KSHMR: ‘India Has Been a Large Part of My Success’
The popular American DJ/producer on digging deep into his Indian heritage, the privileges of being an anonymous artist, and India’s burgeoning EDM scene
If there is one thing that stands out about Niles Hollowell-Dhar when you speak to him, it is his humility. All through the conversation over the phone from Los Angeles, he is remarkably unpresuming and easy to talk to. He takes contemplative pauses before answering questions and finds ways to weave in his gratitude. “I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the number 12 spot without India,” he says about his ranking on DJ Mag’s 2016 Top 100. At this point it’s almost easy to forget that this is KSHMR, the Indian-American producer responsible for some of the biggest hits in dance music in the last decade.
But before he gave us tracks like “Karate,” “Secrets” and his 2016 EP The Lion Across The Field, Hollowell-Dhar was one-half of the dance music act The Cataracs. While booming party anthems (like 2010 super hit “Like a G6” and 2012’s “Bass Down Low”) got the duo viral fame, soon both Hollowell-Dhar and partner David Benjamin Singer-Vine would want to go on to seek something more meaningful. “I started to think if the music I’m creating ends up being my legacy, is that what I want it to be?” he says.
Hollowell-Dhar’s endeavor to reconnect with his music instincts not only led to the birth of KSHMR, but also to a better connection with his family. His India debut in 2015 at Sunburn, Goa, was particularly memorable. “I performed right before David Guetta and brought my grandpa out who lives in Delhi. I think it really opened his eyes out to my career and the potential of having a career in music, to see it in his own home, to see it in India.”
Hollowell-Dhar returned as a headliner for Sunburn 2016 in Pune last week (with his now-fanboy grandpa) and played alongside electronic music giants Axwell Λ Ingrosso, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and more. It also marks his second time creating the festival’s anthem; “Mandala” follows 2015’s anthem “Bazaar,” both made in collaboration with Italian prog house duo Marnik.
In this exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, Hollowell-Dhar discusses his journey from party poster-boy days with The Cataracs to digging deep into his Kashmiri roots with KSHMR.
Last year saw you climb 11 ranks and bag number 12 spot on the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs poll. Do you feel your success had something to do with the fact that your music is so Indian?
I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the number 12 spot without India. So I think it’s a symbiotic relationship; I represent for India and in return India has been a large part of my success, so I try to always remember that when creating music. Not only because it’s who I am, but it reflects so many of my fans. Growing up I would always go to visit my family and my grandfather and I wasn’t exposed really to the young culture there. So it’s actually been a very interesting and inspiring experience to get to know a lot of the young people who have created the music culture out there.
So before you came here as a musician, you didn’t have an image of what Indian EDM concert-goers would be like.
Yeah! Man, growing up and visiting India and visiting my family, I had never seen anything like Sunburn. I didn’t think that festivals like that existed and I had never been to Goa or even a beach in India. So to see so many young people together at a festival like that… it was a side of India I had never seen before. I looked at it [being Indian] as so detached from mainstream culture. To go to Goa and to see that the EDM scene was exploding there… it just really blew my mind.
Are there any Indian artists you are currently digging?
I’ve gotten to know the guys from [Mumbai duo] Lost Stories; I think they’re incredibly talented. [New Delhi DJ] Zaeden is another up-and-comer. He’s a young guy and he’s already developed a big foundation in India, and I’m really proud of him. I kind of feel bad that me being an American guy… I’m getting this title of being a ‘big Indian DJ’ but you have a guy like Zaeden who lives there and he’s really working so hard. He deserves a lot of recognition. I think in time he’s going to expand past India as well.
When it comes to the label of ‘the Indian DJ’, do people have any preconceived notions of what your music should sound like?
They do. I think people often like to categorize. You think of [American producer] Skrillex as being the dubstep guy, and you think of [Dutch DJ] Armin van Buuren being the trance guy. I think people have come to look at me as being the Indian DJ and frankly that’s fine with me because that is my heritage. What’s great about being an ‘Indian DJ’ is that India is so vast; it isn’t just one sound. It’s such a diverse range that the rest of the world isn’t privy to. It’s a big resource to tap into these different instruments that most electronic producers will never use.
You were massively famous as The Cataracs. What made you a 100 percent sure you wanted to disconnect from all that?
Well, The Cataracs’ music… it started to not reflect who I was. Every song we had, for example, “Like a G6,” was about popping bottles and being in the club and I started to think if the music I’m creating ends up being my legacy, is that what I want it to be? Growing up having my grandpa tell me ‘Oh you’re Kashmiri this, you’re Kashmiri that,’ and telling me about my heritage never meant that much to me. As I got older, I started to feel the need to do something more meaningful with my music. That’s when I looked inward and that’s how KSHMR came to be.
You briefly kept your identity a secret before revealing yourself as KSHMR. What are some of the good things about being incognito?
The good thing for me was that I focused on making music for the first year when I didn’t show my face and I wasn’t playing any shows. I was able to put a tremendous amount of focus into just the music and to prove myself. When I decided to play shows, I had a collection of music that I really believed in. The mystery also was important to me to separate from The Cataracs. I wanted to create a project that could stand on its own and by the time that people put it together that I used to be in The Cataracs, I would already have such a robust catalogue of music under KSHMR that it would sort of put attention on that instead of the past.
What made you want to create the [production tutorial] ‘The Lessons of KSHMR’ series?
I’m a producer before anything. The community of other aspiring producers is really important to me and I wanted to give back as much as I possibly can–to send the elevator back down to them, so to speak. I find that DJs a lot of times tell fans to do things–they’re telling them to vote for them, or buy tickets to the show. It always seemed to me that if I was going to have a genuine relationship with my fans, it would have to start with me doing things for them first, like offering my knowledge of production to them. They don’t owe me anything; it’s something that you have to earn. You have to earn loyalty from people.
You’re planning your first India tour next year. What can fans expect?
What they should expect is a cinematic experience that focuses on a story being told through the music. All of my shows have a story in them that I’ve scored new music to, and they’re narrated and animated. That in some way is inspired by Indian cinema because it’s never just the story or just the action or just the music; you put all those things together and you hear the songs in a new way.
Listen to KSHMR and MARNIK’s “Mandala” ft Mitika below: