Kohra: “Before Lockdown, India Was Experiencing Some Really Fantastic Parties”
Over the past few years, India has become one of the fastest-growing markets for dance music and has proven itself to be a hotbed for some of the scene’s most promising, young DJs and producers.
The growth of India’s underground scene owes much to one of its most seasoned dance floor pioneers, Madhav Shorey (AKA Kohra). The New Delhi native has relentlessly worked to establish his city as a terminus for house and techno in his country. A rock and metal drummer turned DJ extraordinaire, Shorey’s travels and time studying at Swinburne University in Melbourne served to stoke his desire to create a homegrown scene for the City of Rallies and beyond.
He got his start as part of his country’s first widely recognized live electronica bands, Jalebee Cartel. And in 2011, he established Qilla Records imprint, which became one of India’s most well-respected independent dance music labels. Through Qilla, Shorey helped bring international attention himself and the productions of his compatriots. Before long, the name Kohra (taken from the Urdu word for “mist”) was ringing out among his country’s young club enthusiasts. He’s since shared stages with the likes of Dubfire, Richie Hawtin, Patrice Baumel, and Joseph Capriati at festivals like Awakenings, DGTL, and EDC. All the while, he’s acted as an ambassador for Indian dance floors, leveraging his fame to attract big talent to his country, in the hopes of showing off its party potential.
On July 13th, Shorey released his fantastic debut album, akhõ — a 10-track LP that pays homage to the 17th-century mystic poet that inspired its creation. A departure from his typical house and techno sound, the album blends ambient and progressive textures with breaks, electro, and even jungle, woven together with sweeping soundscapes. Sculpted with an early 2000s aura, the legendary John Digweed was so impressed by the album that he played half of it during his Bedrock Bunker Session set in May of this year.
Following the release of akhõ, we caught up with Shorey to learn more about the promise of India’s music scene, the thought process behind his new sound, and how the concept behind this must-listen full-length came to him during a deep meditation session.
Tell us about your intro to DJing and producing. What were some of the first records and shows that helped you step into your love of electronic music?
So basically, I was in school, and I actually started out as a drummer. I was a freelance drummer for a couple of rock bands and progressive metal. We used to rehearse at my house, and that’s pretty much the same time I was listening to a lot of Goldie and Roni Size, some UK drum & bass stuff, and obviously the big boys like The Prodigy. It got really annoying because every time we’d rehearse, one band member would not make it.
Because of that, I started recording my own parts and other members’ parts as well. And I was like, “You know what? I can just do this on my own.” So it was that idea of being able to make music independently, which threw me into the world of electronic music and DJing. That was a breakthrough moment when I was still in school.
I also helped form India’s first live electronica band called the Jalebee Cartel. We had a bunch of releases on some pretty decent labels. Then I moved to Australia to study graphic design when I was in my early twenties, and that’s when I started exploring things. I finished up my course, and came back to Delhi. That was a decade ago, and I’ve been here ever since.
How have you seen India’s electronic music scene evolve since you first started producing and playing out around the country?
We really [planted] the seeds back in the day, because there was not a single club playing electronic music; it was just everything else then. So it was a big struggle, and we kept playing at small bars and venues. Every six to eight months, we’d try and get an international artist when we’d built up a crowd to show people something more and get some cool artists down. So it started happening from there. Now it’s been so many years that we’ve been doing this here, it’s evolved quite a bit. The scene has been exploding slowly, and the culture has been building up in India really well.
And it sucks because I think the last six months before this whole lockdown happened was when India was experiencing some really fantastic parties. Like finally, the real deal! Similar to those you experience at a party in the US or Berlin. It was only happening the last year before we shut down, it was just getting to the right place.
Would you say it’s harder for Indian DJs and producers to find recognition from clubland as a whole?
We’re pretty disconnected from the global scene. Being in India, geographically, it doesn’t work for us, man. We’re far away from what’s happening, so it’s only when people come here, we kind of meet them and they hear us, they get to know about us, and that’s how things move forward. Even if they’ve listened to our music, it’s not like we’re easily accessible or over there in Europe.
Tell us about your record label, Qilla Records.
We started eight years ago. I started out with one of my friends who’s also a huge name in the Indian dance music scene. His artist name is BLOT!, he’s played Boiler Room, and one of his releases was on Dynamic as well. So he was one of the founding members for the first two years, and then he took a bit of a backseat of the label, so I’ve been managing it on my own ever since. We put out ten releases every year, and my new album, akhõ, is our 75th release.
The next release we have is from this live modular artist called Monophonik. His stuff is all over the place. It’s everything from ambient, to jungle, to electro, and that’s all played live. We have another full-length LP from this artist named SHFT, who I produce a lot of music with. He thrives in the realm of trippy techno. Third, there is another talented artist named Vridian. We released his EP last year, and he has some fascinating stuff in the works for us.
