The No. 1 promoter in India live and direct ahead of another colossal Submerge event
Welcome to DMC Nikhil. Wow what a story you have had! Let’s take you back to your days studying Architecture at the Sreenivasaiah College of Engineering in Bangalore. I get the feeling even back then you were getting itchy feet to see the world, or at least to make a big stamp on Indian culture as you didn’t take your studies that seriously?
“To be honest, I didn’t think much about anything, except for a brief period in my early 20’s when I thought intensely about life, the universe and everything (apologies to Douglas Adams). I quickly realised that no matter how much I pondered, I’d never find answers to some things in life… and so decided to simply go out and have some fun, adopting the philosophy that you only live once but if you live it right, once is enough. Midway through my degree in Architecture (in my 3rd year), I decided to get a bit serious about the course and finally finished with a distinction, topping my university in design and with a design thesis specialising in hospitals.”
At what point during those years scraping through your papers did you begin to hear dance music?
“I grew up on a steady diet of hard rock and heavy metal, but when Nirvana and grunge appeared, I got off the bandwagon. Since then I flirted with dance music finding much joy in clubbing and spending hours on a dancefloor every week. It’s what the friends I hung out with did… we went to the club every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.”
What was your childhood like, was music all around you?
“In India, you’re never too far from music, ever. However, it’s a very different form of music – Indian film music (Bollywood music) which blared out of cars, trucks, shops and the radio. My father was in the army and this form of music is very popular with the troops (as it is with most Indians).”
What was the club scene in India like back then?
“It was largely disorganised, but Bangalore where I grew up had a tightly-knit bunch of a handful of DJs who sourced their records from friends and relatives traveling abroad. I don’t know how they found the tunes they wanted (there was no internet).. but they did. On a Saturday night, Whigfield, the Notorious B.I.G., BT, Shaggy, The Prodigy… all made their mark.. and surprisingly, it wasn’t an incongruous space. The DJs were skilful enough to create “pockets” of sound… and the audiences rotated from the dancefloor to the lawns outside, as their favourite bits came on (or went off).”
How does the scenes in different Indian cities differ today?
“There’s more structure now and better funding. Clubbing is attempting to become serious business but we’re hampered by a serious scarcity in venues. If you want to do something alternative, that 150 capacity venue just doesn’t exist – and if it does, the owners want to cash in by playing the most popular tunes around. The laws often work against us too. Many were formed in the 1940’s. However, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom. I see it as a process of evolution and we’re in that process right now. Most importantly, I feel the Indian dance music fan too is evolving and the need to create better global experiences in our own backyard is growing. As with any territory in transit, there are a dozens of fly-by-night “promoters” in every corner of India..but there are the few that are dedicated and are relatively easy to find and work with.”
Tell us about your philosophy, “if it feels good, overdo it!”
“Hahahahaaa…..I don’t get bored easily (I think). So I never tire of repeating fun times I’ve had or fun places I’ve travelled too. I love scuba diving… and I’ve been asked by a friend how I can bear to look at the “same fish again and again”. I also never seem to tire of Goa, Ibiza, the hills, hanging out with friends and tasting wine I don’t understand…. it’s a part of the “you only live once” philosophy I’d mentioned earlier.”
There is a part of Indian society that considers partying as taboo, what is your message to them?
“I believe music needs to be inclusive. We need to work with this section of society and address their concerns rather than ignore them. At Submerge events, fans have often brought parents to our parties and that’s helped them understand why their kids love to go to this one place every single week. They still don’t get the music, but they get why their kids want to be in the midst of a bunch of happy, smiling, jumping people.”
Your father was in the army as a Paratrooper, what has he thought of your career choices?
“At first when I joined MTV he wanted me to get a “real job”. He then became one of my biggest fans watching every show I hosted. He’s also been out to the Sunburn festival I do and loves it. People in Goa last spotted him having a quiet rave to John 00 Fleming’s music.”
One of your first steps into the world of music was when you auditioned for the VJ job – did you think you had a chance and what did people in India think about the whole concept of VJing back then?
“I think the reason I got picked a a a VJ was because I really didn’t think I ever would. I auditioned because “I thought it might be fun”. On the 9th Sept, I completed 15 years on MTV India, still having fun. Back then (and now too), VJs were considered to be a very aspirational bunch of people. When I joined (with 3 others), we altered the mould a bit, going from being untouchable uber-cool people to kids next door who did cool things and loved having a laugh.”
Tell us about your love of being a RJ…what’s the attraction?
“I dunno really. The first time I walked into a radio studio to “give it a go” was in 1995 and it was love at first sight. All the racks loaded with amps, the console with colourful sliders, a huge microphone suspended on what looked like a mini-crane and the is big red light that went on when you moved the microphone slider up. And music. What’s not to love?”
So Sunburn. You have a massive event coming up in November with Above & Beyond. How did Submerge and Sunburn begin…
“Submerge was started in 2002 out of frustration with the clubbing scene in Mumbai. Pearl (my girlfriend then and wife now), my best friend Hermit and I couldn’t hear the msuic we loved and Pearl and I couldn’t play what we liked at regular venues. So we started our own night… and voila! Five years later, Percept came to me with the idea of starting a festival. I came up with the name Sunburn and we put our heads together and built a festival we could call our own, in India.”
