exclusive interview with Karsh Kale

interview by dimmSummer
date: 11.15.01
painfully transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with Karsh Kale. So how long have you been doing this for? What was the first thing you came out with?

KK: Well, I've been a session musician for i dunno how many years before any of my own tracks were released for people like Sussan Deyhim, Spooky... The first track that came out, I think it was a remix for DJ Spooky, it came out on one of his compilations.

ET: Is that the Future Proof in Zaire?

KK: I think I did one before that, I did two remixes for him.

ET: Fabian just gave me a copy of Classical Science Fiction from India it's a great CD. But why did you name it science fiction? If you consider Indians in India, science fiction's not a huge genre of filmmaking there. It's almost like people are so involved with reality, they don't have time to dream about stuff like that. I don't know how well movies like "The Matrix" played, or something like that. So why'd you choose to name your album "Science Fiction from India?"

KK: I think that was more a description of myself and the types of artists and people I was surrounded by in New York, the Asians that I was meeting, the types of ideas they were coming up with. And the stuff that was influencing me and my work was definitely science fiction. Because we're displaced from where we come from, so we make up stories. That's what music's about, it's about creating a soundtrack for our existence here. So it's kinda science fiction.

ET: Now, how do you feel about Bollywood and the songs that come out of Bollywood?

KK: I think some of the stuff is really brilliant. I think that generally what people don't realize is that Bollywood music generally comes from a palette that was created by genius musicians, composers and they're put into all different kinds of contexts based on the time period that they're created. So a lot of times you'll hear a track and think it's pretty cheesy, but if you look beyond the stylistic approach you find that the music is always just film music in general from India, even dating pre-Bollywood (Raj Kapoor days), it still informs a lot of what it is that I do. The first real soundtracks of emotion that I experienced as a child were from Bollywood films on Saturday mornings on "Vision of Asia" I'd watch movies and wake up to that music.

ET: You've got a track "Deepest Blue" on the new CD [Realize] which has a Bollywoodish feel to it. That's a great track and the whole CD is incredible. You also do the score for "Chutney Popcorn." Do you have any ambitions, any intentions of doing music for Bollywood, but in your own style? Because this kind of music, I don't know how it's being received in India.

KK: Well, I think it's a very specific style, and Bollywood represents such a huge population of, not just of people, but of the lifestyle. You're talking about people that really go to the movies to experience reality, they want to see the happy fairy tale. So for me to be able to get involved in a project like that, I think that would be amazing, but to be able to approach it in my own style, I don't see it.

ET: You don't think so at all?

KK: I don't think that it would necessarily be a Bollywood thing, it would be taking the Bollywood style of filmmaking, it would be something different. To be a true Bollywood film... I think AR Rehman is definitely somebody who's been able to push it to a wider audience and being able to take concepts of Western music, not just sounds but actual musical concepts of space.

ET: Do you think he's limited by his audience expecting something? He comes up with great melodies and great tunes, but sometimes, especially with his remixes (I don't know if he remixes them himself or if somebody else is doing it), it doesn't have a Western flavor. I think the idea of a remix is kinda Western in origin, so when they remix their own tunes, frankly I don't like them and I think they could be a lot better. I think someone like you could do something phenomenal with it. Has that ever crossed your mind?

KK: People need to realize what remixes are really all about, you would like them to be about reinterpretations of peoples' work. I've done many remixes where I've tried to reinterpret people's work and actually the record label wanted a house mix. It's really specific to the market that they're trying to sell the record or the film to. If these people go out to clubs and dance to techno, then they want a techno mix, they don't want to hear anything else. It's usually 'suits' who are making the decision anyway. Really remixes at the end of the day, especially for someone like Rehman who's selling records on a huge level, the record company doesn't want to hear about any artistic interpretation of his music, they want straight-up dance versions so that kids in the clubs will go out and buy his records.

ET: How did you fare growing up between two cultures, Indian and Western/American? What was it like going to high school?

