Sounds of the IndieGround – A DJ and his Dance Floor
As a DJ – what is your scope of responsibility to your dance floor? Is it to give the dance floor exactly what it wants – feed them with familiar favourites to ensure a fun night out and possibly little else? Is it to challenge your audience – introduce them to new sounds, new music, surprise them? Or is it neither – are you simply there to share your sonic story, irrespective of whether the audience cares for it or not?
The art of DJing is particularly interesting to me in its inclusion of the audience as a measure of how good the DJ him/herself is at their own craft. Live musicians/bands often have the creative liberty of excluding audience reactions from their creative process – making music for themselves first, and then the audience. A DJ’s craft, however, differs slightly. A true DJ is one who has successfully mastered the art of crowd reading – being able to feel your audience, read the dance floor, making spontaneous on the spot decisions and adapting your set on the fly if something isn’t working. This in-the-moment spontaneity and adaptability is what sets a good DJ apart from a great DJ. His/her audience is an integral part of his/her art form.
However this doesn’t mean a DJ is there only to cater to the audience’s whims. With great power comes great responsibility – and as storehouses of musical knowledge, perhaps there’s also a certain responsibility a DJ possesses to musically ‘educate’ in some way. “As DJs we spend so much time looking into what’s out there, and invest so much time in building up our music base – we spend ten hours a day trying to get music – so it’s up to us to educate our audiences. But the challenge is in making them like what you’re playing, even though they haven’t heard it”, says veteran DJ Vachan Chinnappa, who has been pushing underground sounds in the Indian EDM industry for over a decade now.
Having said this, the greatest gift a DJ could receive is a musically open audience, who trusts the DJ enough to let him/her take them to uncharted sonic territory. However audiences must actively give the DJ that creative license – to evolve as artists, and experiment with new sounds – instead of binding them to the few familiar tracks that get people moving on the dance floor.
If there’s one DJ who’s witnessed the evolution of trends over the course of time – and been instrumental in creating them – it’s Vachan. Vachan’s forte seems to lie in scene construction – taking a space, taking a sound/genre, and building a scene from the ground up, while making it a point to expose his fan base to new genres and sounds. I caught up with the very tall DJ about his construction work, his vast record collection, and about his committed relationship – with the dance floor.
Nirupama: When did you first start collecting records and old vinyls?
Vachan: Well I first started collecting records in ’98 – my dad also had a vast record collection which I have now. But I grew up listening to music – I think I was 5 when I started listening to music. Have you heard Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue? My dad would play that so I’d go to sleep. That was my go to sleep song.
Nirupama: Still use it to get to sleep?
Vachan: Yep [laughs]
Nirupama: You’ve always been a hard core rock fan – how does your passion for rock music inform your approach to DJing?
Vachan: Well all the music I play – I want to have some kind of rock in it. I’m not sure how to explain what I mean by ‘rock’, but I need a certain rawness. I don’t want it to be too over produced, I want it very raw, riff-based, complex bass lines – whatever – I just look for rawness in a song. I feel rock has a lot of rawness. Also with respect to the beat patterns, and the way riffs come about – that’s the way I want to mix my songs. I feel the arrangement of a rock song often has different soundscapes – it starts off in one way, then suddenly it goes very riffy and hard core, then makes you happy, then a bridge comes in where things calm down, and then again the tune comes back with a big riff. So that’s how I want to arrange my songs as well – make my whole set one song.
Nirupama: When you’re DJing – how do you present obscure music and new sounds on a dance floor that maybe an audience hasn’t been exposed to, in a way you think would be interesting to them?
