Totally wired for the Soundation experience – talking Bhajan Bhoy with Ajay Saggar

Holland-based musical maverick Ajay Saggar may have been locked down in recent weeks with partner Yoke and their 20-year-old son Arun, a University of Amsterdam student. But don’t think for one moment he’s been twiddling his thumbs since his last overseas tour in the winter.

We last swapped messages in late January when he was driving around the UK and Europe with musical partner Merinde Verbeek as Deutsche Ashram, supporting cult US indie act Giant Drag, in what he now looks back on as an ‘increasingly surreal time … the virus creeping up on us’.

That now feels like a world away though, and he was busy in his Soundation studio when we spoke this week, just ‘a couple of minutes’ cycle ride away’ from his home in Krommenie, north Holland, working on a University Challenged album project with Amsterdam-based Kohhei Matsuda (Bo Ningen) and King Champion Sounds bandmate Oli Heffernan, a few live dates together followed by the trio recording 10 tracks, three of which were premiered last week on The Watt From Pedro, a US radio show hosted by Mike Watt (of Minutemen, Firehose, and The Stooges fame). Ajay hopes to have the rest finished within a week, promising ‘an absolutely stonkingly-good record’ and suggesting a ‘certain label from Preston’ might be interested in putting it out.

Maybe he meant the Concrète label, of which he’s a fan, but he was wearing an Action Records T-shirt, so I suspect Preston record shop/label founder Gordon Gibson will be getting a call. And Ajay’s also been working on a new King Champion Sounds LP and produced and mixed an Ivan the Tolerable album in June, set for release in August, the latter featuring the aforementioned Oli Heffernan and Mike Watt.

As this was a video interview, he also gave me a virtual tour of his studio, built within another unit and including several great posters from live shows he’s been involved with over the years, where either he played with the main act, supported them, or carried out sound engineering duties.

Those artists include Kraftwerk, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Mogwai, and The Fall, this former Lancaster University student based in Manchester while playing with cult Preston indie act Dandelion Adventure, a band that recorded a session for BBC broadcasting legend John Peel in the late ‘80s.

In fact, two days after we spoke, he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first Peel session being aired. Recorded at Maida Vale in mid-May ‘90, it was a defining moment for this self-proclaimed thrashadelic outfit, Kenya-born Ajay on ‘bass and yodelling’ in a band fronted by further friend of this website Marcus Parnell.

Listening back this week – and what a joy it is to hear John Peel talking between tracks, in this case slightly distracted by Italia ’90 and the antics of the ‘whingeing’ Diego Maradona – that session certainly stands the test of time, and led to dates with My Bloody Valentine. And that from an outfit already touring with Action Records labelmates The Boo Radleys and with their Puppy Shrine mini-LP and ‘Jinxs Truck’ six-track 12” already out.

You can read more about Dandelion Adventure in this September 2016 feature, with contributions from both Marcus and Ajay, the latter going on to join members of The Inca Babies to form Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing the band in our first interview as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. And that’s some meeting.

But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’, and he’s remained there ever since … give or take the odd European, UK or North American tour, having also  travelled the world as a sound engineer for several bands before starting work at the Paradiso in Amsterdam around a decade ago, in a production management role these days, serving as a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300 or so staff.

His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with Holland-based band Donkey, leading to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own, ‘driven by necessity’, telling me he was unable to afford studio engineers so did it himself. From there he was asked to help out Glasgow outfit Bis with their sound, and ‘before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end’, never looking back, working with fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, Atlanta’s Cat Power, Massachusetts’ Dinosaur Jr., Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Iceland’s Múm, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine, and many more.

These days, he’s certainly no less inspired about his music and various projects, also recently working back alongside Dandelion Adventure bandmate Marcus in The Common Cold. And right now Ajay, who spent his first 11 years in East Africa before his family – of Indian descent – settled in Yorkshire, is celebrating the release of his first truly solo project under the name Bhajan Bhoy, with debut LP Bless Bless self-recorded, self-mixed and self-produced at Soundation Studio, mastered by Helmut Erler in Berlin and manufactured in his adopted Netherlands in Haarlem. Is this something he’s worked on over the lockdown?

“It was something that came into my head about a year ago, and I’d already had this idea of doing something solo. It was something I felt I had to do myself as I was very particular about where I wanted to go with it.  Then a chance came to do a show at OCCII in Amsterdam and I got in touch with the promoter to put me on as a support act. That went really well and after that I opened for J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) in a bigger venue in town. That was a really cool show and thereafter I decided to turn those songs into proper tracks in my studio and put out a record.

