Artist to Artist: Mera Bhai and Andrew Ashong
There’s much that connects the musical paths of multi-instrumentalist Mera Bhai AKA Karthik Poduval and musical polymath Andrew Ashong. Beyond both haunting the same areas of South East London, the pair share a similar outlook on matters musical, spiritual and cultural, so it was only a matter of time before these mutual perspectives would extend to a musical collaboration.
As part of Karthik’s debut EP ‘Futureproofing’ on Moshi Moshi, he enlisted Andrew to join him on the track, ‘You, Me, Us‘, which is a psychedelic, hypnotic slice of funk, that sees them both venture into previously unchartered territory. Originally written on the backwaters of Kerala, where Karthik spent some time with family following his dad’s passing, the track channels the conflicting moments of alienation and unity that he was experiencing at the time.
Building on their collaboration, Andrew and Karthik drill further into topics like creative exploration, absorbing the musical influences around them and the personal importance of structure and regularity in their daily lives.
Mera Bhai (AKA Karthik Poduval): What are your earliest memories of music? I often think that some of our earliest experiences of music can be really formative in terms of an artist’s approach to music and how diverse/broad one’s palette can be. I might be wrong here, and perhaps it is something that one grows into, but I feel like being exposed to lots of different sounds from a young age can maybe ignite those embers. I’ve always been really impressed by how diverse your sound is and that your pool of inspiration is obviously vast, so wondering where that’s come from?
Andrew Ashong: That’s a really interesting thought as I can’t vividly remember my first musical conversations with the world and with people, since music has always felt so ‘everywhere’. It’s like trying to find early memories of food; it’s actually pretty hard to grasp the more I think about it. I guess we’re often so surrounded by it, that it’s not such a conscious thing; but the best way to pick up a language is always through immersion. When we’re babies, soaking up our surroundings, we’re collecting all these words to use later on, to make communication easier, but the part that we learn or acquire is really only the format and rules aspect of it anyway; the rest seems innate. Like politeness vs kindness. Table manners vs eating. Don’t some things just appear to be hard-wired and unconscious. It’s like the conscious mind is just regulating the subconscious into something palatable. Truly, we’ve all been deeply hypnotised by music in some way, so for me it’s about reaching into that universe and teasing it out into this world.
MB: Nice, that feels like a really nourishing way of looking at making music. Feels quite organic and naturally directed.
AA: That’s exactly what I hear in your music… it all seems beautifully free and very much in a world of it’s own making. I’m wondering how ‘far-out’ you allow yourself to go, and if you do reign it in, how you measure it… and also if being in a group makes those judgements easier or harder to call?
MB: Thanks! Actually, similarly to what you described, I feel like my intention is typically to reach into my subconscious and tease out things that ‘feel’ familiar. For me it’s about utilising a format (however it decides to take shape itself) that allows me to present ideas to people that would typically feel pretty west to them, but doesn’t necessarily feel too avant-garde or challenging to them, just exciting. Simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. It’s kind of about inviting people into my ears to hear what I do, and experience all these little musical references from places and times near and far.
In terms of how ‘far-out’ I tend to go, I’m actually still figuring that out and I think this is quite an exciting element of making music to always be returning to question. I’ve found in recent times that I’ve been working on something, a track or a remix and it could on paper be ‘finished’ but to me feels ‘too familiar’ so I have to take it back to the drawing board to dissect it and take it on a bit more of a journey. Being in a group presents an interesting dynamic because we tend to reign things in on record knowing that the live experience we’ve cultivated is quite full-on and we allow ourselves to take things much further there than on our records, where our ideas tend to be a bit more distilled.
How about you – where do you tend to draw the line in how far you explore when writing? Do you find that when you start writing, you have a clear idea/intention in your mind, or do things take shape in the moment?
