Ultra Abu Dhabi star Kshmr puts his spin on future in dance music industry

The DJ is part of the inaugural two-day dance music festival line-up

Kshmr was ranked No 12 on the DJ Mag Top 100 list last year. Photo: FilmMagic
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Kshmr wasn’t always a fan of dance music.

The DJ, real name Niles Hollowell-Dhar, is known for his unique and cinematic live performances and has played at some of the world’s biggest music festivals, such as Coachella and Tomorrowland. He will also be part of the inaugural line-up for Ultra Abu Dhabi at Etihad Park on Saturday.

“There was a time where I thought dance music was super lame,” he tells The National.

Before he became known as one of the world’s top DJs — ranking No 12 on the DJ Mag Top 100 list in 2022 — he was part of the hip-hop production duo The Cataracs.

Growing up in Berkeley, California, he was heavily influenced by the genre. He says that most people in the Bay Area listened to hip-hop and because of that, he had a good opportunity to test out his skills as a music producer.

While Kshmr was part of The Cataracs, he met American singer Dev. He wrote and produced a song for that that was sampled by the Far East Movement for their 2010 hit Like a G6, which reached No 1 on the Billboard 100. It was also the moment that solidified his shift into pop music.

However, while he’s produced for artists such as Robin Thicke, Selena Gomez and Enrique Iglesias, he found that it wasn’t quite the right musical outlet for him.

“I felt that pop music was a bit too much of a rat wheel. Just trying to come up with something that you think would be popular every day got a little bit tiring, and I just didn't think it was the best fit for me,” Kshmr says.

“So I moved to dance music where I found a lot more freedom. And I got to express myself through this blend of Indian cinematic [music] and dance music that sort of became my signature and it's been really fun.”

Fans attending Ultra Abu Dhabi can expect to see the experience live, as he plans to bring the concept to Etihad Park — something he first came up with for Ultra Miami in 2017. Unlike other DJs who only play tracks from behind their decks on stage, Kshmr has live instrumentalists and performers who dance as he plays, adding an extra element to his presence.

“It never really occurred to me to do a live version of the show with my players until Ultra Miami. When they offered me a slot on the mainstage, I didn't love the time. I think it was still going to be bright outside, I would much rather play at night.

“I didn't know much about the live stages, so I wasn't sure how to take it. But once I thought about it, I was like, well, that can be really cool and work really well with my music — to play the live stage and to bring live performers out. And then I did it. And it took a lot of work but it became my favourite kind of show to play.”

I got to express myself through this blend of Indian cinematic music and dance music that sort of became my signature and it's been really fun

While to others he appears to live the good life by DJing around the world, as he makes the long journey from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi, he admits it isn’t always what it’s cracked out to be.

“If you DJ, you are going city to city, to the most heightened emotional state that the people there are going to have that month, or for some of the people at that show, maybe even for that year. They're not doing this all the time.

“They're doing this a few times a year, and they really look forward to it. It's like a big event. And for you, you're just showing up and it's another day, and then you fly to another city, where it's their big moment. And after a while, you're seeing the height of what life has to offer, the biggest night of people's lives, and you're just numb to it.”

Although he’s only 34, he knows that he can’t keep up with his current touring schedule forever. And while he’s grown to have a much fonder appreciation of dance music, Kshmr has hinted there might be a time in the near future where he heads back to his musical roots.

“There are things outside of making music that I really love, like I've made toolkits, the Sounds of Kshmr series that I make that helps other producers. That's been a really big business for me — things related to producing — as time goes on, it might just be the sensible thing to do to sort of transition to that more.

“I think that touring has definitely taken a toll on me physically. And it's been hard to really plant my feet and have a grounded life when I get uprooted to play shows so often. So if I fast forward 10 years, it's a bit hard for me to imagine still touring at the rate that I am.

“I will probably transition to things that still use my love for dance music, but maybe are easier on my body, they're easier on my family life and more conducive to growing something stable at home.”

Ultra Abu Dhabi takes place on Saturday and Sunday at Etihad Park; 3pm to 1am; tickets start at Dh360; www.ultraabudhabi.com

Updated: March 03, 2023, 6:02 PM