I’m one of those bores who still plays Championship Manager 01/02, a football management sim that came out in 2001, as you’ve probably guessed. There’s a few thousand of us around the world, all orbiting around the champman0102.co.uk website, where volunteers faithfully update the game data in line with each new season — data we then mostly ignore in favour of the original databases (3.9.68 for a smoother game experience and the Super Greeks, the roguish 3.9.60 for crashes and bugs like an Australian season that repeats forever and the cheat player Tó Madeira).
The main reason I continue to play is inertia. I loved the game back then, it has continued to run on all systems I’ve had since, and it’s been available as freeware for at least the last ten years, with the added bonus of pro bono updates from the champman0102 team. But what I really love about it is the potential for romance you’d never see in the real world, short of Leicester’s fairytale Premier League win in 2016. Right now, I’m managing Queens Park Rangers (real life: perennial second- and third-tier battlers, recently sponsored by failed gambling/fraud enterprise Football Index) in a tilt at a second consecutive Premier League title. I got Q.P.R. promoted from Division Two (then the third tier of English football) all the way to the Premiership and now have them as the upstarts of Europe. I have former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho up front alongside Luke Beckett, whose real-world career peaked at Stockport County. All this on a shoestring budget, with most players bought for less than £2million and a wage bill a fraction of Man United’s or Chelsea’s.
That’s what’s really fun about Championship Manager 01/02: taking a small team and leading them to glory over a long period. I’ve tried managing Liverpool or Barcelona; you can sign whoever you want and win the league right off the bat. Boring. Back in school, I created an absurdly talented team based on my 2nd XI teammates, then watched as we won every game at a canter. No challenge, no fun. But I still remember taking over German minnows TSV Aindling, with no money and not even any players (how do you have a football club without players?), then dragging them to the top of the Bundesliga. Likewise Izarra, a tiny Basque club, who I took through the ranks to ultimately disrupt the Barca-Real Madrid duopoly in Spain.
The impossibility of these scenarios is what makes them so intoxicating. Except it did happen in real life, more or less, with Leicester City. A League One (new name for the third tier, in case you hadn’t yet realised the absurdity of all the rebranding and tinkering with the football ‘product’) club in 2009, Leicester’s Premiership victory a mere seven years later came on a millions-strong wave of goodwill from across the globe. They were 5000-1 outsiders; who doesn’t love a genuine underdog? Never mind that they were got there on the back of Asia Football Investments money, which is pumped in by King Power International Group, which has a duty-free monopoly in Thailand thanks to its close ties with the Thai government, which took power in a military coup and has messed about freely with democracy and freedom in Thailand. Still a fairytale, damn it.
The fact that Leicester, with all that money and the soft power of a foreign state, could still be a beloved football underdog shows how messed up football has become. They were nothing next to Manchester City (plaything of UAE monarchy) and Manchester United (got big by winning everything, got bigger by prioritising shareholders over football). Or Chelsea, or Arsenal, or even Spurs.
And they were nothing next to Liverpool — my beloved Liverpool, who had their own plucky underdog success in the Champions League in 2005 and finally claimed a long-desired Premier League crown in 2020; a fandom I inherited from a football-mad stepfather. Despite not winning much for a long time, Liverpool remained a ‘big club’ because of the fandom of people like us, most of which originated in a period of extraordinary English and European dominance in the 1970s and 1980s. All of us with pound symbols above our heads. So in came the American investors — first Hicks and Gillett, Jr., then Fenway Sports Group — to tap the brand. THIS MEANS MORE, bellows Liverpool’s slogan of today: “more than win or lose, more than going to football, getting together in the pub and going home”. But also more money.
Today, those six clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Spurs — joined six more from Spain and Italy to announce a breakaway super league to commence next season, with a few others to be announced. They’ve been threatening it for years; it seems the time has come. There will be no promotion or relegation; just the moneyed elite, duking it out in perpetuity, although they say they will still deign to grace their domestic competitions. The Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A have some questions about that.
