exclusive interview with the State of Bengal

interview by dimmSummer
date: 11.03.03
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: Aight, this is ethnotechno's interview with Sam, also known as State of Bengal. Why do you call yourself State of Bengal?

SAM: State of Bengal, primarily because I think whatever it is that I do is bigger than just me on my own, because it takes in a whole host of philosophies and it has to still stand up at the end of the day even when I can't. Rather than just call myself DJ Sam Zaman or DJ Zaifulah Zaman it's better to just use this home, which is State of Bengal. It's a home as far as I'm concerned, and it's a home for a lot of people. Then it isn't something that anyone owns, really. Maybe in the legal sense someone owns it, but just in a vibe sense, the collective kind of ideology, so that you can have different people under one umbrella representing whatever that ethos is. State of Bengal as a band really isn't just me. No one can actually say what State of Bengal is, for me I actually like that, I like that a lot. It's an entity that goes 'BANG!' and that's enough for me. It still leaves me free to just go on with what I do in a normal day, which is produce music. You don't need to have this egotistical walk about you, you don't need it because it's not about you. That's why I can do all these different things. You don't need to be this egotistical thing that everyone wants to put you on a platform to be. At the end of the day, anyone who produces music, you either know them because you remember a tune, or you think a tune they've done is a good piece of music and that's it.

ET: What is your music all about for you? It has a very particular flavour compared to a lot of other Asian music that's coming out, where they all have a similar drum and bass vibe. You do have some drum and bass, but there's also a very organic guitar element, there's something else going on with your music. Why don't you explain to us why your music is the way it is and what influences made your music the way it is.

SAM: I think it's partly because I like certain instrumentation and it is something I've always wanted to hear in my music, and my music has always been written in a way where it incorporates that. So it's not actually separate, it's not just a drum and bass tune with a couple of guitar licks, it's actually far more integral than that. When I'm writing stuff I am actually thinking about guitars and drums and percussion or vocal bits and then looking how to remaster up again so that it's happy in terms of the way I want to hear it. So each piece is actually very unique because each piece is about a specific experience of some kind and the transition is to take that experience and translate it into music, and that's why I've always worked on music in that way, so that it has some sense of reality in it. There is something that I can actually say 'Well I made that because of this' and 'I made that because of this experience that happened to me, this is what I'd seen, or this is what I felt' so it has to be something that involves some kind of feeling. I don't make drum and bass and I don't make hip-hop or house or breakbeat, I make something else. So for me it is an important factor. If someone says 'Yeah, we're making drum and bass music,' great, why are you doing it? 'Well, we're not sure.' Well why are you doing it, then?' There must be a reasoning behind what you do, because if you're using sound and frequencies which come from reasoning, from our psyches somewhere, or at least in the environment we know it's there, which we're not always used to experiencing in that way, then how are you going to make it real? What's the reality, what's your fucking reality? Show me, let me hear it. That's where I come from. You're hearing my reality. You're not just hearing a couple of loops put together, that's not what it's about. It's the feeling behind the whole journey from the beginning to the end. And if there isn't one, then as far as I'm concerned it's devoid of any human emotion. And I need to express with human emotion because that's me as an entity of my own. If I don't use my human emotions, then there is no kind of connection that anyone out there will actually feel anything of. So for me, music is real. It's how I live, it's what I eat, it's what I breathe, it's what I cook my soup with. You know?

ET: You're one deep motherfucker, man. That's a deep answer. Why don't we talk about some of these meanings on your first album Visual Audio, what the songs meant-

SAM: What strikes you?

ET: Well that's the thing. I's kinda two-pronged question, I know there's two different covers -- there's one for the U.S. that came out on Six Degrees, and there's one that Seb did, this entire beautiful package, and really there's a lot of things going on there. And then with the packaging with Six Degrees-

