Akash Bansal is a writer, filmmaker, DJ, and programmer currently based out of Toronto. Their expanded poetry practice includes video, sound, performance, photography, as well as more traditional forms of text-based poetics. Their recent work has examined borders – both real and imagined, between people and places, and especially those within ourselves.
We just went to Public Sweat, and I know that you had a part in curating some of the music for that, but it also reminded me that you're really adept at fitting sound to spaces. Maybe first tell me a bit about what you did with Public Sweat and what that project is?
Public Sweat is a project that my friends Rui Pimenta, Layne Hinton, and Chris Foster put together. Really the genesis came from Chris who, at some point, became sauna obsessed, and a decade ago built a sauna at Artscape on The Toronto Islands. He started having these informal sauna hangs called Sauna Sundays one or two Sundays a month through the Winter. It kind of grew organically to be this sort of all-encompassing thing where people came and brought things to do while they weren't in the sauna. Maybe they'd knit, or do some sort of creative thing, or maybe bring instruments and start improvising and jamming. So over that decade Public Sweat germinated for the three of them. I feel like there’s also this parallel sauna, wellness, sound bath world that emerged in Toronto that feeds into the project. The whole thing came about very organically.
So how did you get involved? And what did you do?
I went to a Sauna Sunday last Fall and they were talking about wanting to have live music in the space but also that they're very taxed, and I just said if you want some help, I'm happy to help. Literally over some chilli after a sauna.
I feel like that is your vibe. Something happens because it's a part of nurturing a community, fostering friendships, and a direct one to one connection.
I mean, that's how we started working together all those years ago.
Ya, we met at TCAF in 2014. I was doing a publication project called Swimmers Group, making zines, comics, and publishing poetry. I was the first table at the doors, and for whatever reason, when you walked in we had this direct connection. You were so engaged with whatever was in front of you that it made me immediately connect to you. Yours is a very warm and inviting personality, and I think it contributes to you as a kind of facilitator, or the invisible hand moving things behind the scenes in a gentle and non-intrusive way. So when it comes to music, do you find your personality contributes to your DJing sensibilities?
First of all, that's very, very nice, thank you. I would never say it the way you did, which was very beautiful, and sweet and generous. But I think that it's probably true if I think about it, how I've become a part of the things I am a part of. How I got here feels almost incidental. For me there's these root things that I've been obsessed with forever. I don't think this comes across on the internet, or in a space where I'm DJing, or for all these people I've met in my late 20s who know me as a certain type of figure involved with music, but the root for me has always been poetry, and literature. That's always been the heart-centre of everything I do. The way that germinated or manifested was through music, through lyricism, and then later through a sort of buried affect in tonality and aesthetics, especially as my interest in poetics shifted more towards form. And so I just find myself in these spaces, where there's this thing that I'm really obsessed with or interested in. After a while someone's like, “Hey, do you want to work for me?” I never really wanted to be a DJ, sometimes I really don't identify as a DJ still, but I was really into radio. When I was in university, studying screenwriting and poetry, I got involved with the campus radio– CHRY. Many thanks to Ian Gormely who really let me do whatever I wanted there. Later there was a space on College, next to Brass Taps, called City Beat Records and Toronto Radio Project (TRP), and I feel like so many ideas and things that are happening in dance music in Toronto now, like eight years later, originated there. I would go there every week when they put out new records. After a while, Fraser Lavender, who co-organized the project, was like, “Who are you? You come here literally every week exactly when we put the records out. Do you want a radio show?” So I guess, yeah, there's a sort of community-oriented incidental feeling to it all for me.
Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you were originally interested in poetry and literature. Where did that interest start?
There was this amazing program that the York Region District School Board ran called Arts Camp, which was essentially an enrichment art camp. I think it's still operating. So, if you were living in the YRDSB, you could attend between grade seven and twelve. Basically you would miss a week of school, and they sent all these buses with, like, 250 kids in them to this Jewish summer camp they rent out for a week in May. It was still like eight hours of classes a day, but it was a heartfelt creative space, where I think a lot of roots of creative practice started for me. I was a really anxious, insecure kid, and definitely a misfit in my own way, and in this space all the freakiest kids from every school would come together. In hindsight, many kids were closeted, or modelling gender-neutral or trans identities before any of us had language for that, and to me, they were the coolest kids at camp. They had classes like Blue Man Group where you made your own instruments, and then you would devise a collective composition together, and perform it. For me, it was these slam poetry free writing classes I took that planted the seed for writing as an outlet.
