Karsh Kale is an Indian American producer, composer and musician, known for melding Indian music with the modern electronic club music of his American upbringing. Kale often creates a unique blend of Indian percussion with techno music and drum & bass. WTS got talking to him about his style of music, collaborations and more…
WTS: You grew up in New York but you showed promise as an Indian percussionist from an early age, how did that happen?
Karsh: Well I was first introduced to Indian music by my father who’s a great lover of Indian classical music and of course old film music. That’s the environment I grew up in. So the tabla and mridangam, the sounds of those things were introduced early on, and then I just naturally caught on. My father was very close friends with a film composer from India, they grew up together. We used to visit him when I was a small child. His name was Bal Barwe, he’s a Marathi guy he lived in Bombay, and he generally composed for Marathi films. He and my father had grown up together, so he brought me to him when I was about three years old and that was really the first time that I’d ever kind of played the tabla and from there I was always interested in it.
WTS: Your father played a major role in your musical development. Could you tell us more about that?
Karsh: Besides the fact that he was always playing music, he was the Vice President of an organization called the Indian Academy of Performing Arts, which was an organization in New York which used to bring Indian musicians. This was back in the time before people were playing in places like Carnegie Hall etc. They would organize concerts in high school auditoriums, so when I was growing up I got to see people like Bhimsen Joshi, Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia. So I really got to be backstage, meet the musicians and spend some time with them and things like that. My father’s also a singer and he plays the harmonium. So I grew up accompanying him and we played a lot of Marathi community events in the States. And then of course at home, at least four times a week he would be sitting with this harmonium and have me come and play with him. So a lot of my development came from that as well.
WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.
Karsh: Ever since I was a teenager, I started composing music, and started playing with different sounds because I was the drummer in most of the bands that I was playing in and of course there were all those instruments in my house, so I started learning with them, and we had 4 track recorders and 8 track recorders, so I started composing early. Once I came to New York as a student at NYU, I really started to see how I could take all of these different musical influences that I had from everything: from orchestra music to rock and roll to jazz, and that time electronica was something I was getting really interested in, and how I could take all of that and bring it together into one sound. And also, at the same time the technology helped too, being able to start making music in your own bedroom using computer software and things – that was coming up as well. So all of this happened at the same time and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, being in New York. Being able to be around a lot of different inspiring artistes, who were doing something similar – taking their culture, and incorporating it into a new idea, that was really what inspired me to start developing a sound. From 1993 to the end of that decade was when I really developed a sound for myself and found the places that I wanted be able to go as a composer and as a musician.
WTS: How would you describe your sound?
Karsh: That’s a tough question to answer. I think I’ve always tried for the past 15 years to try and describe the sound but I’ve never really found the right words. But I would say that the way that I describe my sound is creative. Once people hear what it is that I’m doing and the different places that I’m referencing it becomes clearer. Simply put, it’s a mix of Indian classical music, rock and roll and electronic music.
WTS: Do you plan to drift into other genres as a matter of experimentation?
Karsh: I already have. For me, even trance or psy-trance or techno or tech house all of these different sub genres of electronica, I don’t like how they become controlled by purists where it becomes stagnant. It becomes like still water for me and starts to stink if that makes any sense (laughs). Music has to continuously flow and it has to continuously evolve and as soon as you define it as something it stops developing. For me, that’s why I don’t like those terms like tech-house or something like that because that to me is like still water.
WTS: What kind of material do you like to play for your DJ Sets?
Karsh: I play all kinds of different stuff. We just played a show the other night, myself and The Midival Punditz, where we were DJing all kinds of music – everything from electronic ghazals to Jay-Z remixes and Rage Against The Machine to Underworld – we have really run the gamut of all the different kinds of music that we love. When it’s presented that way, people really understand you as an artiste because they really see the different places that you’re coming from. Those are my favourites of the DJ sets but I play everything from trance, to house to dubstep to drum and bass. But when I come back to creating my own music, I try not to fall into the trappings of creating a particular style and borrow different things from different styles to create something new.
WTS: How has the response been from the traditional folk artists that have heard your material?