SAM: They watered it down. They made it very psychedelic with a modern sensibility, with something that actually fits more into Six Degrees' way of thinking, not necessarily mine. I had no say over how they were going to design it, they said 'This is the design.' I think the thing is, when you first do the album, how do you really feel passionate about anything? You feel passionate about something at the actual point it's all coming together, where you're actually getting goosepimples on the end of your arm or legs or whatever it is. That's the point where that is it for me. I've experienced that point. And after that, it's just finishing and tidying it up and whatever you need to do just to have the conclusion of the story of that track. So for me, Visual Audio had already been done back in 1997. And even by One Little Indian's standard, it came out a year and a half too late, because they were fucking it up and holding on to it too long because they didn't want to conflict it with their artists that were also releasing stuff which was more in the pop sensibility, i.e. Bjork and stuff. So how to fit me in is more to the point than how to actually take something that was really vibrant and was at that time making a lot of noise even before I got signed to One Little Indian. So One Little Indian really didn't do anything for me. I was doing more well before I joined One Little Indian. So in some ways what Six Degrees have done is try to beautify it for their market. That's technically what they've done. What is it for? So they know they can sell a product based on their understanding and their experience, and that's what it is. But when it came to them signing the second album, they got scared because they knew it was gonna be something that's far different than anything that they've got, and they can't even embrace the difference. If that's the basis and philosophy that Six Degrees base their music on, something's fucked up down the line.

So for me, instead of saying 'OK, I'll release my own solo record now,' you know what? It doesn't matter, it's not the end of me. There was me before the record labels, so me can still carry on and produce and still tour and still DJ and still work with other people and still do those things and not feel any less worth as an individual. Which is more to the point, because these fuckers are the ones who control the system, they have the distribution chains, we as individuals have nothing. But what I've actually learned from all that is actually no -- if you work more about developing your own individual system, you can actually be quite strong. Maybe not as strong, but at least competitive enough to say 'Wait a minute, this is my shit. You want some, come and get it from me. You don't have to go to all these different labels.' And if people out there are interested, they'll come anyway, PR or no PR. A good record is a good record, a good piece of music is a good piece of music, there are no differences. If people feel something from it, they'll take something from it, they will want some kind of relationship and ownership based on that.

ET: What about the track changes on the album? There's some track differences-

SAM: I guess that Six Degrees kinda felt 'We don't like these tracks, we don't like those tracks.' What was really ironic is that when I was doing my SoB tour in the States, where I was going promoting Visual Audio, I played one track which wasn't on the new album, I played it at a college or university somewhere in San Francisco or L.A., I'm not sure, and the DJ who was hosting the show said to me 'Oh, so where can we find this?' and I said 'You'll only find it on the first album, not the new Six Degrees one, because Six Degrees felt it didn't deserve to be on the new one. So hey, everyone else has just heard this, but they're not going to be able to have access to it on this album.' But it's a fuckup that Six Degrees had made based on what they felt in terms of finance and numbers, not based on music.

ET: So what was the story that you were telling with your UK version, with the artwork and the intensity of it? Obviously we know that the story was watered down to the extent where maybe it wasn't even a cover or a story- in the States. It was a consumer product, but for you, the first time, when you first finally got that out-

SAM: The concept of Visual Audio was developed over a number of years even before I actually started on music. It goes back to my university days where I was actually doing three-dimensional art forms, just looking at different elements of art and aesthetics. I was working on a couple of techniques, and I looked at how possibly the visual elements could be affected by audio elements, so based on what you were listening to, what is it that you'd end up drawing, what is it that you'd end up creating? So that was audio-visual. But then I thought, that could definitely be a possibility, because all my tracks are about stories, so what are they? What is the relationship between what I make and where they've come from? That's actually the visual audio, the fact that you take an idea which you've experienced or you have some relationship with, and you put that into a two-dimensional picture frame. That's the starting point. Now to translate that into three-dimensional understanding I have to give it the musical journey, which is the audio aspect of it. By the time you've finished the track you have this visual image which is stuck in my head which is moving in a three-dimensional form and that's the whole basis of Visual Audio. So then you actually make tracks with a picture in your head. And that picture construct comes from something you've experienced, something that you've read, something that you've understood and then tried to find a way of 'How do I relate that into my real life today?' So that's what Visual Audio was, it was basically a list of collections of experiences that I'd had since '87. 'Hectic City' was originally written in '87. Even the drum program is still ahead of it's time from how anyone else hears it, because it's the syncopations of how the drums are programmed.

ET: That track specifically is one of the tracks that I put on my station when I first started it.

