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Spilling the Beans with Iyer’s Filter Coffee

7 Jul
L-R: Rushil Mishra, Sachin Iyer, Pushkar Ravindra, Dennis Dey

Garage band Iyer’s Filter Coffee has been making waves in India for a couple of years now. Back in 2018, their first track “Soma” garnered buzz among Indian indie audiences, and the song later featured on their crisp five-song EP coldturkey (2019). In May 2020, the band released their first, full-length album Is This How You Do It.

With references ranging from The Strokes to fellow Indian indie rockers The F16s, Is This How You Do It has quite a few high-energy tracks and some poignant, more mellow ones, too. A particular stand-out is boisterous, Arctic Monkeys-esque first single “Noize”, which caught our eye back in May. We also liked the subtler back-to-back tracks “Deytime” (spelling a reference to bassist Dennis Dey) and “Nitetime”, the latter of which served solid Comedown Machine vibes.

We caught up with the boys from Iyer’s Filter Coffee for a chat about their musical journey, managing a music career alongside day jobs, what’s behind their peculiar band name, and lots more – read on below!

Top Five Records: Welcome, guys, and thanks for doing this! Let’s start at the beginning. How did the four of you meet? How did you end up deciding to make music together?

Iyer’s Filter Coffee: Rushil [Mishra, guitar / vocals], Sachin [Iyer, drums] and Pushkar [Ravindra, guitar / vocals] went to the same college [BITS Pilani] where they were part of the music club and played together quite a bit. After all three of them landed in Bangalore, we started to jam in early middle 2017 with vision to eventually be able to perform in the Bangalore pub circuit. Dennis [Dey, bass / vocals] and Pushkar happened to become flat-mates around the same time. Since Dennis was also a musician, he joined us in these jams and eventually Iyer’s Filter Coffee was born.

TFR: Interesting! And when did your interests in music begin? When did you start honing your musical skills?

Pushkar: I was forced, like a significant number of South Indian kids are, to learn South Indian classical music by my parents. This happened between the ages of six and 13. And then I discovered metal. My parents bought me an acoustic guitar right after my Class 10 exams. I learnt everything I know about the guitar via the Internet (though a background in music helped accelerate the process). Bought my first electric guitar a day before my AIEEE [All-India Engineering Entrance Examination]. It’s been going on since.

Sachin: I started playing the drums soon after my Class 10 exams – my childhood friends wanted to form a band, and they were short of a drummer, so I decided to fill in. I’m largely a self-taught drummer, so the Music Club at BITS was great not only for the opportunity to play live quite often, but also for the chance to learn from some really talented musicians.

Rushil: My father got me classes for the keyboard when I was around five. Since my family moved cities every two to three years, I couldn’t continue with it for long. I did briefly learn some tabla and classical singing (which I absolutely hated). I did keep playing some keyboard until I got to BITS Pilani in 2010. That’s where I started with most of the “technical” skills – playing the keyboard correctly, learning my scales, and working with synths. I also started playing some guitar there, and got a bit better after college because of how accessible it is (and because I thought it was a bit cooler to be honest; I was wrong). I started writing music with some friends in 2015 using GarageBand and a really basic setup. “Lazy Day” [which appears on Is This How You Do It] was one of the first tracks we wrote back then, and has been rewritten multiple times since then. This is the first group that I’ve sung with though, so I’m pretty new to singing right now.

Dennis: Lucky for me my dad is also a guitarist, so I grew up listening to Dire Straits, Scorpions, Eric Clapton and other amazing artists. Initially, I started with keyboard but switched to guitar around Class 10 (after realizing the aforementioned coolness factor). Initially a rhythm guitarist, as Dad was shredding most of the solos, I picked up lead and bass guitar in college (IIT Roorkee 2010). Bass guitar was something that stuck with me even after college and I bought a used bass guitar with my first salary. Also, I was a part of the church choir at Roorkee where I learnt how to harmonize, something that I’ve been using for backing vocals with the band.

Happiness is rarely found in a day job, and hence the music career. Money is rarely found in a music career, and hence the day job.

TFR: You have mentioned the Black Keys and the Strokes as your influences, and we certainly hear those references in the contrasting tight / laidback elements in your tunes. What are some other influences to your music – musicians or otherwise?

IFC: We have always had an ear out for alternative genres of music. The Strokes, Black Keys and the Arctic Monkeys most definitely inspired us to lay the foundations on our sound, which you can see on coldturkey [their 2019 EP]. Apart from that, I think we have a newfound love towards newer indie artists like Rex Orange County, Boy Pablo and the F16s, who have inspired us to find a new direction for our sound. However, all four of us have listened to our share of rock music from the 90s and the 2000s which has definitely contributed to how we play and how we write on an individual and a group level.

Also, the post-punk-revival sound was something we wanted to build around – bands like Muse, Libertines, Two Door Cinema Club and Franz Ferdinand. That fused with a bit of the new wave of indie music is what most of our sound written as a group sounds like. Of course, we all also have our own influences which we keep adding into the process as we finish the songs up.

TFR: How have you navigated the journey from Engineering to indie rock? How has your experience been, balancing your day jobs with a burgeoning music career?

IFC: It has been fun honestly. Happiness is rarely found in a day job, and hence the music career. Money is rarely found in a music career, and hence the day job. Like we mentioned in our TEDx talk, it’s been One for the kitchen, One for the soul for us!

Honestly though, writing and producing music would happen a lot faster if we did not have the day jobs, because there’s more time to channel the creativity, and an ample amount of time because the group isn’t forced to jam on weekends only.

TFR: What’s the story behind the name? Is [drummer] Sachin [Iyer] the inspiration?

IFC: We couldn’t think of a good name for the group at all. There were many below par suggestions. We tried out names like 1023 (when we still did not have gig), Geek Chutney, and many others that were thrown away minutes after inception.

All suggestions from Iyer, who probably was channeling his inner Alex Rose, seemed contain his name. These included “Iyer Learns to Rock” and “Iyer Learns to Groove” and “Iyer and the Boys”. Iyer’s Filter Coffee, one such suggestion, seemed to stick because it does not sound like a band’s name. It sounds like the name of a cafe (which is the backup idea if this music thing doesn’t work). So yeah, it just sorta stuck and we seemed to like it.

As a side note, we have other joke names for ourselves in the same fashion. “Mishraji ka Paan Bhandaar” after Rushil Mishra, and “Robindro Sangeet” after Pushkar Ravindra. Dennis Dey might be a little disappointed that “Deytime” has now become a song!

TFR: Your EP coldturkey [Ed. Note: Our review here] released last year on Apple Music’s New Artist Spotlight program. How did you get that opportunity? And more broadly, what advice would you give to young and upcoming artists such as yourselves that want to break into the Indian indie scene?

