Ajay Saggar | Interview
Ajay Saggar has been active in music in some shape or form his whole life. He bought his first record in 1977 at the age of 12 (The Stranglers – ‘o More Heroes’ 7’ single), attended his first show in 1978 (sneaked into The Stranglers at Bridlington Royal Spa on the “Black + White” tour) and got hooked by the John Peel show from 1976 onwards when he moved from Kenya to the United Kingdom (first lived in Glasgow, and then ended up finally in Manchester).
Whilst at university, he started to promote shows independently (putting on acts like Bogshed, bIG fLAME, The Membranes, The Nightingales, Walking Seeds, The Wedding Present et cetera). He played with Dandelion Adventure from 1987 (a cult northwest band who had fans ranging from My Bloody Valentine to The Pastels) who released some excellent records and did a John Peel session. He moved to The Netherlands on 30 December 1991, and since living there has been constantly active in music. His first band there was Donkey (who released several singles and albums, did a John Peel session, and toured extensively through Europe and America). The Bent Moustache followed which evolved into the current juggernaut that is King Champion Sounds. In the last 5 years, other wider based projects have arisen from Saggar’s imagination including Deutsche Ashram, The Common Cold, Bhajan Bhoy (his first solo venture), and University Challenged. Saggar has worked as a sound engineer for several international acts including My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sleater-Kinney, et cetera amongst others, but is now a production manager at Paradiso (internationally renowned venue in Amsterdam) working there for the last 10 years.
“I found it to be an incredibly creative time”
How’s this last year under lockdown been for you ? Have you found the isolation creatively challenging or freeing?
Ajay Saggar: It was an incredibly strange situation to face at the start of lockdown, as my normal daily routine (which was centred around going to work, coming home to the family, then going to the studio after dinner) went out of the window. You are suddenly presented with a lot of time, and I didn’t hesitate at all in using that time to spend in my studio working on music. I already had set plans, pre-lockdown, to record a University Challenged album and a King Champion Sounds album in April 2020. We had already booked a flight for Oli to come over from England for the recording sessions in April 2020. But that wasn’t an option after March 2020 and I had to decide fast thereafter how I wanted to approach making these records. Once I had decided how I wanted to proceed, I spent (and still spend) everyday in my studio working. I found the process of going in everyday to “work”, and having nothing else to think about other than my music, incredibly liberating and fulfilling. I thought I could do this forever, haha. Just the chance to go to your secret laboratory and plug away at ideas and experiment on things and not be stressed about time issues. I found it to be an incredibly creative time…I recorded and produced a University Challenged double album, recorded and produced a Bhajan Bhoy EP (and released my debut album as well in June…but that was recorded, mixed and mastered by December 2019), mixed and produced 2 albums for Ivan The Tolerable, recorded a full King Champion Sounds album (which I binned and started on a brand new one). In addition to the recording process, I also played 24 Bhajan Bhoy shows in lockdown 2020.
Tell us about your latest project University Challenged.
University Challenged came about when, in April 2019, Oli flew over to play a show with King Champion Sounds in Groningen. As he was going to be in Holland anyway, I had the idea of doing a couple of extra shows in a different formation but playing a drone set. I set up a couple of gigs that weekend and we played two hugely enjoyable sets that were met with appreciation from the people who attended. Add to that a psychedelic film running behind us during the performance and we had a complete show. It was after these performances that I suggested to the others that we should make an album.
Oli you obviously knew from King Champion Sounds but tell us how you hooked up with Kohhei from Bo Ningen for the project?
I met Kohhei shortly after he had moved to Amsterdam. A friend of mine in Tokyo was the one who actually brought us together…informing me that Kohhei had just moved to the city and it would be nice for him to meet new people/like minded musicians. I dropped him a line and he visited me at my workplace (the Paradiso in Amsterdam) and thereafter I invited him to shows in the city and introduced him to other folks. When I had the idea to do University Challenged, I immediately thought of Kohhei, and was happy when he agreed to do it when I asked him.
Tell us a bit about the films you play as the backdrop to your University Challenged gigs?
