Vancouver, BC producers Salil Verma and Peter Nieuwenburg are attentive enough to their craft to know the rules for making streamable pop music in 2021. If you’re one of their clients or collaborators, they’ll even leverage them to your advantage in winning over new listeners. But on their duo material as Sound of Kalima, that goes out the window the second they have a more fun idea.
On a streak of singles that’s carried them through the last year or so, they’ve built their brand in glittering, cackling pop anarchy. On last April’s “Wild Trash,” they dumped autotune and smogged-out synths on some half-rapped, half-joking verses about a climate apocalypse. On November’s “6789ten,” they took an off-the-cuff sample of Nieuwenburg counting to ten while cooking in their shared kitchen (“The mic’s on, say some shit!” Verma remembers prompting him) and turned it into an anti-racist guitar jam, with the help of a Travis Barker Splice pack.
But they’ll just as soon turn around and toss off a pristine, polished gem like their latest single, “Alien.” They point to off-beat inspirations like Gorillaz and Rage Against the Machine, but they take just as much influence from the pop and hip-hop artists they produce–including Ekke, Bella St. Clair, Dora Kola, Andrea and Chris Clute, Hoodie Browns, Pavy, Carley Belfry, Victoria Groff, and more. (They even have a helpful playlist to help you keep up with that ever-expanding cohort)
Hunkered down in their home studio between writing and production sessions over Zoom, the two spoke to The All Scene Eye about their origins as a punk band and the creative rules that keep their music-making process on track.
How did the two of you meet and start working together?
Verma: We met at university, at UVC, in 2012. I think by some weird sort of luck, we both ended up on the same floor–I don’t think Pete was supposed to be on the same floor as our dorms. I was just playing an electric guitar in my room, no amp, no nothing, and Pete walked in and said, “Do you wanna jam and cover some songs?” And I think we agreed, “Fuck covering music. Let’s make our own music.” And since then, it’s just been cool. We know how to write with each other, you know what I mean?
Nieuwenburg: Yeah, definitely. Like, the first year we knew each other, we only really had access to acoustic guitars, and I think Sal had his electric there, so for the first year of working together, we literally just wrote on two guitars all the time. Once we got to the point where we had keyboards and drum sets and everything, we really could build off that relationship, but it was all around just writing funky little songs on guitar.
Verma: We didn’t know how to record, either. I had this program called Reaper on my computer, but we had no idea how to comp things, we had no idea how to overdub. There’s a really old recording of us doing literally, take-by-take, each riff to piece the song together, and you can hear, “Ok, stop.” And then you hear us press record–
Nieuwenburg: Spacebar and shit.
Verma: Yeah, and then you hear us press record again, and it’s like, “Ok, next riff.” We pieced it together as if it was a song, but you still hear, “Ok, stop. Alright, next riff.” We used to use a Tide bottle as a drum beat. We’d just hit it and record it.
Verma: We started off not really knowing how to do much. But making do with what you have to bring the sounds out of your head, I think that was pretty good, in terms of how we started–starting with limitations to really use whatever you have to make the sounds that you need to make.
Your social media bio says that before SOK, you were in a punk band named after a vegetable. First of all, what was the vegetable?
Nieuwenburg: It was pretty off the board, man. It was okra. I honestly–I didn’t even know that was a vegetable at the time.
That’s a deep cut.
Nieuwenburg: We were, like, 19 when we named the band and basically ate pizza at the time, and like, not many veggies in our diet, so I didn’t know what okra was. We just thought it was a cool sound, and then someone–actually, it was a restaurant in Pakistan called Okra–
Verma: Yeah, oh shit!
Nieuwenburg: They started [laughs] fucking with our shit because we were named Okra, and they were named Okra.
Verma: [laughs] They started playing our music!
Nieuwenburg: And that’s when we figured out it was a vegetable.
Verma: The moment we came up with that name, we were on a bus to our first open mic, the two of us. They needed a name, I think, and we just searched up cool words, and the first thing that popped up was “okra.” We literally Googled “cool words,” you know? We texted the guy at the open mic, we were like, “Hey, here’s our name,” and henceforth, we were known as Okra.
How did the open mic go?