Karsh: From the get-go, I have gotten a very positive response. On my very first album, I had got a call from Ustad Sultan Khan who happened to be in New York and he said if you’re working on an album I’d like to come down. Besides that, I have mainly been working with local artistes. Once these artistes started getting involved in what I do it was definitely very encouraging. Since then I think that more than listeners and more than people who keep the construct of the institution alive, the musicians and the artistes themselves – theyabsolutely understand where the music is coming from and more so they see where it can go in the future. That’s why we get so much support from people like Zakir bhai and Pandit Ravi Shankar, they have great respect for what is it that we’re trying to do and where is it that we can try and take it.
WTS: You’ve collaborated with a number of artistes including Anoushka Shankar. How has the experience been and how does it help you musically?
Karsh: For me especially, I don’t have an actual formal Guru who I turn to for musical advice, I’ve always listened to my own voice, my own instincts. So when I get to work with people, it’s a learning experience for me as well, I try and absorb a lot from them. Working with Anoushka for instance, we didn’t just go to the studio for a couple of weeks and write. We spent almost 3 years between the time that we started writing the music and between the time we released and started performing the music. Being around her and learning so much of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s repertoire through that and being in the studio with people like Shankar Mahadevan and Vishwa Mohan Bhat – these are people who you learn from when you’re writing with them , and when you’re recording with them. So I’ve had the opportunity to be around such great artistes. I tend to absorb what’s around me. For me, I’m fortunate that I can really absorb a lot from an artiste if I’ll be able to spend time with them. So, what I learn from collaborating with people like them is that I take a little piece of them with me.
WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.
Karsh: Before I work with different artistes, I tend to assess what it is that they are going to bring to the table. Because for me, I can do a lot of different things – I can sit down a guitar, on a piano, on a computer and start programming and I can sit on tabla, harmonium, and start training Indian minds and things like that so it depends on who I’m working with. When I was working with Anoushka I was mainly playing acoustic guitar while she was on sitar. And we were trying to figure out the different places where we can take these traditional lines and bring them into a western context. When I’m working with The Midival Punditz our frame of reference is different. I might be sitting and programming with them and Gaurav might have composed some keyboard parts, so it really depends on who is bringing what and I try to fill in this gap. What we did with ‘Karthik Calling Karthik‘, I was doing more string arranging while these guys were doing a lot more of the electronic programming sounds which all came together to make the soundtrack. So it really depends on the project and who I’m working with.
WTS: Tell us about your association with The Midival Punditz.
Karsh: Well we’ve done a tremendous amount of stuff together (laughs). We met in 1998 in London, and we had both been playing each other’s music in our DJ sets. At that time it was very exciting to meet artistes who were doing something similar because all of us started with the feeling that we were alone, that we were the only ones trailblazing this sound. So when I met the Punditz, we met on a musical level but firstly we got along on a personal level so well that we’ve become family and over the years our families have become family as well. In that way that’s first and foremost what our association had become. But then more than anything, we recognized that we bring so much to each other, because we come from such different places because they tend to come from a DJ culture even though they grew up listening to rock music and are very well versed in Indian music, from film music to Indian classical music. So we get to meet on a lot of different levels. When I can sit with an artiste and reference Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Stravinsky at the same time that’s when the associations, for me, tend to continue and that’s what it’s like for me and the Punditz. We can come together on so many different levels.
WTS: Is the audience an important factor to consider while composing?
Karsh: I think it depends. We need to think differently when we are working on a project like a film because first and foremost you’ve to think in terms of the director’s vision. It’s not just your own artistic vision that you’re adding, you have to be in line with the main theme and the main idea of the story and what the vision of the director is in the direction of the film. When I was working on Cinema, I really kind of went in and every time I’d hit a wall and think this is what’s expected of me, I tended to turn the other way and do something else that I felt going to be more challenging. But that’s what I like to do as an individual artiste but if I’m working with somebody else and they say I want to do something for the radio then I know how to think that way. Personally, I would much rather challenge my audience, make them scratch their head a little bit and then come back and realize and discover something new, as opposed to giving them something that they have already heard before.
