We chit-chatted with deep-house maestro Atish after his stellar sunset performance at the Desert Hearts festival. If you've ever had the pleasure of listening to Atish you would know that his sound is extremely deep, thought-provoking and moving. Atish brings a ton of energy to the decks and keeps the crowd engaged through well-timed builds and breakdowns. You can get a feel for his sound by listening to the set provided below. Outside of his busy tour schedule, Atish stays active running his label Manjumasi and his recently launched festival-friendly clothing line Peculiar Colors. Click the set below and enjoy learning more about Atish in the interview below.
Atish presents Afterhour Sounds Podcast Nr. 134
What’s changed about the Desert Hearts festival from your first one to now?
While I’ve been playing the Desert Hearts festivals since 2013 as a resident, I’ve never done any behind-the-scenes planning. So from my hybrid outsider/insider vantage point, things have gradually changed over the years. Overall they’ve definitely become a more professional operation on a few fronts: the level of production, artist hospitality, PR/marketing, and the inclusion of other non-musical attractions at the festival (visual art, yoga, healing, speakers, fashion show). The level of enthusiasm and participation from the dance floor has only become stronger, which comes from momentum they’ve built from previous years’ festivals and the City Hearts party series. Musically, the overall sound of the festival has been loosely gravitating in a direction that aligns with their label.
Despite these changes, what I find most interesting is what has remained the same. The crew has still managed to curate a vibe and attract a crowd that evokes the same feelings as my first Desert Hearts: carefree, ridiculous, full of love, and a full-on party. Scaling any community or organization while staying true to its cultural roots is a tough thing to do, but these guys have pulled this off quite well.
What makes the Desert hearts community so great?
In short, the love. There’s a special positivity that I feel walking anywhere around the festival, and this is due to the contributions of every attendee. The DH crew communicates the love aspect heavily in their brand and marketing, and clearly, the message is received by and given back from the attendees.
What is your single favorite thing about Desert Hearts? About the Desert Hearts community?
Playing the festival and receiving the support from the community. It’s one of my favorite gigs of the year. Oh, and all the games of Connect Four :)
Did you always know that you would be a great DJ? How did that come about?
To answer this question, we need to address the first order question which is, “what does it mean to be a great DJ?” Is a great DJ one who pleases the crowd? Pleases the chin-strokers? Pleases the promoter? Pleases him or herself?
Is there a platonic ideal of a great DJ? What are those characteristics that define him or her? Great technique (beat-matching, mixing, DJ ‘tricks’)? Track selection? Flow? Range? Stage presence? Crowd engagement? Catalog of rare tracks? Social media skills?
What level of consistency does a DJ need to have to be considered great? Is one or two great sets a year enough? Is 3 out of 4 great gigs enough? Or do 9 out of every 10 sets need to be great for a DJ to be great overall?
I’ve thought about these questions quite a bit over the years trying to decide if I was great or at the very least, good enough. I finally arrived at the conclusion that preoccupying myself with the idea of achieving greatness or comparing myself to others is destructive. It’s more productive and personally satisfying in the long-run to just try to do my best every gig and make sure I’m having fun with the whole journey. I’ll leave it to everyone else to make the value judgments on greatness.
How did you make the difficult decision of becoming a full-time DJ?
I used to have a demanding full-time job as a software engineer at Facebook. As I moved further along into my DJing, the local gigs turned into traveling gigs around the US, which turned into international tours. I was exhausted doing both at the same time, so I had to make a decision around which one of my worlds had to give way. I asked myself an important question when thinking this through, “When I reach 100 years old and reflect back on my life, would I regret not pursuing a full-time career as an artist?”
It’s pretty clear to me that the answer to that question would be yes, so here I am trying my best to live a life without regret. I gotta tell you, it’s kind of fun!
How has your career progressed since becoming a full-time DJ?
I’m fortunate enough to say my career has progressed in a way where I have more power to choose what I want. This may be playing clubs I want to play, building a tour schedule that requires less travel, or having easier access to work with artists I would like to work with.
Obviously, I’m not at a point where I can just demand to headline Coachella, but I am grateful to be able to have an increasing amount control over the things that matter to me. I owe a share of this credit to my booking agents Gunita (Listed Bookings) and Nadia (Sasomo Bookings) who I’ve been working with for the last 8 and 3 years, respectively, and have been really great.
Looking back over the last few years of your DJ career, anything else you would do differently?
This is tough to answer. Everything I’ve done in my life and career has led me to who and where I am right now, which I’m extremely grateful for. To look back and wish that I did something differently implies that I wish that I was someone else, which feels wrong to me. That being said, I have made certain mistakes that I’ve learned from.
