Friday, January 06, 2006

Thermal and a Quarter - Part 1

The first time I heard Thermal and a Quarter was a report on NPR. The sound was fresh and exhilarating. I knew this was a band I wanted to feature. What followed was a write-up back in February, 2005. At the time, I proclaimed that this was a band who would give Phish a run for their money. I still believe it.

I recently had a chance to exchange emails with four members of the band. They are: Sunil Chandy (guitar and keyboards), Bruce Lee Mani (vocals, guitar), Rzhude (vocals, bass) and Rajeev Rajagopal (drums). Until recently, the group was a five piece, but Rajesh Mehar is no longer with the group.

Tell me about the music scene in India. Many people know raga, but what else should we know about?

They should know that India is about as diverse and vibrant a musical spectrum as it can get. Apart from a couple of thousand years of musical evolution, you can experience the very latest music in the world here as well (read A.R. Rehman for one). The land itself, though divided by arbitrary boundaries into states and towns, has cultural and musical borders that have amalgamated over time. There are traditional musical systems like Carnatic (from the south of India) and Hindustani (from northern India), which have rigid rules that define the music. At the same time you have folk music, which has tribal roots and can be traced back to primitive times. In today's music you can experience all of it mixed (and re-mixed) with electronic/digital sound-scapes in hi-tech studios (or in home studios) to create something totally new.

You can devote a lifetime to any aspect of Indian music and still be left wanting.

Bruce Lee Mani:
If you're a musician in India, you could be:

a) An Indian classical musician - Hindustani or Carnatic (as Rzhude explained). A big scene, with a pot-boiling circuit. Some doyens from this arena are quite a trip — T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakaram, (who plays the Ghatam, a South Indian percussion instrument, basically a specially made clay pot) for example, has been known to comfortably play a gig in Chennai at a small festival one night, and play the next with John McLaughlin in New York or wherever;

b) A Western classical musician – playing either with small chamber orchestras at select snooty gigs, or absorbed into the regional language film industry (now known by its once derogatory moniker, Bollywood);

c) A rock musician – growing your hair, looking untidy, and generally quite dispirited at the lack of a real 'scene'. Basically not much money, but lots of spirit. Often make a living doing the day job thing;

d) A jazz musician – not a lot of these around, but a few are really good, really underrated, and largely unheard; or

e) A commercial musician – your jack of all, writing ad jingles, film music, playing sessions, whatever. Good chops, versatile. Often someone who has been part of a, b, c, or d, and has figured how the bread really gets buttered.

Sunil Chandy:
Music in India is a vast subject – it’s similar to asking about music in Europe. The biggest music industry in India is, of course, the film music industry. That dwarfs almost everything other than the two main streams of classical music in India. There are countless types of folk music and urban music as well but they are untapped in their potential.

Rajeev Rajagopal:
As Rzhude said, you could actually spend an entire lifetime in India trying to experience all the forms of music from each region. Every state has its own style of music, which has been around for hundreds of years.

For example in Kerala, the southern Indian state where I come from, a separate caste of people called the Marars specialize in playing temple drums. It’s a Hindu family tradition and only people from this caste are allowed to play during the daily temple pujas, or worship rituals.

A lot of these traditional forms of Indian music are fading away for various reasons. Even in rural India, it's likely that you will hear more Bollywood music than the traditional music of that place.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being from a country that doesn't traditionally dominate the music charts outside its own territory?

Sunil Chandy:
The advantage and disadvantage is that we're a fresh unknown quantity...

Bruce Lee Mani:
I can only speak from the rock musician angle here. Even if you make music that is distinctly Indian in flavor, context, etc., but sing in English, you're mostly perceived as 'aping the West.' And the West, when it wants musicians from here, mostly looks for ones that are 'culturally unique' – your type "A" musician. The pluses? I guess you have more time to hone your art before it has to be beaten into a mass-global-market shape...

The music charts, as I see it, are just the opinion of individuals (record companies and music mags) who define the parameters and use the same to influence others who don't have their own opinion. Indian artists like the singers Lata Mangeshkar and K. J.Yesudas (to name just two) have recorded songs by the thousand, not to mention in different languages. These have been selling by the million both via the record companies that produce them and the unaccounted bootleg market as well. Nobody has bothered to record these numbers on a chart. Given the size of the Asian market it's easy to see why an A. R. Rehman track would sell more in India alone as compared to the rest of the world put together.

Our music as a band is considered niche here — that’s a disadvantage when it comes to trying to sell it to a record label. We are competing directly with the 'hot' Bollywood track (of the week) without the advantage of being in a box office hit movie and the support of exclusive attention of the pop TV channels.

We have to get across that hurdle to get across to the West where the rite of passage for a band is the live pub circuit, moving to the festivals and then hoping to be picked up by an agent to get our foot in the door of a record company and then be left to the mercy of some A&R sort.

The Internet has changed all that. Territories as we knew them ten years back don't exist any more.

Your music is not what one might call “traditional.” Was it hard to find acceptance in your native country?

