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The sum of his parts

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 12, 2018
The prodigal son Sid Vashi popped up on the Indian indie radar four years ago, when he released Motherland Tourism, a Bollywood-sample-heavy LP

The prodigal son: Sid Vashi popped up on the Indian indie radar four years ago, when he released Motherland Tourism, a Bollywood-sample-heavy LP

Maker of worlds: Azuma Kazuma is a concept album, a space opera with artworks depicting the different environments that each track is set in. Artwork by Johnny Ganta

Maker of worlds: Azuma Kazuma is a concept album, a space opera with artworks depicting the different environments that each track is set in. Artwork by Johnny Ganta

Doctored beats Vashi sees himself as more of a
science person than a musician

Doctored beats: Vashi sees himself as more of a science person than a musician

For 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist and producer Sid Vashi, music was something to do when not buried in medical books

“I can’t say f*** so much, right?” Sid Vashi asks, suddenly self-conscious. It’s a sunny April afternoon and we’re having coffee at the Bagel Shop, a favourite haunt of Bandra’s much-written-about creative class. A couple of tables away, two scriptwriters — with Macbooks, of course — are loudly complaining about a certain big-name film production house. A waiter brushes past, carefully balancing a tray overloaded with drinks and food. Dressed sharply in a blue shirt and slacks, the 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist and producer takes a sip of his coffee before adding, “Just replace it with something else. I’m sorry, I’m not so lewd generally.”

Vashi popped up on the Indian indie radar four years ago, when he released Motherland Tourism — a Bollywood-sample-heavy meditation on identity and the conflict and contradictions that come with being a second-generation immigrant. Anu Malik samples and auto-tuned Kishore Kumar vocals sit comfortably alongside shuffling J Dilla-esque beats and jazz saxophone interludes, disparate parts of a surprisingly cohesive whole. Composed while in the middle of pre-medical studies in Boston, Motherland Tourism’s playful sampledelic hip-hop made Vashi an instant critical darling, coming as it did at a time when indie electronica — as opposed to the much more popular and club-friendly techno and bass music — was just finding its feet in India. He was quickly labelled one of the scene’s most promising talents, championed by indie electronica tastemakers Wild City and performed well-received sets at music festivals such as the NH7 Weekender and Magnetic Fields.

But Vashi — who holds a degree in neuroscience and philosophy — was caught between his unexpected popularity as a beat-maker and his dreams of becoming a doctor. The music was just a passion project, something he did between working as a medical editor in a Mumbai hospital and preparing for medical school. It wasn’t till he suffered a broken leg last year and spent six weeks confined to his bed that he decided to put medical school on hold and focus on music full time. The result is his latest record — and first ‘official’ album — titled Azuma Kazuma, released this week. “It was a tough time, I lost like eight kilos,” he laughs. “But I’m better now.”

***

Born in Flint, Michigan, Vashi spent the first 16 years of his life travelling around the Midwestern state. His father worked for General Motors, while his mother was a schoolteacher. Much of that time was spent in Detroit, one of the US’s most musically rich cities and the birthplace of the Motown Sound and techno. It also has vibrant garage-rock and independent rap scenes, and, growing up, Vashi would be exposed to a diverse range of musical traditions — from punk and hip-hop in school to his dad’s extensive jazz collection. But his first musical memory is of AR Rahman’s classic soundtrack to Mani Ratnam’s Bombay. “I used to play that CD all the time, on repeat, particularly ‘Hamma Hamma’,” he says. “Each song is a journey, there are so many subsections, so many cinematic sections where the whole feel of it changes. It’s a very unique songwriting style that’s necessitated by the narrative form, and it blew my mind.”

When he was 11, Vashi enrolled in a jazz programme at his middle school. He was drawn to the trombone, but his jazz aficionado father convinced him to pick up the saxophone instead (“He told me that girls will like me”). He spent the next two years learning the intricacies of scales and chord theory as well as engaging with broader conceptual ways of looking at music. He credits the programme and his teacher Blackwell (“a very intense kind of guy”) for inculcating a musical sensibility that focuses more on the aesthetics of sound than its mechanics.

By the time he was in eighth grade, Vashi had graduated from the saxophone to the guitar, playing in a high school pop-punk band called Break The Routine. “I wanted to play guitar really badly; again, for girls, because the saxophone thing didn’t really work out,” he laughs. “Nobody cares about the band geek.”

Pop-punk’s limited power chords vocabulary didn’t satisfy Vashi’s grander musical ambitions, and, soon after, he started another band called the Roaming Hands, a guitar-sax-drums trio that crafted free-form experiments in noise and dissonance. But that project came to a crashing end in 2008, when the financial crisis forced his parents to relocate to India. For Vashi, the sudden transition at 16 from his high school in Detroit to Kodaikanal International School was particularly jarring. “I didn’t talk for the first month, kids were like ‘what’s wrong with you’, but I literally didn’t know what to say,” he remembers.

