Name a style of music and Ajay Saggar has almost certainly ventured into it. Over the past forty years, the Kenyan born, UK raised and Krommenie based musician has been involved in too many projects to list. In the eighties, Saggar immersed himself in the British post-punk movement of Mark E. Smith and John Peel, in the Netherlands he became the spiritual father of King Champion Sounds and last year, he released his first solo record ever.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photo: Rob Verweij
Ajay Saggar's van stops at an industrial estate just outside Krommenie. The snow crunches under the tires. Saggar walks to a car dealership, romps with a dog jumping around the entrance, then leads to a small purple door at the back of the garage. Saggar’s studio turns out to be hiding behind it, a world that seems miles away from a car dealership in Krommenie. In a narrow hallway there are posters of projects in which Saggar has been involved in the past forty years: the experimental post-punk and free jazz band King Champion Sounds, shoegaze and dream pop duo Deutsche Ashram, and Dandelion Adventure, the band Saggar made his debut with in Great Britain many years ago, for example.
The studio is divided into two areas. A small control room in which Saggar usually works, under a photo of an old Ajax team, and a larger room in which bands can rehearse and record. “Initially, my studio was located next door,” Saggar says, pouring tea. British style, with milk, sugar and biscuits. “I have a good relationship with the people of the industrial estate. It's such a luxury to have a place like this: I can just leave my stuff here and invite like-minded people to come over. We don't have to deal with idiots."
In the past year, Saggar may have made more use of his studio than ever. When the pandemic hit, a tour with Deutsche Ashram was just coming to an end and his work as production manager at Paradiso came to a complete standstill. Traveling around the world as a sound engineer – which Saggar did in the past with bands like Sebadoh, Mogwai, Sleater-Kinney, Múm, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. – was no longer an option. Instead, Saggar focused on completing his first solo album, Bless Bless, which was released in June under the moniker Bhajan Bhoy. In addition, Saggar wrote two new albums for King Champion Sounds – one of which went into the trash and one which is currently being finished – and he started a new project. At the beginning of this year, the mesmerizing debut Oh Temple! by University Challenged, a formation at the intersection of spiritual jazz, modern classical, electronic experiment and minimalist guitar music, with British multi-instrumentalist Oli Heffernan (King Champion Sounds, Ivan The Tolerable, Year of Birds, Shrug) and Kohhei Matsuda, the Amsterdam based guitarist of the London-via-Japan psych rock band Bo Ningen. “We recorded that album separately, but it actually worked out really well. It's a challenge: you're thrown in at the deep end and ideas you would never have thought of otherwise float to the surface. We sent ideas back and forth and could all build on each other's finds. Oli and Kohhei have played such beautiful things that it was not so difficult for me to make something of it. It was just a lot of work, because the songs are long and the parts complex.”
“I'm quite dictatorial when it comes to music,” continues Saggar. “I know what I want and I'm trying to figure out how to get it. The people I work with must be able to work that way, otherwise it will be very difficult for me to steer the boat to the right port. Now things were different: I was still at the helm, but Oli and Kohhei brought me new maps time and time again. What if we sail like this? Or like this? I am very proud of the end result.”
How Ajay Saggar ended up in Krommenie and became part of so many different musical projects? That's quite a story, which leads to a few other places first. Saggar was born in Kenya in 1965. His family is of Indian descent. “When my parents and grandparents were born, India was part of the British Empire, as were many countries in East Africa. The British wanted to exploit their colonies there, but East Africa lacked skilled workers. People from Britain itself did not want to go there, so the British brought people from India to East Africa. That's how my grandparents ended up in Kenya. My parents were born there, but were educated in India. They went up and down with the boat.” Saggar's father becomes a doctor. He gets a good job in the village where his family lives, which is completely built around the activities of chemical company Imperial Chemical Industries. “My parents were happy in Kenya. They had a nice house and my father had a good job. But in 1976 they decided to move to Britain for the future of my brother and me. They gave up their lives there and started again.”
It was quite a culture shock when the Saggar family landed in Glasgow from Kenya. “We got off the plane and drove through the shabby, colorless city,” laughs Saggar, recalling his acquaintance with the Scottish industrial city. The family moves into a flat in the center with Saggar's grandparents. Saggar goes to school in Bearsden, a village ten kilometers away. “Later it turned out that there had been all kinds of children who had become musicians. Do you know The Pastels? Stephen (McRobbie, ed.) was a year above me!”
“John Peel gave me something to look forward to”
Saggar appears to have arrived in Britain at the right time. A year before his move, punk rock made its way to the UK. In November 1975, Sex Pistols played its first show, and in the spring of 1976, pub rock band The 101ers split into The Clash and The Damned. On June 4 of that year, Sex Pistols played its famous show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The show was attended by 40 people, including future members of Joy Division, The Smiths and The Fall. “I fell head over heels for the music. In 1977 I bought my first single, "No More Heroes" by The Stranglers. At least, I sent my mom to the record store to get it. In 1978 I went to a gig for the first time, I snuck into The Stranglers. From that moment on, it never stopped.”
