Kunal Choksi is a metal maniac on a mission. The hard-working Choksi does so much we thought we should lay it out here nice and simple before going any further:
1: He runs Transcending Obscurity Records/Classics, which releases records from international bands as well as handles reissues from international bands.
2: He runs Transcending Obscurity India/Asia, which deals with bands from India and Asia.
3: He runs the website tometal.com.
Choksi has a busy upcoming release schedule for his labels: he’s got Swampcult, Stench Price (with members of Brutal Truth, Cynic, Hail of Bullets, and more), Fetid Zombie, Echelon (featuring Dave Ingram of Hail of Bullets, ex-Bolt Thrower, ex-Benediction), and Sepulchral Curse coming out on Transcending Obscurity Records. Over on Transcending Obscurity Classics, a reissue of Warlord U.K.’s Maximum Carnage is in the works.
Meanwhile, Transcending Obscurity India/Asia have releases from Darkrypt (India), Rudra (Singapore), Grossty (India), Chaos (India), and a split release from Shepherd (India) and Death by Fungi (India). Check out his Facebook page to keep up to date on everything his labels have going on.
“I wish my label was based in US or Germany,” says Choksi, who mentions he keeps his prices for his CDs on the lower side, “but I’m in India and I’m trying my best to do things in a significant as well as supportive manner from over here.”
Looks to us like he’s doing just fine. We caught up with Choksi over email to get the skinny on everything he’s got going on.
Give us a quick rundown of the history of the label.
The label started around 2009 as an extension of the Diabolical Conquest webzine (which eventually got renamed to Transcending Obscurity). The first release on the label was the underground death/sludge/doom band The Dead from Australia, followed by releases of Preludium from Poland, and avant-garde doom band Drug Honkey from the US. Since the name change, newer albums of The Dead and Preludium came out and also releases by Norse (black metal from Australia), The Whorehouse Massacre (Canadian sludge/doom), Affliction Gate (French old school death metal), Seedna (atmospheric black metal band from Sweden), and of late, Paganizer (Swedish death metal legends). In 2013, I started an Indian sub-label specifically for the bands from my country, called Transcending Obscurity India. A couple of years later, I started a distribution leg of the label (which has now been phased out) just so that I could work with more upcoming bands from my region and help them stand on their feet, while providing them with the same distribution and promotional facilities as the bands on my main labels. Earlier this year, I started a sub-label for the classic albums called Transcending Obscurity Classics, and have since put out releases by Deceased (Fearless Undead Machines) and Abyssus (Greek death metal). I also announced Transcending Obscurity Asia so that I can do the same for Asian bands that I did for Indian bands via Transcending Obscurity India.
You’ve done a very good job bringing metal from India to the world. What are some of the challenges involved in this?
The biggest challenge is with the perception. The grass is always greener on the other side—the bands here would rather sign up with an unknown and dubious little label that’s based somewhere else rather than work with mine. I’ve had to prove my worth and, to that extent, I have left no stone unturned. Things, admittedly, are a lot better for me now than they were when I started off; that was when I had to visit jam rooms and spend hours convincing bands here. Internationally, perhaps music coming from this part of the world isn’t taken as seriously and is passed off as something having novelty value, if anything. But what they don’t understand is that the scene isn’t as developed here, and it is with support and encouragement that bands here will try to get out of the shadow of their better-established peers and strive to create impressive if not ultimately original music of their own.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I used to revel in anonymity. But I had to do shows and for that reason, I had to become visible (laughs). My life is hardly inspiring; it’s like an iceberg where people see the tip sticking out but they don’t see the weight below dragging me down. I’ve lost my entire family—my dad, my mom, my sister—to illnesses and I’m virtually living everyone’s worst nightmare. If that makes me unstoppable, so be it. While all of that was happening, I managed to expand my activities from a webzine to a label and also a PR company and have been doing all of that almost singlehandedly. I’m trying to get better in all ways and always learning from my mistakes, without ever giving up. I derive my courage from the teachings of Sri Sri Paramahansa Yoganandaji, of whom I’m an initiated disciple. He’s the author of the book Autobiography of a Yogi and before the name change to Transcending Obscurity, I used to spend most of my time—entire nights, even days—meditating. Presently, I’m working on my fourth painted album artwork, getting my body in shape, as well as learning both guitar and drums so that perhaps a couple of years down the line I can create music of my own and dedicate it to my Guru and my family. Life here sucks in comparison perhaps but I’m appreciative of India’s ancient bond with spirituality, its culture—to an extent—and also its warm people.
