exclusive interview with TJ Rehmi

interview by dimmSummer
date: 11.04.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with TJ Rehmi. We are at the Hudson Hotel in New York City. This interview is two years in the making. It's been about two years since we first corresponded on e-mail and finally here we are. Let me ask you about your history, how you got into music. You used to do a lot of bhangra music. I guess the first question is, why aren't you doing it any more? Or are you doing it and just not telling people?

TJ: Ha ha, well, the answer to that question would be that I'm not a bhangra musician. I'm just a musician, and being involved in bhangra is just a part of the various styles of music that I'm involved with. In actual fact, before the actual sessioning for bhangra bands in the '80s, I was hanging out with reggae and rock musicians and doing that kind of thing. I actually started off as a guitarist at the age of 16, it was only much later that I got involved with bhangra.

ET: Did you find that when you were in bhangra music that you were going to be pigeonholed if you stayed there, or you always knew that it wasn't everything that you were, so it was OK to be that for just a little bit?

TJ: Yeah, that's right. I was always into composing music. As a guitarist, bhangra isn't a genre of music that allows you to explore guitar playing. I found that jazz, blues, Indian classical were something more interesting for me as a guitar player. The only good thing that came out of bhangra for me was the fact that I got interested in producing and working more with electronic music. That's the thing that I gained from working with bhangra. That's only because I started co-producing bhangra albums and tracks in studios.

ET: But how does electronic music relate to bhangra? At least back then -- were they using a lot of electronic music? It just seems very traditional, you've got your thumbi, you've got your dhol and a couple other instruments and vocals and it seems rather simple. How does electronic music -- or did you bring that element because that was one of your interests?

TJ: At first I wouldn't say there was much electronic elements, it was more a matter of dealing with the musicians in the studio and recording live. Gradually, with the development of sequencing equipment and also simple computers like the Atari computer, musicians began incorporating sequences and synth sounds in the studio. That was a later development, but first I remember doing sessions, the traditional way with the live musicians playing and doing one take, and if one musician made a mistake you'd have to do the whole track again. I've done sessions like this, the early sessions were like this. Obviously later things became easier, and after that I remember gradually the trend was to not have drummers and bass players but to program the music -- that was something that was happening in the late '80s. Now, of course, it's different. Nowadays you don't even have any musicians, you just have a DJ finding breakbeats and samples and a singer singing on top of the music, it's really gone somewhere else.

ET: So what do you think of bhangra music today, because it's exploded pretty much across the globe and it's...I don't know, it's a phenomenon. For example, the other night here DJ Rekha heads up Basement Bhangra and every month the line goes around the block, especially in the summertime when it's OK to wait outside, there's just a line of people. Do you feel that you maybe want to ever get back into it? Or are you just doing your own thing and you've already done that and you've been there?

TJ: No, I don't want to get back into that type of thing I did before. As far as bhangra is concerned, I still do like bhangra and I appreciate and understand why people are obsessed with bhangra.

ET: Why do you think they're obsessed with it?

TJ: Because it's such a dance type of music, body music. It's like house or reggae, it's a strong genre with a particular rhythm that people can just groove to. It's not mind or mental listening music, it's just body music and it works at that level and that's how you have to understand bhangra. It's music for people with high testosterone levels and alcohol in their blood and they want to have a good time so they'd rather go to a bhangra party. It just depends on your mentality, and it depends on your taste of music. Recently I have produced a few bhangra tracks for an artist in the UK, but as a musician, as a composer, I prefer to explore a wider area of music. Bhangra isn't the only music that exists in the world, it's a big universe of colors and sounds out there.

ET: Let's talk about the music that you're exploring now in your studio. Obviously The Warm Chill came out, to very nice sucess. What's the next album going to be, where are you going to go with the next album?

TJ: With the next album I think I'm exploring more of my guitar playing, more so than ever before. Because of -- well, I get more satisfaction from going in this direction. It's a part of me, it's a part of my guitarist's journey, playing guitar from the age of 16, I've reached a certain level and I want to take it to a higher level. I listen to good musicians so I have a desire to become technically better playing the guitar, so I'm taking it into different areas. So it's using electronic music, but also incorporating a lot of guitar playing and perhaps other musicians, jazz and Indian classical musicians. That's the kind of direction I'm going in. If you listen to The Warm Chill you'll hear that there is more guitar playing. I want to perhaps take that a little further and explore more of my guitar playing. The other thing is that I have the desire to play live music without any sequencing or computers but just to find a group of musicians and have that chemistry with them. There's a lot of satisfaction from doing this, so...this is what I'm learning, this is where my heart is.

