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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Paul Schwartz, Nov. 2003
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Alien Chatter
May 2004
Alien Chatter is one of my current favourite bands. The duo, comprised of Rodney Lee (piano, synths and programming) and Satnam Ramgotra (tablas, drums, percussion, vocals and programming), describe their music as "pioneering the Indo-Jazztronica movement". That's a pretty good description, but I prefer to think of their music as simply great!

Started in 2001, Alien Chatter draws on the vast musical experience of both Rodney and Satnam. Between the two of them, (and this is just a partial list) they've performed and/or recorded with: Beck, Sting, Seal, Nikka Costa, Lili Haydn, Macy Gray, Hans Zimmer, Anastacia, Jody Watley, Chris Standring, Marc Antoine, Terence Trent D'Arby, The B-Sharp Jazz Quartet, Freddie Hubbard, and the Jazz Crusaders. When you add in all of the film and television work they've done, Satnam's teaching experiences and Rodney's M.S. in Electrical Engineering, you know you have a project with more than a little depth.

If you'd like to learn more about Alien Chatter, please visit their web site.

Satnam Ramgotra

Rodney Lee
Jamie: Unique is a word that often gets overused describing music, but in the case of Music For Aliens I can't think of a more apt description. I hear all sorts of different sounds and textures combining to create the diverse Alien Chatter "sound". Were there any specific albums or artists that you drew inspiration from when you were recording this album?
Rodney: When Satnam and I began to compose music for this project we didn't allow ourselves to have any preconceived notions about what the end result should be. We didn't say things like let's make a jazz album or an instrumental pop album or an Indian/world album. In fact, we didn't even say let's make an album at all! We simply agreed to get together to try to write some songs that featured Indian tablas and acoustic piano. We knew from hanging out together in other musical situations and talking that we both shared a love for some of the electronic music that was being created by artists like Massive Attack, Radiohead, Bjork and Portishead. So we at least had a common source of inspiration and setting in mind in which we wanted to place the piano and tablas. From there we allowed our individual influences as players to come through, and our "sound" began to take shape. As far as my piano playing in Alien Chatter is concerned, I am continually inspired by Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter.

Satnam: Yes, and no. As musicians and humans, I think we are influenced by the music, and arts we are exposed, and expose ourselves to. Musically, I am definitely inspired by artists like: Massive Attack, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Hendrix, Indian Classical Music, as well as all the Jazz greats, including the 70's jazz-fusion movement, and all types of modern-electronica & Trip-hop. Also, the 80's Alternative, and New Wave music had a huge influence on me, especially since I began playing then. There are so many artists and genres of music that have shaped me and my playing... that it would be a farce to say that I did not draw influence from them. As Rodney mentioned, we really wanted to just explore the musical possibility and collaboration of the Piano and Tabla, with the music that we are most presently drawn to.
"For me, that's what the creative process is all about .. when technique transcends the intellectual and touches people on a deeper level." - Rodney Lee

"...we really wanted to just explore the musical possibility and collaboration of the Piano and Tabla, with the music that we are most presently drawn to." - Satnam Ramgotra
Jamie: And I think that's one of the reasons why I enjoy Alien Chatter so much. It's the collaboration of piano and tabla -- there's a real sense of performance on Music For Aliens.

I'm listening to your record again right now (probably for the 30th time!) and I'm trying figure out how you guys collaborate. The percussive and melodic/harmonic elements seem extremely well integrated. Do you start with a piano and tabla duet and build the track/composition from there? How/when do you combine the more electronic sounds with the more acoustics ones?
Rodney: Each composition came together in a different way. Sometimes we would start from a bass line or a rhythmic idea that Satnam would bring in and we would build the track from there. This happened on tunes like "Deep Space Six" and "Rhythms". On "Leo 1", I had a melody and chord structure in mind and Satnam added the tabla and rhythm arrangement to that. All the while we were conscious of the fact that we wanted to later add electronics so we had to be careful to leave some space. Often we found ourselves removing melody elements to make room for the electronics. I believe that is what happened on "AC 7". I seem to remember a verse melody that got trimmed down to the simple piano motif that remains. On "Persistence of Memory", we definitely came up with that while just 'jamming' one day on piano and tablas. "Cosmos Expanded" was actually an interesting journey because we wrestled with the arrangement/composition for quite a while. Almost to the point that we were going to completely scrap the track. But then we began dissecting the elements and cutting and pasting them back together again almost in a DJ fashion. We ran the left hand piano part through a distortion pedal and really tripped out the tablas and melody through a space echo and all of sudden the track came to it's one of my favorite songs on the CD!