AA: For me, writing always starts totally open and uninhibited. The critical and more discerning mind is employed pretty late in the game, in order to plate it up and get it out of the kitchen! I’m totally with you on the live thing, I feel the same. I also really like what you said about familiarity which is central to most decisions with editing. Just like cooking, things can go from run-of-the-mill to fairly strange with a small adjustment, but the broader your palate is the more likely you are to have a reference point to make that association or connection. Initially, what I record mostly sounds pretty obvious to me as it’s usually pretty immediate and free-flowing. The joy of free-styling means that, quite often, planning doesn’t even get a look in really.
MB: Yep 100% with you on all of this.
AA: Actually, I do have lots of music with more clear and specific intentions, but those are more likely to be hibernation projects, for when I’m locked in and ‘locked-on’ with the time and space to carry out that super focussed work. It’s harder and harder to find that headspace in our modern bitesized-media world, with the myth of multi-tasking and various distractions vying for our attention all the time. It’s nice to be able to dedicate oneself to a kind of incubation, by inhabiting the world you’re crafting, since music can be such a transformative and immersive experience. It’s almost like preparing to watch an epic film… do you even have two hours totally uninterrupted? Are you gonna need to break for food? Is your phone off? How are you feeling? Are your mind and spirit ready to go on that journey?
Having a direction is great, but you also need to be willing to go where it may lead you, and have the time and energy to commit and persevere even when it’s tricky or laborious to achieve certain desired outcomes. Otherwise you’re probably not gonna follow through fully or do it justice anyway. When acting as a messenger, it’s important to be humble towards the message itself.
MB: This is so true, the need for this incubation period I find so necessary for myself to retreat from the endless distractions and interruptions (good or bad) that life presents. Though it is a challenge and requires a level of dedication and all those other factors you mentioned to be in place, it’s kind of nice setting yourself up for this – feels like preparing for a bit of an adventure.
I also really dig the similarity you’ve drawn there with food memories too – similarly experiences I think that can be formative and transformative – and like you said, often subconscious. As you know, I work as a chef as well as doing music so I’m always really fascinated to know what people around me choose to eat and whether they see food as fuel or nourishment. Does food play a major role in your life? – beyond being something you ‘have to’ do of course.
AA: The fuel, nourishment and pleasure aspects of food are all major to me. When you lose your appetite, you know something’s not going so well with your body or mind. It’s such a basic thing… but also potentially complex, extravagant or lavish too. While it’s nice to excite and stretch the palate, we still have ‘comfort’ foods that are usually pretty uncomplicated things.
I’m often surprised that people will eat the very same thing everyday, despite countless options, but I guess consistency is probably healthy in many ways? It’s integral to how we feel, right? As a chef, do you find that people’s personalities are very evident in their food choices and creation? Do you feel as fluent with food as you are with music? Do you feel like you have the same hunger for exploration in both?
MB: Yes, so true, I think food and appetite can be such a key indicator into how life is treating you, or you’re treating yourself.
It’s interesting with people who tend to gravitate towards eating the same thing every day, I find at work that it’s usually the need for some sense of structure or regularity, or to exercise some sense of control over an area of their lives (when lacking control in others), using very limited variables – which I guess provides a sense of stability. It’s more like being concerned about the time that lunch is had every day, than what you’re eating – which, understandably, for some people is more important to their well-being. Do you find that structure/regularity is important for you? Does it play a major role?
AA: Whether with food or anything else, I always find myself looking at schedules and routines as a desirable state. They seem pretty cool from afar. To have reliable, military discipline with certain things feels really admirable, respectable and healthy; then you get caught up in it and it quickly becomes a drag. Sometimes a false sense of security. Definitely something to watch out for in art, love, music, expression. It may seem great to have consistency in those areas, but that can be an absolute vibe-killer in affairs of the heart.
When I was young I read lots of books on Taoism, and that whole principal of letting go and of being in harmony with the natural way of things really resonated with me. In love with spontaneity, I used to avoid too much over-arrangement, but now I just enjoy making plans, without too much attachment, knowing that in actual fact… anything could happen really. Nothing in life is running to our clocks anyway and we’re only ever just trying to hang on to some semblance of control in a constantly changing world. The funniest thing is that once you accept the unpredictable… you find yourself standing back, looking on from a distance and realising everything’s actually moving like clockwork.
