exclusive interview with Mukul

interview by shree sreenivasan
date: 6.20.06
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's first interview with Mukul, we're here in Vienna, a city that he's really familiar with. And it's kinda funny that we're sitting here because one of the first times I actually heard about you and read about you was on the old Anokha website where it said you were part of the Viennese Laptop Mafia, which I thought was pretty funny and interesting.

MUKUL: That was half a joke, but yes, there's a serious Viennese Laptop Mafia but I wasn't so fully integrated in that scene.

ET: So we're going to be talking about the Viennese scene, and we're going to be talking about ambientTV.NET, which is a major part of your life now. I think we want to start off talking about the mid-90s, late 90s and the whole London scene, the "Asian Underground." How did you guys all come together? Was it something Talvin and everybody sat down and decided that this was going to happen, or it kind of just flowed into this night where people just come and jam and DJ?

MUKUL: I think Talvin and Sweety had a vision, but it grew organically and they didn't obviously plan for the group to happen as it did. I for example was not there at the very beginning when it was at the Rocket, but soon after at the Blue Note a friend of mine, Marque Gilmore, who was going down there at lot, said "You know, you should come down and check it out." And I did, and the next week I was playing there. I had got some of Talvin's music, got a couple 12-inches but I had not met him before. This was in late '96 or mid '96 and I just spoke to him and said "I like your music and this club is great and can I play here?" And he said "What kind of stuff do you play?" and I said "Very eclectic, and I also play some Indian classical" and he said "Yeah sure, come next week." I asked him a bit later why, how come he just said "Yes", and he said "If you'd said 'Oh, I'm playing Indian vibes or Asian vibes,' I would have probably not bothered, but you said you were interested in Indian classical, so come on down." I wasn't there at any planning stage and I was introduced not through an Asian but through a jazz drummer, a jazz musician / drum and bass person, Marque, and then I took it in different directions, everybody had different directions.

ET: What was your background before that? Were you DJing, were you trained classically before you met Talvin?

MUKUL: No, I've still not been trained classically (laughing). I had been studying the sarod for a little while before then, but not very intensely. My teacher was in India and I just hadn't spent that much time with it. But I've been DJing since '89, when I first got into a lot of indie stuff and the Manchester scene and early ravey acid stuff. When I moved to London in '93 I was looking for somewhere to play. The most exciting music at that time for me was dub and techno. There were actually some excellent techno clubs and I played at a few of those but it wasn't the right space. It was very experimental but you couldn't really take it down completely for like three minutes because it wasn't quite the right space and I was looking for a space and it took me three and a half, four years to find the right place and that was Anokha.

ET: And what was Calcutta Cyber Cafe about? I know that was the stage for the more classical stuff...?

MUKUL: Calcutta Cyber Cafe was Talvin's first solo CD and the idea behind that was the more experimental ambient space. And Talvin wanted to resurrect Calcutta Cyber Cafe as an idea and so I joined in programming that. So for example we'd have a Sunday afternoon listening to albums at the Truman Brewery, which is where Talvin had a studio as well, off Brick Lane. People had to take their shoes off and sit on the floor and it was covered with fresh flowers - the Columbia Flower Market was just around the corner which shut at two, so we could buy a lot of flowers really cheap at two o'clock and then come back at three or four. Yeah, it was a really nice space. And an example which was really memorable, zovietfrance came with lots of analog equipment, effects, a lap steel guitar... and they just sat on the floor with all that stuff around them and they plucked one note on the steel guitar and played that note through their delays and pedals for 45 minutes and it was great. And so we kind of got people into a deep listening mode. Later on we programmed two strict classical concerts at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. And that was my uncle, Sohan Nilkanth, who's my music teacher, playing sarod, and Talvin on tabla. That was all formed at the Calcutta Cyber Cafe. We covered lots of stuff, but basically sit-down concerts, whether they were electronic or classical.

ET: There's a lot of talk, especially on the online communities, about the death of the Asian Underground. Karsh coined the term "Asian Massive" because he saw the music as more of a global thing, it wasn't underground any more, it wasn't under the surface, it was taking in elements from everywhere -- from Africa, from the Middle East...is that something that you also think that's what the scene is all about now? Everybody branching off and doing a lot different things? There's a lot of talk about the Balkan scene now...

