Photo: Press (Kush Arora/Only Now)
Kush Arora has been doing unspeakable things to subwoofers for over two decades now. The San Francisco-based producer and DJ is known for his genre-bending approach to music, which he has only intensified since focusing on his work under the Only Now moniker. Shortly before the release of his new, self-published digital EP Fate / Will, he steps up for a bass-heavy contribution to the Groove podcast that is dedicated to kindred spirits.
You have started the Only Now project roughly a decade ago and have regularly released music under this moniker since 2015. While you occasionally also put out releases under your real name, it is currently your main outlet. What prompted you to create a pseudonym and what sets it apart from the work you do under your real name?
There was a new sound I’d been formulating in my head over the course of five years, prompting a clear change in how I’d been producing music. I’d been active under my name for well over a decade at that point, and for sure it was a different approach, a way of going back to my roots. Only Now’s sound and intention is very instinctual and personal to me, with no boundaries or outside input influencing the results. It’s a return to how I grew up making music, solo, often far darker than the work under my name, drawing from my background in industrial and experimental music, and from my process of recording live instruments from India and other various countries. The work under my birth name grew with me through a journey shaped by club influences and Indo/Caribbean music, centred around soundsystem culture. It’s far more reactive and reflective of what’s happening in general club and street spaces. I’m not sure I planned it as such, but the reality is when you have your hands in many different scenes and sounds, often people get confused about what to expect, which sphere to fit you in. It made the most sense to just go with a different alias since I think the sounds are oceans apart at times.
Your new EP Fate / Will addresses “themes of primitivism, technological ambivalence, and the dialectical relationship between ideas of ‘the void’ and meditative states.” Can you elaborate on that?
Music is a living form of meditation for me, it’s not escapism or trying to detach from my reality. It’s more the opposite, looking inward and dealing with everything on the outside. We ask ourselves often in daily life if things were our fate or if we are shaping our fate by our will. I’ve had experiences that make me question these things, and I love studying the strange psychic nature of the individual and how it intersects with these concepts. The past year, a lot of these ideas have been on my mind and my approach to music has been more instinctual, less influenced by external factors, and I’ve honed in on concepts I toyed with twenty years ago. Playing things by hand, sampling everything, shedding extra sounds, effects, anything which doesn’t get me feeling like it’s a primitive, uninhibited approach to these songs. Music production has increasingly become randomised, computer-aided, littered with stock library sounds, and producers are much more aware of what their peers are doing than ever before. Cutting to the core of my sound, capturing vocal meditations with amps, using the harmonium for hours, and then losing my shit at high BPMs were part of the process. I tried lots of the material on Fate / Will live too and saw how people moved and interacted with these pieces in some pretty ideal environments before preparing the release. This is my most minimalistic work yet, and I want to explore this space more.
On a musical level, Fate / Will picks up on 2021’s Indian Unclassical Vol. 1 on Bokeh Versions in its use of traditional Indian instrumentation, among others. What draws you to integrating their sounds into the language of contemporary electronic music production?
It’s my culture, and I’m just bringing it into the spheres that I operate in. Let’s keep pushing the limits of our ancestors, redefining things in our own way. I have a harmonium and a number of other instruments featured on the release. Like any ancient culture, India’s instruments are a sound artist’s playing field, they’re amazing. I would be working with these instruments even if I was from a different background, because of how much I love them. All my work contains instruments or is sampling from across India in some shape or form, whether it’s the tumbi, tabla, santoor, or percussive shakers.
As the title already suggests, Indian Unclassical was conceived as a series. How would you describe the overarching concept? When (and what) can we expect from the second instalment?
I want to really shatter and push Indian classical music to its sonic and contextual limits. Co-producer Robin Sukhadia and I started the project with some pretty clear objectives. First we had to get a round of solo pieces from an assortment of musicians. We picked a key, a vibe for each song and ragas that would work for each piece. Robin helped me communicate with each musician what type of sentiment we wanted, and left it to them to send over a few ideas or parts. I asked for some general melancholic and doomy vibes in my requests … Everybody came with something beautiful, and each piece was reinterpreted a few times across the release. Some of them were left in their original linear form, unaltered in composition, but retuned, run through big amps or pitched down—all types of things. Ultimately though, they were the same piece that the musician wrote. Others were completely obliterated, turning santoor tones recorded at 120 BPM to 500 or 600 BPM with repitching and coming up with shimmering tones. It was fun to leave some of the pieces as they were, but construct around it or effect the song. It felt truly collaborative. Sonically, Fate / Will is a bridge between Indian Unclassical Vol. 1 and the second part. It’s more unhinged, louder, less edited, and a bit “liver” and more meditative than my last round of releases. I want Volume 2 in the series to focus on different sets of instruments/musicians. I’m sure it’ll be moody as fuck like the last one, with my direction, but it’ll be what feels intuitive at the time for me sound-wise. It’ll probably be another nine months before that volume is ready though. I gotta start on it!
Another release you put out this year was Alley Ghost with HMXGOD. Upon its release, you have asked vocalists to send in their take on the three tracks. What was the idea behind that?
We had some interest from vocalists on the songs, and coming from my background, when I write, I’m often thinking of how a singer would sound on it. Both of us have produced many beats that end up with vocals being added later on, in many cases later than when we recorded it, so we wanted to leave that door open to collaboration, which is the spirit I move with.
