Milo Davidson: When you do talks, and you’re asked to perform, who do you bring? Do you just play a drum kit and a mic?
Kiran Gandhi: The best part about my project, and about being able to do many things within your own music, is that I can design the show based on the needs of the moment. So If I do the solo version of my show, I build three stations. One is my drum set, the front, center vocal with a loop pedal, and the percussion rig.
Milo Davidson: A pad?
Kiran Gandhi: No, proper percussion, like bongos, cowbells, cymbal. And then the loop pedal is for my foot. That allows me to loop layered vocals. And then I have a table, and on the table I’ll either bring DJ software, which is just playback. That’s straight bounced versions of the track instrumentals that I can literally just press play on. So yes, I am moving between solely the vocal mic and the drum set. When I’m playing for a more tech-savvy audience, I like to bring more of an Ableton Live set up, which means that I recreate many of the ways I’ve made those sounds live. So I’ll rebuild a loop into Ableton or I’ll reprocess my voice instead of having it be bounced into the backing track. It’s a live element, because I know that the audience will understand what I’m doing and value it. Some other audiences don’t understand or care. They think I’m actually distracted, as opposed to doing something cool.
Jess Erion: You’ve clearly worked with some incredible people, like M.I.A. and Kehlani. You’ve also talked a lot about how there are not a lot of female drummers out there. There are especially not a lot of women of color who are being recognized, for their work generally, but also specifically as percussionists. Are there any other female drummers that you want to bring attention to, that you want other people to know about?
Kiran Gandhi: I think my favorite drummer right now is Ale Robles. She plays with this really dope Mexican punk feminist project that’s gaining a lot of traction right now called Le Butcherettes. And every time I see them it’s a godly what the fuck. This is amazing. People get up in their seat, they just lose it. And that makes me feel good because I’ve been going to a lot of shows recently and I’m so uninspired. It’s just so boring. Everything is just a DJ with a person on a mic. Everything, all the trap stuff, even all the pop stars. It’s financially savvy, but also, that’s just because of how the music is made. So that’s how it’s performed. I would say Ale Robles right now is my favorite woman of color drummer.
Jess Erion: You’re uniquely positioned and have worked on all sides of this industry. You’re a musician, you’re a producer, and you’ve also worked with streaming companies. You still advise music companies like Spotify and Bonnaroo, and D’Addario. What is your relationship to them? What does advising those sorts of services look like for you?
Kiran Gandhi: When I was here at school, I did, in an official capacity, six months at Spotify. And that was really good because obviously, that was a formal position. But once you know people and you have a real human relationship with people who work these different companies, they still want you in the mix. I’m not doing any of them as an official advisor. But whenever I’m about to put out a song, instead of me like hitting up my Spotify contacts and being like, “Can you playlist it?” I hit them up and I lead with, “Hey, are you guys looking to beta test anything? Is there anything that I can be bringing my intelligence to you?” And so then they’re more likely to take a meeting. So now I’m giving them free beta testing, and then I’m like, “I’m about to put out a song, and can you hook me up with the person who’s going to playlist?” That’s how I see it. And in general, one piece of advice that you should write for your readers as well as for you guys, is: any time I’ve ever wanted something, whether it’s a job, internship, the ability to play with someone like Kehlani—instead of asking for what I can get from the situation, I always say, “What can I contribute?” And I lead with that. That’s how I got the M.I.A. gig. I painted the vision, and I made it low hanging fruit for them. It wasn’t like a whole ask, and it was so easy. The same for Spotify, and that’s how I think about these advisory positions.
Milo Davidson: Leaving social media out of it for the moment, it’s interesting that you say streaming removes the gatekeepers. But at the same time, there are still the people you have to take the meetings with.
Kiran Gandhi: That’s a great point. I’m thinking of it in a couple of different ways. I am thinking of it in that social media is driving traffic to people on Spotify, which is cool. So I as an independent artist can post a little clip of the song and then be like, “Click the link in the bio and go listen on Spotify.” So in that way, I’m controlling my own fan base, which I think is cool. In terms of gatekeepers—it’s true. It’s happened already so quickly. Now, everyone’s fighting for playlisting, because that’s the only way to be heard. And the labels definitely, 100 percent, get banner advertisements for free, and access to the playlists, at a much higher rate than any independent artists. But I think we can direct our own audience to Spotify. And the other thing that’s cool is that I built this playlist that we update every single Wednesday, so that I can be developing the fans who are following the playlist as well as being in control of who I’m playlisting, so that we are decoupling some of that power. And I can be the one responsible for playlisting.
Milo Davidson: You can set up your own gate to keep.
Kiran Gandhi: Yeah, exactly. Ours is open.
Milo Davidson: It’s better. Yeah. That wasn’t meant as a drag.