IFC: Tejas Menon connected us with Apple Music, and after listening to the EP, they got back to us with their New Artist Spotlight program which enabled us to have a two-week exclusive release on Apple Music. Our distributor OKListen was quick to help and worked with the launch dates accordingly.

For new artists, we would like to say just put your music out there. Soundcloud and YouTube are great free platforms to do so in the beginning.  Also, videos matter a lot too. Dennis has this habit of recording our live gigs, which in turn helped us get more gigs and eventually became parts of our music videos. So just shoot videos or ask (bribe) your friends to do that for you.

TFR: Congrats again on the new album! Can you walk us through your process writing and recording Is This How You Do It? How was your experience working with Vivek Thomas?

IFC: We were writing even while we were recording coldturkey. We had almost a third of this album back then itself. The lessons learnt from coldturkey allowed us to revisit these songs, and improve and polish them further before we hit the studio. Also, in that time, we learnt more music, listened to more music and consciously tried to expand on our writing as well, which is reflected in this album.

Working with Vivek [Thomas, producer] was an amazing experience. He is a delightful and cheerful personality that makes working with him feel natural and a lot of fun. He understood our sound from the very beginning, not only with the way he dug through our inspirations but also with how well he knows and understands the scene. His touch really added a whole new dimension and color to our work.

TFR: Our favorite track from your album is first single “Noize” – we’ve already talked up the Josh Homme-era Arctic Monkeys vibes here on Top Five Records. Can you fill us in on your inspiration for this song, both musically and lyrically?

IFC: “Noize” was a unique song in that it was the only song that was written from the drum riff up, which is never the first thing we put on paper while writing. Pushkar brought his Morello-inspired wah guitar on top which was complemented by Dennis’ very melodic bass line.

Lyrics wise, it is loosely based on a prose that Rushil wrote which was condensed into a lyric so as to put something on top of the instruments.
We’ve been covering Arctic Monkeys for a while so we’re sure that someone who listens to “Noize” can hear elements of “Crying Lightning” or “Fake Tales of San Francisco” or maybe even hints of “Brianstorm”. The drums and the lyrics are very Monkeys, definitely.

TFR: Another favorite is the instrumental “Nitetime”, probably because it somewhat reminds us of that oft-forgotten Strokes gem, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”. How did you end up putting such a stylistically different track on the album?

Rushil: Comedown Machine is such an underrated album! [Ed. Note: Agreed.] I really like the synths they use in the whole album – very vintage, analog, 80s, Stranger Things vibes – and this was similar to Julian Casablancas’ solo projects. 

“Nitetime” has a bit of an interesting story though. Since we don’t play keys in jams, I had a rough idea what to play for the song – some piano through the song, with some airy sounds towards the end of the song. For the album, he wanted to do a short extension to the song with a similar sound palette. I ended up knitting a few short pieces I’d written over time in the studio, and arranged it in the studio. 

I think the chord progressions in the two songs are somewhat similar, and the synths are similar to the Strokes’ / Julian’s work in some of their more ambient songs, too.

TFR: Naturally, you probably did not expect your album to release in the middle of a global pandemic. But now that it’s here – how are you getting the word out about Is This How You Do It in the COVID era?

IFC: We were ready with the album early March and were working towards setting up a country-wide tour. However, those plans took a backseat due to the pandemic. As a launch tour wasn’t an option in the near future, we decided to put the music out for the listeners.

More than us, our friends and fans helped us put the word out for the album. There were a lot of Instagram stories shared with the songs from the album. Also “NewNew” made it to the Spotify playlist Rock in India which also helped in getting new listeners. We are also releasing music videos for the songs slowly and are planning to do a livestream launch gig too.

TFR: With an EP and an album under your belt, what’s next on the radar for Iyer’s Filter Coffee?

IFC: Interestingly, we think the band would have gone into a temporary hiatus if not for COVID, because of personal situations of certain members that would have geographically separated the group. So, COVID was a blessing in disguise in that way, because we are still together and writing more.

We are trying to improve in the craft and bring in a lot more to the table than we did in the past. It would be best to get some writing done now before we eventually start gigging again. As of now, there is no clear picture of what is coming next. But stay tuned to your social media because you never know when we decide to drop a single!

RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONS

TFR: Who’s an Indian artist that you’d love to open for / collaborate with?

IFC: Open for: TAAQ. Collaborate: Peter Cat Recording Co, Skrat, the F16s.

TFR: What would be your Desert Island discs?

  • Pushkar: Led Zeppelin I by Led Zeppelin;  Is This It by the Strokes
  • Sachin: By the Way by Red Hot Chili Peppers; Chapter V by Staind; Undertow by Tool
  • Rushil: Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not by Arctic Monkeys; Mm.. Food by MF DOOM
  • Dennis: Avenged Sevenfold by Avenged Sevenfold; Being So Normal by Peach Pit; Absolution by Muse

TFR: What’s been your favorite gig so far?

IFC: It’s between Oasis [BITS Pilani’s cultural festival], Zomaland 2020 or the coldturkey launch gig at the Humming Tree.

TFR: What’s an album or song on heavy rotation right now?

  • Pushkar: “BTFL” by Abhi the Nomad 
  • Sachin: Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club
  • Rushil: “Memory Box” by Peter Cat Recording Co
  • Dennis: Apricot Princess by Rex Orange County

Visit the Iyer’s Filter Coffee website to stay updated on the band!

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2020

2 Jul

We are now past the halfway mark of this hellish year. One silver lining, though, is the sheer volume of great music that seems to be coming out of artists young and new. Living legends Neil Young and Bob Dylan both released new albums, days of each other, as did rising stars like Phoebe Bridgers and HAIM. Read on for our breakdown of five standout tracks from June 2020.

5. “Kitchen Sink” by Nadine Shah

British-Pakistani singer-songwriter Nadine Shah has what one would call a striking voice: deep, resonant and able to convey as much with her notes as with her pauses. On the eponymous song from her fourth album Kitchen Sink, Shah’s voice precisely fills the gaps between two piano notes, discordant guitars and gospel-like handclaps. In the lyrics, Shah seems to be giving herself a sermon – to let go and stop caring about the mean things that people say. “Don’t worry about what the neighbors think / They’re characters from kitchen sink,” she states mysteriously, before breaking into the song’s chant of a chorus: “And I just let them pass me by.”

