John Leckie gives young Indian rock groups a push with Soundpad
A top English producer aims to bring Indian rock to the world — defying the terrorists
A young Indian rock group, Medusa, celebrate the end of a recording session for a unique musical project organised by the British Council, called Soundpad. Over three weeks, four talented bands — chosen from auditions by the super-producer John Leckie — have been playing their hearts out in the studio for an album that will be released in the UK and in India this May.
With a tour of the Barfly venues in Britain to coincide with the record and a slot at the Great Escape festival, it is hoped that this project will shine a light on India’s growing alternative rock scene, giving these bands a chance to be heard internationally. In this sense, Leo’s is the perfect place to celebrate Soundpad.
A shabby, buzzy nightspot, Leo’s is packed to the rafters with, well, everyone. With tourists who’ve read about the café in the bestselling novel Shantaram, with businessmen unwinding,and cool kids like Medusa — who, at this moment, are midway through their second yard of beer, explaining how cosmopolitan Mumbai has become. “And this project,” says Raxit, the singer, “it gives us a chance to work with people you wouldn’t ever work with here.”
A month later, two gunmen — the same age as Medusa — opened fire in the Leopold Café, killing ten people. The series of synchronised attacks that took place in Mumbai in November targeted financial trading sites (the city’s big hotels have become international business hubs), but also places of cultural trade. “It feels like an attempt to stop the progressive outlook that we’re trying to achieve,” says Tasneem Vahanvaty a Mumbai-based project manager with the British Council, and this, she says, makes Soundpad’s success even more important.
Leckie, who has worked with Radiohead, George Harrison and Pink Floyd, agrees. “The project represents the youth of India,” he says, “and in a kind of perverse way, I’d like to think that what’s happened is going to draw attention to Soundpad, and to where they are coming from.”
In October, weeks before the attacks, The Times joined Leckie and the bands in Mumbai; to witness the artists at work, and discover something about Indian youth culture.
Sitting on Bhandra seafront at midnight, Leckie and his co-producer Dan Austin have just finished today’s studio session. Exhausted from the day’s work, Leckie explains how the project began. “I wanted to find rock music that felt distinctly Indian,” he says, “that I could take back to the UK and take back a flavour of India with the music.” So, early last year, the British Council started talking to its music contacts — movers and shakers with grassroots knowledge of India’s rock scene, such as the indie label Counter Culture. The plan was to find bands with limited experience but a lot of potential, and get them to audition for Leckie.
The auditions did not go quite as planned, however. Of the 40 or so bands who played, most were either screechy metal groups, immaculately groomed Bollywood boybands (complete with dance routines), or ploddy pub-rockers; “I felt guilty about not choosing them, because I felt that was patronising,” Leckie sighs, “because they were trying their hardest to be un-Indian.”
Venues — or rather, the lack of them — is a huge problem for local rock bands. Mumbai has a population of 18 million — and a handful of live music venues. This is one of them. “People like us don’t go to places like this,” says Sanchal. “When people ask what can we do to improve the gig scene, I say make the beer fifty bucks [rupees] and people will come.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of music but there’s just no culture as such happening.” Leckie agrees. “What the cities are crying out for is free clubs — not upmarket yuppie places. Because rock’n’roll is about dirty, sweaty cellars. That’s where it comes from.”
It is thanks to the internet that musicians connect and why Medusa — who work in the day as Bollywood bloggers — are into obscure bands such as Squarepusher. And thanks to laptops and their own curiosity, that Medusa got into electronica and what Raxit refers to dreamily as “beautiful little sounds”.
But what about going out, getting drunk — all those things that British kids take for granted, and that it’s assumed, are key in making music? House parties are not an option for socialising, says Raxit. “You can’t do it, because you’re living at your parents’ house,” he shrugs. “There are some stupid laws here. You can’t have a house party with drinks, you can’t do a live gig in the open unless it’s some really clichéd, acceptable form of making noise.” “Whatever you’re doing,” says the drummer Vinayek, “drinking, partying — you need permission to do it.”
All the same, Medusa know how to have a good time. The band begin an alternative guided tour of Mumbai at a guitar shop called Musician’s Mall, where the shelves heave with harmoniums, serangis and tablas, as well as standard rock kit. Pretty soon, everyone (including staff) is strumming along to the band’s version of the Gorillaz song Feel Good Inc. The boys stop in at an all-night ice-cream parlour, sing songs on the seafront — and then, of course, there’s the Leopold Café. Tonight, it’s humming with life. Just as it would be a month later on November 26.
How badly the terrorist attacks may have dented the Soundpad project — and the development of India’s rock scene — is not yet clear. Tasneem Vahanvaty says: “A lot of artists and entrepreneurs are now thinking twice about coming into the city.” And because of global recession, many of this year’s big Indian rock festivals have been postponed after sponsors pulled out. But Medusa agree that if anything, these attacks will provoke young musicians to work even harder at being heard. “Music is a better way to express yourself than attempting to blow up hotels,” says the guitarist Rahul, “so it’s really important for Soundpad to go on.”
Four days after the attacks, the Leopold Café opened its doors again – bullet holes still in the walls. “There’s nothing that’s going to hold us back,” says Vahanvaty. It is very tempting to believe her.
Source : The Times