And you were a teenager, so you were also sort of semi-rebellious maybe?
Yea, absolutely. It's funny, going back to our conversation around my attraction to intimate relationality, and the feeling of belonging or placemaking I get in relation to things that I'm doing, and how necessary it is for me to feel that connection in order to pursue something; I feel like Arts Camp was the root of that form. Some of the people I met there I still am in touch with as friends. They were some of the most magical educators and peers that I've ever had the opportunity to spend time with. * * * I want to just name this briefly. I feel like lately with a lot of the mixes I’ve been making, I’ve enjoyed seeing them as a mixtape with an A-side and a B-side, with a clear distinction between the two. So, I was just going to say there is something funny and synchronistic about us pausing our interview and picking it up a few days later, and trying to rethread the needle. I feel like, with my East Room mix, it’s like two takes on a certain aesthetic of music, let’s say like a 90s hip-hop aesthetic, and they’re kind of flips of the same thing. First half is very rap heavy, and second half is the abstracted or downtempo, hip-hop influenced, beat tapes style.
[Laughs] I love that, I love the connection. I think instead of trying to stitch it together as something seamless, we just honour the displacement in time. So, where do we start again?
One thing I hope translates in this interview is that we have this sort of dynamic from spending so much time together. It’s just so nice and refreshing to pick up where we left off, years later.
It’s just an ongoing conversation.
That time I worked with you was such a funny one. It was when you moved Swimmers Group and you would pick me up from my house everyday to go to Mississauga.
I don’t think we’ve actually talked much about it on record. So, I guess you eventually asked to work at Swimmers Group, because at the time, I was inviting people to come into the studio to learn how to make books.
It was like a paid internship.
Exactly. Though a lot of people know you as a DJ, and a lover of music and vinyl - and a deep collector - you are also a lover of poetry, and literature, and community, so Swimmers Group was kind of an opportunity to engage with all of that.
Is that what interested you about coming to Swimmers Group?
I mean, it was cool. You made a cool project, and it was legible enough that there was something you could sink your teeth into and connect to, but also experimental enough that it felt amorphous, or formless. It could take the shape of whatever vessel it wanted to be a part of. The projects you took on with Swimmers Group were so diverse, and I feel like so many brilliant, talented, and incredibly intelligent people wanted to collaborate with you. I guess I’ve always been interested in editorial, and magazines, and over the years I’ve tried to start magazines, or had a zine press, to varying success. It was a really interesting experience. I didn’t realize how much manual labour is involved in making a book.
It doesn’t always have to be, but we kept ourselves busy.
Everytime I came in, there was something. We had to troubleshoot a printer, cut three hundred books down to size, lift boxes from here to there so we could find a place for more boxes… I distinctly remember printing and cutting hundreds of promotional postcards that we had to mail to every library in the country.
Bringing this back to music spaces, and community, I later went on to work with this amazing label, shop, distributor, Seance Centre, and I feel like I understood what the job was supposed to be and the materiality of that kind of day-to-day work, because of Swimmers Group. I feel like some people have a romantic notion of making books, or working at a record label, but it kind of kicks you in the ass, you know? I remember my first year working there, it was my birthday, and we had to move all of the records two cubes over so we could make space in the ‘W’ section, but it was like thirty-five to fifty of those little Ikea squares. It took me hours and hours to take all the records off the shelf and then put them back on. I had friends who kept coming by to wish me happy birthday, bringing me beer, bringing me donuts, and I was just trying to keep up with this social dynamic while moving five thousand records over two squares.
What a scene. Tell me a little bit about what your job there was, and how you got into it?