4. “I’m Alive” by TTRRUUCES

TTRRUUCES have all the markings of a future breakout act. Like many a musical star, they are unusual with a conviction.  Leaving aside their lackadaisical name, they describe their self-titled debut album as an operatic story of Sad Girl Sadie and Lost Boy Syd in the search for, strangely, a drug called TTRRUUCES. Beyond the character names and thematic elements, there’s a sense of seedy psychedelic underbelly (think Charles Manson) on “I’m Alive” that just draws you in. It’s just a catchy tune overall and we aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed – “I’m Alive” is on the FIFA 2020 soundtrack.

3. “JU$T” by Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha

Just the sheer combined talent of Killer Mike, El-P, Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha would lead one to think that “JU$T” would be a straight-up hit, and thankfully the song doesn’t disappoint. We’ve already spoken about it in our review of this year’s most important record, RTJ4, but it’s worth rehashing. “JU$T” is packed with hard-hitting critiques (as are most RTJ songs) with lines such as “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”. Moreover, with Pharrell in the mix, these lines are hidden in crisp, swaggering beats that could almost make you think this is just a summertime banger.

2. “EXHALE” by Kenzie feat. Sia

Speaking of Pharrell, young pop singer Kenzie channels Skateboard P himself on the highly enjoyable “EXHALE”. On the surface, it’s a pop song, but once the bass and drums-loaded chorus pumps through, you know this is a different kind of deal. To sweeten the pot, the song features Aussie hitmaker Sia on a choice verse or two. And let’s be honest, with the way 2020 is going, everyone needs to hear their advice here: “You need to, you need to exhale so let everything go / Baby, you in control”. Fun fact: Kenzie aka Mackenzie Zeigler is the younger sister of Maddie Zeigler, the famous dancing wunderkind in Sia’s break-out track “Chandelier”; we’re definitely glad the family connections got Sia involved here!

1. “False Prophet” by Bob Dylan

In June, Bob Dylan released his 39th (!) feature album, roughly half a century (!!) after his debut album. There is possibly no other living artist who could pull this off, but this 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is quickly turning out to be one of his best (yet). “False Prophet” features a fairly sparse instrumentation and Dylan’s truly inimitable voice. He growls, laughs, boasts, flirts – sometimes all within a ten-second stretch. If you heard this track out of nowhere, you would think it’s at least a couple of decades old; it feels that well-worn and classic. For a song that sounds like it could have by itself birthed the blues, it’s almost fathomable that it was released just this year; but that’s Dylan for you. At 79, this guy sure is alive and kicking, the end times be damned.

Be sure to check out all of our 2020 song picks on our handy Spotify playlist!

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

20 Jun

With their debut album RTJ in 2013, hip-hop super-duo Run the Jewels broke the mold of what intelligent, anti-establishment rap would look like. Naturally, they then proceeded to create even better versions, with the well-received RTJ2 (2014) and RTJ3 (2016). In that time, Killer Mike and El-P have also been hugely successful in a commercial sense, sound-tracking everything from Black Panther to FIFA18.

But despite this commercial utilization of their music, Run the Jewels is, at their crux, an anti-establishment act. Like their pre-COVID planned tour-mates Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels excel in just that – raging against the Machine, whether that’s the police, racists, or the wealthy.

In the summer of 2020, the world is battling the triple threat of a global pandemic, racism and wealth inequality. In that environment, Run the Jewels’ latest output RTJ4 is prescient and essential – and to put it bluntly, the record of the moment.

Throughout the album, RTJ make mincemeat of current times with chilling lines that were, astonishingly, recorded sometime in 2019. On album opener “Yankee and the brave”, the zeitgeist fire delivers stinging burns. “Pardon them as they work until every pocket’s been picked and soul been harvested / I’m ready to mob on these fucking charlatans,” announces El-P, while Killer Mike follows up with a could-have-been-recorded-yesterday swipe at police brutality: “A crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye / ‘Cause we heard he murdered a black child, so none of us cried.” An eye for an eye indeed.

 “Walking in the Snow” sees El-P delivering a searing indictment of Trump-era pseudo-Christians (“Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit / If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different”). The fantastic “JU$T” drops a deep thought: “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”; and somehow, this aligns perfectly with statues being pulled off their pedestals across the world just in the past few days.

But Killer Mike and El-P aren’t just eerily clairvoyant – they’re also eerily intelligent. We are so used to mainstream low-IQ rap that it’s honestly a thrill to hear clever, laugh-out-loud brags. For example, on “Out of Sight”, Killer Mike belts a stone-cold classic metaphor: “Colder than your baby mama heart when she find out you been fuckin’ with that other broad / And you ain’t got that rent for her”. Elsewhere, El-P casually drops the instant-classic line “Got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug” – pitting the socialist Kurt Vonnegut against the libertarianism of Ayn Rand (interestingly, of course, she herself clashes the same two archetypes on Atlas Shrugged, with Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey).

Yes, they’re intelligent. Yes, they’re anti-establishment. But lest you think this is a spoken-word recitation of the latest Jacobin issue, it must be said that this is, above all, a great music album.

Killer Mike and El-P are blessed with sonic gifts like few others.  “Out of Sight” in particular is a prime example of Killer Mike’s masterful flow, with four gerund-filled lines (“motivating, captivating, devastating…”) effortlessly hitting beats that you didn’t realize existed. El-P isn’t far behind; on “Holy Calamafuck”, for example, he plays with the same vowel sound on about 12 different words. The album is also packed with great riffs. We’ve already gushed about the fun single “Ooh La La” but don’t underestimate the hook on the aforementioned Pharrell Williams-Zach de la Rocha double-feature “Ju$t”.

Run the Jewels have been railing against all forms of injustice for their entire lives. But now, in a perfect storm of Black Swan-like events, the world has caught up to them. Like Killer Mike’s political hero Bernie Sanders, they get extra credit not just for saying the right things, but for having always said the right things – even when they weren’t considered right.

RTJ4 is prophetic, thoughtful, complex – and most of all, highly enjoyable. Whether this album is better than its predecessors is really up to the listener, but this one will always be memorable for perfect alignment with the moment in which it was released.

Best tracks: “JU$T”, “Out of Sight”, “Ooh La La”

Monthly Playlist: May 2020

1 Jun

We are now far enough into the coronavirus pandemic for this new abnormal to percolate deep into our psyches. Artists are starting to contemplate the differences between Life Then and Life Now. For example: Little Simz, who we cover in the list below, wrote and released an entire mixtape in spite of – and in some ways, because of – her lockdown experiences. Equally as interestingly, we as listeners are starting to consume music differently. Perhaps that slick, braggadocio rap track now soundtracks your daily allotted fast-walking time. Perhaps punk rock pumps you up in the precious time between Zoom meetings where you really, actually do your office work. And so on.

The point being: our surroundings are perhaps irrevocably changed, at least for the near future, but music’s importance has not dimmed the slightest. And here are five tracks that were embedded deep into our daily lives this past month.

