Sahej Bakshi & The Art Of Expanding Universes
15 March 2013
Sahej Bakshi has a plan.
Many plans in fact, but, really, they’re all about the same thing. He wants his music to be heard. By a lot of people. More people than most of his peers in the Indian electronic scene have even begun to think about. He’s not too interested in selling records, and radio doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Those are worries for another year. But right now, Sahej Bakshi, better known as Dualist Inquiry, is only focused on potential.
It’s not uncommon for Indian college students studying in Los Angeles to bring something back with them. More often than not, it’s a forced American accent. But while Dualist may toss an extra “dude” into his repertoire from time to time, he sounds thoroughly like the Chandigarh bred Doon School boy that he his. But he didn’t come back from his time abroad empty-handed.
Dualist arrived in California a full on guitar shredding rocker. Living in LA, he tells us, “all of my friends used to be hardcore psytrance and electronic music lovers; all my roommates. And I’m this guy playing shred rock in my bedroom. It would drive them crazy. You can understand from an electronic person’s standpoint when the next room is like [does shredding guitar impression] and just being like, 'Dude what’s wrong with you?' And I’d be like, "What is this music you’re listening to? 'It’s fucking bullshit. There’s no guitars.'
The friendly musical rivalry ended when Dualist accompanied his roommates to a rave. Not just any rave, but Monster Massive, a now defunct stadium rave that – at its peak – brought in more than 60,000 party kids.
To hear Dualist tell it, entering Monster Massive was akin to a revelatory experience; “You walk through the tunnel and you come to the balcony. I’ll never ever forget that moment. … [C]ompletely unaware of what’s waiting for us, we walk into the balcony and we just stop. There’s literally 100,000 people in this bowl, and there’s one dude, Judge Jules, just standing there. I’d never seen one person do something like that. I just became part of the crowd and it was the whole collective experience that really drew me in at first.”
But as powerful as that experience was, the music spoke to Dualist with equal force: “I remember thinking that first night that the beats are so pure because they’re electronic. They’re from within the machine. You’re not recording them with a little bit of air between the mic and the kick, losing quality. This sound was just really high fidelity, and that’s what made me want to start making electronics.”
Coming back from the rave, the gears inside Dualist’s head were already whirring: “I like to set these long term goals for myself. So I was just like, that’s it. I’m going to learn how to make electronic music now. I declared to my friends, ‘Alright guys, I’m in. We don’t have to argue about this anymore.’
Coming back to India a year later, Dualist had a second revelation, and those long term goals became concrete plans.
“I ended up,” Dualist explained, “going to Goa by accident. I went to Bombay and my friend said 'Let’s drive to Goa.'
Okay, so what do we do in Goa?
“So we walked in, and I had been to Coachella and a lot of different festivals, but first of all, I was like 'Whoa, this is happening here?' It’s a huge festival. Big crowd, big stage. But what really struck me was seeing an Indian guy [Arjun Vagle from Jalebee Cartel] on the stage doing what I was so used to seeing American people doing. Something like that wound up in my head; Goddamn, that’s like me. I want to be that guy. It was so directly relatable. I have no excuse to not want that.“
Post Sunburn, Dualist sprang into action:
“I wanted to be a part of what was happening in India. … I went back [to LA] and I had exactly one year to graduate. That’s when I started producing music knowing that if I’m going to graduate in a year, I have to have at least an hour of music to play when I go back to India. I wrote 7 songs in that year. … So I came back and I had these 7 songs, which is about 40 minutes of music. Then I got this Holi Cow! gig and in like four or five days I made another 25 minutes of music. And that’s where the first gig started.”
Fast forward a few years, and Dualist finds himself in a very different position. He’s now that one guy standing at a console making crowds move. He’s won awards, opened for global sensations David Guetta and Fatboy Slim, released an EP, and broadly saturated the Indian metros with his genre-rejecting breed of guitar driven dance music. But on the eve of his album launch, he refuses to rest on his laurels.
Dualist Inquiry wants more.
There’s something special about the way Dualist is releasing his debut full-length, Doppelganger. It’s free. Not Radiohead style pay-what-you-will, just straight up free. Or almost free, anyway:
“My album is going to be given away in exchange for one thing, an email address. That’s the really crucial aspect, to have that email for the future and to be able to reach out. … We did that with the bootlegs and it was super successful the way it worked for the Skrillex remix and the Pretty Lights remix. All we did was we blasted 4,000 people on Facebook and just from there, I was walking through the Delhi Weekender and randomly a phone rang next to me and it was one of my songs. That song has travelled everywhere.”
For Dualist, it is far more interesting to expand the scene for electronic music in India than to try and sell records within the boundaries that currently exist. This is where we see the results of summers spent interning in the American record industry, with Capitol, Interscope, and Universal. Dualist breaks it down:
“I’ve researched … the kind of numbers that in India, Universal will do of physical CDs, the kind of numbers that Beatport does in its sales, and I actually found that the potential monetary gain that you have from putting your album out on iTunes and Beatport, for me it was more valuable to get it into the maximum number of hands possible. It’s like investing in my own future. … I’m trying to build a base all over the country, hopefully in places where it hasn’t gone so far. The basic idea towards which every decision has been tailored is to get [my music] into the most number of hands possible.”
