Asian underground guru Nitin Sawhney on his brave new album London Undersound
“The idea you can’t mix music and politics has come to dominate, you’ve got to be careful of being political because it’s considered worthy and preachy,” says Nitin Sawhney, as we settle on the sofa in his plush West London studio to discuss his eighth album, London Undersound.
It’s surprising to hear these words from an iconic artist whose career has been defined by music with meaning: 1999’s Mercury-nominated album Beyond Skin touches on identity and nuclear weapons, Prophesy (2001) looks at technology, Human (2003) celebrates mankind’s commonality over differences, and Philtre (2005) offers a soothing balm from a troubled world.
“I saw what happened with Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, I produced his album, which could be described as political, and he got treated quite badly. I thought maybe I should watch myself,” explains Sawhney, as he sips hot chocolate. “Eventually I thought what the am I doing? What about NWA’s Fuck The Police, Public Enemy, John Lennon, or jazz in South Africa during apartheid? There’s a strong history across the world, I’ve got to say what I feel.”
London Undersound is a tight (45 minutes), focussed record that addresses the London terror attacks (7/7), the Iraq war, culture dumbing down and celebrity, in trademark Sawhney style: namely swirling, finessed arrangements of flamenco guitar, piano, drum’n’bass, dub, folk, and soul. Thought-provoking songs emerged from jam sessions with Paul McCartney, up and coming reggae artist Natty, singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, and long term collaborators Tina Grace and Reena Bhardwaj amongst others.
Despite exploring sensitive, weighty topics, London Undersound isn’t Sawhney’s soapbox, it’s far more subtle: ”˜It’s like the films I like which aren’t patronising or condescending, but hold up issues and express cathartic ideas, it’s catharsis more than anything, getting it all out without fear of how it’s received,’ says Sawhney.
Sawhney obviously enjoys collaborating, whether getting in the studio with Beck, Brian Eno, Shakira, and AR Rahman or working on projects with dancer Akram Khan, acclaimed visual artist Anthony Gormley (who’s contributed an image for each song and the cover artwork for London Undersound), Cirque Du Soleil and the Royal Ballet Of China.
The 44-year-old from Rochester, Kent in the South East of England, who now lives in leafy South London, is clearly something of a cultural polymath: he helped conceive groundbreaking comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me, has scored over 40 films (including Mira Nair’s The Namesake, and Deepa Mehta’s forthcoming film Exclusion) and now writes music for video games ”“ he’s currently composing music for a game with a script by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), starring Andy Sirkus (Golum). His music career began in earnest when he began touring with esteemed jazz funk band, the James Taylor Quartet, and
Sawhney must surely be the only person to perform at Britain’s annual classical music romp, The Proms, and release a mix CD for world-renowned underground club, Fabric.
On his albums, Sawhney acts as the centrifugal force, pulling together vocalists, sounds and ideas. And it’s a method he wants to bring to India next year ”“ in the form of his Aftershock London project in which he works with and mentors, a variety of young musicians, ideally culminating in a collaborative concert.
“All the people I worked with on London Undersound had a really good spirit with where they were coming from ”“ for instance McCartney came with such humility and an open vibe which really comes through, there’s an honesty to the performance,” he explains, “I sat down with him and asked him how he felt about being in the public eye and his response is on the album.”
“I talked for ages with all the artists before we recorded a note to explore not just what I feel but what other people feel and to find a common meeting ground to explore. I’m really happy that after all these collaborations it feels like a, ”˜me’ album,” he continues. “I’ve made the album I wanted to make ”“ it’s an impressionistic album that gets me across and ideas from different collaborators too which is a difficult balancing trick.”
Stunning opener ”˜Days Of Fire,’ featuring Natty, is an autobiographical account of 7/7 and throws up the question – how has London has changed since then? “Compared to 2000 London has a sour bitter taste and feels different now. Jack Straw [MP and former Cabinet Minister] said the veil is a mask of separation, that it’s automatically bad ”“ we’re supposed to be a country that sanctions and celebrates diversity,” says Sawhney. “The government will play the diversity card when it comes to the Olympics and promoting the nation, when really what is going on tests for Britishness, homogenising everyone and creating a paranoid, parochial perspective.”