5. “Noize” by Iyer’s Filter Coffee

Clocking in at #5 this month is a tune from Iyer’s Filter Coffee, a garage rock band from India consisting of Rushil Mishra (guitar / vocals), Pushkar Ravindra (guitar / vocals), Dennis Dey (bass / vocals) and Sachin Iyer (drums). The band lists the Strokes and the Black Keys as musical touch-points, and does well to justify those influences. After a well-received first EP coldturkey last year, the boys are back this month with their first-full length debut, Is This How You Do It.

First single “Noize” from Is This How You Do It really caught our ears. The song could slot perfectly well on Arctic Monkey’s Humbug– sporting an uncannily similar mix of the same hard-hitting riffs and Queens of the Stone Age-style production as that 2009 album. “Noize” shines especially on the segues featuring rolling drums and fuzz-laden guitarwork which stick with you long after the song is over.

4. “Shook” by Tkay Maidza

Tkay Maidza, a Zimbabwean-origin Australian rapper, has been circling fame for some time now. Her 2014 single “Switch Lanes” made it to the prestigious Aussie radio channel Triple J’s Hottest 100 list (at #100, but still) – back when she was just 17. In 2016, her debut album Tkay reached #20 on the Australian charts, and included a track with the one and only Killer Mike. Tkay’s star has been rising for several years now, and all that comes to a head with the slick new track, “Shook”.

On this track, Tkay clearly channels Missy Elliott, from the brash enunciation to the butter-smooth, non-stop flow. She also has some great lines – “Then these frauds tryna fit in, got ’em playin’ tetris” comes particularly to mind. “Shook” puts Tkay high on our list of artists to watch for in 2020.

3. “Enemy” by slowthai

Speaking of slick rap, we have been blessed this month with a new track from the reigning king of British rap, slowthai. In the Before Times (February 2020), slowthai made news for a thorny NME Awards show – featuring thrown glass, thrown insults and ultimately a thrown-out slowthai. The incident resulted in a typical PR apology but slowthai hinted (aggressively) at his true feelings with a tweet that said, simply, “Keep my name out ur dirty mouth”.

Turns out, he wasn’t done reacting – he turned that tweet into a chilling riff on the new “Enemy”. Wonky, slow-burning beats interlock perfectly with that unmistakable slowthai bad-boy swagger – a mix of London attitude and unpredictable emotion on the delivery from line to line.

2. “Might bang, might not” by Little Simz

May 2020 was fantastic for British rap. Some truly memorable new acts are coming out of that rainy island, and one of those is Nigerian-origin, London-bred Little Simz. “Might bang, might not” is a smooth track from her new, economically-titled five-song mixtape Drop 6.

On this track, Little Simz shows off a clear, crisp flow, set over even crisper layers: a three-note bass line, basic beats and a pace set by what sounds like a single, digitized gasp. What’s most notable about this song and the entire mixtape is that Little Simz wrote and mixed the whole thing herself during quarantine lockdown, often battling mental health issues. If you liked this track, you should read about what it took for her to put it out – check it out here.

1. “A Hero’s Death” by Fontaines DC

After a ripper of a year with perhaps 2019’s best debut album, everyone’s favorite Irish punk band Fontaines DC are back with new single “A Hero’s Death”. This song lies somewhere between a poem and a speech, set to unyielding punk. Lead singer Grian Chatten snaps off line after line of advice, toeing the line between schoolmaster and preacher: the couplet “Don’t get stuck in the past, say your favorite things at mass / Tell your mother that you love her and go out of your way for others” is just one example. The song’s central line – “Life ain’t always empty” – especially sticks in your head, almost like a mantra. All in all, “A Hero’s Death” is the rare song that is equal parts hypnotic and raucous.

The song’s accompanying music video features fellow Irishman and prestige television star Aidan Gillen – a sign of the young band’s rising profile. “A Hero’s Death” is the eponymous first single off of their new album, which is scheduled to be released in July – we can’t wait.

Check out these songs and all others from our 2020 Monthly Playlists on our Spotify playlist here.

Stepping About with Tushar Mathur: An Interview

1 May

Bangalore-based Tushar Mathur has made quite a splash in the short time since he’s gone solo. With two singles out already, “Mend” and “Groove Pool”, he’s earned a sizable following for his signature chill R&B sound and sharp production quality. He’s been featured on BBC, VH1 and countless media publications for his fresh and unique sound.

But as laid-back and breezy as his music may sound, Tushar Mathur’s work ethic is quite the opposite. In launching his music career, he’s learned to don many hats: songwriter, producer, video editor and social media manager, to name a few. Fittingly enough, his upcoming track “Stepping About”, talks about our generation’s struggle to strike a balance between hustle culture and self-care. The track features Shayan Roy, a Mumbai-based rapper and producer of Buzzfeed fame and releases on May 1st.

We sat down with Tushar Mathur last week for a detailed chat about his music, his influences and what it means to be a musician in the social media age.

Tell us about yourself!

Let’s start with the name. My name is Tushar Mathur and I’m originally from Coimbatore. I’m a chemical engineer. I finished my degree and didn’t want to pursue engineering at all. I moved to Bangalore around three years ago to do music full time.

I have a band that mainly plays blues-rock, and now I’m working on launching my solo career. The song I’m coming out with, “Stepping About”, is my third single; “Mend” and “Groove Pool” were my first two tracks and they released last year.

We really enjoyed your first two tracks! What made you interested in music? What would you say is the starting point for you?

The starting point for me, I’d say, is my family. I have a very musical family. My parents and grandparents sing Hindustani classical music. But the moment I really got interested in English music was when my brother went to Jaipur for his summer vacation and he came back with a CD. That CD had 12 tracks – mostly hits by Guns and Roses and Deep Purple. We’d sit down and listen to that CD on repeat, the entire day. That sparked an interest in me and I took it forward from there.

My dad also used to play a lot of John Denver and country music around the house. I grew up listening to a lot of guitar-centric music. My brother would also introduce me to a lot of metal and rock. My music has been centred around the guitar ever since.

So would you say these are your primary influences? Or has this evolved as you’ve evolved as an artist? What would you say your main influences are now?

Right now, I’m hugely inspired by Tom Misch. He’s a guitarist and producer from London. My music has been hugely inspired by him- the style that I have now is mainly because of how much Tom Misch I listen to. Another recent influence of mine has been FKJ. When I start touring and playing live, my idea is to incorporate a lot of loop work onstage. FKJ has sort of been a pioneer in that field.

Your first two tracks feel so effortless and breezy! How was the process of writing, producing and releasing these songs?