Verma: Really good, actually. Because from what I remember–so, we said Okra was a punk band, right? But it started with just the two of us on acoustic guitars.
Verma: If you listen to some of the SOK releases, there’s still that punk attitude and flavor. That first open mic, I think everybody before and after us were, like, soft acoustic guitar stuff–kind of coffee shop, café sort of stuff–but then when we came on, we started screaming our asses off with acoustic guitars and we literally cleared out half the room. The people who stayed, they watched and listened, and they were clapping along, and singing–like, we covered “Smooth Operator” by Sade in our own little version, and they sang along to that, so that was a good open mic.
Nieuwenburg: The old, boring-looking people paid their tabs and dipped, and we were like, “That’s a sign that we’re onto something.”
Verma: Exactly. That means there’s an audience for what we do rather than–because if they stayed and nobody really paid attention, it’s like, “Okay, we’re casual, then.” It’s not a love-or-hate kind of thing. It’s average. People will say, “That’s a song.” Nah, we need to hear people say, “We hate it. We love it.” So yeah, we cleared out half the room, but the people who stayed watched, which was great. It was a good ego boost.
So evolving from Okra, becoming SOK, when did you make this pivot to incorporating more pop sounds?
Nieuwenburg: It was honestly not too long that Okra really existed. Like, we had a little band, we had a bass player and a drummer that were homies of ours. We rehearsed, and I think we recorded to our best efforts, like, a few songs, but we ended up just not being able to rehearse enough.
And Sal and I have always loved electronic music. We love Gorillaz and we love, I don’t know, hip-hop–we wanted to make better beats, so we learned to produce, and then every day that we learned something new to produce, we’d kind of fuse that with what we were doing, and at that time, I guess it didn’t really feel like Okra. It was an extension of us on guitars writing songs, but now we had more inputs at our disposal.
Verma: It got very boring just writing on guitars. The whole thing was, you know where to put your hands, so it’s so predictable what you can do on guitar. We needed to seek other forms of uncertainty in music to really make something fresh. But also, we had a bunch of rappers on our floor–I brought my own mic to my dorm when I moved here, so everybody wanted to record. I’d record them in Audacity, so I started getting a lot of recording knowledge from there.
Like Pete said, we were always into hip-hop, electronica, and we didn’t really have anything against pop music, but there was a decision made, like, “Oh, let’s just start incorporating everything.” Just because it’s a learning opportunity, I guess, and music is music regardless of genre. If it sounds good, it sounds good, so we were just like, “Let’s incorporate everything,” you know? We’ve even written a country song. In terms of chronological timeline, that would be 2013 probably.
Pete, I know you play keys now. What’s the instrumental breakdown, generally, on an SOK track, or does it vary? Who plays what?
Nieuwenburg: I think it does vary. Both of our backgrounds are in guitar, and Sal’s a sick keyboardist as well, so I think we’re lucky where we can create a pretty versatile sound because both Sal and I have different styles on every instrument that we play. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been playing more keys as of late, and Sal’s more guitar, but honestly, any SOK song you hear, chances are you might hear me play a riff on guitar and Sal do something on the keys.
Verma: Yeah, if you pull up any SOK song, we’d be able to point out, “Hey, that riff was recorded by Pete, that keyboard part was recorded by me, but then Pete played the pads on the chorus and I played the guitars.” Rather than sticking to a, “Hey, this is your instrument, this is my instrument” kind of thing, it’s more like, “Do you have an idea?” [laughs] And then it’s like, “Which instrument did you come up with that idea on? Ok, let’s play it on that instrument. Oh, maybe we should try this on keys. Can you play it? No? Ok, then I’ll try it.”
Nieuwenburg: We don’t really operate like a band, where everyone sits down at their instruments and jams ideas. It’s more so like Sal said, like, “If you hear something in your head, just try it on one instrument,” and we’ll go from there.
The name Sound of Kalima–where did that come from?
Verma: So, we had the Okra band, and the Okra band ceased to exist because it started to seem a bit like–and this is no disrespect to the other band members, but they had other things going on in life, right? And we really had the bug and were writing, writing, writing, and we couldn’t arrange regular jam sessions. So we were like, “Ok, let’s stop that and become something new.”
