The Best Rockstar Nerd I Know: A Conversation with Rookie Doyen


Sanjay John was already at the radio station by the time I strolled in after my chem class. He was leaning in the doorway to the recording studio, chatting with other frequenters of the station lobby in between long classes. This radio station has been a place of discovery for me; from learning about audio to exploring new music to being introduced to some of the best people I’ve met, KSDT radio here at UCSD has been one of the best things to happen to me.

I first saw Sanjay perform at a KSDT-hosted open mic night back in November. At the time, I knew a limited selection of the radio station folks—I didn’t even have an official show slot yet. But I was there, sitting in on the soundboard when I saw the group go up. By the reactions from the crowd, I immediately knew it was a station-associated group, but I never caught any names.

They broke out into upbeat music, bright melodies that immediately induced foot-tapping and unconscious dancing. Sanjay, whom I had yet to meet at the time, faced the microphone right at the front. Until that moment, I hadn’t witnessed such energy and fearlessness from a group of college kids. Part of me didn’t think it was possible, solely projecting my own consciousness of being unapologetically immersed in performing for a crowd. I’ve always been a little scared to put on a show, so the energy I felt ebbing from these people blew me away. After that open mic, I slowly started to mix in more with people from the radio station (in fact, I’ve become “a person from the radio station”), and I finally met Sanjay through further station-associated interactions. 

We sat outside the station at one of the round, green tables dotting the courtyard among eucalyptus trees. Sanjay talks with his hands and eyes, and he shapes a picture as he recalls his first experiences with music: “The earliest memory I have of music in general is when I was around three or four. My parents recorded this concert, A Night to Remember, John Lennon… You had all these great artists there, and I obviously didn’t know anything about it at the time, but the experience of watching all these people play this person’s music… It was all hitting me, it was incredible. The whole shock of how so many people were able to connect together through this one person and what he did with music—[it] resonated with me, and I carry it throughout my life.”

“I remember, when I was in kindergarten, my mom plopped this little red keyboard in front of me and said, ‘You’re going to play in this recital, this kindergarten recital,’ and I was like, ‘What now?’ My mom used to play piano. She was definitely the musical one in the family. She could see—and I could see—that I was picking up the keyboard, picking up the music very fast. I played the recital… It was kind of my first experience of being recognized for music.”

Growing up in Abu Dhabi, music played an especially defining role in Sanjay’s character. “There’s something you have to understand about where I’m from—it’s a bit of an odd relationship with music. Growing up, I never got to see bands or live shows. The music scene in Abu Dhabi is either top 40 or metal, but my brother and I started getting into rock. It was a lot of just growing up with a very small net of tastes, and for a long time I was very sheltered with music in that way.”

“But midway through 8th or 9th grade, I told my mom I [wanted] to play the drums. That somehow began this whole quest in my head—after listening to Dave Grohl and seeing how he did it all on his own, I was like, I need to do that, I have to do that… Like, I was a nerd, I was a geek for sure, typical Indian kid, and I think a lot of this quest is that I was trying to prove myself to be different. And soon enough it became that people would be like, that kid—he’s a geek, he’s a nerd… but he’s also a rockstar.”

And soon enough it became that people would be like, that kid—he’s a geek, he’s a nerd… but he’s also a rockstar.”

College represented a fresh start as well as a chance to further pursue that quest. “Since I was like, twelve, in my head I was like, ‘I’m gonna go to America and I’m gonna record an album on my own.’ I didn’t even know where Los Angeles was, I just knew that I was going to do it.” He pursued bioengineering during his undergrad and is now in an electrical and computer engineering grad program. “When I was picking colleges at eighteen, I went for bioengineering; I like all aspects of science, and bioengineering was the way I found I could satisfy that…  And then I picked ECE because I realized that if I really did want to go into music, electrical engineering would be the best way to hybridize the two. I have to do engineering because of my visa—they only take STEM people here.”

“In my first year as an undergrad, I actually took a theater class as an elective. Theater was definitely a great way to understand how America viewed arts versus how my life had been about arts… In my life until then, arts had always just been a side thing, like it’s not important, it’s a hobby. But over here people were dedicating their lives and their possessions and everything to it, and it was so different, and I love that.”