MUKUL: Yeah, you're definitely exposed to it a fair bit here but also in London it's really kicking, the Balkan scene. I think there's a really strong renewal of interest in basically Romany or Gypsy music and the way that it actually binds together lots of different traditions from Asia through the Middle East to Europe. I mean, coming back to this earlier question about the Asian Underground, Karsh is obviously drawing from a variety of influences and at Anokha the club, as opposed to Anokha the album, the club was definitely home to a much wider range of sound than on that complilation album, and than on Talvin's solo albums as well. The kind of people who were down there and who were playing there, you'd never find them at any event nowadays which is labelled as Asian this or Asian that. You don't find Afrika Bambaata, you don't find Squarepusher or Björk - I mean, it was just for music, you know? It was not to do with Asian music even though there were always references to South Asia. And the crew, the people who were DJing every Monday included Sweety and Talvin, Osmani Soundz, Equal-I, who's half-Jamaican, Friedel who's German, Nelson Dilation who's British. Anyway, I think Asian Underground was a very good marketing ploy, it created a space in record stores, a box, a section where people could then push music through, but I think it doesn't fully define it, it's a limiting term. And now, especially. There are two aspects, actually. For me, a club or a space where you listen to music should be open to music from all over the world, and it should be open to people from all over the world. And I don't like it when the scene becomes populated by one kind of person or one kind of music. We're talking about the kinds of clubs that live on fusing. That's also what puts me off, say, heavy Asian breaks clubs and stuff like that, because you just get a lot of young Asian guys and it doesn't create the right atmosphere, it's not a place that I want to hang out in. It's hard to do it, and I think that what Talvin and Sweety did and what we all did together was fantastic, but I feel it couldn't have lasted much longer than it did. These things can't. They're there, they get big, things change and people change, but maybe the next... I'm sure there are similar scenes which are growing up around Balkan music. I know there's some stuff in South London which Equal-I plays at or goes to a lot, but I don't personally know.

ET: One thing I have noticed about the Balkan scene, it doesn't seem to be very electronic-based, as opposed to the Asian Underground, which was for a lot of us who grew up on electronic and techno and rave. That really made sense to us because it was taking classical Indian that we were exposed to by our parents, and then having it made with stuff that we grew up on, coming from a rave background. Whereas the Balkan scene, I don't really see it as, please tell me if I'm wrong, I haven't seen much electronic stuff coming out of that. And maybe that's why I cannot get so into that, you know?

MUKUL: Well, there was a lot of cross-fertilization happening at the Blue Note because of the other parties that were there, like Ninja Tune and Metalheads. It was also that venue which was really pushing music into new territories... I don't know about electronic music these days. I think there is still scope for great electronic music, but I also think that people have realized that it's pretty easy to knock off something on your computer, drop a couple of samples in. And there has been a little bit of a shift towards producing your own stuff on a small scale, without necessarily having your own dub plates made and things like that. I think that's great, that people are becoming producers, but when you have a lot of people producing, when you have all these tools available for music production, and it's extremely cheap or free almost, then also you get lots of junk produced. And especially as a reaction to that, the total lack of stage presence of laptop-based musicians, I think there's been a great revival in live bands. I mean, there's a reason that Karsh is touring a band. Also, record sales don't make any money. There's a reason to be backed with real instruments.

ET: Now let's move on to something that takes up a lot of your time these days, ambientTV.NET and the whole ambient space. A lot of our audience wouldn't know what that's all about. So maybe you want to talk about how you got into that, how you got started, what exactly it's all about.

MUKUL: ambientTV.NET was started by my girlfriend, Manu Luksch about five and a half years ago.

ET: Who's Austrian, by the way.

MUKUL: She's Austrian, she started in London. Her background is in net art and in film, and this was an experimental hybrid media hub. Sorry for the terminology but we do explain it quite well on the website. I think the best thing to do is to have a look at the projects on there. What can I say? It's not a collective, it's an umbrella organization where the core is the two of us, but then many other people come together and do projects, different concentrations of people for different projects, and the projects range in medium from theater to dance to music to cooking to film to documentaries. What a lot of them have in common is they use technology, especially communications technologies. A lot of them have a critical aspect. For example, we were part of a movement in London to set up a wireless network between buildings, between artists' studios to parks and community buildings. Firstly to make broadband available more widely, to share resources, but also to set up an independent media channel because the media is heavily consolidated and there's only a few players in the market, and without information, people have no idea what's going on. They don't have any idea about what's behind the decisions that are being made on their behalf (supposedly), behind the product that they're buying, or the service, or the aspirations that are growing within them. So there needs to be some kind of critical stance towards what's going on. And this one way of allowing that is to first create a space where it's discussed, and that's where independent media comes from. Another ambientTV.NET project, Suvara, was a collaboration between Radio FRO (an independent radio station in Linz, Austria) and this was actually a bit of a funny story that grew out of a DJ/VJ workshop that Manu and I were running. There was a presentation and one of the people [said] "My brother's gonna come along with his drum and we're gonna do it together." And his brother came along in the van with like 8 other musicians, a whole family, 4 generations of musicians from Afghanistan and they basically wouldn't leave the radio station until we did a recording. And we only had very simple equipment, but we recorded a session, which was a lot of fun. And then we thought we should try and connect these traditional immigrant musicians, actually they were refugees, with the electronic scene that was already established and that we'd been doing workshops with. And that's how the Suvara project came about -- there were traditional parts online that people could download and remix, and there was a competition...