Satnam: The Tabla, was the only instrument that would get added after the body of the song had been completed, except for "Kervah Swings", that was written around the Tabla groove. So, I put a pass of the Tabla tracks down, and away we went. Rodney's acoustic grand piano solos were also all improvised in the studio. We then added all the live auxiliary percussion, which added a lot of ambience. So, to me...It wasn't like a conscious effort to add electronics, or acoustic sounds, or adding electronic effects to acoustic instruments. They would blend automatically! For me, it was just having a semblance of a tune together. In that, we could hear where sound sculpting would take form and shape. Kind of like laying the foundation down, then building upon that...How many times do you hear that one? (LOL) In my humble opinion sound is sound... whether it's electronically derived, or acoustically derived. They may have different timbres, and certain timbres will not mix. However, they are both sounds, acoustic and electronic. Having these particular electronic, and acoustic sounds and instruments on the same palette, allows you freedoms that we never had before. It's totally a learning process too. By having so many "colours" to choose from, we were able to discern, as to what works and what does not.
"In my humble opinion sound is sound... whether it's electronically derived, or acoustically derived" - Satnam Ramgotra
Jamie: I have a sort of related question to my last one... You are both obviously top notch players and I would imagine you could play brilliantly for days. But being a great player doesn't always translate into making a great record -- which is what I feel Music For Aliens is. How did you avoid the "trap" of making a player/musician's album and instead create a record which is listenable on many levels and by a diverse audience?
Satnam: First of all. Thanks for the praise for this CD Jamie! It's always hard to put into words how those kind words, and thoughts elevate ones spirit!

Music For Aliens, that name is inspired from the US INS (immigration naturalization service) classification of all us humans! whether you are an ILLEGAL ALIEN, LEGAL ALIEN, CITIZEN ALIEN, or a NON-RESIDENT ALIEN. We are classified as ALIENS. The ALIEN theme tied in very well, with myself and Rodney's fascination with the outer worlds!! With that being said, the whole goal was to produce a CD that could reach everyone, and that it would be based around our true passions, both musically, sonically, and unattached to the idea of "trying be different, for different sake" type of recording. In several of our meetings prior to the actual composing, and recording of the CD, we had conversations about how we did not want this to be a "player/musician's" recording...we would save that for the live show! ;) Rodney, had to tone me down a bit when it came to drum solos. The Billy Cobham, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Omar Hakim, in me was really wanting to get out! But, for what? In the end, to us, it is about the song...And if the song as a whole, is not the focal point...then, what is the point? At least, for this recording project.

Rodney: I would also say that we got a little lucky and hit the nail on the head on our first recording. As Satnam said, we did make a conscious effort to avoid the "trap". We tried to make sure that we had a compelling piece of music BEFORE we added the improvisations. However, we also agreed that while in the improvisational moments we would not hold back. We did not want to venture into the lite smooth jazz arena. So much of jazz music is only about the improvisation, but we actually wrestled with the concept of what type of improvisation the particular piece was demanding from us. We really let the music dictate where the improv should go.

Even though this was our approach, there were no guarantees as to what the end result would be. As you know, when you enter the recording studio it is a little like entering a vacuum. The rest of the world disappears and time sort of gets suspended. As in you start recording sometime in the afternoon, and you can't believe that it's already 1 am!

Once we had finished the record, we really had no idea whether anyone would dig it. We only knew that we liked it. Only after we began playing it for people did we realize that the music was communicating across borders and genres. We would give it to people and only say, "Check this out and let me know what you think". And they would always ask, "Well what is it"? And we would say, "Well, we actually don't know". Just listen to it and tell us what YOU think. We were actually surprised that no one really felt like it was a world/jazz album!! It's a real boost to have people hear our music and simply appreciate it on an emotional/artistic level. For me, that's what the creative process is all about .. when technique transcends the intellectual and touches people on a deeper level.
"In the end, to us, it is about the song." - Satnam Ramgotra

"We tried to make sure that we had a compelling piece of music BEFORE we added the improvisations." - Rodney Lee
Jamie: My favourite records have all had at least a little of: "What is it?". For me, many of the "best" records out there don't fit easily into any one category. I have to say I would have a hard time defining Music For Aliens too...

