Sunday, 26 April 2015

A conversation with Swami: Simon & Diamond and S-Endz

A brand new band that's been going since 1999

Two months back, I compiled a local YouTube chart. It's a labour of love, and I can miss things. Happily, I'm usually swiftly corrected. S-Endz duly pointed out that his band, Swami, had scored very decent views for their new video. So I fixed things, bouncing the bottom entry (sorry, lads) to present a revised 50. And started thinking about Swami. 

There's lots of Asian bands in the West Midlands. But normally they aim squarely at Asian markets; Swami are different. Malkit Singh may sell millions worldwide to Bhangra fans, but Swami aren't cut from that cloth, not remotely. For a start, they're cross-cultural, in the grand Birmingham tradition. The website is slick and impressive. 

A swift introduction by Sharnita Athwal at Shaanti, and I'm sitting with Simon and Diamond Duggal, joined later by S-Endz. Swami has been Simon and Diamond's project, since 1999.


Diamond  I'm a musician from Birmingham; British; Indian; brought up on a healthy dose of Reggae music, Indian Bhangra music, Bollywood, and Rock. I don't think I would have experienced that anywhere else but Birmingham. 
Swami came about through a conversation with myself and my brother Simon. We were in the studio. We'd been producing a lot of stuff with other people. But we had experiments we needed to carry out. So we made this our own project.
Simon And the name – I was reading a book by Swami AC Bhaktivedanta. I had the book in my hand. Swami. There it was.  
Swami up to date for 2015. Diamond's got the guitar, S-Endz the keys
So this was your music, your project. But you needed a visual front end to the band?
Diamond We never intended the original Swami to be a band. The video that's out now is much further down the line. It was more a way to be progressive about ideas nurtured in electronic music, but with Indian influences. We wanted to take risks. We were mixing tablas with Roland 303s, 808 drum machines, distorting and echoing them. Whatever came out the other end, that would probably be a Swami track. 
How did that work out?
Diamond The first album did more than we expected. One track went on to be featured in a Hollywood Movie (New York Minute).
That must have been nice, getting a sync.
Simon especially considering al the tracks on that album weren't songs, they were experiments and arrangements. They had hooks, of course, but it was really dance arrangements.   
Diamond The influences we had were Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, but also bits of Banghra, and Dub Reggae. A Birmingham way of thinking. 
Tell me about how you started
Diamond Myself and Simon were making music in Mum and Dad's house. Fiddling with Reggae and Dancehall. Decided we were going to make a song together and put some Tabla in it. 
 An early EP. Before Apache got his locks
Simon We were  teenagers, 17, 18 years old. Our cousin Steven - Apache Indian - was round all the time. He really wanted to be a DJ, stand behind the decks and chat over the top. So he'd always come round to our little studio. We'd been at UB40's studio working with Stan Campbell. 
Diamond We saved our session money, bought some gear, put it in a room. Mum and Dad were brilliant. Never complained about the noise. Musical Exchanges used to get a bit sick of us. 

The first, accidental, hit 

Simon Apache was always wanting to do this or that. So, one day, we said 'let's devote a whole day to you. You'll be happy, and then you can go away and carry on DJing'. What came out of that was the very first Apache Indian track, Movie Over India. Apache really wanted to get one dubplate made of this, so off he went, unbeknownst to us, to a local pressing place, who only did minimums of 500.  
So he got the 500; brought them back. We said 'What are we going to do with these? What did you do that for?' It was ridiculous. Diamond suggested we make a little advert, and get PCRL, the local pirate station, to play it so people would buy it off us. 
So we made the advert, blagged PCRL, and took a box down to Don Christie's record store.
Diamond Two weeks later, we go back... 
'Where Have You Been?  People have been coming in from all over asking for that record. How many have you got?
'Five hundred' 
'I'll have them all! Can you get some more?'
So the next week we're doing another five hundred.  And then a thousand. And before you know it, we're becoming a manufacturer, a record label, just to meet the demand.
Wow. Birmingham's answer to 'A Man Of Constant Sorrow' in 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou?'!
Diamond Just like that, yes! So it snowballed. We were getting calls from Jet Star, who wanted to distribute for us. 
Were you able to control the cashflow that was associated with all this?  
Simon To an extent. We weren't naïve: we knew that for every record that was accounted for, there were others that we didn't hear about. In fact, with the third or fourth single, we got calls from friends in Holland who'd just heard our new single... which hadn't even left the studio. But we knew that was part of the process.
So doors were opening? 
Simon Yes. At the same time, we'd done an R'n'B record, 'No More Making Love', with a singer from London, Aretha Daye. 
Diamond Cos the reggae and the R'n'B and club thing was going the same route. That song was massive. 

So now the record companies were really after you?  

