Seljuk Rustum is a multidisciplinary artist, musician, and sound engineer in Kochi, India, who paints vivid pictures with his engaging, psychedelic music. His most recent album, Cardboard Castles, is a heady trip into every imaginable zone (and some unimagined!). Rustum has an innate ability to sculpt melodies into playful soundscapes that are simultaneously joyous and challenging. With elements inspired by Indian classical music fused with forward-looking experimental sound, Rustum’s sonic world is unique and unforgettable.
I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?
My earliest memories of being fascinated by sound were lying down with my ear to the pillow and listening to the sounds like it was inside my head when I’d tap or scratch the pillow. I would also very often shut both my ears and listen to the sounds from within, the heartbeat and the wobbly underwater kind of feeling; I spent a lot of time doing this and still do so.
My earliest memory of music and being interested in buying music was getting a Michael Jackson album on tape for my 6th birthday. Another early memory was in the 6/7th grade when a friend used to bring his Walkman to school, and we d hide under the table during class, share lunch and listen to Snoop Dogg and 2pac.
As a child, I was curious about what the record function on the tape player was, and it blew my mind that we could record. I still am blown away by this, and I started recording. I’d make up songs with my sister and record my own version of wrestling commentary or my mother screaming at me; I recorded everything after that. This has stuck with me, and I am still doing the same thing being a sound engineer.
What role did music and sound play in your life growing up?
Music shaped my character entirely. It was a gateway to everything, pointing me toward places I never knew. It opened me to new worlds and helped me develop and understand ideas. It evoked my interest to travel, research, and experiment and, in many ways, taught me how to think, dream and live. Listening to music and learning more about the music, the artists, and their influences – would always lead me to other forms of music, ideologies, and subcultures and gave me some direction in life.
How has Indian classical music influenced your own creative practice?
Listening to Indian Classical music for the first time was a completely different experience from all the other music I was listening to. I was around 18 years old and loved how it made me not want to speak so much. All the music I was listening to up until then only got me excited and jumpy or angry, but this music really got me into a timeless and quiet place within myself. After that, I got into it a lot more. I saw that classical music was much cheaper to buy & CDs and tapes were plenty. Also, around this time, I got a shehnai. I couldn’t make classical music cause I didn’t have the patience to go through training and practice. I just wanted to use the instrument to make some sounds and have fun.
When did you first start your own creative pursuits, or at least realize that you had ideas brewing inside you that you wanted to explore through sound?
Recording is an essential part of my creative work. I started recording the day I bought a guitar. Not knowing how to play was not a big problem for me. I always had a story to tell, and there was always a narrative that would unfold. I just had to finish it, and it would be there to be experienced again on playback. I’d give it a title and put it in some context. Recording helped me realize that I liked creating music.
You’ve got a studio in Kochi – how long have you had it, and what’s it like running and operating a studio out there? Is that your full-time job?
I have run a recording studio and a performance space in Kochi, Kerala, for the past 8 years or so. I worked professionally as a studio engineer and manager, mixing and mastering engineer, sound designer, and producer. As part of my interest in performance space, theatre, and curation, I also work as a production designer, curator, and community organizer. I jump between these various roles, depending on what I feel like doing or what opportunities arise.
I also make music for films and theatre, and sometimes I work technical sound-related jobs. Sometimes I like to work as a field recording engineer, and I just travel and record people – this is what I did before I set up a studio.
If a possibility arises and I’m not drained by studio work, I organize shows or curate longer events and performances. It depends on how much energy I have and if I can put the time into organizing, running a space, and keeping the activities going. The culture is dominated by film and film music, and it’s all about visibility and popular culture. It’s not easy running a space or studio in Kochi as an independent or experimental musician.
Most recently, I opened and ran a performance space here in Mattanchery, Kochi, with support from the C. Rockefeller Center in Dresden. Musicians and multidisciplinary artists from all over the world came in. I curated and showcased many amazing artists as part of my curatorial and performance action work at Forplay Society.
How often do you get guests and visitors through the studio that you sit down and jam with?
I have been very fortunate that, over the years, many artists from India and around the world have come to the space or the studio I ran. Some came to the recording studio to record, some came to perform at the space, some came to meet and play with me, some just walked in out of nowhere, and some I bumped into. I work with all sorts of artists, musicians, performance artists, theatre and dance practitioners, film and commercial work people and experimental musicians, and visiting artists from other parts of the world.
You also make visual art and paint. Were you doing that before or after you started playing music? And how do the different realms of your creative practice intersect and influence each other?
Music came after the visual art practice. When I was making art, I’d hear a lot of sounds in my head from the world I was creating, so I started to make sounds to accompany the paintings.
One of the things that I love so much about Cardboard Castles is how you create this rich, vivid worlds through music and sound. It’s music that takes the listener to someplace else. How has music been a medium for creating new worlds for you? And how do you try to harness these transportive effects?
For me, the visual aspects of sound and music are what I use as guidance while making or playing music. If I didn’t see anything, I wouldn’t even be a musician, a narrative opens up as soon as listening begins, and for me, this is a highly visual experience. So I just try my best to navigate through this.
Speaking of Cardboard Castles, how did you hook up with the Hive Mind label for that one?
Duncan Roy Bruce, a dear friend, sent the link for the digital album I released, and Marc Teare bought a copy and, in the following week, wrote and expressed his interest in releasing the album.
What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?
Roky Erickson, Jim O’Rourke, Hirabai Barodkher, Albert Ayler, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Tamburi Cemil Bey, Syd Barrett, Washington Philips, Nick Drake, Wooden Wand, Sun City Girls, John Fahey.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2023, what are you working on, and what’s coming up next?
Currently, I am working on two albums based on the poetry of Louise Levi Landes, a dear friend, and mentor. She shared with me a lot of her poetry and her early songs, and I am making an album of her poetry, and together with Hada Bendito Mateo, we are making another album of songs from the poetry. This is something I am very excited about as many musicians I really love play on it: Tabata Mitsuru, Hilary Jeffery, Kawabata Makoto, Aziz Lewandowski, Bart De Paepe, Sekhar Sudhir, etc., contribute to the album, and I hope to finish the mixing of these two albums very soon. I also plan a solo album and some other collaborations with musicians from India.
Also, I will be developing a residency space, planning some events and festivals in the coming years, and focusing on developing new spaces and studio space.