Arjun Vagale is India's biggest techno DJ. Throughout his 16 years in the game, he has gone from jamming with Goan folk musicians to releasing on some of the world's biggest techno labels, including Tronic, Bedrock, SCI+TEC, Octopus, and most recently, Pleasurekraft's Kraftek imprint. Through his own label, MakTub Music, he has dedicated himself to helping other up-and-coming Indian producers make their way into the scene―in the same way that artists like Dubfire and Richie Hawtin once helped him. Beyond the hypnotic presence of his musical output, Arjun is an all-around good guy with an incredible story. THUMP caught up with him before his set for Soundmind's Octopus Showcase at CODA in Toronto.
THUMP: A lot of the interviews you've done in the past have focused on your Indian heritage. How do you feel about that?
Arjun: One of the reasons I moved out of India and to New York was [also] to breakaway from that fact. This year, I was doing fairly well in India and getting a lot of gigs, but I wanted to get myself out of the country and move elsewhere to gauge my appeal [to listeners] solely based on the music. I might be hot-shit in India, but I'm a nobody in New York. If I get anything [here] it's because of my music. That's really what I've always wanted.
The more recent success must give you a great sense of legitimacy, then.
Absolutely, people tend to pigeon hole you depending on where you're from. In all honesty, I'm the most confused person ever. My dad was working in hotels when I was growing up, so I've travelled to every possible city in India. I've been in like nine schools in 12 years of an undergrad and did college in three different cities. Since I've been DJing professionally, I've been travelling in every which way. So, it's sort of like a vagabond life that I've been leading.
What's the earliest impactful musical moment that you can remember?
The thing is, I've sort of been obsessed with music for a very, very, very long time. Ever since I've been about this high [gestures about 3-feet high]. My dad was working in hotels when I was a kid―that's also where my family lived. Each of these hotels used to have a lobby band. When we lived in Goa there was this Goan folk band that played at the hotel we happened to be living in. My mom has pictures of me standing with a toy guitar with the band, pretending I'm playing. I feel like it started there.
How did you tap into underground music?
The group of friends I had were all into music. Some were into heavy metal, some were into hip-hop, and some were people bringing around Chemical Brothers CDs and Prodigy CDs. We were all like, "shit, this is crazy stuff."
So you got into it, in part, through the first XL Recordings?
Yeah, exactly that kind of stuff. We used to play a mixed bag―throw in some funk, some Prodigy, some hip-hop. There weren't any genre-focused club nights back then. I remember this one time, a friend went to Singapore and brought me back a Spice Girls record. I was like, "fuck, you got me Spice Girls? We're too cool for that." But I listened to it and it actually had this really dope remix of "Wannabe" or something on it. I played the shit out of it, and all the DJs in the city started coming to me and asking me to borrow it. Clubs started booking me because they found out that I had this 'exclusive' music.
It's cool how being a DJ is such a social experience even when you're not partying. Do you have a personal hero in music or elsewhere?
Today, I look up to guys like Ali (Dubfire), Richie, Carl Cox. These guys really inspire me because they're relentless. They're going at it―25 years in the scene and they're still re-inventing themselves. Ali is a really good friend of mine and he just started his new live thing. I saw it and I was really blown away. It's really inspiring to see these people who are at the top of their game but they're still doing new stuff. It motivates you to never stay still. You can't get complaisant, you need to keep pushing at it. I'm still amazed that they support my music.
I've seen Richie support you on the Richie Hawtin live Twitter feed. I like how he doesn't feel the need to hide the tracks he plays.
It makes me think that if Richie hadn't supported my music, that avenue wouldn't have opened for me. The amount that he's doing to push artists by putting them on his feed. They're obscure artists that people wouldn't know otherwise―the exposure level when he plays one track is huge. I remember last year he played this one track of mine like 32 times during the season. It was a bit of an older one called, "She Said."
What have you heard about Toronto's current scene?
Everybody talks so highly of the scene in Toronto. Like Carlo, Junkies, they're good friends of mine. Last time I was talking to Carlo, I told him that I had a gig coming up in Toronto and he assured me that I would love the scene. Apparently the crowds are very receptive here, so you can play whatever you want. Other places in North America sort of have this vibe that you need to play 'hard.' Almost like you can't play eclectic stuff… right?
Well, to defend us Canadians: the US and Canada are two very different things.
Right, that's what Carlo said. He said, "Toronto is actually a different thing completely." So, I'm really looking forward to playing some real music tonight.
This article was written by Nick Yim, you can follow him on Twitter: @theoldny