ASK ASHVIN |
In this Exclusive feature interview, we put Jalebee Cartel band member – Ashvin – under the Smirnoff Spotlight. Discover why his mum rocks, what the heck he was doing in Kazakhstan and what it is that inspires the Cartel to make great dance music.
Jalebee Cartel - aka Arjun Vagale, Ashvin Mani Sharma, Ash Roy and G-Force Arjun – are, arguably, India’s leading electronica outfit. They’ve electrified audiences at some of the world’s hottest festivals and clubs and drawn praise from A-list DJs, including Pete Tong, Tiesto, Dave Seaman, Carl Cox, and even Apl.de.ap from the Black Eyed Peas.
With 31 remixes, 24 singles and a debut album, “One Point Nothing”, behind them, how do Jalebee keep the fans coming back for more? A constantly evolving, always fresh, blend of raw, electric urban dance music.
Want to know more? Join founding band member, Ashvin Mani Sharma, as he takes Smirnoff readers on a journey from his family home in a small village near Benares in Uttar Pradesh to the Cartel’s formative years in Delhi to today’s Indian electronica scene.
Check Ashwin’s pic here: http://bit.ly/9296al
Small villages in Uttar Pradesh are not exactly known for their thumping club scenes. I’m guessing you first got into music when you were at boarding school in Mussorie and Nanital – who was the first band you liked and who introduced you to them? Actually, it was Led Zeppelin from my Mum. My Mum has been trying to get me into music for ever.
Basically, I got a totally varied musical background because my mum’s from Goa and my dad is from North India. [My Dad was] more into traditional Hindi and Indian classical music - my Mum’s totally the other side. She’s a western classical pianist but also plays the guitar and loves 1970s rock. She listened to Led Zeppelin and The Who and King Crimson. And she also loves blues and jazz - BB King and Nat King Cole. So I got it all.
So did your mum encourage you to play an instrument? Yeah, I studied the piano for 3 years. But as a child you want to go where the action is. So when I was around 14 or 15 and there was a choice between music and the sports team, I was like ‘Ahhh, I have to be a jock.’ So I quit piano around 14. And that is about the extent of my training – first grade piano. [laughs]
Quitting music to play Basketball didn’t turn out too bad for you though. You were on the College Basketball team when you moved to Mumbai’s Xavier College, right? Yeah, in College, being on the Basketball team actually saved me for five years. I didn’t have bad marks but I had no attendance. I went to class like 7 per cent of the time. But because I was on the College Basketball team, I kind of smoothed my way through by charming them [the Xavier teachers] and saying “Hey, I’m sorry.” [laughs]
It was also this time – living and studying in Mumbai - that you started to get into electronic music, is that right? Yep, when I moved to Bombay and started visiting Goa, I got a taste of old-school Goa trance and some very deep electronic beats from that side. People were just experimenting and coming out with this stuff. And I immediately got hooked.
Kazakhstan? Dude, where did that come from? I don’t wish to offend any Kazakh readers, but the only thing I know about the place is comedian, Sascha Cohen’s character, Borat. How did you score a job working as a DJ in Almaty? Well, just when I was getting desperate [after finishing College] and planning to take up some silly travel writing job, I suddenly got this offer from Russia. A friend was working there and [he told me that] the resident DJ had just left. So they needed someone to come in a hurry, and he said, ‘Can you come next week?’, and I was like ‘Yeeesss!’
Like I said, Kazakhstan isn’t on the radar for most people. Did you even know how to speak Russian before you went there? I had no idea how to speak the language - frankly speaking, I had no idea how to even DJ. My first night on the job [in Almaty’s second biggest club] was the first night I ever DJ’ed a proper full night.
Almaty is very oil rich town, and there is tons of money being thrown around. So the set wasn’t as smooth as I wished it, but I ended up making about $300 in tips. I was like, ‘Whhaaatt?’ My salary was $500, so I was thinking, ‘Damn this is good. If I can make this much on tips every night, I’ll be sorted!’
