Synths that sound human: Monophonik's rowdy rave music channels the uncertainty of life - Music - Mixmag
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Synths that sound human: Monophonik's rowdy rave music channels the uncertainty of life

Monophonik turns in a mix of 100% Indian subcontinent artists and talks to Aneesa Ahmed about experimental synthesis and the beauty of imperfection

  • Words: Aneesa Ahmed | Photograpghy: Hiranya Gulati & Sanah Dewan
  • 12 January 2022

Monophonik takes inspiration from the expansive capabilities of synths to create wild and unconventional sounds. Built from machine-oriented ideas, his unique soundscapes and live sets unleash the sonic potential of analogue hardware and modern day digital tools in unison. The New Delhi-based artist, real name Shatrunjai Dewan, describes this style as “free-flowing, synthesiser driven electronic music”.

Shatrunjai started experimenting with synthesis and software in his final year of high school on a copy of Logic, and purchased his first synth - a second hand Access Virus - while studying audio engineering in Singapore. The first group he was involved in was synth-pop band Paraphoniks, which he was part of for around three years, as well making his own music on the side. In 2016 he decided to start a personal music project, and Monophonik was born.

Having lived in India for most of his life, across New Delhi, Mumbai and boarding school in Dehradun, Monophonik is constantly inspired by what he describes as his “colourful” country of origin, reflecting the business and vibrancy of its culture in his music.

A big influence has been India's Magnetic Fields festival, which inspired Monophonik as an adolescent attendee, introducing him to the possibilities of electronic music and the diverse ways in which it can resonate with people. Getting booked to play at the festival in 2019 was a career landmark, and lived up to his high expectations as he performed on the idyllic setting of a palace rooftop at sunset. Internationally, labels such as Shall Not Fade and Hessle Audio are current favourites, as is Floating Points. "I really love the way he uses synthesisers to create dynamic and unpredictable sounds, it’s very random and intriguing. I like how he uses his whole set up," Monophonik says.

Read this next: A deep dive into South Asian electronic music

Since his exposure to electronic music, through finding '70s "really interesting disco hits" in dad's cassette collection, festivals, attending psytrance raves in Goa as a teen, and exploring the internet, Monophonik has been combining his classical piano and sound engineering training to pursue shapeshifting, out-there sounds. He’s self-released various projects, and has also released an EP with New Delhi-based Qilla Recordsbased Qilla Records.

Across 2019 to 2020, Monophonik lived in Leeds while studying sound engineering, where he quickly immersed himself in the city's underground electronic music scene. His upcoming EP ‘Cherry-picked’, a four-track split 12" with Naples artist Diastema, will be released this week via Reel Long Overdub, the label arm of Leeds charity party Brudenell Groove. The growling, weighty 'Sourcecode' premiered on the Mixmag SoundCloud last month.

He continues to refine his own skills as both a producer and a DJ, hosting a show on Leeds’ NARR Radio and working with the likes of Unity Radio Manchester and Boxout.fm in New Delhi.

In the Q&A below, Monophonik talks us through the dance scene in India, having unconditional support from his parents, and wanting to channel the human experience in his music. Check it out alongside his exclusive Impact mix, which features music from only Indian producers.

Can you tell us about the music and club scene in New Delhi?

There’s actually a really diverse music scene in New Delhi, but it's really interesting to me how fast the electronic music scene is growing. It’s very community-driven, there’s lots of community-started labels, collectives and radio stations — a lot of like-minded people from the city just coming together [and that is something I really like to see]. There's a lot of parties, venues that are now kind of dedicated to hosting some techno nights, jungle nights, garage nights, there's all kinds of music, And there’s a big emphasis and investment on bringing international artists over too. Every season there’s new venues which are championing new talent.

There are some restrictions in the sense that there are curfews, timelines and deadlines — for example venues can’t sell alcohol after 1:AM, and some are prohibited from hosting events past that time. But it does make people want to come out earlier as [they still want to be immersed in the music]. A lot of people involved in this scene in New Delhi are friends, it's a very close knit community and there is something special about that. Everyone always supports each other, from promoters to radio hosts to musicians, it’s really nice.

What’s your favourite event or festival that you’ve been to in India?

I would have to say Magnetic Fields, in Rajasthan. It's a really beautiful festival that happens in this 16th century palace in Rajasthan. My favourite set from this festival was a sunrise set, from like 2:AM-7:AM or something, Ben UFO b2b Four Tet. It was such a long set but it was so cool to see them have fun. I’ve seen some great sets at Magnetic fields, saw a great one by Carista, and also HAAi.

