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Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

21 Oct

Over the past decade and a half, India has seen a remarkable growth in the sheer number of independent, non-Bollywood music. From electronica to indie rock to hip-hop, we now have it all. But as the scene develops, many homegrown artists understandably sound a lot like the global artists they’re trying to emulate. There are a few exceptions, of course – artists who are truly, unmistakably, confidently homegrown; and Peter Cat Recording Company easily rules over them all.

Delhi-based quintet Peter Cat have been a beloved part of the Indian music scene for nearly a decade; Sinema (2011) especially was all the rage for a particular cross-section of indie fans that came of age in that era. They’ve always been ahead of the curve, but perhaps by too much – fully-formed and original in a nascent and sometimes derivative industry. In many people’s opinions (including ours), they deserved so much more than the tiny listening audience and a four-city gig circuit that the country could afford them.

Luckily for all of us, Peter Cat seemed to have been thinking along the same lines. Recently, they signed on to French label Panache Records, which promptly released a nine-song anthology of the band’s greatest hits (Portrait of a Time, 2018). Happier still was the news this year that the band would be releasing a full-length album – the official “debut” – with Panache. Peter Cat were finally getting the management and international exposure that their brilliance deserved. Would they live up to it?

The short answer is: yes.

Peter Cat Recording Company is not just a great band; they’re a great Indian band. Their sound blends easily across jazz, gypsy, disco, you name it – but at their core, Peter Cat is undeniably desi. On Bismillah, that thankfully doesn’t change.

Take, for example, “Where the Money Flows”, which opens the album with diegetic sounds of the homeland – the birds, the distant honks, a spluttering engine. Between gentle guitar strums and handclaps, the lyrics paint a picture of trade-offs between money (bad) and love (good). But the music video makes their intent much more explicit: they’re talking specifically about that great Indian experiment, demonetization. The fact that the music video was released days before the final stretch of India’s historical general election made the link even clearer.

Other songs on Bismillah reference India in decidedly less political terms. With its Technicolor throwback and old-world croon, “Heera” could be an erstwhile filmi hit (barring the English-language lyrics). Disco jam “Memory Box” is would fit right in on a best-of-Bappi-Lahiri special issue with the busy guitars and dramatic violins. “Floated By” is a nod to the celebrated big-brass sounds of Indian weddings; you could almost imagine the trumpets and the melancholy vocals serenading the wee hours of a wedding reception somewhere. Indeed, the music video is set in a real wedding – Sawhney’s own, in fact.

Of course, the brilliance of Peter Cat lies in their ability to seamlessly fuse their Indian sensibilities with great music from elsewhere. One touch-point, especially, is the minimalist vibe espoused by the likes of the xx. “Remain in Me” is built mostly on the Sawhney’s lilting voice and a sparse drum-guitar line, joined by forlorn horns in the chorus. “Vishnu ❤” is a hypnotic, chillwave gem, interspersed again by Peter Cat’s signature brass. Moody psychedelia, a la Tame Impala, is another key influence, especially on the expansive album closer “Shit I’m Dreaming”.

Peter Cat’s strongest suit, however, is Sawhney’s rich, emotive voice. He is fully in control of his considerable talent: perfectly complementary to the instruments in one moment, a sublime falsetto on the next, and maybe a quick aalap here and there. His voice sways, croons, reaches and swoons; but always adding to that iconic Peter Cat sound.

Bismillah is a kaleidoscopic journey through genres and time periods; experimental, creative but always on brand. It’s their best work yet and, honestly, one of the best albums we’ve heard all year (Indian or otherwise).

Best tracks: “Where the Money Flows”, “Heera”, “Floated By”

Check out Peter Cat Recording Company’s website for more information.

Top Five Deep Cuts: The Strokes Edition

14 Oct

By now, the Strokes’ trajectory is well-known: an impossibly perfect debut album; overnight global success; and the subsequent chase for a repeat of all that. Amidst personality clashes and competing side-projects, the latter half of the Strokes’ history is murky; and by then, a slew of Strokes-inspired bands (see: Arctic Monkeys, The Killers) began stealing the limelight from the OG. No wonder, then, that the Strokes’ best-known songs are still the ones they released in the first five years of their career.

But nestled deep in the Strokes’ catalog are some truly underrated gems. With rumors of a sixth album releasing very soon – gaining more and more credibility with the just-released 2020 gig dates – we figured it’s time for a closer look at some deep cuts: The Strokes edition.

