You can’t go to a music festival in India without spotting Raghu Dixit and his band pogo-ing away on stage, driving the crowd into a near-religious frenzy of feel-good vibes and happy energy. Given that he could’ve either been a microbiologist or a classical dancer (he trained in both), I’d say Indian indie’s pretty lucky to have pulled a talent like Raghu Dixit into its orbit. He’s taken his earthy folk rock fusion all over the world and is a permanent fixture on global world music charts. We spoke to Raghu Dixit about the glamour of life on the road, about playing Glastonbury and how he’s enjoying his Gibson Songwriter Deluxe.
Hi Raghu, how are you?
I’m doing great [laughs]. I’m on a very short “break”, if you can call it that, four days of no touring anyways, so I’m at home, grounded. But I’m working from home so yeah [laughs]… there’s always work. Right now we’re in the middle of two things – we’re at the height of the touring season and we’re also in the middle of recording our second album, track by track.
Let’s jump right into it then. You’re at the forefront of this new breed of Indian indie acts that are making an impact on the global stage. We’ve always wanted our Indian acts to make the leap to the international arena. You’re certainly well on your way. You’ve hit #1 on the iTunes charts, played WOMAD and Glastonbury, won a Songlines Music Award and done multi-date tours across the world. What is it about you and your music that made the difference?
I really don’t know that many Indian acts really tried. From what I’ve seen, Indian bands that have tried to perform abroad, mainly manage to go and perform for the Indian diaspora in other countries. They’ve not really been ambitious enough to think, “OK, I can probably get the opportunity to play a festival like WOMAD”.
For us, the first opportunity that we got was to play a festival in the U.K. called Lovebox. Now I don’t know that there are many bands that would say OK, we’ve got a half hour slot at a festival in London, in the afternoon at 2 p.m. and I’m fine spending six lakhs to travel all the way and stay there for a week. I don’t know how many bands are ready to put in that kind of investment and say it’s OK to lose that kind of money, let’s see what comes out of this. I took that opportunity.
For me and for us as a band, I think that was the best decision we ever made. We spent a lot of money, we lost a lot of money but what happened in that half hour is a surreal story. We went up on stage at 2 p.m. and there was absolutely nobody in the audience. There was just a mom with two kids and an umbrella because it was raining quite badly at the time. I thought, “Why did I spend all that money and bring my whole band to play here for this audience?” The entire audience was at the main stage, while we were given the smallest stage to perform at. Of course, as artists, once you go on stage you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and we started playing the first song ‘’Hey Bhagwan”. About halfway through I could see the clouds clearing up, the rain was slowing down and there was this crowd running from the main stage to our stage. By the end of the show we had about three and a half thousand people. It was completely unbelievable.
That kind of thing’s happened to us quite a few times since, where we’ve started out with an audience of 10 or 15 people and then just attracted people from other stages. After that first Lovebox gig I knew we were on the right track and that there’s an audience for my kind of music. It was also after that show that somebody came backstage and said an act had dropped out from the WOMAD festival and asked if we’d be interested in filling in. Two days later we were playing WOMAD!
That’s why I believe that if there’s an opportunity and you know you’re good enough to go ahead and grab it, every band should try and put in that extra money, effort, whatever it takes to at least give it a shot.
Also, between the Lovebox and WOMAD festivals we played a showcase gig at the Gibson Showroom in London. Looking back now, I think that was the most crucial concert we played back then. That gig at the Gibson Showroom is where we met our future managers, Paul Knowles and Robert Horsfall. They were the guys who did all the behind-the-scenes work for us that resulted in the Raghu Dixit Project becoming so popular in the U.K. over the past year.
From then on you haven’t stopped travelling, touring and taking your music across the world. It can sound pretty glamorous but it must have its difficult moments as well.
You know what, you’re right, to the outside world it looks glamorous – oh man, this guy’s touring all over the world, he must be having a gala time. That’s not really all it’s about though. First thing, we fund all our tours ourselves. We still haven’t broken even. I put up a large amount of money every year to tour the festivals that we do and we lose almost 60-70% of that money. That’s because we’re still not in that bracket where we can start to break even. Maybe this year we might, but it’s been a steady and well-thought-out plan and I’m very happy to still invest in this year’s touring as well and see what comes back.
The only fun part in all the touring we do is the 35-45 minutes to an hour and a half that you get to be on stage. That is the only fun part. Every other part of touring is just sheer hard work, physical labour and absolutely no sleep whatsoever. It’s a really undisciplined lifestyle, eating whatever food you get, sleeping wherever you get to sleep. But again, the only fun part is the time that you spend on stage playing for the audience, it’s about their response during the show and it’s about the people who come and meet you after the show. It’s just incredible how people respond to you and write to you the next day on Facebook or on your website or to say how wonderful an experience it was watching our show.
That is the only fun part. Everything else is just perspiration [laughs].
What then are the best crowds you’ve played for and some of the most memorable gigs?