“That summer I was busy with a Deutsche Ashram album, and had also been working with King Champion Sounds, but by October I dived into this and was in this studio every single day.”

So did you lock yourself down before the lockdown?

“Well, I had to go to work, but in the evenings I’d just lock myself away there, and when I could be here I’d stay all day, doing that for two or three months, recording and mixing it all here, then got it mastered in Berlin. It was all done and dusted by December, and I kept listening to back to it, and every time I listened, I’d fall into a trance, thinking it was so, so good, totally hypnotised by the music. And at the same time hearing new stuff within it. Usually, when I finish an album, I can’t listen back to it, having been so involved with the whole project. But this time, I’d go on a 10K run, put it on my headphones, and think, ‘Damn! This is really good’.

Bhoy Wonder: Ajay proudly displays a copy of Bless Bless, the debut LP from Bhajan Bhoy (Photo: Gideon Smit)

Subsequently, he sent it to a few labels he trusted and felt would get it, and in one case a US label were very interested but had too much on, as was the case with Mogwai and their own label. So …

“In the end I was like, ‘Bugger it, I’m gonna do it myself!”

I guess you’ve been moving that way anyway, and the Deutsche Ashram project is not far off a solo project, but for Merinde’s wondrous contributions.

“Yeah, I pretty much do everything apart from the singing, so that process sat quite well with me. Even though it involved an enormous amount of work. And I knew where I wanted to go and how to achieve it. And I’ve got all the tools here, around me.”

Ajay’s studio is within premises which have served as a rehearsal space for his various projects for at least a quarter of a century. And as he tells me that, I mention the timber I see above his head and he tells me how he produced an album for a carpenter who regularly dropped by, in exchange for him building his new studio.

“There’s a whole group of us who rehearse here. We did it all up ourselves. When we lost our other space here to a timber yard, I was working at home, but that wasn’t working, so I went to the foreman of this whole industrial estate, told him what we needed, ad he allowed us this space within.”

The latest Bhajan Bhoy track doing the rounds is not on the album, recorded since and given away for free via Bandcamp, uploaded on the day of the LP’s release. It’s a tribute to Maryland-born cult musician Robbie Basho, who died at just 45 in 1986 in California, acclaimed for his finger-picking guitar technique, influenced heavily by sarod playing and studies with Indian virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan.

“I only recorded that three weeks ago. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years, but had never seen any live footage, but found online two songs he did on this US arts programme. Then Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai told me a film was made a couple of years ago, I tracked it down, watched it one Saturday night, and was blown away by his life story.

Dandelion Days: A 1989 shot of Ajay during Manchester-based Dandelion Adventure days (Photo: Richard Davis)

“I’d started on a new track but couldn’t get that out of my head. That took me into a totally different mindset. I scrapped that, started afresh and made this track, which evolved in a really beautiful, organic way. And for me it’s reflection on his life, the beauty of his music and what he gave to the world. He had mental and physical issues, and that’s reflected in the track, or how I saw it.”

When not at home or in his studio these days, chances are that Ajay’s commuting 20 minutes into Amsterdam by train, cycling to the station and then from his destination to The Paradiso. At present, there are still restrictions on the venue, a room holding 1,500 now having to cater for a maximum of 30, sticking to numbered seats, grabbing a drink on the way in, and so on.

“The last couple of Sundays we’ve done shows for the public, with a band playing on the dancefloor and the audience on the balcony looking down.”

Ajay also managed to get five live performances of his own over the last week, starting with an afternoon radio session in Gouda followed that evening by a performance in a Rotterdam café/bar ‘run by a total music-head’.

“He could only get 11 people in there. It was really nice though, with everyone around me as I played in a corner in this beautiful little bar.”

I see there were also three back-to-back sell-outs at OCCII in Amsterdam.

“Oh, totally!”

And those Saturday shows were followed by a Sunday early evening show at a thrift store very close to his own patch in Wormerweer. And can he see a time where he’s back playing in the UK, touring this LP?

