exclusive interview with Rohan

interview by dimmSummer
date: 10.03.04
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: OK, this is ethnotechno's interview with Rohan, international ladies' man and (Indian accent) 'rock star.. rocking.'

Rohan: (Indian accent) Rocking you... constantly.

ET: So tell us where you came from. You kind of stormed the Asian Whatchamacallit™ scene. Everybody took notice, they were like "wow," and now the remix CD is done and released and you've got some heavy hitters on that. Why don't you first start by telling us how long you've been doing music and how your background as being part West Indian, or part part Indian... is that the definition of West Indian?

Rohan: Not necessarily. West Indian is basically from the Caribbean area.

ET: But are they like INDIAN Indian, or just West...what's the West part and what's the Indian part?

Rohan: It's just Christopher Columbus getting confused on his trip out here and thinking he was west of the Indies... Indian territory. (nervous laughter)

ET: Are you nervous?

Rohan: I am a little nervous because you're getting a little close to my face. (laughter)

ET: Yeah, so you have a very interesting background, Caribbean and Indian. Your dad is from Africa but India...

Rohan: Yeah, my dad has an Indian background but is from Guyana. There a lot of Indians in that area which people don't usually know about because they brought them over...

ET: It's a secret.

Rohan: It's a secret, and it's funny, because they try to hold onto their culture, and a lot of the traditional Indian values, but being put into a whole new country, being mixed with African slaves and Chinese indentured servants, you really got this weird melting pot and a crossover of cultures. You have Indian people who are Hindus, and also making Lo Mein for dinner.

ET: Don't you have a grandmother who's Chinese or something?

Rohan: I do, yeah, so my family is like the U.N. It's very international. My mom has a background from Jamaica, Afro-Caribbean, though. I'm all mixed-up, basically, is what I'm trying to tell you.

ET: Hence your music, then! It's very stew-like, beef stew with ghee and mutton and very tasty. What was the reaction to your first release, "Roots"? How long were those tracks sitting around, how long did it take to get that idea finished and done and where are you now with your new music, in comparison to what "Roots" was saying?

Rohan: The first part is how long it took me to do "Roots." It took a while, actually. It was probably two years in the making. It was the first effort I took in music where I really just didn't care about whether anybody else liked it or not. It was really just a very personal record. Your first question to me about my background, the whole record is trying to figure out my background, in a way. Once you strip a person from their native country and transplant them somewhere else and they start losing those connections, you start to wonder really what your roots are, and what am I, basically? That's a question I got a lot growing up, particularly in the suburbs of New Jersey. It was like "Well, what are you? Where are you from?"

ET: (snivelling) Are you black? Are you brown? Are you Puerto Rican?

Rohan: Exactly. You try and justify it however you can, you say I'm this and that and a little of this, but here you're a human being, you're a person and part of this record was just figuring out a little bit more about the cultures that I am steps away from. I only went to India for the first time in 2000, that's really when I started making the record. And it was very influential, that trip really made a big impact on my music. So that I thought was really, what's the term, a watershed?

ET: A shed full of water.

Rohan: A shed full of water experience.

ET: Let's call it the toolshed experience.

Rohan: Toolshed experience? OK, very good. The record was really just made for me.

ET: That's the thing, a lot of people responded to it because it was so different. For me it was kind of like the TJ Rehmi of the U.S., someone who composes all their stuff primarily with guitar, keys, and then throws beats in there if they want to. You know, more of an organic thing going on, whereas a lot of other people in the genre tend to go the electronic route. So I think a lot of people found it refreshing. But if we're talking about your new music...did you have ideas that were expressed in "Roots"? Did you have these ideas that are now being expressed already back then? Or is this like totally new territory for you that you're exploring?

Rohan: I guess the point you're getting at is...you've heard my new stuff and it's definitely more electronic and it's a bit different from what you heard on the "Roots" record, which was definitely a little more organic in the sense that pretty much everything was written on nylon string guitar and then built around that. Sometimes in certain events the nylon strings got stripped out at the end, but that's how a lot of the "Roots" tracks were created. A lot of the tracks on this one were straight bass on tones, electronic tones, and then working around that. Usually I try and strip the song down to just melody and then the chords behind the melody. My philosophy has always been that a great song could always be heard just on a piano and a vocalist, or a piano and another instrument playing the melody, or guitar being in the background as well. That was the philosophy and I tried that on "Roots" and it worked great. I'm trying to restructure a little bit differently now. Maybe melodies are still going to be very strong, but not always going to be the driving factor. On the new tracks, I didn't want to recreate "Roots" again, so I'm trying to branch into areas that I really haven't had that much experience in doing, like electronic and stuff. So these are the first steps in doing that. Part of the music is driven by the technology itself, and as you know, I'm gutting my studio right now and moving away from a lot of the outboard gear I had, moving everything to more PC-based recording. A big step for me, as you know, I'm the analog kid. Doing the remix CD was real interesting and starting to do remixes for other people is what really got me into this new vibe. And fortunately on the "Roots" remix CD, we got some great remixers involved. Karsh; this guy dimmsummer's fantastic, I'm totally digging his vibe; Dave Sharma from Sharaab; Sandeep Chowta who's just been fantastic, and I got to work a bit with him when he was in the U.S. last month; and Ryukyu Underground of course, they just do fantastic work. It's just been positive vibes and good people in the scene that have been receptive to the project. It's been an honor to be associated with them, to say the least.