Kiran Gandhi: That’s a great point, though, because in the rhetoric, when I do talk about the intention behind my playlist, I have to be careful. I’m like, “We’re like breaking down the gatekeepers.” But it is true. It’s like, “Well we want to be our own gatekeeper . . . but there’s no gate.” How do you say that? So I have to always be a little careful.
Jess Erion: On a different topic entirely, you grew up in both India and in the States. What was that like? And also, how has that shaped your music?
Kiran Gandhi: When I was eight years old, we moved from New York City to India. I lived there for three years, in Mumbai. And I was really upset, because I loved living in New York city. We had this bus driver who would pick up all the kids, and as he’d pull up to the parents, he would change the station to the classical station, but once we’d pull away, he’d put it back to Hot 97. So it was Nas, and Lauryn Hill. And when I moved to India, I felt sad, because I had this intuition that I was missing out. My dad would always be doing business trips from India back to New York, and I would always ask him, “Get me the latest CD’s, get me the latest Spice Girls t-shirt, get me the latest Backstreet Boys posters.” I wanted all of the pop culture. Whenever people ask me this question, they always want me to talk about how India has influenced my music. But the truth is that as a kid, I wasn’t really pressed for Indian music. I was never that inspired by Bollywood and stuff, because I didn’t feel like it was fresh or evolving. Obviously I found the gender roles problematic. I just picked up on that. And you’re not really supposed to say that. You’re supposed be like, “Oh my god. So amazing, my time in India made me inspired to make bhangra music.” But that wasn’t the case at all. I was always dancing to the latest Western pop culture. And I think one thing that’s important to say about that is: it’s important to be honest about what inspires you. And what makes you feel good. And it’s important to be honest about your own sphere of influence. And my sphere of influence, because of what I enjoy and understand, is really American feminism. And it’s influencing places like Harvard, or Harvard Business School. I tried my best to identify my sphere of influence based on my walk of life and take responsibility for that group of people and feminism and activism. People love to say, “Why don’t you go work in India? Why don’t you go talk in Saudi Arabia. There, women have it way worse than here,” but it’s not about that. Because I didn’t grow up there. Women who are local in that part of the world have to take responsibility for their community. Everyone has to take responsibility for the social justice cause that they not only are motivated by, but understand based on who they are.
Jess Erion: That is interesting. You were just talking about people here, people at Harvard, people who are part of the liberal elite basically. You went to the business school, your dad is at the business school. Clearly, those were important experiences that you’ve had. I was wondering how going to the business school and seeing that part of Harvard and that part of the world has informed your activism.
Kiran Gandhi: So that’s a great question. A couple of things: One is Harvard Business School is the breeding ground of the capitalist patriarchy. I think when I went there, my dad was really passionate about leadership skills, and I obviously see enormous value in that, and my goal was to go to Harvard Business School and not only develop myself as a public speaker as a leader, but also as someone who’d come back to the music industry side and contribute that way. But I was really uninspired by the quality of “leadership.” It was a lot of entitlement and unchecked privilege. And so when I saw that, it motivated me even more to take all these skill sets, but use them for something different than what they are often used for. And definitely as someone who feels very confident and very well spoken, I definitely remember feeling quieted at school, not by someone literally saying, “be quiet,” but there are energetic social cues that others come in more confident and more boisterous. Some might not think that you have something to offer and that can kind of give you imposter syndrome. I felt intimidated to raise my hand and speak, because so many people in the room share the same opinion — I don’t feel comfortable to stand up; I don’t want to deal with the burden of standing out. I realized I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like that.
Jess Erion: I think you’re talking about several communities here, right? I think part of that depends on your definition of community, but there’s the Harvard Business School community. There’s your band, which is a musical community. I think a lot of what you are aiming to do and advocate for is creating inclusive communities. I was wondering what you think the best way to go about that is, because it’s a difficult thing to implement. In practice, what does that mean?
Kiran Gandhi: I love that question. I spoke about this yesterday at Berklee, and there are many ways to answer your question. One thing that I don’t like about it is when it presupposes that the majority is doing the minority group a favor. That’s really the issue, like when the men think they’re doing the women like a huge fucking favor by inviting them into their space, or when a heteronormative spaces are being so cute and “inclusive” and putting up a rainbow flag or some bullshit. You know, then you think you’re doing that person a favor and so then the ranking system is still very much intact. The only way diversity and inclusion genuinely works is when the majority group understands that they would be so lucky to have more women in that space. They would be so lucky to have someone with a disability come and be in that space because of the value that that unique person’s experiences can contribute to that entity. And until that person in that group or that tribe, genuinely feels that way, the whole diversity thing will fail. Because what happens is they’ll recruit a black CEO, or they’ll recruit someone of color, or recruit someone who’s queer, blah, blah, blah. But after six months, that person is over it. They don’t feel valued. So with diversity and inclusion, there has to be a genuine belief that the person you’re including will contribute value to your company.