I think literally the day after we said, “Hey guys, sorry.” [laughs] The day after, we were trying to come up with names, and we came upon two names. One was Kalima and one was Osiris or some shit, I don’t know. [laughs] We were on some ancient god stuff. I think Pete and I were in our rooms, and I went up to his room like, “Yo, Osiris or Kalima?” He was like, “Kalima,” and that’s how we became Kalima. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s go for a concept.” It’s a cool sound, it’s a cool name, and my background is in Hinduism–like, my family–so it made sense to me. Then we found out that Kalima was actually a name of a band, so Pete came up with Sound of Kalima.
Nieuwenburg: I think we uploaded one of our first songs, and we were stoked. We went to Spotify, and it had grouped onto this, like, 60s jazz fusion band, and after a 40-year hiatus, it looked they dropped this new pop song, and we were like, “Aw, fuck! That’s our song.” We just added “Sound of,” and that was that.
Verma: [laughs] Yeah, no real deep thinking. Obviously, it means something to us now because we did explore the meanings and everything in and around that name, but at the moment, it was just like, “Hey, this sounds cool.”
So what does it mean to you now?
Verma: So, Kalima–I don’t even know if you can put a gender on her, but traditionally, she’s a goddess. She’s the goddess of many, many things in Hinduism, but mainly, she’s about empowerment. She’s also–so, in Hinduism, there’s the reincarnation cycle. You will always reincarnate until your soul has really completed its purpose in life, so she’s also the one who frees you from the reincarnation cycle once she determines that your soul has met its purpose.
That’s what it kind of means to us in terms of, like–the main part of it is the freedom, you know what I mean? The more we researched, we were like, “Wow, this really makes sense.” I’m not saying it was destiny or fate that we were supposed to call ourselves that, but it was a really good coincidence that we’re really about musical freedom, and like, keeping your soul free, or whatever you want to call it, and she’s the one who breaks people from the reincarnation cycle–in certain sects of the religion. Certain sects don’t believe that. It’s not like we did that much of a deep dive. [laughs]
What’s your studio setup like? Where do you do most of your work together?
Verma: We work at home, man. We live together, and we have monitors set up, we have an interface, we have guitars all over the fuckin’ shop. We have two keyboards in the house. It’s at home that we work, and I’m sure we could have made a conscious decision to go out and get a studio space, but first, we didn’t have the money for that [laughs] and second, we’ve realized–obviously, before COVID, we were having physical sessions with people. People coming into our home to work.
It was a really friendly atmosphere. It was really, like, “You’re so free,” rather than, “Hey, we’re paying rent on the space, and you’ve got to pay us so we can pay rent,” and blah blah blah. The whole professional environment of a studio might hinder the freedom of songwriting.
Nieuwenburg: A lot of the artists that work with us talk about how they like that they come here and they’re just treated like friends, basically. Sure, they’re here to write a song or whatever, but a lot of the songs we write with artists, or they write with us, come from just chatting as friends. Like, “What’s going on with your life? What are you struggling with?” I think those honest conversations are a lot easier when it feels like you’re at our place hanging out, because you literally are.
And then, yeah, we’ve just made the most of it. My room is usually where we record vocals, and then we route it through to Sal’s room, where we monitor and listen back. It’s kind of like a mock-studio, but we just also have, like, beds in the room.
Verma: We have a 25-foot wire going from my room to Pete’s room, and the mic setup, we have a booth–not a real booth, but it’s a little box. We tried to recreate a professional environment as much as we could, but obviously, we’re not going to get rid of the bed and put up a bunch of acoustic paneling or soundproofing, because again, fuck it, we don’t need it!
It’s been cool seeing some behind-the-scenes stuff on your SOKTV series. In one of the episodes, there’s some mention of studio rules that you have. Can you walk me through the studio rules?
Verma: No self-deprecation and no sorrys.
Nieuwenburg: That’s pretty much it.
Verma: Those are the two studio rules that we have on the door. What usually tends to happen, though, is that we self-deprecate and we say sorry to the artist sometimes, but then the moment they say it, we’re like, “Nah, read the door!”
[laughs] You get to break the rules.