But it didn’t take long for Vashi to adjust to life back in the motherland, especially because he wasn’t unfamiliar with the feelings of being an outsider. He tells me that growing up in Detroit, it was impossible to escape the feeling of being distinct from the white and black people he grew up around, of being ‘different from the norm’. “You feel like you’re always being watched in America, but over here it feels like you can exist the way you want to exist.”

He didn’t fit in with the Indian-American kids either, because he didn’t conform to their idea of what it meant to be ‘Indian’ — get good marks in school, subscribe to conservative social mores. “I think that also comes from your parents being scared,” he says. “If you’re an immigrant, then 99 per cent of the decisions you make are out of fear because you’ve done this incredibly scary thing by uprooting yourself and moving to a country where nobody knows or cares about you. So I get why some immigrant kids were pressured to behave in certain ways. But because of that, I didn’t get along with people who looked like me either.”

Many of those anxieties made their way into his debut project, Motherland Tourism, recorded when he went back to the US to study at Boston University. The 10 tracks on the record were informed by Vashi feeling like a tourist not just in India but also in the country where he grew up.

“Because once I realised that my Indian culture was something I could be very comfortable with, coming back didn’t feel like returning home, it felt like just a place,” he says. “But now I guess every place feels like a place, I don’t really feel super at home anywhere.”

Vashi isn’t the first indie musician to use Bollywood samples, but he is one of the few who don’t deploy such samples as ironic punchlines. For him, the musical output of composers like Ilayaraaja and RD Burman represent not the musical tyranny of the overbearing film industry — which makes anything related to it anathema for a lot of Indian indie fans — but rather a pioneering use of synthesised sounds in a mainstream context. “Before that it was such a niche thing, people playing synth music to small crowds in dark rooms in Germany and Scandinavia,” he says. “These guys were doing it in huge movies that everyone sees, everyone was hearing these wild synths. So our palette is that much more unique and that much more progressive because of that.”

Which is why Vashi sounds so perplexed when he talks about the way Indian audiences and venue owners respond to him dropping Bollywood songs in his sets. “Venue owners get really upset if you play Bollywood,” he says. “And it’s crazy because if you have some international guy coming he has every licence to do that. You come in with your brown skin and you play Bollywood, everyone’s like this guy’s a cheap f***er.”

***

As the waiter clears away our empty glasses, the conversation shifts to Azuma Kazuma, which sees Vashi revisiting his first project as a 14-year-old — a space opera inspired by an unreleased Weezer concept album. A three-part epic ( Azuma Kazuma covers only the first two parts) about a mining prospector for a corporate conglomerate operating in deep space who re-evaluates his life after a near-death experience, the record follows the prospector’s journey home to Earth, each track a self-contained world in which different parts of the story take place. The music is a departure from the sampletronica aesthetic Vashi is known for. Instead, he’s using his new production chops to create environments — lush soundscapes that are a captivating mix of the alien and familiar.

“It was a sort of challenge to stay away from sampling,” he says, before adding that legal troubles with clearing samples was part of why he changed his approach. “But I’ve also learned a lot about production in this time, so the record is much more engineered and deliberate. I also tried recreating sounds instead of sampling them, like this Anu Malik vocal sample from Judwa that I really love. I found a great chord that sounded just like it.”

On Azuma Kazuma, intricate sax solos float over manjira rhythms, sparse tabla beats anchor shimmering chromatic basslines, mechanical found sounds rumble and keen ominously before giving way to R&B melodies. Tribal vocal samples dominate the Afro-futurist jungle planet of ‘Ghost Don’t Follow Me’. Elsewhere, you have frequent collaborator Soopy’s dreamy lilt competing with Divya Lewis’s understated Indian classical melodies on the gently meandering lead single ‘Prey’, while chopped-up vocals by F16s frontman Josh Fernandez dominate the cinematic deep-space soundscape of album closer ‘Hauz’.

This is music that defies characterisation — just when you think you’ve got a particular track pinned down, it wriggles out of your grasp and transforms into something else. This is what world music should sound like, instead of the lazy mish-mash that passes for it today. Though Vashi would hate for his music to be tagged with that label.

“It’s not [world music], it’s just whatever I’m making,” he says. “If I hear one more sitar over a 4x4 beat I’ll probably kill myself. But I’m sure there’s a way to do cool things with Indian instruments and do it tastefully, and that’s what the goal is.”

***

Accompanying the album are a series of visual works by his friend Johnny Ganta, collages that flesh out the different environments in which each track is set. “We’re making a whole world,” he says. “It’s gonna start with art that we put on Instagram but we’re gonna expand beyond that.”

We spend the next half hour chatting about the Indian live music scene (“I don’t think any of the venues are music venues, people are just going out and there happens to be music there”), jazz purists (“I call them jazzholes”) and his plans for a future EP that will take the Azuma Kazuma narrative to its final conclusion (“It’ll have a whole different aesthetic, because the character goes through a very intense transformation at the end of this album”).

As we wrap things up and get ready to leave, I ask him what drew him to the idea of a space opera in the first place. “I see myself as more of a science person than a musician,” he explains. “Space is something that I don’t feel like I know enough about, but every time I learn something about it, it blows my mind.”

Published on May 26, 2017

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