Zomgtalk Exclusive : An Interview With State Of Bengal!

Innovator. Pioneer. Genius. There are artists who strive to entertain by following a chosen path, and then there are a handful who inspire by blazing their own trail. State Of Bengal’s Sam Zaman, one of the key pioneers of the erstwhile Asian Underground movement that emerged from the British music scene back in the late 90’s, continues to push the envelope with his triumphant and heady mix of Indian Classical, Hip-Hop, Folk, Breakbeat, Dubstep, House, Electronica, Drum and Bass, blending it all in with consummate ease. ‘Adventurous‘ would be an understatement here. The British DJ/Producer was a staple at the influential and genre-bending Anokha club night in London’s East End in the mid 90’s, and two of his singles, the absolutely lush ‘Flight IC 408‘ and ‘Chittagong Chill‘ eventually ended up on the compilation album ‘Anokha – Soundz Of The Asian Underground‘ which also featured songs by A R Rahman, Talvin Singh etc.

Already a major musical force to be reckoned with in the late 90’s, State Of Bengal’s influence reached a new high when in 1996, elfin Icelandic chanteuse and songstress supreme Bjork chanced upon the song ‘Hunter‘ by State Of Bengal, following which Sam joined Bjork’s ‘Homogenic World Tour‘ as the opening act after he remixed ‘Hunter‘, one of the most iconic songs and videos to be released from Bjork’s 4th studio album in 1997, the RIAA Gold-certified ‘Homogenic‘ .

Apart from remixing tracks by Bjork, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Massive Attack, State Of Bengal has an extensive discography of solo and collaborative albums, each a defiant testimony of Sam’s genius. He’s the man behind an entire movement, and not just a genre, that I feel, he’s been unfairly categorized as, considering that the distinct sound he has created ranges from mixing everything from Hip-Hop, Rap and House.

State Of Bengal has been touring India recently, and he played with a full live band with 2 drummers at the M.A.D Festival at Ooty, where the legendary Baul singer Paban Das Baul joined him for the first time since they collaborated on the album ‘Tana Tani‘ in 2004. An interactive DJ set in Bangalore’s Counter Culture resulted in a number of random and successful workshops titled ‘Chaos Theory‘. This was followed by another interactive DJ set at Out Of The Box in New Delhi, assisted by drummer Mathis, Nucleya and Audio Pervert, and an intimate, yet mind-blowing gig at The Living Room. Another gig follows tonight at the Re-Cycle Club in Jaipur.

I got a chance to meet up with Sam over lunch before his gig at Out Of The Box in New Delhi (yes – occasionally I get to do some really cool stuff from time to time), and naturally, I was a bundle of nerves. Getting to know the person behind the extraordinary artist was an eye-opener, and it was his simplicity that struck me, and put me at ease. Sam was gracious, warm and a bundle of energy. The following are the excerpts from the exclusive interview :

Dance music is a mainstream phenomenon right now. What you’ve pioneered back in the day has found a wider audience today. What’s your take on the current music scene?

I’ve been in the music scene since 1996-97. My creative processes are the same. I never really kept in touch with present trends, and that has not affected the way I create my music. People may call me ‘close minded’, but that’s how I am. When I write something I tend not to listen to it. It’s like baking a cake. You want the final product to taste perfect instead of sampling random raw ingredients. I’ve got this from my mom, she would say ‘if you like something, don’t change it’.

Tell me about your experience of working with Bjork! She happens to be one of my favorite vocalists of all time!

I had an idea in my head that I had visualized for my song ‘Hunter’, and then I sculpted the shape, created it and heard the reaction. My reaction to that was ‘wow, people really like it’. Bjork chanced to drop into the studio while I was playing the song. She asked me, ‘what’s that you’re playing? what’s the idea behind it?’. Following which the ‘Homogenic World Tour’ happened. She’s an incredibly intelligent artist.

Your music is an incredibly heady mix of everything from Classical to Hip-Hop, Breakbeat , Folk etc. Would you classify your music under a particular genre?

Yes, State Of Bengal! It’s always been that way!

Which artists or vocalists have you been inspired by?

Bob Marley, mom and dad singing old classical Bengali songs, village folk music, fakirs, R D Burman, Ananda Shankar, Uday Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

It’s been almost 5 years since your last album Skip-ij. Could fans expect a new album from you anytime soon?

Yes! There’s quite a lot of material actually! At times I feel like I’m a production machine. I write and produce so much. I’ve titled my new album ‘Sage’, and it’s named after my son! He’s 2 and a half, and he plays harmonica with me on skype. The album mainly consists of stuff you can dance to, and definitely about what’s been happening in my life. Most of the tracks are done. There’s no tentative release date yet.

How do you find the Indian independent music scene as compared to the British independent scene?

The independent music scene in the UK is so wide in terms of genres and elements that people are developing everyday. It wasn’t as transparently separate. Everyone’s in this vast spectrum of music and culture,yet there’s no separation in a way. It’s all one. It’s all encompassing, like for example, Pop singers working on Dubstep etc. And that’s what’s happening globally as well. In India, I believe that certain things have been around forever, like Bollywood and Rock music. The Indian scene in a cusp. It can either drop in water, or it can really take off. I can see a whole lotta bands and young producers who are willing to do their own thing. We’re at that point where things can evolve. The young generation is more techno savvy, via apps etc. You can create songs on your phone, go to as club, connect your phone in and rock a few people. It’s far more interactive now. It’s also an exciting time for me to watch it. It’s always a learning process.

Is there any particular artist out there you would want to collaborate with?

Not really. The way I work, the context has to be real. There has to be a fire, and there has to be a real interaction going on. I guess it might happen after I get to interact with the artists themselves.

A personal fave from your discography is the incredibly lush ‘IC408′. Tell me about the inspiration behind the song.

We lived in Turkey for 4 years, and I remember going back to Turkey in the late 80’s when I traveled around Europe. Just before I wrote this song, I was leaving for Bangladesh, and I thought it would be nice to go from London to Turkey to Calcutta to Dhaka. It was like a homecoming, and I went to meet up with my family and grandpa. The song has more to do with that feeling of looking forward to going home..rather than the destination or the journey. The last time I was there I was 6 years of age. I did not know what to expect, but I had made up my mind that whatever the outcome, I’ll enjoy every bit of it! It’s the love that’s unspoken transmitted between individuals and places that truly defines this song!

You successfully experimented with Paban Das Baul for ‘Tana Tani’. Do you see Baul music making it to mainstream music sometime in the future?

I don’t think so in the traditional sense, but there’ll be hybridization. It will be cleverly interwoven.

How was the experience in Bangalore with your workshop ‘Chaos Theory’ being a runaway success among the bands who have grown up listening to and being inspired by you?

It destroys everything that you know and creates everything that you do not know – that’s the essence of ‘Chaos Theory’, to rip up all the rules and start over again. We spent the first day writing a piece of music, and the second day we had to throw the entire piece of music away except for a segment. The rest you get to hear in a 4-song EP that the workshop culminates into.

What can fans expect from State Of Bengal over the next few months?

Just the unexpected!

Here’s a segment of Sam’s Bangalore gig up for free download :

Don’t forget to check out  State Of Bengal playing at the Re-Cycle Pub in Jaipur tonight (19. 05. 2012).