How KSHMR Found Freedom in EDM
Niles Hollowell-Dhar was half of a duo with a #1 song to their name, he’s since taken joy in expressing his Kashmiri roots through dance music.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
KSHMR, real name Niles Hollowell-Dhar, now looks back with a laugh at what started his music career. As a high schooler in California's Bay Area, he wrote a diss track directed toward David Singer-Vine, another local wannabe rapper. "I wrote a song dissing [that] he had acne at the time," Hollowell-Dhar recounts warmly over the phone. No beef built, but a mutual love of lead music eventually lead to creation of the Cataracs. They started producing music in high school, where they crossed paths with The Pack—the group that launched Lil B to fame—songwriter Bobby Brackins. Even eventual pop-rap superstar G-Eazy could occasionally be found in Hollowell-Dhar's makeshift home studio.
The duo hit the mainstream writing the Far East Movement song "Like A G6," a perfectly timed post-Ed Banger, autotuned, quasi-rap party anthem, which charted at #1, made the duo in-demand songwriters-for-hire, and pushed them toward potential stardom. But Singer-Vine left the project in 2012, leaving Hollowell-Dhar to hold up the duo's legacy. He never quite matched the chart success of "Like A G6," but did write for Selena Gomez, Enrique Iglesias, and Robin Thicke. In 2014 though, he also left that name behind.
"It was almost like starting over again," says Hollowell-Dhar of the transition between the Cataracs and KSHMR. Not rushed to find a direction, Hollowell-Dhar first released songs under the new moniker anonymously, creating a hard separation between the Cataracs' brash pop work and his pivot into electronic music. "It was very important to do a show where I didn't have to play with a lot of other people's music," says Hollowell-Dhar, who found early success on the Beatport charts, and in 2015 was revealed to be behind the KSHMR name during Tiësto's headlining set at Ultra Music Festival.
Last year, YourEDM leaked documents that if real seemed to show that he helped produce work for the producer Borgeous, which Hollowell-Dhar neither confirmed or denied (THUMP was not able to independently verify them). "I saw some documents come out that I knew were not real, then I saw some documents that may have been real," he said. He says introduction to electronic music was assisting friends with their tracks back when was still inside the pop world, so he never attached the stigma of "ghost production" to work like that. "I think that getting help from producers is fine," says Hollowell-Dhar of the practice. "Ultimately it boils down to the artist deciding [if] it is deceptive to their fans."
Under the KSHMR name, Hollowell-Dhar began to draw influences from Indian music, and on his most recent EP, The Lion Across The Field (released in 2016), he didn't stress about each song becoming a potential hit, whether on the pop or Beatport charts. A veteran of radically different music worlds, Hollowell-Dhar holds a keen understanding of the varying sides of the industry, so on a recent phone call, we discussed the differences between pop and EDM, the future of KSHMR and how his Indian roots grew to inspire his work.
THUMP: What prompted your transition into your solo work?
Niles Hollowell-Dhar: I needed to create something new. I believed in myself and knew that my legacy in the end shouldn't just be about popping bottles to those songs that I did with the Cataracs. I began this inward conversation about who I am and my heritage and I started KSHMR. I was able to come up with decent songs and it was a year-and-a-half before I showed my face, because again I didn't want any correlation between KSHMR and the Cataracs work.
I was able to make a lot of music, so when I performed after all that time, I could do so with only the catalog of my own music. It was very important to do a show where I didn't have to play with a lot of other people's music. A lot of DJs' shows can be interchangeable with other DJs, [because] of preference in the types of tracks they play, but if you're playing with other people's music it's hard [to] stand out.
Where does your heritage factor in the name and what you're trying to do now?
I'm Kashmiri-American meaning that my dad was born in India and his parents were from Kashmir. He came here when he was 25 years old and he met my mother, who is an American woman. My grandpa tried to impart on me that I was Kashmiri and what that meant, and to be honest when I was young that didn't mean all that much to me. It wasn't till later that I started to take more pride and interest in my heritage.
Did that manifest itself in any other ways beyond your music?
I started to take a greater interest in the music and cinema that came out of India. I always took trips to India to see my family, but as time went on I started to take them with a new more profound interest in India and how it was a part of me. [I was] trying to see if I could find out more about myself and more about my values on these trips to India. There are lots of great hearts and values for family and a lot integrity and those are the things I focus on more, when thinking about myself and what it means to be Indian.
How has your family on both sides reacted to the music you've done throughout your career?
My dad's side of the family—the Indian side—were understandably skeptical, very skeptical. I went to India to stay with my grandpa for some time after expressing that I didn't want to go to college. Spending time with my grandpa he tried to impress upon me that music is just a hobby and that I could continue doing music and I should treat it as such, as a hobby.
Now a lot has changed since then and he has a much more a much warmer perspective and he's definitely embraced my career, but I also not for nothing, he takes pride in the project and that's really special to him and I brought him on stage when I performed at the Sunburn Festival [one of India's largest EDM events] and I also brought my grandpa on stage when I performed on Sunburn and those were really magical moments on an emotional level, but also maybe edifying for him to see you know just to see what heights music can bring you.
My mom was a cello player and she was also skeptical how far someone could go in music without getting really really lucky and a lot of people view succeeding in the music industry as extremely fortunate, but my mom was fairly supportive. She allowed me to have that studio in high school and have all my friends over and man she put up with so much loud music and find all the leftover baggies and she probably started to doubt her own good will at some point towards my pursuit of music, but in the end she gets a gold star for never really doubting it.
When you were first starting KSHMR did you know that there were going to be people who were excited to hear new music from you?
That was one of the frightening and exciting aspects of it was that one one hand I was going to be starting fresh with a new slate without any associations with my new music and not adjudicating if this new music was true to that. I wasn't sure if anyone would care, [but] I was confident in my ability as a producer and I was helping my friends with their dance production and that's how I tested the waters in dance music. I definitely had to at least feign a sense confidence for the people around so they didn't think the Titanic was sinking.
How does EDM world compare to the pop sphere you were operating in before?
It's really naked and [emphasizes] pure creativity, even more than the pop world. The pop world is really a measure of how well your songs do on the largest scale—how well it charts in the United States of America. Whereas in dance music you're really measured by the success of the community that you're interested in. You're measured by your success in the trap community, you're measured by the success in the more EDM genre. In dance music, you can do whatever it is that you're passionate about and find an audience. There won't be a pressure that every release needs to be a hit to everyone. That kind of pressure doesn't exist and that was one of the almost baptizing [feelings] to go from the pop world to a [EDM] culture, where the rules are so much more ambiguous and the freedom was so much greater.
What are you looking forward towards this year?
My goal is to now put out a body of work that cultivates all of the culture, instruments, techniques, sounds, and passions that I've come across and displays in one song or another to deliver on the promise that is the bigger picture of KSHMR. It's more of a world that I dream and I envision, and it's a world I think you've seen evidence of along the way in the songs that I've put out.
My new interest has been in scoring and orchestral music and painting emotions. It's just with the songs I put out on Beatport it just moves so fast: [songs are] over here, then over here and you have the pretty part, then you build up, then [another] pretty part. It's an amazing template to work with that you find new ways to approach it and find new ways to make it feel fresh. [But] this new project it's gonna be about having faith in the listenability of the music without having to fit a template.
This interview has been condensed and edited.