Muziek is voor Saggar meer dan een hobby, het is de reddingsboei die ervoor zorgt dat hij in zijn nieuwe thuisland het hoofd boven water houdt. “Mijn Engels was niet zo goed en ik liep achter op school, dus ik moest echt mijn best doen. Racisme was overal. Je kreeg elke dag shit naar je hoofd, tot je het bijna niet meer hoorde. In mijn tienerjaren kwam er een punt dat ik het niet meer pikte en met mensen begon te vechten. Shows waren eng in die tijd, en voetbalwedstrijden al helemaal. Ik ben een groot voetbalfan, maar mijn ouders wilden niet dat ik naar wedstrijden ging. Mensen kwamen recht uit de pub. Dronken, agressief. Buiten de stadions werden tijdschriften van het National Front (een extreemrechtse politieke partij, red.) uitgedeeld. Je was een mikpunt omdat je een andere huidskleur had. Gelukkig was er muziek. Dat gaf me iets op naar uit te kijken. Elke avond tussen tien en twaalf luisterde ik naar de radioshow van John Peel. Dat gaf me een richting in het leven en iets om over te praten met leeftijdsgenoten. ‘Heb je de nieuwe single van Siouxsie and the Banshees al gehoord? Of de nieuwe plaat van The Fall? Ik nam de uitzendingen op met mijn cassettespeler, de hele zolder hier ligt vol. John Peel was zo belangrijk voor veel jonge mensen. Hij veranderde de cultuur van Groot-Brittannië, en daarmee die van de wereld. Hij gaf mensen hoop in een tijd van werkloosheid, racisme en een compleet verneukte sociale structuur. Door ons muziek te laten horen die we anders niet zouden horen, veranderde hij onze geest. Als je wordt blootgesteld aan Captain Beefheart, Prince Far I, King Tubby of Alternative TV, word je scherper. Je krijgt door dat je niet alles hoeft te pikken dat je door the man wordt aangereikt.”
It doesn't take long before Saggar starts playing in bands himself. Through grammar school he ends up at Lancaster University, an hour's drive from his new hometown, Manchester. After graduating, Saggar immediately applies for unemployment benefits and starts Dandelion Adventure with some friends. The band practices at an old cotton mill in nearby Preston. Saggar plays bass. “It felt like we were making cross-border music. We were the gang and would show the world we were the boss. In retrospect, of course, we were only taking our first steps.” Yet those first steps aren’t all that bad: in June 1990 the band is invited by John Peel for a session.
Meanwhile, in Manchester, Saggar gets acquainted with Inca Babies, a band mixing post-punk with death metal. Towards the end of the eighties, that band calls it quits and turns into Hound God With A Tumour. Saggar is asked to be the drummer. As a metal percussionist, to be precise, which means that Saggar's kit consists not only of parts from old drums, but also pieces of iron he finds on the streets of Manchester. Hound God With A Tumour - who regularly perform with Dandelion Adventure - rehearse at The Boardwalk, a renowned club in Manchester where Oasis played its first show. “We rehearsed downstairs,” recalls Saggar. “Everyone got a pass, with which you could go to shows for free. Opposite us was A Certain Ratio’s studio. When the door was open, we looked inside and saw Donald drumming. Wow. Fucking amazing drummer. Happy Mondays were there for a while, as was The Fall, my favorite band ever.”
“Shall I show you something from The Boardwalk?” Saggar gets up and leads into the small part of his studio. There’s an old keyboard on the wall. It is somewhat worn, but the letters 'The Fall' are still legible. “One day, The Fall left all kinds of stuff,” Sagger says of the relic. “I took a look and found this keyboard. It's the original you see in the photos of all their early recordings, and they just wanted to throw it away. Colin (Sinclair, one of the owners of The Boardwalk, ed.) said I could just take it with me. Later we also picked up their bass amplifier.”
In addition to The Boardwalk, The Haçienda, the nightclub founded by New Order and Factory Records, played a vital role in the scene at the time. Bands like The Stone Roses broke through, but The Haçienda was also the birthplace of British rave culture and acid house. “XTC helped with that,” Saggar chuckles. “All those football hooligans suddenly became clubbers. First they were jerks, then all of a sudden they were fun people to hang out with. By the end of the eighties all the clubs were full and there were huge illegal raves where people went completely crazy. I always find it difficult to explain to people how important music was to us then. It wasn't a hobby, it was your fucking life.”
The dedication to music that he saw on a large scale in England, Ajay Saggar has rarely seen in the Netherlands. “Everything is so well organized here, it's comfortable. Of course it's nice not to have to worry about the roof over your head or the food on your plate, but I did realize that despair can make for good art. The fact that Britain has produced so many great bands is partly due to the shit people are in there on every front. Music was an escape. You don't have to escape here."
