Karsh Kale (pronounced Kursh Kah-lay) was born in the UK to Indian parents, and grew up in America with classical music running through his veins. He broke into the public eye when he joined super-producer Bill Laswell, Zakir Hussain, and Ustad Sultan Khan for Tabla Beat Science. Karsh's background runs the gamut, from rock, hip-hop, jazz, electronica, dub, reggae and classical music. His distinct style incorporates each of these elements creating what he so accurately calls "Classical Science Fiction From India." His brotherly connection with the Sound Tribe Sector 9 has opened him up to a new scene, and as is the case with Karsh, he is proving that his sound can travel any where.
With the success of his Six Degrees Records debut album Realize, and the highly anticipated
Asian Massive Tour featuring dj Cheb i Sabbah, the MIDIval PunditZ and Karsh's own band, he has been propelled to the forefront of this cross-pollinating scene. Mixing the organic sounds of classical music on the tabla, (the paired hand drums of northern India), with the beats of the East, Karsh is blurring the lines of what we hear, and forcing us to broaden our horizons.
Karsh: Hey how ya doin' man?
Kayceman: Good how are you?
Kayceman: You're in the studio now, is that right?
Kayceman: What are you working on?
Karsh: A remix for Gigi.
Kayceman: Cool, and you're in New York?
And that's where you live?
I live in Brooklyn actually.
Right on... So I wanted to start off with a little bit of musical background. I remember reading that you first got into music with a drum kit, is that right?
When I was young, about four or five I started playing the drum kit.
And when did you start getting into the tabla?
Around the same time, but I didn't really start getting serious until I was about ten years old, but I started playing about six or seven.
And what prompted you to get more serious about tabla?
Well I think I started getting more serious about playing classical music. Just getting into Indian classical music, and getting the vibes of that music and seeing how it was analogous to the music I was into at the time.
Do you play other instruments?
On my own stuff I play all kinds of stuff, I play guitar, bass, keyboards...
I'm curious, on Realize, when you lay down your tracks, are you doing any of the other instrumentation?
Ya, I'm doing a lot of that stuff. I'm playing drum kit, keyboards; I'm playing bass lines. Basically what I do is I create about three quarters of the track and then I bring in musicians to help me finish the track.
With the vocal stuff on that album, was that recorded specifically for the album, or was it taken from somewhere else?
Oh it was recorded for the album. These are all studio tracks we were writing and working on. There is a bunch of different stuff, there were probably two more albums worth of stuff that was recorded, we just edited it all down to that.
Are the out takes going to be released at another date?
Ummm, probably not. Probably not for while.
When did you get into spinning records and the DJ movement?
Since I came to New York. I came to New York in '93, I was going to NYU, and basically out of necessity I moved into a tiny little apartment, and had no space. I had to embrace technology right away. I came from playing in bands, and being in studios and having space to work, so I just kinda started to work with software on my computer. And when I had time, after class and things like that I just started kinda getting into music that was created that way, and at the same time seeing how analogous it was to a lot of the music I was playing live.
In regards to your musical upbringing, was it your parents that instilled the classical music in you, or did you come across it more on your own?
Well my dad is a big fan of classical music. He always had it in the house, so he definitely had it available to me but he never pushed me. He kinda just left it there and was like, check it out if you want to.
It was probably better that way.
How long did it take you to sort of start getting a handle on playing the tabla?
Well I kinda had an initial handle, which was kind or encouraging to me, I could kinda play right away, but you never really have a handle on it, your always learning more.
Well that must have really been encouraging, from what I've come to understand it takes years and years to be able to even really put anything together, so for you to be able to just sit down and play...was that leading you to a life of music very early on?
Oh ya, I knew I wanted to play music.
As far as tabla goes, are there a finite number of noises you can make with it?
Well I guess there's always more that people are discovering, but there are 12 main noises that you make, or syllables that you would use in sentences you would make.
And what do you do, you run your tabla through an effects processor making it an electronic tabla?
Yeah, well I run it through all kinds of different effects depending on what I'm doing, either in the studio or live. Sometimes through delay peddles, sometimes through distortion, sometimes through amps.
So as I said I've been listening to your remixes, and a lot of your music lately, and in all these genres that come through in your music; who have been the major influences on you growing up?
