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The Endless Search for Answers: An Interview with Dualist Inquiry

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Photo Credit: Neville Hanje

Delhi, India-based producer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Sahej Bakshi is an international creative force who blends many genres into his electronic music. He honed his distinctive rock guitar-driven sound at the renowned Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles and eschews the over-produced, commercialized side of the electronica field. He released his critically accoladed debut album, Doppelganger in 2013 and followed it up quickly with the Natural Disasters EP. Bakshi is one of India’s top creative songwriters and has returned as Dualist Inquiry with his 2nd album, Dreamcatcher, which arrived September 12thdigitally worldwide and for free download at Dualism Records. Bakshi describes the creation of his latest record, the music atmosphere in India, the meaning behind his moniker, and so much more in an engaging and enlightening interview.

Stereo Embers Magazine: Hello Sahej! It’s so wonderful to have this opportunity to chat with you and find out more about you and your music. Dualist Inquiry is a very interesting moniker. Can you explain the meaning behind the phrase?

Sahej Bakshi: Sure thing! When I was starting my solo project, I wanted a name that explained what I wanted to do – but I didn’t want to spell it out so clearly that there’s no intrigue left. So essentially, one of the intended purposes of the name is to raise questions in the listener’s mind – that’s the Inquiry bit. For me, life is all about asking questions and getting answers by searching for them endlessly. And when I hit upon Duality as a concept while studying philosophy in college, it resonated with me very deeply since my psychology and life is made up of extremes and contrasts that hang in a balance with one another. Once I put these two things together, I had my artist name.

SEM: What is it like to live and create in a city like Delhi? I heard that it’s a really intense place, like New York City, but take to a different level…

SB: Yeah, the whole of India is intense, but Delhi is probably one of the most intense and bustling cities in the world. When I’m in Delhi, I exist in a bubble within the city. At times, I feel like I need the stimulation just to shake things up, and that’s when I venture into the outside world. But most of the time, I retreat to my quiet apartment which is many floors above the noisy streets, and I lock myself inside my silent zone where I live with my two cats, and am occasionally visited by close friends.

I need silence to create music, because when the outside world is really noisy, I can’t hear my thoughts. I guess this would be a good example of the existence of extremes in the way I live and work. As long as I’m in my creative zone, I have complete isolation and pin-drop silence. But as soon as I open my front door, it’s like, “Whooooossh”, and the city sweeps you away.

 SEM: And what is the music scene like in Delhi from your viewpoint?

SB: Finally, I’d say we’re at the point where what we have can be called a real ‘scene’. A decade ago, it was just a handful of small crews doing cool things, but now we have established artists, festivals, and a really loving and enthusiastic audience who comes to our gigs week after week. It’s getting a lot more difficult to make it as an artist over here, and to keep one’s place in the industry, because there are so many talented musicians now putting amazing music out all the time. In addition to that, we’re seeing mainstream acceptance of our indie movement, and I think that’s a good thing, because it brings with it a lot of support for what we’re doing.

SEM: Would you say that there’s a new Indian sound in the making?

SB: Yes, most definitely. The new Indian sound isn’t Indian by virtue of its traditional instruments or languages. It’s Indian because it was made in India by Indian people, and a lot of it doesn’t even sound Indian in any way. This is a sentiment that I express a lot, and I’d be lying if I said everyone felt the same way – a lot of people would still say that if it doesn’t use traditional Indian sounds, then it’s not Indian. But this is how we feel as electronic producers in India, because according to us, if it’s made in and inspired by India, then it’s Indian.

SEM: And what about the relation between traditional music and electronica? Is there a dialogue going on; a continuity or bridge between them?

SB: India has such a rich musical history, and one of the oldest… I think I touched upon this in the previous answer, but yes, there’s a very interesting relationship brewing right now. We have a really rich heritage and history of music in our culture. It’s something I’m very proud of even as an electronic musician.

But the thing to keep in mind is that Indian music represents a widely-accepted status quo over here, and we are the anomalies. Our movement was too small to be noticed by the larger population a few years ago, and quite soon, it will be too big to ignore. It will be interesting to see what happens – if we’re able to integrate fully with our existing musical lineage, or if it will become more of an offshoot movement. Time will tell, I guess.

SEM: How much do you draw from traditional Indian music, if at all, for your own material?

