Eclectic musical fusionist extraordinaire, Nitin Sawhney shares just a few of the influences that have shaped his world
“Oh, you’re calling from Camden? Camden has had an influence on my life – I’ve got a lot of memories of it. I remember back in the 1980s when I played with The James Taylor Quartet, we did the Sunday lunchtime gigs at Dingwalls. I’ve also played the Jazz Cafe many times. I have fond memories of the gigs there. Camden Market on a Sunday was always good fun too.”
“Both my mum and dad were very heavily into Indian classical music, so I would hear a lot of Ravi Shankar in the house and also Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma. My dad listened to Cuban music and flamenco too, so that’s how I got into that, and a great deal of jazz . He would listen to Miles Davis a lot. My brothers were into everything from Santana to The Doors to Led Zeppelin.”
“I’m a film composer as well as a musician and producer. I grew up watching a lot of films and thinking about how music works with them – I was just as interested in the composer as the director. I loved Hitchcock’s films because of the relationship between him and Bernard Herrmann. The first time I saw ‘Psycho’ I was nine years old. The stabbing sounds really stayed in my head, but I wasn’t freaked out, I was more impressed by the music. I was 13 when ‘Star Wars’ came out – the massive sound of John Williams struck me as really powerful too.”
PLAYING THE FIELD
“My friends at school were all into punk, so I would play in punk bands. But I was a classical pianist, I played in youth orchestras and I also learned Indian classical music and the sitar through a local Sikh temple. The default position for me is that music is something to explore without limitations. In the current climate, where everything is about boundaries and division, I always turn back to it, and the way it flourishes and becomes more rich and diverse when there is freedom of movement.”
“I think the arts always benefit from being open to possibility rather than being closed and isolationist, and flamenco is a great example of that. It originated in Rajasthan. The Rajasthani gypsies went to Turkey and then to Spain, picked up all the Moorish traditions, and then those merged with the whole classical guitar sound. Later exponents like Tomatito and Paco De Lucía – who played with people like Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin – brought the jazz tradition to it. The growth of flamenco has been incredible. It’s had all these different influxes of cultures. It’s now a classical tradition in itself as well as a folk form.”
“When I left home, I went to study law at Liverpool University and I’d play with bands in the evenings as a session musician. I spent most of my time with other musicians and I’d be listening to local acts like The Icicle Works, who were doing really interesting stuff, as well as artists like The Cure and John Martyn.
“I’m a fellow of LIPA, the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts, which Paul McCartney set up. There’s real pride in the tradition of The Beatles in Liverpool. It’s not a cheesy past is it? It’s great music and those guys knew how to craft a song. It was interesting, later on, meeting people like McCartney and getting to know George’s wife Olivia and their son Dhani Harrison. It’s a weird thing because The Beatles were an amazing historical legacy for me then. Now I feel close to it, having worked with people like Paul McCartney. A lot of different types of music have come out of Liverpool at different times, and they all seem to have this particular melancholy.”
DRUM ’N’ BASS
“I remember being blown away by Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ when I was younger, and then being fascinated by the programmed synthesisers of Kraftwerk. But drum ’n’ bass was my proper introduction to electronic music and to DJing especially. At the beginning, people like LTJ Bukem, then Photek and Total Science – those albums were just awesome. And Goldie’s ‘Timeless’, obviously. But I remember being spellbound by 4hero doing it all live, bringing in an almost acoustic version of it, taking beats and putting them back onto instruments. I was fascinated by that.”
HAVING A LAUGH
“I can’t say much more than this, but I’m writing a situation comedy at the moment that’s looking like it’s going to get a commission. It’s pretty surreal and out there. The humour’s along the lines of ‘Spinal Tap’ meets ‘The Office’. I’m really enjoying it and it’s getting a very good response from people.
“There is a crossover between music and comedy, which I guess is related to timing. You’ve got Dudley Moore, who was one of the great jazz pianists. Steve Martin was a great banjo player, Bill Bailey is a very talented musician. Sanjeev Bhaskar plays keyboards really well and he sings quite a bit.
“There’s a similar sense of intuitive timing with music as there is with comedy. I’ve always thought there is a connection. It’s not something you can teach, you either hear it or you don’t.
“DJing is the same too – you get a reaction from a crowd like you get a laugh from an audience. I love Stewart Lee and I love what he did with Asian Dub Foundation and ‘Comin’ Over Here’. It was amazing and they did really well with it. I met him – at the Jazz Awards of all places – and he was a really lovely, sweet guy.”
‘Immigrants’ is out on Masterworks