And indeed, Dualist’s key insight may be that you don’t have to reach the masses to be massive. Much of the independent and electronic scene in India is content to reach to a tiny slice of the nation; the affluent, educated, and urban. Trying to reach the kind of numbers seen by even a second tier Hindi film sounds absurd. And it may well be. But Dualist sees beyond some of the preconceptions of many metropolitan producers of cultural capital. Most keenly, he sees that his target audience, the massive one, isn’t really all that different from us:
“When I look at who I’ve reached so far, versus who I haven’t reached [but] are accessible, it’s pretty much 15% [of India]. I’m talking about places where I’ve played; colleges in Ahmedabad, Indore, Guwahati, Lucknow. … These kids are on the same page …, they’re just like normal dudes who wears jeans and t-shirts and normal girls who are way more liberated than their parents. Like us all, basically. At the very least they’ll be listening to David Guetta. And one of the reasons I agreed to open for David Guetta is because if they can dig Guetta then I’m sure they are close enough to convert.
“As much as I’ve enjoyed Delhi, Bombay, Pune and Bangalore where a shit load of people turn up at every gig, I kind of need a challenge. I like it when I’m working against the odds one way or the other, it drives me, makes me think harder, makes me more hardworking.”
And when stepping outside of his comfort zone, Dualist often does have to work for it. Talking about college gigs in second tier cities, he recounts a typical experience:
“…[T]he announcer goes ’Next on we have Dualist Inquiry.’
“You can literally hear the crickets chirping.
“I just start smiling to myself and think ‘Okay, fine, I’m going to convert you guys, just give me 15 minutes.’
“And in that first 15 minutes people are looking at me thinking ‘Are we supposed to dance? What are we supposed to do? Is he going to make us dance?’
“…[A]nd then I’ve converted all of them in 20 minutes and I say ‘Put your fucking hands up.’ And they’re like ‘What?’ and I say ‘Put your fucking hands up in the air!’
“And they’re like, ‘Okay, now we get it.’”
There’s something a bit off-putting about the way that we – you, me, your friends, and Dualist - speak about a show in Guwahati or Ahmedabad as if they were on another planet. Because, really, Dualist is right. This 15% is within his reach. But it speaks volumes to the bounded and insular nature of the electronic music scene in India that reaching beyond the 2% or the 5% is seen as a revolutionary goal. In a sense, this makes Dualist’s 15% vision simultaneously grandiose and underwhelming. He’s already written off 85% of the population. And yet he sees bigger than almost anyone in this niche. And that itself may be enough to merit a great deal of credit.
More importantly, Dualist’s scene expanding plans aren’t limited to drawing in new crowds. He wants to find a way to help India’s community of electronic music artists grow. To that end, he’s recently launched Dualism Records.
At first glance, Dualism Records looks like a questionable value proposition for an artist. By signing with the label, an artist will – yes, this is the entire plan – be able to release and distribute their music for free on the Internet. And when we first heard this, we couldn’t help but wonder why anybody would need a record label in order to give their music away for free. But when pushed on the question, Dualist’s response was convincing:
“I end up listening to a lot of stuff. For the last 6 months, I’ve been getting loads of people … from all over saying ‘Hi, I make this, can you listen to this?’ I’d say that most of it is good ideas but without the technical knowledge and skill you need to make a fat sounding mix. I’m just hoping or waiting for the day when these people with good ideas get shown how to do it. And I keep thinking about what I could possibly do to help.”
Dualism is the answer. The label isn’t going to cut you fat cheque. But that’s not what Dualist is about, anyway. What the label can provide to aspiring Indian artists is the kind of competence that Dualist has cultivated through the work and dedication that has made him known on the scene today. You need some extra kit or some studio time to get your album done? Dualism can do that. You need some finishing touches on your production and someone to master the album? Dualism will take care of that. A dedicated base and mailing lists? Sorted.
Like with all the work leading up to his own album release, Dualist has created Dualism as a way to push the boundaries that define India’s electronic music scene. And by releasing Doppelganger this way first, he’s putting himself up as a test subject. A guinea pig.
We happen to like the music that Dualist Inquiry makes. But even if you don’t, you ought to be thrilled that he’s out there playing in cities you haven’t even visited, and rethinking his distribution model around the way in which he can reach the widest possible audience. Plainly put, you should be happy that Dualist has a plan.
Because whatever kind of non-mainstream music you listen to, Dualist Inquiry is making the subcontinent safe for that as well.
As Dualist sees it, the only limits are those that we perceive:
“It’s going good and that’s why things are expanding and you can only go as far as your universe stretches. But the universe is stretching all the time, so you probably won’t get there.”
You can stream and download Sahej's debut 'Doppelganger' LP below:
Words: Kerry Harwin
Image Credit: Sachin Soni