Making It Happen: An Interview with Tejas

12 Jun

Tejas has had quite a journey to get where he is now. He grew up in Dubai and moved to India after high school. Not quite fitting in with the academic environment of college, Tejas found his first calling as a Pune-based RJ, through which he got his first taste of the Indian indie music world. He then went on to release a debut EP, Small Victories, in 2014, and followed it up last year with an LP, Make It Happen – which was notable for an interesting set of reasons. First, it featured the same brand of lively, unpretentious music that put his EP on the map. Second, it came with a great design aesthetic – unique yet perfectly in sync with the music. Third, and most interestingly, it was crowdsourced online and received its funding in a matter of hours.

However, Tejas is more than just his music. He founded and manages Kadak Apple Records, an indie music label from Bombay whose roster features a number of rising stars. Another Tejas Menon venture – this one outside music altogether – is Geek Fruit HQ, a platform to discuss and enjoy all things nerdy.

Read on for our long-form interview with Tejas to find out more about his musical style, crowdfunding his first LP, how he came about founding his other ventures, and much more.

Hi Tejas, how are you?

I’m great, thanks. And thank you for doing this!

No problem! We’ve wanted to speak to you for a while now. So let’s jump right in and start from the beginning. What got you into music, when did you get into music, and what were you listening to when you were growing up?

Well, to start with, I was born in India, but we moved to Dubai when I was around 3 months old. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. I had some few Indian influences growing up – stuff from my parents, like cricket and Bollywood, and from going to an Indian school as well. But most of the time, my time was spent watching movies, reading comic books, consuming a weird amalgamation of Bollywood, Eastern influences, and Western influences.

As soon as I was old enough to discern an affinity to music, I started discovering pop music – Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, and so on. I also happened to be a good Elvis impersonator (even now, Elvis is like God to me). My friends were listening to popular music like Bon Jovi and Linkin Park, and I started listening to a few other artists on my own, like Madonna. I was a Backstreet Boys fan – still am, unironically.

Yeah, it’s a very 90s kid thing to be.

Yeah, I was born in ’89 so I’m a through-and-through 90s kid. And then I was a singer in my high school band, drummed for a bit. The first instrument I ever learnt was actually the keys, after my mom bought me a keyboard. But not really a serious approach to music. I finally wrote my first proper song when I was around 18. I got a little more into songwriting after leaving high school and the pressures of the Indian education system behind – I was terrible at academics.

The other thing is, I had a tumultuous childhood – my parents are separated and it was a tough time growing up. It was difficult for me to focus on what I wanted to do in life. The kids in my school went on to study amazing things abroad, but I really didn’t feel that that was for me.

Long story short, I ended up in Pune after high school, living with my cousins. They sort of raised me a second time for the four or five years that I stayed with them. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but they made sure I got a degree at least. So, I went to Wadia College, got a degree in Economics.

But in that time, I did something really important in my life. I went for what seemed to be a casual internship at Radio One. I was there for about three years; learnt a lot from the artists that came in, polishing my communication skills, and so on. I’ve found a lot more stability in a work environment than a schooling environment, to be honest. I loved school as a kid because it was a respite from home, but school ultimately wasn’t for me.

So there I was at 19, an RJ with my own show, and I really felt like the Mayor of Pune (laughs). All this time, I was writing music at home, sharing it with mostly my friends, but it was really for me and me alone. I didn’t see any point of performing live. But that was because I really didn’t know the options out there for indie artists like me.

I eventually found some artists online, musicians like Gowri Jayakumar, and I was amazed that people were putting up their independent music. I was like, “Why am I not doing that, too?” So I started putting up music online, and went for a few shows.

And then – I don’t know if this was just timing or serendipity – the first NH7 Weekender happened and they chose Pune for the venue. I just happened to be the RJ at the radio station promoting the festival. The first thought when I went to check it out was, “Oh my God. I can totally do this. I can have a band.” My second thought was, “This is an amazing feeling, to perform in front of people who wanted to listen to music.” Taking that cue, I started playing more shows around Pune. This was around 2010 or 2011 – I’m actually coming up on my 10th year of playing music now!