My first track Groove Pool” is about an introvert at a party who wants to let loose. I’m not exactly why I wrote about it.. I’m not usually an introvert, but maybe I felt that way and just wanted to write about it. (Laughs)

My writing always starts off with simple guitar work. I usually start with a basic chord structure and build on top of that. The vocals, for me, usually come at the end. I tend to work on all the instruments and then sit down at the end of the day with the finished instrumentals, and write the lyrics and put in a nice vocal melody. That’s my process.

“Mend” was pretty similar. Groove Pool was released in July 2019 and Mend was out by November 2019. “Mend” was special because I worked quite hard on the music video for it. I had dancers, directors and photographers coming in so that took quite some time, but I’m happy with the result.

And how has the reception been for these tracks?

It’s been great! The songs have been on BBC Radio, both my videos were featured on VH1, and I’ve been featured on radio stations across the world. The response has been phenomenal, and people have been so supportive!

As a musician who’s transitioned between cities, how would you say the Bangalore scene compares to the Coimbatore scene?

The scene in Coimbatore is basically non-existent, which is why I moved to a city like Bangalore. Even before, we’d always travel to Bangalore for shows and competitions with my band. Bangalore has always been a great place for music; there are always people who play and appreciate different styles of music, especially when it comes to English music. Coimbatore’s scene is slowly developing as well, but the live music culture is yet to pick up. I’d say Bangalore is a hundred times better, in that aspect.

It must be an interesting experience to have to release music during this pandemic. Has it been a challenge to work on and promote your new track in these times?

I’ve actually been working on this third song for the last six months. It’s been a very long process. I’m usually very picky about my music, and with “Stepping About”, I was even more particular. It’s about our generation’s battle between hustle culture and self-care. Productivity has become a measure of self-worth, and it took me a while to gather my thoughts and pen them down, given how much this affects our generation.

The pandemic hasn’t really affected my release schedule- I’d say I’ve been going about my work as usual. Whenever I release music, I give myself an entire month to promote. I’ve been doing what I’ve done for every song. But I think during this pandemic, a lot of people are sitting at home and consuming more content than they usually would. I don’t think it’ll negatively affect the reception of the song per se; but my touring and live sets have definitely been impacted.

Even though it wasn’t written recently, the song’s subject matter seems more fitting than ever.

Somehow it’s become very relevant. Even in this situation, everyone’s constantly doing something, or learning something new. People of our generation constantly make themselves feel bad about not being productive enough, and that’s something I had felt six months ago when I came up with this song as a concept. It’s suddenly become way more relevant to the situation that’s going on right now.

Your track also features Shayan Roy, who’s popular for his viral Buzzfeed videos and his burgeoning rap career. How did this collab happen, and how was it working with Shayan?

I was looking for a rapper for my track. I got in touch with a lot of people but it wasn’t working out. Somehow I came across Shayan and I just sent him an email. That’s all I did. I attached my track and told him “Your part would be between these timestamps”, and asked if he’d be interested in laying something down for me. He actually got back to me instantly saying he loved the track and he would give it a shot.

It was that easy! A lot of people have asked me this: “How did you end up working with Shayan? How did this happen?” I’ve actually never met him- this has entirely been through email, Instagram and WhatAapp. And this all happened because of a single email. People don’t realize how important an email can be. That’s how I’ve got VH1, BBC and interviews like this.

You seem like quite the hustler!

(Laughs) Technically yes. It sounds a bit ironic that I’m writing a song about self-care. You’re right, I do hustle, and I do a lot of things. But there are times when I feel that I do need to chill out and take it easy. This song is to remind me to take a break. One of the lines actually is “At times I need to chill out” – that’s me telling myself I need to chill. So it’s very relatable to me and kind of a message to myself.

I’m always telling people to take it easy, but my friends tell me that I don’t follow my own advice and that I’m constantly doing something or the other. So I think that this song would be good for me as well, as a reminder that sometimes, I should take it easy.

Do you find it challenging to be a musician at this time? Between the music, the promotions and the social media, it feels like you’re doing the work of a three or four-member team!

That’s true, but the thing is: I love doing this! The music part is amazing, of course, but I believe that if you’re a musician, you need to see that music is a business. I think a lot of newer musicians think they’re above everybody, and think “I’m not going to learn how to promote myself, who wants to do that?” or “I’m just going to send this song out to a couple of my friends and it’ll blow up on its own.”

But I feel that with the music industry nowadays, the actual music makes up 30-40% of your success- the remaining 70% is just marketing and promotion. You might write the best song in the world, but if nobody’s going to hear it then what’s the point?

You’re right, it definitely is a three-person job, but I enjoy it, and I find the producing, marketing and promotion aspect of it extremely interesting.

Do you produce all your own tracks? How did you get into that?

Yeah, I’ve produced all my own tracks. I’m such a fidgety person, the type that loves to mess around with controls and buttons for hours, and that’s how I got into producing. I have a friend called Sandeep who’d take my calls and kind of guide me through some of the questions I had, but apart from that there’s always YouTube and Google. You can literally learn anything on the internet! This was essentially a product of me having a lot of time on my hands and being able to sit down and figure out how to achieve different sounds.

There was another advantage of getting into producing. I was already a musician at that point. Earlier, when we’d jam, I’d know what I want from the sound. Now it’s become easier to achieve that sound on my own and manage the different aspects of the final product. It’s given me more control over my music, in a way.

So you’re a self-taught musician as well as a producer!

I actually did go to guitar classes for a year, but I didn’t like it back then. It was mainly Carnatic stuff, and all I wanted to do was play Zeppelin. So yeah, I’d say I’m self-taught.

I’ve also taught myself video editing- all the videos you see are edited by me. I also take up a couple of freelance projects on the side, to support myself financially.

Wow, so it’s more like you’re doing the work of a six-member team!

Yeah I do quite a lot, you’re right. But I really enjoy the whole process.

RAPID FIRE:
Top Five Desert Island Album/Songs:

1. Beat Tape 1 by Tom Misch

2. Geography by Tom Misch

3. Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd

4. Led Zepellin 1 by Led Zepellin

5. My own music!

What are you currently listening to?

I really make use of Spotify’s daily mix feature- lots of times I’m not really sure who the artists even are!

I’ve been very excited about FKJ’s new album, Tom Misch’s stuff and this artist called Raveena.

Describe your sound in two words.

Let’s make it three: Smooth. Like. Butter. (Laughs)

What’s been your favourite gig? And why?

My favourite gig is actually my very first one. I had a gig back in Coimbatore, in this Punjabi Association that we were a part of and my dad had pushed us to go play a show there. A lot of my friends and family were at the show, and they still fondly recall the gig to this day. That was the first-ever time I got up on stage to perform and it felt magical- it’s my most cherished performance that I’ve given.

Dream collab?