Verma: Yeah, exactly. What we found is a lot of people, they do give a big sorry and a preamble before they–like, I don’t know, you probably have people showing you demos and whatever, and they’re just like, “Oh, but we’re going to rerecord the vocals,” blah blah blah, all that shit. It’s like, “Nah, man, fuck it. Just play it, and we’ll see it for what the artistry is, not for the performance.” Obviously, we understand it’s a demo. So like, that sort of thing, telling people, “Listen, you don’t have to apologize for being an artist. You don’t have to apologize for making music.”
And we understand self-deprecation as a joke, but when it’s really like, “Aw, I suck, I can’t get this take today,” it’s like, “Nah, don’t do that to yourself.” That’s just not a good environment to be in to be creative. I know we had another set of studio rules at some point. I cannot remember them. One of them, Pete wrote down “You’re only as funky as your last cut,” or something like that?
Nieuwenburg: Yeah, that’s the Andre 3000 line, but it’s the idea that like, who cares if you wrote a dope song yesterday? What did you write today?
Verma: And how good was it? And that doesn’t mean you suck forever if it wasn’t good. Just keep going and try to make every song as funky as possible.
Nieuwenburg: We had one–our homie Ekke always falls asleep, so we were like, “Yo, if Ekke’s asleep, don’t wake him up.” They always ebb and flow, but these two are the most up to date.
Verma: Exactly. It’s the way to just facilitate the easiest music-making process. Don’t say sorry. Don’t apologize for trying an idea out. And if it doesn’t work, don’t say that you suck. Trust yourself as an artist, essentially. It’s all about trust.
And you know, we should probably write this down on the new studio rules as well, but on the very bottom, we had an abbreviation. It was HHUC, which stood for “Human Honesty and Unique Catchiness.” That’s kind of what we want with everybody’s music that we make. It’s gotta be honest, it’s gotta be human, but it’s also gotta be catchy in its own unique way.
Obviously, we’re digesting some things from mainstream pop and whatever, but we have to put a twist and a spin on it. That’s the kind of music we listen to anyways. Like, Gorillaz–think about their kind of shit. It’s different. It’s always got a little bit of lime put on top of it, you know what I mean? It’s a bit bitter, it’s a bit sour, but it feels good.
You’ve been on this track for a while now releasing a new single every six to eight weeks. How did you get into that rhythm?
Nieuwenburg: For one thing, Sal and I just write so much music. Aside from all the stuff that we help artists with, Sal and I always just have ideas that we jam, and we’ll record little demos, but I think for a while, we were meandering a bit in what our sound was.
It was only in the last year and a bit, maybe a bit more, that we revisited the punk kind of sound. Once we stumbled into that and we had made a few songs that had that vibe and that drive and everything, that’s when we were like, “Okay, let’s just sort of force our hand and make sure we’re putting out music every six to eight weeks or whatever.” Part of it is to keep us accountable in finishing songs, not just coming up with new ideas all the time.
But it’s also from a promotion standpoint. In any creative endeavor, whether you’re posting vlogs on YouTube, or whatever it is, the more consistent you release, your audience will know they have something to look forward to rather than just being left in the dark. If you hop on board and follow along with us, you know you’re probably going to get six to eight new songs this year, and then you’ll get six to eight the next year, and we’ll just keep rolling, so we won’t keep you waiting too long.
Verma: Yeah, like Pete said, we have a lot of songs. Like, even yesterday, fuckin’, two songs. We write a lot and we write really fast because we’re such excitable people, you know what I mean? We’re like, “Oh my god, let’s try that! And let’s try this!” And now it’s like we’ve really found our groove. Everything is sticking, usually, so we have a lot of material. We hit upon a sound that we really like.
Before, we were chasing other sounds that we liked, and it wasn’t completely representative of us as people, and like, our attitudes. Then we just said “Fuck it, I don’t care if people like this or not. We need to really just do us.” And guess what? People liked us doing us. That’s validation for doing your own thing rather than, “Hey, let’s try to make the hottest trap beat,” or whatever. Not that we haven’t tried to do that, and we still fall into that, because we love that kind of music, but for the SOK stuff, it’s about, “We need to be original. We need to just keep writing consistently so we can release consistently.”
Tell me about the next one coming out, “Alien.” How did that track come together?