The projections are a big part of the show. Watching 3 blokes sitting down, hunched over their instruments, twiddling away doesn’t make for great viewing to be honest. So having visuals behind us was an imperative for me and the visuals had to complement the music in an abstract but interesting way. I spent a lot of time online looking for specific visuals and was either lucky enough to find stuff that fitted what I wanted, or I came across stuff that I hadn’t thought of initially, but ended up working very well in the final cut. The visuals have a lysergic touch to them with a ton of counter-culture references in there.
I loved your Bhajan Bhoy album ‘Bless Bless’ which came out last year, tell us about how that album came together and how your working relationships with the guests on that one came about?
In June 2019, I played my debut solo show in Amsterdam, and in July 2019 I was asked by J Mascis to open for him at another show in Amsterdam. Both shows went extremely well and the germ of an idea to make a record were sown. In the autumn of 2019, I finally put into practice something that had been mulling over in my head for awhile…to execute musical ideas that I had had for some time, which I felt would be best served if I made and produced myself (rather than in a band setting). I set about it by being incredibly focused and disciplined and going to my studio every evening after work, and spending all weekends in there too, just chipping away. By December 2019, I had something which I thought was pretty special. I had it mastered at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin, and Oli did the artwork. I sent the album to various labels (Beyond Beyond Is Beyond, li, Rock Action, et cetera), but although they all liked what they heard, they wouldn’t commit. I didn’t want to wait for anyone to decide if and when they would put it out, as I was knew this album was very good, and decided to release it myself. I had always decided that Friday 5 June 2020 would be the release date, and despite lockdown happening in March, I stuck to the release date regardless. There were 2 guests on the album: William Sol (aka Prana Crafter) + Holly Habstritt Gaal.
I had been a fan of William’s records (Prana Crafter) having heard him on WFMU, and had bought his records via Bandcamp…deep crafted psych guitar excursions. We struck up an online friendship and had chats about music et cetera, but our friendship was really cemented when he came over to play at Le Guess Who? in 2019 (which I played as Bhajan Bhoy too) and we hung out that weekend. I asked him to contribute to a track on my album, which he did on his return home to the woodlands in deepest Washington State (northwest USA), turning in a deep guitar workout, playing over what I sent him.
“If something grabs your heart when you play it/hear it, then hold onto it”
Holly I knew as she lives in Amsterdam and is now a fully fledged member of King Champion Sounds (trumpet + vocals). She has a beautiful voice and I had a track which I had female vocals in mind for. She did a fantastic job on it and really lifted the track to a different dimension.
Tell us a bit about how your Soundation Studio came to exist.
My current studio is as permanent an affair as you can get. I previously had a small space (within a rehearsal room) that I had used for many many years. When we were asked to move out of the rehearsal space we previously had, we were offered a new space literally next door. But within the setup we were given there was no space for me available. I basically told the foreman of the industrial estate that I wanted to build an extension to the rehearsal room and use as my studio. And he agreed to it! So I got my pals together and we built the room together over 4 weekends….stone by stone, brick by brick. When that was done, I recorded and mixed a band in exchange for one of their members building the inner studio and doing all the handy work in exchange…straight bartering! Medieval style. I gave them a great album and he built me a beautiful inner control room. My wife painted it all, and then I set about getting all my gear in there and setting up a working studio. All my studio equipment that had been locked away for months/years all came out and found a permanent home. All my musical instruments also found a home. When I record my bands, I use the rehearsal room as the recording space (it sounds great in there) and I have my control room for recording/mixing/post-production. The control room is also the place I go to daily, turn everything on and then dig into a days work. An incredibly luxurious state of affairs which I’m lucky to have. It’s my second home.
Can you give us maybe 5 albums from last year you’ve been digging?
