All too often a fusion of musical styles can feel forced or somehow artificial. Ajay has avoided that completely, when a musical fusion truly works it reveals hidden parts of both traditions, illuminated by each other. As our talk progressed it became evident that the fusion is within Ajay himself, immersed as he is in both Blues and Indian cultures and traditions. For him this is probably the truest exploration of who he is himself.
His philosophy in the studio was to be as relaxed as possible through the recording process, allowing each musician to bring something to the table. Things fell into place and the guy mixing it noted that it was ‘so relaxed it’s like a yoga class’. The album was mastered in the summer of 2018 and Ajay took a breath.
“I talk about letting go, not rushing and not wanting this or that. It was a real test for me! I did’nt want to rush straight into releasing and promoting, plus the artwork took some time to think about.”
So how did he get that sound and unique style on the resonator guitar?
“The first song I wrote was actually Karmic Blues, but I wrote it on electric guitar and it was a heavy blues rock kind of thing, with little tabla bits and drones going off . I listened back and thought that it was kind of there lyrically but the attitude was just way too aggressive. I pulled it back and tried it just acoustic, it was better but wasn’t really happening. Then for some reason I headed back to my old delta blues records, Robert Johnson and Sam Chapman stuff. What hit me was the way they played slide – it was just like an Indian folk thing – but I had never played slide before in all those years, slide guitar just wasn’t my thing! So then first of all I had to read up about resonator guitars, because again that’s something I had never considered before, because it was always electric funk/lead rhythm acoustic for me.”
Ajay briefly considered, and then rejected, using a sitar. He settled on the resonator, despite having never played one.
“I started reading up and I thought this sounds like the thing that I need you know’’ Then he bought one along with a slide “it was really hard at the beginning, I have got to be honest, it sounded like a cat screaming.”
After talking to another musician who could actually play the thing, he soon realised that a glass slide was the answer, the cheap metal one he was using didn’t cut the mustard (just the strings).
With a custom made slide he soon took off with the resonator and was experimenting with some sitar influenced technique, alongside some Blues meets Raga sounds.
“I have this thing where I think you always have to start at the bottom. So I started doing a lot of open mics nights playing out and just road testing the material… and in order to bring across the attitude and the vibe that I want I’d like a tabla player, so then my tabla player from Botown, Vinod, he’s really cool, I call him up and I say ‘look Vin this is my new project, singer songwriter stuff, I really like to try this stuff out with a tabla player?’ and he was straight in, he was completely my wing man. So we gigged around and road tested this in pubs all round London… the nice pubs the rough pubs…”
So Ajay only picked up the resonator in 2015 and proved that with a bit of application you can master an instrument pretty quickly. OK he actually put in an awful lot of work…
“I just practiced exercises on slide, moving from one note to the other and really giving myself the luxury to find what I wanted to say with it. I am not saying it was easy, but after a while it came to me and that I was trying to reflect what the song needed, even now I would say I am not the best slide player, I am a good composer however and I know what the song needs.”
It’s interesting because it kind of reflects that the depths of the material – that it has a lot of meaning for you, the journey of getting there and then the writing of it, then the music took that route as well?
“It all combined, musically, my life with the blues, my training in Indian classical and my love for Indian music. I was born and brought up in England, I am of Indian heritage, I love American blues and American pop culture and I am always trying to find a balance between all of them. I don’t see any contradictions between any of that. My Dad would always say ‘everyone has their beliefs, everyone can be right’ he was into the whole philosophy himself, I remember him saying ‘if you believe in infinity there are an infinite amount of views’ its possible everything is correct.”
“My whole life I have never seen the contradiction, I have always tried to find the open road between myself and different cultures. I am not someone who disagrees with anyone vehemently, I am more trying to understand ‘ok what got you to this point?’ even if I am with someone who is very radical in their view. I am less about challenging them and more about trying to understand ‘what got you to thinking like that mate?’ you know?”
If more people thought like Ajay the world would be in a far better place. The more you learn about different cultures, religions beliefs and spiritual paths you realise there is more that ties them together than drives them apart.
“That is the truth, at the end of the day these are all stories or beliefs that have developed throughout the history of humanity, we all came from one place, spread around the world. We carry the same stories, but just told them differently I guess? Though nowadays, people seem so, oh I don’t know, hung up on their opinions…”
Do you think that music is one of the things that can can heal that?
“Absolutely, I am still a bit believer in music and what it can do, its right out there, it just has a positive effect. It sounds idealistic I know but I think its still a force for bringing people together, that feeling of elation of doing things in unison with other people… positive vibrations… whatever you want to call it – it does something!”
And do you think the Blues is one of the best vehicles for doing that because of its roots?