A lot of your work is being produced in collaboration with artists from different genres, ranging from dancehall to metal. Why is it so important to you to incorporate other voices that at times speak very different musical languages?
I love switching up the way things have been done, connecting people that never thought they would find themselves in the hands of the same producer. I’m an open person with a community of vastly different characters around me. I want total freedom and have no boundaries for whom I collaborate with. I don’t strategise how last year’s releases fit into this year’s plan, none of that. I aim for stream-of-consciousness communication and a boundaryless way of living and am always balancing different aesthetics as well as different ideas from certain psychological spaces, so this comes out in my records.
As Only Now, you primarily play live sets. How would you characterise your approach to these sets and what does your set-up look like?
The live set is a living ecosystem for all the live performance pieces I’ve accumulated since the project started. I’m bringing all my emotions to the club, and I cut across vignettes of my work with a blend of software and some live hardware. Other times if it’s a specific event or situation, I’ll craft a piece for the show or series. I’m always aiming for a ritualistic and percussive experience to interact with the audience as much as possible. The goal is to have all my material in MIDI and audio ecosystems, so it can be flexible enough to work within any of the spheres I perform in. My live set touches not only on my beat-oriented work, but also explores many of the sounds I’ve described in this interview. In other shows, I’ll improvise along with some prepared MIDI material.
Setup consists of Ableton running 4x audio stem groups and 6x MIDI channels which feed into the Nord Drum 3P Physical Modelling Synthesizer. The Nord Drum 3P feeds into the Elektron Analog Heat for each song’s specific distortion patch. Then there’s the Mackie 1201 Mixer and a Roland SP-404 with lots of my custom samples and vocals being adjusted through it. I use Eventide Space Reverb Pedal for sends, the Novation XL controller—affecting Ableton but also lots of Max/MSP wiring to the Nord Drum—the Novation Launchpad and occasionally a Dave Smith Pro 2 Synthesizer.
What role does DJing play in your work right now?
I occasionally DJ under my name, rarely under Only Now, but I do quite a bit of radio specials, guest things, etc., so I feel that’s the primary place it’s happening. I’m constantly interacting with DJs, going out to clubs, and keeping my ears open, and it’s all part of the ether. Being aware of how music will be DJ’d, mixed, etc., is for sure always floating in my brain for certain songs, but it’s not part of the equation for a large portion of the art.
What was the idea behind your mix for our Groove podcast?
I really wanted to share which other artists are inspiring me, and throw in a few of my songs that have some kind of connection with them. There are some collaborators and peers in this mix, and some folks who I’m just in awe of from afar. It’s a humid vibe and a pressure workout for sure.
Last but not least: what are your plans for the future?
Continuing to expand the scope of my live shows, so I can return to Europe and Germany to play. There will be plenty of solo Only Now stuff, but I’ve had many collabs cooking for a bit. Here’s what’s up for the rest of the year and early next year: A collaboration with Flore from Polaar, who’s a remarkable producer from Lyon, we started working together last year in Paris and got everything in gear the past few months. I’d describe the music as liquid metal/bass/halftime bashment. Then there will be the Tunnel of Memories EP on In Solace Publishing with Orogen, a collection of processed field recordings from a tunnel near my house. My release with with my good friend Sueuga who used to live here in the Bay Area, but is now in Rotterdam, is focused on more primitive dancehall vibes and club machinery. Another one has been a long time in the making, exchanging ideas from Calcutta’s most bizarre operators, SubHo of Jessop & Co., with audio mulch and wildly processed field recordings and ghastly beats from yours truly. It’s also been super nice connecting with the Rotterdam legend Munchi, so we started trading some ideas across the pond with our cultural sounds embedded. Lastly, Brodinski and I had two songs we shared with each other last year in Paris, slowly but surely this should also drop and it’s pretty icey—not something I think folks would immediately expect, but you can hear both our sounds in it clearly. Plus, more to come.
Stream: Only Now – Groove Podcast 393
01. Only Now – Fires, Bodies, Slow Burn, No Wood (feat. Sheela Bringi)
02. Only Now – Vengeance II (feat. Dave Sharma)
03. Hanali – Digital Cliff
04. Karim Maas – Stave Loop
05. 3Phaz – Sharayet
06. Only Now – I Am Remembering
07. Jaijiu – Innecesario
08. Only Now – Void Body
09. CP/BW – Sewer Sex
10. Ceramics – Etico
11. D.K. – Cham Dance
12. CZN – Liz Business
13. Unticipated Soundz – Tops & Tops
14. Unticipated Soundz – UnknowQ
15. Phelimuncasi – Meyo
16. DJ Polo & NKC – Lab Rat
17. HULUBALANG – Sengatan
18. Only Now – Punduro (Upcoming Shaytoon Release)
19. Chrisman – Balula
20. Raja Kirik – ACT IV. Slompret Slompret
21. Only Now x Flore – Cut and Run (upcoming Polaar release)
22. T5UMUT5UMU – Desert
23. Chevel – Dem Drums
24. Rhyw – Kirkhusa
25. Petra Hermanova – Perforatum (Eyes at Half Mast)
26. Only Now – Fate Pt. 1