Vachan: It’s challenging – but you have to nurture your audience. Actually an interesting thing happened about four weeks ago. See I’ve been building up sets in 2010, 2011, 2012 – my sounds have changed drastically, especially in drum ‘n’ bass, and I would always feel that people are already used to this sound and I have to move on to the next sound – so every year I change my set. Now I’ve moved onto 2013, and I’ve made my sound more and more complex, and musical. So a few weeks ago – about four or five songs into my set – I didn’t feel the vibe from the crowd, so I went back to my 2010 playlist, and just played tracks from that. And the crowd went berserk! When I played, I saw all these kids – who for me, I thought they know what I’m playing, and it’s for them that I would go and change my set, thinking these guys know my music so I may have to keep changing it up – those were the guys who were jumping, and I’m thinking “this is my music from three years ago”! Then I realized, because we listen to music so often, we feel that we need to move on – and especially me, move on very quickly. That day while I was playing, I wrote a post saying ‘I feel like I’m going backwards. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not”.
Nirupama: How do you resolve that dilemma, of playing music that to you isn’t exciting anymore – but that works on the dance floor?
Vachan: Well I have to tell myself that I’m the only one thinking in my head that these are old tunes – they’re not. Even after three years, they’re still fresh. For me in my head, I feel like oh shit, this is 2009 music, 2010 music, I have to get it out of my head first.
Nirupama: Would you grit your teeth and play those sounds irrespective of how you feel –knowing your dance floor is reacting to them?
Vachan: Well, I wouldn’t be obligated to play older sounds for them. For me, it’s a journey – where I’m going to take my listeners. In this journey, if I have to go all the way back, to surge them ahead a little bit more, then I’ll go all the way back. It’s my own call – it’s not because they’re not reacting to it. So I’ll go back again, and then come back to the present day, and make these sounds familiar. Essentially, you keep going in circles – go back to the old stuff, then bring it back to current day sounds, keeping in mind that at some point in time I have to also make those newer sounds familiar.
Nirupama: How did you first start building a scene around your drum ‘n’ bass nights in Bangalore?
Vachan: The first time when I started playing drum ‘n’ bass it took about 6 months to register – in the beginning, I started with simpler beats so people could dance to it. Then slowly I made it more complex, the beat patterns. So I guess you have to nurture the audience, and go back and forth. It depends on the exposure of the crowd as well – when they start dancing, you know where they stand.
Nirupama: How much of an emphasis should be placed on crowd reading?
Vachan: Totally – that’s how you gauge [your audience]. For example, when I started playing techno at Taika, in the early 2000’s, nobody then had a clue about techno. I knew nobody was aware of techno at the time – so how do I make them like it? How do I arrange it? I didn’t play anything hard core for the longest time – I just nurtured people to start bobbing their heads, stomping their feet, nodding their heads. Then progressively I made it a little more complex, harder, whatever I wanted to. Then I could do what I want. With drum ‘n’ bass – I knew nobody knew much about that genre either. And not many people were convinced – they would say ‘hey what is this man, you were good at techno, you should go back to that’. And I said – ‘give it some time’.
Nirupama: So overall, what – according to you – is a DJ’s scope of responsibility to their floor?
Vachan: I feel that we have to educate the crowd – and make it fun for them. You have to strike that balance. You have to lay it on the platter, and then just garnish it how you can, make it interesting for them, with newer sounds. As a musician and as a DJ also, you have to progress, you can’t be stuck – because once you’re branded as a certain DJ, the crowd will not let you get away from it. When you try to experiment a little bit, they’ll say ‘It’s not your thing – don’t do that’. However the audience doesn’t control you – you should control the audience, because you invest so much time in music, and it’s really up to us to expose listeners to the wide variety of music that’s available.
Nirupama: What’s in store for the future – future ideas or visions for sounds you want to dabble in?
Vachan: Well I don’t want to set a timeline – but I want to start a band. So we’d have a drummer, guitarist, keyboard player, (keyboard as in an organ player – I love the organ sound it’s very haunting) – and I’ll hopefully find a good trombone or saxophone player. My influences are hard electronic music, old school rave, breakbeat, dirty electro, and I love funk, and drum n bass – so yeah, that’s what’s in store.