Sunil Chandy:
Generally, yes. Western music is — or you can say was— populated with bands doing only cover versions. When we first started doing originals, it was a bit odd for our audiences and the commercial market still hasn't come to grips with it. To find acceptance in what is perceived as a 'foreign' art form in a 'foreign' language is near impossible. We write based on our influences, our experiences, and the particular chemistry that the band has. Not because the CIA pays us.

Rajeev Rajagopal:
Being born and brought up in a city like Bangalore, there's not very much about us that is traditional. The way live, work, think and generally are, is not very traditional. We haven’t really played our music to a very traditional regional Indian audience. We've played in cities and towns that have a majority of the audience plugged into the Western music scene.

There was this one time that we played in Cochin at a small local festival called the Tree Festival. We were supporting the cause, which was to protect some large and beautiful rain trees from being cut down by property developers. So the crowd was very native and our music was completely alien to them. But the gig totally rocked like any gig in town — so I guess if the music has some raga and tala (rhythm) and everything is in tune, etc., then you have a pretty good chance of being accepted anywhere.

Bruce Lee Mani:
Finding acceptance as a 'musician' per se is, I guess, the same anywhere. For our music? It isn't really difficult to find an audience for 'covers' – basically your ‘greatest hits’ kind of band. What is difficult is building a fan base for your own music without support from the industry. This mostly means playing hundreds of gigs, till your audience knows and learns your music, if it's good enough. It's taken TAAQ nine years to have the front rows sing every song.

The fact that we speak and think in English and play the kind of music we do suggests some kind of cross-border evolution that we haven't accounted for. We find acceptance on a day-to-day basis with every gig we play. We define success by that yardstick. 'Traditional' music itself is struggling to keep its place here, which has been taken over large scale by the pop scene.

Has the political situation in India, especially any conflicts with Pakistan, had any effect on your music or the music of India in general?

Sunil Chandy:
I don't think so. The conflict with Pakistan is a complex matrix, a legacy of a callous pre-1947 British administration, and naive, selfish politicians both sides of the border. To write music on that, we would either have to be directly involved or have family who are directly involved. We don't have either and geographically too, we are removed by over a thousand miles. Pakistanis and Indians are equal humans and to say anything else is bigotry.

Bruce Lee Mani:
Politics in India is quite the grand soap opera in itself, and I'm sure many songs have been inspired by the antics of our leaders. (TAAQ's "Humpty Dumpty," from our first album, is dedicated to the portly Ms. J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of our neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, a former actress, owner of a thousand shoes, thrower of 100-million-rupee parties…).

The music of India in general – well, you will find the occasional breast-beating 'patriotic' Bollywood film, dramatizing conflict with our hostile neighbors, with songs to match. Anti-war songs from the rock quadrant are few.

In the last few years we have seen some of the bigger 'acts' like Junoon from Pakistan and Euphoria from India do these Indo-Pakistan integration songs and concerts that have been in the media. But apart from the mileage they got from being in the media glare of those events there hasn't been much to talk about in terms of what the music really meant to us as Indians (I speak for myself!).

That apart, Bollywood music and the stars that act in the movies have more clout than all the politicians put together — since the movies (and the music thereof) integrate the people of both regions like nothing else.

We as a band haven't consciously written music to promote or provoke the nationalist spirit (or lack of it!) or even use the idea to draw media attention. Down here in Bangalore we seem quite far removed from what’s happening on the Line-of-Control and Kashmir. Personally the topic hasn't inspired any music in me thus far.


It was not long after this interview that the earthquake in India, and surrounding nations, occurred. I had emailed a second set of questions, but have not heard back. I am hoping and praying that all is well with the four members of Thermal and a Quarter and their families.


Anonymous Bijoy said...

Thanks for your concern, Sal. We are all right. And thanks again for publishing the interview. Second set in your mailbox as I write.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous SloganMurugan said...

I was lucky to see TAAQ in the late 90s when they were still a college band. They had the courage to play their own tunes when every other band was playing "headbang-alore" cover versions. Good to see them go places with their music.

If you want to know what Carnatic Classical Music would sound like when it is fused with Jazz and Pop, check this amazing voice: Susheela Raman at

5:41 AM  
Blogger halfbraindead said...

Huge TAAQ fan here...Nice interview...Bruce and Chandy are exceptional..Looking foward to seeing taaq at their next gig in Bangalore.


10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allll riiiiiiiiiight! TAAQ!

"All the stage is a world..."

- "Blum" from Buffalo

11:15 AM  
Blogger Ga-Joob said...

Another huuuuge TAAQ fan here...

Thanks for this lovely interview... will try to post this link around....
Here, in Bangalore,we're desperately hoping for the music scene to change. Waiting for that day when most of the "junta" appreciate a band for their original music, and not their ability to cover.

Go TAAQ!!!!!!

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anushya said...

hey..big TAAQ fan here too!
i especially agree with bruce about the whole "aping the west" notion everybody has. i dont understand it. ive heard some of my friends comment after theyv heard an indian band saying "but they sound very indian"..what else are they supposed to sound?? Tunisian?? bah! anyway i like bands that keep it real. and TAAQ is one of them. love you TAAQ!! you guys are an inspiration (and this comes from the bottom of my heart)..
tis all

10:06 PM  

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