SAM: Yeah. So 'Hectic City' is pretty much about moving from East London to West London in a car, actually trying to get from Upton Park to Southall on a Saturday afternoon in London traffic. It's just absolute madness. But it's those things that actually make you feel like that when you're living in London. 'Hectic City' doesn't have any tablas or sitars, it's just a friend of mine, Matt, who plays guitars in the way I want him to play. It's just rush, how do you create a rush in an instrument. How do you create that feeling? What are you gonna play, how are you gonna play it? What chord structures are you gonna have, where are the changes, how long are you going to play, what's the cycle of what you're playing? These things are thought about, sometimes in advance. And some are not - I'd be lying if I said that they were all thought about in advance because they're not. You have an image in your head that you want to represent in terms of audio sound. How are you gonna translate that?

ET: So what are the stories that you're telling now with your new music that you're working on?

SAM: I think now with the new music, because I think my philosophies have moved on and developed, working with other people who've got very strong identities in their own right, historically even deeper ones than I've had. Working with Ananda Shankar opened me up to something totally different, which did move me away from Visual Audio because I guess naturally that's what was going to happen anyway.

ET: Let's talk a bit about your project with Ananda Shankar and his passing. Did he pass before the project was finished?

SAM: The whole thing with Ananda Shankar was really... for me it still hurts in many ways. Ananda Shankar was someone I'd listened to from the age of 9 and I didn't even know the name, who it was. It was a cassette called M94 that had just come to India and we were living in Stepney and I was working in Brick Lane in this cassette shop copying videos upstairs from Bengali films and Indian films, and getting different Bengali songs and compiling little tapes of those so people could buy it for 1, and they had all these different songs that no one had heard before, coming fresh out of Bangladesh and stuff. So M94 happened to be one of those cassettes. I found it very different because there were no words, no singing at all, and I thought 'this is some seriously funky shit.' I'd never ever come across anything it before, and I'm 11. So I'm listening to this cassette every night going home and falling asleep listening to it, and I didn't know it was Ananda Shankar. It was only much later when I'd started collecting vinyl and started finding Ananda Shankar vinyls and thinking 'Well that's a bit different, what's that?' I was always into buying reggae records from the age of 9, so reggae was really the first thing for me because in London that's the only other relationship you've got in terms of music at that time. Hearing Ananda Shankar's stuff really just took me somewhere else. It gave me a different kind of feeling, different kind of vibe, different kind of attitude for different things. It was very empowering for a young Bengali kid in London, growing up in the 70s in a totally white, racist area. I can't really express how that actually has made me feel over the years, but I know it gave me a lot of strength to say I am someone, I am actually important - irrespective of how many white people out there think I'm just a smelly Paki. I've got a lot more in me than even they make me feel, so I know there is somewhere I can go with all of this.

I worked in a federation of Bangladeshi youth organizations for a long time as a young kid, from the age of 14, looking after 7 and 8 year olds, encouraging them actually be spiritually a bit more free than what the outside environment had in store for them, which was beats and racism. I think finally somebody heard me, actually it was Seb who reminded me the other day, Seb had said 'Why don't you speak to this guy Alan James, he's thinking of doing something with Ananda Shankar.' Alan James had been working at the Mack, he'd been working with someone who knew Ananda Shankar, she was a dancer. Ananda Shankar's history is that Uday Shankar had one of the biggest dance troupes around the world way before anyone knew what Indian was. He'd had 500 crew on the road going to virtually every capital city in the world and having sellout shows between 1905 and 1917. Even before anyone had the impetus to say look, this is something we may be able to use for our own experience, he'd already gone out and done it. So the history that was already there with Ananda Shankar was actually quite frightening for me, because I thought 'What am I trying to do with this amazing sitarist?' We've danced to his tunes, I've danced to his tunes from a young age, so after a couple of conversations I got a call from Ananda in Calcutta, he said (Indian accent) 'Hey, Sam, how are you doing? You're the State of Bengal! You're taking my crown!' (laughter) I said 'What crown? You've always had the crown! Who can have a crown that you've always held?' And he said 'No, it'll be great working with you, shall I send you some compositions?' and I said 'Yes, please, send me some stuff.' Also because at that time I was really busy doing a lot of other stuff, a lot of remixing work, I really didn't even have time to prepare anything to send to him, either, just so he would understand. So I said to him, 'Look, why don't we actually meet up before the band meets up, and sit down and compose for a week? Just a couple of things, so that me and you have an understanding between us, and then we can go to our individual musicians and then explain that and translate that to them, it makes more sense.'

