exclusive interview with Zakhm

interview by dimmSummer
date: 8.23.02
painfully transcribed by vijay choksi
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is Ethnotechno's interview with Atul who is perhaps better known as Zakhm. Tell us what it means and why you chose it, and if it has any particular meaning while you are on the deck, as opposed to just being Atul walking around the city.

Zakhm: Yeah actually I was wondering if that is going to be one of the questions. I didn't know if it was going to be the first question. I don't know, Zakhm, it has a lots of meaning, but at the end of the day, its just what it is, a DJ name, something that comes out of the videogame alias culture. You manifest the idea and you manifest the person, and you either exist separately as that or you just live symbioticly with it. But I think in the large part what its meant for me over the past couple of years, it allowed me to express certain ideas completely and holy as who I am as Atul. Or leave room for other endeavors that don't have to be categorized by what I am trying to say with the whole Zakhm name. And the whole Zakhm name comes from a couple different angles, the meaning is not lost, it is just redefined. For those who don't know, Zakhm means wound; i wanted to keep that texure and abrasiveness and keep that forcefullness because as young as I am I didn't want to too quickly polish myself, I wanted to stay within this space where I have a lot of freedom to be really texturized in different ways, through different DJ sets or different tracks, or visual stuff that I have done. In many ways what Zakhm is is a manifestation of that idea, trying to keep it very raw, in your face, but at the same time contemplative, and meditative, not meaning to be dark, but maybe ominous.

ET: Did you read my Asian Massive review? 'Cause three or four of the words you pulled, contemplative, meditative, redefined. You've used those words over and over again. Did you read that?

Zakhm: Yeah, I thought the review was pretty wicked; I guess this would be considered plagiarism, but we don't need to worry about this because of the good terms that we are on.

ET: So basically Zakhm is wound in a constant state of flux; are you picking at the wound so its always fresh?

Zakhm: Well its essntially what thing have been coming over the past year or so, I don't necessarily have to pick at the wound. There is a lot of beautiful, amazing things that has been happening around the scene right now, but at the same time there is a lot to reflect on, in terms of pain and how we manifest that in our music. Something I have to instigate, I mean it is a powerful idea to play with for me because it gives me a lot of freedom, to explore the ideas especially what people are dealing with these days. For me, the events in the past 9 months have really been powerful in terms of redefining everything about my own identity and how i feel about this music and how I look at the world, and how I look at identity. Obviously I have been talking about the whole 9-11 thing, but its much larger than that. Knowing that my Jewish friends are using Zionist pro-Israeli programs, and actually using them to their advantage. They would go on these trips to Israel using these pro-Israeli Zionist programs would go to Palestine. And the stories that they tell me are so amazing, its something that our generation is dealing with on a massive scale. I feel that I'm really able to manifest my own perception of that idea and that energy and that darkness and that beauty at the same time thought the stuff I have been doing, and I am really fortunate to be able to do that, because it is the time of conversation right now, not having to make a statement. Like you said, its all about contemplation, taking a step back and looking at what's going on around the world, because there is a lot of crazy shit happening.

ET: I guess we can go with the September 11 route. With every artist that I have interviewed, its always been, well, you are brown, and the people over there are brown...it always comes up somehow. The magnitude is so large. Before I get into that, I want to talk about your music. You have a track out in six degrees compilation Asian Massive. What does the name Insaan means?