I feel the label has been evolving with all of us, and myself, because of the music style. In India, everything becomes a bit of a trend somehow, so I’m always trying to push forward and pursue whatever I feel should be on the dance floors in the next six months, and then I work backward. I’m never trying to work with whatever’s popular right now. So it is always trying to reinvent ourselves and push a new sound.
Your debut album is profoundly conceptual and inspired by the seventeenth century Gujarati poet of the same name, ‘akhõ.’ Tell us a bit about your full-length LP, the poet’s work, and how it stimulated your production process.
About three years ago, I had undergone a huge transition in my life. I felt ill, I was a little unwell, and I was also really bored, honestly. I was playing every weekend, but I just didn’t feel complete. I ended up shifting my whole thinking towards the scene, and I wanted to do something that’s just outside the box of just playing house and techno every weekend. And my lifestyle changed in a big way, so I stopped drinking, I stopped partying, I stopped eating meat. I’m pretty much vegan now for three years. And it was all just trying to clean up my act and just be more aware of things.
In one of my meditation sessions, which was about an hour-long (I usually don’t meditate for that long), I came out from it with this guy’s name in my head. It sounds bizarre, I know, and I had no idea who this guy is. So when I heard this guy’s name, I started researching, and it turns out that this guy, the only guy who’s named Akhõ, is actually this poet, Akha Bhagat. He’s not a very popular poet, and I’m really into poetry in general. He was a mystic from the 17th century. I know about the kinds of things that these poets used to speak about, but I’d never heard of this guy. He was like an underground poet who was just forgotten.
And when I started reading up about him, I found one book on him, which was available in the US. It was the only single English version available on the planet. Finally, it came to my doorstep, I opened it, and BOOM! Everything that I was thinking about in my transitional phase, with my music, the philosophies I was delving into, and more, this guy’s poetry just merged into it, like a hand in glove. It was just seamless. I decided that this was a godsend, and I couldn’t make this album about myself, but it would be a tribute to this poet because it just came to me and his work resonated with me.
What was it about these revelations that helped you shape the album’s musical direction?
I found that when you really start to dig deeper and figure out who you are, you end up going back to your childhood, you end up going back to who you were when you were a kid. That’s where my journey took me. I asked myself root questions like, “why am I even DJing? Why am I even doing this in the first place? What was it that I was so excited about?” And then it took me back to the early 2000s when I honestly first heard the best music of my life. I found Laurent Garnier, Goldie, LTJ Bukem, drum & bass, breaks, house, Digweed, Sasha, and just everyone else doing their own thing. So much of the album was influenced by those artists and the ideas of those times. It’s been beautiful because now I’m writing all kinds of music styles that I want to write.
Can you tell us a little bit about the album artwork for akhõ?
Because the poetry is going back a couple of centuries and since I was approaching the whole music space from the early 2000s, I intended to use all production, mastering, and artwork techniques that would have been used 20 years ago. For the artwork, it took about a month and a half trying to find who could do it. I’m a designer myself, but I wanted to do something different.
Finally, I stumbled upon this guy’s work. Ancient India and Pakistan inspire all of his work. He’s a painter, an illustrator, and a robotics engineer, so all his artwork is super dystopian and sci-fi future, but the setting is super old school. I’m really happy with it. To me, it seems to touch on themes of mutation, the physical and the technological, the old and the new, and oneness. I didn’t want it to look too complex. It’s simple, but it’s got detail. And that’s how I feel about the music as well.
How did you try and emulate this “old school” way of thinking when it came down to producing the music for the album?
I used early sampling techniques, EMU pads, a lot of 303s and drum machines, chopped up jungle loops, breakbeat samples, and more. I was always trying to read grooves in different ways and find a more traditional music-making process, and not just use these typical loud drums and pre-programmed VSTs. I wanted to use those techniques, but just bump it up a little bit with the production standards right now while incorporating a bit of the modular, which I’ve used across the album also — just subtle effects that bring it together. I wanted the old school flavor because it’s an album, not a bunch of dance floor singles.
As far as the music scene goes, how do you think India will fare in clubland’s post-pandemic paradigm shift?
In India, we’ve had many issues as far as the dance music scene is concerned, in general. There are so many obstacles in our way, and just because we were about to make headway, as I said earlier, I think the pandemic has given us time to look at all the issues that were not okay. And I now believe that when we come back, it’ll be a nice clean ground for all of us. And it’s going to be high-quality, because it’s not like we’re going to go back and there’ll be a million things happening, things are going to start slowly. I think the quality is going to become center stage. It’s going to be important for artists to be on their A-game and be ready to bring something new and fresh to the table.