Also today, I join many other fans of these clubs from around the world to say: good riddance. Go and roll about in your banknotes while your bored princelings follow the script on the pitch. For it will have to descend into WWE-style plots to maintain any interest. Yes, Liverpool too. Football will be improved by your absence. Without the distraction of your constant agitating for more money and power, football will lose the outlandish transfer fees, the relentless packing in of fixtures, the Instagram beefs, the laughable branding and merchandising. Imagine! It might actually be about football again. I’ll do as I’ve intended to do for years and follow Cambridge United as they yo-yo between League Two and League One on a single-camera stream with jerky highlights. Or go to watch Stop Out in a blustery July southerly next to that brown industrial creek in Seaview.
I know that isn’t how it’ll go. The breakaway league will be more powerful, more visible, and a lot richer. It’ll poison the rest of the game with diminished resources and a new, power-hungry elite, among which Leicester might well be at the forefront. In which case I’ll go back to Championship Manager 01/02 and pretend there is still some romance in football.
I see Ashish Seth as a kindred artistic spirit. We both wrote for The NRI, an online magazine active in the early 2010s, and I spent a lot of my writing time listening to his Problem Child EP, which he released under the Mustardapple moniker.
As is now common for people linked across countries — Ashish in Canada, me in India (and then New Zealand) — we became Facebook friends, where he often posted heavily edited photographs with enigmatic captions that struck a chord with my love for art that’s off-kilter and opaque but still recognisably of this world. These photographs were often linked to a blog post, often a poem, sometimes a new piece of music. Transient vignettes of a life filtered through multiple artistic disciplines.
Like most other artists, Ashish does none of this professionally. How do you find an audience for your self-produced music in the Spotify era? (Or for your self-published travel memoir?) Through hustle and grind, mainly, sinking hours into promotion and research for a few more eyes or ears on your stuff. Those hours are hard to find when you work full time. It’s hard enough to find time just to make the art. So there are legions of us out there, toiling away at projects that will likely never generate widespread appeal, driven to write and chop and edit despite this fact. We know it’s for us more than it’s for anyone else. A necessary release of pressure. A therapy.
That said, I suspect I’m not the only person in Ashish’s orbit to connect with his music. I loved the Problem Child EP for its cinematic feel, especially ‘The Faceless Hero’, which to me evoked one person’s minor life-and-death struggle; a kid standing up to bullies in the projects, maybe. The tracks were raw and rough-edged, probably ripe for re-editing to smooth out the sharper sounds — but I liked its unpolished feel.
Ashish’s recent full-length album, Firstborn, released under his own name in the wilds of 2020, has a richer and more refined sound. This is the work of a musician whose production ability has evolved to match the sounds he wants to make. It is as sample-heavy as his earlier tunes but the samples now serve the song without drawing much attention to themselves. Again, I find myself listening to the whole thing on loop as I work — albeit at my day job, rather than at home working on my own projects. There’s a comfort to the way it flows from one track into the next, and a comfort in the cut-and-spliced melodies, which stand out enough to keep you engaged but never to the cost of the overall piece.
Firstborn was produced between approximately 2013 and 2015, then shelved for five long years. It’s a concept epic of syncopation and reverb, and the fantasist in me wants to say five years of fermentation gave rise to those rich echoes and overlaps, even though the reality is they were always there by Ashish’s design. He questioned that design, though, weighting his first full-length album with expectations he didn’t think he could meet. So he put it into the archives and had to coax it back out five years later. For all his doubts, it sounds to me like the work of a clear artistic voice.