WTS: For a performance such as yours, what do you aim for in your music? People don’t seem to realize skill in such music, what do you think of that?
Karsh: I think that just comes from people’s ability to be able to see it in different ways, visually being able to see a concert and see what people are doing because otherwise, we don’t necessarily know what we’re hearing when we listen to a piece of music unless you hear live music and see how they interact with electronic musicians and things like that, because this is a new phenomenon as well. What we’re doing now in a live context is taking the aspect of electronica and DJing and bringing together the aspect of interaction between musicians. I think the audience is growing with more and more that they get to see of what it is that we do.
As far as what we want to accomplish, I think it’s more on a level of making people have an experience, letting them lose themselves. For me that’s what music is. Music is an intoxicant that takes you to another world, takes through your own thoughts and animates your life. That’s what we try and do with our music, we try and let people go into their own space and let this music become the score for their own life. As opposed to drawing their attention to my fingers or to somebody’s skill on the sitar, which is impressive when you see a concert, but it tends to take away from the cerebral experience, what we try and do is focus our music more on the mind experience. For me, there’s a fine line between music and sports (laughs).While growing up as a table player, as a drummer, I grew up in that competitive environment but I realized right away that is not where it ends for me, music is much more than that. It goes beyond than somebody’s doing or their dexterity on the instrument, it goes to what is the story that’s being told and how profoundly can you tell that story.
WTS: Where do you think the future of electronica lies?
Karsh: When people say electronica, it’s almost as if it’s something different or separate from live music. I think it’s just another instrument and another dimension that’s been added to music. So when people see music in the future they are going to see musicians who have incorporated technology in whatever they are doing. Think of the tabla, as a traditional instrument the way it sounds today is not the way it sounded even 50 years ago. There’s a lot of technology involved and there’s a lot of audio analysis that has gone into how to present the music on an international platform. We can’t think of electronica as something brand new and challenge that. It’s just a natural progression of something traditional. Because otherwise there’s no way to fill that space with sound and there’s no way to be able to make those instruments so eloquent. All these great artistes have been part of the development of these instruments. And now I use electric tablas on stage, I have modified my tablas so that i can go through the laptop and modify the sounds, and I can control the instrument, but what you’re hearing is something certainly new.
WTS: Tell us about your connection with Bollywood and about your upcoming projects.
Karsh: Bollywood is something we’ve always talked about, not as a style but as an industry that we’d love to break into, that we’d like to use as a platform to expose what we do as artistes. It was once again a natural progression for us to get to that point where the audience is ready to hear what we’ve been developing all these years. If you look at any scene or any exposure for a particular style of music, you’d think that it became popular when it was discovered. But usually when you look into it there are years or decades of development that went in to that before the major or general audience came to know about it. What I feel what we’re bringing to it now is a natural progression because it takes time to develop something before it is time for it to be exposed.
WTS: You’ve expressed a desire to work for Hollywood projects, has anything come up yet?
Karsh: We’re not doing anything right now but we’ve collaborated with a lot of independent artistes in the States, we have worked with Ajay Naidu, who’s a Hollywood actor and has his own independent film that he’s produced directed and we have done the music for that. It’s called Ashes which is now playing in film festivals across the States and of course we have higher hopes to do more. For us it’s not necessarily about Hollywood/Bollywood as much as it’s about a good film. Rahman for that matter – he’d just done a Hollywood film last year and it wasn’t a very good film, but it was Hollywood. I think the differentiation has to be made about a good film because genres put out all kinds of different products. As an audience we have to differentiate between what’s quality and what’s not.
WTS: You’ve said you enjoyed collaborating with Sting the most. What was so different in this collaboration?
Karsh: Well I think for me it was that I got to write the song as opposed to him coming and writing the song with us. When we worked with Norah Jones on the album, we sat together and had written the song together. He’s another hero of mine, he’s somebody I had been listening to since I was 12 years old, studying his music and style, even when he was with The Police and as a solo artiste. Getting to the point, writing a song for him was like a final exam, it was that moment where you have to prove what you know and I had to prove it with a man who for me is one of the best song writers in the world. To be able to write something like that is like writing a novel for Shakespeare!