Backstage With M.I.A

Talented and Amazing Female Drummer for MIA Kiran Gandhi Tom Tom Magazine

By Mindy Abovitz for Tom Tom Magazine | Photos: Michal Murawski

I have known Kiran for several years now. We met on Facebook when she was living in DC and going to Georgetown University. She reached out to me because of Tom Tom and was immediately warm, outgoing and confident about her drumming. I invited her to open for Kim Thompson for our Issue 4 release party and have watched Kiran meet and conquer every challenge since then. Most recently she began her first semester at Harvard’s MBA program and is touring with MIA as her drummer. Below is Kiran’s story about collaborating with MIA.

Tom Tom Magazine: How did you get the opportunity to be MIA’s drummer?  Kiran Gandhi: I was working as a digital analyst for Interscope Records (MIA’s label) and one day, half jokingly, mentioned to her product manager (who is an idol of mine) that MIA needs a drummer and I want to do it!! She took me seriously, and said ok, send me a video. This was a huge opportunity for me and I didn’t want to mess it up by sending one of the janky iPhone videos that already existed on my youtube channel. That weekend, I gathered a couple friends and together we created this wild MIA drumming world in which some of my friends dressed up and served as the stands for my drums and I played live over a DJ mix of some of her tracks. We cut the video in 24 hours and quickly sent it over to her product manager when MIA arrived in LA. Maya responded to me directly that night (early Feb 2013) and wrote something along the lines of – this video is dope, we aren’t thinking tour now, but we’ll hit you up when we do. In July, they did.

What did you do to prepare for the audition? There was no audition since I got the gig automatically, but I know that MIA is known for kicking people off the stage if they mess up, or for sending people home from the tour when their vibe isn’t right for the whole group. She has this line in “Lights” I always think about: “for me to tell you things, you need to be the right kind.” Knowing this, I worked my ass off to prepare for the week-long rehearsal in Montreal we had in early July. I was in my studio in LA for hours a day- at this point I was off from my job in the summer because I was about to start at Harvard Business School in the fall. I played all the key tracks that I thought they might want to do in the live show, and memorized how they went. For some songs, I made the decision to play the song exactly as it was in the track, for other songs I decided adding a new percussion part would add more value to the overall live experience. But I was guessing, and by the time I got to the actual rehearsal much of what she wanted was different from what I had prepared for.

Talented and Amazing Female Drummer for MIA Kiran Gandhi Tom Tom Magazine

What do you think separated you out from the other drummers? My method for seeking out the gig was different. In my experience from working as a drummer and in the formal music industry, I learned that there are so many areas to coordinate when it comes to major acts that any aspects that can be simplified can be hugely helpful to an artist. So that was my mentality. I wanted to get myself in front of Maya, make it clear that I was capable of playing exactly her music, show how I think my style of drumming and my personal values fit with hers, and make it clear that I was available and ready to jump on a plane and go wherever if they needed me. I wanted it to be a no brainer for them. I wanted to be the no hassle choice so that on their end, they could say, “Drummer? Check.”

What is different about your drumming for MIA that you don’t do in your everyday drumming? I love the elements of call and response I get to do with the electronic track. When we play the opening to “Sunshowers”, I worked really hard to nail this call and response we do between me on live Indian drums and the track playing a series of chaotic gunshot sounds. Another thing that is different is the drumset that Maya and I worked together to create for the show. It is half traditional drumset (mini Istanbul hats, bass drum, floor tom and piccolo snare) and half Indian/Latin percussion. I mounted these two drums (a dhol and a dholak) I brought back from India in 2012 on snare stands and play them standing up for some songs, while other songs I play the drum set sitting down. Maya hates cymbals and cowbells so you won’t find any of those on my set!

How will you grow as a drummer from this experience? I learned discipline. I learned discipline from having to play solidly to the track and a click, and to learn the hectic changes of MIA’s music perfectly. I never used to play in such a disciplined way – I’d kind of just change when I felt like it, or move through songs as I felt sounded good. She always says to me, “Get into the rhythm of the song. Don’t drum just for the sake of drumming. Don’t be too head-y.” While I didn’t quite understand what the first part of that meant, I do now. To her it means, understand how the lyrics interact with the drums in the track. Understand how the emotions ebb and flow throughout the song. The drums need to find a home within each of these sonic moments. To do that, I had to listen to the songs in different ways. I’d listen to them on speakers, on a computer, on iPhone headphones, on Beats headphones, on super loud speakers like what we have on stage.This allowed me to hear different nuances every time, which in turn connected me to the song in the most honest way I could, to best understand how to apply my live drums to the track. Every time she would critique my drumming during that first rehearsal, I would go back to the hotel room and play the track in many ways on my bed, over and over again, until I had a library of options to go back to her with till she found something she liked that I was doing. I felt grateful that she would email me between various shows and tell me what she needed, or that she would push me to play some of the most challenging drum breaks in her music. Since she pushed me to a higher level, I felt motivated to do whatever it took to meet her at that level.

What is the biggest challenge you face drumming for her? The biggest challenge lies at an ideological level. Because I am also a full-time student at Harvard Business School she is often skeptical of my thoughts and my education. She doesn’t want me to be influenced by a school that (by perception) is teaching young minds to go back into the world with the goal of making as much money as possible. For me personally, my goal is to not be defensive about the positives I enjoy from living in two vastly different worlds, and instead listen to the criticisms that both worlds might have about the other. I feel blessed. I feel that I am on a constant quest for truth, so that in my life, the way I contribute to the world will be in the most intelligent, truthful way. That when I contribute to the music industry in an innovative way, it will be compassionate and thoughtful and effective because I have lived the different experiences one can have in the industry and have done my best to most honestly leverage that knowledge into action. The biggest challenge is gaining Maya’s trust at that ideological level, and making it clear how grateful I am to her for her lyrics, her bravery, her intelligence and her power. She builds this mini world on stage, every time we perform, in which we are born free, born strong, born passionate and in control. Being part of this world and her vision has empowered me to want to keep this progressivism alive in my own life, and has inspired me to think even more critically about how I can advance my own values of feminism, freedom and positive musicianship in my own world.

Talented and Amazing Female Drummer for MIA Kiran Gandhi Tom Tom Magazine

What is the least expected part of being her drummer? One thing I didn’t know was how intricately MIA programs each of the drum sounds in her music. She makes the sounds in the wildest ways. She’ll drop marbles on a table, record it and then accelerate the sound. She’ll record Indian drums and play them backwards. So when I’d hear something a certain way and play my interpretation of it on my drums, she would hate it for obvious reasons! It diluted what would have taken her hours in the studio to build. So we had to work closely to make sure that anything I played added to the live show, instead of taking away or distracting from each meticulously created beat that she made.

What advice would you give another drummer looking to land a job with a bigger artist? Don’t ask. Show. Work hard to make it clear that you are right for the gig. That you care. That you want to contribute something. Not that it would be “an honor for you to play with X” but that you have something dope that can advance what X is trying to do.That you understand what X is about and that you fit ideologically with what they’re doing. That you’ve thought through why you’d want to play with them and no one else. That you aren’t auditioning for like a 100 random artists and you’re just waiting for one to come through. That this is actually special. That this is meant to be and that if you were given the opportunity, you’d do everything in your power to protect it. To honor it. To remember that you’re the one lucky to be there. That no one owes you anything. And that every night, you’d do your absolute best to bring their show to the next level.

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