Well growing up, bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and stuff like that. But through the years I've gone through so many different types of influences that as an artist I'm more influenced by people like Peter Gabriel and Bob Marley, just as an artist, they definitely inspire me in how they approached what they did. But as a musician, or stylistically, I listen to so many different things I could never nail it down to one, it’s more styles.
Certainly. How about some of the younger bands that are playing today, I'm curious if there's any that stick out in your mind that you especially dig.
There is some really great stuff that's happening now with like, the MIDIval PunditZ, Makio, a lot of the cats from London; Osmani Sound...and of course Talvin and all those guys...
As far as within this genre, but I'm always checking out what's going on in other genres as well, kinda hearing what people are doing in their production and try to pull it into a new space.
I've spoken several times with Zach from Sector 9, and he speaks incredibly highly of you...
Oh ya, Sector 9 is amazing.
I was curious what you thought of them as musicians, and in particular maybe Zach's drumming, because in a lot of ways you are introducing a new group of people to a new style of music, just as Sector 9 and Zach's drumming has, it's opening a lot of doors which has been great.
Photo by Wyatt Dexter
I think Zach is a pure representative of a generation of musicians that have been born after the sampler. His understanding of beats, and besides his speed and his dexterity on his drums, just his amazing understanding to arrange music spontaneously is because he has listened to so much music that has been arranged by machines. And this is a whole new generation of people, and Zach is at the front of it.
Definitely. Is there anything in the works for you two in the future? I know he's going to sit in with you when you're in San Francisco...
Oh ya, sky is the limit. We're just at the beginning; we're still opening those doors, and still introducing new people to this kind of approach. So ya, absolutely.
I think the first time I saw your name was with Tabla Beat Science, and I'm curious maybe you had been involved with those musicians before, but I was wondering how at such a relatively young age how you got involved with such a heavy group of musicians, such masters of their genres?
Well the Table Beat Science thing kinda came out of originally it being a Zakir Hussain solo project, and at the time I was also working with Bill Laswell and he was also working with Talvin, and I was working with Talvin, and he was working with Trilok, so it kinda just came together as a compilation of different tabla players. For me, I was just incredibly psyched to be a part of that project, at the same time I don't think there were so many tabla players that were taking it to these types of places. Since Tabla Beat Science came out a lot of different people have been giving me music that is pretty crazy.
That must have been a milestone for you.
Well I mean for other tabla players and other musicians to see someone like Zakir Hussain or Sultan Kahn actually taking their music so far out to different places encourages them to try it.
That’s something I was curious about too; how is your music and the entire electronic movement received by more classical musicians in India?
They see it as a new beginning. A lot of times you want to be able to tell the story the way it was but you have to kind or tell it in a new way, and I think they see that. They see these young people who are re-creating their music, and re-inventing their music for their own generation, and they're definitely psyched about it. And I mean of course there are people who are not into it as well. It kinda goes both ways.
Yeah, you see that in the jazz world a lot to. The young kids who are really pushing it...
And even in the electronic scene, there are purists in every scene.
Definitely. Do you have a pulse on the youth scene in India and Asia, if there are musicians who are sort of pushing what your doing, this "Asian Massive Movement," is that being brought out over there as well?
Definitely, there is a scene in every major city in India, and people are flocking out to it, whether it be the raves or the clubs or whatever is going on. There are definitely artists who are not only djing but creating new tracks.
Is there a live music scene that is incorporating the electronics out there?
Yeah, it's kinda been happening for a long time as well, incorporating the different musicians with the different types of music, but now it seems more concentrated because there is a connection to a world movement. So there are definitely artists who are not just taking tablas and sitars but making hybrid instruments and making hybrid music and having half electronic and half organic bands that are coming up. The whole gray area spectrum between organic classical music and contemporary music in the West is being explored right now, and that's really exciting.
That seems to be one of your goals, to run those lines together as much as possible.
Absolutely, I think that's just bringing us closer together.
Is your music, your recordings and your live performances, received fairly well over seas, I know in England it is...
Absolutely, over in Europe, pretty much everywhere I've gone, people are not seeing it as a foreign thing or as an exotic thing but as something universal. I don't play Indian music because I'm Indian, I play it because I think it's beautiful, and I just want to share it with people and show them how beautiful the music is.