Lots of Indian artists also get to play some great sets at that festival, Arjun Vagale is one of my favourites- I’m glad to see him getting the recognition that he truly deserves. People like him really emphasise that just because [we live in India and] and we are geographically in a different area from a lot of the hotspots of the scene, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of the bigger scene and the bigger culture. We have a lot of potential in India.

Read this next: Magnetic Fields is India's glorious boutique festival

What did you listen to when you were younger, even at boarding school?

I was a big Radiohead fan, I also listened to a lot of commercial popular music like Switchfoot and Coldplay. But I made that transition into listening to a lot of electronic music while I was at school. I started going to these psytrance raves in Goa and that was inspiring. That was a huge eye-opener for me, I was like “what is this music”. A lot of it was curiosity and having curious friends. Goa is known in India for being the psytrance hub, and there’s a lot of psychedelic trance culture. I used to always hear about these parties from friends so I thought to check it out. It was so interesting, honestly. I wouldn't do that now but back then it was cool!

Then towards the end of my high-school years, India was having more international music festivals which was new to us. These artists and DJs would come down so I’d go and see them perform. I really resonated with dance music and got really captivated by the idea of using synthesisers. I met this guy in New Delhi who had a studio with lots of synthesisers, and while I was still in school I’d go and watch him work with his machinery and tweak these synths. That whole process was so captivating and intriguing.

As a Brown kid I have to ask, but how did your parents react when you were going to these psytrance raves?

Oh, I would keep it low-key! I’d just tell them that I was going out with some friends and would just like to be sneaky about it. But really I tried to keep it ambiguous. If I told them back then I was going to raves they’d just be like “what?”!

What do they think of the music thing as a whole? Being into electronic music is still quite a new concept for a lot of parents, especially Desi parents.

My parents have never really understood my music, I'm not gonna lie. They’d always ask where the vocals are, and I’d have to explain that there are no vocals. But on the contrary, I am actually quite fortunate to be in the situation where I have supportive parents. My parents are quite progressive considering they are from fairly orthodox backgrounds themselves. They’ve always been supportive of me because they know that music brings me happiness and joy and all that. They said that they’ve always seen that in me, from the early days of when I was in school. My parents have actually been to some of my gigs to share their support of that too! They’ve never told me I have to do a certain job or follow a certain path, which is what a lot of parents do tell their children. A lot of my peers and friends that I grew up with at school did go down the route of working in their family businesses and having a set path, and it’s chill for a lot of them because it works for them, but I’ve been given the chance to [figure out] what’s chill for me.

Read this next: What Do Your Parents Think?: 4 South Asian DJs share their family's reception to a music career

What drew you towards electronic music in the first place?

It was definitely the sound, I feel like it was the idea of hearing a sound that I've never heard before, and something that's new to my brain and my ears. When I’m writing music, it’s very driven by just one sound. I start playing with a sound and then mould it and let that sort of organically develop and inspire me to create a piece of music.

Who are some of your favourite producers and DJs in India right now?

A few up and coming producers and DJ's from here that are definitely worth keeping a lookout for at this time are people like Frame/Frame, Oceantied, Hiranya, Zequenx, Zokhuma, Dreamstates, Kohra, FILM, and a lot more that I'd want to name, but this is a great starting point. Also it would be worth keeping an eye out for releases from local labels like Krunk Kulture, Boxout.fm Recordings & Qilla Records — representing some of the most forward-thinking electronic music coming out of the country at the moment.

It is quite encouraging to be a part of this ever-evolving culture of electronic musicians and DJs in India, with new labels, radios, venues and festivals all coming together to support one another. I like that a lot of my friends who are DJs and producers in India have managed to find their niche and really craft out what they’re wanting to do.

When did you realise that experimental synth music was something you wanted to do for yourself?

Around 2015 I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a modular rig. While I was living in Bombay, this friend of mine had a little system, and he allowed me to just mess and play around with it. I was instantly drawn by the idea of open-ended architecture that I could [use to] express sonically what I was feeling in the moment — it allows you to mould sound into something that you often wouldn’t expect. I was inspired by these synths and the endless possibilities they had.