ET: You are SUCH an asshole.
I'm just joking. (laughter) (Indian accent) 'You're so sweet, beta, you're a good boy. Everyone likes you.' Are you afraid that people will not be receptive to the new sound? Because you build an audience with whatever "Roots" was, and then they're not going to understand or appreciate what you're doing now.

Rohan: If you ever ask a musician what the best song they ever wrote was, it's always the last song they wrote. This is part of progressing and evolving, as you say. If you don't believe that as an artist, then you might as well just pack up and call it quits. So yeah, I think the new stuff is a lot better, and people who do like the sound on "Roots," I think they'll still like what I'm doing on the next record. But it certainly won't be as acoustic-sounding. I have such a strong love myself for melody and for good composition, I don't think I'll ever leave those elements away or leave them to the side so that it's just gonna be all rhythm-driven songs. I just don't think I have it in me to do that, and I don't think that's my strong point as an artist or as a producer. So I think it will be different, but I don't think it's gonna really isolate too many people that liked "Roots."

ET: The last track on the remix CD, Dub Vibration. Why don't you tell us how that track came about? It's a dancefloor-friendly track, are you going to have a lot more dancefloor tracks on the new CD?

Rohan: The song is an interesting song because it came about out of nowhere. It was intended for a complilation that really never took off, but the effort didn't go to waste because it's a good solid dancehall kinda feeling song, and we were fortunate to get MC from the UK, Pavan, the timing was just impeccable. We were trying to wrap this song, the last week of the year, he happened to be in town and he came in, he knocked out the vocals. We sat here while he wrote them.

ET: He came in straight off the plane.

Rohan: Yeah, straight off the plane, and came to the studio and just nailed it. It couldn't have gone smoother. There's just a certain energy with the track that I think everybody involved is feeling. So far, so good, knock on wood, everybody seems to like it, so I hope it does well and gets a little radio play somewhere.

ET: You do have very very strong melodies. Especially in your new stuff, there's some really deep melodies. And the lyrics are something we should talk about. Melody and lyrics. A lot of this music usually doesn't have lyrics, it's very heady dance music, so the lyrics, they're in a different language... When you write your lyrics, where do you get the inspiration for the melody and the lyrics? What comes first, the lyrics, are you just writing words and then you create a melody, or is there a melody and then you put words to it?

Rohan: I'd say that there's no pattern that I follow, per se. Usually it comes from the musical side, I usually come up with chordal changes and hearing either a piano melody in my head or guitar melody, and then I would write lyrics based on the melody I'm hearing. There's a lot of strong melodies in the music. But yeah, in terms of using English lyrics, once again coming from a West Indian background, Hindi is not, to me or my family, it's not a language that was spoken in my house. Being colonized by the British, English was spoken on both sides of my parents' background, so it's just natural for me. I think if I'm gonna express myself, I'm gonna express myself in words that mean the most to me, and that's why I often will use English lyrics. A lot of my music is also instrumental, I'll bring in other artists who can verbalize their emotions in a different way or in different languages. I was working with fantastic Moroccan singer the other day, he has the ability to express himself in his native language, that adds additional impact on my project. For songs that I'm writing and trying to express from my heart, and I'm writing the lyrics, it's always gonna be English for me. But that's not to say that if I can learn another language, I could sweep some listeners off their feet, maybe in French or Hindi, who knows?

ET: Who knows. Something with the new music is that there's a number of strings, orchestral-type elements being used, so it gives certain tracks a cinematic-type flavor. You hear something and you just picture a situation in your head like somebody's tiptoeing through the alley, just something, you know, tension is there. Would you try and do anything for the big Bollywood machine if they were into your stuff?

Rohan: I'd love to, I'd love to get into the market over in India...

ET: Now hold on, WHY do you want to get into the market in India? Is it because you want to be rich and famous? Or is it because you think they'd be interested in what you're saying musically, lyrically, aesthetically and whatever?

Rohan: Can I say all of the above? Obviously rich and famous is always a good thing, but that's not really the driving point, seeing that if I wanted to be rich and famous, I'd be doing something else right now. But I think that the type of music I write and the fact that I have a South Asian look to me but an American twist, if you will, could do fairly well in the Indian market. In terms of Bollywood, I don't think I would fit into the Bollywood scoring scene or really have an impact there. But in terms of crossover appeal, I would hope that the Indian market would embrace the sound that I'm creating.

ET: There's a lot of those films, and they're usually...it's weird, it can be high-budget with Shah Rukh Khan running around in Union Square, or it's low-budget and straight to DVD. So would you want to tap into one of those?

Rohan: If the project had merit and it was something that I could really have creative reign to do something and bring something to the project and it complemented what was going on visually, yeah, definitely, I'd love to.