Zakhm: Insaan means human. I guess the track manifested itself and became this whole idea way before the name came about. That can go either way, sometimes the name will come first and mould it into something. Insaan was something that just evoked the energy that I was looking for in that track. Its funny because a track that I just finished today is actually a complete flip from that. Thats where I want to stay in terms of my freedom. I want to be able to explore all avenues. The stuff I have been doing lately has not been on the dancefloor tip, but more like intelligent dance music tip. If there are people out there who have not heard some of this new stuff that is coming out in terms of redefining dance music, I think it is a wicked conversation thats happening. I recently did a DJ set on WBAI where I really got to explore that idea so if people are interested in that, they should really seek that stuff out, there is a powerful conversation thats happening. For example, when video games first came out, like Pac Man, people used to say "That background music is so repetitive." And its kind of weird now because the same club music that I would listen to , raves and things of that nature people listen to on their CD player when they wake up. And in that sense the notion of dance music is changed. And the origins of it, being dancefloor, is still there, but it is being redefined in so many different ways. For example, there is a really wicked crew of young guys out in Amedabad called Pundish Project and they are doing some cool stuff and they are really pushing their whole energy and being unique and innovative. They do do shows in Amedabad but thats not like full nightclub from my understanding from what i've heard in Amedabad. Its not like you can go under the limelight or something like that in Amedabad. It happens when its supposed to happen, and it is very explicit. In that sense, the music they are creating is dance music, but they are creating it for people to listen to, for people to relate to because we so used to hearing that now. Some of the Canada music, for example, you can't really dance to it, but its influenced by hip hop styles, its influenced by other forms of electronic music. Moom for example, their music is very percussive and very groovy in terms of having a good flow to it, but at the same time it very deep in terms of what it explores and how far it goes in different directions. And probably, much of the stuff wouldn't work on the dancefloor; thats also pretty evident in the Asian Massive scene, there are a lot of really wicked tracks out there that have a drum and bass loop underneath them or have some kind of breakbeat loop underneath them, or have some wicked rolling bassline, but you now going to really play them, at least not in a dancefloor setting; they'd be the kinda stuff I'd play tonight, more of a listening session as opposed to a dance party. So in that sense, there is a lot happening. Artists like Aphex Twin, and for those who haven't had to pleasure to experience IDM type music, check it out, its a new kind of energy thats not new at the same time, it has been happening for many years, its happening in many new ways. It is influencing my music a lot which in turn ends up influencing our music.

ET: Lets talk about some of your music influences, like what are you listening to right now. What is the favorite CD that you are listening to right now.

Zakhm: Oh man my favorite...I guess one year ago it would have been easier to say. That time I was listening to Radiohead about every single say at least two or three times. I felt it was necessary, it was doing a lot for me emotionally but lately what I have been listening to is a lot more stuff like Boards of Canada. They take a really minimalist idea and put it on you in such a powerful way, the whole duration of the album, it is really amazing, some of the things they are able to do with such bare minimum elements. It has sort of a ethereal feel to it, and although it is really hard to discern exactly what is happening it all makes sense in the end, it all kind of comes together. And that completeness and that wholeness is something that I have been searching for in producing my own stuff. I have also been listening to a band called Moom, I guess they can also be considered IDM. And they are a Swedish group. They are much more live oriented, so there is a lot more improvisation coming out of their music which is a really powerful thing to hear when you listen to electronic music. If anyone who has seen Karsh Kale's realize live band would attest you. But I would definitely say one of my biggest influences would have to be Boards of Canada, not only because of their music but also because of the way thing think as people and as artists. I was reading an interview on time and they made a comment that they assume that the listener is the most intelligent person imaginable, and I think that too often in electronic music and dance music, thats lost a little bit because it is assumed that it is going to be used in a dancefloor setting so it can be a nice, fresh, happy and hard track that will keep the people moving, but its important to keep in mind that there is going to be some great minds that can really take a lot from your music if you are willing to give it to them. And thats really what I have been trying to do is to break down my music to a bear minimum and build it back up in a much more complex format, always trying to learn. So in that sense, I'd have to say Radiohead, Boards of Canada, and no question the artists that are really making it happen in the scene right now, Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz etc.

ET: How many years has it been since you first went to...was it a Bhom Shankar show that you went to? I am assuming that was your first experience. I know Ajay came and introduced himself..did you expect to see yourself three of four years later actually working with these people and producing your own music.

Zakhm: The whole year thing and when did you get started is always is kinda tough because everyone is kinda coming from different spaces and different paths. It is interesting that you would say a Bhom Shankar concert because I actually heard Bhom Shankar for the first time on tape, I think it was two and a half, three weeks ago. I had been dying to hear it for years, but for some reason, I was not able to listen to the whole Bhom Shankar movement, the futureproof movement. I was just kinda coming into different spaces at that time. I was quite young at the time I started doing all this stuff. Even at Mutiny for example, I had to sneak in for the first couple of years that I was going there every single time because it was always 21 and over. I had been going there since I was 18. Unfortunately I was never able to experience the whole Bhom Shankar/Futureproof movement which was an amazing thing that was happening. I've heard live recordings, and I can only imagine what the visualist setting was with Ajay on stage and everything else going on simultaneously around it. My beginning started in many different ways through my parents and their musical experiences, my mom growing up in Scotland, coming from that whole angle. She was born in India but eventually moved to Scotland. Also I was doing some visual/audio based stuff in the fusion scene in high school. I eventually moved far away from that because I came across things like Anokha. I guess one of the firsts would be the first Mutiny I went to, which was the one year anniversary where Talvin Singh was playing, Karsh Kale on drums, Ajay doing the movements, and Vishal Vaid on vocals, Talvin on the electronics and vocals. And it all started from there, and it hasn't slowed down a bit.