Tom Misch, if I could, but I wouldn’t be able to function if that happened. If not him, then I’d really like to collaborate with a Hindi rapper – maybe Divine (I love his style) or Raja Kumari.

Is there anyone you’d like to shout out for helping you along the way?

I’d like to shout out my friend Pavithra. She’s been with me the entire way, and she’s supported me throughout!

You can visit Tushar’s website here for more information. His music is available wherever you regularly stream music. Listen to “Stepping About” now!

Monthly Playlist – Apr. 2020

28 Apr

We say this almost every month, but April 2020 was truly one of the best months of music that we’ve ever been through. There was, of course, Fiona Apple’s universally-lauded Fetch the Bolt Cutters; on the very same day, English pop star Rina Sawayama released what is easily the best debut album since Invasion of Privacy (2018). We even got new tracks from reclusive acts like The Strokes and Jamie xx. Read on for a round-up of the best five songs from this month.

5. “Young and Beautiful” by Glass Animals

This is technically not a new song, but we love Glass Animals’ gauzy cover of Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”, released as part of a growing collection called, fittingly, Quarantine Covers. Dave Bayley’s spindly, whispery voice and bare production lends itself perfectly to the track – the result being a fresh yet respectful cover of a truly classic song.

As a bonus, check out another song in Quarantine Covers – a hypnotic take on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”.

4. “Shameika” by Fiona Apple

 Fiona Apple has had a sparse but monumental career, spanning five increasingly unrestrained albums from her debut Tidal (1995) to Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020). This latest album currently enjoys an unprecedented perfect score on Metacritic. Is it worth the fawning all-round praise? Somewhat – but not entirely (see our in-depth review here).

Perhaps the most widely-shareable song on the album is “Shameika”, a rollicking tale about schoolgirl Fiona getting some tough love from a slightly older girl. The eponymous Shameika tells Fiona that she has potential, and Fiona uses that mantra to get through the bullying and boredom of middle-school life. We particularly love the rolling piano and Fiona’s jazzy storytelling on this track. Fiona recently shared that Shameika, indeed, turned out to be a real person (and not a figment of her imagination as she initially thought), so that’s cool too.

3. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” by The Strokes

On April 10th, the Strokes released their much-awaited sixth album and thankfully, it lived up to expectations. The presciently-named The New Abnormal (in-depth review here) certainly featured some new direction for the band, but there were also some classic, old-school Strokes tracks. The fun and catchy “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” falls squarely in the later category. Kicked off by a bouncy, synth-heavy riff, the song features Julian Casablancas singing about the good old days over feel-good guitar work from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. It’s just a great tune.

2. “Idontknow” by Jamie xx

Idontknow”, a new single from English producer and DJ Jamie Smith (and one-half of The xx), is a revelation in its sheer use of beats. The track starts off with almost African-like beats that are sure to get you tapping along with some part of your body. Just when you think that’s all there is to it, the track ramps up into overdrive at approximately the 78-second mark. And when we say overdrive, we are not joking. The beats double in speed, and Jamie Smith expertly overlays mysterious vocals snippets, with the effect being a frenetic, craze-inducing romper of a track. It’s addictive in its simplicity, and we highly recommend it.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

It may seem like Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama comes to us fully-formed, but the 29-year-old has been working on her sound for some time. She had a couple of well-received tracks between 2013 and 2016, followed by a self-produced mini-album in 2017. This month, she finally released her official debut album – the eponymous SAWAYAMA – and it was well worth the build-up.

Sawayama’s sound is a beguiling mix of late-90s pop (think Britney and Mariah) and early 2000s moody rock (think Evanescence): nostalgic in its components parts but wholly original in its combination. The best song this month was definitely “XS”, a commentary on late-stage capitalism with a killer pop hook (we told you it’s original). “Luxury and opulence, Cartiers and Tesla X’s / Calabasas, I deserve it,” says Rina, before begging for “just a little bit more, little bit of excess”. Even if you don’t listen to the words in detail, you just can’t miss the pop sounds from the millennial Rina’s 90s / early 00s childhood.

Fresh New Voice: An Interview with Navya Sharma

22 Apr

Navya Sharma is a Bombay-based musician who’s all set to take the indie music scene by storm. His indie-folk style and his percussive guitar work give him a distinctive and unmistakeably fresh sound that has kept us hooked. Not to mention his lyrical prowess, a skill he’s honed over years of listening, writing and performing. 

See for yourself, with his track “New Routine”, in which Navya’s penchant for rhythm is clear. His excellent lyrical work (“I was just guessing when you left me with this doubt / Holding the stars for you in case you let me out”) has a sort of wistful beauty to it that only adds to the replay value that this track has.

We caught up with Navya earlier this week for a quick conversation about his musical style, influences and upcoming plans!

Top Five Records: We’d love to get to know your story! To begin with, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Navya Sharma: I’m 25, I write songs and I’m currently based out of Bombay. 

TFR: Let’s start with a picture of what makes you into the artist you are today: What got you into music, and when did you first start getting into it?

NS: This is a question I love answering. I have this very specific memory of being around ten years old and holding in my hands the vinyl record, Walk Don’t Run by The Ventures from 1964. My dad had this big collection of vinyls and I remember him putting The Ventures on one night when he got home from work. That was the first time I’d heard the tone of a beefy heavy-duty American Fender through some powerful tube amplifiers. Vinyls were these very physical objects too, almost as if you could touch the music. I remember picking up a toy cricket bat and riffing crazy pretend-guitar to the song as my mum looked on laughing. My dad had successfully introduced me to rock ‘n roll.

TFR: We at TFR hear a touch of retro and a bit of Bob Dylan in your tunes! What would you say are your biggest musical influences? Not just other musicians; what’s influenced you as a musician?

NS: That’s a very accurate guess, maybe I ought to work on making it a little less obvious.

I’ve always been keen on the expression aspect of a song; the story it tells. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Damien Rice would probably be the Holy Trinity for me. John Prine, Mark Knopfler, Tom Waits, Mick Flannery would be some others. I learnt to believe that my contribution to music would strictly be songwriting as a medium for honest expression. How my songs resonate with people is none of my business. 

I learnt to believe that my contribution to music would strictly be songwriting as a medium for honest expression.

TFR: We can’t stop listening to your debut single, “Freedom Town”! The upbeat tune and the slightly darker subject matter create an interesting juxtaposition that has us intrigued. Can you tell us more about this track? What’s the story behind it, and what was the songwriting process like for you?