So you’re a veteran of the Indian indie music scene, then. (laughs) Who do you play with when you’re on stage or recording the album?

Well, I’ve gone through a number of lineups. Some of my greatest friends have come from music. Warren from Blackstratblues used to play with us; in fact he produced the first album. Aalok from Something Relevant used to play with me back in the day, too. The core lineup of the band right now is [bassist] Adil Karwa and [drummer] Jehangir Jehangir (JJ). Adil plays with a number of bands here including The Colour Compound and the Koniac Net (who just put out an amazing album, by the way), and JJ is also a studio owner now – he owns Island City Studios, which is right now the place to record in Bombay. In fact, the album that we’re working on right now is the three of us working together. I’ve written the songs but we’re basically co-producing it.

And you recorded together as well for this album?

Yeah, all three of us played and produced it together. They’re like my brothers, basically.

Nice. Yeah, we actually interviewed David from the Koniac Net a while ago, so we’re glad to see that they’re finally getting the support and appreciation they deserve.

Man, that’s so true. Nail on head, really. I’ve been a Koniac fan for a while. It’s like the old-school 90s alternative stuff that I really love. And David is an awesome guy, really puts hard work into the Koniac Net. He’s like a true hustler of yore, you know? (laughs)

Yeah, we’ve been fans for a while too, so we’re really glad to see that they finally broke through with the latest record [They Finally Heard Us].

It’s arguably one of my favorite albums of this year so far, you know? And they’re just a guitar-heavy alternative band, but this one is a deeply immersive and emotional album. Something intimate about it.

Yeah. So we know this is somewhat of a cliched question to ask, but as the songwriter of the act, what comes first for you, the music or the words?

So I listened to this Song Explorer podcast with Wilco a while ago, and the front man was like, “I just sing, and words just come out of my mouth. I trust my own instincts and my body enough, that whatever is coming out of me is what’s relevant to what I want to sing out.” Since then, I kind of work along this philosophy. The essence of the themes come out very naturally. The song I did this most for was “Falling Out” from my last record [2018’s Make It Happen]. The melody and the words came out at the same time while I was playing the guitar. Usually the guitar parts come together first.

I used to try and be clever about writing lyrics. I wanted to make funny and interesting rhymes, metaphors here and there, and I thought this was songwriting is: to be cheeky and clever. As I got older, I found it a little disingenuous to simply try to make a rhyme or to make something fit. From my first album [2014’s Small Victories EP] to the second, there’s a big shift in the lyrics, if you notice. It’s a lot more abstract, a little less narrative, a lot more organic and real. I prefer this a lot more to what I used to write like. I try to keep it as fluid and as true as I can.

What was going through your head when you put together the songs on Make It Happen?

Well, my first record was as indie as it gets – arranged in three days, recorded in three days, mixed in four days, and then it was out. There was no room for experimentation, but that was how Warren and I intended for it to be. For Make It Happen, I really wanted a great, sprawling record with big sounds and big ideas. I wanted to be indulgent and create something that I was really proud of.

Two threads across the album are my vocals and the theme (centered on my late 20s). I took every song individually rather than as an entire album together. People may complain that some songs stick out or don’t fit in, but I felt that this was a representation of my entire life. Nobody is just one thing, and I hate being slotted into “Oh, this is a pop record, oh, this is that sort of vibe”, so I liked the idea that it’s really dynamic. I wanted people to feel positive, but also feel the depth and range of things I had to offer. Everything was so important to me, from the design to the track listing, and I’m really proud of what we put out.

But that being said, I’m proud of my first album, too. That’s who I was then. Maybe it’s not true right now, but that’s exactly what I wanted at that point. It’s a snapshot of who I was then.

We’re glad you brought up the design on your album. We really loved the color palette and the visuals on Make It Happen with the little Adventure Time type of cartoons, and so on. How did you come up with the aesthetic? Did you design it yourself?

