Interview: Nitin Sawhney
Published on July 1st, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Nitin Sawhney’s OneZero is purported to be the first album in thirty-five years to have been cut entirely live; performance, mixing, mastering, the works.
Drawing on nine albums’ worth of material from a career that has seen him collaborate with Paul McCartney, score a restored Hitchcock film, soundtrack a David Attenborough-fronted BBC series and much more besides, OneZero also includes some new material to whet the appetite for next year’s brand new studio album Dystopian Dream.
OneZero is even available as a deluxe box set. Get ready to ooh and aah at this lot…
Rocksucker enjoyed a private telephone audience with this fascinating artist on the eve of his performance at north London’s iconic Roundhouse venue; here’s what got said, including clarification on his widely misrepresented recent comments pertaining to Glastonbury…
What prompted you to take on a project like OneZero?
For me it was quite exciting because it was the whole idea of performing, recording, mixing, mastering and cutting direct to vinyl all in one go. I think the last time that was done was about 35 years ago.
I suppose it’s about how much I’ve always loved vinyl. When I was a kid, I remember buying albums and just sitting there for ages looking at the sleeve notes and the artwork, feeling like there was something of value in my hand.
The way people look at music these days, the whole digital world and online thing, it’s immortal in a way: you can keep sharing it with friends, it can be downloaded an infinite number of times, whereas an album eventually wears out, scratches or warps, so you want to value it.
It’s like us as people, I suppose: I was saying a while ago that, of all the mediums, vinyl is the most representative of us as human beings (laughs). So I suppose I thought recording direct to vinyl, as opposed to digital or magnetic tape or anything like that, would be a good challenge.
It also comes back to craftmanship, the fact that you’ve got a person up there cutting it directly and he can’t screw up. Same goes for the musicians; there’s a lot of pressure on every single person in that room.
We’re being watched from the gallery as well, so no one wants to be the person to make a single mistake. It’s one thing doing it at a gig but if what you do is going to be immortalised on a record then there’s a lot more pressure!
How much did you agonise over the tracklist and/or running order?
Quite a bit. I wanted make it representative of the nine studio albums as me, but I think the tagline is Past, Present and Future Unplugged so I wanted to give a hint of a few of the track from the next album.
“Time Trap” in particular I think will make the next album, I’m not sure which other ones will but I wanted to have exclusive content for this one, so there’s “Accept Yourself”, “Longing” and “I Ask You” with Joss Stone. It was great to put down some new material as well as look at what I’ve done in the past.
What’s nice as well is, because of the range and the ability of the musicians that I’ve been working with for all these years, they’re able to make new arrangements work in loads of different ways. So yeah, it was exciting to do it.
What’s Joss Stone like to work with?
She’s pretty laid-back. She was phenomenally chilled after all the madness that erupted over that attempt on her life.
She was fresh out of all the courtroom drama around that, the press had been talking about her a great deal, but she came in and she was very cool and easy going about everything.
The fact that she’s also doing the Roundhouse with us, she’s been really supportive and into the music, and it’s great to have someone of her calibre and ability on board, really.
She sold millions of records at 16 or whatever it was and has continued to do exactly what she wants to do with her career and her voice; she has nothing to prove and as a result I think very laid back and a nice person to be around.
What can you tell us about your next album Dystopian Dream at this stage, in terms of what it might sound like, or even who you might collaborate with on it?
It’ll probably be a bit darker than the stuff I’ve done in the past. “Time Trap” is the first track that’s definitely going to be on it.
At this stage it’s more the ideas and the thoughts I’m collating. That’s how I approach each album: I’ll look at what it is I want to say before I open my mouth.
I think that’s how I should approach albums because I think of music as a language, not just about making music full stop, so from that point of view I’m trying to figure out what I want to say.
I’ve even got some artwork for the album: it was done by Paul Benney, who did the artwork for the OneZero box set. He painted me and it’s amazing, a very powerful image. He’s one of my favourite painters ever, I think.
From that point of view, I’m working around his artwork as inspiration, the feeling that I got from it.
I think it’s also coming from last year, just looking at how there’s so much cynicism in the world, so much hate-preaching going on from different places.
But I remember thinking last November what it would be like to try and look ahead with some optimism or some sense of the world in the future, beyond all of this shit. I was just thinking about that and trying to find it.
It’s also nightmarish, kind of the idea of taking this feeling from within a nightmare and dreaming beyond it.
How much will OneZero dictate the set list at the Roundhouse?
