Soundtrack to a revolution: interview with Asian Dub Foundation's Chandrasonic

February 23, 2011 -- British-born South Asian punk-dance band Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) released their latest album A History of Now just as the revolution in Egypt was starting to build. Someone unknown to the band edited news footage of the revolt to the album’s title track and stuck it on YouTube (above). 

The video, which set ADF’s brittle shards of guitar and searing eastern strings to images of hurled tear gas canisters and bloodied revolutionaries, built a following to rival the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to guitarist and band leader Steve Chandra Sevale -- who is better known as Chandrasonic for his habit of detuning all his guitar strings to one note and playing the instrument with a knife. Here is the interview in full.

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First of all congratulations on another superb album. I interviewed your original bassist, Dr Das, when you first started out in 1994, because I was a Nation Records and jungle [music] fanatic and have been a big fan of ADF ever since. What amazes me is how you have managed to keep putting out such high-quality music for 17 years when most bands don't even last half as long. What's your secret to longevity and quality?

Simple. The music. The fundamentals of the band lend themselves to a lot of expansion and experimentation and I honestly think we have a unique approach to music. Love us or hate us, we’ve got our own thang, we aren’t of a particular era or genre. Such qualities can only  help longevity.

You embraced the zeitgeist of jungle music when you first started out by injecting scattershot, rattling snares into your sound. You've said you could have easily made a dubstep-sounding record this time round, but didn't. Why not?

Well, our take on jungle was hardly generic then. There was no jungle act that used live dub bass, echoey post-punk guitar and Indian sounds at the time. It’s only now (17 years later) that there’s been another one (Engine-Earz)! There’s a bit of a herd mentality about dubstep at the moment. We often nod to new ideas coming from the clubs, but we don’t let it swallow us. For example, we did a dubstep-ish tune called “Bride of Punkara” on the last album, and “Futureproof” nods to it a bit as well, but both tunes sound like ADF . 

Your latest album's artwork is a parody of Apple's iPhone apps, but I get the feeling Asian Dub Foundation are not the sort of band who would want to promote a company that gets its products made in sweatshops like Apple's Foxconnn factory. Would that be correct?

Well obviously it’s not an advert, it’s a parody as you say. It’s somewhere between Phillip K. Dick and Andy Warhol. Imagine reducing reality to a series of apps on a phone, and then reshaping that reality with them again. If you go to our website you can find out what the apps do.

For example, “COVER-UP -- Wikileaks out to get you? No problem! By using the latest time dilation technology, ‘Cover-Up’ will shred any embarrassing document before it's even been written, leaving you free to continue lying to the public in peace!” Or “AUTOTUNE THE MASSES -- Want  to get everyone singing to your tune? Then this  app is for you! Literally create your own chorus of approval by forcing everyone you know to sing in the same key and the same style -- forever! As used by Simon Cowell!”

Who knows where this technology is going to take us -- and reshape us? And it’s not just a question for the privileged West. I have seen first hand how mobile phones are changing the lives of nomadic peoples in Mali -- for the better, on the whole!

You obviously push the boundaries of technology in making music yet have said your next album will be more organic. You have said you used to run ADF's website but became frustrated with trying to keep up with the latest applications. The lyrics to “Futureproof” talk about becoming a "cyber hermit" and a "cyber coolie". This appears to be a love-hate relationship with technology. What are your thoughts?

If you read the projections at the beginning of the last century, the time we’re in now was supposed to be a time of leisure -- jetpacks, robot cleaners, holidays on Mars. What happened to that? Technology is ultimately neutral -- its development and implementation can only reflect the powers that be. So, instead of being automatically liberating, the internet can be enslaving by raising expectations of what we’re all supposed to be achieving.

I got frustrated by having to make a new page for the band every time some new hip social media emerged. I wanted to throw my laptop out of the window half the time and I know I’m not alone. People are telling me their boss can get them anytime he or she wants now, and people can be monitored via Facebook. There’s no love-hate relationship with technology as such, it’s more a dislike of the power relations within which it operates.

Describe the political situation in Britain right now and how you've related to it on your new album.

None of the songs are about the “political situation right now”, they’re not news reports and I wouldn’t want them to be. They couldn’t be anyway, because some of them were written a year ago. I hope they will transcend the transient. Though I do like it when people interpret the songs in their own way. One journalist asked me whether “This Land is not for Sale” is about the [British Conservative-Liberal Democrat] Coalition’s proposed sell-off of the forests! No it wasn’t but you’re welcome to think it is! Same with the video with scenes of the Egyptian revolution cut to "A History of Now”. The song itself is about information overload, but its rhythm and sound seemed to go very well with the images and thus the song’s meaning was changed. I love that!

Indian students contribute up to A$4 billion to Australia's economy, but a report in January 2011 said the number of Indians studying in Australian universities had fallen 30% after a spate of violent attacks against them. It seems Australia is still stuck in the kind of racism that you set out to fight when you started the band. Have things in Britain improved since then?

