Musicians with degrees are not a new concept; it’s smart to have something to fall back on. But Kiran Gandhi’s Harvard MBA wasn’t a plan B or a day job; it was part of a calculated plan to reform a broken music industry into one where women reign.
“I want [my] brand to be synonymous with gender equality and good music,” says the drummer, who earned the aforementioned degree while touring with M.I.A. in 2013. On that tour, M.I.A. gave her some advice: “Places of privilege pick people who they think will play by their rules and perpetuate their norms of privilege. Instead of going to those places, build your own institutions.” The singer also implored Gandhi to approach her Harvard studies with caution and a healthy amount of skepticism. So now she rages on several levels, at times with precision and others with abandon, against the machine that some argue created her.
Gandhi made international headlines in 2015, when she ran the London marathon while very openly on her period, free-bleeding for 26 miles to raise awareness about the damages of menstruation stigma. Being a woman, she says, is her most salient identity, paramount in every move she makes in her music. She now lives in L.A. but is in the studio in San Francisco, working with her bandmate Alexia Riner, on their project Madame Gandhi. They plan to release a debut EP this summer, of downtempo electronic music with drums and vocals (“Most of our music is made from happy accidents,” says Gandhi). The Voice spoke with her on the phone about her career up to this point and where she plans to go next.
Village Voice: How did you start playing the drums?
Kiran Gandhi: At summer camp in 2001. They used to take all the kids to the lake for swimming and I never liked that stuff, so I would go hide in the theater cabin, hoping they wouldn’t find me. There was a drum set there and I started playing it and liked it. There was a maintenance man working in the theater, and I thought he would turn me in, but it turned out he was also a drummer and he started showing me stuff.
How did growing up in New York affect your music?
There were always concerts to see, so I was into concerts. I grew up watching TV on the Radio and Dirty Projectors — they were two of my favorites. They sang with so much passion, and they played music with so much intelligence and intention. I always felt like I wanted to make music like that. Being exposed to so many different artists and ideas influenced my drumming and the way I think about music, which is an unlimited way. New York helped me be boundary-less.
Your undergraduate thesis at Georgetown discussed how the decline of the music industry is good for women. What were your arguments?
The traditional model is built upon white men controlling who gets to be famous and how they get to be famous. Women were kept out. [But] that model is no longer financially viable; it has no power anymore. To sign an artist to a major record label is not as profitable as it [once] was, so the gatekeepers have changed. Because there’s all this space and everyone is thirsty to make money and come up with ideas about how this new model can look, there’s room for new leadership. These next ten years [are] where we rebuild the music industry as women and people of color.
What do you want to be known for most?
The fact that I am a leader in gender equality today. I also want to be seen as a talented musician. Someone who makes beautiful music. Those things have always been important to me. Those are the purest: music and feminism. Everything else — I see those as what makes those two possible. The Harvard degree makes me smarter when I’m speaking. It makes me more credible to an audience who might be skeptical. It makes me better at business. The marathon supports the feminism. The drumming supports the fact that I want to be seen as a serious musician.
An MBA at Harvard is a traditional marker of success to some. What’s your marker of success?
My favorite marker of success is when women come up to us after the show and tell us how inspired they are, or how good the lyrics made them feel, or how happy they were to see other women on stage doing their thing. And knowing that it might inspire them to do whatever they have been holding back from. To front a band is a big leap for me; I don’t know if I ever thought I would be that. [As] a drummer I wasn’t used to being the frontperson, but people that have known me for a while wanted me to take that leap of faith, because that’s the way I can communicate what I care most about.
What can we expect at this upcoming show?
Friday is going to be very special, because we redesigned our live show so that it’s more drum-focused. My skill set is as a drummer and someone who likes to speak and think about gender equality, and so we are going to have Alexia do more sound design and triggering on the stage, while I drum on top of it. It’s going to make everything feel far more dramatic…[you] can expect to be emotionally moved by the lyrics, the textures of the sounds created live, and the very epic drumming.
Madame Gandhi plays May 13 at Le Poisson Rouge. Click here for more info and tickets.