The Rolling Stone Interview: AR Rahman
India’s most celebrated composer on spiritualism shaping his music, working with western orchestras and reinventing the Indian sound
What is your first memory of music?
My father’s songs [father RK Sekhar composed and arranged music for Malayalam films]. When he used to record songs, he used to play them at home ”“ most of them were in Malayalam. Apart from that, the records that he owned ”“ one was an Osibisa record, one was Bach ”“ Switched-On Bach [an album by Wendy Carlos] ”“ a Jim Reeves record, a Latin record, a Chinese album, all varied stuff.
How has your mother pushed you musically?
I think with certain gurus if you learn one lesson you feel that you’ve learnt everything. I believe in that kind of alternate enlightenment. With my mother and I, it wasn’t like she was telling me that you have to do this and that. I think with some people it’s just the goodwill and good intention in the heart which makes things work.
Was she drawn to music?
No. But she was focussed and knew what worked and what didn’t.
Who else has contributed to this alternate enlightenment?
It’s not about how many chords you know, how many ragas you know, how well you can play the keyboard. With film music especially, you have to find the right piece for the right place in the film. It might be the simplest tune ever but if it’s right for that place, it does magic. In fact, a Beethoven symphony, one of his biggest and based on just four notes, was used in a film called Immortal Beloved.
What’s this magic that you’re referring to?
The vibe. Sometimes you just feel so light inside you that when you do music it’s probably spot on; sometimes you have so much in your head that nothing happens even if you work night and day. It’s hard to communicate that to people. When somebody comes and says ”˜OK give me a tune’, nothing might happen for three or four days. But then suddenly, you might probably finish the whole thing in 20 minutes. Some people get it and some just don’t.Â Most of the time they think he’s just bullshitting, he’s just lazy.
So how do you compose a song?
The idea of the song is in my head and I have to give the song to Vijay or Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan. I’m constantly looking for something which satisfies me ”“ sometimes I just wake up in the middle of the night, take a tape recorder and record a groove and stuff. Or I get an idea just sitting somewhere. Every time I sit for music, I try to destroy my ego. At the same time, I have a sense of pride. It’s very unnerving ”“ if I do something, it has to be this good ”“ otherwise don’t do it. So it’s a paradox, actually ”“ you try to destroy the ego as a composer, because every time I sit down to compose I can’t think I’m the greatest composer ”“ so it humbles you ”“ and you wait for the intervention of god and say, ”˜Give me a tune please, [laughs] I need to make this work.’
Have you ever felt lazy and not wanted to step into the studio?
Sometimes it’s very easy to overwork and not know that your whole system is crying out for a break. But I’ve successfully managed to do that for 15 years because of my spiritual inclination. You kind of cleanse yourself and reset yourself even in the most disastrous circumstances. But after a point of time, there’s so much of music in your face ”“ on TV, radio, DVD and mobile phone. There’s so much content all over that you only feel like coming back to something that has a little complexity to it.
Do you go back to any music?
I think classical music has that aspect. Whether it’s Hindustani or Carnatic or western classical, it has that maturity.
Did you get into western classical before rock?
Ya, because the basics of piano are all found in Western classical. It used to be a good escape from where I was living. It was another trip.
What was the state that you wanted to escape from?
Any music which is soulful always transports you, takes you onto another plane. Most orchestral music does that for me because of its complexities.
What state of mind are you referring to?
Oh it was in my childhood, under normal circumstances, going to school. So when you listen to music, it transports you to another place.
School was also where you first listened to rock?
I met some guitarists from higher grades coming up to me and saying that they needed a keyboard player. This was for our school culturals at Padma Seshadri [Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan High School, T Nagar]. It was called the PSBB band. These guys actually introduced me to rock and Deep Purple and Pink Floyd and all that stuff. Before that I used to mainly play in my master Nityanandam’s group, he used to compose stuff. I used to play film songs, too.
What was the first piece of music that you bought then?
Those days we never used to have good records. There was this one shop in Bangalore where they recorded music onto cassettes ”“ all musicians. So, whenever we’d go to Bangalore, we’d take a day off and go to the shop. The first few were Chick Corea and Dave Grusin.
Were you one of those kids who sat in front of a mirror and practised?
No, music was not my main interest at the time, though it was there in my blood. My main interest was electronics, hardware, that kind of stuff. That’s because we had so much of that stuff. I was fascinated by it. The most important person for us at the time was the hardware engineer, Raghavan, because if something went wrong, we’d go stand at his doorstep. He was the only person who could fix everything.
Are you in touch with your band mates from school?
Ya, with one guy called Venugopalan who’s now in Japan working with Microsoft. My next band, Magic, had film guys ”“ with Sivamani [drums], Jojo [bass], John Anthony [guitars], and Deena Chandradas [vocals]. L Shankar came and checked us out and asked us to back up his band, Epidemics, sometime in 1987 or 1988. It was fun for us but not a great success as a band. He founded the band with his wife Caroline. We just did a couple of performances, one in Bangalore and one in Chennai. It helped our way of thinking when preparing for a concert and taught us the professional side of the business.Â We all also played in a fusion band called Roots. Nemesis Avenue was the last band I worked with just before Roja. All the kids were younger than me. They were 19 or 20. I was probably 25, 23.
Apart from Sivamani, are you in touch anyone from Roots?
Our Kenyan bassist Jojo is no more, he died in an accident.Â We met Johnny last year in Chennai, we jammed together on the Continuum. Continuum is like this keyboard.Â I got it in the beginning of 2007. It’s a shame I don’t have enough time to practise. It’s an interesting concept for Indian classical music.
Can you explain that?
I’ve always wanted to play Hindustani or Carnatic badly but I could never go to the level of a mandolin or a veena because of the limitations of the keyboard. The Continuum takes it to another level. I was talking to the inventor of the Continuum [Lippold Haken] and suggested that he release a cheaper version so that all the kids in India would learn classical. He was very interested but we never took that conversation further. He’d come to one of my concerts in Chicago.
Didn’t you want to take up another instrument?
Once you become a composer and producer, you concentrate on the song. Mostly you’re worried about writing the piece and finishing it. Of course you enjoy it within that spectrum of time but I don’t have the time to just sit for a day and play.
What about at concerts?
On shows again it’s a huge effort. It’s not only a musical show, it’s entertainment because I want people to feel what the music is about and get entertained. It’s not about people having books in front of them and singing.
How long did you continue your education?
I studied till the eleventh. I had to leave without finishing school because of family situation and stuff. Recordings became regular and then I hoped to join a correspondence course, but could never do it.