NS: I’m still half-trying to figure out where that song came out of, which is probably why I’m so proud of my work on Freedom Town, haha! I think it’s mostly about feeling a certain disconnect. The three verses talk about three different characters: a young person fighting vanity and feeling like a fake, another guy fantasizing about shooting up a movie theater and Juliet, the cut away lover. All of these characters concur on that mutual feeling of disconnect: how mainstream music on the radio doesn’t make sense to them and how they fail to relate with their friends’ conversations. At the end of the day, they just find themselves restless thinking love can save them. Or something like that, heck if I know.

Oh and shout out to Rounak Chawla for playing the best solo I could have asked for on the track too.

TFR: What’s on the horizon for you? Any new music coming out? Perhaps a debut album soon? Or something else entirely?

NS: An EP soon! I’ve been writing so much we just have to pick the songs that sound minimally shitty and put the record out. We were just testing the waters with this release and now I can’t hardly wait to be honest.

Thanks, Navya! And now, let’s get a few quick answers out of you with our Rapid-Fire Round. Ready?

TFR: What are your Top Five Desert Island Records?  (i.e., five albums that you would be fine listening to, without access to any other music, for the rest of your life?)

NS: Golden Heart by Mark Knopfler; Use Your Illusion I & II, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan; O by Damien Rice

TFR: What about recent times? What albums or songs have been on repeat for you lately?

NS: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent by Lewis Capaldi! Such refreshing honesty in Pop music

TFR: What’s been your favourite gig so far (and why)?

NS: Been a few. I’ve lately enjoyed solo intimate sets a little more than getting the boys and bringing a whole band behind me. (Which is awesome fun too, don’t get me wrong.) Getting a bunch of strangers to enjoy mostly fresh stuff on the first listen is a neat challenge and I love it.

TFR: Your dream collab? (Indian or International)

NS: Can we bring back Janis Joplin from the dead if we’re dreaming anyway?

TFR: Haha, nice one. And an Indian artist you’re really digging right now?

NS: Karshni Nair and Meera Desai.

You can find Navya’s music on Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube and pretty much wherever else you get your music.

The Strokes – The New Abnormal

19 Apr

We last saw the Strokes with the three-song Future Present Past EP in summer 2016. The rather on-the-nose concept was that each song represented the eponymous phases of the Strokes, from futuristic “Drag Queen” to stylish “OBLIVIUS” to old-school “Threat of Joy”. With their sixth album The New Abnormal, it feels like the Strokes don’t think of themselves in quite so discrete terms – and the result is an inventive, cool and highly-listenable sixth album.

Famously, there is such a thing as “the Strokes sound”. Most songs on their first two records followed a precise formula: Interlocked guitars from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi precisely sync with Fab Moretti’s machine-like beats and Nikolai Fraiture’s basslines, with Julian Casablancas’ unstructured vocals adding an exactly asynchronous vocal texture. It’s a carefully free-spirited aesthetic – the sonic equivalent of a get-the-bedhead-look hairspray or a tailored leather jacket (both of which were no doubt in their early wardrobes).

On The New Abnormal, there are certainly songs like these, but they’re often layered with more innovative elements that we first saw in Angles (2011) and Comedown Machine (2013). “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” is a traditional Strokes song – Velvet Underground-esque vocals set to crystal-clear beats – but there’s a pulsing, hypnotic underline that adds unusual heft to the humdrum. Album opener “The Adults are Talking” is as Strokes-y as they come, with a crisp riff that instantly pulls you in, but its latter portions involve jagged zingers from Hammond and Valensi, and, improbably, a Chris Martin-style falsetto half-verse from Casablancas.

And it’s not just the Strokes’ own repertoire that seems to have provided inspiration. In the album-free wilderness years from 2013’s Comedown Machine, every one of the Strokes embarked on a solo career – some successful and some not. As the rock-star cliché goes, these side projects were the result of a growing schism between the band members; but on The New Abnormal, these fractured elements have been successfully pulled into the main act.

For example, Casablancas definitely had his Voidz hat on when he wrote the magnificent “At the Door” –the dense, palpable sadness in his voice contrasted only against sludgy synths. The lyrics (“Use me like an oar / get yourself to shore”) are stark and chilling – a bit unusual coming from the erstwhile kings of nonchalance. “Selfless”, a simple, pretty ditty, is cut from a similar cloth as Fab Moretti’s too-shortlived Little Joy project, while “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is filled with the sort of irrepressible Hammond riffs last seen on his well-received Francis Trouble (2018).

The overall sonic cohesion on the album, despite so many disparate pieces, is due in large part to Rick Rubin. The master producer has produced for a vast and varied list, from Run-DMC to Metallica to Justin Timberlake, and that genre-bending prowess has left its mark on The New Abnormal. For example, dance-pop track “Bad Decisions” is smoothly segued into the moody Childish Gambino-meets-the-Weeknd “Eternal Summer” – not an easy feat. The production on “Ode to the Mets” is startlingly beautiful – a kaleidoscope of quiet fury, nostalgia, wistfulness and everything in between (per the band, it’s an ode to the idea of a perennial failure).

And finally – the name. When the Strokes announced the album on February 10th at a Bernie Sanders rally, the world was unimaginably different. There was a mysterious virus in China, but they seemed to have controlled it; Bernie was leading the race for President in a bid to finally lift America out of modern-day feudalism; and so on. Exactly two months later, on April 10th – the day of their album release: that mysterious virus had taken more than 18,000 lives in America; Bernie had thrown in the towel two days prior; and a global recession now looms on the horizon. The New Abnormal, the Calpurnia of our times, couldn’t have been more perfectly titled.

Honestly, the only thing the Strokes had to do on their sixth record was to sound like the Strokes. Happily, they’ve overdelivered: a congruent Strokes-plus-plus. The New Abnormal is not the best thing they’ve ever done – Casablancas himself rates it his fourth-favorite output – but it’s proven that there’s more to the Strokes.

Best tracks: The Adults are Talking, Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus, Ode to the Mets

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

13 Apr

If you were still wondering whether disco has truly made a comeback in 2020, look no further than Dua Lipa’s sophomore album, Future Nostalgia . With a stark departure from the dance-pop sensibilities of her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa brings her modern spin on retro-fabulous to the table. Yet somehow, it’s not all disco. Lipa has managed to concoct a dance album that simultaneously draws inspiration from three decades of pop music – yet feels fresh, fun and timeless.

Dua Lipa has always been a Cool Girl™. She’s suave, she’s a sharp dresser, and she’s seemingly stolen Lady Gaga’s spot as a pop queer icon (at least until Chromatica drops later this year). Future Nostalgia feels like the first time that she’s dropped the image and just had fun with it, for a change.

If you’re looking for deep lyrical content on this album, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Most tracks on this album are sexually-charged love songs or radio-pop anthems peppered with cookie-cutter feminist slogans. But there’s no denying that Dua Lipa knows how to make a good pop banger that gets you moving.

