By Guest Contributor Ashok Kondabolu, cross-posted from Asian-American Writers’ Workshop
Amrit Singh is the executive editor of music blog Stereogum and the mastermind behind the newly released documentary short Dosa Hunt, which features Singh and his music pals (Ashok Kondabolu and Himanshu Suri of Das Racist, jazz musician Vijay Iyer, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, Alan Palomo of Neon Indian, and Anand Wilder of Yeasayer) searching for the best dosa in New York City. (Interview magazine calls it “part No Reservations, part Big Brother, part something smarter.”) Singh was a lawyer who blogged on nights and weekends, until his review of a Sufjan Stevens concert brought him to the attention of Stereogum founder Scott Lapatine. Here, Singh satiates Kondabolu’s curiosity about where he was on 9/11, why he chose to write about the Sikh tragedy on a music blog, and what he has in common with Pharrell (hint: it has to do with tattoos).
Dosa Hunt ends its premiere run tonight at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.
Ashok: Hello, this is Ashok. I’m with Amrit Singh of Stereogum at The Woods on 9/11/12.
Amrit: I’m DJ-ing a wedding this weekend which, yeah, I don’t usually do that.
Whose wedding is it?
It’s a friend. Her name is Jenny Slate. She does a lot of comedy. She just recently moved out to LA.
Ah, Jenny Slate from SNL.
“Marcel the Shell.” Saturday Night Live. Bored to Death. She’s great, and she’s getting married up in Boston. You know, you never wanna fuck up a wedding. Because, it’s everyone’s special day.
They’re usually pretty easy to DJ.
Yeah, but also—I imagine for some wedding DJs, it’s always potentially lucrative because they can get more business but, if they fuck up, it can be kind of anonymous. ‘Cause nobody knows who the wedding DJ is. In this case, it’s like a very personal affair so, if I mess up, it comes back to me.
You grew up in Queens, Long Island?
Yeah, Queens, Long Island, and then a Philly suburb. So I was in Queens until like three, four—then Valley Forge. Where there was not a battle fought. Everyone always thinks there was a battle fought. In Valley Forge, there was a long winter spent where Washington whipped his troops into shape, and the troops that didn’t get whipped into shape died from just—
That was that Valley Forge?
Yeah. That’s the Valley Forge. So there wasn’t a battle, unless you consider a battle against the elements. There’s also that very famous painting of Washington sailing down the Delaware River to take out the Hessian mercenaries from Germany. That was that winter; he kind of snuck out from Valley Forge and went down the Delaware River and came back. He had a house that was right across the street, which was an amazing place to go, uh, do bad things when you’re a kid (laughs).
I’m gonna talk about the piece you wrote. Me and my friend years ago went to a community board meeting, and something came up involving Sikhs and the guy kept saying “sick.”
“Sick.” That’s proper pronunciation.
This is huge.
Pronounced “sick” not Sikh.
The interesting thing about that is “sick” means like, “seeker” or “learner student.” So actually “seek” if you’re translating it right.
Right. That’s wild. Well, you wrote a piece after the shooting that—when was that, was that last month?
Yeah, that was last month.
So what prompted you to include that on Stereogum. That’s, like, a music site.
Totally. So that happened on a Sunday, and on the Monday, news started coming out about this dude—Wade Michael Page —news started coming out about his involvement in the hate-rock scene. And I was very feverishly absorbing all the information I possibly could in fits, really distraught fits. But I used my time blogging that day as escape from that. So I would go back and forth between my Stereogum duties and then reading what was going on. At no point when I was reading the hate-rock stuff did I think that this was, like, some sort of an opportunity for me to write about it on Stereogum. My mind wasn’t engaged that way.
Of course, yeah, of course.
It just wasn’t and my employers probably wouldn’t like to hear this, but my mind simply wasn’t engaged in a way—like how can I turn this into page views, you know? And then I saw Spin do something, and I was, like, okay cool—Spin’s doing it. And then I started just thinking about the fact that there were these sites that were speaking to the demographic that I usually speak to—who were saying something about the tragedy and bringing some light to it. And I stopped thinking about it: the fact that there would be a vast commercial angle to writing about it on Stereogum, and I just thought about the fact that, well, people are gonna be getting this information from these other sites.
Of course. Who probably aren’t going to read a news website.
