Chennai-based three-piece Skrat is one of the most original bands in India. Their brand of lager-laden rock ‘n roll riffs have captured the imaginations of thousands of fans across the country. Recently, they debuted their third full-length independent album, The Queen. Singer/guitarist Sriram TT sat down with Top Five Records to talk about formative musical influences, the Skrat crew, a comic book-style universe of Skrat characters, and much more. Read on for an excerpt of the conversation.
Top Five Records: Let’s start from the basics. I’ve seen some interviews and things you’ve done, and I understand that your band name is from Ice Age. But beyond the name, how did you guys meet?
Sriram: The band formed around the time we were all getting into college. Tapass and I have been friends since kindergarten. I’d met Satish through school cultural fests and common friends, so I’d already known him for a few years. It all came together.
TFR: There’s a lot of varied influences I can see in your music. What did you grow up listening to?
S: Actually, my house was always filled with country music and old swing jazz, the Rat Pack and Davis and stuff like that. My dad’s a big audiophile, so all the music I’d listened to at that time was predominantly from my dad. So it was a lot of country, a little bit of blues, and a lot of the Rat Pack kind of music. There was some older R&B as well. My dad really likes to explore and find new music.
TFR: So your parents are cool with you guys having the band and everything?
S: Of course! They love it. My father’s a big fan of music, and my mum likes music as well. In fact, my dad always wanted to be in something like this but never got around to doing it. I wouldn’t say they are the incredibly forward-thinking kind of support that you may expect, but not forbidding [the music] is a big support for me.
TFR: I was at Weekender for the past few years, and your stage presence is just amazing! This time at the NH7 Weekender in Bangalore, Skrat played back-to-back with TAAQ, which I found really interesting because both of you were debuting new albums. Everyone loves your popular songs like “Tin Can Man” and “Samurai Badass”, but how do you get people to move away from that and listen to your newer material?
S: The biggest challenge for most musicians is, once you’ve created something that people like, how can you create something new that people are going to gravitate towards. A while ago, we had a band meeting to decide whether we should make music more like “Tin Can Man”, because people like that sort of thing. At one point, we realized that we’re not trying to make music, we’re trying to engineer it. So we dropped everything and decided to whatever we wanted to do. If people like it, they like it.
And it’s actually been a positive response. All of the reviews say that this album was a lot better. And I do feel that The Queen has caught on a lot faster than the older albums caught on at that time. In fact, we actually get people singing along to and shouting out for newer songs like “Machete” and “Stomp”.
TFR: Yeah, we really loved your album. It’s funny that you mentioned “Machete” and “Stomp”. I wanted to ask you about these two songs (since they don’t even have words in the chorus), and how they relate to your song-writing process in general. Does the riff come first, or do the words come first?
S: “Machete” is based on a big problem we have in Tamil Nadu, and everywhere really: about politicians and goons being the same thing, basically. We’ve always been subjected to torture by these guys, with their white cars and plastic flags – whether it’s something small like creating ruckus on the road, or something big like not letting a business deal go through because they didn’t get their cut. So on “Machete”, the two verses are kind of like a rant against all that, and the chorus is about how there’s nothing to lose when they have nothing to black-mail you with. And that’s why the chorus has no words. (Laughs)
“Stomp” is a similar thing, but more about a person being subjected to this kind of stuff. On this song, the words and riff kind of came to me simultaneously. I had originally made the song on an acoustic guitar. In fact, the reason we called it “Stomp” was because the whole song was supposed to be me on an acoustic guitar and a board; very Delta blues kind of thing. And then we tried it on electric and the whole thing became heavy and fun, so we decided to go with that.
TFR: A song that we mentioned before was “Samurai Badass”, which is probably your most well-known song. I think you guys are into manga and anime, so is it related to that?
S: (Laughs) Yeah, we’re big comic fans. More into cartoons and comic books than anime, but yeah. “Samurai Badass” is basically an alter ego of what we were feeling at the time. It boils down to the same thing that Skrat’s been talking about: the only way one person can be not pushed around is if he has nothing to lose.
I find my writing to be a lot more authentic if I am able to create a character having the qualities I want to sing about, rather than singing about the qualities themselves. Suppose I wanted to say, “A person who has nothing to lose can’t be pushed around”. I could have said these lines in a song, but I thought, why not create a character who has nothing to lose and can’t be pushed around? That was my original intent, when I wrote the song on acoustic guitar. But then Tapass came in and said, “Dude, let’s try this on electric!” and that’s how that happened.
TFR: You seem to have so many acoustic versions of Skrat songs. You should actually do an acoustic show!
S: Actually, all of the Skrat songs, whether you believe it or not, are made on an acoustic guitar! (Laughs) And “Samurai” was supposed to be like an Irish pub song, where you get together with friends and drink beer. It kind of became this heavy punk rock song with the electric.
