Interview: Sunny Jain

I listen to all types of music and while music is marketed to a consumer as a genre, I consume music for it’s emotional and visceral impact. So when I compose or perform, I aim to serve the music in order to deliver just that, not a “genre”.

In Late February, Brooklyn-based bandleader, composer, dhol player and drummer Sunny Jain released his new album titled Wild Wild East via Smithsonian Folkways. On this album, Sunny recasts the immigrant as the current-day cowboy and cowgirl through an incredibly personal and beautiful musical soundscape. So when the opportunity to interview Sunny came up, I jumped at the chance. In the interview, Sunny shares how his interest in music started, his influences and of course, the new album. 

E&D: Can you tell us when you first knew you wanted to be a musician and play the drums?

Sunny: I was 4 years old when I first heard Zakir Hussain on tabla on a record that my father was playing. I was also growing up with my mother playing cassette tapes of Jain Bhajans with tabla or dholki underlying the songs. These sounds and rhythms enthralled me and I knew I wanted to play drums, which eventually happened at age 10, however, I started on symphonic percussion and drumset. My drum teacher, Rich Thompson, started me out and was my mentor till 18. He introduced me to jazz music and the drum legends (Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams). When I was 17, I knew I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life. I eventually started learning Indian percussion at age 18.

E&D: What were your musical influences at that time and have they changed since then?

Sunny: I was mostly listening to music that I liked because of the drummers at a younger age – the jazz masters mentioned above, and also Neil Peart, Alex Van Halen, Jimmy Chamberlain, TimHerbAlexander, John Bonham. Into adult life, I’ve stayed a Rush fan, but musical interests/influences changed to Radiohead, Squarepusher, Talvin Singh, and the contemporary jazz scene in NYC. In general, I’m always trying to find and listen to new music, but those are some of the artists I still go back to. 

E&D: Is there a drummer that has influenced you the most in your own drumming career? 

Sunny: Two drummers – Zakir Hussain and Neil Peart.

E&D: You are a first-generation South Asian-American. When you decided to become a musician full-time, was your family supportive of your choice? I ask because I’m a first-generation Italian-Canadian and my parents are not very supportive of my own musical endeavours. What advice could you give to those who don’t have the support?

Sunny: My parents were always supportive in the sense of not ever telling me to stop practicing, which upon reflection, is rare for parents to be tolerant of their child hitting drums every day for an hour or two. They also were at every school concert of mine and would drive me to concerts outside of town. They were fine with me studying music in university, although that trade-off was that I would continue with my math courses. I think my parents thought that perhaps I’d eventually do something else because even after graduate school, they asked if I’d go get my business degree or law degree. So I did face some pushback, but it was easily rebelled against. I think it also helped that my two older siblings were on the path to becoming physicians and so perhaps my parents were fine with letting one child stray, ha. The only advice I can give to anyone is to follow your passion. Yes, you have to find a way to make some money to live in this world, but money is not the end-all, be-all. Experiencing life on this planet should be the goal.

E&D: For those who don’t know, you founded the band Red Baraat, you’ve also worked with a slew of other artists, started a business called Jainsounds, founded the Taboo project where the project addresses social justice issues via music, formed the Sunny Jain Collective, play in the Tongues in Trees trio, formed the Resident Alien ensemble the list goes on and on. Now you are set to release your debut album Wild Wild East on February 21st via Smithsonian Folkways. Each of these projects and accomplishments are unique and seem to be held by a common thread, collaboration. Am I correct and if so, can you explain the importance of collaboration in all that you do?

Sunny: The idea of collaboration stems from my growing up playing jazz. The listening, the interaction and the playing off one another in jazz, is a truly democratic process. Improvisation is what I’m talking about. That approach is at the heart of all the musical projects I’m involved in because it forces me to really be in the moment when performing. There’s nothing more liberating to me than that. Another side of collaboration that’s important to me is in the communal sense. There was a point in my life where I was feeling discouraged by the separation of bandstand and audience. There was some sense of sterility I was feeling and what started opening me up again was playing regularly in a small club in Brooklyn with drummer Kenny Wolleson’s marching band. His spirit was open and welcoming to the musicians and the audience. And the mobility of everything (I was playing dhol at this time) was liberating. Then the first time I went to New Orleans and experienced how vital music was to the community there and how it was literally in the streets, it woke me. I remembered my experiences in India with baraat bands leading a wedding and dhol players practicing out in the streets. I recalled and realized the beauty of people singing together, as I did attending poojas as a child.

E&D: Coming back to the new album, can you tell us a bit about how the idea for the album came about?

Sunny: It started around 2016, after the election of Trump. We started immediately seeing constitutional law on attack by his actions and it felt like the outlaws of the Wild West were actually in DC – Wild East. Then when performing in 2017 at the Global Village in Dubai, I noticed that the only region/country represented by a human being, was that of The Americas – you enter this microcosm of The America’s through the split legs of a white, male, bearded, gun-toting, hat-wearing cowboy. All the ideas of Cowboys and the representation of being American started swirling in my head. I started thinking about the childhood games of Cowboys and “Indians.” Indian? My kind of Indian or Columbus’ mistake? I then started thinking about the courage and boldness my parents, and other immigrants and refugees alike, have taken in leaving somewhere familiar in search of opportunity in a foreign land. The romanticized stories of the cowboy are largely false, but certainly seem to be lived out by immigrants.

E&D: When composing the album, was it a solo endeavour or did the musicians that collaborated on the album also contribute to the writing process?

Sunny: There’s always a bit of collaboration involved with music that involves improvisation. That being said, I composed, orchestrated or arranged everything and had a sound in mind for each song, as well as the concept of the album. ‘Red, Brown, Black’ is the one song that involved the most collaboration with rapper Haseeb. He came up with the lyrics after a few back and forth conversations about the intention of the song. I had also composed ‘Baaghi’ to lyrics from a poet friend, Ali Mir.

E&D: The album fuses so many wonderful genres from jazz to rap, rock to psych and so much more. When writing, is it a conscious decision to add all these genres or is it more improvised? (Whatever it is, it works and works so incredibly well.)

Sunny: I’ve just never stayed tethered to the idea of “genre.” I listen to all types of music and while music is marketed to a consumer as a genre, I consume music for it’s emotional and visceral impact. So when I compose or perform, I aim to serve the music in order to deliver just that, not a “genre”.

E&D: What would you like your fans to come away with after listening to this album?

Sunny: I’d love for people to question these cowboy tropes that are repeated time and time again. Why are they utilized as an American identity? What does it mean to be an immigrant? Consider the courage and boldness of immigrants. What are your own personal family stories of immigration – whether in recent times or hundreds of years ago? Lastly, I hope for the sounds to resonate with the listener.

Wild Wild East is available here:

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