“Totally, because of where it comes from, the situation from where it arose. People were forced into slavery and it was their way of dealing with the pain. So yes, it’s such a pure form of music and again the similarity with Indian Folk comes out…”
So where are the similarities between the Indian folk music you grew up with? Growing up with parents from a culture that has travelled around the world, but you were growing up in England. It sounds like you had a Dad who was in particular, very generous with what he allowed you to experience?
“You’re right, and this is something I said to a friend recently, I don’t really hear music I feel it. Certain Soul songs will make me feel the same way as certain Bollywood songs and I think that is where I come from. Certain Blues songs will make me feel the same way as some Indian spiritual songs and folk songs that people would sing in my village. So yes – it’s about feeling, it’s about how the music makes me feel, where it takes me inside,
“The mournfulness of blues, the solitariness, it has its elements in Indian folk – you can go to any Indian village and there’s an old woman or an old man with a one stringed instrument just singing, its there if you are open to. In the blues obviously there’s the Mississippi river in India there’s the Ganges, life is based around that and then there’s kind of the working on the fields, music is a kind of way of letting off steam, its there if you need it?”
Blues is not just a style of music though is it? – its an expression of an awful lot of history and human emotion.
“Yes, it’s their truth and it has to be a personal thing, if you listen to the old Delta Blues stuff, the language is so simple, and the music is simplistic and yet what they get across is so complicated the way it makes you feel when you are listening to it. It draws you in and takes you much deeper than a lot of stuff. I think that is why it’s had its effect. But if you look at it, the Blues was the start of what we now call pop music, from it came rock and roll and gospel, soul and then that moved on, I have a mate of mine who’s properly into hip hop and we were having a chat about how hip hop is like blues back in the day, it’s a way of people expressing themselves who don’t have much resources, its just the deepest thing ever, blues is just amazing!”
But you also make the point that you could have stopped at what you were doing with the electric guitar and that would have probably been very good? Yet you pushed yourself to experiment a bit more and delve a bit deeper into it?
“What I wanted to talk about lyrically was quite deep, I didn’t want it to get cluttered by big arrangements. I was saying something personal – having a conversation with this music, its an intimate conversation, I can’t be shouting this stuff. Also I wanted it to be very spacious, I didn’t want to over complicate it – those spaces give the listener a place to be. Through the rehearsals we were just playing less and less and I was loving it! Obviously, I didn’t want it to end up as ambient music, but I wanted to capture the depth. I want listeners to put their self in the spaces, to interpret it.”
You have clearly found your own groove…
“I am totally committed to it, I’ve really enjoyed doing it and I know that its good for me, as a musician you always have these hang ups about how many people are going to turn up? Are they going to listen? – but with this stuff, me and Vin were hanging out because we’re mates without any conscious issues about whether it’s going to work. There was one gig where the sound system didn’t work so after the second song we got everyone to bring in their chairs a bit more and we did the whole thing acoustically. Before I would have been completely stressed out by the sound system failing and now its almost like empowerment, I know the setup is simple, resonator and tabla, which have a certain texture and reach.”
Do you think that you reach a certain maturity as an artist where you can let go of some of those insecurities? Sometimes the music should exist for its own sake – obviously the reality is that professional musicians also need to make a living out of it – but Karmic Blues sounds and feels a very personal project for you.
“Absolutely, no its true and not to get really dark but its mortality that comes into it, not that I am dwelling on death or whatever, but after a while you realise that life isn’t that long, and I have had a few people leave me in that way and all of a sudden I am like shit man what the Fuck? Just get it out there and do it! Experience it and live it. You’re holding onto all this stuff for no reason at all really… At the moment I am letting go of a lot of things in my past, I guess emotionally as well as physically, stuff that I held onto.”
I think once you get to middle age, you have to reassess or you keep hoarding stuff. Physically an emotionally
Ajay laughs and admits “you know yesterday I hooked up with a mate and said I have to sell some guitars. I have thirteen guitars, I don’t need thirteen guitars… I probably need about three in reality.”
Hang on, Spiral Earth doesn’t want to instigate a guitar purge…
There’s a valid reason for every guitar! But do I need it? And also with this stuff I am writing now, I have really found myself, this is what I enjoy performing, this is what I enjoy writing. The world is not going to run out of guitars lets be honest and I remember an interview with Ravi Shanker where he said ‘the musicality is in the person not the instrument’. “
Creatively you sound like you are in a fantastic place at the moment?
Yeah, I am really positive, less anxious I think is how I would put it, I have always talked about music being my calling. I’m not worrying about the outcomes, not worrying about the good things people say or the bad things people say, you just continue with your actions because you are fulfilling your dharma. And its working so far.”
Ajay’s music is a little light of hope, joy and compassion in this weird world we are living in.
Check out https://www.ajaysrivastav.com