Tejas: Well, I am a very poor designer, so it wasn’t me (laughs). After my first album, I felt that the design didn’t say that much about me visually. So I went and spoke to Neysa Mendes (@goodslice), who’s been really instrumental in a bunch of albums from the indie scene. She said, “Tejas, you have to close your eyes, and think about what you want people to visualize when they say your name.” After that, I spent a good amount of time thinking about the visuals and imagery that I wanted to project.

I then took the aid of Studio Kohl, and an amazing designer and conceptual artist called Mira Malhotra. I told Mira and the team that I wanted it to be representative of who I am – I love animation, cartoons, bright colors. I literally still watch cartoons and I’m turning 30 this year (laughs). And I love Adventure Time, as you pointed out, with its mythology and bizarreness. I wanted to create this universe of my own, with every track having its own single art, and all those pieces put together form the back art of the album.

We wanted to talk to you about another interesting aspect of the album, which is that you crowdfunded it online, and you raised the money you needed in a matter of hours! Talk us through how that happened, and why you chose that route.

Yeah, it was amazing. I had no idea it was going to happen in literally six hours! My friends put in good amounts, but there were so many folks I didn’t expect. I got Rs. 50,000 from a high school that I hadn’t spoken to in literally ten years. It was an incredible and humbling experience, to be honest.

As for the why. Sometimes, I feel that the independent music scene in India is a rich person’s sport, you know? You need a benefactor’s help, whether it’s your folks or your own savings, and so on. I’m on my own, with some help from friends, so it’s an expensive affair. This helped a lot.

Also, the theme of Make It Happen is basically about taking the right decisions to improve your life. I have been a product of everybody’s goodwill – so thematically, contextually, it made sense to fund the album this way. It got everyone involved, and excited to hear more from me. Turned out great!

The other aspect of this was, I knew I had to work on the marketing and promotion of the album anyway. The music industry right now is set up in such a way that there’s not much money coming in from sales or from streaming. Really, the money is coming from performances – everything you do as a musician is only to promote your gig. Even your album! Think about it that way, and you realize you have to spend a lot of marketing money. I’m from an advertising background, so I get this. It’s not enough to be a talented musician anymore. So this was a unique way to promote the album, too.

Yeah, for sure. Switching gears a bit, we wanted to ask you about your record label, Kadak Apple Records. We ourselves are named after a record label, so this is a particularly interesting aspect for us!

Well, I was releasing my album independently, and I wanted it come from someplace legitimate. In any creative industry, people take you more seriously when you’re coming from a legitimate source. I started Kadak Apple with my good friend and part-time manager, Krish Makhija. We wanted songwriters to be taken more seriously. There’s nothing wrong with playing three-hour brunches, but we felt songwriters in this town had more to offer.

Sometimes [before starting the label], I would get calls saying, “Hey, we want you to play at so-and-so but we can’t afford to pay you that much” – but I felt I deserved it. After I set up the label, I’d ask them, “Why don’t you get in touch with my record label”, and they’d send an email – and I’d respond to the email myself (laughs) but I’d get the gig or the deal this time.

You were just playing the game, basically.

100%. It’s a perception thing; it’s advertising. Right now, Kadak Apple has about nine songwriters on the roster, and I legitimately think that these are some of the best songwriters in the country. But beyond talent, they are mostly there because they are my friends, you know?

Kadak Apple is more of a collective than a label, really. I facilitate opportunities, coordinate artist availabilities with gig requests, coordinate media requests, provide industry contacts – whatever I can offer from my knowledge. I don’t believe in a trade-secret kind of environment. The Indian indie music industry is so small that it’s in my interest right now for everyone to have a No. 1 record. I want to give people a choice of different genres and artists to hear. We need more people to be part of the scene. Eventually, we’ll get to a more commercialized industry. So that was the intention behind Kadak Apple.

As for the name – Krish believes in the whole kadak philosophy. He’s a cinematographer, so he believes the kadak kind of shots. Kadak chai, and so on. And Apple because of Apple Records and the Beatles.