But it didn't go that way, that two weeks had already been wiped out of the budget, no budget. It's just like, 'OK, now we're here for rehearsals.' So pretty much I was composing at night, after everyone had left, after Ananda Shankar's tracks' rehearsals, I'd have to write new tunes. So pretty much that's how the Ananda Shankar album was written, I wrote most of it on my own. Of the tracks that I'd written, it was all my own writing, and of the tracks that he'd written, some of them were composite and some of it wasn't. I guess when you're in something, you don't really look at anything apart from what you're in, so my focus was really on the project - from looking to see how we could translate it onto the stage, 'OK, we've gotta do this stage show, what's the concept, how are we gonna get there?' so I wrote a track called 'Walking On' which wasn't even going to go on the album, it was only for the live thing. Someone comes on, plays 16 bars on their instrument, and then someone else comes on and joins them, and so on and so on and so on. You don't have to say anything, it's just how the people come on stage and get there, and how they're playing already. So that was the concept of that track. Conceptually all the tracks were like that that I'd written. 'Betelnut' is about all the people, the energy when you chew betelnut, paan, and you spit out that orange spit, it's just kind of encapsulating that orange spit in that track, and how you get that energy. So these kinds of things, my visual ideas didn't change because they're still rooted somewhere in the formation of the music, at least in the conception of ideas. Maybe they don't actually have a story any more, but they have a story in terms of what they were initially made from.

It was a very very hard-core album to do. I challenge anyone to go out and do something like that, where you work with nine musicians over seven days and you've gotta record them on 12 tracks in that time. Be my guest, because I nearly died a couple of times doing that, I collapsed twice in the studio. They had to bring masseurs in, stuff like that, ice buckets and a couple of doctors had to come in and check me out, which I thought was great, I'd never gotten that treatment even when I wasn't that ill.

The shocking news was, I mean I'd spoken to Ananda when I was in Bombay and he happened to be in his Delhi school of dance, he's got dance schools in Delhi and Calcutta, and he said to me 'Yeah yeah, I'm just about to go into the hospital next week, but we're gonna be getting ready to get the next album together.' Not the one we were working on, but the next one we were thinking of doing. And then I go back to London, and I get a phone call saying he'd just died. It was really hard, a very tough thing for me, I'm not good with those kinds of things at all. I find it very disturbing in my psyche, my psyche doesn't like it at all. But saying that, we did have two years planned touring worldwide with the album, we had so many agencies lined up saying 'We'll guarantee you these territories' because they heard the pre-mix of the album and they loved it -- 'If this is what it sounds like live, we're definitely going to have a sample.' And when that didn't transpire, things move on. It's just one of those things, and you either have to live with it or die with it, one of those. The living and the dying aren't too far apart, really. Still, on my new album I've got one track where I recorded a few bits and pieces with Ananda in Calcutta, as a tribute track to him, and it's named after him - 'Ananda Daa,' which is a father/older brother.