And then I started reminding myself that Stereogum actually is a platform. That it’s a platform that I helped create and cultivate. As a means of expressing opinions. Granted, they’re about music, but ultimately, it is a means of expression. And there was just a moment where I was, like, you know, I do have this platform and there is actually an interesting aspect to the fact that there is music implicated on both ends, on both sides of the equation. The Sikh faith is hyper-musical. All the means of connection and ultimately the path to enlightenment is ultimately predicated and based on vibration.
And one of the means to attain that spiritual sound is through kirtan, hours of kirtan. There’s gonna be some sermons, there’s gonna be talk about Khalistan, and there’s, you know, the politics… but at its heart, it’s about devotional singing.
Khalistan, what is that?
Khalistan is basically a construct. It exists only in the minds and hearts of certain factions of Punjabi Sikhs, who would like to see that portion of Punjab secede from India and be its own independent Sikh state. Khalistan otherwise doesn’t exist; it’s not acknowledged by the United Nations.
And depending on the gurdwara you go to, you’ll hear a lot about it or maybe you won’t hear anything about it. I like to hear nothing about it when I go to the gurdwara ‘cause that’s not the reason that I go. But I understand that that’s a congregation place and that’s something that’s on people’s minds and people talk about it there. Regardless, most of the time, at any gurdwara, there’s gonna be kirtan. So essentially—and this thing struck me and became sort of like the realization that wound up inspiring the rest of the piece. The piece really just wrote itself. It was just that, this dude, this hate-rock dude, really made a name for himself singing in some of the most influential hate-rock bands.
Which is a funny sentence to read.
Which is funny, yeah, it really is. (Laughs.) But this guy shows up to a gurdwara, where basically the people convene for music for diametrically opposed ends. And it’s sad, that most of these tragedies—you know we’re sitting on the anniversary of one—but most other tragedies are really quickly forgotten, particularly one involving this sort of a minority.
Yeah. But I was really taken by the fact that there was deep symbolism on every end of it. There’s this musical aspect to it. There’s also just the mere fact that this guy was a hate-rock stalwart to the point that he had tattoos that were hateful. Just explicitly wearing them. And one of the six or seven people that he killed that day was the American dream—erected an American flag in his front yard. You really can’t ask for more extreme symbolism. If you were a film screenwriter, and I was your director, I’d be, like, you need to tone that down a little bit. It’s almost like a caricature. But it’s actually true, you know. So all these things—I just found there was an opportunity to talk about a lot of the issues that were implicated. Bring a little light into the situation, in terms of my specific perspective, which I realize was one that wasn’t being represented elsewhere.
You mentioned that you used to wear your hair in a jura. And then you talk about an incident where you came home and you cut it. That was in New York?
That was when I lived in New York, yeah. I think that the turban is this sort of lightning rod and the jura is to some degree or another. I can’t say how much worse I had it than any other kids. But I got it pretty bad. It wasn’t to the point that I would characterize my childhood as being unhappy or particularly oppressed in some way—like, I still had my best friend with his blonde hair, a Jewish kid who was super cool, and I had no problem getting along with the reasonably-minded, or regular-minded, white kids. But I definitely felt it and there were specific incidences where I could recall an intentional misunderstanding of this going-on with my headdress. I’d go to a public pool with my friends and be having a great day until some kid’s like, “You should be wearing a bra. Woah, look at that girl not wearing a bra.” And I clearly wasn’t a girl. I hadn’t really honed or refined my now sparkling and dazzling comeback wit, and at the time I was just like, I don’t even know what it is, how I should respond to this. And I feel shitty about it. So that kind of stuff happened, and I don’t recall these incidents being very numerous. But it’s the fact that the first time [my mom] ever heard me complain about it, she took me to get my hair cut, which is kind of amazing to me, thinking back. Just one day I came home and cried, and my mom took care of it, which like—props to my mom. She’s amazing. That’s a really difficult thing to do, particularly for a Sikh family in the 80s, to make that move.
Did she get a lot of shit for that?
My family did. Yeah…
Yeah. There’s a really sort of vibrant, catty Sikh community that my parents were a part of.
Do you remember what you were doing on 9/11 eleven years ago?
I was in law school in Madison, WI, and I used to work out like crazy back then. It was one of my ways of escaping the crushing reality, the fact that I was in Madison, WI. Running, weight-lifting. I’d get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, run four miles, lift for an hour. I was like in crazy shape. (Chuckles.) But that was just one of those things. And, um, they had this huge Gold’s Gym. They had these huge television screens, almost movie-projector-sized televisions in the gym; it was this massive complex. They used to show the morning shows (The Today Show, whatever) and—I saw smoke coming from the towers. They just had that on, but there was no sound in the gym.
