Asian Dub Foundation still sending a strong signal amid all the noise

August 27, 2013
ADF with Savale
ADF with Savale, second from right. Photo: Umberto Lopez

The Signal And The Noise
Asian Dub Foundation
Out now in Japan, rest of the world soon

Legendary punk-dub-electronica group Asian Dub Foundation are celebrating their 20th year with the release of a typically topical new album, The Signal And The Noise. Green Left's Mat Ward spoke to founding member, guitarist and band leader Steve Chandra Savale, a one-man riff factory who always has his finger on the political pulse.

* * *

The album covers many burning issues, from financial crises and growing inequality to surveillance and racism - but one song, "Get Lost Bashar", is particularly pressing. Is the sample of protesters chanting in Syria? It's an issue that divides the left, since some think if you don't support Assad, you support imperialism. What's your take on it?

Yes, it does sample protesters chanting a song written by Syrian protest singer Ibrahim Qashoush - who had his throat slit by Syrian security forces for the act of writing it. This is what drew me to using the chant as a basis for a tune - the fact that in certain situations music is still dangerous; dangerous to regimes and dangerous to brave individuals who use it to make a stand. The COMPLETE opposite to how music is perceived in the UK/USA/Europe etc. That was more the motive for the track, rather than trying to unravel the horrifically complex situation in Syria at the moment. However, it strikes me as dumb "enemy of my enemy is a friend"-type politics to say that if you are against Assad you are pro-imperialism. It reduces everything to a crude geopolitical chess game regardless of people's lives; it makes you support a regime that slits a singer's throat for simply writing a song. The only solid tendency that I can draw out from the tumultuous events in the Middle East of the past few years is the following: That whatever has happened and whatever will happen, mass protest as a means of affecting policy has been, in effect, institutionalised in a whole host of countries up to now forced to live under vicious dictatorships. It won't go away. I have no idea what is going to happen in Syria, but if Assad is deposed, it will be at least partially due to mass self-organisation of a large section of Syrian society, and any resulting regime will have great difficulty in suppressing this, as we have seen in Egypt. So I suppose I am edging towards a position that says it is better to have uncertainty plus an energised civic population than it is to maintain a three decades-old externally-backed police state. I have been involved with an organisation called Mosaic Syria, which promotes Syrian artists along with providing humanitarian aid. They tell me that international indecision is producing the worst of all possible worlds.

Video: Get Lost Bashar. Asian Dub Foundation.

Keith Richards reckons his boy scout leadership skills have helped him keep the Rolling Stones together. What skills have enabled you to keep ADF going for 20 years?

That's a great question! My time in the cub scouts didn't help... I was racially bullied! That's a great question, but as the only member who's played at every ADF band gig since 1994 ... I don't know, really. It might have to do with us being out on our own musically, philosophically... just doing our thing regardless and enough people around that get a lot from it.

What inspired you to write the album's title song, "The Signal and The Noise"?

Originally the technical term "signal/noise ratio" is in sound engineering, but it became an attack on the idea of "professional" economists, who either couldn't see the crash coming or were benefiting enormously from the status quo. It's like we all buy into the false information that's drilled into us about the economy, but all the economy is in fact the totality of our interactions with each other. Yet it's talked about as something outside of us, like drivers complaining about traffic, but not considering themselves part of it. It's more Slavoj Žižek than the Nate Silver book of the same name.

How does it feel to be back playing with original ADF bassist Dr Das, after he left to go solo for a few years? Describe his playing style and how it fits with yours.

All of a sudden, the floor is solid again and I can prance about on it as much as I like - or not at all, even - without fear of it caving in.

Tell us about the irrepressibly catchy album opener "Zig Zag Nation" and the line "the zig zags are like knives, when they could be carving the way to paradise"...

Anti-racism used to be simple - it was black and white. It was clear who your enemies and friends were. Now it's more complicated and there's greater opportunity to exploit potential divisions. Look at the English Defence League and its Hitlerite leader, Tommy Robinson. Classic Nazi tactics is to find a scapegoat that people on the bottom of society can hate too; that's why he's always saying how the EDL has support from Hindus and Sikhs etc. Of course, this enables him to undercut those that deem him "racist". The image of the zig zag is the complex divisions between people as opposed to simpler straight lines. People like the EDL use the zig zags as knives; but on the other hand, the potential for a mass movement across racial/regional/religious lines is obviously fantastic - hence the zig zags should pave the way to paradise.

Video: Asian Dub Foundation - Zig Zag Nation (Feat. Naga MC, Amy True & Kam Romay). Mat Ke.

