I first met Vish Kalra some eight years ago, when we were both waiters in an Indian restaurant near Union Square. Little did I know, at the time, that he had descended to this role from the heights of near-celebrity in Bombay, India, where he and his wife, Rachel Sacks, were owners of a popular club, which often got them page six treatment in the press. The club sought to bring different kinds of music, sound, atmosphere and food to India. And ever since they met 10 years ago, they’ve been collaborating on many creative projects that aim to bring something new and different to the table.
Now in New York, where they’ve lived together since 2005, they’ve been recording psychedelic trance and chill-out music under the name SuKhush where Vish DJs and Rachel plays the flute, improv style. The combination of her instrument and the decks makes for an unparalleled fusion of otherworldly, ethereal sound. (The name means a higher state of happiness in Sanskrit).
Even though they are disappointed, at times, that there isn’t as much of a psytrance scene in New York, as there is in Europe or India, they want to play their music here particularly because there is room for growth. Rachel, who has lived all over the world (including Bangkok, Bombay, Manila, Geneva, Paris and Toulouse) and is originally from California, calls New York home because of its potential to do, or be, anything you want here.
Psychedelic music is their main jam, but they dabble in a lot of different types of this genre. Just like they worked with many different types of music and instrumentals at their club. Their music, like their lives, has incredible range. And they love psytrance particularly because you can do so much with it, as it’s so complex and multi-layered. They never want to get stuck on just one genre. They want to continue to learn, expand and evolve their own sound, as well as draw inspiration from many other areas.
What Rachel found in playing with Vish is the harmony of the electronic and the organic that, instead of being at odds with one another, can complement one another. Ever since the industrial revolution, there has been this opposition between man and machine, the electronic and the organic, the instruments and the turntables, the clockwork and the orange. But if we can do away with all these mental blocks and silos, the two can actually happily coexist and become one entity, Rachel says.
And if you’ve ever met Vish and Rachel, you’d know that they also exist as one entity. They met one night at an outdoor psytrance party, during monsoon season in India, where Rachel had been living for two years, managing an HIV prevention study in a public hospital there. Vish noticed her because she stood out. “I just kept looking at her feet. She had one flip-flop. Her feet were all muddy,” Vish says. (The other flip-flop got lost/stuck in the mud, but Rachel kept dancing without it). “I just thought it was really cool. There is this girl. Obviously not Indian, but she knows everybody, from the DJs, to the organizers of the party, to the dealer, to the fucking ghetto trash.” Vish says. “Everybody knew Rachel and she had one flip flop and, I was like, ok, I’ll give you a ride.” They went back to Bombay in the same car and “bonded for life” that night. They opened their club soon after. It became popular quickly, but the constant media attention became a nuisance and they lost some of their biggest club nights to more mainstream music, which led them to eventually sell the club and move to New York together.
If you’ve spent time with them, you’d also know that they’re extremely picky about everything: from the DJs they book for their parties, to the people they work with, to the people they befriend, to the types of restaurants or bars they go to, to the wine they drink. But all of it goes to this inexhaustible quest for quality, refinement and perfection—a bar they’ve set for themselves and hold everything else in their lives up to.
Vish now manages money for himself and a few friends and is working on opening a bar focused on psytrance music, while Rachel does independent public health consulting. This allows them the freedom of making their own schedules and traveling whenever they want to. They used to take off to Goa, the mecca for psytrance, in the summer and now play gigs at music festivals in Europe. They recently got back from playing festivals in Germany and Bulgaria and sat down with me at a cocktail bar in Williamsburg (they’ve introduced me to some of the best cocktail and wine bars in the city in the time that I’ve known them) to take me through their journey.
A: How long have you been playing the flute, Rachel?
Rachel: Since I was 9. I’m 42 now. I played classical music in a school band, like everybody else. I was good at it, but I wasn’t really into it at the time.
Later, when I was living in Asia, I played it more on my own and it was like suddenly discovering a new instrument. The first time I did anything with it, other than playing classical music, was when I played it with a percussion band in Manila. That was a big deal because when you train classically, it’s really hard to do anything else. No one thinks about the flute as anything other than a classical instrument. When I was growing up, even my own flute teacher, who was a well-known jazz musician, said you can’t play that on the flute; the flute is not a jazz instrument. So I had all these doors shut on me. It took a really long time to get out of that mindset. But once I did, in my 20s, I started to play with bands, and then I learned to DJ and I started to integrate that when I was living in Thailand.