5. “Razorblade” from First Impressions of Earth

As we mentioned above, the Strokes’ biggest obstacle to their career was their own debut album. Is This It (2001) was an instant classic, and answered its own question almost immediately – yes, this was it. This was the album that saved rock music from the tepid irrelevancy offered by the likes of Linkin Park and Nickelback (don’t @ us). The Strokes’ sophomore album, Room on Fire (2003), successfully stuck to the script.

It was with the third album, First Impressions of Earth (2006), that things started unravelling. The Strokes shtick was a little overdone after two albums nearly identical in tone and style; besides, by then, copycats were a dime a dozen. The third album did produce a few famous songs – “You Only Live Once” and “Juicebox” most notably – but the rest of the album was deemed too weird and cynical by many.

Understandable, then, that a gem like “Razorblade” often gets overlooked. Anchored by a pleasant pop-rock riff, Casablancas’ lyrics cynically review a relationship gone sour. He derisively mimics the girl (“You’ve got to take me out, at least once a week / Whether I’m in your arms, or I’m at your feet”); and he just doesn’t care any longer (“Oh, drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry / There you go”). Listen also for the excellent sync between drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s beats and the dual guitars.

4. “Games” from Angles

First Impressions of Earth lost a chunk of casual Strokes fans with its experimentation, but not nearly as much as the fourth album Angles (2011). The Strokes took a five-year break to sort out their struggles, and the resultant album was spiky as the name suggested. By then, the kids who’d obsessed over the debut in high school were fully-functioning adults, and Angles didn’t have the raw energy to attract a legion of new fans (unlike what Arctic Monkeys did with their fifth album AM). Consequently, there are some great tracks on this album that just never got the airplay they deserve.

One of those tracks is “Games”, a synth-pop ode to the 80s. The song starts off interestingly enough – bouncy keyboards contrasted against Casablancas’ whiny croon – but eventually segues into an even more interesting one-two punch of a solo from Hammond Jr. (keyboards) and Moretti (drums). Our favorite version of this song is their live performance on Conan – check it out here.

3. “Chances” from Comedown Machine

Comedown Machine (2013), over six years ago, was the last full-length album from the Strokes. The album dropped with no advance notice and the band didn’t even bother going on a press tour afterward. It was highly suggested that they released it only to get out of their five-album contract with RCA (a contract that the label had won twelve years prior in a hard-fought bidding war).

Comedown Machine barely had any radio play, and all but the most hard-core Strokes fans pretty much ignored it at the time of release. But the album has since become something of a sleeper hit; a low-key mix of 80s synth pop with a level of experimentation that the Strokes – at the end of their RCA leash – could finally afford to indulge.

“Chances”, the ninth track on the album, is a hauntingly beautiful love song. “I waited for ya, I waited on ya / but now, I don’t,” sings Casablancas, in a new-found falsetto, no less, before sadly accepting his fate: “I’ll take my chances alone”. “Chances” could easily soundtrack a scene of heartbreak in an 80s teen-romance flick; in that and in many other ways, it is truly unique among the Strokes’ repertoire.

2. “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” from Angles

As you might guess if you read this far, it’s no wonder that most of the Strokes’ underrated tracks come from their last two albums – when few folks were paying attention and the band members themselves were going through some serious issues.

“Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, the album closer on Angles, is unlikely to have enchanted the casual Strokes fan, but there’s no reason to keep it that way. By that point, the band was so fractured that they physically couldn’t get themselves together: Julian Casablancas apparently emailed his recorded vocals for the sound engineer to stitch together with the rest of the band’s recordings. “So we talk about ourselves and how / To forget the love we never felt,” he wistfully notes, before confessing, perhaps too late: “I didn’t wanna tell you I was jealous, jealous, jealous, what’s the point?” (He writes the lyrics as though it was about a girl, but he’s been happily married since 2005 – who else could it be about?)

Introspective lyrics aside, “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” has some remarkable experimental patches from the other members. Lead guitarist Nick Valensi whips out an almost jazzy guitar solo supported by Moretti’s perfect drum time. Albert Hammond Jr. shines with rhythmic strums and Nikolai Fraiture’s bass is, as usual, the oft-overlooked Strokes secret sauce. Check out their performance of the song on SNL here.

