Warsaw Concert033

In Conversation with Rafiq Bhatia

By Isabella St. Ivany

Mar 14, 2019

Musician, composer, and producer Rafiq Bhatia defies any one genre or category. After moving to New York in 2010 post graduating from Oberlin College & Conservatory, Bhatia released a succession of highly-praised, improvisation-driven albums challenging traditional jazz, electronic, and hip-hop composition. From here, he joined the experimental group Son Lux and began recording with groups like Lorde and Sufjan Stevens. Bhatia felt inspired from this time of musical technological manipulation to assume the role of producer resulting in his groundbreaking album Breaking English, which was released on Anti-Records last year.

Bhatia will perform Breaking English live at The Kitchen with Ian Chang (electronic and acoustic drums) and Jackson Hill (bass and synthesizers) on Friday, March 15th with special guest WILLS. As an additional treat, artists Michael Cina and Hal Lovemelt will contribute an exciting visual element to the performance, thus creating a uniquely transformative audio and visual experience of Bhatia’s new project.

As he prepares for the upcoming show, Bhatia spoke with me about his experiences producing and performing his newest project and how he went about implementing a sense of humanity into his recorded album.

Congratulations on your latest album Breaking English, your producing debut. This marks a notable shift from your previous work, which has been driven by improvisation. Is producer a role you see yourself continuing?

Very much so. Depending on the musical community or context, “producing” can mean very different things—originally, the role was more focused on overseeing the sonic and emotional direction of a recording, but nowadays it’s not surprising if the producer is directly responsible for generating all non-vocal sound. For me, the concept of producer-as-composer encompasses all of those roles, and implies a more sculptural approach to making music. It moves beyond theorizing how music might sound and relying on communication and trust to get there, and it also allows for options unattainable through performance alone. You’re in the clay getting your hands dirty.

When I was listening to the album, I really enjoyed being able to hear the breath of the musicians on songs like “Breaking English” and “Hoods Up.” Often times, we don’t get to hear that unless it’s a live performance. Was this something you were thinking about when producing the album?

Indeed. To me, there’s something fascinating about simultaneously obscuring and exaggerating the humanity of a recorded performance. The drums on “Hoods Up” almost sound programmed, but if you listen closely you can hear Ian’s mouth telegraphing his next move. The manipulated vocal choir on “Breaking English” (many clones of Nina Moffitt) feels androgynous and otherworldly, but the exaggerated breathing (which becomes almost like a gasp) ensures that the listener detects it as an organic sound source.

At other times, I actively deny the sense of humanity—like on “Perihelion I”, where a choir of breath-infused saxophone samples is repeatedly and unnaturally cut short. It’s unsettling; one second, the performer is breathing and alive, but they’re silenced the next. I want the listener to hear and empathize with that, to feel what it feels like, and to inhabit that space even for a few moments.

While the album is non-lyrical, a great deal is said. What have you found to be powerful or satisfying in speaking through songs like “Hoods Up” and “Olduvai II - We Are Humans, With Blood In Our Veins”? Is there something to be said for what music can portray that words cannot?

One of my favorite things about music—and especially wordless music—is its ability to speak very directly to very different people with very different experiences. Someone might have a totally different relationship to one of my songs, but it can be just as meaningful to them, or even feel like it was made just for them. You’re speaking straight to a set of sensibilities that predates words, and that is a very direct and powerful thing.

How has the experience of producing Breaking English, where a high level of control exists, differed from playing it live in collaboration with other musicians?

I should preface this answer by pointing out that everyone in the band is a producer. We all share a focus on finding ways to realize meticulous sonic constructions using live instrumentation and pushing the traditional boundaries of what our instruments are expected to do. So a high degree of control exists in both situations.

The main difference in my mind between the studio and the stage is the salience of the moment, of community, and of risk in a live setting. Everyone in the room is experiencing something unfolding together. I think it was Vijay Iyer who once wrote about how seeing a live show has something in common with watching a lion tamer—it doesn’t really work unless there’s a palpable chance that someone’s going to get eaten. When we play live, I think we try to take these careful constructions and destabilize them in some sense...to push them (and ourselves) a little further than we expect we can. And since that process is also inherent in how we create the music in the first place, that feels like a natural extension.

But in a weird way, being able to look forward to the live iterations of the songs is an important part of what lets me cede control over a recorded song and deem it “finished.” If I know that it will live on and there will be more opportunities to develop it outside of the studio, I’m more easily able to finish that chapter and turn the page.

When you began working on Breaking English, I understand that you decided to hold off on implementing guitar, your main instrument, until the end. I am reminded of something you have said about how you admire Jimi Hendrix for his ability to transcend the guitar entirely and arrive at something more deeply human. What was your intention in bringing guitar in last?

I think it had to do with forcing myself into the unfamiliar territory of studio-based composition and sound design. I knew I wanted to make music that way, but didn’t have a voice with it yet. So leaving the guitar out was mostly about not giving myself a crutch. But, as I believe was the case with Hendrix, working this way has had a dramatic influence on my approach to the guitar, and I’d like to think you can hear that in the results.

Throughout the album, you seamlessly pull from a wide range of sources, histories, and backgrounds including jazz, Indian music, electronic, and hip-hop. How do you balance these influences with your own voice and vision?

The short answer is that they are the building blocks of my own voice and vision. Growing up as the son of immigrant parents made hybridization a way of life for me. Forming an identity was an active process to a greater extent than it was for some of my peers. I often feel like making music like this is a kind of therapy...it’s a way of articulating, critically re-evaluating, and pushing who I am, and celebrating the people and communities who have affirmed that. Either way, it always resonates with me when I hear artists who are unapologetically themselves, so if nothing else, this approach to making music is an attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Image: Rafiq Bhatia live in Warsaw, Aksinnia Semyanikhina

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