“I think the music scene in India right now is wide open. It’s waiting, it’s hungry, it’s looking for the unpredictable.” – Jeet Thayil
He writes poems and plays. He writes novels and operas. He’s a songwriter and guitar player. He’s one half of the lyrical pop-duo Sridhar/Thayil, an act that’s pushing the envelope in Indian indie music with their unique brand of what he calls “twisted pop”. Welcome to the wonderfully diverse artistic universe of Jeet Thayil.
We caught him on the phone not long after he moved to Delhi from Mumbai and spoke to him about being a “librettist”, about infusing theatre into music and how “allowing a little bit of chaos into the mix” has changed his life as a guitar player.
For starters, tell us about all of your various creative avatars.
I’m a writer and a musician. As a musician I’m part of Sridhar/Thayil. I’ve published four books of poems and I’ve edited a couple of anthologies. I’m also a novelist and my first novel is out in November. I’m also a librettist, I write librettos for operas. I came up with an opera idea that I’m working on with a composer in Zurich for the Opera Group in London. It’s called Babur in London and the whole thing is centred around the ghost of Babur returning to modern-day London and the various types of mayhem that ensue.
So you’re a poet and a writer. How did you decide to add guitar to your mix?
Guitar was always in the mix. I started playing guitar the same age I started writing, which was at the age 14. I’ve had hundreds of bands that I’ve been in, in Bombay, Hong Kong, New York, Bangalore, and Delhi, but Sridhar/Thayil is the first band that’s taken off in any real way. I’ve actually been playing guitar for more than 30 years.
How did Sridhar/Thayil come together?
Well, I moved to Bangalore in early 2007 and I met Suman [Sridhar, vocalist with Sridhar/Thayil] later that year. Within a week we’d already started writing the songs that we perform now. You know, it’s a very unique thing because Suman sings opera, Hindustani classical and jazz, she has almost no background in contemporary music or rock or any of those things. She comes from the great jazz singers, from Western classical music and opera. I come from exactly the opposite. I’ve played in rock bands and played the blues my whole life. I write songs but the songs are a strange kind of, what I call, “twisted pop”. I also do spoken word, so when you put those two people into one pot, some pretty unexpected, unpredictable things are bound to occur.
As a guitarist, as someone who’s played guitar for 30 years, what would you say is your playing style?
Well my style is very bluesy, but with Sridhar/Thayil, I have to be far more versatile, because I’m the only guitar player in the band. Generally, we’re a three-piece band with some programming, so with some of the tracks there’s no way I can get away with playing rock or the blues. For example, there’s a track called “Punk Bhajan” where I play a style that I’d never play in any other band. It sounds like an Indian instrument, there’s no sustain, there’s no distortion, there’s no wah-wah. It’s flat, it’s a major chord and it sounds like an Indian stringed instrument. On that track, I could easily do a wailing rock or blues solo but it just wouldn’t fit the song. Because of the kind of music we do I try to vary my sound for the Sridhar/Thayil project.
For a long time, the Indian indie scene has veered towards a mainstream rock sound – whether it’s classic rock, alternative or heavy metal. Suddenly you guys came along and turned things around completely with your spoken word songs and opera infusions. Do you think Indian indie audiences are ready for a band like Sridhar/Thayil?
Are you kidding, man? Are you [expletive] kidding me? We played B69 in Mumbai in April and I’ll tell you what that show was like. B69 used to be a massage parlour and it’s the grimiest, most [expletive] venue you’ve ever seen in your life. The audience was full of black Metallica and Megadeth T-shirts. We got up on stage expecting the audience to boo us. There were a couple of dissenting voices for the first couple of songs but by the end of our set everyone was into it. The interesting thing about that night is that there were rockers, there were punkers and then there was us. You can’t describe us in a word; you’d need several to define our music. By the end of it, everyone in that room was into it and I’m pretty sure we’d won them over. I think it was one of our best gigs ever, actually.
You know, I think the music scene in India right now is wide open. It’s waiting, it’s hungry, it’s looking for the unpredictable. You wait, in the next couple of years there are going to be some very interesting bands from towns you haven’t even heard of. Just watch what happens in the next few years, it’s going to explode.
Bluntly put, sometimes your music might go over people’s heads a bit. Just to make things a bit easier, tell us, what should people be listening for in your music?
Oh man, just come and have a great time, that’s what our music is all about. It’s about pure entertainment and what we do is we bring theatre into it. It’s not just the music, Suman definitely brings the theatre to it, and so do I, as much as I can. It’s all about the spectacle, it’s all about getting the audience into it, it’s all about being part of something that’s greater than us.
Lately I’ve stumbled upon a wonderful thing that I can’t believe I missed in all my years of playing. I’ve finally got it and I think it’s changed my life as a guitar player. I no longer try to do a perfect show. When we get on stage I no longer worry about getting every note right, getting the cues right, making sure all the chords are right, making sure everybody’s doing the right thing, none of that. Now, I’m into making mistakes. I’m into allowing a little bit of chaos into the mix. I’ve figured that when I go to a show, that’s what I want to see. I don’t want to see a band doing a song exactly the way it is on the record. What would be the point? I want to see a band having fun, I want to see something chaotic and unexpected that will never happen again.
As a result, both Suman and I have been approaching our last few shows that way. Before, I used to never allow the band to drink before a gig; I used to say keep the partying for after the gig. That’s no longer the case [laughs]. I now think it’s a great thing to have a couple of drinks and then go out there and rip it up! Make some noise, have a party and I think that’s what people enjoy, you know? It’s a party at the end of it, it’s not a record.
You’ve said your music is not just music, but it’s theatre as well. Would you say the lines between music and theatre are blurring as we move forward?
Well, you know, take a heavy metal band like Marilyn Manson. That’s full-on theatre. Even the so-called hardcore heavy metal bands, that’s full-on theatre man! It’s an act they’re putting on and it’s part of the show. In the case of Sridhar/Thayil, Suman is an actress, she’s done theatre. We even wrote and performed an opera together, called Opera Noir. I haven’t been an actor before but I’ve learnt a few tricks over the last couple of years. I think whether a band admits it or not, once they get up on stage, it is an act, it is theatre. The days are long gone when you turn your back to the audience and play 10-minute guitar solos.
Is there a Sridhar/Thayil album coming soon?
Yeah, in fact, we’ve just finished recording the album and we’re about to get it mixed. It’s an amazing album; we have musicians from all over the world on it. We have four bass players on the album, Dr. Das from Asian Dub Foundation is one of them, Dwight Patterson is another. We have a couple of amazing Bollywood musicians on it, one of whom, a trumpet player named Kishore Sodha, played with R.D. Burman. We recorded most of the album at Blue Frog in Bombay; some of it’s been done at home. It’s pretty low-fi, we’re not looking for that slick, over-produced kind of sound. We’re trying to make a different sounding album, let’s see how successful we’ll be.
Who’s on your list of guitar heroes?
I would just name one name. Jimi Hendrix.
Do you have a favourite Gibson guitar?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. If I had my pick, I’d get myself that big black ES-355 that B.B. King plays.
Photo credit: Tejal Shah