Verma: I love entertaining the possibility that aliens have visited us, and that they’re friendly, and one day, hopefully, they’ll take me on a three-day vacation around the solar system. It was very much like that. Life can get monotonous. You’re doing the same thing in and out every day, and there’s a lot of shit that people–like, the crises in your head, you know what I mean? They never really come alive, but they’re there, and what you really need is an escape.
I was like, “What’s better than a holiday to the Caribbean or Bali or some shit? Let’s go to space.” I had the chord progression and the chorus and I started laying down a little bit of the instruments, and then Pete came home, and we were just like, “Okay, let’s work on this,” and he wrote the keyboard parts.
Nieuwenburg: Sal said I had to write a riff that was as catchy as “Careless Whisper,” the sax.
Verma: Oh shit! I totally forgot about that. That’s fire, ’cause it worked.
Nieuwenburg: I literally just came home and now I have to write the catchiest shit ever. Like, “Oh, man, how am I gonna do this?” I remember I was playing some stuff and Sal was like, “Nah, that’s not it.” I was like, “You know what? Let me just figure this out for a second, man.” And yeah, just jammed that idea for a minute–I laid down the keys and we kept producing it from there.
Verma: I think we had a day off from work or something–like, our day jobs–and we worked through it the whole day. We had an artist session, and our session kind of bled into the artist session because he came over and I was writing the lyrics to it. Lyrically, you can hear–I don’t even know the first line, man.
Nieuwenburg: “One hell of a delusional wreck.”
Verma: “You’re one hell of a delusional wreck,” thank you. “Lonely actor leaning on lonely sex.” Again, it’s like those crises in your head that don’t exist for anybody else, and what you’re doing is finding–hopefully some sort of fulfilment, but you’re looking for it in, like, sex, drugs, whatever.
And I don’t know if it really came across, but the song has, for us, a nostalgic feel in terms of the instrumentation we used. Like old soul, R&B records from the 70s–Like the glockenspiel layer on top of the keys, you know what I mean? We wanted to have that nostalgic feel, something that you miss, but then the lyrics take off to, “So we can take it to heaven, live on mars / see new dimensions from the stars.” And “We’re moving past the ultraviolet lightspeed, bitch.” When a person shows up in the session, if we’re writing lyrics, I want to be able to make them laugh, so we just wrote, “lightspeed, bitch / New Years stitch,” because it was funny. It was weird.
We had the two verses and the two choruses and the intro and whatever for a long time–by long time, I mean, like, two weeks. And then we were like, “Ok, let’s just write a bridge,” and Pete came up with–I keep forgetting the words. [laughs] Honestly man, we work on so many songs every day. But so, he came up with the bridge, and it was super sweet and kind of childish, in a sense. It’s really innocent.
Nieuwenburg: Oh, [singing] “That’s ok–“
Verma: Exactly, that bit. We came up with that, and we were like, “We need a fuckin’ liftoff in the middle of the bridge,” you know? “But now I see, tranquility–” and that’s a play on words. There’s a place on the moon called the Sea of Tranquility, so we were like, “Now I see, tranquility, as an alien on Earth, I’m gonna be zooming through the–” years, or stars, or whatever it is, “beyond you.” It’s like, “We’re going, we’re off,” and then the last thing is, “I wanna go to sp–” and it stops at the “sp” of “space,” and then it’s blast-off with the instrumental hook. It’s like the aliens have taken you and now–
Verma: Exactly, exactly. You’ve been wishing for it, hoping for it, and now the aliens have taken you. That’s what the song is lyrically about, but the feeling of it is very, like, longing for something–something maybe you can never have, but there was a feeling of longing at that time. We’re so lucky that we have the ability to actually put that feeling in a song, because trust me, at the right point of time, you’re tired or whatever and the song hits, you’re like, “I am literally being blasted off right now.” [laughs]
I love hearing about these moments the two of you have in production, where you kind of lean on each other for what needs to happen next. For each of you, what’s your favorite thing about the other as a creative partner?