ET: I think Equal-I got involved, and Chandrasonic...

MUKUL: Chandrasonic was [involved], and Equal-I. Manucher from Vienna was there as well. But then there were lots of people who were first-time musicians -- in fact, one of the best entries was by this 12-year-old kid who made a hip-hop track. And you know, great -- he made it in two days, or a day and a half, and he'd never really used production tools. With ambientTV.NET, the website is where all my work either as ambient or as an individual is accessible; lots of stuff is downloadable for free. There's a lot of tools, there's lots of links to many many things, not just music. It's a resource.

ET: Actually I do want to talk about that. I've noticed that quite a bit of the stuff that you guys do is dealing with security and surveillance and as you said, being critical of that sort of aspect. In this day and age that we're living in, that really scary idea of Big Brother. Bush as you know is in Vienna this week so there's a lot of...

MUKUL: Tomorrow, is it?

ET: I believe it's tomorrow, so there's major demonstrations planned and all of that. So does ambientTV.NET really use politics, is that a driving force behind it?

MUKUL: There's no core of politics, but there is definitely an interesting space which has opened up which is, for want of a better label, art/activism. So, what is called art, or what one can get away with in the name of art, is having an independent stance on what's going on. And I think the problem is, no matter what field you work in, if you work according to a corporate agenda... I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist because I don't like conspiracy theories, I don't want to also sound like there's one big bad system and it's oppressing us, but there's very definitely this neoliberal kind of pattern and it is clear for everyone to see how this works. There is this space for people to call what they're doing "art" and it's an independent space. It's a space where you are free to criticize. You can do work which is totally hermetic and completely by itself and purely aesthetic, but at the same time you could do also a piece of work which, if it's engaged with the world at all, I would hope be extremely critical about what's going on. I don't think politically...I wouldn't describe somebody like the Yes Men, or a lot of groups that we link to on our website, as necessarily political in that they don't engage in high politics. They're really fighting for your right to record this interview, for example. A friend of ours has an Austrian radio program called Matrix, it's about a variety of different things. Very good program. She recently did a show on the East End of London, about what's been happening there, and she was talking to somebody, a longtime resident of the East End, maybe in his 70s or 80s living by Canary Wharf, which is the new financial center of London. And she had a small minidisc recorder and a small microphone and within a minute of her starting to interview the man, in what seemed to be a public space, a security guard came and said "You can't record an interview, you need permission." So she goes "But I have the man's permission, I'm just conducting an interview here." So they discussed something about that, then they walked 20 minutes through two tunnels and sat in a cafe and she brought the microphone out, just like we're sitting here, and two minutes later another security guard came and said, "Didn't we tell you half an hour ago..."

ET: You're kidding me, oh my god...

MUKUL: So let's not even talk about the war on terror, there's no public space left any more! It's that serious. Luckily it's not so bad here, but it's that bad in London. It's awful. It's terrible if people don't wake up to that and do something before laws are put into place which are really going to be hard to fight against. You don't have to be such an extremely unusual person or have such an extremely unusual occupation to want to record a conversation.

ET: That's amazing how we take it for granted so often. Now one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, you do a lot of scoring for choreographed dance. How does that come about? Does a choreographer come up to you and say "Look, I want you for this piece," do you actually see the piece before you start?

MUKUL: It depends on the choreographer. One choreographer, Russell Maliphant I've worked with has a particular style which I really like - a process. So it varies widely, but with Russell, his approach is incredible, actually. He doesn't really teach steps, he takes his dancers through a three, four-hour warmup every day, which includes a lot of yoga and tai chi-influenced stuff, and capoeria. And then he tells them to improvise and draw out their movements from what they've learned about their bodies. He'll film it, then he'll edit the film, then he'll give me a copy of the film, say, after he's been working on it for a month. And then I'll look at it, put some rough music to it. And then once we start collaborating closely together, we try the new music, I take it back home and look at it, watch it back ten times, change a few things, go back there, film it again. So the music is changing and the choreography is changing all the time in the process. So it's a proper collaboration. It's difficult, I remember the first major piece I did with him, I think five days before the premiere he said "Why don't you put the end at the beginning?" or something like that, and I was just... (laughter) The nice thing about working in the contemporary dance scene is that I don't have to deal with the music industry (laughter) and I don't have to worry about selling records. I try and do the work as far as I can under some kind of Creative Commons license. The music is done for a piece, but it's also done to be listened to without the dance. Because I can support myself through that period of time through the commission, I make the music freely available to download in decent quality. I mean, if I do release a CD or a record, it's cottage industry style. I just feel that music should be spread. You won't become a millionaire, but it's also a sane way to work.