ET: Has this music, their music, and maybe the search for your own music, has it saved you in some way?

Zakhm: I was never on a quest for my artistic identity for the sake of saving myself,, because I have always been an artist in different ways. I was doing a lot of visual stuff and design oriented stuff when I was young, Then I started doing tape dubbing, double dub and high speed dubbing, and taping that and trying to throw in stuff at 300 BPM. And even when you had those quirky recorders that would also tape the tape that was playing and the microphone. You could do all sorts of remixes and things. They work too perfectly now, thats the problem. In that sense, it wasn't so much a quest for saving myself, but I think that in a certain sense, what I have been searching for or what I have created for myself, I have found with Zakhm and everything that I have done over the past few years. I just found some completeness and making a lot of sense of my surroundings in terms of identity, as it is for everyone, identity is a big thing. Identity has played a huge role in my life and going from being into Hindi remixes to going into Bhangra music to being a hip hopper who wears FUBU and a sideways cap. To going from being a raver kid who goes to see Goldie Sin or whatever, if it all has added up into where I am now, nothing is left out. It wasn't a need to save myself, but rather just make sense of it all.

ET: When you say make sense of it all, that is kind of vague. What is IT? And what is ALL? I know it is big, but can you boil it down to what was it that you were struggling with? Why were you incomplete.

Zakhm: I totally hear what you are saying, and it is really abstract, but that is part of it. I guess that is part of the conversation; really what I am trying to get at is that there is still so much to be found and illustrated in American society right now in terms of what it means to be of this sort of mentality and to grow up in this sort of space. I've had a lot of experiences with race, races, a big part of my identity construction. It's little things that I experience through my travels. For example, being in London, going to McDonalds, and for three weeks they had this Indian food special, they had chicken tikka one week, and lamb one week...I saw this and I totally started to trip. I said "holy shit" and I run up to the counter, and there is this Indian dude working and I said "give me a chicken tikka sandwich." He just looks at me with no smile at all, he is not happy at all, he doesn't even care, he just is doing is job. It just made me take a step back and made me realize that over there things are they way they are. So many times people say in America, "oh we are so getting there" or the "immigration happened at a later time" but that is not the case, it is just different. And now I am only searching for that here, and trying to understand what it means when you turn on TNT and you see Ajay Naidu playing Office Space, or whatever that a certain group of people can relate to, whether south asian or not. It is not because we are south asian that we are able to inject this idea into the masses, it is because we exist as part of this landscape. And again to go back to the whole 9-11 thing, that is what that has really done for me is made me realize that I am really American. No matter how hard of a time I have with American politics or being American or seeing the American flag, I am not Indian; I cannot go back there and expect to be accepted in that sense. I am going to go back to India again, and I am going to have a great time, but I was born here, and I belong here, and that is the way it is going to be. So in order to make more sense of that I have to be really vocal and really outspoken about that. Like for example tonight, I am playing at a really wicked party by the breakbeat science crew called Acupuncture. And they did not ask me to spin at the party because I am going to spin bhangra tech house. They asked me to spin because I am an artist, and they are giving me a platform to speak which I am so grateful for. I think that that is what so many south asians are doing whether it be though visual media or music, or through dance or through acting, and it is happening on such a massive massive scale, not to be cliche. I think that is really going to propel us into the next phase of this whole idea of that it means to be here and what it means to be brown.

ET: It is quite of a struggle to grow up being Indian in America. There is an underground group of Indians, and there is an overground group of indians. They listen to hindi remixes, they we listen to something else, Navdeep, or something like that. Do you think that there is a middle ground? Where do you see yourself? Do you have friends in this group and that group. Most of your friends white, most of them Indian?