So I was, like…that’s weird, some crazy fire. And then I watched the second plane go in and, uh—
And you’re like I gotta get the fuck outta here.
(Laughs.) I’m like, two more sets, and then I’ll go. No, I was out immediately. I went back to my apartment, went to classes; I had a lot of classes. My course load at that point was interesting with respect to a tragedy like that; I was doing a lot of international law. I was at the International Law Journal at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Law School, and so we were talking about it there, but very briefly that day, and I remember just walking out—they set up some security perimeter [around] the state capitol building, which looks exactly like the national capitol building.
Right, I was there recently on tour during Occupy Wall Street to see what was going on.
That town is a liberal; it’s a progressive city. Not that Wisconsin was such a backwards place—it’s actually a pretty progressive state. But at this point, they’d set up a security perimeter around the capitol building, and I was born in Queens, I’m a New York kid and, you know, moved out to Philly suburb when I was twelve, thirteen. And a lot of my life, from that point on when I moved to Philly, was all about this quest to get back to New York. I really felt like for a while the universe was trying to keep me from getting back to New York. I felt like I had to swim upstream to do it, and I arrived—obviously things have been great since—but I’ve always carried this pride of being a native New Yorker with me. Always. And on that day, it was inflamed, obviously. And I appreciate the need and concern to put a perimeter around a building like that, because no one knew exactly what was going on. But I had a sense of what was going on. And I had a sense that we were safe—
I got really upset actually at my classmates who hyper-localized it and really freaked out and I kind of [felt] like, we’re taking on an air of drama for the wrong reasons. Not in terms of the more global, broader conscious, but just in terms of the drama around what’s going on around the capitol building. And I had all my thoughts turned towards what was going on where something was actually going on. At a time when I was certain that people were just trying to get out of Manhattan, I was just wishing I could be getting there.
You know, I’ve been thinking about your art rap project. I’m always fascinated by the degree to which that catastrophe was figured into the origin story of Das Racist. And I mean, Hima’s so outspoken about a lot of that stuff. And he’s done a lot of writing and stuff, but do you feel like it’s been similarly impactful upon you?
I don’t think so. I mean, Himan seems to be a bit more weary of the post-9/11 South Asian racism and stuff like that. To be honest, some part of me kind of, not welcomed it, but when I saw somebody looking at me a certain way after that, I would want them to have said something, so I could beat them up, and it rarely ever happened. (Chuckles.)
And I would be disappointed by that.
So were you a physical kid? Would you actually start fights?
Not much at that point. I fought a lot between the ages of 18-20, and then I saw the Michael Hutchence Behind The Music, the INXS one, and he hit his head against something while getting into a fight with a cabbie and lost his sense of smell. After that I was like, Wow I could blackout drunk, get into a fight that doesn’t matter, and wake up and not be able to smell. And maybe not remember why for the rest of my life, I can’t smell. That was one of the reasons I stopped. I also kept getting beaten up.
(Laughs.) Both good reasons. Yeah, you don’t wanna lose your sense of smell, ‘cause then you’d lose your sense of taste.
How did Stereogum start?
Stereogum absolutely started as a response to that place that has always written about Led Zeppelin. So like, Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner (fumbles with the name, then laughs). I think it’s probably a good thing that I don’t run in circles where people are just constantly dropping his name who actually know how to pronounce it. Old media heads, like Jann Wenner, just didn’t embrace the Internet. Rolling Stone didn’t really develop rollingstone.com until relatively recently, left a gaping void for sites like Pitchfork and ultimately, Stereogum.
Spin didn’t either.
Spin didn’t either, and this is what happens when these paradigm shifts come. You know, the ones who are entrenched and comfortable where they are don’t recognize when they’re coming. So that’s the story that gets played out with respect to Stereogum’s origin story. Scott Lapatine founded it. When Scott founded it, he was working at VH1, where he had a whole bunch of access to promo material working at VH1. He was also working on the digital side.
