When did your fascination with music from the Indian subcontinent begin?
I first heard Indian music through The Beatles. I loved the temperament and drone strings of the sitar, and its approach to melody. Even the tuned percussion of the tabla, which is like a melodic version of the drums, instantly appealed to me.
I’ve been using the tabla in my music ever since. Even on your solo projects, you have a lot of collaborators from the East.
(Laughs) Yeah, I think my personal sound is very international. I’m interested in musical character through sound.
I’m not a world music scholar, and don’t go looking for exotic music. It has just become easier to find what I like. Earlier, only compilation CDs of world music would be available, but now, music stores have huge sections on world music.
When did you first hear Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music?
I knew of Nusrat’s music, because Peter Gabriel was his fan and had worked with him. I was attracted to the spirit, character and scale of Nusrat’s voice and music.
Peter had heard my solo album, Hybrid, on which I used drones and tuned percussion, and it was he, who suggested that I should work with him.
How convinced was Khan about the collaboration?
Even though he didn’t know me, Nusrat was up for it. I feel gracious that he gave my experiments the benefit of doubt. Peter had released an album of his traditional qawwalis but I wasn’t aware that he was diverging from tradition when collaborating with me.
It was an exploratory process and we had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t. We just wanted to make good music.
Could you tell us how songs were created for Mustt Mustt? What came first — the music or the vocals?
It was a circular process, actually. I would have simple backing tracks prepared with rhythm and guitars, and the idea of a melody. He liked some, and he would sing along.
Based on what he sang, I’d modify the tracks and create full-fledged songs.
Was language the most challenging part of the collaboration?
In a way, yes. I had recorded Nusrat for four days and spent the next six months editing and developing the tracks. I didn’t understand the lyrics, and went purely by music.
I edited the music, but wasn’t aware that some of the lyrics had become discontinuous. It wasn’t possible to give a copy to Nusrat before the release, so when the album came out, he faced a lot of criticism. It had been done innocently, but it was considered sacrilegious.
(Chuckles) So for our next album, Night Song, we didn’t use any qawwali and whatever he had sung, I translated phonetically. He was graceful enough to team up again.
How knowledgeable was Khan about Western music?
All the albums Nusrat had released earlier were his recorded performances. Our collaboration was like architecture. He became a lot more aware about the creative studio process by the time of Night Song.
Night Song released six years after Mustt Mustt. How was its process different?
During Mustt Mustt, I had a 30 minute analog tape, on which I would record Nusrat’s vocals. But Nusrat was used to singing for two hours, and by the time he would get warmed up, I would have to rewind the tape and record again.
For Night Song, I made sure I gave him enough time to explore and experiment as long as he wanted. I didn’t want him to be dictated by my music’s structures.
Did you pick up any Urdu along the way?
(Laughs) No, after Mustt Mustt, I stayed away with the qawwali entirely. My job in the collaboration was to compose the western music. I believe that when people from different cultures come together, they should find a harmonious way of bringing their own influences to the mix, than emulating each other’s work.
So, what do you think it was in Khan’s music that so captivated the West?
Nobody’s been able to say why his music was so appealing. His voice just had a universal appeal and an indescribable quality that people loved, though they didn’t understand the lyrics.
There was magic in his voice that transcended cultural barriers. When the West listens to Indian music, they don’t know the goal of the music and it’s just exotic to them.
But people found a rare purity in Nusrat’s music, and they just couldn’t help listening to it over and over again.
What is your fondest memory of him?
I always think back about the moments when he was recording Mustt Mustt in the studio. It was thrilling to watch him sing happily with his group of ‘qawwals’. It was more a of social gathering than a music sitting.
Which is your favourite music from the collaboration?
I like Night Song over Mustt Mustt, because we built upon our work in the album. Though Mustt Mustt had a certain rawness, we took the music further with Night Song.
Why haven’t you worked with anyone from the Indian subcontinent after your collaboration with U Srinivas?
(Chuckles) Nobody asked me! I did a concert with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan two years ago, and we were supposed to work on an album together, but his contract didn’t allow him.
I would love to collaborate with Indian musicians, but to be honest, I haven’t been following Indian music too closely. It’s the thrill of the unknown that works for me — the fact that you don’t know what you are getting into or how it will turn out.
Have you heard of A R Rahman’s music?
I have, in fact, recorded music with Rahman in his studio in Chennai a year ago. We have spoken of collaboration but haven’t planned it.
He is incredibly talented and I’m glad he is finally getting recognition — it was long overdue.
What made you take up Road, Movie?
I think the producers were aware of my work and they approached me. I took it up because they wanted an exotic, other-worldly score, and didn’t want Indian elements in them.
You’ve given scores for Academy-nominated movies, An Inconvenient Truth and Into the Wild. How has scoring for an Indian movie been different?
It’s like cooking meals. The technique is the same each time, but the ingredients are different. The score for Road, Movie is purely instrumental and I have used the acoustic guitar a lot.
I found the progression of location in the film and Into The Wild to be similar, and gave each location a different musical identity.
What are you coming up with next?
The entire music industry is collapsing so doing film scores makes more sense right now than releasing private albums. But I’m trying to develop a music application for iPhone.
I didn’t know the lyrics, so I edited the music but wasn’t aware that the lyrics had become discontinuous. Nusrat faced a lot of criticism for it Mustt Mustt and Night Song.
Mustt Mustt (1990) was the first Qawwali fusion album collaboration between Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook. It was rock musician, Peter Gabriel, who suggested that Brook and Khan work together, and the album was released on Gabriel’s Real World Records label.
Night Song (1996) was the duo’s next collaboration, and was the last album on Real World Records that Khan lived to see finished. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1996.