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Nitin Sawhney - Q&A


Interview by: Jack Foley

Q. Are you looking forward to the July 14 release date for the album?
A.
Yeah, I'm looking forward to it a lot, actually, it should be cool. Just seeing what people make of it. I mean, it's been good around Europe, where I've been doing loads of interviews and just chatting to people. But there is a nice vibe from the album; it's cool.

Q. You describe it as your most personal work to date, does that also mean that, as a result, it's one of the albums you're most proud of?
A.
I'm proud of all the albums I've made, because I feel like they're honest. It's what I feel and what I think. So from that point of view I feel happy with them.
This one's kind of an autobiographical album, so it's probably the most personal one, like you said.
In that way, I kind of feel like I'm most exposed on it, but I also feel like I'm most connected to it.
I also feel very happy with the collaborations, because also it's an album of songs. It's a journey through time rather than looking at the whole world, or anything. It's more of an internal thing, and about working with people who also were sharing their experiences and stuff like that.

Q. Yeah, you have some amazing collaborations, which are almost as diverse as the music on the album, how do you go about approaching the people you want to work with? Do you identify people before you write the songs, and then go about approaching them?
A.
Kind of. It's not that difficult really. Anyone I've ever asked has always been open to it. I haven't really had anyone say 'no, I don't want to work with you'.
We even, at one point, were thinking Chris Martin, from Coldplay, and he had a meeting with me and was up for doing it. It's just that he was in America at the time that I was going to start recording.
But working with, say, Matt Hales, was fantastic, but they're all great. And it's also nice to work with a load of unsigned talent.
In fact, I think Matt Hales is the only signed artist, apart from me, on the whole album, which is really cool. I think it's quite nice that there is a real range of people that are unsigned and fresh....

Q. It [the album] does capture an emerging sound of exciting new music, doesn't it?
A.
Yeah, it's very London-based, compared to other albums I've done, but I mean I like that as well, because I like the diversity that actually already exists in London, and it's also a nice static point to look back on your whole life.

Q. What made you come to the decision to start looking back on your whole life now?
A.
I suppose it's kind of feeling like I wanted to try and re-focus my thinking as a person, after feeling like I was having my head pushed around by a lot of bullshit coming from politicians and the media, really.
I don't understand any of the thinking that's going on in the world right now, where people think it's alright to go around murdering people on the basis that they just need money and oil off them... and that we actually think that's ok. I can't really understand that, and I don't really relate to that society.
So, I kind of wanted to make an album where I wanted to try and figure out who I was, and what exactly I'm supposed to feel in relation to everything that is going on around me.

Q. In that respect, it's quite a bold album as well, because reading some of the biography, with tracks such as Falling, they are kind of born out of a difficult upbringing, with the school that you were in. How was that?
A.
It was quite a racist time. I mean, the National Front used to be outside the school gates all the time with a van, shouting stuff at me as I would walk home from school.
I would also have National Front leaflets passed round to all my mates, or I'd get attacked quite frequently, I was the only Asian person around, and I was banned from the school music rooms by a racist music teacher, who didn't let me in the music rooms for six years.
There was all kinds of stuff, it's just racist times. I once drove into a National Front march when I was 12, by accident, so there was all kinds of mad shit that was happening around then.

Q. So it's all the more impressive that you didn't allow it to have an adverse reaction on you, to become equally as racist....
A.
Yeah, well I just tend to think that nationality is just such a load of rubbish; it doesn't really mean anything at all. It's just so meaningless.
It's incredible how much priority and how much meaning is placed on the idea of nationality when people say they are proud to be Asian, proud to be English, American, or whatever. It doesn't make any sense, because at the end of the day, it's not something you've achieved, it's something that you just happened to be born into by chance.
I don't really understand the notion of being proud of something that really happened to you by chance.
And, also, it seems to be a bit of an excuse to be a complete bastard to other people, whether that's on one side of the world or the other. It just seems like nationality is always used as an excuse by politicians to get people to do all kinds of disgusting, and unacceptable things that they want them to do.

Q. Following on from that, then, I was going to ask you what your view of the world is today? Maybe quite a confused one?
A.
I'm pretty clear about what I make of things. I feel disgusted by... I mean, my view is incredibly simple.
I believe one human being is worth the same as any other, regardless of who they are and where they come from. That's pretty fucking simple as far as I'm concerned.
Unfortunately, that perspective is seen as hugely radical and politicised and mad by people like George Bush and Tony Blair, because their perspective is that it is completely justified to go around murdering people on the basis that you want oil, as long as they're not from America or England.
As far as I can see, I can't see much that actually contradicts that. I mean, John Pilliger talks about weapons of mass destraction, and that's what they use all the time, to keep us from noticing what's going on... that basically, they want what they want to get, and they'll take it, and they don't really care how many children or people get in the way. They'll just slaughter whoever is opposing them.
As George Bush quite clearly stated, 'you're either with us or against us', so if you're in the way of him getting a load of oil for himself and his mates, then you're definitely against him.

Q. You use a lot of samples of world leaders and political figures in your music, such as Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Martin Luther King and, on the last album, Nelson Mandela, how do you go about choosing them?
A.
With this album it was very much more about chronology, because I was trying to contextualise various tracks. Particularly with Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell, that was about 1968, and that was the climate that the track was written in, or that idea comes from, much as Nixon talking establishes that was 1972, and Thatcher establishes the 80s and materialism.
It's just floating around and establishing the chronology of the album, really, and using appropriate icons of the time to actually just contextualise where certain feelings came from, or certain frustrations or depressions. It's kind of like those people were very dominant in terms of my life, even if I didn't necessarily want them there.

