The Other Side of Dualist Inquiry
How a bank internship helped the multi-instrumentalist EDM artist find his calling
When not on stage, Sahej Bakshi is a word nerd. The electronica musician and producer, who goes by the stage name Dualist Inquiry, maintains a word diary that holds the key to his song titles. “Qualia,” “Blitzkreig,” “Soleil,” [French for sun], “Anathema” and soon-to-be-released album Doppelganger all got their names from this diary. “I do a lot of word hunting. I love it,” says the 25-year-old artist, who admits that he spends a significant amount of time trawling the internet for words and seems to have even learnt the definitions of his favorite words by rote. “Doppelganger also means a peripheral vision which one sees without a mirror,” he says quoting Wikipedia, “I’m not quite sure what drew me to the name ”” the depth of meaning, multiple connotations, how it feels to say it out loud, the personality the word has, its connections with duality. Probably a bit of everything.” For an artist whose music doesn’t rely on lyrics, coming up with the right title is very important. “It’s like the one word that I get to say with the song since it’s all instrumental. I just listen to the song on repeat and see what it makes me feel to arrive at a name,” he says.
When on stage, Bakshi finds admirers for his mix of rock, dubstep and lounge besides other genres, in the audience and within the music community as well. He works his yellow Fender Telecaster even as several barely out-of-school fans ”“ boys who duplicate his bright T-shirt and jeans code with carefully mussed hair and giggly girls who all wear a moony-eyed look ”“Â yell out requests for “Qualia” and “Gravitat,” two of his biggest hits off his debut EP Dualism that released in 2011. Hari Singh of the Chandigarh electro folk duo Hari & Sukhmani, who was the first to collaborate with Bakshi in 2008, a good two years before he launched Dualist Inquiry, says, “DJs are a dime a dozen in India. What makes Sahej different from other EDM artists is that he actually plays live and that makes it interesting since it is performance driven.”
Three years ago, few attending a gig in Mumbai by The Pulp Society, an alt rock band fronted by Imaad Shah, would have guessed Dualist Inquiry would have made it so far. “Imaad had just started a band and asked me if I would like to play,” says Bakshi of Shah, his childhood friend from Doon School in Dehradun and his first bandmate. As soon as Bakshi took to the deck, the crowd dispersed, recalls the electronica artist of his Mumbai debut. “I was very sensitive in the beginning about how people will react to my music. But now if I play somewhere and people just ask me to play something commercial or aren’t responding, I can handle it and wouldn’t take it personally,” says Bakshi.
Within a year, Dualist Inquiry limbered up for some remarkable shows. In 2011, Bakshi opened for Beardyman and DJ Shadow at The Great Escape festival, playing an hour-long set that impressed at least a 1,000-strong electronica audience. “The Brighton Dome was literally one of the craziest venues I’ve played to date. The audience was great, though I think they spent the first half hour of my set wondering who the hell I am and what exactly it is that I do, since I was jumping a lot of genres in that short set, and playing guitar as well.” Last year, Bakshi opened for international superstars such as David Guetta and Fatboy Slim in India. Swarathma’s bassist Jishnu Dasgupta was so taken in with Bakshi’s set at the Invasion Festival in 2012, where he opened for Guetta that he went as far to say that Dualist Inquiry’s set was better than the headlining act. Dasgupta later roped him in to collaborate on “Naane Daari,” a track from Swarathma’s sophomore album Topiwalleh.
I meet Bakshi in Mumbai ahead of a show at Canvas, a South Mumbai venue that has recently opened up for gigs in the city. Ahead of the show, the musician makes a trip to North Mumbai where Shah lives. Bakshi and Shah are a study in contrasts ”“ while Bakshi chats away at length, Shah speaks in measured terms. The career graphs of the two friends bears some semblance ”” both starting offÂ with their rock band, venturing into punk and then finding their place behind the console independently.
Bakshi tells us that they have constantly influenced each others. “There’s always been this cross pollination of sorts going on,” he says with a disarming smile, “We lost touch briefly when I went to LA, but every time I came back, I would get introduced to newer bands through Imaad. In fact, he introduced me to Arctic Monkeys and The Decemberists. In LA, I was only listening to electronica and I told him about artists like Digitalism and Propellerheads.” Shah remembers Bakshi as a “fair, lanky, surdy boy who was always around the music room.” He also recalls that Bakshi only knew a few more chords than him back then. In school, Bakshi played every instrument that he could get his hands on ”“ the guitar, bass, violin, sitar, xylophone and drums. “In fact I played the xylophone for four years, but never got to playing it in the performing capacity,” says Bakshi, who nonetheless ensured that the instrument featured on “Qualia,” one of the most requested tracks at his shows from his debut EP Dualism and will also feature on “Soleil” from Doppelganger.