[In Almaty] I had to work continuously everyday for ten months with maybe one day off. And I had to play Britney spears and the regular commercial stuff. So it really gave me my grounding as a DJ so to speak - having to do it day-in and day-out. So that was my year of actually slogging it really hard - of earning my basic right to be a DJ. And by the time I moved back to India, I had figured out what I really wanted to do.
After coming back from Kazakhstan you completed your sound engineering course in Chennai and then moved to Delhi where you hooked up with Ash, who had just done his sound engineering in Singapore. It was also around this time in 2004, while you and Ash were earning a crust by producing and selling Bollywood remixes together, that you first decided to play some live gigs. The end result was Jalebee Cartel.
Given that you have come so far since then, I’m wondering what is it about the Jalebee Cartel band members – you, Ash and the two Arjuns – that works so well together? How do you guys keep producing such jumping tracks? It’s a mixture of everything. We don’t really know why it works, and I’m not going to question that. But it’s a good vibe, we understand each other and we are great admirers of each other more than anything. So I’m always trying to amaze my band mates with my work, and I feel that, at the back of their heads, they are trying to amaze the rest of the band also. And so I think that leads to a lot of healthy growth.
You guys have produced 31 remixes, 24 singles and one album. Stick all the singles together and you have two more albums. Why so many singles? Because, economically, it doesn’t really make sense [recording albums]. Our main source of income is our touring. We don’t really make any money from selling our music. And I don’t think anyone does in India.
When we sit to make an album, we really have to take three or four months off and make it a cohesive piece of 8 or 10 tracks. So it’s a catch 22 - you have to do a lot of shows to make enough money, but if you do a lot of shows you can’t make enough music. So the best way out of that is to just do singles because you get like two or three days and you can sit together and churn out a track.
Your list of admirers from the international electronica and dance scene is seriously impressive. What does that mean to you guys and does it affect your music in anyway? It is definitely very good to be acknowledged because that is something everyone is really looking for. But I have to say that we don’t try to follow anybody else’s sound because the minute you try to cater to someone or something, then there is bound to be a mistake. It is better if we are honest in our expression and let it fall where it does. Let people categorise it, let people put it into whatever genre they feel. I don’t think that is our job, our job is just to make good honest dance music and not worry about the rest so much.
You guys are helping to spearhead what is an increasingly vibrant and exciting local electronica scene. Do you see it that way, and what do you think of your fellow Indian dance artists? We admire all our contemporaries. Everyone has made their own niche. If you look at the Shaa’ir + Func grunge-rock, electro kind of sound - it’s their own sound. It is not like they are copying anyone. MIDIval Punditz have their own sound. It’s not like they are trying to do what we are doing. And we have our own sound. No one is just following the beaten path because there is none in India.
So creatively and musically there is a lot of diversity and variety, which is really good for the scene. I think it’s just about ready to explode.
I know G-Force Arjun used to play in a metal band. Has there ever been a gig where he couldn’t resist surprising you guys by suddenly breaking out into a heavy metal riff? In fact, at our last gig in Dubai, G-Force did do something like that. In one of the songs he started playing a different riff, and we were all like ‘Wooooh, where did that come from?’
I think that’s what gets each other going, just to give the grin to each other and say, ‘Hey, what did you think of that’. [laughs]
Cheers for all of your answers Ashvin. If you don’t mind, to finish off, I’ve just got four fast questions.
What is your favourite gig ever? Top gig is definitely Paradiso [in Amsterdam].
Your favourite Indian venue to perform at? Blue Frog.
Is there any difference between Indian and international electronica audiences? Only the fact that people in Europe are more familiar with techno and accept it a lot more easily, whereas here you have to draw people in.
Do any of you guys have any unusual interests or hobbies? I think we are all really focused. One hobby [music] keeps us going. If you are not DJ’ing you are looking for the next great track.
And for all us electronica fans that’s, possibly, the best news to come out of the interview. With the Cartel members so focused on their music, it means we can all look forward to plenty more years of grooving to this talented quartet’s livewire sound. Life is Calling guys, Be There at the next Jalebee gig.
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