It was a pretty nebulous role. Spaces like that operate on such a shoestring budget, so there’s usually a very small handful of people who are involved with the project. My job was everything from working at the record shop, selling and doing retail, to filing and doing the discogs page. Then I started to source deadstock records. Basically, it means some person made a record in let’s say 1980-something, and maybe they’re a little bit of an outsider, or maybe they never released it, and as you know Seb, when you take on a project like that you end up with boxes full of shit in your basement. So, I would write to these people, telling them how much I loved their music, and that Seance Centre would offer to sell their records through the shop. Then we ended up signing some of those people to do projects for the label. Eventually I did a bit of A&R. Ran their brief Lot Radio show. A lot of things. The role was emergent. It’s funny, when we started this interview, you asked how I got involved with Public Sweat, then how I started working with you, and when I think about it, as we’ve been talking about, my participation in some of these projects really are so incidental. The relationships all developed out of a social space; interacting with someone, and connecting with them, and later asking for or being offered a job. Which is how I started working at the Little Jerry, this amazing hi-fi record listening wine-bar small plates restaurant. I started working there because one of the owners, Jodie, used to serve at another restaurant and when I’d go there we’d connect over music and wine. Her and her partner Saad run the Little Jerry, they were always at every after-hours party and had the sickest moves. They would be there to dance. They were just so soulful, there for the music. So I started working for them, and Seance Centre started doing a night at Little Jerry, and then years later, I was working for both, which was driving me absolutely bonkers, because I would work at the bar till like one or two in the morning and then open the record store on a Saturday.
When you’re young, you got that energy.
I don't even think I have that energy. I just really wanted it.
We're talking about all these various occupations you've had, but you did mention to me something that I think is starting to come out a little bit more. I think you have a knack for identifying what a space needs and, like you're saying, with each role you shape the role around what was needed, which is a form of listening. You are responding to what’s needed. I remember you just casually DJing when we were working on projects together, and being like, “this is exactly what I want to hear right now.” I don't know what impulse that is, but it's very unique. And it's something very particular to DJing and DJs.
Totally. I feel like I'm starting to enter these spaces a bit more where I do a little bit of freelance stuff, working from home, and it's quite startling how solitary of an experience it is. Sometimes it's kind of lonely. But there is a sort of privacy you're afforded. In my late teens and twenties working in retail and service, I wasn’t afforded that privacy; I existed in the public. And I think maybe there is something about that experience, where you kind of figure out a way to negotiate that feeling. For me, music was always the gateway into poetry, it was a resonant form for me to engage with my mood and emotions. My desire is to connect with something deeper and more spiritual. Maybe that has to do with growing up as the youngest of a very extended, large family, and there being a lot of music around. Growing up, it was a lot of dancehall, bhangra, bhajans, hip hop, and pop music. I guess that became my way of seeing myself or listening to myself. And what you're talking about when we're working, it's like, the music was the way I created solace for myself in these boring, horrible, or distracting jobs. When I was eighteen years old and started working at Starbucks, the first thing I did as soon as the manager left was figure out how to rewire their sound system to not play happy, Happy Frappy Hour playlist and instead play what I wanted. I'd have my iPod and put on The Silver Jews at the Starbucks on University and Richmond, in the base of the Hilton Hotel.
I’m sure a lot of people are very thankful that you did that.
I really don’t think so [Laughs], people definitely complained.
Would you say that playing music for others and selecting music, and shaping a space through music, is a form of language for you? Similar in a way to poetry?
Sure. DJing is so interesting. I totally have this self-effacing relationship to it sometimes, but, you know, it is and can be incredibly technical and formal. In terms of what you're speaking to, I feel like it does have so many relationships. When I started DJing, through my radio show Tender Buttons, the whole thing was trying to mimic poetic forms through a certain style of selecting. I don't know that it was legible to anyone but me, but it was looking back to Gertrude Stein, to some of the things she was exploring in her book Tender Buttons. The way she was playing with language, cutting language, the way she was engaging with semiotics, breaking relationships between signifiers and signified through wordplay. I think I was really trying to dissolve styles and scenes, create a new syntax where we can move between a recording from 1934, or 1987, into 2014. Or move seamlessly, or not seamlessly, between house music, jazz, and boogie, and then play a recording of Eileen Miles reading a poem, and then go into Mary J Blige. I wanted to see if it was possible to create these open meanings, or create new syntactical relationships between seemingly disparate aesthetics or styles. At the time, I was thinking of Frank O’Hara and his poetry’s relationship to Jackson Pollock. This idea of surface tension. This push-pull technique. I don’t necessarily relate to this now, but I think it was really on my mind when I started DJing. The depth doesn’t come from perspective, from 3-dimensions, instead it stretches across a flat plane. Something that happens an hour in is speaking to something that happened five minutes to the end. You know, I have so much respect for hyper technical DJs who are so dialled into a super small subset of music, and over the course of a two or four hour set you maybe move from where you started, but it's all finesse, it's a gradual shifting, like abstract textural changes, slight switches of cadence or tone. For a long time that was not what I was trying to do.