When I moved to India, I started to DJ and play my flute at the same time. No one was doing that in Bombay in 1999, so it was a wide-open field for me. I was able to take advantage of that. I did a lot of studio stuff back then, but I was mostly trying to explore this realm, where I would play with house music back then. And that leads into why we opened the club.
A: Tell me more about the club…
Rachel: I met Vish at a time when I was playing all these gigs around Bombay, but there were no clubs for good, clean sound. There was this one club called Jazz by a Bay that played “jazz” (quotes, hers) that had the worst sound on the face of the earth. It was very frustrating to play those gigs. So when I met Vish, we decided to open our own club.
Vish: It was called Tres Botas (three boots). We had it for three years. It was India’s first tapas bar and performance space. We wanted to do something completely different and we found this ambitious young chef, who wanted to work with us. And Rach wanted something with the vibe of a downtown Manhattan bar, something rustic. Everything else in India was very cheesy and white at the time.
We did different types of music nights there. Monday nights we did psytrance, but we steered clear of it the rest of the time because the club was very unique to its concept. It was also about getting live musicians with electronic sound. We introduced Bombay to a lot of things: tapas, house music, San Francisco dub step, among other things.
Rachel: Cheb I Sabbah, one of the original global groove DJs out of San Francisco, did the opening party. We played with David Starfire from Los Angeles. The Dutch consulate got a jazz group down. Tuesday night was a gay and lesbian night, which was the first ever in India. Gay sex/sodomy was illegal then. We were in the papers all the time for that. We were threatened a few times. But Vish had a good relationship with the police, so we benefited from that.
We were also the first club to do different kinds of music every night. We had hip-hop on Wednesdays. Thursdays was our cosmic down-tempo/global-chill night. It featured me doing a version of what we really focus on now. First I played with DJ Sarikah, who is still active on the Indian scene. It was also the first all-female line-up in India and it was the first real ethno-chill night with live instrumentals. This night kind of laid the groundwork for SukHush.
Vish: Friday was house music, Saturday we did mainstream and Sunday was the live jazz night. We kept switching it around, too. She was the music and I just wanted to do something groundbreaking and global in Bombay.
A: Tell me about the genesis of SuKhush…
Rachel: When we owned our club, I used to DJ and play my own sets. Then I would collaborate with other DJs, first playing house music and later moving into psychedelic chill-out, where I really found my groove. At psytrance parties, there is usually supposed to be chill-out, especially in the kind of psytrance that we promote and play. It’s very intense music and you should always provide a space for people to get away from that. So I was playing chill-out with other people. But I don’t think we ever saw the project the same way.
Vish: They would always play separately from Rachel. They would be in their own zone. They didn’t really connect on stage. Because her whole skill-set was improvising, she was really good at working with whatever they threw at her, but whenever there would be an issue or something went wrong, they would be so focused on their DJ sets, that they wouldn’t pay attention to her. This was very frustrating for her, and I could see that, but I was not interested in chill-out at all at the time.
We had one event that we did where she had a horrible experience, followed by another event recording a set with somebody that I trained to DJ from scratch for a party. He did it and he loved chill-out, so he wanted to play with Rachel but he actually had ADD, so he had a lot of problems coordinating with Rachel’s flute. She had such a frustrating experience and she said, “Vish, just listen to this music for a week. I really need you to play with me because I have nobody else to play with. And I can’t trust anybody else technically or as a DJ.” And the first set I played with her, I have never felt so sensual and sexy and really beautiful. It was like making love to her in front of an audience. Our first gig together, it was literally like I was wet all around. I have never had that feeling before.
When I play darkpsy, it’s like I’m in complete control and I love being the person that can guide the audience through a different mindset. But with chill out, it’s this slower tempo and it has this really sensual element. And then having Rachel on live flute, when I put on my headphones the first time I played with her and heard it, I was like “ahh!” (here he let out an inspired high-pitched noise, that I can’t do justice to in writing).