Q. Your music also encompasses so many different types of styles. I read a Guardian interview that says you are constantly classed as world music, which they thought was wrong. How would you class your own music, and what kind of styles do you particularly like? And how do you decide which kind of styles are going to be used on different tracks, because you tend to fuse a lot of styles all of the time?
A.
I'm just into expression. I don't think in terms of fusion, because I would find that a very contrived way to work, I just think in terms of the whole world being my pallete.
That should be the case, because I feel that there shouldn't really be any barriers in creativity. So when I'm working on something, I just tend to look for what seems to be the appropriate vocabulary to express what I'm feeling. So I don't tend to look to fuse things, as if I did, that would feel contrived, forced and artificial. So I'm much more into, if it feels appropriate to use Indian Classical voice in a certain place, and gets across the right emotion and energy for what I'm trying to say, then I'll use it.
And it's the same for anything else, whether it's Brazilian vibes, or Flamenco, or western classical, or jazz or whatever, or just hip-hop or drum 'n' bass or whatever... it doesn't matter to me what the form is, it's much more about what the idea and the emotion is.

Q. You must therefore have felt very honoured to receive the Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2000...
A.
Yeah, it's been good. It's weird, actually, because I've had a lot of award things - I think I've had about 12 awards now - and it's kind of, you know, there was the Mobo last time, and there was the South Bank Show award which I won at the same time, but it's nice. In fact, the nicest one that I got was a Musos award last year, which was from other musicians, but I don't really kind of think about that too much. It's nice, it's a nice acknowledgement, but I kind of find it weird in terms of the idea that somebody's expression is better than another person's expression. If I look at it as an acknowledgement of somebody's work, then it's nice and it's complimentary, but if I look at it as something comparative, I kind of find it a bit bizarre, really.

Q. Have you felt any pressure on subsequent albums as a result of the nominations/awards?
A.
No, I don't think about things like that. I just make an album I'm into, with things I want to say.

Q. Going back to the Nelson Mandela sample, you actually went to his house didn't you? What was that like?
A.
Incredible, I mean Nelson Mandela is the epitomy of everything that is balanced and kind of in tune about people. He respects himself, he respects what's around him, he's honest and he has a sense of equality for people that isn't derived from seeking power; he just seeks justice and balance and respect for everyone. So I think he is a really admirable bloke.
At the same time, I have also just read his book, Long Walk To Freedom, and I kind of find that really inspiring. It was like seeing a fictitious character come to life.
He's got a lot of humour as well, and he's also very grounded and friendly. I think he's somebody who just thinks way ahead of his time. I mean, even now, the readiness with which he, even though it's probably not in his best interests, is ready to turn around and condemn people like George Bush and so on, he's not really afraid to do that. He is quite disgusted at what's going on, and rightly so.
But the fact that at 85-years-old he can still see with that degree of clarity and that quickly what is really going on, is a testimony to his sharpness as a human being.

Q. Going back a little bit further, to your career, you started off as an accountant...
A.
I started off doing law, actually, at Liverpool University... But I did do some stuff later on.
Q. So what made you decide to make the break into music, particularly given that you weren't allowed to do it at school?
A.
It was more because there was no precedent for any Asian kids to actually make music, or make a living out of it. You just wouldn't be able to, so I just did whatever to make a living really.
But then as time went on, I just kind of stopped and got into music and nothing else really.

Q. And you also did some television work?
A.
Yeah, I did work with Sang, we wrote Goodness Gracious Me, and we were both co-creators, and I did some acting in that, quite a long time ago. I enjoyed it, Sang was a really good mate from college.
It was something I did, but then I kind of split from doing it when I felt it was getting a bit full-on, because really I'm a musician. That's what I do and what I've always done.

Q. But you have also done film soundtracks as well?
A.
Yeah, last year I did Bodily Harm with Timothy Spall for Channel 4, Second Generation, which is coming out in the Autumn for Channel 4, I did Twelfth Night for Channel 4, and Anita & Me. I mean loads of different things. I also produced an album for Cirque du Soleil, and did Kush, which was a dance piece that went around the world.

Q. So constantly busy... with the new album, are you going to be doing a tour?
A.
Yeah, we're playing Glastonbury, we're doing Womad, Shepherd's Bush Empire on July 20, we're doing The Big Chill, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow Jazz Festival; we're going over to Spain, Paris, Portugal, up until August 3. And then in late August we'll be playing in Singapore, and then we'll be touring again around October around the UK and Europe...

Q. Any plans to travel to America?
A.
Not at the moment, because I feel a bit weird about America right now. I just want to try and get my head around what I feel about doing that. But I should imagine that we will go there at some point.

Q. What about Glastonbury, will this be your first time?
A.
No, God, we've played there about 6 or 7 times, we've played Glastonbury since the cows left....

Q. And is that as great as it sounds? Because most major artists say they want to play there at some point in their career?
A.
It's cool. We've done it a lot and it's always great, when you get 15,000 people watching you.. and they're normally pretty attentive actually. We've had a very good experience at Glastonbury, apart from the e-coli year.

 

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