Nitin Sawhney - Interview

18 April 2005

Nitin Sawhney

Nitin Sawhney - Interview

Nitin Sawhney - Interview
With the release of Philtre, Nitin Sawhney’s new album growing ever closer he took some time out to talk to

So how is your day going?

It’s going good thanks, I’m meeting up with Akram Khan who is a dancer and Antony Gormley who is a sculptor ( creator of the Angel of the North) later on in the day so yea, that ought to be interesting. I’ve done stuff with both of them before, Akram has internationally toured some of the stuff I have written for him and he’s a brilliant dancer. He’s just won the South Bank award for best choreography.

You’ve been away for a while what have you been up to?

I’ve been writing a lot of orchestral music for symphony orchestras and working with a lot of film. I’ve been doing an awful lot of that. I’ve DJ’d across India and America, loads of things really!

So do you enjoy the film side?

Yea it’s fantastic, at the moment I am doing Mira Nair’s next film. She did Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding; she’s brilliant to work with. I’ve done about thirty odd films now so I’ve done quite a lot of that over the years. I love it, I signed earlier on in the year to an agency in Hollywood called CAA, it’s the main film score composer’s agency, they’ve been chucking stuff at me which is all really good.

So is it a case of you choosing the films you want?

Yea, well the director has to be into what you do and you have to have an equal regard for their work then it’s just a case of seeing what comes along. The main thing at the moment for me is I’m touring the album and even thought I love the film side this is equally exciting, we have some great dates lined up and it’s all looking pretty cool.

New Album, Philtre is out soon are you happy with it?

Yea it’s coming out on the 2 nd of May; it’s all great I’ve had really good feedback and its all coming up well. We spent 3 months recording in total. It was really intensive, I basically didn’t sleep but up until then it was just getting all the ideas together and making it work. That took about a year.

When you write music, how much of it is premeditated and how much is happy accident?

I’ll have a kind of idea of what I want to do and what I want to say on the album and then things just evolve from that. Sometimes it’s through collaboration and sometimes I’ll sit down at the piano and get into a particular mood or feeling that I’m thinking about and take it from there. But overall I always have some kind of idea of what I want to do with an album and where I want to take it.

What was your main idea for this album?

Well Philtre, the title is all about heeling, and it is kind of the idea of music working as a heeling potion. It’s about getting away from all the politics and all the rubbish that I think inundate the media, There’s lots of minuets on the album and it’s a lot more about optimism through despair I guess. It builds in energy as it goes along and I guess those were the things that were going through my head when I made it.

Do you ever find it difficult to translate your music into a live set?

Well I try not to translate it. I try to make a live set based on what I have done on the record, I guess it’s a different kind of medium so I try and work on that and make it much more about energy and spontaneity and building and electricity between the band and the audience.

When you were younger was music an individual outlet just for you or did it run in your family?

My mum was a Bharata Natyam dancer and that is a form of Indian classical dance and she has actually written a poem in Hindi that I have used on the album. Also my brothers used to play a lot of music, my middle brother used to play a lot of guitar and I think that had an influence on me but I also think the music that was played in the house had a big impact on me. My dad used to play a lot of Cuban, Brazilian and flamenco records, My mum played a lot of classical Indian music and my brothers played a lot of jazz, funk, soul and also a lot of rock like Led Zeppelin, The Doors and stuff like that. It was a really varied mix of influences that I had from everyone.

Which of your songs sums up your present mood and why?

Probably ‘ Koyal’, I woke up this morning and felt I had a bit of flu coming on or something. It could even be ‘Spark’ I think that’s a better indication of my mood this morning! Hopefully by the end of the day I will be up to what ‘The Search’ sounds like and that’s a little livelier.

Since your career as a musician began what is the best thing that has happened to you?

Oh well meeting Nelson Mandela was the best thing, when I was making the album ‘ Prophesy’ I went around the world meeting loads of different people and chatting to them, but when I went to Nelson Mandela’s house and talking to him and interviewing him for the album was definitely the best thing that has ever happened. It’s was such a huge thing and that fact that he was up for doing it was great. The funniest thing about it was that his assistant came on to the room and said President Mbeki is on the phone and he really needed to take the call, he turned around to me and he asked me how many more questions I had left to ask so I replied 2 or 3 and he turned back around to his assistant and told him to tell President Mbeki that he was busy and he would call him back in 10 minutes. That was excellent!

What instruments do you play?

I play a lot of instruments, when I grew up I was a classical pianist first, I played from the age of about 5. I started out by playing in a youth orchestra and then changed to Jazz quartets a little later on. I also played flamenco guitar from the age of about 11. When I was 12 I learned how to play the classical Indian instrument the Tabla but I also play the drums, bass and yea I think that about it! I often think from an orchestral point of view about things more in terms of sound rather than just one instrument so I’m always trying out different instruments.

How do you unwind?

I do Thai boxing, i don’t think I could punch my way out of a paper bag this morning but I also do a lot of exercises, I use a Swiss ball which is quite good, I do a lot of balancing on it but mainly I play music to unwind. I check out a lot of films in my spare time and of course I go out to the pub with my mates and just have a good chat.

The last album you bought?

Oh wow! I don’t know, I can’t think what it was. It’s been ages because people just give me albums to listen to all the time. Just yesterday I was listening to Bloc Party album Silent Alarm and I liked the first track actually, it’s called Like Eating Glass and I liked that because it reminded me of Stiff Little Fingers drummer and the and The Cure singer Robert Smith. It just made me think about my time at university because I used to play the drums in a band at uni and I would base a lot of the drumming on Stiff Little Fingers. It’s interesting hearing it now because that’s what I used to do and model my drumming on. It made me all nostalgic, at that time I used to go and see The Cure and it just took me back! That’s a long time ago now unfortunately!

Apart from music what else are you really passionate about?

Film definitely, I got very excited when I saw an Iranian film the other day, I think everything feeds back into what I’m feeling about the world and politics and stuff like that. I think it is important to try and humanize people who are dehumanized by the press. It’s like the whole asylum stuff at the moment makes people incredibly paranoid. Words like terrorism make people unduly nervous about people from other countries. What I really like is going and seeing cinematography fromplaces like Iran. Infact channel 4 are doing a new season and I went along to watch one the other day, a film by Kiarostami called “Where's the friend house” and that was brilliant. He’s a genius director. I guess I’m passionate for politics in the way that I am actually very dispassionate for it but when it comes to humanity and people being treated fairly, I get really angry about things like that. For instance the thing with aboriginal tribes being treated like shit, it’s completely going straight under people these days because there’s so much unfairness in the world right now. I feel like the tsunami has kind of been sidelined where as people still keep on talking about the 4000 people who were killed on 9/11 which was 2001 yet 300,000 people died in with the Tsunami and not many people can even remember that this happened a few months ago on boxing day.

What is your Motive for life?

I guess it is to try and get balance, in terms of how you feel whether it be physically, mentally and how your outlook is on other people. I think the best way to achieve balance is to respect yourself and other people. That’s what I am always looking for.

What is next for you?

As I said I was doing Mira Nair’s next film score but the closet thing is touring! Rehearsal starts next week and then we start the tour with Shepherds Bush, it looks like a lot of the shows are going to sell out and then we are going into Europe. has an area on the website dedicated to unsigned artist, what advice would you give them?

Be yourself! Always make music that you can represent yourself, I don’t think there’s anything worse than people trying to be or do someone else’s music and try and carry it off as their own ideas or feelings. I think it is a case of trying to be original and true to your identity.

Nitin Sawhney On BBC Collective


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