MB: Yes, I agree with you here, I often find myself trying to balance my creative flow whilst operating to deadlines and expectations – erring towards trying to use structure, routine, discipline to create some kind of scaffolding around myself. But this (as well intentioned as it is) often goes out of the window or finds itself relaxing into something more natural and freer flowing. Your studies of Taoism must be so interesting, I’d love to grab some book recommendations from you at some point. This whole idea of harmony really resonates too. For example, the distractions that you can find yourself presented with can be either harmonious distractions or unharmonious and I think that is what structure and routine helps me with – to weed these out and allow harmonious distraction to let my creative flow direct me.
I grew up reading a lot of similarly inspired spiritual books that my family were into, from Hindu texts to more contemporary writers like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Robin Sharma, etc. etc. – so, these concepts of harmony, letting go, intention, purpose and life’s natural cycles are all super familiar to me and have always been a big part of my life. It just becomes something I think about a little more whilst trying to balance creative practice as a ‘job’ in some way, living in the economically driven world we inhabit.
AA: Hmmm, the intersection of time and money. I guess most of us are fairly detached from the relationship between the seasons, weather, harvest and sustenance. But I suppose we still ritualise our daily bread and celebrate the passing of time with food, which is a beautiful thing. The significance and symbolism of it all, has influenced so many customs everywhere. It’s how we mark to the passing of time, how we relate to each other, and how we commune with ourselves even.
MB: I think that people’s life experiences massively shape their food choices and creation, places they’ve travelled to, experiences they’ve had, cultures and people whose lives they’ve been invited into. Those experiences are naturally personality shaping too – but I’d say it’s less about whether someone might be very extroverted, or driven, shy, family orientated, etc. and more about what experiences they’ve been presented with.
AA: Absolutely, it’s almost like we’re collecting a word here and a word there, picking up a few handy phrases and sometimes a whole new vocabulary, to mix with what we’re already working with.
MB: I really like the fact that fluency implies the ability to communicate clearly. So much about both cooking and making music to me is about communication and expression. Personally, that comes alongside exploration, pushing boundaries. Using process and ingredients and recontextualising them to see how they fit together. I absolutely do think I have the same hunger for exploration in both, when you hear or taste something new, it opens up a whole new world for you to then delve into your own practice, which is so exciting.
How about you? It sounds like exploration is also a big part of your writing process?
AA: I’ve been non-stop exploring since I was a kid. My hunger for the familiar and the unfamiliar was always spurring me on to more and more discovery, which was mostly fed by vinyl. Fuelled by cheap, dusty, unwanted records in boot fairs, charity shops and bargain basements, I was always able to make purely curious and investigative purchases when I was younger (and poorer!). I feel like my mind was consistently blown, ears stimulated and heart warmed by such wonderful music again and again, often in brilliantly surprising places. They tend to be the most gratifying listening sessions for me… those oddly amazing tunes lost in the wilderness of very safe, mediocre or occasionally, even awful albums. Or maybe just a fifty-year-old album of insanely good music, from an artist you never even knew.
MB: This is so nice and such a familiar part of my ‘growing up’ years as well (and still is) – the unrelenting need to find new sounds that resonate and make you feel a certain way. There are, without a doubt, artists and music that I will never return to or that I could ever hear in the same way, but for a time was so meaningful, important and formative – and still colours the experience that I have now. And conversely, things that will never lose the impact or meaning that they first had!