Simon Not yet, no! It took another three Apache Indian singles. 
You're kidding. Why?
Simon 'Movie Over India' was so different that people wanted to see what our next move was. People came up to us and congratulated us on our plan. There was no plan at all! We grew up in Birmingham. We were used to seeing Rastafarians and hearing reggae and Indian music every day.
Were you just a shade too far away from mainstream? Did you make people nervous?  
Diamond When it did happen, Talking Loud were on our doorstep, Pete Tong at London, Island, EMI. We had a bit of naïve bravado. When we met Pete Tong, he offered us a track to remix, which we thought was shit. So we said, No. He went red. 
Simon Nobody says No to Pete Tong! We were very naïve about how the London scene works, jumping on a remix to put your name about. But we were excited when John Peel played our record, because of the cultural link. Not that we thought it through. 

Recording... in Kingston, Jamaica 

Diamond None of the record companies who wanted to sign us knew about Indian music. But at least Island knew about reggae. So we signed with Island, and decided we wanted to go to Jamaica. We went and recorded half of the album in Tuff Gong, in Kingston. 
Simon Some of it in Sly and Robbie's Taxi studio, and some in Bobby Digital's studio. 
How old were you guys?
Simon 19, 20. And we thought we knew about our own culture. We had all this respect for Jamaican culture, growing up in Birmingham – we wanna go and see what it's all about. We were a bit scared when we got there. 
Diamond We weren't in a holiday resort. We were in downtown Kingston.
Were they nice to you? Did they treat you well, like the dreads in Brum? 
Simon You quickly have to take on someone to chaperone you. You're told to pull your cap down, look straight ahead. We took a bodyguard with us, a professional boxer. He was scared as well.
But you made the recordings
Simon They did really well. Triple platinum sales, Top Of The Pops. Exciting times. We started our own label, signed Indian artists, worked with Stereo Nation. Apache went massive in India. We'd go over there, they'd put garlands on us. So we really had to raise our game.
Diamond  And round the millennium, we started getting calls, went over to Switzerland to work with Shania Twain. 
So this is a really intense period of - how long?
Simon Ten years. '93 to 2003.
And Swami emerged in the middle of all that
Simon  '99. 
So how you you manage a concept like Swami when you're off working with Shania Twain?
Simon Like Diamond says, it wasn't a question of managing it. It was our release to do with as we wanted.  Go crazy, no rules, no formula, no radio edits. 
Diamond  When Swami was invented, it was a little bit ahead of the internet age. Had the internet been there, we would have put up all sorts of crazy music, all the time. 

And now

I'm not in the least surprised that there's a Swami right now, in 2015. I'm interested that it's been going for the best part of 20 years.
Diamond It's not necessarily a band. It's a way of thinking. 
Simon We just want challenge people's ideas of what it is to be (a) British, (b) Indian, and be progressive  at the same time, push those boundaries. The first album has some very out there stuff: Desi New School Beats. 
Diamond I started DJing a lot, playing to Indian crowds. I had to have a sense of normality to keep the dancefloor going - mixing Swami beats in to popular tracks, I was trying to find some midway ground where I could create something out there that people could relate to. That's when we came up with the concept of Desi Rock. We did the second album in – 2004?
Simon Yeah, 2004.
Diamond That's when S-Endz joined the group. We put a rap element in. Simon was spending more time in the studio; I was out there DJing. The second album had more hip hop and bhangra influences.
S-Endz Total huge hip hop. I started rapping back then. So did everybody that I knew. 
Simon He's also our cousin, by the way...
S-Endz My earliest memories are watching them in the studio! 
Diamond When the second album was released in India, it went really big. The Desi Rock track is in about five films, the EA FIFA World Cup football game; we're getting emails from Brazil... It's amazing.
S-Endz If you look at the YouTube video, there's comments like 'I won the World Cup to this song!'
Current projects?
Diamond There's a bunch of projects in India, which are more Bollywood. Youth culture has moved on in India, it's reached a point where Bhangra, hip hop, dance music is totally relevant now. It makes sense. So what we were doing ten years ago fits really well in India now. Lots of people from the UK are going over to India right now. We're doing songs with different labels for movies and the Mumbai labels. There's huge diversity. A lot of homegrown talent is now using rock, EDM, hip hop, all this kind of stuff. We've gone full circle in India. We're in the final stages of signing Swami to the Times of India group. 
Swami, then, is now a band. Having started as a label of convenience for two producers, it has evolved over nearly two decades into a fully fledged band with a pretty stable line-up, and well laid out plans for the future. This runs entirely contrary to the way conventional bands develop. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. 

It's going to be very interesting to see what happens next.


Simon and Diamond website

More music and music business posts on Radio To Go


Sign up to the mailing list for weekly updates

No comments: