Success as a songwriter didn’t fulfil Niles Hollowell‑Dhar, so he reinvented himself as KSHMR to conquer the world of EDM.
"I make dance music, so I don’t want to sound too lofty, but whenever I am creating music, I am looking at whether the story it is telling is believable. It’s not that I’m trying to push a particular message on people, but rather that I’m using the computer to try to find the human emotion, to look for that moment when something touches me on a human level. One of the ways in which I achieve that is by mixing dance music with real instruments. It’s not that songs made entirely with synthesizers haven’t touched me, but I do think there’s a certain perfection to synthesizers that works against the sensibility that you need to reach people on a deeper level. So real instruments, which are inherently imperfect, have, for me, been a great accessory in getting feeling into electronic music.”
Speaking is Niles Hollowell‑Dhar, better known as KSHMR, who is one of the world’s top EDM artists and DJs. The real instruments Dhar uses often are Indian, which is an expression of his Indian heritage: his father moved to the US from India. In part due to the Indian instruments, but also his more general musical sensibility and approach, Dhar’s music stands apart from the otherwise often slightly uniform EDM (aka electronic dance music) pack. As Dhar himself notes, “I just sort of look at dance music, and where I see an opening, I try to fill that. And sometimes that opening is a lack of human quality.”
Dhar’s emphasis on real instruments might seem surprising given that he never learned to play an instrument when he was younger. Indeed, although he now takes music lessons and has some piano and guitar skills, he still composes by clicking notes into a grid. “I’m a mouse virtuoso!” Dhar jokes. He adds, ruefully, “I would have saved so much time had I had music lessons earlier. I’m jealous of kids these days having tons of information at their fingertips online, and of how quick you can learn that way. You can now learn in a day what took me five years to learn! My learning experience is one of the reasons I’ve created many online tutorials, to offer educational resources to the electronic music community, and give good information without fluff.”
Dhar was born in 1988 in Berkeley, California, and at high school, tried rapping and making beats on a computer. He became so good at the latter that he ended up charging for his production services, which, he says, “meant that I had to make it sound dope, and be quick and impress people fast. But really, I had gotten into it because I was a computer nerd, and started developing computer games and needed music to go with them. So I downloaded crappy programs that allowed me to program a beat. I was probably three years into producing when I finally realised that I needed to learn about scales and chords and the piano, because once you understand the piano, music theory becomes really intuitive, and you’re already five steps ahead in terms of learning how to produce.”
In 2003, when he was still only 15, Dhar met fellow beatmaker and rapper David Singer‑Vine at high school, and together they formed a duo called the Cataracs. They released their first album, Technohop Vol 1, in 2006, and towards the end of the decade, they moved to Los Angeles, where Universal signed them. Their song ‘Like A G6’, with Far East Movement and Dev, was released in 2010, and turned out to be a big worldwide hit, reaching number one in the US and number five in the UK. Naturally, this dramatically changed the duo’s lives, but, as Dhar recalls, not entirely for the better...
“After the success of ‘Like A G6’ I was suddenly asked to join sessions with big artists, like Justin Bieber, Enrique Iglesias, Robin Thicke and so on. However, I was out of my depth. ‘Like A G6’ was a bit of a fluke. I wasn’t really sure how I had made that, so I wasn’t well‑prepared to be a pop producer. I really did not know what I was doing, sessions with some great artists turned awkward, and ended with me walking out. One of these great artists was Rivers Cuomo, of Weezer, an idol of mine. It was a fruitless session and nothing came out of it. So I had a trial by fire with my introduction to the pop world. Eventually, however, I did catch my stride.”
Singer‑Vine left the Cataracs in 2012, and Dhar carried on under the name on his own for a while. During this time, ‘catching his stride’ translated into some substantial success, for example co‑writing and (co‑) producing two songs on Selena Gomez’s US number one debut album Star Dance, including the single ‘Slow Down’, and co‑writing and producing a couple of tracks on the deluxe version of Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Dhar also co‑wrote tracks with Sean Paul, Enrique Iglesias, Santana, Jason Derulo, Tinie Tempah and Jessie J.
By 2014, Dhar had undoubtedly become a successful writer and producer, but around the same time, it also had become clear to him that this wasn’t really what he wanted to do. “It was all about recapturing the success of ‘Like A G6’, and that rather took the fun out of making music. I was glad that I had some success with some big records, but eventually I realised that my true calling was to be something else. Towards the end of my time with the Cataracs I had been trying my hands at dance music, and also had done some ‘ghost‑producing,’ which is working for DJs who don’t really know how to write and produce. Sometimes you help out a little bit, sometimes you create entire tracks for them. I did a few songs for a DJ friend, and they got really big, so I thought: ‘Maybe I can do this for myself.’
“Going into dance music was like a second try at having a music career, and this time I wanted to make sure it reflects who I am. As you get older you try to make decisions about what you want to represent, what eventually is going to be on your tombstone, about your legacy. That’s when I came up with the name KSHMR, because of my Kashmiri background. The name of my Dharma Worldwide record label also is related to this, as my last name is in it, and also, the dharma is a code of living.”
Niles Hollowell‑Dhar released his first single under the KSHMR moniker in 2014. ‘Megalodon’ was soon followed by several others, including his biggest hit to date, ‘Secrets’, a collaboration with Dutch DJ‑legend Tiësto and Australian singer Vassy. The latter song was released in 2015, KSHMR’s breakthrough year in the EDM world. Since then, another 25 KSHMR singles have been released, mostly on the Dutch Spinnin’ label, and some of them in collaboration with other famous EDM artists such as Hardwell and R3hab. There also have been another 15 free‑download KSHMR songs. The large amount of single releases, and the fact that few register in the pop charts, is typical of the EDM world, which has tended to inhabit a bit of a universe of its own. EDM acts tend to rely on streaming sites like YouTube and Beatport, and on live DJ performances; KSHMR made his first big live splash at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami in 2015.
As KSHMR, it took Dhar less than a year to establish himself as one of the biggest stars of the EDM scene. In addition to his many single releases, there have to date been three KSHMR album releases, including The Lion Across The Field (which was accompanied by a children’s book written by Dhar), a couple of dozen remixes, and two KSHMR sample‑pack releases on cloud sample site Splice.com, with a third sample pack coming up later this year. Dhar launched Dharma Worldwide in 2016 as a sub‑label of Spinnin’, and during the second half of 2018 he will be releasing one track a month.
Not all KSHMR tracks feature Indian elements, but they have nevertheless become a significant part of his artist identity, which also has led to great popularity in India. Dhar explains: “When I came into the dance music scene, it was very European, and a bit homogenous in the sense that it was all really uplifting music. Avicii was everywhere, and he was an idol of mine, but at the same time I saw that there would be space for somebody to bring a sound that was a little darker, that would touch people on a different level, and also to work with influences from different cultures. That’s where my Indian background came in.
“It’s interesting, because when I grew up there was nothing super‑cool about having an Indian background. My dad had a kind of funny accent and there were not many recognisable Indian people in the US. All we had was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a kind of goofy character from The Simpsons. But as I got older I started to appreciate that there was something unique about my background, and that’s why I decided to put that influence into my music.
“Also, in a wider sense, I feel like a lot of production in EDM is becoming less about originality and more about flexing your technical muscles, and making something that is in a style pretty much the same as what is already out there, with people trying to be notable purely by being incrementally better than the next guy, ie. a little bit louder, or with better synth sounds. By contrast, I have, for example, recently become obsessed with Indian disco music, which dates from an awkward time when everyone there was really into disco, and it’s really interesting to hear how they were taking synths and other limited technology to try to make Indian sounds. The end results often were really cheesy, but lovable as well. I think it’s really cool when people do stuff without a manual or without any references, and just use new technology to come up with whatever they know. Indian disco was technically horrific sometimes, but you just have to respect the ingenuity of it, the innovation of it, which ultimately is more exciting than perfection and technical prowess.”
Dhar’s studio is a typical 21st Century affair, located in his bedroom in his house in Studio City in Los Angeles, with an in‑the‑box setup. His current gear there consists of an Apple MacBook Pro (“newest model with maxed‑out specs”) running Ableton Live, with a UA Apollo 8p interface, ADAM S3H monitors, PreSonus Monitor Station v2 monitor controller, Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol keyboard, RND Portico II mic preamp and a Neumann U87 mic.
“I used Propellerhead’s Reason for a long time,” says Dhar, “but around the time I started KSHMR I discovered Ableton, which made me aware of the limitations of Reason. But it’s hard to switch DAWs. You get very accustomed to something, and a lot of the power of a DAW is in your familiarity with it. Now that I’m in Ableton I don’t know how I got by before. Ableton is really good for making beats very quickly, but I have to say that it also has some weaknesses: I am not keen on the automation, and there’s no comping system, which makes recording vocals awkward. Even Reason had a simple comping system with the ability to create playlists from which you could select different takes. For some reasons vocals always seem to sound better when I record them in a studio, but I do sometimes record vocals here, using my U87 and an Aston Halo microphone reflection filter, which are in my closet.”
Many EDM artists use Ableton Live for live performance too, but Dhar is an exception: “I don’t use it live. If I am actually DJ’ing, I’ll do it like a normal DJ, with separate tracks and I control the levels and fades and so on. But when I’m doing a big show, I’ll plan out what I’m going to do, in order, lining up all the tracks so I’m sure of my total time. I have an animated story for part of my live show, during which I duck behind the stage, and also because of that everything needs to be timed to perfection. After having set up the entire show in Ableton I’ll load it onto a USB stick, which goes into the CDJ, on which the tracks show up with all the metadata, and the different cue points I have set up to streamline the transitions.”
As a writer, Dhar can find inspiration in a variety of sources. “I will sometimes jam on the piano. People tend to say that if a song sounds good on just a piano, it’s a good song, but you tend to find yourself writing ballads on the piano, so I also like to find interesting sounds as starting points. I am always collecting Kontakt libraries, it’s like an obsession! I might start there and find an instrument or sound that has an interesting character. Sometimes the character of a sound will lead you to a melody that a very linear instrument like the piano might not.
“Aside from Splice, my sampled instrument sounds mainly come from Kontakt, plus EastWest’s Play, which has incredible string and ethnic music libraries, and MOTU’s UVI Workstation, as well as Best Service’s Engine. Best Service puts out many libraries with weird and cool stuff. Because I am always looking for string sounds, I tend to look for more obscure string samples. With regards to synths, I use Sylenth, Reveal Sound’s Spire, reFX’s Nexus for leads, and Xfer Records’ Serum, which has a distinct character that I tend to use for bass sounds. I also love Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere, which has many sounds, and although they are not all great, they always are fun.
“While I often start an instrumental track with a melody inspired by a sound, I also work with vocals. Nothing to me is as much fun as writing to a great vocal. As a producer it can be difficult when nothing is set in stone, because you always have infinite possibilities. A vocal gives you a strong anchor; it makes your path a little clearer. In this day and age people often send you an a cappella and you basically treat that like a remix and you write a track to it. I also regularly co‑write the entire song with a vocalist. One skill that I think carries over from my pop music career is having a sense of how to help a songwriter get the best out of him or her, which I think is a really crucial aspect of being a successful producer. You need to know when to encourage a good idea, and to speak up early when an artist is onto an idea that is not so great and get them headed towards something better.”
To illustrate his writing process, Dhar elaborates on a couple of examples, detailing the makings of his big hit ‘Secrets’ and a song released in the middle of 2018, ‘Carry Me Home’, with Dutch singer Jake Reese. “I had a day working with Vassy,” recalls Dhar, “and she sang me this vocal and lyric idea, ‘Oh won’t you stay for a while / I’ll take you on a ride / If you can keep a secret.’ There was more, but I edited her vocal to loop this line. After we recorded that, I must have tried for a year to add other things, because I knew the vocal was excellent. I had this melody that I thought was great, and in the end Jorn Heringa from Spinnin’ suggested a synth sound for it. He then played the track to Tiësto, who contacted me and suggested some changes. After Tiësto got involved I worked really hard to make it absolutely perfect. With this song it took a year from when the vocals were written to the time it came out.
“’Carry Me Home’ began as an instrumental that I was really proud of, which I sent to Spinnin’. The great thing about them is that they know a lot of writers, and before long they had sent me three demos from songwiters who had recorded a song to my instrumental, and Jake’s song was one of them. He came over to the US, and we did some re‑writes, including a verse that we wrote together, and that turned into the finished song. It’s really great to have the support of a company like Spinnin,’ because they have so many connections. I am not the most social guy, and I think many producers aren’t, because many of us are geeky guys, and we’re not very active in reaching out to people and finding songwriters.”
Many producers build up large backlogs of unused and/or unfinished tracks that build up over time. Dhar is no different, but he has a few unusual tricks up his sleeve in dealing with this challenge. “I save all different versions of my sessions, not only as projects, but I also save stereo bounces, because you may never go back to a project, or to an earlier version of it, and you’re much more likely to play a stereo bounce. Another thing I often do is that after I have developed a full track with different sections, I separate all the different sections in different projects, so a drop will have its own project, and so will the break, and so on. Sometimes even the first and second drop or break will each have their own projects.
