Mixdown gets to chat to none other than Steve Chandra Savale of Asian Dub Foundation, the seminal electronic group from London, whose sound is described as ‘ragga meets sitar, dub meets bhangra and punk rock meets hip-hop.’ With their intense focus on politics and social change, singing about issues such as racism, immigration and family violence, the UK’s Asian Dub Foundation is set to close this year’s Womadelaide on Monday March 15 in their individual rapcore/dub/dancehall/ragga style. Does Savale think of himself as an activist? “I’m more of an educationalist. I work with ideas. I get ideas across to people who might not have otherwise think like that.”
We have to ask Savale about his David Bowie moment – Asian Dub Foundation were asked by Bowie to perform at his Meltdown Festival in the UK in 2002. “He came to see us, two nights in a row in 1997,” says Savale. “We were his favourite Community Music band. He’d also asked us to work with him and tour with him but nothing came of it. The band on the whole were quite ambivalent about at the time.” Sorry – what? “I know! The only two people in the world who don’t like Bowie were in the band; I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t like him.” Savale says he was intensely engaged with Bowie’s music at a very young age. “He had a huge influence on me personally. Before I was even 13 I was listening to him. I was the only one in the band who had a Bowie period in their life.” Contrary to the normal order of things, Asian Dub Foundation’s music seems to have influenced Bowie, rather than the other way round. “People said Bowie’s album Earthling was influenced by us,” notes Savale. (1997’s Earthling was Bowie’s twentieth studio album of electronica-influenced music partly inspired by the industrial and drum and bass music culture of the 1990s.)
The music Asian Dub Foundation performed for Bowie at the Meltdown Festival was their live score to French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovit’s cult classic, La Haine, a project that has been wildly successful for the band and which they’re still performing, unchanged,15 years on. Director Kassovit was in the audience that night and was ecstatic with what he heard and made a point of meeting the band after the show. “He was jumping around in his seat.” remembers Savale. Yet the La Haine live score was something that came about almost accidentally. “The La Haine project came from an off-the-cuff remark that became set in stone,” Savale continues. “We’d been collaborating with an avant-garde classical composer and that wasn’t working. We were going to play for a festival at the Barbican, Only Connect which was old films, new music, in 2001 where DJs played music to films; had this insane idea of an insane experiment doing a live soundtrack to a film in front of an audience. What film would ADF do? La Haine. Such a significant and innovative film. And that was it. We had three weeks to create it and we pulled it off. No-one had done anything like this before, not to a film like La Haine. We’re still doing that project; it’s been kickstarted again by Secret Cinema doing live cinematic experiences. We performed it again at Broadwater Farm in front of thousands and thousands of people. It got a new lease of life up north which took us by surprise.”
“We don’t fit the predictable mould or pattern of what a band should do,” Savale muses. “We break the rules. We’re the band that does things in reverse. Projects that we plan out are least likely to happen. Most of the things that have got us somewhere are unpredictable or unplanned. Like the Bowie thing – he came to see us; we didn’t go to see him. And meeting Iggy Pop in Croatia. He just came up to me and said ‘I’m Jim; pleased to meet you.’ He was still with the Stooges then; he rang my house! I thought ‘what the fuck! I’m still gaga about that.’"
Whatever Asian Dub Foundation is doing, it works for them. The band were nominated for 1998’s Mercury Prize, an annual music prize awarded for the best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland, for their album for Rafi’s Revenge. They’ve toured with The Beastie Boys, performed with Primal Scream, and as well as Iggy Pop, they’ve collaborated with Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood, with Sinead O’Connor on 1000 Mirrors, among many others. “We’ve done a lot of amazing collaborations,” notes Savale, who says he’s still reeling from the experience of working with legendary sound maestro Walter Murch on a reworking of the score to George Lucas’s THX 1138. “The music is really out there; it really pushed our limits. Walter Murch came on stage with us. This is the guy who recorded the helicopter sound for Apocalypse Now. He did the sound for The Godfather. For me, personally, it’s hard to top that; it’s really something else. We never thought we’d get permission but we put it out there and lo and behold George Lucas himself gave us the go-ahead. I didn’t think it we could even get to communicate with George Lucas but he answered us and gave us the green light.”