Interview & photos* by Vivek Shraya.
Sometimes I forget that my artistic journey began as a duo.
When we were children, my younger brother Shamik and I used to sing together every Sunday evening at our religious centre. I would often choose which bhajan we would sing, and while we sang I would signal to him which lines we should repeat by secretly placing one finger or two on his knee. He handled some of the more complicated vocals, like wailing Shambooooo at the end of a Shiva bhajan. At home, we would practice not just bhajans but also take on our favourite pop/r&b songs. We were particularly fond of songs by another duo, Zhané. My brother, whose voice hadn’t yet been deepened by puberty, would take the high parts and I the low and it was a groove thang.
Eventually, we parted from our religion and the kind of intimacy we had with each other in our childhood. But, separately, our love for music continued to flourish. Shamik went from playing tabla to mastering beatboxing and even opening for Method Man & Redman Now Shamik resides in Vancouver and has added producer, photographer, and label founder and manager to his credits.
Watching his career, I have admired and aspired to my brother’s rigorous commitment to his art. While I left our hometown Edmonton the second I could, he stayed and built a solid following there. While my arts practice has often revolved around my day job, for my brother it has always been the opposite, where his music has always been his #1.
I was honoured to be featured on Shamik’s riveting album Channeling India, one of my favourite records of 2014 (I know I am biased but seriously, check it out). I am unbelievably proud of him and am excited to showcase him here at heartbeats.
One of the things I admire about you is that stylistically you don’t shy away from colour/pattern, which is atypical for North American masculinity. Can you speak more about this and your relationship to style in general?
I was really into seeing the flashy bits that Michael Jackson wore, early 90’s hip hop fashion, and a lot of the fly outfits Will Smith rocked on Fresh Prince. The more ridiculous the better. My parents shopped at spots like Zellers, Sears, Woolco, and did a great job getting us what they could…but once I got a job and started buying my own clothes I started to wear all the colours. A lot of the Indian guys in my school wore all black as if it was a uniform. Black shirt, black jeans, black boots.
I hit my growth spurt late and was already getting picked on, so wearing bright colours and sticking out more seemed fine to me. I was obsessed with the colour red for a long time, because it was a colour that people didn’t wear or didn’t feel confident wearing…so I had a lot of red in my wardrobe. I would say from the time I was 18 to 30 people always asked me if I was straight or gay because it was almost decided by society what straight people can or can’t wear. I never really gave a shit what people thought. If I liked it I wore it.
I had more of a complex with being skinny cause there was a time where people didn’t wear tighter jeans or fitted t-shirts. Sometimes I see an old photo and I can’t believe I was wearing baggy jeans for so long. Nowadays I just wear whatever I like, and only buy things that fit well..baseball hats and all over print shirts are probably my biggest vice.
You are a beatboxer, producer, label founder and manager and photographer. What does art and these outlets in particular provide you?
Beatboxing is super fun and always has been. I pay attention to drums and rhythm quite a bit and am generally making some sort of vocal noise throughout the day. It’s like an intricate language and it helps me convey what I hear in my head.Production is my true calling. I really use production to get my feelings out one way or another. Most of my current work is inspired by samples, synths, and field recordings. I have a home studio set up so it’s nice to be able to get working whenever I feel like it. I do consider myself a vocalist first, but production comes ahead of everything these days.
Managing Sensing Waves has given me an outlet to help other artists put out their music. I believe in a lot of the up-and-coming artists out here, and am grateful to offer guidance to them when needed. It’s a labour of love, and I hope it gives light to some underground talent.
Photography started out as a hobby because I started taking more pictures when I was touring internationally. Once I committed to getting a DSLR camera in 2012, it fully became a new way to express myself. It was also a nice change of pace to have another hobby outside of music. I’m still learning a lot, but sometimes taking a great photo is similar to making a great song especially with post-production.
Unlike me, you have never shied away from your Indian roots in your music, right from your first album. Why has incorporating Indian sounds and samples always been important to you?
I saw a lot of Indian music fusion happening in the 90’s and a lot of it was associated with lounge type music, trance, or sometimes even cheesy stuff. Lots of electronic acts were sampling sitar or tabla, but I didn’t necessarily think it was always a good fit. I guess I kind of idolized all the stuff that I thought was dope coming out of the UK with breakbeats, and wanted to make my own contribution. When we recorded Equal Eyes in 2006, I thought it would be cool to make a trip hop tune with beatboxing, tabla, and singing, so I just came up with a beat, bassline, and melody.
My ideas back then weren’t as calculated as they are now—I’d just get a vision and run with it. I don’t play the tabla anymore but when I did, I found the theory side of things to be pretty rigid. All the taals (beats) were already set in stone and no one I knew really jammed or freestyled. There are so many rules with traditional Indian music. I know there’s peeps out there who do jam now but I tried to use my beatboxing as the gateway to make unique creations.
2007 was also a big year for me as an observer, because it was the first time I toured in India. I performed at proper clubs and learned a lot from witnessing the scene first hand. Some club nights had zero Indian-infused music, and others had all kinds of hip hop/bhangra mashups. Around then, Sub Swara’s Coup D’Yah album and Dub Qawwali (Gaudi’s dub remix album of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) came out so I was fascinated with hearing South Asian music amalgamated with really good bass music.Timbaland also changed the game with some of his clever sampling so I looked up to him a lot when I started going down the world music route. These days as a producer I really enjoy incorporating some Indian flavour, because I feel like it’s a part of who I am.