Definitely. You know I'm really looking forward to seeing you perform with your band; I'm curious how your recordings differ from your live performance? Can you recreate what you do on a record?
When we play live, the band has kinda been put together to fill the elements of what I usually try to fill when I create tracks. So we're not really trying to recreate the track as much as we are trying to play the song. So you know, keyboard parts and acid lines are played by guitars, and guitar parts are played by keyboards and vocal lines are singing flute parts, and we're completely reinventing it again live, but we're definitely capturing the essence of the piece, but we may change the instrumentation.
So from night to night your performances must differ greatly, is that safe to assume?
Yeah, definitely. Depending on the kind of space we're playing in and the room, the vibe, we'll play the same song three different ways, with three different types of energy, and that's a good thing. It's kinda like if you’re a dj you can vary the tempo and you can vary the pitch but you can't really vary the vibe, it's the same song. But we can remix it every night.
Are you perhaps familiar with the Master Musicians Of Jajouka?
So do you know Skerik as well? He's a saxophone player who plays with Critters Buggin who did a long tour with them, regardless, I was speaking with him and he was refering to the spiritual aspect of their music, and how it is incorporated and seen as a healing aspect, and I'm curious how feel about that in relation to your music, and music in general, the way it can be used to heal the spirit?
I think that's always been the reason why I play music. It almost became an addiction, where I personally would become depressed if music wasn't around. Music's always been that for me...I think I've always been attracted to creating music that does that. I don't really claim that as the ingredient I put in music, I just think music itself has that ability if you can access that. Especially for me, classical music has always had that kind of effect, on a spiritual and emotional level.
Definitely, and I agree entirely. That is something I've been really drawn to with your music, and music in general, but I feel that it comes through in your work. I wanted to ask you while we are talking about spirituality, outside of music, what else has been very influential in your life, books or people, things that have set the course for you?
Well right now in my life I am very focused on my family, my partner and my baby. It's really kind or put me in line, where before I think my life was very scattered. And just as far as my approach to music, and my approach to my life it is very synchronized now.
I've also read that Zakir Hussain has been a major influence for you, so when did you meet him, and how did you come upon him?
Well my father was the one who first played Zakir Hussain for me; he just looked at me and saw how drum crazy I was and was like, you gotta check this guy out. So he took me to see him live and I was hooked. I went to see him every year, probably three times a year after that for the rest of my life. So he kinda saw my development, you know every time I would see him I would tell him what I was doing, and he always knew what I was up to, but I never got to learn from him, so I always kind of worshiped him from afar. Even more than just being a tabla player he had an incredible influence on me as far as his impeccable taste and eloquence in how he wanted to say things. That I found was the most influential thing about Zakir Hussain, and it's always stayed with me, even today when I'm actually working with him.
When was the first time you collaborated and got to work with him?
The first time was actually on stage at Stern Grove, well we had rehearsals before that, but that was the first time we ever really got to work things out and actually communicate and have dialogues on our instruments. And since then we've played a bunch of shows and we are going to be working on some recordings later in the year.
You said that you never had the opportunity to study under Zakir, whom did you study under? I can't imagine there were a whole lot of people for you to study under in New York.
I actually spent most of the years of my playing by myself. I would be listening to endless cds and going to endless concerts, and watching videos and always comparing what I was doing to what I was hearing, and trying to improve myself that way.
Was your family pleased that you started taking up tabla, as opposed to the drum kit and rock music, or was that not really an issue in your household?
Yeah, ya know they would see my interest waving between the two, sometime I would be spending a lot of time on the tabla, and sometimes I wouldn’t play it for a couple of months. So I don't think it really would have mattered to them if I would have said, I'm not going to play music anymore, but at the same time they loved that I played music. So they just felt that whenever I was ready to do what I wanted to do, I would. And I guess they were right, because I have just sort of let everything takes its course and come together as it was going to.
You first started recording music in '95 or '96 is that right?
Yeah, you could say '95, '96.
I'm curious then, why was it not until recently that your first album came out?
Well I think I was always trying to create a blue print for what it was that I wanted to do with musicians. My thing was never to really be an electronic musician. I was never in the pursuit of being a knob twiddler; I was more in the pursuit of being able to find a sound. So once I was able to actually get the musicians together, and got myself to the point where I could actually get like Sultan Kahn in the studio, was really the time to put out a record.