Back then a lot of these sounds were really new to me and I never really explored that approach to synthesis. I feel like the beauty is that you can design a system that is very specific to your approach. I built a system that was specific to me and my process, all built around my modular synthesiser. I wanted something that was versatile and that I could use in the studio, but also something that I could take to shows with me. I wanted to make sounds on the fly and actually build a rig that is flexible and that allows me to adapt to different environments.

Read this next: 5 of the best modular gateways

Do you have a favourite synth or piece of gear?

I find it hard to pinpoint, because the gear is so vast. I’d say my specific modular synthesisers because at the moment there's a good layout of settings and modules that I am a fan of. But in terms of manufacturers I’d say Eurorack, Make Noise and Erica Synths. My collection isn’t that big, I try to keep it compact. It fits in my hand baggage when I travel, I do not want to pay for excess baggage!

Talk us through how you put together a track or even a mix. Do you know how you want something to sound?

There are times where I do have a broader picture of what I’m going for, there’s a set process in my mind and I know what I need to do. If I need a certain type of drum or a certain amount of bass or whatever then it is fairly easy for me because I know how to execute the plan. But it is when I have a blank slate and need to think of new ideas for how I want something to sound that I let the sound inspire me, and I can play different sounds and build on top of that, I try to make each sound complement each other in a way that it fits, and sounds like it is meant to fit that way. I like to channel the feeling that a sound evokes in me, I do things to exaggerate that feeling a bit. I don’t follow a lot of structure, I don’t try to polish the sounds as well; I use a lot of quirky synths that create intricate nuances in the sound that I like to keep organic. I like making something human-like, I don’t want to make things sound rigid and robotic. Whether it is playing keys on top of it or sampling drums that have shuffle or a swing, I like something that has character.

Read this next: 10 of the best live modular sets you can watch online

What does being human mean to you?

It means not being perfect and not being by the clock, and something which can at times be a bit off. [In music] this can mean being off the grid a bit, when you’re making music and you’re using DAWs it’s all [processed] within a grid through a computer, but when you make it yourself you realise that there are all these faults. We’re not really as perfect as computers, I mean maybe some people are, but yeah I still try to keep it real and free-flowing.

Do you also put elements of your own personality and own human experience in your tracks and mixes?

Yeah I think this really comes through in my tracks and mixes, it naturally flows into the music. It just comes out subconsciously while I’m creating music — a lot of aspects of my early days and living in India, being an adolescent and experiencing music, have a role to play in my creative output.

How does India play into what you make?

I think of India as very colourful, busy and vibrant culturally, and I feel as if this translates into my music. My music is not minimal, it is actually very colourful. A lot of the harmonic content I add to my music is a result of that.

Read this next: Exploring identity: What does it mean to be a South Asian in 2021?

A lot of your songs transcend genre and have various influences, is there any way you’d describe your own music?

I’d say it is free-flowing, synthesiser-driven electronic music. Honestly I can’t think of any one way to describe it! Some of it is very leftfield and some has some electronica influence. And I do think I have a lot of UK influences because of the labels I’ve been listening to over the years. I like to keep the UK and India influences and combine them both!

You lived in Leeds for a year too, which has an incredible underground scene! What was it like there for you? In what ways has Leeds influenced your music taste and production?

Leeds was great! There’s always something going on. I’d say my favourite venue [when I was there] was Mint Warehouse, I also like Wire, Old Red Bus Station and enjoyed going to SubDub nights too. It was interesting to be there and I met a lot of cool people, it was very welcoming and accepting and warm. Everyone was so supportive, everyone was keen to help. I met so many local producers there and got involved, it was great.

Even before living in Leeds I would listen to a lot of jungle, breaks and bass music — I think Magnetic Fields Festival played a much bigger part in my music journey. I’d say a lot of producers from India feel the same way, it was a great experience for so many of us and we got to see so many incredible DJs first-hand. It was our first exposure to this sound and types of music, and a lot of us didn’t really understand much of what this music meant in the physical setting [until we went to the festival].

I think since the Ben UFO and Four Tet set I saw, I realised I really like jungle and other music with crazy drums. Then I started listening to more UK sounds, like breaks and garage. At the moment Coco Bryce and Tim Reaper are amongst my favourite producers.

Would you say jungle, breaks and other drum-heavy genres are getting bigger in India then?