She still made all the sets herself and I would play with her and keep an eye on her and make sure I modulate at her level, so that it sounds together. That was the biggest problem: it never really sounded together. That’s why I got into it and I love it now.
Rachel: This electronic vs. organic thing is incredibly challenging for people on all sides—instrumentalists and DJs and producers. There is a great divide. As an instrumentalist, I’ve always been interested in the electronic side, because I feel like the electronics can really enhance what you’re doing. But I learned to DJ in 199 on CDs in Bangkok. It’s now 2013. I don’t DJ anymore and people are still having the same issues. Instrumentalists often don’t want to open their minds to true collaboration and negotiation.
Vish: It’s also the DJs and producers. Especially in psychedelic music, as it’s still the highest in the hierarchy and one of the most alternative genres, so most DJs and producers who produce it really well are complete Prima Donnas about it. But that leads to a mental block to working with instrumentalists. They actually use a lot of jazz and a lot of classical music for inspiration when they’re producing in a studio. You’re fine with them in a studio. But when you perform with them, it’s a big divide.
And with Rach and me, ever since we’ve been business partners, it’s about the whole project being one. It’s not about two separate entities playing. It’s about being one fucking entity. If I think a sound, she will play it for me. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy playing as much as I do with Rachel, out of the question.
A: When did you move to New York?
Rachel: In 2005. I really needed to sell the club and get out of there. I was always in the papers. I was very uncomfortable with that. That’s not me at all. I like to perform for people when I’m performing. I like to engage with the crowd, but I’m not into that Kardashian thing.
Vish: It became a page six all the time. We started losing our nights. First we lost Saturday as an alternative night, then we lost Friday, which was a big deal to us. We were really depressed and then we lost Thursday, which was our biggest night, because Rachel was billing with different DJs from all over the country. We started losing a lot of things to mainstream parties and Bollywood nights.
And you couldn’t party either because everywhere you went you were “the club owner.” So there was always somebody hounding us, there was somebody behind us; there was some photographer. We had become socialized. I was trying to enjoy myself at a party and something would be posted in the paper the next day.
Rachel: At some point, I was going to a coffee shop with Vish in my neighborhood and these girls were taking my picture and giggling. I remember turning to him and saying, “I’m getting the fuck out of here. I’ve had it.” And that’s what happened.
I always joke about how CSI saved my life. There was this time, right before I left, when I’d go home and watch CSI before going to the club. I was really into the original. And I said to Vish, “If I’m watching CSI and really liking it, we need to go.”
I was ready to go home. New York was always my home. I lived in the East Village in the 90s. In between Thailand and India, I lived in the East Village for a number of years. Thirteenth street was home.
When we got to New York. We wanted to go to psytrance parties, thinking we would connect with the community here. But we went to one party and it was horrible. It was like a rave. Kids with glow sticks.
Then we met a group of Russians, who were throwing some good parties and we started going to those. Later we decided to start throwing our own parties. We wanted to show them what a real psytrance party was like. We threw the first party, on my birthday, in August, 2006, in the old Galapagos space (that’s now Public Assembly).
Vish: Psytrance is really about a journey. We’ve been around for eight years now, and whether you love us or hate us, one thing everybody knows is that we’re picky about our lineups.
Rachel: High quality sound and a good journey, that’s all I care about. I don’t care if we don’t even like each other, or don’t want to talk to each other ever again, but if you’re a good DJ that can mix well and can create a good journey that’s right for the time slot, we’d love to have you. In psytrance, all the tracks are about 10 minutes and it’s all about layering and telling a story.
There was a DJ that was supposed to play at our first party in New York that backed out at the last minute so Vish learned to DJ in two days.
Vish: I was working at a prop trading firm at the time and I took two days of sick leave and I spent all day and night learning the set that I was going to play and that’s how I started DJing. I’ve DJed most parties after that.
Rachel: It opened a door for him into something he never knew he loved. He always loved music. He was a great dancer. When I met him, he was always dancing at evey party. But DJing was something he never explored and then he just got into it. He’s really talented on those decks. He treats DJing the way people treat an instrument. It’s like performance art. For me, to play with him is such a pleasure. What Vish and I do, maybe it looks easy, but it takes a lot of planning to improvise that way and I don’t know anyone else who can do it the way Vish does.
A: What attracts you to psytrance in particular?
