Shiva Soundsystem’s founder, DJ and broadcaster, Nerm, talks to us about his punk rock origins, Shiva Soundsystem’s wild stage act, and his excitement about the future of Bombay’s electronic music scene.
Nerm, the founder of London electronic collective Shiva Soundsystem, started his musical journey in the late ‘90s as the frontman of English punk band Charged. Charged was a band that bucked trends. “We were doing stuff that wasn’t really popular, just something original and new. Charged was fun, and we did well getting covered significantly by the British press. One of my childhood dreams of being in the NME, a cover spread and all that, was realized pretty quick,” explains Nerm. Charged’s final tour included a performance on the main stage at the Exit Festival, to a crowd of 20,000 people. Charged sort of imploded after that, and an idea for something even more, um, charged was born. “The excitement I felt from playing live shows, I wanted to combine with the sort of technical aspect of a DJ gig.”
Nerm’s punk rock origins carried through to the Shiva Soundsystem aesthetic. In fact, most people refer to Shiva Soundsystem as “one crazy-ass live band.” Nerm articulates that for us, “Yeah, I think there’s always at least one of us beating the shit out of each other on stage, in a show of brotherly/sisterly love. I’ve been beaten up by several females on stage and I have no shame in admitting it. That’s where the fun is. That’s the sort of punk rock vibe we like to bring. And I think the performance aspect comes from the fact that we all love live music. For me, with DJing, the possibility of fucking up adds to that excitement, same like playing an instrument and fucking up a note, snapping a string or a drum stick, or your voice breaking in the middle of a song. It’s the same on the deck when you fuck up a mix. That potential to fuck up spurns you on, it kinda puts you on an edge. And that edge, you have to transmit, and if you’re gonna be on that edge and be constantly worried, then you’re fucked because you’ll just stand there stationary. But if you just let go and enjoy the rush, that adrenaline rush to succeed when you fucked up, that’s what gives us that dynamic stage presence.”
Nerm best explains the idea behind Shiva Soundsystem, “Well, what I discovered DJing, while just playing around with stuff as a kid, is that there’s a way to make two tracks meld together. And then with musicians, you can do this with whole, in a really organic way and make something new. And that’s always been the driving force – to create something new. Doing that with musicians back in 2000 was really exciting, there was a lot of youthful energy back then and it kind of organically grew into this vast collective, just like a snowball going down a mountain and becoming an avalanche.”
The early Shiva Soundsystem project went from being instrumentalists supporting Nerm’s DJ sets, to a high-energy, live drum ‘n’ bass act. They’ve been around ten years now, and they tour India annually. I asked Nerm how he felt about the progression in India’s EDM scene, considering the fact that he’s had the chance to watch scenes grow, first obviously in London, and through his touring, in India. “Going from playing clubs like Fire ‘N’ Ice and Mikanos ten years ago and then having to play in 5-star hotels and getting thrown out of every single 5-star we played in because we relentlessly didn’t play whatever commercial or house cheesy bollocks that was popular at the time hardens you a little,” says Nerm.
London has no shortage of places to take your weird, alternative music. In fact, you’re welcome to take your weirdness to the streets even. And subcultures tend to give birth to areas where artists can express themselves freely. Bombay, as diverse as it is from a social and cultural standpoint, still doesn’t have places that can serve as outlets for creative expression, especially in the field of music. One place does to come to mind. And once again, Nerm knows, because he was there when it all took shape, “It’s fantastic that places like Zenzi opened up and really changed things. I think Zenzi in particular is really important in the history of Bombay’s music (check out this obit for the venue by the Ed). It sort of galvanized everyone who was doing something a bit strange and different,” explains Nerm with what I can only describe as nostalgic look in his eyes. Nerm is quick to acknowledge Bombay’s reputation as a city where something is constantly going on, and even makes a comparison we don’t hear often. “I say this every time I’m here. The first time I came here on tour in 2000/2001, it felt like early ‘90s London where something was happening. Even now, it feels like something is happening, and it’s great because after ten years of growth, it has the potential to become stagnant, but it always feels new here.”
These days, big and small-ticket indie electronic acts constantly pull larger crowds to shows than most live acts. It surely can’t come down to an argument about the quality of music from each of those spheres, so there has to be an explanation rooted in new-age consciousness, in personal tastes, in the need to explore different genres of music. Nerm loves it. He expresses how he feels about the new. “I think what’s really humbling is that every year we come out here and every year there’s people in the audience we’ve never seen before. There’s a whole army of new kids that come out to our shows now. That’s touching, there’s a whole new generation of people rising up. Because they’ve grown up on a diet where EDM is mainstream, I can’t wait to see what their reactions are, what their answer is gonna be to that question. At Shiva Soundsystem, we fought against the norms of what was supposed to be commercialized popular music. We wanted an alternative, and that has become mainstream. So what’s the alternative to the alternative? That’s really exciting.”