Archive | 4:56 am

Punk And Polish: A Chat with Rishi Bradoo

8 May

Those who have been paying close attention to Mumbai’s indie scene cannot deny the welcome shift in the quality of production in recent years. The scene has been graced by a wave of savvy producer-slash-engineers who have really helped propel the quality of music and cultivate a songwriting mindset among younger artists. Rishi Bradoo, former frontman of Mumbai electro-punk trio Blek and Chief Tinkerer at Theatre 74 studios, is one such torchbearer, with his stamp on some of the city’s finest recent releases including Awkward Bong’s In the Brightest Corners and a string of tracks by Ramya Pothuri. There’s no denying Rishi’s prowess as a studio engineer but that’s just one of the many spices that comprise his secret sauce. We recently caught up with Rishi at his studio in Mumbai to discuss his journey in the music scene and the methods to his magic.

So let’s get this out of the way… How did you get into music?

Right. So I got into music in school. I’d started playing the guitar for some reason and it stuck. That was the time when Superfuzz and the like had just started putting out music. Plus, it generally seemed fun to put chords together. It felt like LEGO. The minute I learned to put these chords together, I quit my guitar classes.

As a teenager, I was particularly frustrated with the way Indian musicians looked at music, which was with this cover-band mindset. Bands around me didn’t seem to care about putting out something truly original and that sort of irked me. That’s how I got to writing my own music. But it wasn’t until college did I get exposed to working with professional musicians. Xavier’s [St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai] surprisingly turned out to be fertile ground for budding musicians at the time. A lot of guys I met at college are working professionally in music right now. My college scene was basically defined by tons of college fests and a failed band.

What failed band?

Let’s not talk about it.  But yeah the first gig I ever played with a “legit” band was at this shitty excuse for a venue called Jazz by the Bay. We were teenagers at the time, and didn’t realize [what we were getting into]. Our first set had 10  “originals” and something like one or two covers. None of the other kid bands were doing that and it seemed pretty radical at the time. After our run of 5 shows at JBTB, we were bitch-slapped into ground reality though. It wasn’t until later that I met Jared and Varoon, our drummer and we would go on to form Blek. For a year we made the rounds of the college circuit and were starting to gain some momentum. We’d get our next gig at the last gig we played. We’d play a gig, talk to somebody after the gig and hustle another gig and eventually it led us to this place called B69.

It was an underground venue and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t legal. Sweat would literally evaporate, condense on the ceilings and then pour out onto the musicians playing on stage. So yeah, it was a pretty gnarly venue but a lot of young bands got to cut their teeth over there… you know… because you could afford to be bad.

We met the Lightyears over there and we would end up sharing a lot of bills together.

2012 was one of the most influential years for me. That was when I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In early 2012, we cut our record, Hexes + Drama & other reasons for evacuation and things blew up. We started getting booked all over the place. Within a year we had toured the entire country, in our third year of college. We were even invited to play in the UK at the Great Escape Festival.

What was that like?

Playing the Great Escape festival changed a lot of things for us. It was pretty eye-opening. The difference between what standards need to be and where they were in the scene at the time really came to the forefront. I realized that why people make music in the independent music scene in India and why people made music there were two completely different things. This thought had been on my nerves much earlier and was only reinforced when I got there. Interacting with musicians from around the globe was a far cry from the experiences I had in India. It was quite bittersweet actually. It felt like we were lagging behind in many ways but it also opened my eyes to what was possible. We had all this talent lying around that could definitely shine through more clearly if we had a certain change in mindset and environment.

What got you into audio? Was it a general sense of disillusionment with the production quality at the time?  

It wasn’t about production quality. Production quality was inevitably going to get better and was actually quite amazing even at the time, just not in indie music. All the young bands here over the last seven or eight years haven’t really had any good role models to look up to. I don’t consider Shaiir+ Func and Pentagram to be good role models at all!

The general attitude of bands here is:

I have these chords and I kind of made them go together. I also have some lyrics written over some vocal melody and it sounded fine in the jam room so I guess I have a song.

Just because you jammed it out in a jam-room and it sounded “tight” doesn’t make it a complete song. You really need to sit down and focus on the nuances of songwriting and that only comes with focused effort. What a lot of debut artists need to understand is you’re making music, not releasing YouTube content. The way most indie artists in India treat music is as if they’re releasing content.

You know I’ve noticed, whenever an artist enters the studio with the desire to have fun and make something they care about, the record always sounds good. Whether they’re good musicians or not, the record sounds good. There’s a kind of carelessness or honest expression that’s captured. Whenever an artist comes to the studio with this careerist mindset of wanting to release a record because they have to release a record that year, 7 out of 10 times, the record doesn’t sound as great. You can always hear it in the music, when there’s a sense of insincerity in the studio.

People put too much emphasis on mixing, engineering and the like but the actual emphasis should be on the writing.

So coming back to the question… when you’re not in the record cutting business, you don’t realize the kind of effort that goes in. It all seems like knobs and buttons. There’s a lot of microscopic detail that you’re paying attention to and macroscopic details you’re trying to balance out and that takes years is what I’ve realized over time. You kind of pick it up along the way.