Vish: When I play dark psychedelic music or the harder faster psytrance, it’s about my audience. I want to take them on a journey, where I give them multiple opportunities to open multiple doors.
People associate this music with: you have to trip or you can’t enjoy it. I think that’s stupid. Once you open a door with any psychedelic music, you don’t need any help. You just need that little push. As a performer and a DJ, I want to introduce people who have never even heard this music to people who heard this for years and take them on a trip of my own. And I love being in control. I’m a control freak. I want to be the tour guide. Let me take you on this journey.
Rachel: For me it’s how I connect with God. I know everybody has their religious issues, but I definitely believe in God. And I have no trouble calling it God. It’s just a force. It’s in all of us. And to deny the world God is foolish to me. (Note: I’ve known these people for eight years, this may have been the first time we talked about God).
A: What have been some of your biggest creative challenges?
Rachel: I think it’s the clique-ish-ness in New York. People are very slotted into what their doing. It can be a really useful tool, if you’re an artist, to be really focused on what you’re doing, but it also turns into this ghetto-ization of different projects and genres. I missed the 90s underground in New York, after having been away in Bombay for so long. But when I came back, I was disappointed in how people were really slotted into their own little group.
I always thought of the underground as a phenomenon. The underground is there whether you want it to be or not. And it’s all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. I always say that you can find the vibe of Goa here more in the Burning Man community than in the psy trance community. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s there. But all these communities are plagued with this sort of clique-ish-ness. That can be really demotivating. It weighs on my mind a lot.
Vish: For me, the challenge has been boredom. I’m getting to a point where I’m getting bored. But I’m glad that we still get involved and play gigs and travel. Before I went on this trip to Europe, I was really uninspired. I was excited about my gigs, of course, but I was still very uninspired.
One of the pros and cons of what Rach and I do is that the bar is too high and if you keep trying to reinvent the bar, then your own bar is getting higher and higher whenever you play. Rach and I have been playing together for seven years and we’ve never played the same set twice. It gets tougher and tougher for us, because the more we evolve and the better we get, the further we want to take our stories and lineups and music. We want to bend it. We want to change it and there is only so much we can do, without producing our own music. And I don’t think I’d want to produce my own music because I’m a better editor. I’m a better remix artist than I am a producer. I don’t have the time or patience for it.
When you have a frustration like this, where you feel like you’re completely bored with something you’re really passionate about, it’s tough. You can pick anything that you’re passionate about, like you with your writing, and imagine that suddenly you have nothing to read; nothing to get inspired by. Everything that’s coming out is crap, according to you, and then you get to this really scary zone.
But, at the same time, that’s the beautiful part about what we do. This year, after we came back from Europe. It’s been the complete opposite. I’m actually more inspired. I have more ideas to pursue. I think you learn to deal with the challenge as much as you play. Most people, when they go through the stage that I went through this year, they either give up or they start producing. And producing is not my thing, but I know I can’t give up, either.
But I love challenges when it comes to taking the bar higher. If somebody asked me to play with a jazz band, I’d love to. I’d also like to learn to play percussions and do that with Rachel. That would be a great challenge that I’d love to pursue.
A: Do you still go to Goa?
Rachel: We haven’t been back since 2011. Goa is really special for both of us, but it’s also changed a lot. If you go to Goa and put your feet on the farmland, you can just feel that it’s an amazing place. There is something beautiful and surreal about it. There is this energy emanating from the earth that you can feel. We’re really involved in the psytrance scene that has developed from Goa. And when we go back there, it’s great to see everyone.
But now it’s changed. It’s become more mainstream. There are a lot of resorts and tourists. So we decided, a couple of years ago, that we need to stop being so attached to it and go see other places. The world is huge.
A: So where has that taken you?
Vish: We’ve actually seen a lot of other places. We’ve travelled much more. And we’ve been doing festivals in Europe in the summer. We still get to see our friends (from Goa) there. This summer we just played Tangra in Bulgaria and Fusion in Germany. Last year we also played Freqs of Nature in Germany.
A: How do you pick your gigs?
Vish: It’s not just about playing bookings. If we wanted to play bookings, we could be in Europe all summer. It’s not about playing as much as possible. It’s about playing three quality gigs and taking that break that we normally took for Goa.