"Stand Up" documents ever-increasing inequality and injustice and urges people to stand up for their rights. The last time that happened globally was with the Occupy movement. In what ways do you think people might do it better next time?

There's a harsh reality beginning to assert itself in my mind; all this talk of horizontal, autonomous movements via social media is great for making spectacular protest gatherings even to the point of collapsing governments, but - again from Zizek - what happens the morning after the event? A re-emergence of what went before? The fizzling out of what seemed to be a great surge for change? We are at a crucial stage; the mass movement needs a programme and even leaders. Leaders can be good for crystallising and solidifying ideas, and creating a practical momentum. The challenge is to set up efficient, powerful, but accountable organisations, which do not succumb to bureaucracy. What are we aiming for? How would a more humane economy actually run? Do we want a world where we're all involved in making decisions about the economy and, if so, to what degree and how would it work? We need some practical alternatives spelled out and the right people to get them over to the masses. Large amounts of people in the wealthy nations know that the government is run by corporations and banks for their own interests - yet most of those same people simply want a return to prosperity. How do we turn them on to a new way of living? This should be the central question of anyone who wants serious change; how to get our ideas across and make them stick.

Asian Dub Foundation have had a long and lively relationship with motion pictures. Your new song "Bhadh Bhenge Dao" is from The original soundtrack of the Indian film "Tasher Desh". It's a cool-looking film. Tell us about that and the part your music plays in it.

It's an adaption of a fascinating Tagore musical poem about a traveller who runs aground on an island run by human-size playing cards - a kind of Bengali "Utopia", in the Thomas More sense. We've worked with Q, the director, before on his film "Gandu". He is also the vocalist on "Straitjacket", with Gandu Circus. I believe him and Neel - his collaborator - to be the most radical musicans AND filmakers in India today. Check this out. I always wondered if ADF would have an artistic legacy of some kind; it has appeared to be in groundbreaking cinematic experiments - Q and also Secret Cinema - rather than music... Fine by me!!!

Video: Bnadh Bhenge Dao | Tasher Desh OST | A Film by Q. ANOVERDOSEJOINT.

Speaking of the poet Tagore, you have brought female vocals in again, with Tagore devotee Shama Rahman on "Your World Has Gone". Tell us about that.

I love Sharma's voice and sitar playing; she's also a neuroscientist AND an actor. "Your World has Gone" is a very personal song for me, which is why I had to sing it. Every time I go to India, I start to yearn for the vibe that my father imparted to me in impressionistic snatches. An India of post-colonial, secular, scientific progress, of astronomy, mathematics and socialism. When I was in Calcutta last year, I tried to find the Jagadish Chandra Bose museum - one of India's greatest scientists who invented the radio 30 years before Marconi and also a strange device called the Crescograph that, according to my father, could "measure the pain of plants". But no one had ever heard of it, let alone knew where it was. The song is a lament for the vision of India that formed in my young mind listening to my father, an India that no longer exists... or perhaps never was.

Speaking of changing worlds - you shot the video for Qutab Minar in Imphal, in the Indian state of Manipur. In what ways is the country changing, in your experience?

Well, in Imphal, not much has changed, as far as I could gather. It's a hideously complex situation, where people are sandwiched between army occupation and a plethora of rival guerilla factions, split ideologically, regionally and ethnically. Sometimes the people have even risen up against the army and these guerilla factions simultaneously! The track is a collaboration with the protest singer Akhu Chingangbam - a very passionate and brave artist - and we were proud to have worked with him.

Video: Qutub Minar - Music Video | The Dewarists S02E07. Dewar's India.

Is your new song "Straitjacket" sung in Hindi? Do you speak any? Tell us about the collaborators on the song, Gandu Circus, and what the song's about.

No, it's in Bengali and I don't speak it. Here's the lyrics:

Unfold your arms
Remove your

You and your slimy ball slick with your nightfall
Suck on your thumb if you are shocked by my words
Even the thumb is not yours, like the rest of you
You say that you are happy, but it sounds like a whine

Let the world whine, you stay the way are
Let bombs fuck the comatose world to the bits
I would like to rectify a few things whenever there’s some free time
But you are so paranoid that you jump when I get close

Breathe the fresh air; sing in to your cell phone
You know it all, you eat up everyone’s food
You are behind everything, you are the center of power
But it’s difficult for you to get a hard-on sometimes

It’s a zoo, everything, listen to me smartass, and it’s got a rhythm to it
Between the beats, hiding in that vibe, everyone feels fearless
But the boom booms don’t listen to anyone…
They don’t listen to anyone
No they don’t listen to anyone
They keep booming on
They disregard economic brackets
They could show you that I am naked
But look at yourself now
You are in a straight straight straight jacket