The guitar just seemed like a good instrument to stick with in his early days. “It wasn’t like I knew I would be a musician,” says Bakshi, who formed a band with Shah when he was just 12, covering bands such as Green Day and Rage Against The Machine. “The truth is, for me music was the most fun thing to do then,” says Bakshi adding, “I found myself in candlemaking class for a little while; the class next door was [learning how to play] the keyboards and I always thought they were having a lot of fun so I switched over to keyboard. Then I realized that the guitar people were having even more fun than us, so I switched to guitar. Later, my parents got me a cheap little Givson guitar and I started playing.” But Bakshi gave up on forming a band again once he returned home to Chandigarh. Instead, he found himself interning at Standard Chartered bank while waiting for his board exam results. “It was a one month experience where I would wear a shirt to work everyday and basically play Snake on my Nokia phone. I really got good at that game there,” says Bakshi. He knew then that wooing customers into opening accounts and discussing how he snagged a new client with colleagues was not going to be his thing. “It was pretty important since I arrived at music through this process of elimination.”
Bakshi returned to music in L.A. when asked to choose an elective as an undecided major in college. “I was scrolling through classes alphabetically and there I saw this course called Introduction To Music Technology,” says Bakshi, “The class gave me a lot of direction and was the opening to a wormhole. It taught me the basics of setting up a studio, how to record and made me apply to a music school next semester.” Next up was a course in Music Technology at the Thornton Music School, a period he can only sum up with the help of superlatives. Bakshi received his earliest lessons at the console and recording here. “I was the biggest nerd ever, the guy who’d always do all the homework, and then stay back to ask the professor questions after the lecture,” he says.
L.A. was also where Dualist Inquiry took root as Bakshi opened up to electronica, a phase he compares to that of learning a new language. “I went as a pure rock guy and returned loving electronica,” he says crediting his friends for his introduction to psychedelic trance, rave and drum n bass. “Then all of a sudden electro and Deadmau5 hit me like bam! I was overwhelmed by everything but I knew deep down that I didn’t understand it yet,” he says.
Luckily for him, when he returned home in 2010, India too was riding high on EDM. “But when I first moved back, I was quite depressed sitting in Chandigarh. I had finally managed to put together a life in the US”” got a job, car, and apartment and then decided to leave it all as a purely emotional decision. I knew I had done it for a good reason but I had to prove it.” By then, Delhi-based electronica act Midival Punditz were at their peak. Sunburn had brought an all new audience of revelers and Bakshi was about to make the right decision. “I saw Jalebee Cartel play a live set at Sunburn, and seeing these Indian artists rocking the festival stage made me feel like I can do it too, and that I have no reason not to,” he says.
To snag his first-ever gig as Dualist Inquiry, the ambitious artist used the old school approach of bootlegging CDs of his demo recordings and urging family and friends to distribute them. One such demo reached the organizer of Holi Cow Festival in Delhi in 2010 and Dualist Inquiry made it to the festival’s line-up. Says Dev Bhatia, founder of Unmute, an artist management and booking agency that handles artists such as Arjun Vagale and Ash Roy, “Sahej has a unique live set. He makes music that works really well with young people and yes, girls.” Within that year, a call from Max Mueller promised him his first international gig at the Berlin Music Week, where he played a two-hour set. “What struck me most was that even as I started with playing my chilled-out material in the beginning, people were already on their feet and dancing. I guess that’s because in Berlin they really know their electronic music and are very quick to identify and support a sound they like. They don’t need to hear a banging beat before getting up to dance; even a simple, chilled out groove will do the job beautifully,” says Bakshi. Eventually, Bakshi was also booked for Sunburn in 2011 and has only been on the rise since. For someone who wanted “to hide behind the curtain or stay offstage” when he performed, Bakshi has come a long, long way.
The electronica artist says that he spent the past three years finding his sound”” dreamy and mellow yet uplifting with easy riffs that add multiple layers and build into a glorious crescendo. His nine-track debut album, promises Bakshi, will feature a brand new side to Dualist Inquiry. There’s some garage rock on “Origin”, darker, club beats on “Anathema” besides his usual guitar-driven tracks such as “One More Thing,” the first track that Bakshi ever added guitar parts to.
But friend and unbiased critic Imaad Shah is concerned that Bakshi likes to play it safe. “His guitar playing style is similar to what we played in school, though now it’s a little more chunkier and comes with a lot more confidence and conviction,” says Shah, “But he’s never wildly out of his comfort zone. Rather, he trusts his own instincts and plays to his tastes and strength.”Â Bakshi defends himself saying, “If I wasn’t changing all the time and not taking risks here and there, I would basically have a RATM cover band. A lot of my development has taken place after I’ve became a producer.”Â
The artist, who managed to put together a successful career in less than two years, has a packed year ahead in 2013. The game plan includes a tour of the North East. We can already hear deafening screams echo across the hills. Yes, the girls are going to love him.