He started [it] in 2002, as a livejournal. And it was really calibrated to amuse his now-wife, as all great art stories go. It was to woo a girl. But he had a really fun and, ultimately, indie take on pop culture. He wrote a lot about Britney Spears, but in a way that took her down a peg in a fun way. But also celebrated what was sort of amazing about her. While also being like, I’ve got the new Interpol mp3, because nobody else knows how to rip shit. He just had an interest in things like Britney Spears and pop culture like that and was very funny. He was the editor of the Cornell humor magazine, and he also had an interest in indie rock, always had—he’s a music geek. And he had digital smarts. So he developed this livejournal and was posting mp3s before labels needed to police them. And basically that combination of talking about indie rock, but also getting the amazing Google traffic that the Britney Spears content provided—he was one of the leading Britney Spears bloggers along with Perez Hilton and stuff—catapulted him to the front. He was one of the first mp3 blogs, but also became quickly one of the most-trafficked culture blogs, and then he brought me on. I approached him.
How did you know him?
Um, I started a website—I moved to New York after law school to make music. I’m a musician by heart–I’m a frustrated musician, that’s what I do. I moved to New York to make music after taking the bar, sitting in my parents’ basement making music after law school. My dad was very fond of that decision.
I got a job as a corporate attorney. I had no time to make music, but I had plenty of disposable income. And I had my nights, was seeing a lot of shows–and, in searching about the new bands that I was learning about, going to like Bowery Presents shows or whatever, I discovered blogs. I discovered Stereogum, I discovered Brooklyn Vegan, I discovered basically a ’zine culture that moved to the Internet, and I was fascinated by it. I’d send links to friends along with my own reviews of shows as a way of sharing the amazing music scene that I felt I was discovering. And my friends were just like, you know, what you’re writing to us in an email is often superior to the things you’re linking to. You ought to consider starting a web site, which I think was both a means to encourage this new line of creativity for me, ‘cause they knew I was frustrated as an attorney….and also as a way for me to stop clogging people’s inboxes.
And that’s the way it went. Honestly, I got extraordinarily lucky. I approached Scott at Stereogum with a review of Sufjan Stevens when I went to go see him at Lincoln Center—this thing that I wrote on a blog that I founded. I was living in the East Village at the time, so I called it Village Indian, and (chuckles) I posted a review to that. And he loved it, and he ran it. Then I went to—do you know that band the Editors?
They were just like a sort of second-rate post-punk band. Like, a derivative of Interpol, who are derivatives of Joy Division. So there’s like a third degree of separation from the source.
So it’s probably just all right, right?
(Laughs.) Monumental, monumental music. I was very proud to be participating in the culture of that moment. But I did write this review about it, and I sent it to Scott–and they were a buzzy band at the time. He had gone from wooing his now-wife to having married his now-wife, and was no longer going to shows and he was like, “This kid seems like he’s going to all the shows!”
Common route type thing, yeah.
And I love that about the job. Not that my MO with the site is to cozy up to the people I write about necessarily, but the idea that it brings an influx of amazingly creative people into my life and orbit—that’s what I love about New York, that’s what I love about life. That said, I don’t know what happens for me next. I would love to get back to playing music, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. For the last year, every spare instant I’ve had has been devoted towards making Dosa Hunt good.
Let’s talk a little bit about Dosa Hunt. What month was that that we filmed?
I could tell you the month and the day (laughs). August 25, 2011. So over a year.
I remember that day it was raining, initially.
It was raining initially, and by the end of the day, the sun came out. Happy ending. We were trying to meet up with the Dosa Man, and I spoke to him on the phone, which did not make the cut. But we did not get to hang out with him, because like you said, it was raining.
Right, he’s the guy with the mustache.
Yeah, the guy with the mustache. The cart guy, he’s sort of a dosa celebrity.
He definitely is.
(Laughs.) Until we came along.
It premieres October 5th at Nitehawk Cinema, and then there’s gonna be a screening on October 6th, and a screening on October 8th. John Norris is going to moderate a Q&A with the cast each night. And we’re gonna have dosa, and I’m not gonna say the restaurant yet, because we still have to confirm it. We’re gonna get it catered.
What’re you doing after this crazy year? I know you were busting your ass at that midtown studio. Do you wanna take on another one of these projects? Maybe soon?
I would love to. I don’t know if soon is right, because honestly I need to just decompress for a minute. I need to just go back to working my other job.
What would you do differently? Bring more cameras and mics?
I’ve thought about that. And I would, but it would’ve been a very different thing had we done that.
Change the tone.
I think that one of the reasons why this works is that there was an ownership that we felt over the day, and that was part by design and part just by nature of the day. You know, there was never me dictating the terms aside from, “This is the basic game plan.” And you know, going to Patel Brothers—that was a very spontaneous decision. That’s an amazing second act to the film, and it really grounds something about the food and also our relationship to each other there. And people started to like—I mean in the beginning everyone was, like, “What the fuck are we doing?”