That was an experience, it gave me the opportunity to play bass for once in my life. I'd played bass before, but it was just not taken seriously by me or anyone else. Fast-forward to the Ananda Shankar project, now I have to play bass onstage - what the fuck is that about? I don't want to play bass onstage, but what an honor. I mean, there's no other bass player, but I've got a bass at home, OK, I'd better start learning to play. So I sat with Ananda and he showed me a few things to do, finger technique, how you move stuff around. Gopal Shankar Misra, a Vichitra veena player from the Benares Hindi University of Music, and his father was Pt. Lalmani Mishra, who taught Ravi Shankar and Ananda Shankar sitar. So I'm happily all of a sudden sitting next to the great classical families of all time in India, and not really having a clue about what I'm doing. Which in some ways, looking back, was actually very important as well, because it gave me the freedom to push it all over the place. If I was so classically trained, I probably wouldn't have come out. That's what Ananda told me. But it was a good journey, actually. Nice vibe, nine people onstage, some serious mayhem going on, electronic and classical all mixed together with some serious unknowns. And I guess that's kinda where I looked at me as a musician more seriously. I've always looked at myself as a producer because I'm more into the overall thing rather than just one detailed thing, each thing. I've never really felt like that. But at that point I've had to start thinking about that since the project, not so much at the project. At that project I was still writing as a producer and it was about, how do you pull people into something? What is it in something that attracts people and makes them go 'Hold on a minute'? I think that hasn't really changed, it's just developed in different ways. There's a lot more live sensibility on my next solo album as opposed to what was on my first album. The beats are still programmed and whatever to a certain extent, but also some of those tracks have been played live with State of Bengal right around the world, and I know which tracks people go ape at, basically, even before they've been released. I mean the track on the next album, the 'Ananda Daan' track, I've played it in China, New Zealand, Brazil, Iceland, it's been played everywhere and the feel is really good, what people feel from it, the madness and the manicness. I'm getting bored of it now because obviously I've had access to it for two years. And that's the thing with me - if I have something way in advance of everyone, I listen to it for a couple of months and after that I've got no interest in it, and it may be my track, but it doesn't matter. That's how it should be anyway.

ET: Let's talk about what the next 12 months hold for you as far as the next album and side projects and any planned tours and new weekly gigs. What's going on?

SAM: I think the truth behind that is probably I don't know, which is a good thing for me. We've toured so heavily as State of Bengal for so long, since 1998 up until this year, it's been a long time just touring for me and experiencing different places, and where do you go with all of those experiences that you've taken? How do you channel them into the things that you really want to channel them? I have no idea. But what I know is that I've just finished a project with Paban Das Baul which is based on my idea of how to push forward and move on the realms of Baul music, number one, and also what I've kind of felt as a writer, writing bass lines, writing breaks, writing melodies, writing riffs, writing scores, and how to bring the whole thing and shape it all into one.

ET: So the future is wide open?

SAM: Yeah, it's very wide open. I'm working with Lopa, I've done several projects right around the globe, projects that I've done in Bombay with Taufiq Qureshi, Jolly Mukherjee, Javed Akhtar, who wrote the lyrics for one of my tracks- I've worked with Vanessa Damato from San Paolo, Uday Dey from Calcutta who's a flautist, he also worked on the Ananda Shankar album- Graham Haines, he's a cornet player from New York, I've done some stuff with him on the next album- Himani Azuli from New York- I've done some stuff with some French Algerian singers from Paris- but who knows? There's loads of things that I've done. I've worked with Gopal Shankar Misra, I've got a tribute track for him on the next album, and local artists from London also, which are actually quite exciting for me. So it's a whole host of those things, and realms of experimentation beyond Visual Audio, and it's encapsulating all of that in the next album to a certain extent. I'm still finalizing because I'm always working on new projects, going 'OK, this one might make it for my next album. Oh, this one might.' So it's like you don't have a definitive 12, you have a definitive 60 that you've been working on, and out of those 60 I'm gonna have to nail down 12, but which 12 is the one, so that's where the album is. I have to do that between now and December, and I'm also working with Lopa, who's a girl from North London who sounds a bit like those old classic singers but with a different vibe. I've done some songwriting with her, which has been really good, and that's been an eye-opener for me as well, because looking at different elements of your writing, different ways of writing which I think goes to make a rounder character, and I'm round, so-

ET: As a final word, is there anything you want to say to the listeners, particularly focusing on someone who's a budding musician themselves, who finds inspiration in your music, do you want to speak directly to them?

SAM: Focus on something that is your own. Focus on something that is different from anything else you've heard. Tweak it, make it your own. Push it out, let people experience it, and enjoy it. You gotta enjoy it yourself primarily before anyone else enjoys it. We're also starting this new night called Chillisolo which is on chillisolo.com. Anyone who's coming in from anywhere around the world that wants to see if they can have a chance of playing somewhere in London, they want to showcase something, I'm talking mainly about people who are producing their own material, not regurgitating something else, that's actually writing their own stuff, writing their own basslines, and guitar licks and whatever, let me know and get in touch with us at stateofbengal.com and if we can fit you in, we would like to showcase your stuff, it doesn't matter whether you're known or unknown.

Fade into "al keuto sap" -original composition with paban das baul