Zakhm: I think I know what you are saying. I had a really hard time trying to define for people when I was younger, but I have broken out of that. By the way, you mentioned Navdeep, really wicked artist. I have not mentioned him, yet but i'd just like to say that he is doing some really wicked stuff. And he is one of the people who has been able to inject this really powerful force into moving the scene forward. So going into what we were talking about. I think in a way there is a belief that a lot of there people that there underground are there because of their choice. But I think that what it really comes down to is that I've ended up in this space for a reason. And I don't think that trying to quantify how many of my friends are of whatever race is really going to clarify what that is about. More so, I think that a big distinction that can be made in terms of your perception being so limited or open. This music has allowed me to be more open in perception towards the world. There is no requirement that this music has to be played in a certain kind of space or around a certain type of people, or that it has to contain a certain kind of element. I have produced tracks that, because I am an asian massive artist, is classified as Asian massive, but it doesn't have any Asian massive elements. So where is that line drawn? And i think that that is the beauty of this music. Whereas some music forms are a little more explicit like hindi remix form, they are what they are and they are only going to be that way because they are not trying to question themselves. So in terms of identity, and what it means to be part of this scene, as opposed to more mainstream south asian scene is just what it is; it is not happening actively, its happening passively.

ET: Let's talk about the viability of the music. Sharaab just whote a review for the punditz. He was writing about how long time ago he was taking to Karsh Kale and he was talking about the viability of the scene and the music and can we actually make a living off of this. So many doors are being opened for us now. Karsh said it doesn't matter if the doors slam shut, we will just kick them open again. That still drives Sharaab to do his music. The music could start in the UK or NYC, and then it kinda goes back to India. I think India is the biggest market for this music.

Zakhm: I definitely see what you are saying. I disagree in some respects especially that India is the biggest market for this music because India is a wonderful market, but I think it can be like that everywhere. And in many ways, the Midival Punditz and the music that they are creating is absolutely amazing, and it takes you in a completely different mindspace. But i think that if they grew up in Rio, they would still be making wicked music, but it would have different influences. I just don't think the whole idea of going back to India, I just don't see it like that. I think that they are wicked artists, they are from New Delhi, and I am really happy that they are pushing the sound. I don't think if it is going back on itself because I don't know if it was ever meant to be coming directly from there. I guess it is just not explicit in terms of the communication or the influence. I see what you are saying in terms of being an artist; I was having a discussion with my friend about this the other day, about being an artist in the public eye. For example, we went to Toronto, and we had the pleasure of seeing two amazing artists who just improved a small little beat box, MC freestyle session, and they just had an amazing chemistry together, and whether they are doing that or not on a large scale on the stage, in front of people, I don't know. But the bottom line is that they do this in their basement and they love it, and they have a great time doing it. As an artists, I always try to keep that element there. That is the truth behind it all. I have made a conscious decision; I am not an artist who sits in his room making tracks and releases them under an alias and no one will ever know who I am because I love the music so much. That is just not me, I love the music just as much as the person. I have made the active decision to be in the public eye. So in that sense, I think, like Karsh was saying, we will kick those doors back open again, yeah I agree but at the same time, we are doing this music because we want to do it, we are making a huge statement. At least for me, I can say that the statement comes secondary, and the music comes first. Whether we make that statement confident enough or not, I know that there will be millions of people that are going to listen to it anyway. We can be as in your face as we want it to be, but at this stage of the game, it is not going to turn back. It is here to stay.

ET: Yeah when I say turn back, I don't mean it is going to fall back. One of the worries is that hip hop is always listening, the trend now is to lift a lot of bollywood beats and vocals. The problem I have with the US is that it is like a machine, especially the music industry. It takes something that it thinks its cool and then it will put it out there and the public will consume it, and it doesn't fly, it will crash. The people will still be making the music 10 years later, but its like hairmetal you know. My worry is that suppose the music becomes like that. Can it become an actual viable genre of music. If it doesn't happen here, maybe it can happen in India.

Zakhm:: Right, okay, again in anything that I would say in trying to represent who I am as an artist. I don't mean to profess the ideas of other people upon the listener. There are my opinions. For example, in this situation, my opinion is that if for example if asian massive music became last year's news, and no one really cared at all...for me anyway, it won't be able to stop. If it means making tracks for myself, and printing out CD covers on my inkjet to make myself happy, then that is what it has to be. I can't say that I am doing this music because they finally realize or they are finally they have started to listen. We are really fortunate that it has taken off. I mean in the last year, man, its blowing up this music, worldwide right, and I am really happy. But then again, first and foremost, it is about the music I guess and I think that people will always listen, I don't want to fantasize about what will happen if it stops. The music will always be there, it is meant to be there.

ET: So anything that you want to talk about that we have not touched upon? Last time I talked to you you said there was so much more. Hopefully we touched a little bit on that now.

Zakhm: I'd like to keep it a little abstact...I am not trying to do that but that way it can still be relevant in like an year.

ET: You got your shit down, it will be relevant in an year, don't worry about it.