AA: For sure! There’s just sooo much that’s already been said and done, but somehow it always feels like there’s more to uncover. Sometimes that’s the launchpad for me. It could be something incredible that sets off fireworks of ideas, or on the other hand something maybe lets you down by not going where you expected it to (musically). All of these things will actively shape your tastes, or, at least inform you of your preferences. It’s often the production and arrangement on old records that have me really buggin’ out; when it comes to the actual writing itself, inspiration rarely takes that form for me. My exploration within songs, as far as words and melodies etc., is mostly free and open playtime in the sandpit. It’s always exploration really.
MB: Are there any other particular areas of your life/artistic practice that you feel like taking creative exploration is really important?
AA: I think most things feel like ground for exploration to me. I’m pretty comfortable not knowing, on the road to finding out. I’m almost more comfortable without a map, or just seeing the map later (or not at all!). It reminds me of learning to drive. I only had about three or four professional lessons before my test; the rest was just spending time in my £20 Rover 216, with my Pops blessing me with his perspective. I think he also blessed me with a scientific approach to things… as well as a spirit of improvisation. Playful creativity is something we’re born with, only it might be a struggle to keep it alive and well. When it’s all working in communion, it can be truly generative. Exploring is like asking questions. The pioneering scientist must be creative, and our most celebrated creatives apply science to their methods.
KP: Love this. Sounds like there’s almost endless interesting stories within this as well. Do you feel like you had the opportunity around you when growing up to absorb lots of musical inspiration from around you?
AA: I made sure I soaked up plenty of sound goodness… being in Ghana before and after my birth must have fixed something in me before coming to the U.K. with all this ‘pop’ culture. My folks started their family nest in Ghana, so even when we lived in London, it always felt like we were somewhere on that cross fader. Between those two environments music had such different meanings, reasons and significances; it was like night and day. Music and rhythm is forever woven through literally everything in Ghana- from celebration, ceremony and worship, to eating, cooking and pounding fufu!
To me, the U.K was stages, cameras, lights, celebrity and the cult of personality… and it was usually presented as what musicians do, rather than simply what humans do! An intentional expression of the individual, as opposed to a natural expression of life itself. It’s such big business here that it’s now inextricably associated with wealth and narrow signifiers of success; it often feels more about product and packaging than anything else really. Ghana’s rich musical culture is beautifully present in so many spaces on and off the stage. I’m wondering whether the same thing has occurred to you, in your experience of India?
MB: That’s so great that you had the opportunity to absorb such an enriching musical culture in Ghana before moving here, and that having the dichotomy between that and British culture (or cultures that you are surrounded by here) has given you an interesting POV on that.
I grew up all over the place, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Albania, my folks moved to Nigeria and I spent a large part of my life in India – so to me there’s a wealth of different sounds which I feel drawn to. Experiencing music in all these different places but similar contexts as you mentioned – celebration, ceremony, worship really highlights the interconnectedness of it all. I’ve been lucky that the countries I’ve lived in have a musical history that’s been woven into the fabric of life, I’m wondering now whether it’s largely because of religion.
In India until the advent of the Bollywood film industry (after we gained independence from Colonial Britain), there was no real celebrity status behind being a musician or an artist. These crafts were so deeply entrenched in story-telling, folklore and religion that they were part and parcel of that, so it’s interesting to see how western influence has left this view behind.
AA: Wow, that’s a pretty wide array of sights, sounds, tastes and languages you’ve become accustomed to. You must feel very fortunate to have lived all those different lives in one lifetime. I’ve got a whole bunch of questions about each and every one of those chapters… that’s for next time!
MB: Is travel an important part of musical exploration for you?
AA: In some sense we’re all potentially tourists through the culture and media of film and music. With all the thousands of records I’ve loved and listened to over the years, recorded music has offered both time travel travel and space travel in a way. It’s totally a portal to other worlds, geographically and spiritually. You have the curation of the artist’s imagination as a location, as well as the actual place and time of the recording itself. You might be listening to Sun Ra… and find yourself transported to some kind of extra-terrestrial futurist destination, but at the same time you could also land up in ancient Egypt in a ceremony with the Pharaohs or maybe just backstage at an Arkestra gig in Chicago or Philadelphia at the end of the ‘60s. The medium of recorded music can lead you off into places unseen; it really is a trip.