KK: I was probably one of three Indian people in a school of like 3000, so my Indian-ness was definitely more at home. Even my exploration of Indian classical music and things like that were very much [outside]. I didn't think that being close to my culture was going to some cultural event and playing basketball in the gym. So I kind of pulled myself away from that pretty quickly. So I think it was just music, it was always about music for me. I think later on I got involved in cultural events, we all go through that period where we're like, I wanna check out my dad's record collection and things like that, get back to what it was you were trying to run away from all of your life. I think for me it was just about music, so I was always involved in music and always felt like I belonged somewhere because I was playing music. Whether I was playing jazz or heavy metal or hip hop, I always felt at home in America because I played American music.

ET: How do your parents feel about you playing music like AC/DC and things like this?

KK: I think my dad kind of understood it from the musical perspective, he definitely heard what I heard. He also heard a lot of noise... we were forever having debates about music - trying to explain to him the difference between them... He would tell me "Listen to Bimsen Joshi, he sounds so amazing..." and of course he is an incredible vocalist, but for those who don't have an educated ear towards that kind of music, he sounds like other classical musicians. The same thing goes for rock music for people who don't have an educated ear. I've been trying to explain that to them and hopefully what I'm doing now is kind of bringing the point home.

ET: How have they received your latest music?

KK: They loved it. They're very proud that I stuck with something I've been kind of debating with people all of my life and only seeing become a reality in the last four or five years, something I've been talking about since I was a kid. Where this music actually comes together. Where they meet, hasn't really been explored yet, and that's what I've been trying to do all of my life. My parents have known that, and they always gave me my space, my father being somebody who gives a damn enough to debate it with me.

ET: That's very good. I know you're friends with Talvin Singh. People want to know who originated this idea of mixing drum and bass with the structures of classical Indian music? There's some parallels there, and playing those out and molding them together to form something new which was originally called the Asian Underground or whatever you want to call it today. Do you consider him the pioneer, or do you think there were other people who were doing it first?

KK: I don't think there's really an answer to that as far as who did it first, because you can always trace things back a little bit further, you know? Zakir was working with Laswell in the late 80s doing electronica, there's been a lot of different experiments. I think what Talvin was really able to do was set standards and take it out of the experimental and bring it into reality and make it a reality for people. When Talvin put out Anokha, I think a lot of people identified with it and didn't just listen to it as an interesting experiment or what they call "fusion," but seeing it as one thing. It's not really about who invented it because for me, Ravi Shankar is the guy who invented it. Not invented classical music, but invented the idea of taking something and making it universal. He was trying to bring Indian music to the rest of the world, and that's what this is, this is about sharing our culture and making everyone feel a part of it. That's something different about Talvin as well. He didn't come out and try to make a record that only Asians would be listening to, it was something universal, something that was very specific to him that he made universal. So in that way, of course he's a pioneer.

ET: Back to the whole high school thing, what was dating like for you? A lot of people outside Indo-American culture don't understand - especially being a pseudo rock star and doing all these gigs, how do your parents see that, how are you dealing with the whole thing?

KK: I was the third child, so by the time I was doing my thing, my parents were already, like, "damn..." I have an older sister and an older brother and they definitely got the brunt of it, the strict household. By the time I was 14 I didn't have a curfew any more. It always comes back to the fact that I played music. It was always something I was excelling in, so I kind of had carte blanche as far as what I could get away with. Not just with my parents but even in school, as much as I was playing rock music I was still very much involved in the school music program, in the jazz ensembles and wind ensembles, and we were always winning awards, so I always had principals in my school and I could just not show up and they'd be like, it's all right.

ET: So you pretty much molded your future.

KK: I think having an older brother and older sister and them being older and not for me to realize their mistakes, I was able to kind of navigate my way. If I didn't have music I think I would have had all these things that I would have worn on my sleeve that I didn't. First and foremost I had hair down to my chest - I was a musician before I was an Indian kid. And I made sure of that, I made sure that what it was that I did was always more important than what I appeared to be.

ET: "Empty Hands," the first track off of Realize, I really identify with that, which kinda goes back to this growing up between two cultures and what our parents have done here. Because we've been called the wealthiest immigrant group in the country, not coming here with money, but coming here and making money. Where does an idea for a song like that come from? Was that something you grew up with? It sounds like something that was culled from a collective...