“I really want to, and really want people to hear this record. It’s uplifting, and interestingly, at these shows I’ve done everyone comes specifically for the music, not just for the craic, a chit-chat, to get drunk then go home. Attention is really focused on what you’re doing and what you’re giving them. At the end of my set, after a long fade-out, one of the last notes played … I never look at the audience. I’ve got my head and my hair down, full focused …”

Bar None: Ajay Sagar lets loose with his electric guitar in his first Bhajan Bhoy Bless Bless live engagement, playing Koffie & Ambacht in Rotterdam (Photo: Hoi Hoi)

Still shoegazing after all these years?

“Yeah, but the times I’ve looked up at the end of the set, I’ve seen people in the audience with their eyes closed, on a different planet. It’s been amazing. I also have a film running behind me, which I’ve made from old archive and footage, which really goes with the music. And a lot of people are really complimentary about the visual aspect of the show as well.”

He’s been down that road before, and I saw a fantastic show at The Continental in Preston in 2017 where King Champion Sounds played with cult 1929 Ukrainian film Man with a Movie Camera playing behind them.

A social media post from the day of his OCCII return further underlined his enthusiasm for the Bhajan Bhoy project and a feeling of optimism at restrictions being lifted to allow small-scale shows to happen again in Holland. He wrote, “The main thing I think people gained from these shows was hope. A chance to look beyond the restrictions that have been enforced on everyone and a glimmer of hope that we are very, very slowly turning the tide and can maybe see a way out of the darkness. Playing these shows was really special.’

He added, ‘As an artist you feel under extra pressure, but it’s also a great source of energy to know people are with you on your musical journey, which in turn helps you raise your game. There’s a sense of freedom in the room as people leave their lives behind for an hour or so and sink into the music, and musicians feel fully open to express themselves to an audience who give their entire attention to the music. Live music gives energy to all and judging by the conversations I had with audience members after the shows, these gigs were very much appreciated. I’ve never played gigs under these kind of restrictions, but we made it work collectively. Kudos to the people who work at the venues / radio station for taking on the challenge to bring the music to the people. I’m planning on doing as many shows as are possible in the coming weeks and months, hopefully seeing more smiling faces. Onwards and upwards!’

At this point we talk about what he calls his ‘arsenal’ of musical instruments in the studio, not just his guitars but organs and much more, some bought in India, others in Japan, and another virtual tour follows, stopping for a while to show me the original Fall keyboard, dating back to around 1981/82, when Marc Riley was still with them, a story following from Ajay’s days rehearsing with Hound God at The Boardwalk in Manchester.

“You’d have A Certain Ratio in the room opposite, then Happy Mondays, and Oasis came later, and The Fall had their own room at the end. But when they left, they chucked out a bunch of stuff, and when we finished rehearsing one night, I was like, ‘What!’ and immediately grabbed that. Steve Hanley’s bass cabinet was there too. Also … can you see those drumsticks?”

He’s off again now, taking his screen with him, showing me a set of sticks.

“They were Karl Burns’, from when The Fall played Clitheroe Castle, organised by Steve Barker for On the Wire (BBC Radio Lancashire).”

That was in mid-June ’85. In fact, while transcribing my notes a day after our chat, I realised it was 35 years ago to the very day. Spooky.

“It was this legendary show, and I’d hitched down from Lancaster with a friend. I was at university there. We met up with loads of other Fall-heads from Manchester and all over. There were around 3,000 people there, and what seemed like two policemen on duty. It was amazing. I was up at the front, and after the gig – courage on my side – as they were playing on a bandstand, I made a dash behind to this little marquee they set up instead of a dressing room. And the first person I saw was Karl, chugging on a tin of lager. I asked him for a drumstick as a souvenir, telling him how much I loved the band. He was just laughing, saying ‘Ah, no, they’re quite expensive.’ But when I left, I just jumped on the stage, grabbed those drumsticks and ran off!

“The thing was that Mark (E. Smith) had his hands on the wallet, and every week they’d have to go around his house or flat, and if they wanted new gear, apparently he was super-tight. So I don’t think he’d have been too willing to give away too many drumsticks!”

Funnily enough, an online discussion about that Clitheroe Castle show revealed it was David Chambers’ first Fall gig, the original drummer for General Havoc and Cornershop, later with Formula One and The Wandering Step, also featuring with Ajay and Marcus in The Common Cold.

Back to Bhajan Bhoy though, and I see Ajay’s been out and about on his bike hand-delivering copies of Bless Bless around Amsterdam these last few weeks. And among the early owners of the vinyl on this side of the North Sea were … well, did I spot a photo of your parents proudly clutching a copy?