It makes so much sense then why one of your musical touchstones is Robert Ashley. Can you talk a little bit about what he means to you?
He’s so cool.
He is so cool.
That’s all I gotta say about Robert Ashley, he’s so cool. Well, I don’t remember how I learned about him, but the way I formed a relationship to him was at York University. There was this amazing sound and moving image library that had reel to reels, records, tapes, 8mm and 16mm films, DVDs; a lot of which you could only watch or engage with in the library. There was this copy of Perfect Lives, the Backyard, by Robert Ashley, and I listened to it again and again one semester when I had a really long gap between classes. Since I didn’t live on or near campus, I would go into the library and listen to records in the archive. He’s part of that Mills College scene, you know, all these freaks who were experimenting with synthesizers, new music, new forms, and he would create these rambling talk operas.
For me, the connection ties into what you’re saying about how forms are not exclusive to themselves, but can break apart and dissolve into each other, and draw in different media, or forms of language, or communication, and turn it into art that is beyond the party. I mean, we love the party, DJs are all about the party, but you’re also communicating something.
The tiniest bit of Robert Ashley biography that I find so striking is that so much of his work, the thing he is known for, is this extremely measured, formal vocal delivery. He’d compose these spoken orchestras. On the surface, they seem kind of banal– it’s just people talking. A layer of voices. The chorus will come in and it will seem like just talking, slightly out of sync, but actually it’s super precise. Part of Robert Ashley’s interest in exploring work like that was that it was incredibly difficult for him to speak in that way because he had a stammer. So it was this physically difficult thing for him to do, and it took him a long time to be able to compose and perform. He was very disciplined and rigorous. I always find that so striking. On top of being exceptionally beautiful music, he was always an outsider, and I’m always attracted to these figures who persist with an idea even though they may be scared of exploring it. Artists that keep pushing a boundary, that are obsessed. It’s not this sort of art making for the world (although his significance is increasingly recognized and his work is more accessible online than ever). For Robert Ashley, investigating this somatic phenomena to his unique embodied experience of the world around him seemed so challenging. In a way, it’s a project of selfhood.
Is there a connection between collecting and what you’re describing here about listening to these outlier individuals who are creating almost despite ambitions of recognition?
I think there is, but one thing I appreciated about working with Brandon at Seance Centre was that he really opposed the language of ‘discovery’ that can emerge in record collecting circles. The music’s there. It’s for everyone, even if it’s not presently accessible to listen to outside of records or a mix or Youtube. Discovery for me is more of a personal journey. It’s less to do with finding the “unknown” and maybe in the way that I read Robert Ashley, it is a project of selfhood, it’s about seeing myself and listening to my desire. Maybe my attraction to these outsiders is that I’ve always felt like one and when I listen to them, there’s a sort of communion, a feeling of being seen. I do want to set the record straight however. I feel like if you spoke with a lot of these outsider musicians who self-released something at any point over the last 50 years, they probably had deep ambitions of recognition. Probably there are often other things going on too – this sort of implicit need to express oneself that many of them felt, or this rugged self-determination to create alternative modes of production, publication and distribution of music – to challenge some sort of status quo, but I don’t want to make it seem like the freaks were all intentionally trying to obscure themselves. I think at the end of the day, the music industry didn’t know how to read them, how to make space for them or maybe their vision was too forward thinking. At the end of the day the music industry’s always been a machine and either you fit, or you don’t. But at least with the Internet, I feel like this middle ground has become possible.
I think that’s an important distinction to make. The heroic interpretation of artistic working can be detrimental to the personal experience of both making it and it being in the world.
Yeah, going back to this record-digger figure, this sort of “gem collector” or “discoverer” narrative, I find it really unsettling. There’s something very colonial about it, like it’s an expedition. I have a complicated relationship with records. They’ve been so formative for me, and it is such an instructive medium for me to learn about music. To take pause and meditate with music. I feel like it’s therapy sometimes. I’ll go to a record store if I’m stressed out and just flip through the bins to occupy my mind. But this idea that there is some greater good that is going to happen from “discovering” something that “hasn’t been heard” for forty years is… confusing? And then there’s all sorts of economics that are tied up into it too. Sometimes it feels like playing the stock market or trading sugar. I don’t know... I still buy the records. [Laughs]
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