It has been a big year for San Francisco-based DJ/producer Atish. The past twelve months have seen him travel around the world and perform at many iconic music festivals including Burning Man , Desert Hearts & Strawberry Fields.
While his current life may be moving at a startling pace, the story of how Atish got here follows a slow and steady narrative, taking place over the course of seven years. This week Atish was kind enough to discuss his unique journey to becoming a DJ/producer and his debut Melodics lesson ‘Twiddles’.
You moved to San Francisco over 8 years ago which really exposed you to the underground scene. Tell the story of how you managed to acquire your first set of Technics 1200 turntables and how this got you going as a DJ?
Back in 2010, I had already been collecting vinyl for a few years, but never tried my hand at DJing. I was at a friend’s after hours and I saw that he had quite an impressive record collection, which I half-jokingly made an offer to buy. He initially declined, but 2 weeks later he sent me a message saying he’s leaving town and needs to unload his record collection ASAP to make some quick cash. I ended up buying the collection, and as an added bonus, he included two Technics 1200’s. At that point, I figured I should learn how to mix these records since I now had the gear to do it, and that’s how I stepped into the world of DJing.
Looking at your Soundcloud page you published your first mix back in June 2010 and have been very consistent in producing a new mix each month. How has this helped build your career and how far in were you when it started to snowball?
I attribute most of my following and career progress to my monthly Soundcloud mixes. Back in 2010, Soundcloud hadn’t taken yet the dance music community by storm, and there weren’t many DJs releasing mixes every month. So at the time, I had a lot of music to offer with less competition for people’s ears. This was fertile ground for me to build a solid organic following over the next few years. I think if I started my DJ career today using the same strategy, it would be much harder to progress at the same speed since a Soundcloud mix has less value now than it did in 2010. The sheer volume of mixes, podcasts, and DJs has increased like crazy over the last 5-10 years.
Things really started moving for me after my 2012 Robot Heart set was released. 2012 was one of the first years when the outside world really started taking interest in Burning Man culture and music, so I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That set caught a fair amount of worldwide attention which opened a lot of new doors for me. Luckily I had a decent back catalog of Soundcloud mixes for people to browse if they wanted to hear more of me beyond the Robot Heart set.
A really unique part of your story is that you were a software engineer at Facebook before taking the plunge into becoming a DJ. Are you able to talk about how you made this transition? Was it an immediate shift or a gradual one?
It was a pretty gradual shift for me. I never had any intention of being a professional DJ. It was quite the opposite – I remember thinking that I would remain a hobbyist so I would never have to compromise my artistic integrity by depending on my art to make money.
But even as a hobbyist, I was touring domestically and overseas using vacation days or taking unpaid leave. I was coming into work dead tired on most Mondays. Beyond that, I was saying no to more and more music opportunities because I couldn’t make the time to take them on. The more I said no to things, the more I started considering making the jump to being a full-time artist. I wanted to know what my potential was. From a practical perspective, it turns out that I happened to be making just enough income from my gigs to at least cover my living expenses, but philosophically, I don’t want to be 100 years old looking back on my life regretting, wondering “what if I had made that jump?” So I spent about a year contemplating, deliberating, and having several discussions with friends and family, eventually deciding that it was time to try out this “artist thing” and see what happens. I’m really happy I made that choice. I have the best job.
You have also said that seeing how much you could grow as an artist was a big factor into why you left Facebook. What have you learned about yourself in terms of being an artist since leaving?
This won’t sound very romantic, but I have learned some of my limitations. I’m learning that even though I want to do everything, I can’t. I’m learning that taking on too much work can reduce its quality or my motivation. There’s only so much time and energy (mental, physical, emotional) that I have, and the task of managing these resources is as important as the actual creative process itself. It took me about 18 months of touring full-time to learn this about myself.
You have a great story about how you were fortunate enough to open for Lee Burridge at WMC by being at the right place at the right time? Can you explain this story and the impact it had on your career?
In 2011, I was project managing a series of boat parties my friend Gunita was throwing at Winter Music Conference in Miami. One of the boat parties featured Lee Burridge + Craig Richards (Tyrant) as the headliners. Due to a family emergency, the original opening DJ had to back out of the gig at the last minute. At that time, I had only been DJing for a few months, but Gunita gave me the opportunity to take over the opening spot. Lee must have liked that set, since just after the gig, he invited me to play his night at Robot Heart at Burning Man later that year, which is a really high profile gig. Playing Robot Heart in 2011 was special, but in the bigger picture, that opened the door to me playing Robot Heart in 2012, which as I mentioned earlier, opened a lot of doors for me.
Some would look at that moment and say that you were very lucky. Do you believe in luck or do you think you make your own?