“Doing that allows me to get back to the optimism I had when I first started the song, because before long you have so many tracks and your projects are so big, you end up in intellectual mode as you’re juggling all the parts. Working with only the drop or break, which often are just 15 to 20 tracks each, takes a big weight off me intellectually, and allows me to feel more creative. It’s for the same reason that many of us like starting new projects, because you’re free: the chains are off and you can do anything. But an hour into making a project you have made tons of decisions, which each determine your next decisions, and all these create invisible chains. Whatever way you do it, it’s important to try to stay in creative mode as much as possible and take weight off your brains.”
Despite his penchant for starting new songs, or breaking up more advanced sessions, Dhar does, of course, regularly finish songs, which he then delivers to Bob Sandee at Subgroover, for a final tweak. “I will mix my songs to where they sound good enough to play to others, and I also have a mastering chain, which typically consists of some multi‑band compression, like an Ableton plug‑in, or the Waves C4 or the FabFilter Pro‑MB, and that will go into IK Multimedia’s T‑RackS. For the final version I will bounce 10 or so stems out and give them to Bob, who is a terrific mixer and also a great producer, and he understands how to mix my tracks from a producer’s perspective. I did this for the first time with the track ‘Wildcard’ , because I was having a lot of trouble with the mix, and I was referred to Bob, who did a great job. I feel much more confident having someone like him do a final mixdown, because my studio is not an acoustically controlled environment.”
With six single releases this year, and a new sample pack full of recordings of live musicians coming up, Dhar is on a roll with his mission to humanise in‑the‑box music making. His ethos no doubt sounds like music to older generations of music makers and even to millennials, and will hopefully also give Generation Z musicians a helpful reminder of the roots of what they’re doing, and what it’s all about.
Electronic dance music tends to rely extensively on the use of samples, but because Indian music isn’t mainstream in the West, good Indian instrument samples are hard to find. Niles Hollowell‑Dhar therefore included many Indian sounds in his second sample pack on the cloud‑based sample library Splice, Sounds Of KSHMR 2, which was released in 2016; like his first, released the year before, it has proved extremely popular. His third sample pack for Splice is slated for release later this year.
“I use Splice all the time,” elaborates Dhar. “In fact, I am a partner with them, and have some kind of official title as a consultant, or something. Mostly I just lend them my ideas. I was the very first to do a sample pack for them as an artist. When I create the sample packs I go through my own sessions and basically sample myself, and the truth is that I often use my own Volume 1 and Volume 2 sample packs myself! For Volume 2 I played many of the Indian melodies with Kontakt instruments, but for Volume 3 I recorded many Indian instruments at a studio in Burbank.
“I had made a wish list of instruments from around the world that I love, and my managers helped me find musicians who could play them. The recording chains I used depended on the instruments, but I like to use UAD plug‑ins in ‘record’ mode, printing some EQ and compression to save you time later. Using Indian instruments, and in fact most ‘real’ instruments, in EDM tracks is challenging because in order to have them match the heft of the synths and drums, some thorough smashing and sculpting is required: saturation, compression, limiting, multiband compression, transient design. It is also very important to quantise the audio by chopping it and aligning notes to the grid. That’s just how it is when you combine elements recorded into a microphone and others that are synthesized.
“Volume 3 also will have a lot of resources for people who make hip‑hop. But I can’t just resell people the same sounds I use, so I sit in my studio a lot and design stuff. I do this in all kinds of ways; for example, I may take a kick drum from a YouTube video of a big rock concert, and treat it with iZotope’s RX Noise Reduction and Audio Repair software, which is really great for cleaning up audio. It makes it easy to isolate the kick drum, because it has a predictable slope in the frequency spectrum. Sometimes I sit at three in the morning working on some kind of effect for a sample, and I’m like: ‘What am I doing with my life!? I thought I made it, and here I am tuning tom drums!’ But it has to be great, if nothing else so I can use the sounds from my own sample packs, and don’t have to sift through tons of samples all the time.”
EDM productions often make heavy use of ‘ear candy’ such as risers, drops, hooks and so on, so it’s noticeable that KSHMR employs risers very sparingly, particularly in tracks with vocals.
“A riser is a functional utility that you create suspense with,” he comments, “and everyone uses them. But as you get a bit more comfortable with producing, you tend to be more subtle with them. In ‘Carry Me Home’, it felt awkward and not really true to the emotion to stop everything and suddenly introduce a riser. One way of being more subtle is to keep musical ideas going during the riser, so the riser is more in the background. Also, instead of completely stopping an idea before you introduce another idea, which often happens when people arrange songs in a DAW with cut and paste, it shows your experience as a producer to carry the listener in a more gentle way from section to section, and create some overlaps, for example by carrying a melodic phrase from one section over into the next.”