Right. But then we were in full swing. I remember the jokes were flying at that point.
And that’s the beauty of it, too, ‘cause you really feel that. Like you said, it was raining at the beginning of that day. And at the end, there’s this ray of sunshine that comes directly to the camera as Rostam was like—“Look at that, it became a beautiful day.”
And again, if we were actually scripting it, we’d be like, we need to tone that down, but that’s actually the way that the day transpired. Yes, I would like to do another project like this. And I have some ideas for some sorts of documentaries that are still talking about culture and identity, but not necessarily the specific sort of culture and identity that is implicated by dosa. Like, stuff that’s a little less about our mutual amount of skin pigment.
And the production—I think that if there were more cameras and microphones and stuff that day, it would’ve changed the way we all felt in it as subjects.
Who designed the Dosa Hunt poster?
Anil Gupta designed the Dosa Hunt logo and the Dosa Hunt poster. He’s given me all my tattoos, and getting a tattoo from him is always like—
Oh, all those tattoos?
Every single one. And each time—I’ve been going for years now, about six or seven years—
Are your parents cool with tattoos?
My mom sent me to him. She found him online and told me, “You should check him out.” He was in the East Village at the time and I was, too. He’s incredible man: he just knows everything about everything and has a very inquisitive soul. The only perfect replicas that he does are replicas of masterworks of art on an incredibly small scale. So he’s in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! book of incredible geniuses—
Mona Lisa the size of two quarters stacked on top of each other. But otherwise, everything else is purely original.
You can’t come in with something, like, make this?
No, like do this—
Kokopelli on my head—
(Laughs.) Totally, but you know, he did all sorts of stuff for Pharrell and others. He’s got this really hilarious clientele that he doesn’t really talk about–super clientele, but it’s fucking incredible.
Yeah, so he’s a real G and, at least, my process with him is that he asks you to submit a written statement, and then two weeks later or whenever you see him, you go in and talk about it. Usually that is an hour long conversation (at least it has been for me), where he really puts your idea through the crucible. His waiting list is like months and months long, and he is extraordinarily expensive, but he’s worth every penny. ‘Cause by the time you walk out of that conversation, your idea is refined to a super essence. He designs it based on these more abstract ideas? You don’t have to have a particularly visual idea in mind, and he would design your idea.
Woah, that’s cool.
It’s really beautiful. And so when I thought about getting artwork done for Dosa Hunt—this is the perfect man to do it. And I talked to him about it, and he’s just like, “Man, you don’t even know who you’re asking.” And I was like, “I mean, I do know who I’m asking.” And he’s like, “No, what I mean is, I grew up painting Bollywood billboards and making Bollywood logos with my father whose name is C. Mohan, you should look him up.” I looked him up, and this dude has done every amazing Bollywood film imaginable from the ’70s to the ’90s. So he’s this iconic Bollywood designer. And he’s done Sholay and many other films, and our logo is sort of alluding—I probably shouldn’t say that for legal reasons—but it’s very much like his dad did Sholay, and this Dosa Hunt logo is very much an homage to Sholay. So it’s also an homage to his dad’s work, which is just so fucking amazing.
Mind-blowing levels, yeah.
So even Sholay meaning flames—on poster, it incorporates that, too. Sholay is in Bollywood a rendition of the Magnificent Seven; there’s seven of us in Dosa Hunt. I’ve had too much time to think about this shit (laughs), but that’s the idea.
What do you think you’re gonna try to do with the film afterwards? You’re just gonna make the festivals, that kind of thing?
Yeah, there’s definitely festival interest. And I’ve worked really hard to make sure that we all have release forms signed, all the labels have given us rights to do what we want with the film, and we can really do what we want. It’s a long short. So it’s like 20 minutes, which doesn’t make it particularly lucrative commercially from a distribution standpoint. The fact that it’s 20-some-odd minutes as opposed to 15 minutes means that most film festivals won’t want to touch it, because they want something around 10 or 15 minutes, so that they can screen more films. And that’s fine.
Do you have any ideas for a good closing interview question?
What do you think is the most beautiful thing in the world, but you gotta answer it.
I think it’s that weird, chemically-induced, altered mindscape of dreaming, where even if you’re doing a mundane thing, you wake up for a minute and are completely affected in a way that’s impossible to describe because it’s chemically-induced. Words are very limited. On the spot, I’m gonna say that.
Sweet. I’ll take that. And I’m gonna say, an honest and revealing conversation between kindred spirits.