by / October 22nd, 2008 /

Interview: Nitin Sawhney

State had a fascinating chat with Nitin Sawhney recently where we discussed everything from racial attacks to what it’s like being somebody ‘not white’ in London after the Underground bombings to the current economic climate to the corporate ‘fat cat twats’, his views on Sarah Palin and why he’s not crazy about Obama either.

We also found time to chat about his eight studio album London UnderSound, released earlier this month. The album boasts an impressive line up of guest collaborators including Paul McCartney, Natty, Imogen Heap, Roxanne Tataei, Tina Grace and Aruba Red and is an exercise in combining many different musical elements to celebrate cultural diversity. Sawhney, a world class producer, songwriter, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, orchestral composer and current affairs commentator, is indeed a very talented man with a lot to say.

I believe your educational background is in Law, then you qualified as an Accountant. Can you tell us how you became involved in music?
I’ve been playing since I’m five years old. I was a classical pianist. Then I got into playing flamenco guitar and then I was in punk bands, funk bands, rock bands, played with orchestras since I was really small. I’ve just always played music really.

You have lots of roles in music – producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, orchestral composer) which discipline are you most comfortable in and why?
It’s all just about exploring music. I don’t think of any of these things as separate. For me, it’s just about playing with sounds and trying to get across ideas. It’s working with emotion, and music is a language of emotion, so that’s really where I’m coming from when I do this.

What’s your favourite instrument, the one you always pick up first?
In a way, in my head I pick up an orchestra first. I love writing music for orchestra and that’s the thing I’m in to. But at the same time, I feel comfortable with any instrument whether is a guitar or piano or percussion or drums or bass or whatever. All of those things feel comfortable to me because it’s what you put into them, it’s the idea you put into them. I don’t feel limited because I spent a long time practicing each of those instruments since I was younger. But it’s more where your imagination takes things really.

How is composing music for a game different to a film?
It’s different in that you’ve got all these different possibilities, like you can have failure or success paths. You’ve got to get the music to reflect the level of activity, the level of success or failure the player is going through and it needs to be interactive so you’ve to account for that in the way you write the music. You got to think about keys, modulations, tempo and also how much orchestration you are going to use at a particular moment and how you segway from one moment to the next. If someone obviously falls off a cliff in the middle of a game as a character, it can happen at any point. It’s not that it happens after 10 minutes or 11 minutes exactly. It can happen whenever they’re playing so you’ve got to find a way through. It’s almost like being a DJ too. You got to be able to segway from one piece of music to the next in a way that feels seamless. That forms the way in which you orchestrate it and the way in which you work.

That sounds rather restrictive. Would that be fair to say?
It’s actually just a different challenge. Any constraint is a challenge. If someone says ‘these are the rules’ just kinda go ok well if those are the constraints I’m working with, I’ve just got to find a way to make it work.

Nitin Sawhney – Distant Dreams (London UnderSound)

Your album current album, London UnderSound, was released October 10th. It incorporates many different genres and collaborators. Was this to reflect London’s diversity?
In the beginning, I did want to write about London, I did want to represent something about London so I guess in choosing the collaborators and in choosing what kinda things is going to sit on the album was kinda based around my feelings.

I think I disseminated my own intensity about the album by working with quite a diverse range of people. I think that was really helpful because each of those people have their own sort of ideas about London but beforehand, I would play them a load of ideas or different things and try and get on the same page in terms of how we were thinking. It still feels very cohesive and it still feels like a ‘me’ album even though there was a lot of people involved.

You worked with many different people on this album including Paul McCartney. Can you tell us what that was like?
It was great. He’s a really nice bloke . He’s very down to earth and he just came in and recorded that track. What I liked about that track is that it worked as a kinda of metaphor for cameras on every street corner. He talks about cameras or photographer stealing his soul. And I quite like that idea. It’s a similar thing, when walking around the city, you feel watched.

There is this Orwellian atmosphere that’s been created in London now. I suppose, I was thinking about all of that – how London has become a different kind of place and what he felt by trying to regain his freedom as a celebrity is quite interesting. It doesn’t matter how much you have or what you think you’ve got, if you don’t have your freedom, it’s a very difficult thing to be yourself and hold on to your identity.

You also worked with many of your London contemporaries such as Natty, who witnessed the London bombings and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Was it difficult to record songs that affected him, and so many others, so personally?

It felt OK. I spent ages talking to him about what he felt and what he thought and really that track is more of a reflection than anything. I’m not trying to create a political perspective on either of those issues. That track is both about the bombing that he witnessed, the bus that exploded in front of him, and also about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, that he [Natty] was a couple of train carriages behind, two weeks later.

