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A short conversation with Nandan Gautam

16 February 2020

You have just released the novel, The King of The Sea, which ties in with your two albums -  The King of the Sea and The Divine Flaw -  can you explain the relationship between the music and the writing?

Nandan Gautam : They are like perhaps like brother and sister! They share the same set of genes but what you experience is entirely different. I would say that the writing moves in a linear manner (even though the paragraphs jump from one place to another). The fact is that you cannot read two lines at the same time. But music is inherently the exact opposite – at any given time you are listening to two, three or even five things that are happening simultaneously. That’s the whole concept of harmony or counterpoint. It’s the sum of all that happens in a given moment. And for that reason music can easily touch some very complex emotions. For me personally, I think the music may be the soul of this project and the writing is sort of the brains – though each person will tune in to whatever medium resonates with them. The writing is a documentation of thoughts and events. The music is a documentation of feelings and various states of mind.

Do you find that some aspects of what you want to talk about are best conveyed through writing and others through music or are they both different ways of expressing the same thoughts?

Nandan Gautam : For me they are two entirely different things. When I write I access a very different part of the brain. I try and search for the words and put them together in a way that best communicates what I want to say, in its more pure and honest form, without anything extra. In fact I try not to be a writer. I consider myself more a communicator of ideas. With music the process is to find melodies and motifs and lock it all together so that as a whole I am able to actually touch the person emotionally. But what they both share is that the goal is always to be authentic, honest and do something that brings a tear to the eye. If you can do that, then you know you’ve been true. You aren’t lying at least.

You have surrounded yourself with some amazing musicians to realise this album, can you talk us through some of the players involved?

Nandan Gautam : I’ve been more than fortunate in the aspect. Right from the beginning when I made my first album, Tony Das and Ilia Maisuradze, two amazing rock guitarists, agreed to play on several tracks. It felt great to be in the studio listening and directing the flow of the solos… Since then it feels like the universe was literally conspiring to help me. Rainer Brüninghaus, one of the most respected pianists who records for the ECM label, simply agreed to play on the new album after listening to my music. He’s played with Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek for decades, and I consider all these men giants in the field of music as a whole. Tom Schuman was introduced to me by a close friend and prolific composer Sandeep Chowta, and he instantly agreed to work with me after he heard what I was doing. Tom is a co-leader of the highly successful jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra. It was all quite unreal, sitting with these masters and telling them what I want. And more so, how open and humble they were taking instructions from a novice like me.

Antonio Sanchez, once again, is a master drummer and was part of the Pat Metheny Group whose influence on my music has been huge. He is such a great listener and it was a bit overwhelming to be in the same room as him. He won the Grammy for Birdman and his playing is imply phenomenal. I felt like a 11 year old kid sitting in his studio while he just unleashed his magic. Chad Wackerman is another phenomenal drummer with the energy of a rock drummer and the fluidity of a jazz drummer. He’s been the drummer for Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth for many years and we worked remotely. I would love to meet him one day and tell him personally what an honor it was that he played on two tracks of mine.

Finally there is Sabir Memmdov, a young folk clarinetist from Azerbaijan (that’s where I live). We don’t even speak the same language (literally!) but he seems to intuitively know what I want. In the beginning I played him some Mike Brecker and Jan Garbarek and told him that this is what I want! He just looked at me with disbelief. Haha!

And was it hard to assemble and work with such a highly-regarded cast of musical players?

Nandan Gautam : Other than the nail-biting moments between sending your rough track/mix to someone like Rainer, Chad or Antonio wondering if they would agree to work with me or not, the rest was relatively easy. I give them all the credit – for their incredible patience with me since I really don’t approach music in the normal way. I see music as a painting with layers of textures and forms. That’s the only way I am able to create it. All the other doors were closed to me somehow. My brain is simply unable to understand harmony and music theory. It goes over my head!

What is the story you are trying to tell through the book and these two albums?

Nandan Gautam : There is the literal story of the protagonist and how he navigates his life through a series of difficult situations and circumstances. But that’s just at one level. The real story is the dialogue which we all have with ourselves. You see that’s probably the most honest dialogue you will ever have, because it’s all happening in your head and you don’t have to keep any secrets with yourself. Wait. Or are there secrets that you actually hide from yourself – not because you can hide a fact from yourself but because you can always turn the facts around in your head and see things from your own limited perspective. Because you do have an agenda. You do have something to prove to yourself. My goal was to unlock my own subconscious, and in doing so help the reader to unlock his or her own as well. There are answers to be found there! Believe me… we are all much more alike that we’d like to believe…

And looking back to where it all begins, how did you learn music given that you have no formal background or training

Nandan Gautam : Life is a strange animal. Every now and then you have to completely throw out all the logic you have accumulated and start from scratch. For almost 20 years I tried to learn music the conventional way. I wanted to be a musician. But not only did I completely lack the talent and the skill, I was simply unable to coordinate my left and light hand, leave alone do what Antonio does – each of his four limbs can do independent things at the same time. Just listen to The Forsaken for proof of this. I cannot even do two things at one time. I cannot read music and play it at the same time. So I found a hack.

I play any four notes on the keyboard and voila, it’s a chord. If I like it then I copy that block. If I don’t I try again. It’s a trial and error process. And also I believe that sometimes lack of any knowledge keeps my brain always clear. I’m never afraid to fall back on a riff. When I make music there is never a net. It’s either great or it’s utter rubbish. And it takes time for greatness to emerge. Every process presents its own challenges, but you have to want to do it badly enough. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day!

Not that genres really matter but if you were going to sum your music up with a short label or soundbite, what would you call it?

Nandan Gautam : Progressive mystical fusion music. Haha. I hate labels, in case you haven’t guessed. The best music in the world has no labels. Even what we call classical music today was improvised by Mozart on the spot. Every composer is an improviser. Every genre that now appears to be set in stone was once upon a time a rebellious statement made by renegades. Kind of Blue is now considered a jazz classic. But at the time it was completely revolutionary. I could give you a thousand more examples in every single genre! 

And where next? Is this story told or is there more to come from this project?

Nandan Gautam : I think this story is told. But just like life you never quite know. I’m a firm believer in closing a chapter once it’s done. If I want to make money I should do proper business. When you make music or write, there is a force that must compel us. I can’t work in any other manner. When I do something to earn money I’m very clear about it from the beginning. I’d prefer to be a gardener or something like that rather than add a few commercial elements just to make my music or writing more sellable. But on that note, I want to do one album that’s unabashedly pop (in essence) – full of clever hooks, great lyrics and great arrangements. Believe me that’s not easy either! 


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