MB: Funnily enough I’ve found myself back listening to Sun Ra again so much since the end of last year and I can absolutely vouch for this. So interesting how ‘transportative’ this in particular, but of course, all music can be.
Are there any particular travel or cultural experiences that have left a lasting impression on you? Or maybe even changed the way that you think or write music?
AA: Most of my travel has been a blessing of being a musician, and time tends to be in short supply on tour. So my challenge is to enquire, explore and discover as naturally as I can, all whilst delaying my departure as much as humanly possible (especially when things start unfolding organically). Of course it’s always nice to have more time on your hands, and for things to unfurl at their own gentle pace… having said that, people really pull out all the stops when you’re pressed for time, which can lead you to incredible moments! Sometimes your host will be baffled that you’re even interested in their local sights and sounds, and other times they’re bending over backwards to show off as much of their traditional culture(s) as possible. In many cases, their homegrown sounds are temporarily playing second-fiddle to the international artist they’ve flown in.
The maddest thing for me is just how small the world can seem when travelling, and it only gets smaller within certain scenes and genres. It’s wild. You’ll be on other side of the planet, DJing for people who’re into the same music as you, drinking the same drink as you, wearing similar clothes, using the same slang; then you find out your mate from London was DJing at the same club the night before. There’s obviously a lot to be said for the uniting forces of all this brilliant music and culture, but I’m always pretty suspicious about where we’re ending up. It often feels like a continuation of colonial influence sadly, especially since the influence of major labels, media networks, trendy blogs or streaming platforms are heavily tipped towards promoting certain artists and specific styles. It can feel disappointing when you realise that you’re part of a narrow bandwidth of artists being pushed to a select group of cool kids and ‘in-the-know’ musos. It can be as unifying as it is elitist, unfortunately. The cross-fertilisations and cultural conversations that would have come from travelling, don’t seem so inevitable these days now that so many, share so much. Everything seems pretty hybridised these days, particularly in music.
I’m only speaking from my personal experience, of course. From all the various places you’ve actually lived in, I’m guessing you’ve seen beautiful examples of these fusions in so many dimensions of life. What are some of the most distinct, unique and inimitable sounds you’ve been around so far?
MB: This is so on point, I wholeheartedly agree with how simple and connected the world feels when you travel and I also see this especially so, travelling with music as the prerogative. From touring alone, the world has become to feel so small. I’ve ended up having so many moments and meetings (both from touring but also from travelling with my family) that come from such a micro level of coincidence that it seems inconceivable.
I do feel you though on colonialism’s effect on the music industry and how hybridised and categorised things have become, so naturally, we do end up getting pushed to the same people and scenes in the same corners of the planet, however far flung, that are turning cogs in the consumer machine. It really used to bother me, and certainly does still play on my mind, but I think I’ve made my peace with it and it certainly does inform the way I make music – and that we have a role in trying to do what we can to step outside these easy categorisations and stereotypes (that can often be hard to even spot by the untrained eye).
That’s an interesting question – the experiences that stick out in my mind are where instruments that are used almost exclusively in that scenario are employed – so in Hindu temples in South India when musical performances are happening for ceremonies and rituals, it’s unmistakeably unique. The horns and drums have left such an imprint on my mind. I also find myself moving closer towards Indian classical music Carnatic and Hindustani as the more I delve in, the more unfamiliar and unique it sounds to me. When I was in India this time last year I had the opportunity to be present at quite a few Carnatic performances and concerts and spend time with singers and musicians, and they all echoed that when the raga happens, there is an absence of ego, performer, person, just pure consciousness in that moment and I totally felt that. I think that level of ‘purity’ (for lack of a better word) feels so unique because music has become so commodified – though in itself is obviously the intention for most musicians and artists and those moments happen within everyone’s practice.
Buy and Stream ‘You, Me, Us’ HERE.