It is the underground institution The Ex that formed Saggar's first introduction to the Dutch music world in the eighties. “They also received unemployment benefits, but when I heard how much it was, I thought: with that money I could have lived like a king in England. IThere I hitchhiked to all The Ex shows. I loved their energy on stage. We became good friends. When I was in the Netherlands, I stayed in their villa in Wormer.”
One of those times comes in 1991, when Saggar buys an Interrail ticket to see Dinosaur Jr. by following Europe. The members of that band have become friends with Saggar over the years, but he now meets them at an unfortunate moment. Bassist Lou Barlow – a member again since 2005 – has just been expelled from the band and J Mascis is troubled by star allures. “After two weeks I had had enough, but I still had my train ticket. Then I went to the villa.” Saggar plans to return to Manchester from Wormer, but he doesn’t really have a plan. Yes, breaking up with his band and trying something new, but that’s about it. When it turns out there’s a room available in the villa, the choice is quickly made. On December 30, 1991, Saggar puts all his things in a van and moves to the Netherlands, never to leave again.
Anyone who lives in The Ex's villa will immerse themselves in the musical universe surrounding the anarcho-punk band. And so it happens. Within a year or two, Saggar helps punk fanfare De Kift build their studio and founds the band Donkey, together with guitarist Pim Heijne (ex-Revenge Of The Carrots). The band releases a few seven inches, is popular with John Peel and even tours through the United States. “Little squirrels, big trees,” Saggar muses.
After Donkey, The Bent Moustache will be Saggar's next adventure in 2005, initially with Donkey members Pim Heijne and Wilf Plum, later with Jane Mack, Steven van der Steen and David Lingerak. The group makes two albums, but also causes Saggar to become disillusioned with the Dutch music world. “I was proud of those albums, but also felt that all the musicians were constantly looking for the formation that suited them best. The group mentality that I knew from England was not there. Then I realized: if you want something to happen, you have to take care of it yourself.”
Enter King Champion Sounds, the oversized post-punk and free jazz band that Saggar has been leading since 2013. In it, Saggar himself writes all the parts, and the rest simply records them. Jos Kleij aka G.W. Sok, former vocalist for The Ex, writes his own lyrics, though. The formation now has four albums to its name, but was intended as a one-off project as support act for Mike Watt. Watt, bassist for the iconic punk band Minutemen, would later contribute to the third King Champion Sounds record, as would J Mascis. “The idea was to play one long piece,” says Saggar. “It was very ambitious: I wanted Jos on vocals and Oli on bass, because like me he is a fan of Steve Hanley from The Fall and knows how to get into a repetitive groove. And I wanted wind instruments. We played a warm-up show in Café Swaf in Hoorn and a day later with Mike Watt in OCCII in Amsterdam. It went so well that I thought: shall we continue with this, make a record?”
It's typically Saggar: even if it's not the intention to make a record, sooner or later a release will follow. It may therefore be called a small miracle that Saggar had not released a single album on his own until recently. That changed last year with Bless Bless, Saggar's debut as Bhajan Bhoy. “By the end of 2019, I had so many ideas in my head that I didn't know if I could implement them with other people. It was so specific that I couldn't envision it in a band formation. I just had to try it alone. It's the most liberating thing I've ever done. It felt like I had really expressed myself as a person for the first time. There was no lockdown at the time of recording. I would come home after work, eat something quickly and then sit here all evening. When the record was finished, I listened to it here with my eyes closed. I drifted off, and was totally blown away by it. Then I played it again, and again. I didn't care what other people would think, I loved it."
Saggar is not afraid of destroying his bliss about his solo material with a 'difficult second' record. “Then I think about the bands I love and their albums. When you talk about The Fall, some people like Grotesque best, others Hex Enduction Hour. But they kept making records, which are all good in their own way. The music I make has never been front-page news, so I don't have the 'problem' that people will always refer to certain classics. I don't mind that at all. The myth of making music puts some people on a pedestal, but the musicians I've known have almost all remained just good people first and foremost. They are friends and colleagues, that does not change. You become like a family, especially on tour. Many musicians have eaten with my parents over the years, my mom has cooked them Indian meals. Of course there were times when I thought my music deserved more attention than it got, but I've grown beyond that.”
“The press, the stages and the booking offices in the Netherlands may not always be waiting for me, but last year I played so many shows, despite everything. And all self-organized. Ultimately, DIY is the best way. That's a lesson I actually learned from John Peel: there are ways to do this without being a virtuoso or having millions in your bank account. You can play shows within a network, you can meet like-minded people and build new relationships. Moreover, there is still so much to discover. I am still blown away by music every day, and I buy records as if tomorrow doesn't exist. As you get older, your listening behaviour broadens. Some things that used to be dear to me are not so dear to me anymore. And things that I used to hate, I now love. I was just listening to an album by Kara-Lis Coverdale, an experimental composer from Montreal. Wow! Sure, I know people who have lost interest in music over the years, but if it's your lifeline, you don’t. Then you will always find a way to discover things. I still listen to new music every day. I wouldn't know what else to do.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.