Verma: There’s quite a bit, and I think on the very fundamental level, we fill this in for each other. Where he doesn’t have an idea, I will, and where I don’t, he will. The hook for “Alien” is a great example where I can be like, “Dude, play something as catchy as “Careless Whisper.” It’s not even, “I can’t do that!” It’s like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” In those moments, I really do feel like the artist, just being like, “Do this!” And then it’s like, the greatest band ever does it. It’s like, “You hit it. That’s it.” So yeah, just saying shit, and Pete’s gonna get it, that’s huge.
Also, I love his playing skills on the keys. He’s really been practicing for years now, just building up the thing to really get better at it, and there was a point of time where it hit, where it was like, “We’ve reached that level. You can play exactly what we need and everything.”
And honestly–both of us do this. It’s the determination to see an idea through. That’s huge. I haven’t written this down anywhere, but it’s a rule for myself, and for both of us. The first two hours are gonna be shit, but after two hours, if you trust yourself as an artist and a creative, and we both do that with each other, we will come up with something that we like. So that’s what I enjoy about Pete’s abilities. And also, you know what? More so me than him, I will always be like, “Yo, that ain’t it,” and he’ll be ready to try something else.
Nieuwenburg: This is so wholesome, man. Thank you, first of all. I could echo basically everything Sal said. Where we’d maybe have deficiencies as artists–I don’t even know if that’s the right word, but even if one person’s having an off day or whatever, the other person picks up the slack. Having Sal to bounce ideas off of—or even that day where we wrote “Alien,” I might have not been feeling it. I might not have sat down and written anything, but Sal’s like, “Here’s what I need. Just give me one thing.” And I’m like, “Fuck, ok.” Then I sit down and I get sucked in, you know?
Sal’s work ethic, his drive, his enthusiasm is super infectious, and for me, someone who can maybe just want to sit down and chill sometimes [all laugh] if I go sit down, I’m literally one foot away from a speaker, and all it takes is one good idea for me to be like, “Fuck!” And then I come in and start working. So that’s huge.
I’d also say Sal does not need much to spark a big idea. I can literally play, like, three notes in a rhythm that sound cool, and it’s, “Whoa whoa whoa, play that again.” And then we lay it down, and I could literally go have a nap if I wanted, and in an hour, there’d be a sick idea laid down. It’s kind of like Sal said, where if he leans on me to input one part in a song that needs a lift or something different, same thing. If I just have one idea, he can turn it into a really good song.
Verma: And vice-versa.
Nieuwenburg: Yeah, the coolest thing about collaborating is you would never be able to make that same song by yourself. It’s the fact that if Sal comes up with an idea, I just add one thing, and it changes the whole vibe. Then Sal gets a vision from that and does something. That kind of thing works vice-versa, but for me, that’s something really special where it’s almost like speaking a different language.
Verma: Yeah, like, we don’t talk, you know what I mean? Sometimes we’ll just play the music and jam it out, and we understand what’s being said through that. That’s the beauty of collaboration. And don’t get us wrong–collaboration sucks sometimes. It’s hard. Like Pete was saying, I get really enthused super quick, and then I get really precious about the idea. Obviously, that’s a problem of the ego, and you have to learn to let go, but that–like, yes, making songs on your own is easier. You know, the adage is, “If you want something done, do it by yourself.” Fuck that shit! ‘Cause it might get done faster, but is it more fulfilling? Sometimes, but probably not. It’s nice to toss the ball around and see what other people come up with, and it’s an openness to share.
It used to be I had an idea, and I’d be like, “Everyone needs to do exactly what I hear in my head, otherwise fuck off.” But a lot of people told me, “Listen, you gotta be more open.” And then it was like, “Oh, ok, so being open to other people’s ideas is more fulfilling.” There’s still a vision to be satisfied, but it’s nice to hear what other people can do, and even outside of our whole thing, like, the artists we produce for and with and whatnot, everybody contributes sometimes in some ways.
We’re writing a new song, and I literally sent over the song to two of the artists that we work with, and I was like, “Hey, can you try some ad-libs and some vocals in the background?” And they wrote a whole-ass bridge. I was like, “This is incredible.” That whole collaborative atmosphere starts with us, but it exists everywhere else, and that’s the good thing as well. We seek out like-minded people by accident because I think when you’re trying to find your crew and your group, you try out a lot of people, and the people who stick are the like-minded people, but they have completely different skills than you have.