The album opens strong with “Future Nostalgia”, a song that clearly spells out Lipa’s thesis statement for the album (“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game”). “Don’t Start Now” is an upbeat heartbreak anthem, a strange juxtaposition of themes that shouldn’t work, but somehow does – and incredibly well, too. With “Physical”, a dancercise-style synth-pop track, Dua Lipa embraces the retro sound to her advantage. The chorus is a direct reference to Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Let’s Get Physical”, and she employs a classic 80s song structure, complete with a hand-clapping bridge section. Yet somehow, the track feels modern and light, all while giving you the intense urge to throw on a pair of spandex and (poorly) follow along with a Jazzercise VHS tape.

Out of the eleven tracks on the album, the first ten of them could be individually released as successful lead singles- it’s just one frenetic synth-pop disco dream after the next. The stand-out pieces, though, are neatly nestled in the middle of the tracklist. “Levitating”, an interstellar-themed track with deceptively simple vocal work, sounds like it was copped straight from The Weeknd’s repertoire. Not surprising, since Lipa herself names Daft Punk (along with Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Kylie Minogue to name a few) as one of her muses for her new “retro-futuristic” sound. With the heavy pounding choruses and dreamy verses on “Hallucinate”, Dua Lipa explores Europop, a frequently overlooked relic of the 80s and 90s that hasn’t seen much traction since the Spice Girls era of pop.

That isn’t to say that this album is perfect. “Good in Bed”, a Lily Allen-style bop, has some of the worst rhymes we’ve seen (- bad – sad – mad -), and will incessantly annoy you with how catchy this objectively trashy track is. That’s another bone to pick with Dua Lipa’s work: the vacant lyrical content.  Sure, most pop stars have always stuck to a handful of topics – usually love, romance and heartbreak – but you’d expect something more, thematically speaking, from a modern feminist pop icon like Dua Lipa. However, the one time she does try to explore a different subject matter on “Boys Will Be Boys”, it falls entirely flat. Dua Lipa means well with this number as she attempts to speak up about women’s rights and gender roles, but she ends up putting a sudden and final damper on an otherwise fun, upbeat and perfect pop album.

But maybe, given the state of the world in April 2020, a groovy dance-your-way-through-the-decades style pop album is what we need right now. There’s a reason disco makes a comeback every few years- it’s fun, it’s uplifting, and most importantly it’s infectious! Dua Lipa has truly perfected the art of a perfect pop album. You can throw it on, dance it out and take her advice to heart: “Don’t take yourself too seriously and just have fun with it!”

Monthly Playlist: Mar. 2020

31 Mar

March 2020 will forever be known in the history books as the month that COVID-19 really stuck its hypothetical flag into Earth. Over a billion people are now in quarantine, leading to stranger-than-fiction outcomes like kindergarten classes over Zoom. There is, however, one silver lining to this whole scenario: humanity’s ability to find artistic outlets seems to have gotten sharper. Either that, or this was just independently a really good month for music. Read on for our top five tracks this month – and stay safe!

“just a boy” by Alaina Castillo

Houston, Texas-based Alaina Castillo has been making her moves for a while now. Castillo shot to fame the new-school way, by racking up a massive YouTube following, before transitioning into her first traditional EP (2019’s antisocial butterfly). Three months into the year, the English-Spanish bilingual singer has already released five singles but it’s “just a boy” that may just give her the mainstream break-out she deserves. The song features Alaina’s silky smooth, pitch-perfect vocals that can give Ariana Grande a run for her money, layered over stripped-down guitar work. It’s the best of pop: sugary-sweet vocals, relatable lyrics, and heartfelt emotion.

“Ooh LA LA” by Run The Jewels (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)

Rap duo Run The Jewels, consisting of Killer Mike and El-P, are back with a new jam called “Ooh LA LA”. The track has a laid-back, 90s rap vibe that perfectly complements the comfortable-brag lyrics. In particular, Killer Mike’s “First of all, fuck the fucking law, we is fucking raw / Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar” is a standout, but really, the whole song is filled with such lines. What’s more, the song is well-served by a catchy-AF chorus. Run The Jewels are scheduled to release a new album this year, and had an amazing double-bill tour with Rage Against the Machine (titled, appropriately, “Public Service Announcement”) planned for 2020 – time will tell how much of that tour they are actually able to embark upon.

“P2” by Lil Uzi Vert

In 2017, Lil Uzi Vert shook up the world with, of all things, an emo rap song, entitled “XO Tour Llif3”. “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead,” says Uzi on the chorus , throwing in side-note one-liners like “I might blow my brain out / Xanny numb the pain, yeah”. Late 90s emo rock bands probably ate their hearts out – here was a genuine and successful emo song, parceled in talented rap no less. In 2020, Lil Uzi Vert released his much-awaited (and much-lauded) album called Eternal Atake (read our review here). “P2”, coming in just before the end of the behemoth one-hour 18-track album, is in essence the follow-up to “XO Tour Llif3”, both lyrically and musically. Uzi retains the hypnotic, slightly-off kilter minor beats, and his lyrics take on an after-the-fact vibe: “I don’t really care ‘cause I’m done”. Great song, and great album.

“Faith” by The Weeknd

“Faith” is an atmospheric, textured track from The Weeknd’s new album, After Hours (read our review here). While most of the spotlight right now is on the lead singles – “Blinding Lights”, “Heartless” – it’s really “Faith” that finds The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) at his most genuine, fractured self. Set on heavy choir-like synths, “Faith” really explores the various pieces of Abel’s self-destructive tendencies. He goes sober for his new love, but threatens to go back to his old ways if she leaves him. When given a choice between Heaven or Las Vegas (a reference to a previous song, btw), he chooses Sin City. And if he ODs? “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me,” he requests. “Faith” is almost a psychological study of a chronic drug abuser and what makes one stuck that way. Good music too – check it out.

“Break My Heart” by Dua Lipa

Technically, British-Albanian rising star Dua Lipa’s new album has been in the public sphere for a few months already. Unless you live under a rock, you must have heard her massive global hit, “Don’t Start Now”. The next single, “Physical”, did the rounds well too. This month, the new album Future Nostalgia was finally released, and it proved to be on par with both of those bangers. In particular, “Break My Heart” really encapsulates the vibe of the whole album: nostalgia for the early 2000s (when Dua was a teeny-bopper) masked in the touchpoints of today’s pop hits. Synth-pop beats and her signature husky voice bring back memories of Titanic-era Cher, perhaps, with some busy Gwen Stefani-esque attitude – but it’s all done in a way that feels modern, not retro. The perfectly-titled Future Nostalgia as a whole is a great ride, and “Break My Heart” is a good place to start.

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