KK: I think that the sentiment was pretty universal and that's why it was chosen for the track. Shahid Siddiqi who was a songwriter and a vocalist on the record, this is a lyric of his own, both the Urdu and the English lyrics. The idea is just growing up and seeing so many people in our own culture not really retaining what it was that our parents came here with. You grow up with people that you have dreams with and then you often see them fall off the - they just kinda give up their dreams and go with what is the most secure way of living in this country. I find that very boring, especially because we have so much to offer and so much to learn, you know? We're Second Generation so there's just so much to be done in order for us not to just get lost in the mix but to actually be part of the mix. I think that growing up with so many people who are very much about, and also pushed by their parents as well, being immigrants that came here with the ambition to make money and be able to take care of our families and things like that. The whole taking care of our families things have gone out the door and it's all about making money. That's what the song is really about.

ET: Don't you think they see that in their mind, their understanding of the whole deal is that if they make money, they take care of the family, they think that they're making the money for the family- Like my dad's a doctor, he had two phones. One was the landline and the other was the on-call line, the special phone, the Batman phone that would ring at 2am and he'd have to go off and put some guy to sleep because he was an anaesthesiologist, so we hardly ever saw him. Yeah, we were rich, but I didn't really grow up with him too much, so I really identify with the song. I think that's a really big notion in Indian families where you make money and you're gonna be well off to take care of your family, but somehow I think something's missing.

KK: Yeah, I think it's also addressing that there was a new culture that came here and developed here and that was this nouveau-riche Indian culture. I grew up with all kinds of people coming into my house, going to cultural events, who were all about flashing their Mercedes and wearing as much gold as they could and I felt the contradiction at a young age. I think a lot of people that grew up in our generation did feel that way, and that's what this song is really addressing - 'don't be like that,' because we do come with empty hands and we go with empty hands, so figure out what you want to do in the interim.

ET: 'Asian Underground,' I don't know who made up the term, but if you go online, especially on sites that are based in the UK, a lot of people who are writing about music will try to dismiss that term now, saying it's old, it's '95 or '97, they kind of scoff at it now, they want to call it "overground," or instead of international, "outernational" and there's all these different terms. How do you feel about people classifying music? Do you think they're missing the point with that?

KK: I think the industry has to sell records. You have to call it something. Asian Underground, I mean who came up with that? The press came up with "Asian Underground." The press has come up with all these different terms, and sometimes as an artist you just have to latch onto one and say "Yeah, that works for me," because I want you to buy my record.

ET: You've got your own, which is "Asian Massive."

KK: Well, Asian Massive is also derivative of that. If you're going to call it Asian Underground, then realize that this is actually happening all over the world, which makes it Asian Massive. But at the end of the day, all these artists have their own styles and everybody has their own things to say and it's really a shame to be thrown into a category. I think people lose sight of the fact that we're not in competition with each other, we're in competition with the rest of the music industry, we're trying to establish something else, and in order to do that you have to create a name for the movement. They're gonna call it all different types of things, Asian Underground, old school, whatever.

ET: I try to push it as much as I can on the website, I just call it Asian Massive.

KK: That way, people kinda know what they're getting into if you're calling it something like Asian Massive or Asian Underground. At the end of the day it's all music, you know? If you listen to music just because it's Asian Massive or Asian Underground, then there's something wrong. You hopefully have to be choosing your music wisely and choose who you like and who you don't like.

ET: We know this music's good, right? It's getting popular, slowly...

KK: Even that statement, "we know this music's good," there is a lot of music that falls into the category of Asian Underground or Asian Massive that's crap. It's crap because it's trying to be that. There's a difference between artists that fall into something - because I don't see Talvin or Badmarsh & Shri or TJ Rehmi or any of these guys are people who are trying to be part of any kind of club. They are doing their own thing. There happen to be similarities because there are similarities in us as a generation of people, just like there was a similarity between Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but there was also incredible individuality in what they were doing. When you find artists that are creating music to fit the genre of 'Asian Lounge' or chillout or whatever it is, then you can hear the difference and hopefully people can actually decipher that, that there is a difference between artists and craftsmen. A craftsman is somebody who knows how to create something off of a formula and an artist is somebody who creates something for himself.

ET: That's a very good point. We're not going to name any names, but- we put a lot of variety of music on the site, a lot of Asian-influenced music - do you think that people have to be Indian or Pakistani or whatever to create this kind of music? There's a lot of German people who are doing this kind of music, a lot of Americans, like Dum Dum Project, for example, then there's dZihan & Kamien who are Austrian. It's great music, it's nice background music, a lot of people delving into this kind of music and sometimes it occupies their entire album. Do you feel that they're trying to break into this kind of music, or is it doing what they want to do?