ET: How's the reception, do you find, to the kind of music that you're producing right now, as opposed to the music you were producing in the late '90s? Especially in the UK, do you find that people are not receptive to what you're doing, or do you not even care, do you just do it and if they accept it, they accept it, and if not, somebody else will? Because musicians are always exploring, always changing, always evolving, and the question is, do you worry about the audience?

TJ: The answer is yes and no. I don't really create my music for anybody, I just write music for myself. To me, I'm just expressing how I feel at that moment in time, in the studio. I just write the music. Perhaps afterwards I might give some thought to, for example, which label is going to release it? Are people going to like this? But at the time of realization and creation, I don't have any thought for labels or audiences, it's just a matter of how I feel at that particular moment and I just go with it. Whether it's commercial or ambient, or whether it's got a beat or bhangra or whatever, it doesn't matter, I go with it because I want to do that and it's what I feel and what I like and I just do it.

ET: Does the same thing happen on a remix? Because you've done a number of remixes for a number of high-profile artists that have appeared on various compilations here and there. Is the same freedom there, or do you have to kind of listen to what the label or the original artist wants? Like, "We've already got a drum and bass thing, we've already got a chillout thing, we need something else, can you deliver that?" Do you see those kinds of requests coming in, or do you still have carte blanche to do whatever you want to do?

TJ: Um, no. I think if it's a remix I give some thought to what they require. So far they've wanted stuff with more energy, more beats, so there's less freedom but I don't mind doing that because that's a different type of challenge, which is to work within boundaries, and I enjoy that, because I have the freedom of doing my stuff. So I don't mind working within those boundaries. If it's a drum and bass thing, I talk to the record label, I talk to the artist and get a rough idea of what they're looking for and I just go in that direction. If it's a drum and bass thing, I just make sure that the groove and the bassline are happening and just work like that.

ET: What was your favorite remix that you've done to date, if you have one?

TJ: I like the remixes I've done with Natacha Atlas. There's two remixes I've done, one's called Leysh Nat'arat and I can't remember the name of the other one now [Amulet]. There are two remixes and I love her vocals and in fact, I want to work with her in the future. Basically I want her to sing on my next album or the album after, a collaboration where she sings on some of my tracks. I've talked to her about it, I'm good friends with her, I talk to her on the phone and she's into doing that, she's just got to find the right time to do this.

ET: Don't tell her you did an interview with ethnotechno, she hates that word, apparently. I saw an article, because she was here in the summer for Summerstage, and in it she's like "I hate this word 'ethnotechno.'" I was like, oh, OK. I wasn't there, I just read the article.

TJ: I can understand why she hates the word ethnotechno. It depends on your perspective. To me it's just a catchy title, it's easy to remember. From another point of view, there are also issues with the word 'ethno' -- what does 'ethno' mean? Is it stereotyping people of color? To me, all people are ethno, even white people. So everybody is an ethno, depending on your perspective... So that's how I look at it, you know.

ET: I totally agree. What we try and showcase is electronic music that takes the modern elements of whatever electronic music is, and combines it and weaves it in with whatever the traditional elements of that area are. We have music from Hungary, we have music from Russia, we have music from various parts of Eastern Europe. Predominantly it is focusing on South Asian stuff because I happen to be South Asian and that's what's in my heart. It's kind of across the board, but...

TJ: Even coming from my perspective in New York, to me jazz is ethnic music, so is blues. Or when I'm in England, English folk music or a Welsh choir, that's ethnic.

ET: Exactly. That's cool... What are your views on George Bush?

TJ: No comment.

ET: Ah, playing it safe. Do you have a lot of political views or do you like to keep things separate from music and politics or opinion? Or do you feel there's a right time and a right place for things like that?

TJ: Ok, I'll comment. I'm a very extremely political person, that's why I make no comment.

ET: You can go ahead and vent if you want to. It's a forum for that if you want.

TJ: Obviously I'm not going to be a fan of Bush. I don't like him, I don't like what's happening in the world, particularly. Not just in terms of American foreign policy but also other regimes around the world. I'm concerned.

ET: Do you feel that these concerns are expressed in your music? I guess it would be kind of esoteric to kind of express them musically, but perhaps there's an album coming up where you're going to have a lot of lyrics, or is it always going to be musically-based? And if you do have lyrics, what are the lyrics going to be saying?

TJ: I feel frustrated because I feel powerless to do anything to change the world. I realize that sometimes from that frustration comes my music. Sometimes I feel words are just pointless and useless. To me, music seems more powerful, and through music I can express emotion, so I prefer this medium. But yeah, I do feel frustrated, I know that I don't have the power, I can't change the world. I have to live with this and I have to understand things objectively, from a historical perspective, and understand human nature and accept certain things. That's it, really.

ET: Who's your favorite musical artist that either you're listening to now or that you listened to before?