You and I grew up singing at our religious organization together but you don’t really sing on your albums. Can you speak to this?
I’ve sang sporadically on a few things, but I mostly don’t really like the sound of my singing voice that much anymore. It’s always been a bit of a struggle, but I acknowledged the fact that my singing capabilities are just OK. Beatboxing comes way more naturally for me, but singing is kind of an unpredictable wild card. Some day when I have more time I hope to get some vocal training. It would be cool to come back to it at some point now that I’ve grown as a producer.
Tell us more about your new project, Global Rotations.
While I was working on Channeling India, I collected a bunch of other records which have great sounds from all over the world. I wanted to try incorporate them in a similar way for a new project to represent more of a global sound. I didn’t really plan on making it an album until I realized I had about 8 finished unreleased tunes. After the whole album was completed there were sounds from Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, USA, Morocco, France, and India. I love world music a great deal, and it’s fun chopping up lush instruments. The majority of the album is on an instrumental hip hop tip with a few vocal samples here and there. It took me about 10 months to complete.
Because of having immigrant parents, I often struggle with the fact that I am an artist and not the kind of profession they had hoped we would be. Do you struggle with this? How do you reconcile this?
Yes, I think about it all the time. It’s not a huge issue for me as much anymore. My biggest fear used to be that they won’t witness me experiencing their definition of success in their lifetime. However, in the past five years they have been more supportive then ever. I’ve made a point of filling them in more on what I’m working on. Sometimes they remind me that I have their blessing which has been a welcomed change. In my 20’s they were always focusing on how I didn’t have a degree or that music would never put food on the table.
Most Indian families associate success with education. Anyone who you meet who is Indian generally asks you ‘Are you studying?’ within the first few minutes so it’s almost in our blood.
Also, in India a lot of artists went to school first because art is never a guarantee in their eyes. I used to think that it would be cool to be able to give my parents money some day, but they literally don’t accept anything from anyone anymore. It’s part of their whole quest to be liberated from this planet. They’ve really turned over a new leaf as they’ve gotten older. Maybe they see how long I’ve been at it now and it’s starting to make more sense. I am grateful every day for how supportive and generous they have been.
You have lived in three major cities in Canada (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton). How has your experience differed living in these cities, particularly as a person of colour?
I know I dealt with a lot of racism in Edmonton, but I also am aware that it could have just been what it was like to be a POC in the 80’s. I got bullied a lot for being a nerd so the being brown part just gave kids a few more options with the name calling. Elementary and junior high school was where I learned:
-you get called Paki at any given moment
-people ask you questions about why curry smells the way it does
-your name gets Anglicized and there’s nothing you can do about it
-you’re always going to be known as one of the smartest kids in the class
-if you have white friends you are ‘whitewashed’
-you will be the butt end of some Apu ‘thank you come again’ joke and people will laugh
I managed to make a lot of friends from high school onward so I didn’t really pay attention to racism until I moved to Calgary. I left my whole community behind when I moved, so it was a huge change upon arrival.
People stared at me a lot in Calgary. There were several venues that I wasn’t let into the whole time I lived there. Once I had a show and the bouncer almost didn’t let me into the club until I showed him the flyer which had my name on it. I worked at a restaurant downtown where customers generally made a racist remark at least once a week. I became really numb to it.
It was a rough time, but somehow my music was really taking off while living there so I stayed strong. I have a lot of love for Calgary and am happy that the redneck factor has been toned down a bit (not to mention the fact that they have a brown mayor now, haha). My challenging times helped me get the courage to tour overseas. So it all worked out for the best.
Vancouver is a peaceful city and I always say that it’s more like a big small town. I’ve been in Vancouver for seven years now, and fall in love with its surroundings all the time. As a photographer and nature lover, there are so many options being in BC. I go to Victoria and Seattle a lot, and try to be outdoors whenever I have free time.
On the flip side, I do find people to be pretty flaky here, but that seems to go hand in hand with the whole ‘west coast’ identity. A lot of the ethnic diversity here is in the suburbs like Burnaby, Surrey, Richmond, and New Westminster, so you don’t really see all the POC’s. Downtown and central Vancouver are prominently white. I think people make it out here and really try to work on themselves via being active….yoga, biking, hiking and more…so ain’t nobody got time to talk about real shit like social injustices or race issues. There is a bit of activism here but I’d it’s on a way smaller scale compared to Toronto.
I absolutely love it here, but I coincidentally don’t fit in here. It’s a weird sort of bittersweet feeling. But I know that this where I am now to work and be productive while I plan the next steps.
I have a few collaborative projects with you 😉 Excited?!
I took a one-year hiatus from shows to focus on production, so I’m looking forward to performing again. I’m currently working on a new live show where I can play a lot of my newer music. One of my bigger goals this year was to keep increasing my skills as a photographer and learning video as well. The DIY lifestyle is a lot easier when I can have more control of how I represent myself and share my art. Down the road, I hope to have stronger visual components for what I do.
My label has plans for 3 EP’s from various Canadian artists coming out in the next 6-9 months. I started a podcast in April for Sensing Waves as well, so there will be a couple of new instalments before the end of the year.
Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya. *Photos 1 & 9 by Adam Holman.