I've never seen your live show -- you've got to make a trek to Toronto! How do you play Alien Chatter pieces in a live setting? I would imagine, in addition to the both of you, you would have either a band, laptop/tracks or a combination of the two, but I could be completely wrong... Do you make any changes to the compositions -- longer solo sections, different intros, etc?
Satnam: Uniqueness, in my opinion, is something on the rise, and fall. One of our goals as a recording duo, is to perform live as a duo. Currently, we run tracks on a Roland VS 1680, then depending on the song, I'll either predominantly play Drums or Tabla, sometimes switching in the middle of a song to do a Tabla solo, then back to the drum kit. For the most part, the songs are the same as they are on the CD. A few live changes here and there. For example, on "Sagittarius A", the track actually doesn't start until half way through the Tabla Solo, and the intro to the entire show begins with the poem on "Sagittarius A" right into "Kervah Swings". We are limited in being able to free form, because of the way the VS 1680 operates.

However, we just signed on with M-Audio, and they have a program called "Ableton Live" that (if you're not familiar with it), can run on a laptop, and can give you all the freedom you could want from running loops, to taking extended solos, to creating live loops -- on the fly! This is something that is very exciting to me, and I can't wait to do our next show!!

Being that we are a duo, we are also aware of the visual aspect to the show. We have been experimenting with different things. Full on light shows, with & without 'intelligent' lights, to projections, and now trying to find the right balance of all those elements that still remains cost efficient.

M-Audio also has a program that lets you program a whole video projection show, as well as project live images and tweak those on the fly! Can you tell I'm excited about our M-Audio union!! Anyway... watch out, because we're comin'!! Jamie, we'd love to do a show in Toronto! Can you make that happen? ;)
"Uniqueness, in my opinion, is something on the rise, and fall." - Satnam Ramgotra
Jamie: If I had a venue, I'd have booked you yesterday! Still, I'd love to someday start up a great-music-that's-not-really-categorizable-but-lots-of-people-would-dig festival and Alien Chatter would definitely be on the bill. Might have to do a bit of work on the name of the festival though : )

I can see why you're so pumped up about the M-Audio stuff. I've heard great things about "Ableton Live", but I didn't know they had a program that could do so much with video. I think one of the many advantages of modern technology is that it allows a project to retain a small band "feel" with a large textural palette.

One subject that's come up lately in this artist-to-artist conversation series is the state of the music industry. After your last answer, I went back to take a look at your web site, and I noticed that you guys were in the Top Ten for sales for the month of March on CD Baby (congrats!). So what do you say to the people saying that no one is buying CD's anymore? And as a secondary question, how do you feel the industry will look in 2010?
Rodney: I don't think that anyone can dispute that CD sales are down and that free downloads are up. And I also think that we can all agree that the homogenous sound that the major record companies are trying to sell is at an all time high. I see the major labels now in the same light as I see McDonalds. Sure they sell a lot of burgers, but that does not mean that they are the best and only burgers. And this is true for the music industry as well. There will always be a sort of "fast food" aspect to the pop charts. There is nothing wrong with that, and we find ourselves secretly liking a pop song from time to time. ( i.e. I hate to admit it, but the new Britney Spear's song "Toxic" is quite catchy! ) The problem now is that this is the only thing being served by the major labels. Gone are the days of artist development and music that serves a greater purpose than just stuffing the pockets of shareholders. In addition, I believe that the average consumer is more likely to download the latest pop star's hit because they are constantly bombarded with info on how rich the stars are. We always see reports of how the top pop stars are just raking it in.

That being said, I think that the true music fan is still out there. And they search for their music not on the pop charts or pop radio, but on-line, at live venues, internet radio, and a host of alternative sources. Our sales received a boost in March simply because we were featured on an NPR program called "The Savvy Traveler", and listeners actually visited our site and bought our record!! This is very encouraging to me.... some folks are just not satisfied with a Big Mac ;) The true music fan does not have a problem supporting artists. The trick is in how to reach them. This is the battle ground for all independent artists.....finding your audience!! There are no short cuts for this. Just years and years of hard work. That's why Ani DiFranco is my hero. She exists and PROSPERS entirely outside of the music industry with complete control of her creative output!!

