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Interview: Asian Dub Foundation

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Misunderstood, fiercely political, unpredictable and unleashing an incendiary new album.
Danielle Goldstein caught up with.....Asian Dub Foundation

The dub-punk opera, Gaddafi: A Living Myth, was soundtracked by Asian Dub Foundation. La Haine and The Battle of Algiers both got the honour of reworked soundtracks by the band. And let’s not forget the campaign they ran to free Saptal Ram after he was imprisoned for defending himself in a racial attack. 

ADF are a band known for their political statements through music and movements, but for their sixth studio album, Punkara, they want you to know that they were just having a bit of fun. So it’s somewhat surprising when I walk in on Chandrasonic, aka Steve Chandra Savale, aka the backbone of ADF, interviewing the left wing novelist and political campaigner, Tariq Ali.

“Stop The War thought that [it would be] a good thing to have musicians interviewing great radicals and thinkers,” says Steve almost absentmindedly as he fingers the droplets on his glass, “and Tariq Ali seemed to be the obvious choice.”

As well as Stop The War, Steve has been moonlighting with renowned Arabic news agency Al Jazeera on a programme called ‘Music of Resistance’, looking at groups around the world whose music is effecting social change.

 

“Were you planning to talk about music at some point?” he asks rather impatiently but with an awkward smile. His face expresses exhaustion in the serious, activist side of ADF. “Once you get tagged, especially in Britain, it’s hard to shake it off. We either get praised for being this politicised drum and bass, punky, Indian band or we get slagged for it. We’re not allowed to have any nuances.” And so we drop the politics and focus on Punkara in the making – shootings in McDonald’s, personal frictions and Iggy Pop.

It’s been 15 years since ADF formed at the Community Music House in Farringdon, London and a lot has happened in those years. For one, they’ve been through five singers and two bass players.

“That’s not that much,” Steve grins. “We’re not The Fall…not yet.”

They’ve played with the Beastie Boys, Primal Scream and Radiohead - to name but a few - and have been praised by pop know-it-all, Madonna. But it’s the three years since their last album, Tank that has spawned this change in direction. “We just decided to change the way we do things in a couple of areas. [Punkara] is less polemical, there’s more humour in there, a lot more fun than previous albums.” There’s also more live instrumentation, less MCing, more singing, a few instrumentals and a couple of personal tracks.

“Because we have to challenge ourselves, we can’t keep doing the same thing musically and lyrically. That’s built into the ADF DNA. Obviously there are tracks that are about things, like world leaders on drugs (‘Altered Statesmen’), the rise of India in this decade (‘Superpower’), guns in Brixton (‘Target Practice’), which is where I live,” he says. Can we assume this is from personal experience? “Well, I was going to pick up my girlfriend from the Ritzy Cinema after two people had been shot in McDonald’s.”

 
As well as an alternative version to ‘S.O.C.A’ with Gogol Bordello’s Eugen Hutz, Punkara also boasts a Bhangra cover of ‘No Fun’ by The Stooges with vocals from Iggy. They met last year at a festival in Croatia and Iggy obviously took a liking to them. “I sent in the demo and he phoned my house. He said,” and here he puts on a rough Midwestern American accent, “‘Ah’ve been listenin’ to the demos Chandra, and ah jus’ got a speedin’ ticket.’ All that was a good laugh, and yet we still get people saying, ‘Oh they’re going on about politics,’ when it’s quite obvious that it’s just us having a laugh.” Clearly stigmatised by political branding, Chandrasonic moves quickly on to the darker side of ADF and the years they spent in a rut.

“We’ve been together for 15 years, there’s going to be a period when things aren’t quite right,” he says sternly. “From the end of 2004 to the middle of 2007 there was a lot of internal friction in the group, a lot of nastiness. There were some pretty disastrous personal relationship breakdowns and also the discovery that one of the vocalists was a criminal. If you’ve been around as long as we have you’re bound to go through some shit like that. The question is whether you can walk through the fire and come out of it alive, and we have done.”

He sounds triumphant, and rightly so. He shies away from talking about the wayward member, but in early 2007 MC Spex was asked to leave the band and Aktar ‘Aktarvator’ Ahmed returned to sing, followed by ex-King Prawn front man, Al Rumjen.

“From summer last year we knew we were starting in a good place again. Then we did some amazing shows in Japan that brought everybody’s confidence back up. And we did an amazing first date of the French tour, so everyone is really fired up, and the audience responds to that.”

 
Now ADF are embarking on a huge European tour that’ll take them to the end of December, but among the dates sits only one British show in Camden, London. How will their audience respond to that?

“Britain can be really hard. It’s all about whether you’re easily moulded into a particular perspective that the press or the music industry are taking at the moment. Yeah, it’s a bummer, but if promoters think ADF’s star has fallen then they won’t pay as much to get us up there and financially we can’t do it. Whereas, if we go to France or Japan or Spain” - Chandra sounds genuinely disappointed that they can’t reach more of Britain as he carries on. “I know there’re loads of fans out there, but we have to be asked to play and we have to make sure that they’re at a rate we can afford. ADF doesn’t make that much cash.”

Aktar is also a social worker, while Babu Stormz, the bass player works as a music teacher when ADF aren’t touring.

“It’s not easy to sustain a group like [ADF],” explains Steve. “We cross boundaries quite a lot. That’s something that’s not, at the moment, considered such a great thing. You’re either in hip hop or rap or you’re a band of guitars. There’s not much in between, and we’re kind of in between.”

Steve has devoted almost half his life to ADF.
Now in his late thirties he thinks back to the birth of the band. “The thing about ADF,” he pauses, clears his throat and continues. “I don’t know if you know this about us, but we have the education project and a lot of young kids, well kids when they started, came through the band. A couple of them joined us as vocalists, and they’re the real article. They’re from the East End, they didn’t do that well at school and they got into gangs. But we encourage them to take part in ADF and you don’t know how that’s going to go.” Herein lies the risks that ADF have taken on these kids. They put a lot of trust in them, but it’s not always returned, and we’re brought back to the unlawful elements. “One of them turned out to be a disaster. He hadn’t left his criminal side behind. So that was a big problem that we created for ourselves through a belief that music should be more than just about your ego and be about establishing things at a grassroots level that helps people. And then, having known one member of the band for 17 or 18 years, we had a really bad fall out, which is inevitable. Not over music, over personal stuff.”

The experience, both good and bad, ads up and the band know they can only learn from it. “All these things are good. With the band’s line up now, I’ve never enjoyed it so much in my career, even in the early days. This French tour I enjoyed more than ever. I really enjoyed everybody’s company, the vibe we got onstage with each other, the personalities - there’s a really nice balance in the group that we never really had before.” Perhaps this is down to their being older and wiser? “Wiser, maybe. I don’t know where the wisdom comes in though,” he says, revealing a defiant smile. “It might be that we just don’t mind being kids again.”

 



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