The cool thing now is these characters that we have been developing. Our first album Design had a character called Gunslinger who we brought back in The Queen. I’ve now started working on an entire character universe, and all the characters on all Skrat songs belong to this universe: Tin Can Man, Samurai Badass, Gunslinger, The Queen, Loverider. It’s basically how I grew up. Wild imagination, imaginary friends, single child, all of that stuff.
TFR: Tell us about the Skrat crew. Who are these people, and how do you get them to follow you around?
S: Anyone who helps Skrat, like photographers and sound engineers, are basically part of the Skrat crew. The concept has really caught on ever since we introduced it in 2013. The crew has taken complete ownership. Now we’re coming out with a short movie, revolving around how the entire Skrat crew rode on bikes for our 20-day tour last year.
TFR: Oh, is this the Loverider Experience?
S: Yes, it is. On tour, sometimes I’d wake up in the morning, and these guys would already be in a Skrat meeting. They told me that my job is to write songs, play and do interviews. So they really take ownership. And the Skrat crew has slowly been expanding. It’s 40 to 50 people now! It gives me a little fear because I’m not even paying them, and they are just coming along because they like the music or they’re my friends. On our fourth album, which we’ve already started writing, we’ve put in a song dedicated to the Skrat crew.
TFR: Something we’ve all wondered at Top Five Records is about how Chennai is able to produce so many unique, well-formed bands: Skrat, the Shakey Rays, the F16s, Adam and the Fish-Eyed Poets. Is there something in the water there?
S: I think it’s because we’re slightly remote from any scene. Bombay has its scene, Bangalore has its scene, and you’ve got the scene people. We’ve had no “right way” to do it. We could do whatever we wanted because it was music in the end. It’s not like that in a lot of scenes. You know all those arguments saying, if you don’t like Pink Floyd, then how can you like RATM? So I’m one of those guys who says, I’m a big fan of Limp Bizkit but I don’t really like David Bowie, and people just lose their shit! “How can you say that? You have no taste in art!” and all that.
Another reason is that we’ve all kind of grown up together in Chennai, musically and otherwise. And of course, the fact that it’s Chennai adds a little bit of mystery. So we don’t really have a scene, and we just go off to Bangalore or Bombay to do shows.
TFR: There’s not many venues in Chennai, either.
S: Nothing, absolutely nothing, which is why there’s no scene. But, there’s always a flip-side to it. Chennai has no scene but it has a lot of good bands coming up.
TFR: You mentioned that things in the industry are geared towards more established cities like Bombay and Bangalore. Was it tough to break into the music scene as a Chennai band?
S: Very. Everyone knows Skrat as a band from 2012, but we’ve been a band from 2006. The first six years were just hell. During 2009 to 2010, we had about 20 shows that were cancelled on us in a matter of about 8 months. They’d book us, and then they’d cancel. It was very demotivating, and we’d never get gigs, let alone paid gigs. Even free gigs would get cancelled. Because of all this, a lot of bands contemporary with us broke up.
But Tapass and I had this one thing we’d always say to each other: we’ll play. We’ll play for two people, three people, doesn’t matter. There was no crew or anything at that time, absolutely barebones. We did these things called “sell-outs” where we did RATM covers. Even then, it sucked. Our original guitarist and original vocalist had quit. We ended up as a three-piece, and it really sucked. It was like one of those dreams where you’re running and you can’t run fast enough. It was depressing.
Around that time, we were in a jam session and we were really frustrated. Tapass threw his toms and said, “Fuck it, I don’t want to do it.” I plugged out of my pedal board and went directly into the amp, and we said, “Fuck it, let’s just play something, just for fun.” And in about an hour, we made all of the songs on “In the Shed”. We just jammed, and it suddenly gave us the answer we were looking for.
TFR: Nice. Like true punk in a way.
S: Yeah, or whatever punk means in India, at least. Listen, everybody in India has decent parents and grandmothers. There’s no way you’re punk rock, please. If someone comes up to me and says they’re punk, I’d say, “Fuck you, go home and eat thaiyir sadam.” Punk rock was invented to fight people like Lady Gaga, but in India we don’t have a Lady Gaga, we have Bollywood. Abroad, people may listen to both Lady Gaga as well as punk rock, but here, the people who listen to Bollywood don’t even care about us! That’s why I never go out and diss Bollywood. I think what they’re doing is genius, and we should figure out a way to cash in on what they’re doing.
TFR: Very true. So for this last part, I have a few rapid fire questions to ask you. First one. Who’s one artist in India that you really click with?
S: I would have to say the F16s.
TFR: Favorite venue, and why?
S: High Spirits, Pune. Everyone’s there to have a good time. They’re going have a good time whether you’re good or not, and if they think you’re good, they have an even better time. It’s a great vibe, and I love the management there.
TFR: Favorite album of all time?
S: Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water by Limp Bizkit.
TFR: Very left-of-centre. I’m glad you didn’t say Revolver by The Beatles or something.
S: No chance. I’m a Beatles fan, but no, man.
TFR: Last one. What’s on your playlist right now?
S: Dinosaur Pile-up. Got introduced to them in NH7 Weekender. A country artist called Shovels & Rope. And Ty Segal.