We are one of the only chill-out artists in this genre to play both sides of the music really well. If we pick the right festivals, then we can see our friends, have a great vacation, rock out a crowd and that works out really well. And I think going forward, it only gets better for us, where we can choose from a number of gigs.
For every artist, every musician to be able to choose from a variety of gigs, instead of asking for gigs, is a great achievement and luxury. Playing Fusion, for example, was a big honor. I’m very happy if that will lead to other things. Right now, for us, choice is the best thing. Next year we have eight festival bookings that we can choose from.
Rachel: The thing is, our kind of music, this genre doesn’t live in America. Festivals in Europe are great. I’d rather play the summer in Europe than anything, of course. But at the same time, we really try to bring this music to mainstream audiences. I want to be that messenger. I think we’re good at playing this music at any venue. With psychedelic chill-out, people don’t know what it is, necessarily, but it doesn’t hurt them. It goes really well with art events, yoga events and all kinds of things. I’m always looking for more opportunities for that. When we first started, I was frustrated by the lack of awareness and support for this kind of music here, but I look at it now as more of an opportunity to try to spread the vibe here.
A: Why do you think there isn’t much of it here?
Rachel: It’s very complex music. I think people tend to like simpler electronic music here. If you look at electro, going back to the 1980’s, techno is very regular. House music is the big electronic music here. I loved house music in the 90s. It was new. It integrated different elements, like vocals and instruments, which hadn’t been done before. It was exciting. I used to go to Paradise Garage and Body & Soul every weekend. I loved those places. But it’s 2013, and they’re playing the same beats over and over again. We can do a lot more with electronic music now.
I think a lot of it also has to do with advances in technology. It’s much more open to people participating. Anyone can be a DJ; anyone can be a producer and that’s great, but it’s creating mediocrity.
Vish: That’s exactly what’s happening in America. At the end of the day, you can treat art in two different ways. You can either take art and say, I’m going to create the next big thing that’s going to last for, say, a decade. Or you can take what’s been created so far, filter all those creations from the last decade, take the most evolving creation and take it to the next level. And that’s all you need with any kind of art form. And the problem for America is that they don’t want to evolve anymore. They want to regurgitate. I feel there is no evolution in America.
Rachel: I don’t mean to sound like America is dead. There are things happening. The West Coast has some really interesting stuff going on and some good producers. But, for us, it’s not psychedelic, it’s not complex, it’s not atmospheric. It’s very glitch and dub step oriented.
The big challenge, particularly in New York, whatever kind of artist you are, is that there is always the push to be a superstar. Everybody is very ambitious here, but few people are very talented. They just want to get gigs and be popular.
For us, it’s about opening a doorway, as Vish was saying earlier. And I think American producers aren’t making that kind of music.
A: But then why live here?
Vish: Because this is the perfect spot and the perfect timing for us to introduce our music. It’s a great challenge, but it’s also one of the biggest markets with great potential.
When Rach and I play our music here for random groups of people, they’re very intrigued by it. It’s just that, somehow, it’s never found its way into the mainstream in the right form, or in the right medium. And I feel that is also what keeps us in New York—because that’s going to be the next step for us. We want to open a bar with this music, as a mainstay, just like we did in Bombay. There is no other place in the world like New York to try something like this. Would I try it in Berlin? Yes. But Berlin already has a market for this.
Rachel: We don’t live in New York just for the music. We live in New York because we want to have free range. I’m still working in public health. I have clients here. I’m still very intellectually engaged in that field. I still want to contribute to society in that way. I love the museums. I love the parks. I love the people. Even though I made a comment about people being ambitious here as a negative, it’s also a positive. I love the fact that people are always pushing here. New York is the best city in the world. And I’ve lived in many of them.
Vish: It’s very rare that you find producers in other places who are involved in every walk of life, like having a business and having a mainstream life and being involved in other things rather than just being a party promoter or a producer. I could wake up one day and I could go to the Met. I could wake up one day and I could go see the opera. I could wake up one day and I could see a jazz festival. I could wake up one day and do something else.
Rachel: It’s the city for people like us. I am really passionate about this music, but I just want a full life, I want it all. I want to be able to do whatever the hell I want. And in New York, that’s possible.