There are other voices, though. A long list of collaborators could fill the liner notes. I’m not talking about Hemant Badya, whose guest vocals anchor the meditative ‘Aum’ at the centre of the album, but about the many other works sampled, all of which hint at a clearly universal struggle: I could be better, do better, but how? Among them: Death of a Salesman, Cutty from The Wire, ‘Passing Through’ by Rare Bird, F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about American lives not having second acts. Ashish is tallying up evidence across years and art forms to prove that anyone who tells you’ve they’ve got it all figured out is full of shit. He himself seems to be ‘looking for an answer’, as the refrain of ‘Somehow’ goes, and finding only the persistence of the question.
That ultimately seems to be a comfort, to my ears anyway. ‘Give Up’, the penultimate track, starts out gloomy and ends with hope; to me, it’s the hope of acceptance, not resolution. Of prizing the act of creation and claiming its inherent worth. But I’ll let Ashish tell you what he thinks. Then, listen and decide for yourself. It’s 100% free (or pay what you want) and freely available, so you might as well.
Your new album is called ‘Firstborn’. Why?
I called the album Firstborn because it is my first completed work. That’s the practical, uninspiring reason. It just seems like the simplest title. The artsy, literary, reason for the name is because the album, in a way, tells the story of a first-born child. I love concept albums so I tried to do that here. I am the first child in my family, with a younger brother. The expectations, experiences, and general anxieties of being the firstborn, or being the first one, or of being born and having arrived, all echo in the album’s story. So, in a way, the title suited the theme and underlying narrative of the album.
I also hope to release more music in the future so the title was is an apt signal for the start of something new.
What were you hearing (or not hearing) in Firstborn when you shelved it in 2015?
I don’t know what a lack of confidence sounds like but that’s what I was hearing when I shelved it. I don’t have a background in music or playing in a band. I don’t have any musical training. I play guitar but just for fun.
Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to get over the mental barrier of what’s considered legitimate music. The traditional notion of playing in a band, basic song structure, and the old teachers in my head prevented me from seeing it as a piece of music. Then there were the copyright issues.
Eventually, perhaps after seeing how liberal music has become, I decided that there was a place for me and my music.
What changed in order to convince you it was worth putting out into the world?
I wanted to move on. Start something new. But I knew I couldn’t until this project was complete. It’s been strange, surreal times. The pandemic. Something about that compelled me to look at it again. As I said previously, I think with platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud, artists like myself feel a lot more confident that there is a place for the type of music we make.
What software/hardware did you use to make Firstborn? It’s quite sample-heavy, right?
I mostly used Ableton Live and some other VSTs and patches to create the album. I’m really into sample-based music, repurposing, recontextualizing, cutting and pasting. Unlike hip hop producers who dig crates for vinyl to sample, I dug the internet. I pulled sounds from my library of music, all the music I collected before streaming became the new way we listen to music. There are some guitar licks and bad keyboarding on it as well. I tend to throw everything at the wall.
Back in 2009, I began producing music with DAWs like Sony Acid Pro and Soundforge. I’ve always been very music-minded and these new tools, instruments in their own right, made the medium accessible for me. I began obsessively trying to create unique sounds and imitate artists like J Dilla, Burial, and DJ Shadow. I’ve always loved hip hop and sampling as a form so I just buried myself in trying to mimic those guys and do it myself. I knew a bunch of producers who were making beats for MCs and initially thought about doing that but it never appealed to me. I preferred finished songs that could stand on their own. I wanted to create a record with the dense samples of Endtroducing…… and the distant ethereal quality of Untrue by Burial. You can probably hear some of their influences in it.
Do you have a favourite track on the album?
My favorite track is “Dreamcatcher.” It was the first track of the album and the one in which I really felt I’d gotten better as a songwriter.
I really love the strong beat of ‘Give Up’, the catchy string sample, the playful percussive stutters in the final stretch. It seems hopeful and decisive in a way that most of the other tracks don’t. So why is it called ‘Give Up’?