1. “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” from Comedown Machine

As the very last song on the Strokes’ very last album, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is the definition of a deep cut. Even some hardcore Strokes fans no doubt forget this song exists. A pity – for this is a true beauty unlike anything else in their entire catalog.

From the fuzzy guitars to Julian’s especially gauzy vocals, the entire song has the aura of a classic black-and-white movie – perhaps in Parisian speakeasy, perhaps in the 1930s. The chorus is just out of this world – a light, waltzy dream that somehow seems to reach more senses than just your ears. Put it this way: “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” sounds like something that inspired the Amelie soundtrack.

“Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is a miraculous transplant from another place and another era that was created, somehow, by a then-dying New York City garage rock band. If there’s only one song you hear from this list, make it this one – and be prepared to see the Strokes in a brand-new light.

So that’s the end of this list, but happily, it looks like it’s not yet the end for the Strokes. If you’re as excited as we are for the rumored Album #6, let us know below! We’ll count down the days together.

Monthly Playlist: Sep. 2019

1 Oct

We’re back with another edition of Monthly Playlist! Read on to see the five songs that caught our gaze this month:

5. “Whitsand Bay” by Metronomy

Whitsand Bay” is an interesting track from English electronic five-piece Metronomy’s sixth studio album, Metronomy Forever. There seems to be a duopoly of emotions at play here. On one hand, the upbeat cymbals and pulsing bass line march the song snappily along. On the other, the melancholic, slightly-above-mumble-volume vocals cast the mood down. What results is an engrossing, vivid landscape of sounds that really catches one’s attention from first listen. Metronomy Forever released earlier this month – do give it a whirl.

4. “Context” by Temples

We’ll admit, we hadn’t heard of English rockers Temples before “Context”. However, through the inscrutable power of Spotify playlists, we were sent this song on a silver platter, and we are now converts to the cause. On “Context”, Temples present a dreamy, slow-burning sound that lies somewhere between Tame Impala and the Beatles. And as you may expect from that description, the song offers its fair share of mysticism. “Fool, carry the wise / Are you divine?” goes the catchy chorus, before delving into a more mysterious couplet: “Are you afraid of being defined? / When you put it context, it makes sense.” Not sure that it does – but this is definitely a great track, lyrics aside. Temples’ third album, Hot Motion, released earlier this week; be sure to check it out if you liked this song!

3. “Psycho” by slowthai and Denzel Curry

From the first few seconds of the song, it’s easy to see where “Psycho” gets its name. Ghastly squeals clash maddeningly against what seem to be a pulp-horror-movie soundtrack, spurring the listener into palpable chaos – and that’s even before a word is said. Great production meets some knife-sharp verses on this ripper of a track from British rap star slowthai and American rapper Denzel Curry.

 Our favorite line on this track, from slowthai’s verse, is a kaleidoscope of emotion: “Spliff is exhaust, I put your friend in the morgue / Olympics, I run with the torch / mum should’ve pressed the abort”. In just one sentence, slowthai veers from braggadocio about a giant spliff (which can be used as an Olympic torch shortly after putting someone to death to boot) to unapologetic self-hatred; it’s either madness or genius, and the line between those blurs quite often. “Psycho” is an exhilarating roller-coaster, and we highly recommend. (Also, if you liked this track, do check out our review of slowthai’s debut album.)

2. “Don’t Call Me Angel” by Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana del Rey

Regular readers of Top Five Records are well-aware of our enduring love for saccharine (but immaculately-produced!) pop songs; the likes of Ariana Grande and Marina & the Diamonds have long entranced us. Well, we are unashamed to proclaim our love for this song from the upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot (which we are sure will be a flop – our love of the saccharine sadly does not extend to the silver screen).

Each of the three superstars on this track excel with a memorable, iconic verse. The merry-go-round-gone-awry sounds at the outset make way to a characteristically-husky verse from resident bad-girl Miley Cyrus – say what you will about her, but girl’s got killer attitude. Ariana Grande churns out an effortlessly powerful verse. Lana del Rey, in the limelight recently due to a fantastic new album, brings up the rear with a heady, R&B-tinged section.

The stand-out star on this track, though, is not Ariana nor Miley nor Lana – it’s the production. The three ladies’ styles and tones are seamlessly matched, both with each other and against a beat that just slaps. It’s a great track.

1. “The Runner” Foals

Foals have been blessing us time and time again this year. The Oxford four-piece rock outfit released a fantastic fifth studio album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, just months ago (read our review here); and, happily, the second part of the double-album is set to release in October this year. “The Runner” is the first song from the upcoming album – and judging from what we have here, it looks like 2019 is truly Foals’ year.