“Yeah!”

They’re not still waiting for that day when you might get a proper job, are they?”

“They’re just happy that I have got a job, and while it’s music-related they know I’ve got a routine, there’s income coming in and a roof over our heads. We had to go the long way around to get there in the end, having dropped everything after university in Lancaster, having been in Manchester and on the dole, watching The Membranes and playing with Dandelion Adventure. There was no sign of any future, but I knew what I wanted.”

Live Presence: Ajay’s head down, no nonsense kosmiche guitar psych kicks in (Photo: Matthew Stewart Hunter)

It was a little early at time of going to press for a full-blown review from me of Bless Bless, but I’ve loved what I’ve heard so far, and there’s been lots of traction, not least with songs being played by Gideon Coe, a great supporter of Ajay’s recent projects, on his BBC 6 Music evening radio show.

And in lieu of that review, I’ll take on board the official description of a ‘wondrous and beautiful album filled with kosmische guitar psych magick / sonic raga trips / melodic mantras / esoteric electronica that thrill and elevate the listener to a higher sonic plain. The music reaches out to the stars in the same vein if Popol Vuh jammed with John Fahey, Terry Riley, and Robin Guthrie, to produce a beautiful soundscape in which the listener can sink into and float downstream.’

Along the way, Ajay collaborates with Prana Crafter (‘the musical mystic that is William Sol’) on ‘Strung Out’ and Holly Habstritt Gaal on ‘Cascade’, and the afore-mentioned Steve Barker classes it as  ‘the best thing that Ajay has released’, while J. Mascis calls it a ‘killer album’. And I won’t argue with that assessment.

There’s more to come too, and shortly after we spoke, he gave me an update, adding, “I’m playing in someone’s allotment this Sunday, for the solstice – a beautiful place, big garden, tiny house. She’s inviting friends, and I’m gonna play at 9pm for them in the open air. Then there’s an in-store record shop event in Haarlem the week after, with more gigs in July.”

Before I let him go, I mentioned to Ajay a Kraftwerk at the Paradiso poster from 2015 I spotted behind him as we were speaking, Van Gogh looking at me, no doubt thinking I’d make a good subject for a portrait.

“All the posters I have here are all for shows I’ve been involved with. I did eight shows of theirs (Kraftwerk) in a row in the Paradiso. I was doing the production on that and we had to strip everything for them as part of the deal. I went to see their show in Paris and talked to them about what they wanted. We took out the PA, all the stage and all the lights, and they brought everything. We were working three days and three nights getting their stuff up and running. Their main man told me they’d played there before, and I said I know, I’d heard the bootleg – brilliant. He said they’d just recorded Trans-Europe Express (1977), played the songs from that album here, recorded it, then went back to their studio, listened back and tweaked the album mix, based on that.”

And with that, he’s twisting the camera around again, showing me more.

“Then there’s Dinosaur Jr – I was involved with them and toured with them for the first couple of years, and this was from when they reformed and came back again … in 2005. Wow, 15 years ago now. I was behind that, as I was working with J. (Mascis) and Lou (Barlow). There’s also The Fall and Country on the Click, released on Action Records (2003). Mark (ex-bandmate Marcus Parnell) did the artwork for that.

“Mogwai – I toured with them, and this show was at The Fillmore in San Francisco, where I was totally blown away that I was there in the same venue as loads of my favourite bands. That night I drove the volume up so high that … there was this hippie curtain behind me and at the end of the show the in-house guy lifted it and the wall had collapsed there, from the sound pressure. So I was running around with bits of the Fillmore, giving it out to people, telling them it was a bit of history!

“Cat Power – I organised their very first European tour; and Múm – I worked with for many years; Animal collective – another band I worked with for many years, and they released a live double album last year, which were all my recordings; and Sebadoh – that was a US tour with The Bent Moustache, my band at the time.”

I should add that there’s also a big poster of a line-up of his beloved Amsterdam football team, Ajax, and another for Steve Barker’s On the Wire show, his Lancashire links clearly never forgotten, our Man with a Movie Camera having come full circle now … in more ways than one.

Soundation Stage: Ajay Saggar in his studio in the Netherlands, ready for sonic adventure (Photo: José Pietens)

Bhajan Bhoy’s Bless Bless LP, on the splendidly-titled Wormer Bros. Records, is out now, with details via this Bandcamp link. You can also keep in touch via the Bhajan Bhoy Facebook page. 

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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