Society is a fucking maze brother
It’s locked you in a straightjacket
And you’re spinning in it spin spin keep spinning
Twisting twirling through your life
You lose the plot, see things for what they’re not
Debit some credit some take another loan brother
And keep fucking spinning some more

Spin to the boom
Spin to the boom
But the boom don’t listen to you
They don’t listen to anyone
No they don’t listen to anyone
They keep booming on
They disregard economic brackets
They could show you that I am naked
But look at yourself now
You are in a straight straight straight jacket

Rhyming "economic bracket" with "Straitjacket" is my fave rhyme of the year... Gandu Circus are a radical audio-visual band that are unique, especially for India. Check out their films...

Your flute player, Nathan Flutebox Lee, doesn't talk like you'd expect a flute player to talk, or play the flute like you'd expect it to be played, seeing as he incorporates beatboxing at the same time. Tell us about him - is he on board full-time now?

There is no other flute player like Nathan - he has completely transformed the instrument. He is to the flute what Jimi Hendrix was to the guitar. At his gig in Reading last week, people were moshing to him. He can make the flute sound like a tsunami or like swarm of flying ants and then switch to sublime Indian scales - via a solid beatbox groove. A real musical innovator with a powerful and unique perspective on the world, too. Yes, he's playing at all our gigs and we are a very lucky little band.

Video: Asian Dub Foundation x Flutebox - 'Hovering' | BHTB - Noire Series. Flyotw.

Indian drum and bass producer Romay has talked about how Indians often have such a great sense of melody, passed down the generations in his case. Asian Dub Foundation are no strangers to a catchy hook. To what extent do you think your Indian roots play a part in that?

Well, for me, the main legacy is the drone, the staying in the same key vibe. The transposition of Indian scales onto dub bass is probably the central plank of ADF. Vocally, I don't know if we've been an obviously melodious group - more shouty, with a few notable exceptions.

You sing about mainstream radio in "Radio Bubblegum", which includes the chorus "don't touch your dial, we've got bullshit by the pile". But radio also broadcasts some of the most wonderful niche music, don't you think?

Well, songs should never be taken as an iron-clad manifesto, they're a musicalised train of thought. I think the comments [vocalist] LSK makes certainly apply to a lot of stations.

Tell us about your unusual-looking rectangular guitar seen in the "Radio Bubblegum" video, among others, and the kind of reactions you get to it.

It's a copy of one of the many wonderful guitars built by the late, great Bo Diddley. Everybody loves it, though only a few know who it's a tribute to. Truly a man ahead of his time.

You are big in Japan and it seems your album was released there first. Tell us about your following there and the feedback you get.

It's the one place where we consistently get respect from all corners of the industry; TV, radio, press, record company, promoters and the fans, of course. I still don't quite know why we've generated such loyalty there, but sometimes it's good not to know the answers to everything and just enjoy the magic.

You're a big fan of science fiction writer Philip K Dick and must think about him a lot. In what ways do you see his prophesies coming true?

Virtually everything that underpinned the structures of his various dystopias have their echoes in our modern world. A few years ago, I began to write an article on Korea's "robot rights" constitutional documents, designed to prevent abuse of androids. I also read something about animated hoardings being able to scan your face as you approach, consult Facebook, and then tailor the ad just for you as you walk past. Very Philip K Dick. In 1974's "Flow my Tears", he talks of "electric orgies" where people wire themselves up over the telephone network to experience group sex - sound familiar? Plus his chillingly prophetic notions of reactionary religious organistations and movements prospering in future tech-heavy societies. But, fundamentally, where Philip K Dick stole a huge march on his contemporaries was that most of them were writing a very masculine, imperialist, hardware -heavy science fiction that documented the continuing "Ascent of Man" into the stars - a la "2001: A Space Odyssey". Dick's futures are populated by down-at-heel but compassionate ordinary people who have to survive a selfish, chaotic world saturated by small-scale technology that is by turns manipulative, irritating and downright banal. Luckily, his genius has been able to survive Hollywood's pathetic plundering...

Tell us what legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood brought to the album - it seems you really enjoy working with him.

Myself and Dr Das grew up as musicians with Adrian's music. He has an incredible sonic signature and a very convivial nature which gets the best out of you.

He blew up the speakers - tell us about that.

He ALWAYS blows up speakers...

Steve Chandra Savale tells Green Left how the band's last album became a soundtrack to a revolution here.

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