Oh, in India I can count at least a hundred gigs that have been superb for us. It’s just amazing how in the last year and a half here’s been this sudden surge of awareness of our existence. It took its time but through word of mouth it’s really spread that we exist. I think Delhi’s become an amazing city to play in because it’s just amazing how the Delhi crowd comes to our shows and sings out every word of every Kannada song that we sing on stage. Like we had this gig at Attitude Live in Delhi and after a while I didn’t really need to sing [laughs], the audience was singing louder than I was! And after years and years of toil and hard work, finally all you want is an audience reaction like that, it was just blissful.
Of course, Bangalore’s our home ground, so anywhere we play now, audiences of anywhere between five thousand to 30 thousand are a regular feature for us. Otherwise Bombay, Delhi and Pune are excellent cities for us to perform in.
Outside India, we’ve played some really amazing venues. There was this festival called Rhythms of the World in Hertfordshire where we had an amazing gig. Even Glastonbury, it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for us – it’s the worst venue that any band can play at [laughs] and at the same time it’s just amazing, it’s like a Mecca that all musicians must go to and experience at least once in their lives. To be on that stage and to really see what people do to get that joy of listening to a band, it’s just a brilliant experience. WOMAD, of course, was a huge high because it’s considered to be one of the more “eclectic” festivals and to perform at WOMAD is an honour and a pleasure.
We also had this wonderful gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London at the Southbank Centre where every seat was sold out in a 1,500 capacity hall, which was incredible for an unknown Indian act. That we could fill out a ticketed event of that size made it a pretty satisfying gig for me.
One of the highlights of every Raghu Dixit show is the jumping. How do you manage to get thousands of people hopping up and down like excited kangaroos every time?
There’s no plan really. It just started at one show where I said to the band why don’t you guys start dancing and so we started jumping and the audience started jumping with us! So we were like hey, that’s a good idea [laughs], let’s try it again! That’s how it happened, it was never really planned. Anything we do on stage, either the banter or the way I introduce each song or the way I interact with the crowd really changes from show to show, city to city, people to people. The only plan is to be ourselves and to show the audience how wonderful the world can be if they just let themselves go and have a good time.
As India’s most travelled musical export, what have you learnt from the different cultures you’ve been exposed to?
I think there’s absolutely no difference between people of any race, that’s what I’ve realized. At the end of the day, every human being wants to be at peace. And every audience responds in almost the same way wherever we’ve performed and that’s convinced me there’s no language as such. I know it’s a clichéd adage that music knows no language but I’ve seen it happen in front of me. When I sing a Kannada song, people are still swaying with such a positive feeling to listen to that language and the songs that I sing. So I’ve learnt that there is absolutely no difference between humans as such. It’s just where we live and where we come from and the cultures that we carry but otherwise, as bare humans, we’re all really the same – our emotions are the same, our strengths are the same, our weaknesses are the same – there’s absolutely no difference.
Another thing that I’ve really learnt is to thank your stars and learn to recognize your angels, recognize your miracles when they’re happening in front of you. Be thankful to God above and feel blessed about that moment.
Moving on to right now: What’s going on in Camp Dixit as we speak?
Right now, the focus is on the second album. It’s just that with every passing day the ambition has become bigger and bigger and the album is now suddenly taking on these massive proportions in terms of its production. I’ve got artists from all over the world, everyone I’ve met over the last couple of years, being collaborators on this album. So it’s going to be a cross-cultural, cross-country kind of an album. I’m also working with a bunch of different musicians from India as well.
Hopefully everything will be finished by the end of May and we should see it as a summer release. Or a monsoon release in India [laughs].
I hear that The Raghu Dixit Project also is working on a collaborative project with English folk act and fellow Songlines Music Award winners Bellowhead?
Yeah, we’re working with a few members of Bellowhead, not the entire band. So about five members of Bellowhead and my band are coming together to collaborate and perform a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the Alchemy Festival organized by the Southbank Centre in collaboration with the British Council India. The concert is unique for me because it’s the first time I’m collaborating with another band. Also, the concert isn’t my songs or their songs, but actually songs that tell an entire story. What we’ve done is take an Indian fable based on the Hayavadana myths which are based on a play by Girish Karnad. Loosely built on that myth, we’re telling the entire story through songs which will also feature a team of dancers performing live to bring a visual element to the entire performance. That should happen in April.
Also, our U.K. and Europe summer tour is getting booked now and lots of gigs are already booked. That announcement will be made very soon, probably by the end of February.
You’ve been working with the Gibson Songwriter Deluxe Studio for a few months now. What’s it like working with it?
Oh yes, I’m yet to understand her entirely, because every mixing board and set of monitors that have been given to me have responded differently. So that way, I’m yet to arrive at a configuration on my Songwriter Deluxe where I’m entirely sure as to how my guitar will sound when I tweak it this way. So I’m still trying to understand it technically. However, the sound of the Songwriter Deluxe is just brilliant. Most of my new songs off my second album are now being recorded with it and a few of them were even written with it, so yeah, it’s been quite a faithful friend.