Yeah, a lot of promoters and bookers were booking in more jungle, drum ‘n’ bass and drum-heavy DJs. There’s also a lot more producers producing a lot of footwork and similar genres. They had a Boiler Room in New Delhi where Dillinja played - it’s interesting to see these different subcultures and subgenres come up in India.

Read this next: The 20 best jungle mixes you can listen to online

How did you get involved with Sable Radio and NARR Radio?

I met the guys at Sable Radio when I was living in Leeds. I was at Outlaws Yacht Club and they invited me to do a mix for them, and I met a lot of other DJs. [My show NAACH at NARR] is going really well. I’ve always wanted my own show and it’s cool because they give me a lot of freedom with what I want to do. I can’t shout out the team at NARR enough. It’s a great way for me to platform lots of DJs and producers from India that I look up to, it gives me a chance to bring some guests on and showcase what they’re about. I also met a friend of mine, Freddie in Leeds, who produces music as Sourpuss, and he introduced me to some people at Overdub, and they were really nice. I was then down to do a release with them.

How are you feeling about releasing the ‘Cherry-picked’ EP on Reel Long Overdub?

Well my idea with that was to blend Leeds and Goa and have lots of the melodic, acid, darker side of things from Goa but also incorporate the jungle, breaks and bass that I was listening to at the time. I wanted to merge the two influences into the tunes on this EP. I tried to consciously translate that into the writing, and it was a really fun process. I really enjoy working with Andrew [aka Yvos] and the crew. This happens to be my first release on vinyl. Just the idea that I’ll be able to hold my music, that’s really cool.

Read this next: 10 UK club nights that support good causes

How did working with Reel Long Overdub differ from self-releasing or with other labels?

I worked with a record label in New Delhi called Qilla Records, and that was my first release with a label. I was self-releasing before that. But the last year was good for me, I did a release with Qilla. It's an EP called ‘Resume Form’. I do think it is a lot more useful to work with labels, a lot of them have the infrastructure to help your music reach more ears - whereas when it’s done independently it is harder to have that type of outreach.

Do you have a favourite track of your own, why is it your favourite?

My favourite track of mine is ‘Subdue’, from my previous EP ‘Resume Form’ and I had written it a while ago, but it kind of reflects on that time in my life and it is a reminder for me that I need to strip down, and calm down sometimes. I was really surgical with the process, and somewhere down the line I lost patience. But that track reminds me to chill out and grounds me. It was also a very well-received tune from the EP - I just like listening to it too.

What can we expect from you in 2022?

A lot more releases for sure. One thing I can talk about is another EP with Qilla Records. But at the moment I’m really excited to release ‘Cherry-picked’. I’m also really excited to get my vinyl records delivered to New Delhi and to just hold it and place it on a turntable and spin it. I’m also doing some collaborations with Daytimers and Foreign Currency and I’m writing some music [with someone exciting], and I’m excited about that! This year I want to focus on writing more music and putting out as much music as I can.

To finish, tell us about your Impact mix.

I really wanted to bring some light to some underrepresented producers. Living in India and being part of this ever growing community of electronic musicians and producers, I know that it can be quite a challenge to get your music out to right ears on a more global level - and when I was asked to do a Mixmag Impact mix, I wanted to take this opportunity to represent and shine light some of the incredible talent and works that exist in this part of the world. So the idea for this mix was to include sounds from the Indian subcontinent, featuring up and coming artists, producers and record labels from New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore & beyond.

Monophonik & Diastema 'Cherry-picked' EP is out January 14 via Reel Long Overdub, get it here

Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

Tracklist:
1. Hiranya - H006 (unreleased)
2. Oceantied - Reality (Krunk Kulture)
3. Suchi - Swift (Coastal Haze)
4. Angus 12 - Dab (forthcoming)
5. Kohra - Acid Kidz (Qilla Records)
6. Monophonik - Tabalchi (Reel Long Overdub)
7. Prismer - Babel (Boxout.fm Recordings)
8. FILM - I’ve Always Liked Trance (forthcoming on Qilla Records)
9. Orchid - Voodoo (R.O.S.H.'s Lunar Eclipse Re-edit)
10. Monophonik x Trafficc - Out Of Mind (Boxout.fm Recordings)
11. FILM - Medium Rare (Boxout.fm Recordings)
12. Rafiki - Funky Acid Party (Krunk Kulture)
13. Monophonik x Trafficc - Do U Want It (Krunk Kulture)
14. Monophonik - Sourcecode (Reel Long Overdub)

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