For instance, in the above example with the boat party at WMC, it was pure luck that the opener had to back out of the gig (bad luck for him, good luck for me, I suppose). That was completely out of anyone’s control. But at the same time, there was a reason Gunita chose me to open instead of another artist with a bigger name or more experience. I suspect that’s because she appreciated my work ethic and attitude that she already saw from me as the project manager for her parties – I gave her 100% in the work I was doing, so she knew I would give her 100% for that opening gig slot. And again, I was really lucky that Lee happened to be thinking about his Robot Heart lineup when he heard me open for him. But at the same time, I worked my ass off preparing for that opening boat party set. I suspect he wouldn’t have invited me to play Robot Heart if I bombed the set, so all that work I put into preparing for that set inadvertently capitalized on that lucky timing. So I don’t look at lucky breaks as singular moments in time – I see lucky breaks as opportunities that emerge out of high-quality work.
But even if you’re good at what you do, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get those breaks, which is where the other half of the answer comes in: creating your own luck. If you want more out of your career (or more out of life for that matter) you can’t sit around waiting for DJs to tend to family emergencies. You have to create your own opportunities. For me, it was releasing monthly Soundcloud mixes, starting my own record label, throwing my own parties, networking with other artists (even though I’m an introvert), offering to help people like Gunita…hell, even quitting my job. These are all pieces of the puzzle that increased my chances of getting more and more of those lucky breaks. There are no guarantees in life, but I do believe you can increase your odds.
You have just released your first EP named Peculiar Colours on your label Manjumasi. Were you nervous at all about making the transition from DJ to producer? Why did you think it was time to move into this realm?
One of my biggest insecurities I carried was the fact that until the point of releasing that EP, I was “only a DJ.” DJing is a beautiful artform and undoubtedly has its fair share of challenges, but it’s harder to be a good producer than it is to be a good DJ. So I always had this cloud hanging over my head that I wasn’t working hard enough or I wasn’t as good as everyone else. I know that’s an unhealthy way to think about things, but that’s simply the reality of how I felt. So I had 2 choices: see a therapist to sort this out, or release a record. I chose the latter
This might sound backward, but I think most producers have the luxury of releasing their first record without anyone noticing – they can just get it out of the way and move on. But here, I already had a sizeable following. People were waiting for my first record, and to be frank, I wasn’t (and I’m not) as good a producer as I am a DJ. So I had to mentally prepare myself to be judged on something that isn’t a home run. So yes, I was nervous. It’s like, would you rather lose your virginity in the privacy of your own home, or with 20,000 people watching on the internet?
“I realized that many good things that have come my way came because I either treated people well or did someone a favor without expecting anything in return.” This is a very powerful quote of yours. Can you provide an example of how good things have come your way on the back of treating others well?
I think a good example is the one I already touched on, which was helping my friend Gunita throw boat parties in Miami. I did this on a volunteer basis – I wasn’t expecting to get paid, and I definitely wasn’t expecting a DJ gig out of it. I just saw someone who could use some of my help, so I offered it. 6 months later, I’m playing on top of Robot Heart at Burning Man.
Watching some of your sets online I have to say a defining characteristic of yours is how animated you get when behind the decks. Has this been the case since day one? Where does this stage presence come from?
I started playing violin around 5 or 6 years old, so I had been performing for large audiences in concert halls as long as I can remember. I definitely wasn’t dancing around on stage with my violin, but I think my comfortability with being in front of a crowd stems from those early experiences. I’m actually more comfortable dancing around on stage than on a dance floor.
You are releasing your first Melodics lesson this week called Twiddles which is a track off your new EP. What can users expect from this lesson?
There are two lessons – one lets you finger drum the percussion, and another lesson lets you play along with the lead melody. Both of them definitely took me a few tries to get them right, they aren’t easy. I have to say it’s pretty surreal seeing my own track used as a tool to help people learn, I think this whole thing is really cool!
How did you get involved with Melodics and what is it about the platform that excites you the most?
As a full disclosure, I’m actually an investor in Melodics. I think Sam, the CEO, reached out to me because I have experience in both the technology and electronic music space. He knew I would be the type of person who would immediately understand what Melodics is doing. I think finger drumming is really cool, but I’m most excited to see if, down the road, Melodics can revolutionize the way we learn how to play more traditional instruments. Perhaps Melodics can be today’s equivalent of the Suzuki Method.
You play the drums have those skills transitioned smoothly when finger drumming?
For sure. I think many same parts of my brain get activated when doing finger-drumming. I remember when I was taking drum lessons and learning some more complex patterns, I would sometimes get stuck – it was tough translating the written notes into drum hits. I eventually grasped the challenging patterns by not thinking about each single note hit, but rather by feeling the beat as a whole. I found that this same approach to finger drumming has helped me progress through some of the harder lessons. Maybe that will help you too!
With the release now in the books. What do you have planned for the rest of 2017? Any big goals?
The biggest problem I’m trying to solve this year is time management. How much time do I need to spend touring in order to have fun, stay relevant, and make enough money to live comfortably in an expensive city like San Francisco? How can I balance that touring time against running the label, producing music in my studio, seeing my friends/family, staying in shape, and maybe even being in a stable relationship. I don’t really feel a strong urge to be more famous, have more fans, or top the charts. I really just want to have all the variables in place for a balanced, artistically fulfilling life.
For more on Atish check out his social media channels