Robbie Basho ‘Song of the Avatars : The Lost Master Tapes’
Various ’Sumer Is Icumen In (The Pagan Sound Of British And Irish Folk 1966-75)’
Windy And Carl ’Allegiance And Conviction’
Gunn-Truscinski Duo ‘Soundkeeper’
Kakai Kilonzo & Les Kilimambogo Brothers ‘Buffalo Mountain’
Various ‘How the River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces of Indian Violin, 1933-1952’
Maalem Mahmoud Gania ‘Aicha’
William Basinski ‘Lamentations’
‘Sufi Hispano-Pakistani’ Aziz Balouch
Various ‘Can’t Stop The Dread’ (on Sonia Pottinger’s The High Note label)
Priscilla Ermel ‘Origens Da Luz’
Horse Lords ‘The Common Task’
Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani ‘Echoes From Africa’
Sorry…I had another 100 records I could have listed from last year, but I restrained my enthusiasm and stuck to 13…hope that’s ok.
“We served up a whole dose of absurdism and twists in the music”
When and how did you start playing music?
When I was at school in England, I was in band where I played drums (self taught)….we played at our school end of year musical variety show in 1982 (or was it 1983) and we played Joy Division (‘Transmission’), Killing Joke (‘Wardance’), Iggy Pop (‘The Passenger’). The rock’n’roll bug was sown at a very young age…oh yeah! At university I dabbled in one or two things musically, but it was only when I left university, signed on the dole in Manchester in 1987 that things took off. My first proper band were Dandelion Adventure (who were based in Preston) and I played bass guitar in that group. We made a couple of cool records, did a John Peel session and played a ton of shows (opening for My Bloody Valentine and The Pastels at their request amongst others). It was here that I really started to learn the ropes of making music. It was rudimentary in its approach (if I think back to it), but we served up a whole dose of absurdism and twists in the music…but that approach actually usually serves up more “truth” in the music that is made, than something that has been thought out to the nth degree. I think it was that purity of expression (and enjoyment) that made it so special. It’s something I think that I still retain…that if something grabs your heart when you play it/hear it, then hold onto it. Try not to chase that initial feeling away by trying to be clever with your work.
If you could suddenly ‘as if by magic’ be an expert on any musical instrument that you can’t currently play what would it be?
The sitar. My heritage and my culture (Indian) ensured that I grew up listening to this instrument my whole life in different forms and played by so many different artists. It’s an incredibly magical sounding and cerebral instrument, capable of invoking almost any emotion under the sun. But to be able to play it would take years and years of practice and patience and a good teacher…three things I am not sure I am able to muster at this stage of my life (the masters of this instrument are still not truly masters even after 30+ years of playing it…their search for the truth is a lifetime’s work).
What was the last album you bought and on what format did you buy it?
Turid ‘Vittras Visor’ (LP). Turid was a Swedish artist who made an amazing folk psych album in 1971. This album is really hard to find, and when I was in Sweden, I went to visit Pet Sounds record store in Stockholm…and they had a copy, but it was too damned expensive. But I found one yesterday online and snapped it up el pronto.
Top 5 current bands or solo artists?
Kara-Lis Coverdale, Obay Alsharani, Bardo Pond, Bombay Jayashri, Angel Bat Dawid.
Top 5 bands or solo artists from the past?
Arthur Russell, The Fall, Albert Ayler, King Tubby (he made the studio his instrument), Can.
If you could work with any other current artist who would it be?
Lori Goldston or Terry riley or Elizabeth Fraser.
If you could work with any other artist from the past (dead or alive) who would it be?
Pandit Pran Nath
Give me the line up of your fantasy 6 piece band (alive or dead) with you being the 6th member?
Jaki Liebezeit (drums), Steve Hanley (bass), Reverend Charlie Jackson (guitar and vocals), Alice Coltrane (piano/harp), Annapurna Devi (surbahar) and me (guitar and synths).
What’s the next project that you’ll be working on, or are working on right now?
I’m currently mixing the next King Champion Sounds album. I started recording an album under the name Volksempfänger (which is a collaboration between Holly and myself…and it’s all 3 minute psych pop). Thereafter I’ll start on the next Bhajan Bhoy album.
Any hopeful plans for getting back to playing live this year?
Yes absolutely. I’ll definitely be playing Bhajan Bhoy shows this year, hopefully see University Challenged play, and I hope that we can get King Champion Sounds onstage later this year when the album is out. Ajay Saggar