I'm curious with Sultan Kahn how were you able to get him to put down vocals on the track "Satellite?"
A lot of that was just his own spontaneity...he was just inspired by the song and just decided to add that, and we just worked that into the song.
When you generally begin working on a song, is there a certain formula you tend to use, like do you start with a beat, or chord progression, or drum machine?
It always varies; it depends on what sparks the idea. I never start from the perspective that I have to always start with the raga, or something. It might just be a classical piece, or it might be a melody, or a melody with a chord progression, or a drum part, it always varies.
Is there something that you find you generally draw inspiration from?
I think I kind of just let whatever it is inspire me...because everything's kind of got a musical theme.
Just remain open...
Do you have plans for more recordings any time soon?
Oh yeah, I'm working on my new record that I want to release next spring.
In the future are you going to be pushing your live stuff just as much as recordings, or do you have more interest in staying in the studio?
Well I think with the next album it's going to be more about the live thing, it's going to be more about the chemistry between the musicians that we are working with as opposed to just special guests on tracks. And really kind of bring that sound together so it comes alive on stage. But the Asian Massive tour is really about creating the context as well.
It seems that people are a lot more open to this style of music, and I think that has a lot to do with people like you and Talvin, and the doors seem to be a little more open, and I'm wondering if you have any plans for crossovers with all genres of music?
Oh yeah. I don't put any kind of limits as far as where it is I can take something. The only thing I try to do is keep it in the realm of taste. Because sometimes music is exploited, and different types of music from parts of the world are exploited in ways -well it's never a bad thing- it's just a thing I wouldn't choose to say.
I agree, you need to hold onto the roots, it's not a good to just pull from various areas and not understand the music. The last time I saw you was with Sector 9, and I think you really helped elevate that music to the next level, and using them as an example, how do you feel when you play with them?
I think it's pretty explosive. On one hand it was playing with a completely new band, on the other hand it was like I had been playing with them forever.
And that's because there is definitely a new generation of musician. A new generation with an understanding of the things that have happened in the past 20 years, and that's a different type of musician, and that's what Sound Tribe is all about.
Are there other people you perform with that you get the same vibe, or an equally as powerful vibe?
Yeah, like Tabla Beat Science, or when I'm playing with my own band, or when I'm playing with Sussan Deyhim and the Mad Men of God and it's pretty crazy. There are all these different scenarios, and some of them I'm playing drum kit, and some of them I'm playing tabla, and some I'm playing both. And for me it's just about being able to enter that space where these kind of musicians meet and be able to, like you said take this music to next level.
And with your tour, it will be taking you to Germany right?
After the tour I am going to Mexico to work with a band down there.
What are they all about?
They're a Mexican band, kind of like a Mexican Beck meets Beastie Boys kind of vibe.
That sounds interesting.
Then I'm going to be headed out to Germany to work with Laswell and Pharoah Sanders on Material.
I wanted to ask you a little more about Laswell. I've been extremely interested in his music since I first came upon it. How did you get tied into him?
Well he is always looking at what is going on in the scene and he had his eye on what I was doing for like a good four years before I ever worked with him. He would kind of come down and check out what I was doing. I used to play with this band called the Bell Café, I was playing electric tabla with a didgeridoo player, a drummer, a bass player, all kinds of special guests, and we were really pushing some new ground in a very intimate, kind of underground space. He caught wind of that, and a lot of musicians would come down. So he was checking that out. And he knew I was working with DJ Spooky and DJ Logic, and a bunch of different artists. So when it came time for us to meet he already had a context, and of course I did.
And when did you first collaborate with him, what was the first thing you did together?
The first thing we did together was a remix for Sting.
And with Material did you play the drum kit?
Not on the last Material record.
But you did collaborate with Material right?
The stuff I did with Material was stuff I had recorded with him separately and it wound up on a Material record.
Material is always ever changing so...
That Hallucination Engine, I think I heard that once I graduated college and it pretty much turned me onto a whole new world of music...as did Laswell.
Well I appreciate you giving me some of your time...
Awesome man...thank you...
All right man...well thanks again...Peace.
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