SB: Personally, I don’t borrow much from traditional Indian music in a direct form, be it the language, instruments, or beats. That’s because while growing up in India, I was exposed to such a constant and unrelenting torrent of commercial Indian film and pop music, that I think I ‘overdosed’ on it a bit.

By the time I started playing an instrument at the age of 9, there was no part of me that wanted to play Bollywood film-style, and I was heavily influenced by my father’s collection of ‘80s and ‘90s rock records from the US and UK. I started listening to David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, CCR, Dire Straits, and that’s how I became a practising musician. Today, I have a better relationship with Indian sounds than I ever have before – I think it’s because I have established my sound and am now looking back to India’s heritage for deeper inspiration.

SEM: From your experience, is there a real musical or cultural exchange going on between East and West, or is it still a one way street?

SB: I think as far as electronic music is concerned, it’s still a bit of a one way street. Probably because the West has a rich heritage of electronic music over the decades, and we’re such new entrants to the genre. Most people in the West have no idea this is happening here, though that’s changing all the time. We have a lot of the biggest names in electronic music coming down to play in India regularly now, and they all leave quite impressed. Hopefully in the near future, we’ll be able to build bridges for our musicians to spread their music in Western countries as well.

SEM: Tell us about your latest and just-released album, Dreamcatcher. It’s not your first record…

SB: No, my first LP was Doppelganger, which I released in 2013. I went through a really fun, but challenging personal journey after the success of the first LP. While writing Doppelganger, I was an outsider to the industry and I think that helped me in some ways. Ever since I entered the industry and started befriending and interacting with its players, I had to deal with a whole host of new influences and factors that were subconsciously affecting my musicality. Finally, after a bit of soul-searching, I found my center again, and Dreamcatcher is the sound of my return to myself.

SEM: What was like writing the album? It seems like the second record is always the tough one to create…

SB: Yes, the second record was a real challenge. The thing that usually sets the first record apart is its pure, unfiltered authenticity. That happened quite organically because I wasn’t involved with the ‘scene’ then; I was an outsider at that point. After its release, my life changed quite a bit and I started spending very little time in the studio and a lot of time on the road. Finally, when the time came to write my second record, I had to find myself again, and that was an emotionally challenging and frankly nerve-wracking procedure, because in order to find yourself, you have to first admit that you’re a bit lost. Eventually, it all worked out, and when I got into the studio to write Dreamcatcher, I felt stronger and more confident as a producer than I ever have before.

SEM: Are you happy with the result?

SB: Yes, thankfully I really am, and I don’t take it for granted at all.

SEM: Why this emphasis on dreams and the inner workings of the mind?

SB: It was part of the mechanism I set up for myself to write new music. I personally believe that the best music ever written comes from a deeper place than the conscious mind. Sometimes I’ll sit in the studio and “try” to write a beautiful song, but it rarely comes to me when I expect it. Then, an hour later, I’ll be jogging in a park or deep in sleep, and I’ll hear the idea that I was looking for. It just presents itself, like an anonymous gift that shows up at your doorstep. My only job at this point is to successfully understand and capture the idea before it evaporates, as most dreams tend to do. My voice notes on my iPhone are filled with bizarre verbal notes where at times I’m beatboxing to capture a beat, or humming to capture a melody, while running towards my studio in the hope that I’ll get there before the idea leaves me.

SEM: Who are some of these talented vocalists who joined you on this record?

SB: These incredible vocalists are not only some of the best I believe our country has to offer, but are now also some of my closest friends. I met these musicians at different points in my life: The F16s at an afterparty on tour, Kavya at a festival where she came up and said hi as a fan many years ago, and Sohrab Nicholson all the way back in high school, where we played in the same band at ages 15 and 16. Our collaborations happened so organically, there was no talk of an album at that point. It was inevitable that we were going to make music together someday, and when I heard the results, I knew I had to put the songs on my album.

SEM: What’s coming up for you in the next few months and can we catch you on tour somewhere?

SB: I’m now getting ready to tour India with this record. The festival and concert season in India takes place over the winter, so it’s great timing. After our Indian season is over, we’ll look at doing some tours internationally, in Europe, SE Asia, and maybe even the US. That’ll happen next year. I believe my management and booking team is working on some exciting plans. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the situation, and can’t wait to go play this record for everyone.

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