Theater class brought about close friends, and through a newfound growing community at the radio station, he pushed forward in music. “Me and a couple friends, we became this trio, Odakota, that people started to know and recognize… We would just set up anywhere and start playing. We helped open up the practice room, and the whole community around the radio station that exists now started opening up more and more. Music was this very central point, because that’s how we all connected around the table, it was the way we all came to the same page.”

“Writing with others helped me realize I could create my own stuff. I knew that technically, I could—I had the skill because I would practice and I was methodical about it, but I was still in that classical mindset. It’s so restricting when you grow up like that. I’d say things were ‘wrong’ and my friend would be like, but what [specifically] is wrong, do you know? And I was like, I guess not… And that became this whole thing of changing the way that I thought. It became this thing where he began to pull open potential in me… It was definitely a formative time [of] just learning how to be myself.”

As years continued and people graduated, he was left to himself: “I started leaning into KSDT more, I started leaning into the family there. With many of my friends now gone, I realized that there was this space I could fill with me. The more I wrestled with that… I realized bioengineering wasn’t fulfilling. I’ve been doing both, music and bioengineering, all the time. I think of it as a balance… the science, the engineering, I love it… But I need something else to make me feel like, ‘Oh, there’s a point to all this, there’s a reason I’m doing this.’ And then there was just this point where I was like, I want to play music, I want to be a musician, I want that more than anything else.”

Sanjay released his first full album, Through the Glass, in 2017. “It was the first time where people told me I can do it, I don’t need anyone else to do it… I finally got to do what I wanted to do when I was twelve. I recorded an album on my own—almost every instrument on that album was me, and I was finally feeling that, feeling this whole new life.”

Recently, he released an EP, Up Bottom Charm Strange Top Down, under the name Rookie Doyen. “After that first album, I finally had faith in myself to be like ‘I can do things on my own,’ and now I need to care very deeply about what comes out. For a long time I had been demoing a bunch of electronic stuff, but I had never shown it to anyone… I hadn’t played it live for people because of the nature of the music, and then this spring break, I was like… why don’t I just try to do this song?”

“It started off with ‘Hasn’t It Crossed Your Mind.’ When I started working on it more and more, I realized I loved getting to control every bit of it. I’m a control freak, and when it comes to playing live, although the experience is always great… I kind of turn into a little different of a person—usually, I keep to myself, but out there it changes, and I open up a little bit… I’m still not at that point where I am confident enough in my own material to put a band out. I always worry about wasting people’s time, wasting people’s effort. If I’m not 100% confident in what I’m playing, I can’t expect anyone around me to give me that in return, so until I hit that point, I still gotta wait… but I do learn a lot from playing live, like what works and what doesn’t. Things I didn’t really think of sometimes end up just getting people to move. I used to write very acoustic stuff, very mellow stuff, all in the words, all in the melody, but I’ve started going into dance, more beat-oriented kind of stuff, because I want people to dance.”

“I sometimes wonder, what if I didn’t play music? What if I didn’t have that in my life from the start, what if I could just focus on other things? My stay in America is contingent on me getting a job, getting a job visa, and me being in STEM—otherwise, I’m going to be in India. I definitely wonder, what if I made it easier for myself and just focus on that and play it safe? If I just stayed in the engineering world, in the science world, I’m playing it safe, and I… don’t want to. And this EP was life-changing [in a way], because it wasn’t just other people telling me it’s good or whatever, it was me listening to it and realizing that ‘Oh, I like this, I would listen to this,’ and cementing in my head that I’m not giving up now, I can’t.”

“I’ll definitely say that music has been this way of proving myself to people. With an Indian background, there are very limited options for us, at least ones that are well-respected in the community. I want to be able to put Indians on a map [so that] you can tell your parents, ‘I want to be this, and I can because he did.’ I’ve found that Indians have this situation where we’re not necessarily directly put down a lot, but at the same time we’re the call center people, the clerical people, the math people… and it’s why it took such a long time for me to be confident in what I’m doing with music. And I need to prove myself, because I am tired of being told what I am and who I can be because of where I’m from and because of the color of my skin. And fortunately, the culture is slowly changing… That’s also why I feel like art is a very important thing to pursue. It’s a way for people to hear our souls, and it resonates with them. It’s important to bear your soul like that.”

Listen to Up Bottom Charm Strange Top Down here


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