ET: So what's the scene in London musically in the last year? I mean, you have the Nasha guys putting out stuff, Shiva Soundsystem...

MUKUL: I've been exploring other kinds of music in London recently anyway. Now that I'm spending so much time making my own music and also working on other ambientTV.NET projects, I really have much less time to listen and dig through other peoples' music. For example, one thing I think is going somewhere is the whole dubstep scene. That's interesting. Equal's been playing a lot of that. The last big thing in London after Brokenbeat beat was probably Grime. I think there are elements in the music which are great, but somehow it needs to mature a little.

ET: You're often credited with, I don't know if you know this, for breaking and discovering Bandish Projekt. How did you meet Mayur and Udyan?

MUKUL: Well, they come from Ahmedabad, where some years ago I grew up, and I actually didn't know that Mayur was a classical tabla player also playing with my uncle for a while in the classical scene there. I gave them some music and they started downloading some more, and then they produced this EP. I went to their studio, with some cranky old hi-fi speakers and some crap microphone and a PC with all the innards spewed out, and of course everything open because of the heat, just to keep things going. And out of that, they were producing something which I'd never heard in India before, which was music with a bit of crunch and glitch. And the problem with productions in India is, there are all these studios, especially in Bombay, and they just have this super smooth sound. And these guys, they're coming from a city which really doesn't have a club scene. It's a dry state, so because there's no alcohol sales, the clubs don't really work out financially. Anyway, clubs in India aren't exactly the best place for underground music, or they weren't experimental. I was amazed when I heard what they were doing. And they were saying, "What do we do with this?" It was obvious that they would have to try and get out through a Western label because they couldn't really get signed by anybody in India for that kind of stuff. I mean, they actually have been signed in India, but they're producing commercial stuff for that.

ET: Bollywood soundtracks, stuff like that.

MUKUL: Yeah. And so Ges-e was looking for people for the Nasha compilation, and I'm really glad that they went with that. There's also a guy called Masta Justy...

ET: From Bhavishyavani...

MUKUL: Yeah, from Bhavishyavani, he's based in Chennai. Actually I should link you up with him because he's producing an EP and there's a lot of stuff going on in there. I think he's pretty isolated where he is and he needs to be part of a scene. There's also a couple of people more in sound art, in installation, and apart from that I don't really know. There will be people somewhere doing something, it's just that you don't hear of it.

ET: So what's in the pipeline for you for the rest of the year? I know you're going to India in a couple of days.

MUKUL: I'm going on Friday to spend as much time as possible studying with my uncle, studying sarod, and I'm also doing some recordings and some work for some installations which are going to be in France, in Lille, in autumn this year. There's a big festival of Indian culture in the whole city, and I'm one of the people who's doing something there. I've got a nearly 5-month-old son and it's a good time to take stock and also concentrate my time on home rather than getting around and DJing. So at the moment it's kind of a more introspective time for the next eight months or so, but then we're back in London and then we'll see. It's gonna be a shock to be in London after Vienna, even though this city feels small, it's sort of just so comfortable and clean and manageable, and it's surrounded by beautiful nature. And to go back into the kind of cutthroat smoke, it's gonna be difficult.

ET: That's how I always feel about going back to New York, people always ask me "How do you adjust to going back?" even just for a visit from Vienna, because Vienna's so chilled. There's that German word gemütlich, I think that totally captures everything about Vienna.

MUKUL: What does that mean?

ET: Gemütlich? It means comfortable.

MUKUL: OK. But that's what's the problem, and you know that as well. It is too comfortable here, or one can become too comfortable here.

ET: Looks like there's lots to look forward to when you make your stop in Vienna next time. Hopefully you'll look us up.

MUKUL: Yeah, it won't be a stop, it'll be a couple of months. It's not exactly a stop. I mean, Manu's has got an apartment here, it's kind of the base when London floods over or is wiped off the map or whatever it ends up being [laughter]