photo: Ella Rinaldo
San Francisco’s Kush Arora has made a name for himself by producing dancehall rhythms and dub beats since around 2004. Having grown up as a metalhead and later getting into the Bay Area rave scene in the ’90s, he started a new, more experimental project called Only Now around 2013. Inspired by an eclectic range of global genres, Only Now combines the raw, natural elements of industrial techno with the diasporic sounds of African rhythms such as kuduro and gqom.
As one of the local artists high on my list of acts to check out at MUTEK.SF, I sat down with Kush Arora and his dog Miso for a 45-minute interview at the festival’s SoMA headquarters Heron Arts to discuss what he had in store for Only Now’s set a few hours later at the Mezzanine’s Nocturne 2, part of MUTEK’s “club night” series.
“This is like, a really fucking important moment to me, to have MUTEK here…Yes, I want the night to flow, but everybody’s pretty disparately different sounding than each other tonight,” he says of the festival. With Only Now opening the stacked international lineup consisting of Mortiz von Oswald, Equinoxx, Lee Gamble, Kyoka, and Debit, he’s looking to stand out. “I have pieces that I’ve written that I really wanna present to make a statement. But depending on how many people are there at the beginning, it’s where it’ll be complete improv.”
Arora used to play drums in metal bands, but eventually found a more stable path as a DJ in the Bay Area club scene. Specializing in dancehall but also expanding to different genres of electronic music, his DJ collective Surya Dub used to throw parties in the late 2000s. He still curates Surya Dub’s radio show every second Monday on KPFA 10pm to 12. “If people want to send me music, I try to focus a lot on what’s out here.”
Based on his experience in both worlds, I asked Kush about any crossroads between the Bay Area club scene and its metal scene. “Bay Area is like, fucking metal number one for America, for sure. I feel like the Bay Area has always been a place from really big bands like Metallica or Testament, you know, those types of things…But the Bay Area metal scene in Oakland right now, and the black metal, death metal, noise–that’s sort of my foundation of like, culturally, where I feel like it really represents the Bay Area’s diversity and experimentation, and no boundaries.”
Arora says the metal world is “a real open place where people try a lot of things and they migrate to other genres, so there’s people who are doing a lot of ambient stuff…So I feel like it’s a starting point, maybe because of just the instrumentation, or there’s punk and metal roots at the Gilman, Golden Bull, you know, these different venues. I think they’re like, starting points for rebellious culture in general.”
When describing what initially piqued his interest in kuduro, a type of dance music born in Africa in the 1980s, Kush explains, “I was desperately trying to find something more like metal and punk in the electronic world and something that also had brought into the vocals and the styles of dancehall…The swagger and the energy. And kuduro, when it first hit, I was like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is this?’ The drum patterns are so complicated, but so simple at the same time. And they’re so different for America.”
On Only Now’s 2017 record Elements, he incorporates unconventional materials like steel, metal, and rock. “You’ll hear, like, a lot of rocks tonight. Organic stuff is very, very, super important to me. I was big into sound design.” Recently, he’s been experimenting with different types of synthesizers. He is particularly fond of the “physical modeling” variety and prefers to use computer software such as Logic and Ableton to achieve his desired sounds, as opposed to adopting the current trend of performing with modular synths.
Only Now has a streamlined setup for his shorter, more stripped-down sets. He explains, “each drum pad has a full fledged synthesizer, so it’s like kinda like having six synths right in one machine…I’m not playing the drum patterns the whole time. That would be insane. It’s way too fast, but I’m playing the drum patterns and then I’m manipulating each drum with different parameters.” For his current live performances, these “drum patterns” are directly linked to his visual setup. “Every single drum pattern in the Ableton set fires off different video clips that I’ve treated…I scour YouTube for Russian and Chinese manufacturing videos, promos that they make for their big factory equipment, laser cutter, steel cutters, beam cutters and stuff like that.” As Kush goes on to explain the vision behind his MIDI-triggered visual rig, he clarifies that “it’s a pretty cosmic project. There’s not, like, an agenda. You’ll see that, or some riot footage that I treated and just dump into iMovie then put the colors on it, export the clips, and then each drum — like, the kick will be assigned to one video clip. The snare will be assigned to another video clip.”
Arora also works at San Francisco rap label Empire, where he’s noticed that “the rap world…