Cool, that’s a fun back story! So switching gears one more time to yet another thing you’re part of – Geek Fruit. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Geek Fruit is something I started after I quit my job in 2015. I was working crazy hours in advertising, with three hours of travel every day and so on. After I quit, I had a lot of free time. I tried to focus on what could keep me occupied in the time that I didn’t want to do music. And I say that because I don’t really consider myself to be a musician’s musician. I think I’m good at it, and that the craft of songwriting has come to me, but I don’t feel very “artist-y” about the way I approach music. Sometimes, when I hang out with musicians, I still feel that imposter syndrome really hard.

But when it comes to movies, and watching them and talking about them – that’s something I’ve been involved with far longer than I have been with music. I’ve had opinions about movies forever, I love Marvel Comics, DC, Star Wars, so on. And I really feel that the nerds won, you know? When I was a kid and trying to talk about kyber crystals in a Jedi’s lightsaber, no one cared. But now, everyone cares! The biggest TV show, the biggest movies – they’re all from nerd culture now.

I wanted to start something where we can review stuff, do podcasts, make content – this is something I genuinely love. I can say I love it even more than I love music, in some ways. The ability to create is amazing, but the ability to consume, and discuss, is fantastic. So I created Geek Fruit with two friends from Kadak Apple – Jishnu Guha and Dinkar Dwivedi. We’ve been doing podcasts for three years now, with 250+ episodes out – two episodes per week, every week. I’m happy to say we have a humble but dedicated following that come for our events and parties now.

Last year, for Halloween, we had a party called Super Scary Awesome. We did a Disney tribute at the end with our entire band and lots of Kadak Apple people. Everyone dressed up as weird characters. It was one of my proudest moments because it was just so unique.

This has been amazing; thank you, Tejas. We wanted to wrap up with a few Rapid Fire questions, if you’re up for it?

Sure, go for it!

Since you mentioned Marvel, and that’s so big in pop culture right now – who’s your favorite Marvel character (from the comics or the movies) and what’s your favorite movie from the MCU?

I was a big Spiderman fan as a kid; Peter Parker and I go way back. So that’s my favorite. I also love some of the fringe characters: Iron Fist, Daredevil, Moon Girl, so on. Out of all the movies, it’s hard for me to not say [Avengers:] Endgame because they stuck the landing to a very difficult project. I also love [Captain America:] Civil War and [Captain America:] The Winter Soldier.

The other big pop culture phenomenon right now is Game of Thrones – what did you think of the finale?

I have complicated thoughts on it. I’m not going around petitioning that they should remake the show (laughs), but it’s hard to not point out the glaring issues. So yeah, I was disappointed.

People our age are a lot more clued because of things like Reddit. They know why they like or dislike something. This entire season was a disappointment and there were huge pacing issues. There was also the overall question of why they shortened it to six episodes, too. The moment the Night King died, I kind of checked out. You shouldn’t be able to kill him in a physical combat. Why is Jon alive? What was the point of Bran’s whole story? We haven’t gotten the answers to all of these questions.

And if you had to pick a TV show where you loved it from start to finish, what would it be?

I don’t think there is a perfect show, but I think Adventure Time comes pretty close. Apart from that, I love Gilmore Girls, House, Breaking Bad (obviously). 30 Rock is up there, too.

What’s your favorite gig so far?

We played one gig recently in Humming Tree that was really great. We took some risk by taking 100% of the gate, so we had to make the sales on whoever’s actually showed up. We wanted to try out the format. About 120 people or so showed up, and we sold a lot of merch, had posters made, and so on. It was great.

I also really enjoy going to places that don’t get a lot of live music. I went on a tour last year to the North East with Mali, and those were some of the best gigs I’ve done. Playing to different audiences that we’ve never played to before, and having our songs sung back at us – it was amazing.

Who’s one Indian artist that you’d love to collaborate with at some point?

I think Meba Ofilia is amazing. Young, new, R&B / soul kind of singer-songwriter. Chayan [Adhikari] from Advaita. Aditya Ashok from Ox7gen would be next on my list, too.

All images courtesy the artist. Check out Tejas’ website here for more information about him and where to listen to his music.

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