first project I was involved with, he was one of the first artists in the scene who just saw, as embodied by the name Visual Audio, that it's very important to have a synthesis between the music and the art. So it was an extraordinary privilege to be able to work with him, and we created these visual templates for each song, and it was going to be this mammoth exercise. Alas, commercial concerns came in and just chopped it up and it was a bloodied mess at the end of it. But we're wiser, now we know what to avoid and how to circumnavigate these things. And we're thinking of even reviving that project again and putting it back to where it was supposed to be. You were saying about Six Degrees, I mean, I understand they have to do what they're trying to do, and that nevertheless is what we're trying to make these people aware of, that this is not just a random collection of sounds and marks, these all have meaning. The whole world has nothing without meaning. So therefore if you just...it's like Nitin Sawhney, for instance. You can imagine, he talks so much about meaning and stuff, would they quite readily take his tunes and give it to some trashy house remixer, chop it up, package it up with a naked woman and get it out there? It just wouldn't happen. So these labels have to get a little bit more educated in that sense, the visual sense as well, that you can't do that visually, it has to be carefully considered. Certainly talking to the artist originally who did it might help. I feel that they are coming around to it. Like any technician, you go way ahead of anyone else, and unfortunately you just have to tolerate it. This is an example with you, I've seen your diagonal scrolling. Now I didn't know that much about web [design], so I thought, hmmm, interesting, that's a quirky thing. Now subsequently everyone's told me that diagonal scrolling is bad, this is extreme web design! Now I'm going, oh right, fuck! I suppose you are, and that's true, I don't see it anywhere else. So there's me learning a bit and going OK, right, I'm impressed now. So in that same way I understand other people have to catch up. I feel that ten years on, some things I've done like 6, 7 years ago, it's coming back to me now. I was in a bar a couple of months back and these two young Asian design students came up to me and said "Oh, you're Mogul, I've got your logos up in my bedroom, it meant so much to me to see a girl represented, an Asian girl, in such a techno, forward kind of way. I've never seen anything like that." And again that was just like, such a meaningful thing to me and just reiterates everything I've been doing and why I've been doing it. That's what I wanted! And so in that sense, whatever anyone else does with it, it doesn't matter, I'm already making things happen in people's minds, hopefully.

ET: That's good. So how about the Fun-Da-Mental covers? What was the first one you worked on? Did you have anything to do with the illustrations that look Bollywood-esque, with the dude who's fighting, and the woman?

Seb: No, no, that was pre-me. They're really good again as well, they're direct comments on where commercial art is in the Indian subcontinent, and they were important for where Fun-Da-Mental was at that moment. But then Aki recognized that times have changed and people have moved on. And the way time has changed is that there's a whole generation of us growing up exclusively in Europe and unfortunately some of us aren't even aware of our heritage that much. So just having direct plagiarism of these cultures actually leaves you a little bit, not cold, but confused. I was sort of itching to come up to Aki and say "Look, can I have a go?" And, in fact, other people in the scene recognized this as well, they hooked us up together. (Thank you, Nerm!) And so he said to Aki, check this guy out and see what you can do. So we met, Aki and I, and he was incredibly receptive, he understood that this was an experiment that needed to be done. So when the album Let There Be Love came out, the artwork had already been done. He said, "Well, the singles are going to come out, why don't you have a go?" and so we worked on these illustrative pieces which were a lot more minimalist because I think sometimes less is more, and we talked about distilling a lot of these ideas into quite rigorous, almost corporate language that a lot of graphic design uses in the West, but still hopefully saying things quite subversive. And we felt that it was quite successful, Aki did definitely, so since then we've worked on various projects. At the moment we're working on quite a big project which is a retrospective of Fun-Da-Mental's last ten years out in the wilderness screaming their point -- but hopefully now clothed in a way that the new generation can connect with and then discover the music. And that in a way is what I feel, that art is the gatekeeper to a lot of other things. And that is a project that I'm totally involved with now and passionate about and hopefully this will be a blueprint that will come out that will allow people to wake up to the fact that art is really important, and take all the artists who are involved in the scene much more seriously. An example is the Shiva Soundsystem warehouse party, there were lots of flyers lying around from various other nightclubs and promoters who had come and I saw the next morning all the flyers turned up on the floor, and a lot of them seemed so dense, I couldn't quite see what they were saying. And a lot of artwork is dense, and I would say in fact mine still is, but there are enough signifiers for people to go, "This is a bit weird, what is that?" and then that's kind of like Steppenwolf fashion, you open a door and you discover a whole world. Any little fissure should open up something vast and lead to everything else. Just like the net -- it's a rallying cry. The music that you're hearing now is a rallying cry to the diaspora, to say "Let's go to the next level, let's synthesize our culture." And I hope that's what my work is doing.