Why do you run a record label?
I remember writing about many bands in the last decade that were hoping to find a record label. One was The Dead. I’d reviewed all their albums and also did an interview with them. Incidentally, most of the band signings happened because I got in touch with them by attempting to promote them. Then I thought, what’s the next step for a webzine? Why not try signing them myself? I checked with my friend Sahil Makhija of Demonic Resurrection—who had a label in my city called Demonstealer Records—about CD manufacturing facilities and then, after all seemed possible, I offered The Dead guys a deal. It was on. Around that time, however, the local support was minimal because they didn’t know about such bands and were critical of me working with only the international ones. After a few years, more and more bands opted to record their album for posterity and it was then that I started a sub-label just for the bands from my country. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve put out close to 25 Indian releases since.
What do you feel is the importance of record labels in 2016?
Things still need to be professionally put out and promoted, if not distributed. Most bands I know here are trying to cut corners because they’re worried about losing money due to there not being enough sales. With a label, they have someone working hard for them. The reason I have a PR company is because I can personally ensure killer promotion for my bands. I write all the descriptions myself and will continue to do so, even though lately I’m getting help from my girlfriend, Moni Jha. Moreover, there needs to be someone to put out merch. DIY makes sense only if you can DIY really well and have built a strong reputation for your band over the years. Even then, some things, such as distribution or promotion, are best done by labels.
What do you look for in a band?
When I started off, I looked for only originality. The critic in me really wasn’t easily pleased. But I couldn’t just be putting out one release a year. There were many bands out there that were damn good and they all could do better. Take Affliction Gate, for instance. I think Dying Alone is as good a death metal album as any, perhaps even better since they have flavor and a special mood to back it up when it comes to the old school style of death metal. Then there’s Norse—dissonant black metal that’s pushing the limits. I’m trying to strike a balance between the two. Let’s face it – Transcending Obscurity is a record label based in India. It’s still underground, still burgeoning, but I’m very hard-working and in due time, I hope, I will secure a better image for my label in order to put out music of bigger bands, or at least have a respectable roster. This year I’ve signed bands like Officium Triste, Sathanas, and Infinitum Obscure, all somewhat familiar bands in the scene that have been on reputed labels. It’s always going to be a mix of big and small, though, as long as there’s obscurity to be transcended (laughs).
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you during your time running the label?
It was probably the goodwill, or karma, generated from years of running a very successful underground webzine in Diabolical Conquest, but to see close to 100 pre-orders of The Dead (an obscure band on a then-brand-new label) was pretty amazing. The release went on to completely sell out soon after. Another memorable moment was when I had recently made all these Indian band signings on Transcending Obscurity India, and had flown to Bangalore for a show or something, and there at the airport I was pounced upon by a construction worker who said he’d heard of me and was very happy about what I intended to do. We discussed our favorite bands and shared opinions and went our ways. I wasn’t expecting any of that because I’m far from a rock star and I’m only used to sharing links of bands and their music all the time.
What about the worst thing?
Shockingly, there was a lot of backbiting and criticism, especially from here, based on some of the bands that I had signed for a specific purpose, mostly distribution. For some it was the case of grapes being sour, for others I was not ‘cult’ enough; I guess that stems from the fact that my label isn’t restricted to a genre or two but aims to cover good music from all metal styles. There’s still narrow-mindedness coupled with insecurity in the scene here, division between the old school and the new school fans, armchair critics, pseudo-elitists, and those that just like to pull others down. Embittered but resolute, I went on nonetheless and, over a period of time, seem to have silenced most of them. Even the skeptics said that now it’s falling in place or amounting to something good or respectable. As for the rest, I don’t care; there’s too much at stake to worry about the opinion of people who will never support you anyway.