From the hard-hitting opening riff to lead singer Yannis Philippakis’ ringing vocals, “The Runner” is pure Foals through and through. Like almost all Foals songs, the song is meticulously arranged – each layer of each section seem to be exactly where it needs to be. Philippakis’ wandering, emotive chorus is especially well-placed against solidly-measured drums and guitars.

In our opinion, Foals have been underrated on the global scale their entire career. While they’ve been fairly well-recognized in their native England – thrice-nominated for “Best Album” at the prestigious Mercury Prize awards – it’s a shame that they don’t enjoy the same household-name status everywhere. Hopefully, with the double-wallop of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Foals will make their mark in indelible ink.

Monthly Playlist: Jun. 2019

2 Jul

And just like that, we’re halfway through 2019. So far, the year has given us some great music already. There have been some fantastic albums from well-established bands (Vampire Weekend, Foals) and break-out debuts from true diamonds-in-the-rough (see: slowthai). Read on for our picks this month – spanning old-school indie rock, beautiful folk-pop, and two of the best tracks all year from the Indian subcontinent.

Read on below for the goods:

5. “No Bullets Spent” by Spoon

As our readers know well, we at Top Five Records are huge fans of Austin-based indie rock veterans Spoon. Their 2017 album, Hot Thoughts, made it onto our year-end list that year, and “No Bullets Spent” perfectly espouses all we love about this band. In spades are the laid-back vibes undeniably sourced from their hometown of Austin, TX; lead singer Britt Daniel’s lackadaisical lyrics; the unmistakably subtle-yet-groovy Spoon chorus; and so much more. “No Bullets Spent” was released to hype up the release of the band’s greatest hits album (Everything Hits at Once) on July 26th. Whether you’re already a Spoon fan or not, we encourage you to check out this track, and of course the greatest-hits compilation when it’s out.

4. “Love Yourself” by Sufjan Stevens

Love Yourself” is an electronic-tinged slowjam that works in two ways: one, as a plea to your lover to appreciate themselves more (“Love, can you love yourself”); two, as a note-to-self with the same message. Either way, it’s a gorgeous, lushly-produced song that perfectly features Sufjan’s emotive pipes. Sufjan Stevens has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, in part due to the vital inclusion of a couple of his songs on Call Me By Your Name, 2017’s sleeper art film hit. With “Love Yourself” – released as part of a four-song Pride Month EP – Sufjan fans both new and old are likely to be more than satisfied. We sure are!

3. “My Baby’s Beak” by the F16s

In the early part of this decade, something magical was happening in Chennai’s indie music scene. There were suddenly a swathe of very good, very unique and very closely-knit artists coming out of the southern port city. Everyone seemed to know each other. Everyone wanted everyone else to succeed. Everyone came out to each other’s shows. Was there something in the Chennai water?

Over the years, we’ve spoken to and closely covered several of these bands, and what we’ve gleaned is the following. The city’s strong musical streak, combined with the centering of the Indian indie music away from Chennai to other metros (Mumbai, Bangalore) and the piteous lack of venues in town, meant that Chennai’s independent musicians had a truly DIY approach to their craft. People practiced in home spaces. Bands shared band members. And there was a strong support system that helped bands thrive and maintain their wholly unique sounds.

One of these bands is the F16s. For many of us at Top Five Records, songs like “Light Bulbs” and “Avalanche” (from 2013’s Kaleidoscope) exemplified the careful balance between restraint and decadence of our millennial existences back in the day. The band’s follow-up album, 2016’s Triggerpunkte, had a few stand-out tracks, but it felt like a stepping stone to the F16s’ next great output: and WKND FRNDS is it.

All four of the songs on this crisp new EP are great, but “My Baby’s Beak” really clicked with us. We can best describe the song as the soundtrack one might choose while writing desperate love letters, from a tropical island, pina colada in hand – in the 1980s. “Oh mama, can you tell me if I made it / My ego gets inflated with you,” croons lead singer Josh Fernandes, complementing the luxurious sounds from the rest of the band. The song’s a true treat for fans eagerly awaiting new F16s music, and for new listeners alike. P.S. If you liked this one, we’ll also take this time to recommend the EP’s eponymous track as a follow-up.