That is one vile statistic. Your question is extremely complex. When we started it was easy -- you could spot the racists and they hated you. Easy to see the enemy. Now it’s not so easy -- Islamophobia, various versions of multiculturalism, two vicious wars, the criminalisation of asylum seekers, blaming immigrants from eastern Europe for unemployment... I feel that, yes, my own personal experience of racism has improved, but have things improved overall? Maybe not.

What did you think of British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech on February 5, 2011, in which he said Britain’s promotion of multiculturalism was helping promote terrorism?

The equation  of multiculturalism with “home-grown” terrorism is ignorant, dangerous and wrong. War in Iraq? Failure to find a resolution in Palestine? US funding Bin Laden in Afghanistan? A whole host of deep geopolitical causes underlie the rise of radical Islam, not whether a local school celebrates Eid or Xmas. Effect of his speech? The thugs of the far right will reduce it to making Muslims the enemy within. And of course he made no mention of the increasing preponderance of divisive faith schools, which he supports.

You have said the new album addresses the economic rise of India and China and also the notion that Shanghai will be the next capital of the world. Considering the negative effects of economic growth, are you glad it will be Shanghai and not Mumbai? 

Well I’d be a sick fucker to wish the “negative effects of economic growth” on one city rather than the other!

You've said: "With our new album A History Of Now, the topics are less openly ideological and more universal.” Can you expand on that?

The “political” tag around us, generally vaguely defined and never really self-attached, is very annoying. Sometimes I think we could release a record of us cutting our toenails and some journalists would still slam the “political” tag on us. Judge for yourself! “New London Eye” -- the view of London from my window; “Urgency Frequency” -- what our lives might be like in 50 years’ time. “London-Shanghai” -- a parody of “On Broadway”-type glorifications of cities, shifted to Shanghai; “History of Now” -- information overload; “Spirit in the Machine” -- the sound of two emerging economic giants, India and China; “Where’s All the Money Gone?” -- self-explanatory; “In Another Life” -- what would life be like if our parents hadn’t emigrated?; “Power of 10” -- a classical piece... Political? You decide.

You have really embraced the Punjabi sound of Bhangra on your new album, yet it's a sound that must have always been in your lives. Why now and not before?

I’d say we were exploring Bhangra since 1995! Though obviously we took a leap on when Prithpal [Prithpal Rajput -- also known as Cyber] joined the band in 2000.

Tell us about the Gulabi Girl app and the "gender balance" you say you've reached with the addition of female string section Chi 2.

Well, we haven’t had a permanent female member since 1995, not sure why not. Chi2 are fantastic regardless of gender! Gulabi Girl? I’ll quote you from the app: “Fed up with your abusive husband? Use the GULABI GIRL app and your phone will transform into an all purpose stick with  a guaranteed life membership of the GULABI GANG, an inspiring women's defence organisation in India.”

Please explain the lyric "you can't download the sun, you can't download the sea" in “A History of Now”.

It’s about what’s permanent and what’s transitory.The digital is transitory, the sun and the sea is permanent.

One of your apps, called "Weather", features an icon of the Statue of Liberty drowning. Do you feel preventing climate change has become a lost cause?

It’s certainly feeling that way. It’s getting to the point where the debate has been reduced to obscure fact jousting between those funded by the state and those by corporates. It’s such a grand abstract it’s very difficult for people to internalise. I think the environmental movement is in danger of being derailed altogether by this. I myself would prioritise more concrete stuff -- deforestation, species destruction, overfishing... Most people respond to stuff like that, not obscure debates about temperature.

One of the highlights of the new album is the song "Where has all the money gone?" Do you think British Prime Minister David Cameron has fooled people into thinking the poor are to blame for Britain's debt? 

He’s certainly convinced people that cuts need to be made, but when they start to bite he won’t be convincing many people for long.

You have performed a live soundtrack to the classic Algerian anti-imperialist film The Battle of Algiers. Are there any plans to perform this again in light of the present uprising in Egypt and across the Middle East?

Not so simple to put things together like that I’m afraid.

You are involved with activist network and record label Indigenous Resistance and one of the tracks on your new album is called “This Land Is Not For Sale”. Tell us about that and what you know about the Indigenous people's struggle in Australia.

The crimes against Indigenous people in Australia are on a par, and even surpass if that’s possible, the crimes of the apartheid regime of South Africa. I remember being sick to my stomach the first time I went to Australia about it, just by watching the TV. I’m sure the happy-go-lucky, “matey” Austalian self-image is a psychological construct that makes these crimes more palatable in popular culture.

Tell us about your experience as a tourist in the Indian state of Kerala, which was described at the time as "possibly the only example of a successful communist government anywhere".

You have said: "I find it difficult to be solely inside the touring/recording cycle that is band life." Any unusual side projects coming up?

Any plans to play Australia any time soon? 

Hope so but I don’t book the shows.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I think you’ve had your quota of me!!! Nice one, good questions.