For instance, there was a period where I took on some brutal touring for an extended period of time. This lead to negative life aspects that drained me physically, emotionally, and mentally. I don’t look back wishing I did things differently, though - I’m glad I made those mistakes. Instead, I use those valuable experiences to prevent myself from making these mistakes again when looking towards the future.
Tell us about your label?
My long-time friend Mark Slee and I run a label together called Manjumasi. “Manju Masi” literally translates to “Aunt Manju” in Hindi, and my real-life Manju Masi finds our label quite strange.
Any releases we should be looking forward to?
Our next release is called Atish + Friends, which is a set of collaborations between myself and Tim Engelhardt, Mark Slee, and Bengal. I’m pretty excited about that, as well as a 2nd EP from Saultloom, a fantastic producer of weird melodic prog-inspired deep house. We also just signed a couple killer collab tracks between Dance Spirit and Adisyn, which we hope to have out by the end of the year.
You can listen to a preview of some forthcoming tracks from Manjumasi by clicking the link below!
Atish + Friends EP (Preview) - Manjumasi
Any goals for the label this year?
Just the one ongoing goal: keep having fun, keep releasing music we love.
Tell us about your new clothing brand, Peculiar Colors? How did this come about?
As a for-fun project for my Burning Man camp, Short Stack, I worked with a local SF designer to get some colorful onesies made to match our shade covering. I received quite a bit of positive feedback from friends and strangers, so I thought it would be fun to produce bigger batches of these and sell them to like-minded people who also like ridiculous festival outfits.
I see a pattern emerging in myself, which is that I need to learn something new every couple years. A decade ago, I was playing in bands, then I got into VJing, then DJing, then running a label, then producing electronic music. That itch for me to get deep and learn something new comes up periodically, so this clothing line scratching this year’s itch. Beyond that, Peculiar Colors provides a new avenue of artistic expression, which is nice.
Any goals for the clothing brand?
Just the one ongoing goal: keep having fun!
Currently, the onesies are for sale at Wild Feather in SF and Hunt and Gather in San Diego, but I hope to have online sales up and running by mid-June. Feel free to follow along on IG at @peculiar_colors or at peculiarcolors.com
From going full time as a DJ to starting a label to starting a clothing brand, any other similar ideas in the pipeline?
My girlfriend and I are bouncing around the idea of making our own achaar (spicy Indian pickle). We would like to open a store that sells onesies and achaar. The hipsters would love it.
I recently heard you talking about taking more risk while DJ’ing. Can you elaborate on that? How has that affected your sets?
I made that comment talking about my most recent Desert Hearts set. Festival gigs tend to be some of my least favorite gigs. These gigs often have multiple stages, which makes it harder for the DJ to take the audience on the proverbial “journey.” If the DJ takes down the energy level to build suspense, the crowd might not have the patience to wait 10-15 minutes for the high energy payoff - they’ll just walk over to the next stage where another DJ is probably dropping his or her biggest bombs, tune after tune. Also, many festival crowds don’t already know me or my style, so they might not have faith that I’ll bring the energy up again, so they walk away to do something else more immediately gratifying.
So with some festival gigs, I feel pressure to “bang it out” with the obvious dance floor bombs to keep the crowd engaged. This is less satisfying than crafting a set that features more sensitive moments of nuance and restraint, but less risky.
Desert Hearts is an exception though. They have the 1-stage, 1-vibe philosophy, which straps the entire audience along for the ride. Beyond that, I’ve been playing this festival for a few years, so I’ve been able to develop an intimate relationship with the DH audience. This relationship we’ve developed enables me to climb those peaks, descend into those valleys, and take those risks with confidence that the audience will be patient enough to wait for the payoff.
I’ve seen you sell out a few “Atish All nights,” can we expect any more dates this year?
I’m looking to return to SF and LA and hoping to try my hand at New York and Denver in the fall.
Who are some up and coming producers we should be on the look-out for?
This question fits in really well with the ethos of Manjumasi. Rather than targeting huge names for original productions, we lean towards signing lesser-known artists. I’m totally going to pimp out our Manjumasi crew: Bengal and R. Fentz are two SF producers to look out for. Vincent Casanova has been producing killer grooves for many years now. All the heads know him, so I wouldn’t say he’s up-and-coming, but he’s definitely is under appreciated. There’s a Thai artist making waves in Southeast Asia, DOTT, who is worth keeping an eye on too.
Who do you look up to in the music industry?
While I don’t know him personally, I’ve always appreciated Richie Hawtin’s approach. He’s done a great job building a multi-disciplinary career: DJing, producing, label management, event production, sake, technology, visual art, fashion, and others - all supported by his sharp business acumen. As I’m moving forward trying to balance more and more things, it’s nice to see an example of someone else who does it all and does it well.