For me, at that time, I felt like I could figure the writing part out. But I wanted to cut my own records. I wanted to have decisive control over it, not having to be reliant on the one person in Bombay I trust with my work.

What was Audio School in Alchemea like? Did you get to work with some big ticket producers?

In London, I studied under the guy who mixed Klaxons and Nick Cave. I also got to spend about a week with Tchad Blake who’s a personal hero of mine. He’s the guy who mixed Arctic Monkeys’ AM. He also worked on the Black Keys’ records. But yeah, that’s about it. I don’t think it really matters as much as you’d think. The thing about learning is, it’s more about who you are as a student and not so much about who is teaching. You can go to the best schools with the best teachers and learn jackshit, which I think is the case with most Indian schools to start with. We’re not curious enough. It kind of struck me. As students in India, we’re very badly raised. We’re raised to be scared of failure. We’re raised to answer questions in the way that is prescribed. That’s such a bad environment to build any sort of creative thought. I’ve been very disillusioned with this “college chaapa” mindset. “Oh, he went to Berklee, he must be good”. That doesn’t fly with me. I need to know what his record sounds like to see if he’s really good.

Was it always the plan to come back home from the UK and set up a studio?

No, actually. Part of me wanted to go learn production so that I could cut my own records, but it was also because I wanted to get the fuck away from Bombay. It had gotten really depressing. Like I said, I was very disillusioned with Bombay and the music scene in general. I was so done with the way musicians were functioning here, the way festival organizers were functioning here and the way artist managers were functioning here. It was a huge fucking mess. I felt that if I had the opportunity to go to the UK and not come back, why would I? But then looking back at India , I couldn’t just ignore the opportunities that were present back home. Had I stayed in the UK, I would have had to start at the very bottom of the ladder. Find a studio I could work in, become an assistant engineer, then maybe get promoted, convince artists to entrust me with their work, and so on. I wasn’t sure if I was happy with having such limited opportunities in the UK. The opportunity in India was to set up your own studio, cut your teeth the hard way by jumping into the deep end, not having someone mentor you and to diversify. I can literally do anything I want with this space.

What were the first few artists you recorded when you came back?

In the Brightest Corners by Awkward Bong was the first record I cut after coming back. I was lucky to have that be my first record, you know, as a rookie. The thing about audio school is you spend one year there, and then come into the real world, and the learning curve only steepens. I was really lucky to have such a project because it was hardcore production. I could dictate a lot. I could dictate the chord movements, I could dictate the rhythm section. I could really say: hey, do this, delete that, cut that verse in half. Like really hands-on production.

For me when a person writes a song, it isn’t the sound of the kick drum or the beat. It’s the chords, the lyrics, the melody and the general rhythmic vibe. Now what makes a SONG for me, in big block letters, which is released to the world and makes people feel things, is a combination of really good songwriting and sensible production that complements the songwriting. With the Awkward Bong record, Ronit had enough trust in me to run riot. Sonically, it’s an amateur record, being my first record out of audio school and everything, but the songs were really great and we worked very hard on fleshing them out.

So one of your songs with BLEK, “Fog + Strobe” got a slight makeover and was rechristened as” Byomkesh in Love”, featured in the movie Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! Were you happy with the way that turned out and the experience in general?

Working with Dibakar was pretty great. He always said: if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it. Initially he wanted me to add on this Hindi thumri to the song and I was extremely hesitant. But after I got to listen to it and know the meaning of what was being sung, I was completely on board. I felt like it fit. He wanted a version of the song for the film that went with the visuals of a particular scene, which I found to be a very challenging project. When this person rolled over the table in the action scene, Dibakar wanted a drum roll or toms to replace your traditional sound effects.

So, we were sitting down with him, looking at the scene and producing accordingly, while keeping in mind that it should sound great even as a standalone song. Once he had his shot for the film, he let me have full control over the version of the song that went out on Apple Music and the like. The version that’s out on YouTube or whatever is the version that we wanted and were happy with. Now that’s a good way to work!

What’s BLEK up to now and more importantly, what’s Rishi the musician upto now?

I’d prefer not to divulge premature details. You’ll know when it’s done I guess. *goes on to divulge juicy secrets off the record*

This started out as chat about your musical journey but you were able to turn it into a lesson in life. It was great talking to you man.

Right so to wrap things up, we have a bunch of rapid fire questions we do with all our guests.

Favourite Indian artist right now?

None. I’m serious. I have much higher standards and expectations of Indian artists and we WILL get there!

Pick one of the two you can’t live without: delay or reverb.

I can’t live without delay. I can make delay sound like reverb but not the other way around.

Drink of choice.

It’s usually vodka but now I’m switching to Stranger & Sons gin.

One gig that’s left a permanent mark on you.

This sounds narcissistic but it’s the gig we played with the Lightyears at one of the earlier Ctrl + Alt + Del festivals, at B69.

Three Desert Island discs for when you’re stranded on an island.

  1. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by the Arctic Monkeys and let me tell you why. TBH&C is a beautiful record. It has all these tiny, beautiful things that are so “fuck you”.
  2. Sea Change by Beck, without a doubt. He is a rare, beautiful artist. A hero of mine.
  3. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead. It’s actually quite hard to pick a Radiohead record.
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