2. “Speedway” by black midi

The four young members of black midi met at BRIT School, the UK’s premier music school that has produced legends such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. Centered somewhere between the Foals’ math-rock and Animal Collective’s asymmetric ethos, black midi enthralls with a ridiculously ready-out-of-the-gate sound. Our favorite track off their debut album Schlagenheim is “Speedway” – a pulsing, hypnotic song filled with feverish stops and starts. Slightly nerve-wracking and more than slightly ominous, “Speedway” is testament to what the lads can pull off in a mere three minutes. If you like this song, check out “953” from the same album for some bewilderingly good punk rock.

1. “Floated By” by Peter Cat Recording Co

There is no other way to say this: Peter Cat Recording Co is one of the best bands to ever come out of the Indian subcontinent. With meticulous detailing and inimitable style, the Delhi-based gypsy / jazz band has long excited us here at Top Five Records. The band’s new album, Bismillah, dropped earlier this month, and suffice it to say, we cannot get enough of it.

Bismillah’s stand-out, in our opinion, is “Floated By”; a song so good that we wrote the rest of this list with it in a firm #1. “Floated By” finds the band in their element – a melancholic wedding band letting loose after a drink too many in hand and an hour too long on stage. (The twist here, as seen in the song’s music video, is that the wedding in question is lead singer Suryakant Sawhney’s own, real nuptials.)

As with most Peter Cat songs, the real star of the song is Sawhney’s powerful voice. In between the wedding-procession drums and slightly off-kilter horns, his voice rings out: true, wistful and imbued with astonishing range. A simple line (“I know that I should / I know that I would”) takes him ages to enunciate, as his voice floats across the vocal spectrum.

Simply put, “Floated By” is one of the best songs we’ve heard all year. Look for a full review of Bismillah soon – and until then, please give the album a listen.

Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

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.

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 1

10 Jun

It’s 2008. The indie rock world is on a multi-year high – after the Strokes’ game-changing debut in 2001, there is a virtually non-stop stream of buzzy indie rock bands: Franz Ferdinand, the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, the Arctic Monkeys and so on. Many wonder: will there ever be a need for yet another indie rock band?

Through all that noise, Foals managed to prick up the world’s collective ears with their blistering math rock debut album, Antidotes. Math rock – with its frenetic arrangements and asymmetrical time signatures – had of course been around for a couple of decades (see: Slint, Polvo), but Foals served to bring it to the forefront of the ’00s resurgent indie rock scene.

Over the years, Foals released three more albums; but for many fans from the original Antidotes era, the band has strayed from its trademark sound into a slightly different tone. “Spanish Sahara” from 2009’s Total Life Forever featured on that era’s edgy prestige TV shows (Skins, Entourage). “Mountain at My Gates” from 2015’s What Went Down starred on the FIFA 2016 soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with these things, of course; but the new material didn’t capture your undivided attention in the first two seconds – as did, say, Antidotes’ “Balloons” or “Red Socks Pugie”.

The fifth album, 2019’s Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1, changes that trajectory. Here, the band seems to have finally figured out how to piece together the irrepressible energy of the first album – jagged riffs and sing-shouted lyrics – with the more mainstream, polished feel of the latter albums.

There are several stand-outs on this album. We already wrote about “Exits” – a slithering majesty of a track that moves seamlessly from the dramatic to the psychedelic over the course of a showstopping six minutes. (Do also check out the music video, featuring Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright.) Another must-listen is “Café D’Athens” – a fascinating juxtaposition of aloof vocals layered over nerve-wracking, tinny beats; think Radiohead meets Hercules & Love Affair.

What we really love about Foals is their ability to conjure up abstract feelings within decidedly non-abstract music. “White Onions” summons a claustrophobic feel with its repetitive riffs and non-stop drums; aptly, the lyrics reference lairs, mazes, cages, and fighting for air. “Syrups” is sexier: a thick bassline leads into heady guitars and steady drums, eliciting perhaps a mysterious road-trip into the clear night sky (“’Cause I’m about to take flight / Please don’t ask me why,” chime in the prescient lyrics).

This is the reason that Foals are featured on so many soundtracks: they are exceptionally gifted at pinning down moods and feelings within the confines of their spindly guitars and relentless beats. The band’s first four outings tended to focus on one part of that two-part puzzle: either the feelings or the music.

With Everything, the band has finally put it together. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1 is one of the best albums of 2019 – and, as luck would have it, we are still due for Pt. 2. We can’t wait.

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