ET: What if you were just their bitch, and... (laughter) It's like one of those things where it starts off where you think it's gonna be cool, they're like (Indian accent) "It's all done, you get everything you want" and then you come back with something and they say (Indian accent) "It's OK, but make it more this way and that way" and "Take this out and there's too much of this," and "You need to hear the vocals more," and it's like you've got a bunch of non-musicians trying to tell you how to do what you do, they think they know better, but they really don't. Is that holding you back? Do you not care, and think you have to start somewhere?

Rohan: You definitely do have to start somewhere, but that is something that would probably keep me from doing too many soundtracks if I kept running into that same issue. But I think initially you have to be able to deliver a good product, obviously, but once you've delivered your product, then you have to stand your ground as well. People can make their demands on anybody, but they'll only come to you if you offer something unique. If you don't offer something unique then they might as well go to somebody else. Why come to you? So you do have to stand your ground and then eventually people will come to you for what you offer that's different from the next composer. So I'm not interested in really getting involved with film and just being a sequencer machine that responds to the director's requests.

ET: Wow. (Indian accent) 'Injecting knowledge.' So when's your next album gonna be finished and released? Are you looking for a label deal, or do you want to keep it simple? Because a lot of people on labels, it's a mixed thing, really, they're just slaves for the number of years that whatever albums they make you crank out. Do you think that you need to be on a label to be successful? Or do you think you could be independent and do a grass-roots thing and 20 years later you're a megastar...in Austria.

Rohan: I think Ani DiFranco is definitely the figurehead in defending going indie the whole way, and still being successful. But labels are definitely a necessity for most people in terms of propelling your career. Nowadays with technology being so cheap and so good, most people can afford to have a top-notch recording studio in their apartment or their house or wherever they are, so people have the ability to make great recordings. However, unlike the old days, you don't have the music engineer sitting there because now you're the studio, and you don't have the producer there because the studio's in your house, you become the producer. So you end up wearing all these various hats. A lot of composers I meet nowadays are just doing everything themselves. So you ultimately are the label. But now what, are you gotta take on marketing, are you gonna take on promotion? The line has to be drawn somewhere. It starts to get too detailed in terms of managing your career and doing everything else. Whereas if you did have a label involved, it would be nice, you could just concentrate on making the record rather than dealing with promotion and all the other business aspects. If your goal is to support yourself financially, it's not a bad idea to go with a label. For me personally, I like the independent approach and it's actually worked well for me because I've been able to license out my recordings to other people without being an artist signed to them, so it's kind of the best of both worlds. So for the next project, I'm quite happy staying independent. Unless it's, you know, a multimillion dollar deal. Hint, hint -- Warner Brothers? My telephone number is... I'm just joking.

ET: I guess in a way, people can tell that one person did everything, you know? Do you think it's better to have another person, another producer or something that knows what your strengths are and pulls them out of you? You become an island if you're doing everything yourself.

Rohan: I think that's really important, actually. I think that is one of the serious pitfalls that accompanies the advances in technology, everybody's kind of isolating themselves into their own recording studios, whereas in the past you always had other people, even the engineer, to tell you "Was that a little bit off?" You always had that other ear. So yeah, I definitely think it's always good to have other ears on your music. I think a lot of people are stubborn anyhow and don't care. I am of the type that I love to get the input from other people because you create this music in your own bubble and it's a reflection of your emotion at a certain point in time, but the songs, they take a life of their own, because you can have a great song but not great production on that song. Or vice versa, you could have great production and the song could be shit-

ET: You're not allowed to say shit on the air.

Rohan: Uhhh... so you hear that nowadays a lot on the pop stations. I think actually production in pop music, in modern music, has really advanced over the last five years. Even if you listen to the latest Britney Spears record, there's some really good production going on. The songs may not be the best things in the world, but the production's extremely tight and the sounds are fantastic.

ET: So you think maybe production with all this technology has kind of replaced having good songs? When the Beatles wrote a song just with guitar and vocals and a drum and whatever, it's like, they've got a great song. Do you think they're maybe just using it as a crutch for good songwriting?

Rohan: Absolutely, because I think particularly with some of the pop divas, you're marketing the look and the image, and a lot of the producers are able to create a sound with their production, but the true art of songwriting is missing in today's music, I think. And I think you also reflect the same thing in movies nowadays. You have tons of movies where they spend lots of money, time and energy in the computer graphics but the storylines are terrible and the dialogue is terrible and the acting is terrible. So it just gets to a point where you're starting to question, "Where's the merit in this?" Is it just to have the biggest explosions, or are we supposed to actually get a story out of this movie, some substance? I guess that's where independents come in, who aren't as focused on making the big bucks, but are willing to take chances and really express themselves or say something that's meaningful at least to them, and hopefully someone else can pick up on it and maybe it'll inspire them, and that person will go on to write the next great record or the next great novel. When you're dealing with big labels and big studios, you're always gonna be a victim to their demands, and sometimes you suffer in the substance department.

ET: Speaking of substance, where's the smack?
...I'm just joking. (laughter) Um...yeah, cool. [megaphone sounding] I think that's it...I think we're done... (laughter)

Fade into "Water People - Analog Kid RMX