It will be very interesting to see what the business will be like in 2010 and no one really knows for sure. As long as the majors are owned by shareholders, they will only be concerned with quarterly results. This is no way to manage creative people, and as the majors are finding out it is very difficult to make money with that mindset because you are only focused on the current quarter with little concern for the future. Labels use to have a certain part of their roster that was dedicated to important music that might not necessarily result in huge sales, but would add to a label's prestige and would in turn attract up and coming talent.

In addition, these albums and artists would usually have a long shelf life that would generate income for years to come long after the financial books had been closed (i.e. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue). It used to be that every label had the equivalent of a Pink Floyd or a Radiohead, but that is no longer the norm, and I hardly think that Britney's records are going to hold any catalog value when her run is over. And the trend is to attract similar artists ala "American Idol". I'm hoping that in 2010 we will see something similar to what was going on in the seventies: A lot of smaller labels that are more concerned with the music. The majors will still be around to pick up those artists from the indie labels who show financial promise, but the heart of the music business will return to the music and the music fan .... perhaps I'm dreaming ;)

One other possibility will be that the shareholders will dump their music divisions in the way that Time/Warner sold Warner Brothers Records to private investors. This would definitely return us to a seventies music business environment. However, it is just too soon to tell whether Warner Brothers Records will figure out how to survive before the money runs out.

As you can see, I could go on and on about this topic, and I hope that I am not sounding bitter because I'm not. I'm actually very optimistic about the future. I just think that artists should know what they are up against so they know how to plan and work the system.
"... I think that the true music fan is still out there." - Rodney Lee
Jamie: You don't sound bitter at all and I think you make a number of really excellent points! Obviously, there are huge changes going on in the industry and how those changes are going to play out isn't, at least at this point, totally clear. I'm not sure the executives at the majors have a solution to the current malaise, but if I was in their shoes, I don't know if I'd have one either. As you say, it would be a difficult challenge to create something of lasting quality if you were focused (and maybe in some cases solely focused) on quarterly results.

I also think your comment that for independents there really are no short cuts -- just years of hard work -- sounds right to me. Does Alien Chatter have a particular marketing/business "path"? Are you primarily concentrating on alternative marketing/business (i.e. net, on-line radio, on-line CD/download sales) to get the word out about your music?
Rodney: Initially, yes. Those outlets are certainly the ones that are the easiest to get to. We also hired a PR firm that worked our CD from November through February. They were instrumental in getting our internet presence way up. They also helped us get quite a few college radio interviews here in the LA area. I learned from releasing a previous CD on my own that you should focus on your home city/state first before trying to reach the world. So we specifically instructed our PR company to focus on LA. We are still trying to obtain press coverage in the major LA news outlets such as The LA Times and The LA Weekly, but that is a much harder nut to crack. This is where the perseverance comes in.

In addition, the Holy Grail of indie radio promotion in LA is the college radio station KCRW. Since Satnam and I had performed many times on-air at the station with other acts, we assumed that it would be easy to get airplay for our own project. Boy were we wrong!! But I feel a break through is coming as long as we keep playing and inviting the DJ's out to our shows. We also keep them up to date with a short news brief on our successes from time to time. So we feel that the ball is rolling, but we're also finding that it quickly comes to a dead stop as soon as we turn our heads.

The next step for us is to get to San Francisco and try to get the same things in place there. We're working on getting a date booked now. And finally, we are constantly searching for managers/booking agents/recording deals. We could use as much help as we can get and by getting the ball rolling on our own, we're hoping that we'll be able to attract a powerful manager and booking agent that can get us to the next level
"One thing is for sure and that is we are really excited about making a new record." - Rodney Lee
Jamie: I think it's interesting (and a bit depressing) that you've run into the same challenges for hometown artists that Canadians musicians (and actors, directors, etc.) have to face. I've had more than a few people tell me that to develop a career inside of Canada, I should first develop a career outside of Canada. Maybe getting things going in San Francisco will help you guys out in LA.

Your last answer sort of "stole" my next question: What's up next for Alien Chatter? I hope, although it's selfish on my part, that you're working on some new material!
Rodney: We are in the brainstorming phase of working on new material .. tossing ideas around about where to go next. We will seriously start working on new material late this summer and through the fall with a spring of 2005 release date. Satnam will be playing with Nikka Costa this fall so we will be getting together in between our busy schedules.

One thing is for sure and that is we are really excited about making a new record. And we'll continue to make records as long as that excitement prevails.
Jamie: That sounds great -- can't wait to hear some new Alien Chatter tunes! Thanks to both of you for taking the time to do this conversation and please stay in touch!
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