Quite a bit. I’ve tried to be true to a lot of the stuff – there are digital tracks on there as well – but I really want it by and large to be pretty much a performance of OneZero.
It’s a one-and-a-half-hour set, probably one hour forty with everything in, so there’ll be additional tracks. We’re using projections of the artwork as well, so it should be cool.
Is there more soundtrack work in the offing?
Yeah, quite a bit, but unfortunately when you do these things now you have to sign NDAs, non-disclosure agreements, about doing them. So you can’t actually talk about them (laughs).
There are quite a few [soundtrack jobs] but I’m also looking forward to doing my radio show in the near future. I’m doing another one of those.
I’ve also been working recently with Akram Khan who’s a fantastic choreographer and I’m doing some orchestral work, but one of the things I really enjoy doing is video games and I might be doing some more of that soon.
We have to ask about the storm in a teacup that appears to be your misinterpreted Glastonbury comment…
I think it’s hilarious. It’s a stupid thing that got blown completely out of proportion.
There’s an Asian newspaper that asked me on Friday whether I was playing at Glastonbury, I said no and the last time I did it was probably over ten years ago, but we used to play there quite a lot.
They said, “How did you find it?” and I said it was cool and I really enjoyed it. They said, “Did you play the main stage?” and I said no, we used to play the Jazz & World stage.
They said, “How did you feel about that?” and I said obviously I would have preferred the main stage but I guess that’s the way these things work, if you’re Asian you tend to play the Jazz & World stage, across the board.
I was talking also about the fact that that happens with awards ceremonies, there’s an Asian radio station… There are lots of things where this happens, I didn’t go on a rant about Glastonbury saying “arrggh, isn’t this terrible?” and so on.
Next thing I know, it’s like “Nitin Sawhney sparks race row”! I thought, “What? I don’t have a problem with Glastobury.”
I mean, as a personal preference, segregation isn’t the way I’d want to go; I think people should have an equal platform and that it should be about the music rather than what race or nationality you are.
That’s why quite often on my radio programme I’ll play a Radiohead track next to Bassekou Kouyate, or a Burial track next to Ali Farka Touré, Ravi Shankar next to his daughter Norah Jones.
The idea is not to have segregation based on nationality but valuing music as something in its own right. That’s pretty much all I was saying, so it’s funny that it should be controversial.
We were sorry to hear about the recent passing of your monitor engineer and production manager Steve Watson…
Yeah, that was a real loss to a lot of people. That guy’s worked with the best; I think he did both the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics, which meant putting ten thousand In-Ear sets in that many seats.
He was an amazing engineer but also a very good friend. He worked with so many people; he was at a Killers gig when he started to get all and unfortunately the next day he slipped away.
Steve was a really lovely human being, one of the best people I’ve ever toured with. We’ll all miss him a great deal, not just my band but also a lot of other bands he worked with.
He was a regular at Glastonbury, a regular at a lot of festivals in the UK as well as internationally. He’d just come back from the Middle East and I heard he had deep vein thrombosis.
We were all really shocked at our first day of rehearsal when we’d just found out. It was a pretty muted mood to say the least.
R.I.P. my great friend Steve Watson, our wonderful monitor engineer and production manager, who passed away yesterday. 49 yrs old I believe.
— nitin sawhney (@thenitinsawhney) June 24, 2013
Finally, what music from 2013 have you been enjoying, and/or is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to coming out?
I listen to lots of different music from all over the place and I’ve been lucky enough to produce some great people.
I’m excited about this guy called Kwabs who’s a fantastic soul singer; he’s got an unbelievable voice, almost has a touch of Al Green about it. He’s a really young guy but incredibly talented.
I’ve been lucky enough to be producing some great artists: I’ve just been producing a gorgeous album by Anoushka Shankar that also has Norah Jones on it. It comes in the wake of her father’s death as well, so it’s quite a poignant and powerful album. She’s such a brilliant musician, as was her dad.
I’m also working with a girl called Nicki Wells. It’s funny, I bumped into Chris Martin from Coldplay in town recently, I started to chatting to him and he knew all about Nicki, which was quite interesting.
Joss also just worked with Nicki as well; it turns out she’s been getting a lot of attention. She’s an exciting new singer so I’m quite lucky to be working with her at the moment. She’s also the member of a band but she’s bringing out her own album quite soon.
Apart from that, I’m excited to hear One EskimO’s next release. I worked with them recently as well and they’re fantastic; Kristian Leontiou is a really talented singer and a really cool performer as well.
Nitin Sawhney, thank you.
One Zero is out now on Cherry Red Records.
You can buy OneZero on iTunes.