Milo Davidson: Can we change tracks briefly? I want to ask about your recording and how you produce when your music kind of occupies a niche between electronic and elsewhere. So I would like to hear about the experience of being a musician and somebody who values musicianship, maybe with one foot in a genre that doesn’t always.
Kiran Gandhi: Well, it’s a competitive advantage. In my music, I always use live drums. Even if you could build that drum set in five seconds in Ableton, I would much prefer to go to the studio, because the little bits of embellishments that I can do with my drumsticks and fills sit really nicely in the track. And also the main way I express myself musically was drums for like a decade before I switched to singing and speaking, which means that the quality of my drumming is very expressive, luckily. Whereas in most music, the drums are like the thing you make first, really quick in five seconds, which enables you just copy and paste the loop over and over for two, three minutes. Just so that you have something to start with, you know. And I would never make a song like that because that’s so weird. Like, that’s awful.
Milo Davidson: So what do you start with?
Kiran Gandhi: I usually have my phone. Even two days ago, I was traveling and I was just singing random ideas into my phone. And so I’ll start with an idea, and I’ll sing it, and then usually I’ll literally text myself that little bounce and then I’ll put it into Ableton and start making a song around it. I find melody and beats easier to make. I find the lyrics really fucking hard. I feel like people are so particular about lyrics. They really care what’s being said. So I can’t just say some mumbo jumbo.
Milo Davidson: So, do you start with a voice note?
Kiran Gandhi: Usually.
Milo Davidson: Like Charlie Puth. And then, do you build out a bass line, or do you build out a beat from there?
Kiran Gandhi: I’ll do as much as I can. I can write a bass line, but I’m not that good at it. So I might just put like a placeholder drum kit, also knowing that I’ll redo the drums, and I’ll redo the vocals. I’ll do some of the electronic production, but usually I’ll have somebody else come in and do proper chords and bass, because I don’t know how to do that. I like the collaborative process. It’s good to know what you can bring to the table and what you’re really good at, and then where your shortcomings are. Because especially in LA, there are tons of people are like, “Oh, all you need is a bass line? Girl, I got you.” I’m sitting there for hours trying to figure it out, and they come through, and in half an hour it’s done.
Milo Davidson: What are your drumming influences?
Kiran Gandhi: I definitely think TV On the Radio was a really big influence. Fela Kuti was a big one as well. I love Cuban guaguancó patterns. I really like Brazilian candomblé. I love all the black ceremonial tribal cultures. In fact, my mom low-key was offended when I was a kid growing up. She would be like, “Why are you so obsessed with Africa? We never taught you [about it].” I think I’m such a softy and very emotional, and you listen to some of the African stuff, and the pain — you can feel it. I could do it forever. So yeah, I would say my drumming incorporates more stuff like that, where you go into a community and there are a lot of emotions with music.
Jess Erion: You’ve been on tour, you’ve been all over. A basic question is, what is that like? But also, you’ve been in the UK, and you’ve been in America, and I think those are two very different places, and they’re also places with very different narratives. Have you felt like there has been a big divide between your crowds in the UK and your crowds in America?
Kiran Gandhi: It’s been really cool to actually know how audiences are going to be when you play in LA, in New York and London, like everyone’s seen everything. And so it’s kind of fun. I feel like I take the technical side of things a little bit more seriously. When I played in New York, I had proper projection mappings. I had dancers; I did the most, you know, because I knew I had to bring a full-on show. But when I did Denmark, for example, or Mexico, I did them super bare-bones and more emotionally driven. It’s good to know your audience. Based on experience, I had a lot of bad shows. You come off, you feel like you sucked, couldn’t connect. But the more you experience that, the more you can prepare for that.
Jess Erion: Has that been identifiable for you? When you’ve had bad shows, have you been able to see where you went wrong? How that connection didn’t happen?
Kiran Gandhi: Yeah, I do. One thing that didn’t work at a show in Portland was that I had a bunch of different musicians playing different parts, but not all musicians played on every song. So every single song had musicians leaving and coming on stage, and getting off the stage, and I thought that was cool because Thievery Corporation actually does that. They had different vocalists and stuff come on and off, so it makes the show feel dynamic. Because the stage was so small and because my set was only 30 minutes, the audience told me that it was a little bit distracting and that it was almost unnecessary. So that’s good. You have to have some tough ones to learn, and you really can’t know until you do it. Most people are so afraid that they won’t even get on the damn stage, because they’re so afraid of the rejection, but you can’t predict how it’s going to go unless you do it.