You set 2 rules when you started Submerge. One was never to tell the DJ what to play and the second was to ban the DJ from the microphone. Were these big problems at that time?
“There used to be (and still is) a huge culture of big spenders at clubs dictating what the DJ should play. Regular clubbers would also come up to the console and yell requests at the DJ. We recognised DJs as artists. If the DJ was playing shit, it was our fault for booking him / her. We didn’t really ban the microphone, but we encouraged DJs to let the music do the talking for them. Today, it’s a bit different where I now encourage DJs to occasionally tell clubbers what they’re doing as dancefloors are swamped by what I call the “Guetta phenomenon”. So for someone playing Deep House or Techno… or anything else, a little education-on-the-fly isn’t all that bad.”
Who have been your favourite DJs you have booked for Sunburn?
“All. I only book DJs I love.”
And who is your crowd’s favourite DJ?
“Above and Beyond and Axwell. There’s an emotional connect they have with their fans that’s magical to watch from the sidelines.”
How important to the development of the Indian dance scene has Above & Beyond been?
“Above and Beyond chose to come to India when few other DJs even knew a scene here existed. This not only endeared them to fans here but also got a lot of other artists from around the world interested in the Indian scene. They’ve been enormously supportive of the scene here and have returned to play on four separate occasions, with their army of fans growing larger each time.
Tell us about Bangalore…
“Ah, the city where I grew up and fell in love with club music. Bangalore also has arguably the best clubbing crowd in India – packed as it is with colleges of all kinds. The students in Bangalore (and elsewhere) are the ones that have for decades kept India’s clubbing scene alive.”
What has been the highlight of Submerge for you personally over the years?
“Meeting people who tell me they’ve met and made some of their best friends at Submerge parties – people that they know, they’ll know for the rest of their lives.”
Who are some of the biggest Indian celebrities that have parties at your events?
“Many celebs appear and disappear like bubbles in a bottle of champagne. I don’t really keep track of them. I’m more interested in the sweaty smiling faces in the middle of the floor. I’m more of a beer / vodka person myself.”
What are some of the big tunes being played in the Submerge office at the moment?
“It’s an eclectic selection of music that swings from trance (Above & Beyond / Gareth / Aly & Fila) to Deep House (Finnebassen, Solomon), Electro / Dubstep (Zedd, Skrillex, Porter Robinson), melodic Progressive (Dave Seaman / Guy Mantzur / Cid Inc). Everybody is encouraged to listen to everything. Preferably not at the same time though.”
How important is sponsorship to you as event promoters?
“It’s our lifeline at the moment. We’re still not at a stage where a ticketing / bar model can sustain a night.”
Tell us about your first trip to Ibiza. What did you think and what were the highlights?
“Pearl and I went to Ibiza for the first time in 2000 (or was it 2001). We fell in love with the vibe, but what we missed was not being able to have all our friends around us. A chance comment by Pearl (“we should try and bring this back to India”) planted a seed somewhere in our subconsciousness. It was never meant to be, but looking back, that probably was “ground zero” for where we are today. Having said that, the vibe we’ve tried to create at our parties (especially those that we do in Goa) have a much more free-spirited vibe to it than what Ibiza represents. Goa is what Ibiza probably was in the 70’s and eighties… and hopefully will never turn into what ibiza is today.”
Are there any more plans for film work and how much trouble did you get in for those ‘explicit’ scenes in Snip with Sophia Haque?
“I don’t consider myself much of an actor, but I do dabble in the odd role in projects involving friends.The kissing scenes for Snip were just that – scenes in movie; shot with a full crew and a director yelling “cut”… and when he did, we did.”
You are the front man of MTV Splitsville and have been on various judging panels for shows for many years. So…what do you love the most; Nikhil the VJ, RJ, DJ, TV host, actor or event promoter?
“I love playing music the most. It’s almost therapeutic to put a record (now a USB drive) on and play it out. My favourite sets are the longer ones – around 5 hours, played out to the ocean in Goa, usually to a handful of people hanging around.”
How big is your team at Submerge?
“There are nine of us at Submerge but the “family” is considerably bigger. It includes friends, DJs, producers and people who just like to be a part of the scene…and who over the years, have built the scene to what it is today.”
What are the next plans for Submerge…
“We’re overdue for a holiday together. I hope to be able to take everyone Scuba diving soon – or snorkeling at the very least.”
And finally, what has been the proudest moment in your career to date?
“Watching Pearl play.. every single time. In the context of this country, our history and the commercially exploding global dance music scene, Pearl’s journey and her dedication to the music she loves has been amazing. I’m a bit of a “kamikaze” DJ…I’ll jump in there and play anything. But when she plays, every single note actually means something to her. She takes her music personally (far too personally, sometimes!) and watching her play tunes that I’d never dare to (and packing clubs with it) is fascinating.”