INTERVIEW: Asian Dub Foundation’s Steve Savale

“You should be truthful as an artist, that’s your obligation.” ADF’s Steve ‘Chandrasonic’ Savale talks Corbyn, movie soundtracks and the Italian X Factor…

At a time of turmoil across the globe and raging political debate, it’s noticeable how little artists have to say about the current state of affairs. The recent Straight Outta Compton movie about NWA reminds just how potent and incendiary music can be, but aside from the barbed, Tory-baiting snarls of Sleaford Mods and a few Pussy Riot-inspired, riot grrrl revivals, righteous statements of anger and activism seem to have been reduced to Lady Gaga wearing a frock made out of meat and Patti Smith giving the Dalai Lama a cuddle. The times they are a changin’ but where’s the soundtrack?

With their charged, electro blitzes and rousing rebel cries, the thrilling return of Asian Dub Foundation with new album More Signal More Noise goes some way to addressing that, but even Steve ‘Chandrasonic’ Savale winces at the idea that artists have a duty to discuss the world at large. “You don’t get a newspaper and go ‘let’s write about what’s going on’. It doesn’t really work that way,” says the guitarist and founding ADF member. “We’re not an issues jukebox. You just write about something that makes you wanna write. You should only write what you feel. You should be truthful as an artist, that’s your obligation.”

Since forming from a community project in Hackney back in the ’90s, ADF have never been afraid to stick their neck out and question authority, but they’re acutely aware of how perilous political protest can be. Their track ‘Get Lost Bashar’ uses a chant by Syrian fireman and poet Ibrahim Qashoush who opposed President Assad during the Arab Spring before being murdered and having his vocal chords cut out by security forces. “I don’t think we were really taking sides. It’s just the fact that the guy leading the chant got killed for singing that song. In a way that’s the statement more than anything, to say that in some places that playing music is still very dangerous, which is something you forget here in the UK.”

‘Semira’ is another particularly poignant track on the album. Dedicated to the memory of a 20-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker who was suffocated by Belgian police officers, it’s a moment of serenity where flute player Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee delivers this hauntingly elegant melody over a dubby, hypnotic backdrop. “The great thing about the flute is that it doesn’t take up much sonic space. You hear it because it’s so high and that means everything else around it can be really loud and you still hear its beauty,” says Savale.

The increasing contribution of Lee (a longtime fan of the band who also beatboxes) and reggae vocalist Ghetto Priest all adds to the diverse ADF concoction which has always been built around Aktar ‘Aktarv8r’ Ahmed’s rapid fire raps, ferocious electro beats, punk sloganeering and bhangra roots. It makes the group one of the most dynamic and sonically adventurous acts around, although that part is sometimes overlooked. “People just write us off as some kind of overly political thing and forget about the music, which I think is really weird. We’re musically orientated – that’s what we do! Everything we do comes through the music, but people have strange ears. Because the band has been given this political heavyweight tag, that side of it is sometimes dismissed.”

The full force of their turbo charged, audio assault is ably demonstrated on ‘Blade Ragga’, a sprawling instrumental that draws on avante garde jazz, blistering warehouse raves and ear-drilling, hardcore guitar roars. “We always had the idea that ADF could be this really good improvised noise band. For the first time in a while we’ve got four core people in the group who all have similar tastes. We’re all into 1970s Miles Davis and we wanted to throw that in, we’ve wanted to do that for years but Blade Ragga was the first time we’ve really done that improvised noise thing along with your usual ADF drum and bass style.”

The appointment election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has also stirred the band, though Savale doubts whether he can win power – “We’ve been surprisingly energised by that. Every member of the band has very different opinions and a different perspective. I’m quite a pragmatic, policy orientated left wing person interested in the scientific aspects of how you organise a society, whereas Dr Das is quite anarchistic in his approach to things and very much against hierarchies. Both of us have been quite energised by what is happening. What’s interesting is this amazing grass roots explosion. It’s very unexpected and has seriously unsettled the political establishment – particularly in the Labour Party itself!

“There’s definitely something going on. Whereas a couple of years ago the Occupy movement had no real program, the whole thing about this upsurge in political movement from the left is that it has an organisation. This is really interesting, but I think, at the moment, electorally it might take some sort of psychic revolution amongst people living in certain places to make a difference because it’s only a small minority living in 90-100 seats decide the election.”

Where musicians fit into all this is a difficult one. There has been a long history of artists voicing their opinions and actively campaigning, but the toe curling memory of Noel Gallagher glugging champers at 10 Downing Street with Tony Blair still lingers. “Culturally it’s very different across the world,” says Savale. “In Britain I don’t think people look to musicians for leadership or to get their ideas from at all. I think the musician’s status as cultural leaders has been reduced to virtually nothing at all over the years, but that’s not the case in other countries. In Mexico or West Africa there are lots of examples where musicians are really looked up to and at the head of social movements.”

Whatever your politics, the force of the ADF live experience is always a full velocity blast of culture clashing carnival vibes, furious electro rhythms and raucous rock show energy. It’s a heady melting pot that crosses continents and unites generations. “There is this weird phenomenon where middle-aged people bring their teenage children to the gigs now. At WOMAD when we came on the parents sort of came forward halfway and all the teenage sons and daughters came right to the front. They knew us because ‘Fortress Europe’ is used in video games, and they went absolutely nuts. It was amazing, some of us are as old as the parents but the kids were getting crazy. It was kinda bizarre but brilliant.”

Their music has also spread to Italy where one of the contestants recently attempted to cover ADF’s ‘Flyover’ on their version of X Factor. “The lyrics were totally wrong! I think he must have got some mistranslations off the internet unfortunately! The guy who sang it had a terrific voice, he was really good. The dance moves were, err… definitely something worth watching! When you put your music out there you never know how people are going to interpret it – and that’s a joy in a way.”

Another side of the band that has grown over the years is their re-working of movie soundtracks. They created music to accompany the 1966 war movie The Battle of Algiers and in 2012 performed a live score to cult French drama La Haine on the Broadwater Farm Housing Estate where the London Riots originally broke out. Their latest project takes on George Lucas’s dystopian sci-fi adventure THX 1138, which they’ll be touring around the country – “With doing live soundtracks you have to see if there’s space for the band, you can’t just do any film at all. You have to put yourself in the middle of it and the audience can still follow what is going on. The film is the main thing but you see us in the shadows playing live. The film is your musical director.”

It all points to a band that have been re-energized and found a new creative surge, thanks in part to their work with producer Adrian Sherwood. “We did the album in three or four days. We were so finely tuned it was easy,” insists Savale. “We’re sounding better than ever.” It’s hard to disagree.

Check out ADF’s new album More Signal More Noise and catch them performing the THX 1138 live soundtrack throughout October.

Kevin Irwin

Kevin Irwin

Kevin Irwin

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