It’s about the fact that that was a weird bit of synchronicity and in a way it’s like saying that he more than anyone feels that something has shifted in London. It’s really about that. It’s saying that it’s not the same place it used to be. It’s just that shock. That sense that something happened then that shifted his perception of London forever. I think in a way it’s a loss of innocence.

I think it did shift for a lot of people who weren’t white in London. A lot of people don’t feel safe walking through London Underground. The very fact that the last justification from the Police for shooting Jean Charles de Menezes was that he had Mongolian eyes. You kind of think, well what does that say if you are a brown person or a black person or whatever? You’re bound to have that, even on a very, very, simple level, at the back of your mind whenever you take the tube.

There’s something there still because no one was held accountable, there was nothing. What happened was that a man, a Brazilian man, was shot seven times in the head for no fucking reason at all and no one ever took any responsibility for that. No one. Ian Blair didn’t resign (Ed: He has since actually resigned 18 months before his contract was up ), no police were ever punished, nothing happened. So they take the piss out of the family by offering them such a small amount of money and they even said at the time that ‘this isn’t by way of compensation’ as if they said ‘well we’re not to blame’. It was just such arrogance.

In a way, it sent out the message that it doesn’t matter how innocent you are, if you are not white and you are walking around London, you can be treated like absolute dirt and no one’s going to give a shit. And that was a very strong message that came out of that, coupled with what happened to Stephen Lawrence a few years ago , the MacPherson report [about] institutional racism that existed [in the Metropolitan Police force]. Basically, London is very different now to how it was ten years ago because diversity isn’t as celebrated as it once was.

This isn’t an album that is going on about issues of race, it’s an album that is looking at London and celebrating the diversity of what London is, through engaging a whole diverse range of different artists to comment on what the city is. It’s not a political album, it’s not going off on one about race issues, but it’s interesting as it’s part of the backdrop of what’s happened.

You note that “London’s heartbeat has changed.” What are the changes you have noticed in music?
It’s interesting what’s coming out now. What I really like, one form of music that I’m really interested in is dubstep. It’s quite diverse in its self. You’ve got quite a lot of Indian influences and a lot of African influences that come into dubstep as well as the whole club vibe of it, which is brilliant. But I also think that the British music industry has been a lot less open to signing Asian bands or Black artist, more Asian bands, because they worry about the whole public perception and the Islam-aphobia that is out there, because brown people are associated with terrorism at times.

I read that you were victim to racial attacks when you were younger. Can you explain how it has affected your work?
For me, the National Front was very strong in my area. A lot of stuff that happened to me, a lot of racist attacks and violence, but what I did was I would just go into my room and play music. There were only about two or three Asian kids in the whole of the area and I hardly ever saw them so it was quite a weird thing. I used music as a kind safety valve because I was pissed off the whole time when I was growing up but having said that, it’s a great way to get past those things with music.

Music is a non-judgemental language, it’s a universal language, it’s an emotional language. It’s a great way to express what you’re feeling without putting it into words.

You appear regularly as an arts and current affairs commentator on topical discussion and news programs, so we wanted to ask your views on the upcoming American presidential election and the current economic climate.

First of all, the funniest thing is Sarah Palin. I just think it’s amazing the fact the have got this person [running for] Vice President who believes in creationism and believes in children using hand guns at schools and also believes that global warming or climate change had got absolutely nothing to do with people. How fucking irresponsible would she be? God help us, she could end up being president if something happened to McCain. He’s not exactly the healthiest looking of people. It’s quite worrying.

Thankfully, it looks like Obama is going to get in, not that I’m crazy about Obama. He did vote for the Patriot Act but I think given what’s going on in the world right now, he’s definitely the better bet and in terms of the economic situation, you can see he’s much more clear-headed to deal with it.

And how is it that they find all these hundreds of billions, not only in America but here and across Europe, to create socialism for capitalist bastards? To fish them out of their shit that they’ve created for themselves and for everyone else when the NHS and education have to go around with begging bowls to get the government to even pay them the blindest bit of notice? As soon as you have these rich fat cat twats who screw it up for everyone who are down on their luck, the government becomes this shining knight who’s going to save them. I don’t really get that.

Laughs Sorry , do I sound like a cynical depress git? Having said all that, I do generally feel optimistic. I do have fun, you know. That’s why I put tracks like Day Break at the beginning [of the album] they feel pretty good, they are quite optimistic. Usually I have a laugh, go running or do something…Everyone is feeling the same at the moment. It’s all a bit nuts.

Nitin Sawnhey and band play Tripod on October 31st.