As I mentioned earlier, I envisioned the whole album as a story. This song is the climax. “My Own Church” is the denouement. “Somehow” is the end of the dark second act. I think a part of me wanted to be subversive and ironic. “Give Up” starts very doomy, as if the narrator of the song or character has come to the end of their rope and has lost all hope, until he sees a glimmer of inspiration which he carries to its logical conclusion. The ending is meant to be a hiccup in the road towards the end of the goal you’re trying to reach, and it ends on an ambiguous note. It is up to the listener to decide.
You write, take photos, and make music. There’s probably other art in you that I don’t know about. Which medium did you love first, and which do you love most?
The medium I loved first, and still do, is writing. That’s my first love. I’m an aspiring novelist. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing two years ago and have been working – chipping away is the better way to put it – on my first novel. Being able to express myself creatively is a critical aspect of my life because it fuels me. And I think a creative life, beyond whatever an artistic life is, requires the constant pursuit of creating.
I’m currently reading Moby-Dick. I try to read the classics. Certain truths ring true through the test of time. I found a quote in this book that kind of represents a mantra I want to follow. It’s a quote I read recently so it’s not something I’ve always had – I’m not trying to be pretentious – but it resonated with me and reminded me what it’s all about. It goes: “[t]hough I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.” I try all things, regardless of my aptitude or skill because I have to in order to get where I want to go. The book Moby-Dick is such a tome of knowledge on a whole bunch of things, most especially whales. It can be a slog but when you step back to consider the wonder with which he writes about whales, not the authority, it kind of boils down the truth that perhaps life is a struggle to comprehend and the only thing you can do is try if you want to participate in meaning making. By trying, who knows what can be achieved.
You’re also a teacher, which I imagine demands a lot of you. How do you make time — and room in your brain — to make music (or art more generally)?
This is the ongoing struggle – balancing these two parts of me has never been easy. Carving out spaces of time is really difficult, especially of late. Balancing the two areas of my life is something I’m constantly figuring out and getting better at. But every so often growth spurts of creativity will make it happen. You can only plan. I try to carve out time for my craft every day. I start small, five minutes a day, to ten, to fifteen, and eventually momentum builds. Finding a discipline and relentless passion to keep going in the face of it all is the real artistic battle.
On your website, you mention the period during which you made Firstborn as a difficult time. How did that colour the music?
I was going through an existential crisis. I don’t wish to say much more on the particulars. I wrote the bulk of the tracks at the end of 2013 in a frenzy of productivity and just poured all the despair into it. Whatever was going on, all of that colored the music, in the sounds I sampled, the structure, the mood. I think if anything was captured, it was that. And out of all that, an album came out.
Also on your website, you once wrote that “if you sit with an idea for too long [it] loses creative vigor and nothing seems natural”. But Firstborn has undergone a rebirth of sorts after five years locked away. Do you have other finished or half-finished projects sitting in a drawer that could be worth another look?
I think that’s what happened with this album. Everything takes so long to finish that you wonder whether it’s even worth doing and then at the same time you’re wondering whether the creative ideas you’re trying to reach are just you getting in the way of yourself. I take so long to get things done. I can say that also about the novel I’ve been working on.
But then when you take a step back or put a significant amount of time between the work and yourself, and grow in the interim, and then come back to it, you see it with different eyes, hear it with different ears, and you realize that perhaps it was fully finished when you left it. I think all creative people who work on something for a long time are constantly wrestling with the work, trying to figure it out, negotiating with it, churning it, molding it, and by turns, it molds them, forces them to consider new avenues, grows with the happy accidents that occur in the process and that we leap to put our name on when we see worth to them. And in the end, the totality of it all, the successes, the misfires, the signature it ends up taking on, what it sounds like, feels like; all of that is in some ways an illustration of the struggle of who you were putting it together, and once you understand that, trying to get it perfect makes no sense. It is what it always was. Once I came to terms with that, I had to accept it and move on, lest it sink me and prevent me from growing past it.
I’m glad I went back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Seeing the joy it brought to my loved ones was even sweeter.