It’s three years since 7/7, Boris Johnson is the controversial new mayor of London, and it’s four years before it hosts the Olympics – in some respects it feels like one of the world’s most iconic cities, which is celebrated as the most diverse and tolerant in the world, is at a crossroads. “I can’t believe Boris Johnson, a guy who called black people, ”˜picaninnies’ is Mayor Of London ”“ the BNP [far right nationalist party] said vote for him,” says Sawhney incredulously. “I’m more interested in the cultural Olympiad [a four-year global celebration of the arts, culture, people and language] than the Olympics, because it’s the spirit of collaboration versus the spirit of competition.”
Sawhney feels that it’s very important to come up with ideas that reinforce respect between nations and not, ”˜We beat them.’ “Is that all there is to say? It’s a bit farcical – people from this land mass beat people from another land mass, does that make you better? What does it actually say?” he asks.
The 2012 London Olympics, could just as easily read 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, and it brings us quite neatly to India’s rise as a 21st century super power, flexing its economic muscles, and rapid rate of ”˜development’ in recent years. “The idea of development troubles me, what is development? India had a very developed way of thinking thousands of years ago,” he explains.
Sawhney understands the India below the surface. In fact, there’s a new side to him when he says, “I use the ancient Hindu Vedas, the Sutras to do mental arithmetic. I’m interested in theoretical physics and ancient Hinduism, that relationship is a hobby of mine, because physicists like those working on the Large Hadron Collider drew ideas directly from Hindu texts.” Sawhney seems quite fascinated with math. “In universities there are ways of calculating based on ancient Hinduism and the Sutras, Ramanujam who came to Britain in 1914 and was at Cambridge University – his mathematics have helped string theory,” continues Sawhney. “Shakuntala Devi can do equations and quicker than any computer or calculators, using ancient Hindu techniques. The idea that India’s developing because now, because it’s more like the west, makes me nervous.”
Indeed Sawhney, questions just how ”˜advanced’, on an ideological and human level, the world’s No.1 super power, actually is: “Sarah Palin could be the Vice President of America the most powerful and aggressive nation around, and she wouldn’t hesitate to drop the bomb, teaches children how to handle guns in school and that evolution doesn’t exist,” says Sawhney, disbelievingly. “On the one hand you’ve got such a primitive mentality and on the other hand you’ve got the Large Hadron Collider ”“ re-examining the big bang, look how far science is going, and you’ve got this person who could be running America.”
Sawhney maybe dumbfounded and depressed by Sarah Palin, and Boris Johnson, and unsettled by India’s ”˜development’, but he’s genuinely excited by the Large Hadron Collider. His eyes widen and sparkle like the school kid in the chemistry lab conducting experiments, when he talks about it. “The Large Hadron Collider embraces the enormity of where humanity is at and who we are ”“ it’s about engaging the enormity and insignificance of who we are: we are all connected yet individually were insignificant,” he says. “Hinduism says we all come from a oneness and the Big Bang says everything was once one.”
“When you understand that, you realise we are part of a universal consciousness and if we’re attacking each other and pretend people in another part of the world are less significant than us by virtue of being in a different land mass, things get really mad,” he says somehow connecting particle physics, Hinduism and 21st century geopolitics
It would be possible to chew the fat with Sawhney for hours on end, he’s a fascinating, well informed and switched on humanist. Over the course of an hour our conversation also takes in McCarthyism, the semantics and semiotics of the War on Terror, his frustrations with the British music industry, and cutting edge electronic music (dubstep). Although this modern day Renaissance Man might come across as a polemicist with plenty to say, at heart he’s a kind, gentle soul, who prefers his music to do the talking.
“Music is a way of bypassing that bullshit, for me it’s the most interesting and powerful language to touch people and get into their emotions, it’s so potent.”