TJ: I listen to many many artists from different genres of music. I have a favorite artist, you could say, in each genre of music. For example, I like John McLaughlin's guitar playing, Pat Metheny, I listen to Ali Akbar Khan sarod playing, Srinivas -- I love his style, I love Karnatic music, I love listening to that kind of stuff. I love Bombay film songs, bebop jazz, B.B. King, aborigine music, I like Fela Kuti, Youssou N'Dour. I listen to any music from anywhere in the world which is good music. I appreciate it.

ET: Have you done any work in Bollywood, or do you have any aspirations to go there? Or do you see it as a machine you don't even want to deal with at this point?

TJ: No, it is a machine like Hollywood, but I've got nothing against it. It serves a purpose, Bollywood. It's a fantasy film, it's good entertainment, if you have to see it in that way. Yeah, I have dreams of going to Bollywood and I have friends there. I'd like to go for a holiday and maybe do some music for a serious short film in Bollywood. I'd be interested in doing something like that, you know?

ET: It's gotta be serious, none of this filmi dancey song, everybody's happy? Because that seems to be the fare. There's a lot of serious movies coming out now, there's more room for that, but...

TJ: No, if somebody paid me a lot of money to do a Bollywood film I'd go for that, I'd be quite happy doing that. I need that money. (laughter)

ET: You said you don't consider yourself an Asian musician, you're just a musician, but do you think people, whether they're producers or complilation people, do they pigeonhole you? Do they say "Well, you're producing Asian Underground music" or whatever they want to call it? Do you feel that's limiting or do you just try and deal with it the best you can within whatever you're doing?

TJ: That's an interesting one. I always feel that I'm an earthling human musician into just music from around the world. Yes, one side of me recognizes my Asian heritage and I feel proud of that. I'm the sort of guy, I always stick up for people from India and Pakistan and Bangladesh and I appreciate their culture because I don't like those people to be picked on or looked down upon as inferior to Westerners. They are equally as valid, equal to anybody else, no one's better than anybody else, so I appreciate that. But also on the other hand, being born and brought up in Britain, I have a different headspace. I guess over the years I've come to the conclusion that I look at myself just as a human being not belonging to any country. I'm not really into patriotism, I think it's silly. I'm not a nationalist or anything, it's bullshit, really. I just live on earth, I'm a human being of Asian origin and I understand all the different cultures, all the different types of music. Perhaps I could use the word 'cosmopolitan,' I suppose that's the kind of person I am. That's why I fit in to New York really well, I could easily live in New York and be happy. I won't, but I could. (laughter)

ET: I've gotta say, the way you look at everything it's very very New York. But I think the better part of New York has a very European-type flavor to it, so it's us copying you, really, not you copying us. (laughter)

TJ: I've been here for a week and I really feel that I blend in quite well. I've met a lot of people -- officials, doormen, beggars, tramps, musicians, friends -- I'm just having a good time, really, communicating with people. I haven't really had any bad vibes at all. I mean, no doubt if I lived here for a month I'd probably bump into some bad people and have bad experiences, but at the moment, so far it's been great.

ET: Any plans on coming back before the next album comes out? Or is it just whenever an album is going to be released or trying to get a tour together in North America?

TJ: Things are happening. There are plans in the pipeline for touring other parts of the U.S. The other thing is, I'll probably be back in New York, not touring, but working in a studio as a producer for the label Dharma Moon Records. They have expressed an interest in me working as a producer because they have a studio. So I might be back. While I've been here I have produced one track for one of their artists. Yeah, I'm very interested in working as a producer in New York, so that's something I will be doing, definitely.

ET: Is there anything you want to say to the listeners who have most likely been listening to you for a long time? Because you've been around for a long time with a large body of work -- anything you want to say to them, if they're budding musicians themselves, or if they're struggling musicians, if the same kind of passion is in their heart, if they're South Asian or not, wherever they're from -- anything you want to say to them, any words of encouragment?

TJ: Well firstly, to those who have been listening to my music and supporting my music, I'd like to thank those people for their support. Really, without that, I probably would have just given up the music. In fact, I definitely would have given up the music and just gotten a normal job, as people do, because it would have been really hopeless and pointless because of labels and people in the industry. All the e-mails I get, it gives me the inspiration to carry on. To answer your other question, budding producers, musicians, all I can say is, get a proper job, really. (laughter) You won't make any money out of music. But if that doesn't stop you, if you're still not convinced by that, then if you really want to do music, then do it. But I warn you it's a hard life and you have to love music from your heart. You've really got to want to do this to have music as a future. Don't give up, if that's what you want to do, don't give up, just do it, that's it.

Fade into "Axis of Ignorance" -original composition