KK: I think that the technology is available for us to be able to explore many different types of music, it's just about whether you're doing it well or not. You really have to judge a producer or a DJ the same way you would a tabla player or a musician or a drummer. Is he good or does he suck? A lot of people get their stuff out because on the way to between creating a track and getting it into a record store, there are a whole hell of a lot of people who don't know what's the hell is going on. It's easy to get stuff out, it's really up to the consumer or listener to be able to decipher the difference between this and that. I think dZihan & Kamien rock, so if they decide to take a tabla loop and create a track out of that and take a sitar line, I think they would do the best job that they possibly could. They're not claiming to be anything Asian, they're producers. If somebody wants to put them in this category, put them on a compilation, that's not something that they're trying to do, but then there are a lot of artists who are targeting this market. Not that I think there's anything wrong with that, but I don't think they can hide from the "you suck" category. Everyone deserves to get their music out there, but everyone's gonna get judged.

ET: Speaking of getting music out there, how did you get a contract with Six Degrees? Was it due to any other people like State of Bengal or any other Indian artist they signed? How did that all come about?

KK: They'd been checking out what I was doing. I was doing this stuff for years in New York before I signed a deal with them. I was putting out my own music, I had about three albums' worth of music before I signed this deal. This record is a whole new record, there were four records that came before "Realize" that haven't been released yet.

ET: Do you have names for them?

KK: One was called "Play" and then the rest were just random tracks. I mean, the thing was that there were four albums' worth of music, but there weren't four albums, they weren't created as albums. They were just tracks, and I was playing all over New York, traveling around Europe and working with Talvin and working with Amar and State of Bengal and a whole bunch of different people. Through the work that I was doing, they caught wind that there was an artist in America doing this in a different style. That was really the way that they approached me.

ET: So you are the first artist to kinda represent this side of the planet. This whole thing kinda started in the UK with Talvin and those guys, Badmarsh & Shri and the Outcaste label, but you're really the first, you're representing over here.

KK: Well yeah, for a moment. Hopefully next year we get a whole bunch more. It would be a shame that if in this whole gigantic country of ours, there's one Asian artist.

ET: There are definitely some people coming up, like MIDIval Punditz from India-

KK: They're in the house right now.

ET: They're in the house right now? I think I will speak to them. Are there any other names, any people we should be looking out for?

KK: Oh yeah. Navdeep, DJ Sharaab from Atlanta, he's been kind of single-handedly handling the scene down in Atlanta. Besides that, he's writing reviews and making music and DJing parties, he's just all over the place. He's somebody who, way back in the beginning before "Anokha" came out, this kid was doing his thing. Everyone needs to go check out DJ Sharaab.

ET: Speaking of "Anokha," when's the second one gonna come out? People are asking, it's been almost five years, maybe? I heard it's supposed to be coming out, and you're on it, aren't you?

KK: I'm on it, the Punditz are on it-

ET: Is that going to come out anytime soon?

KK: -We'll see.

ET: Who's it up to, Talvin?

KK: No, it's up to a lot of people. The record label, Island Records, has gone through so many changes that a lot of the artists are suffering under all of the madness that's going on over there, that's one of many records that have been held up in the whole process.

ET: It's not like there's not a market, because the first one was such a huge hit, groundbreaking.

KK: People are waiting for it. We'll see. I can't really say when it's coming out. Talvin just came out with a Back to Mine compilation.

ET: You've done a lot of work on different CDs like Gigi's and Bill Laswell's new Jah Wobble Radio Axom cd, are you gonna do any remixes of Gigi's work or anything else?

KK: I'm actually gonna do remixes of Gigi's work and Jah Wobble's record. Since I've been home, we're expecting the baby and I've just been working on remixes. I did a remix for a group called Lojo and the track's gonna be on the next Asian Travels CD. I did a remix for Craig David and Manu Chao. Remixes are always fun, and I always try to do something that probably won't wind up on the remix cd because it's not a house version or a straight dance version but winds up somewhere interesting later on. When the song is not old any more, it's kind of a classic, then you get it...

Fade into Bright Like This (original composition)