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How Karnivool Conquered India

The Australian prog rock band’s lead vocalist Ian Kenny on their rise to fame in India and their second innings with two concerts in the country

Bobin James Oct 31, 2012
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Photo: Bobin James/Khachaak.com

Last October, when the organizers of IIT-Bombay’s annual festival Mood Indigo announced that the headliners for their December 2011 edition were to be Australian prog-rockers Karnivool, I was just a bit surprised. After all, previous editions of the festival had featured names like Porcupine Tree, Ensiferum and Katatonia. And Karnivool – atleast in my head – wasn’t as popular as these other bands in India. There was no doubt that Karnivool was one of the best bands out there, but I just didn’t know if they would have enough fans out here.

But, was I wrong or was I wrong!

When Karnivool took stage in the amphitheater on the IIT-Bombay campus on December 18, 2011, they were accorded a reception not too many people would have expected. No sooner had the opening buzz-saw riffs of “Goliath” (from 2009’s Sound Awake) kicked in than the nearly 10,000-strong crowd erupted. It was apparent that this audience knew – really knew – Karnivool. “We didn’t know what to expect,” singer Ian Kenny tells me over a phone call from Australia. “We certainly didn’t expect about 9,000 people at the IIT. That was a pretty big crowd and an amazing atmosphere.”

What also made the evening more memorable – and proved me more wrong – was the fact that this crowd was singing along to Karnivool’s songs. “It was crazy that people were very aware of what our material was like. And a lot of people knew the songs and knew the lyrics to our songs,” says Kenny.

Karnivool has just announced two more dates in India – November 4 at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune, and November 7 in Mumbai as part of Oz Fest, an Australian cultural festival (not to be confused with Ozzfest, Ozzy Osbourne’s now-defunct metal festival). There is buzz about a possible third gig, but as of going to print, this has not been confirmed.  

Kenny says that interest from India in the band really started about four years ago. “We started hearing from fans in India, online. That’s when we noticed that people in certain parts of India were listening to Karnivool and interested in Karnivool. And so as soon as we found a way to make it work, to get over to play in India, we took the first opportunity.”

Considering Karnivool’s albums were not, until recently, available on shelves here in India, this interest in the band might strike some as slightly surprising. But for those familiar with the rise of bands like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree and Pain of Salvation in India would know the roadmap well enough. All these bands were not seen inside Planet-Ms, Crosswords or Landmarks until after they became popular here. The route into listeners’ heads was simple. It was the good old bootlegger at work again. CDs or DVDs full of music downloaded from file sharing sites would be passed on from room to hostel-room, with the contents getting copied onto computer hard-drives at every stop, only to spawn more copies. The CDs and DVDs have since been replaced by pen-drives and hard-disks, and as illegal as piracy is, it is piracy that is – to a large extent – responsible for the rise of Karnivool, too, in India.

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Karnivool’s story goes back the late Nineties in Perth, Australia. In 1997, Kenny started a high-school band, with Brett McKenzie and Andrew Brown – guitarist Andrew “Drew” Goddard would join in soon enough. The band would primarily play cover songs of groups like Carcass and Nirvana, with a smattering of originals. In 1999, this line-up released their first EP, Karnivool. This 4-song EP went under the radar, though. After a few more line-up changes and another EP, Persona, in 2001, Karnivool settled down into their present line-up of Kenny on vocals, Andrew Goddard and Mark Hosking on guitars, Jon Stockman on bass and Steven Judd on drums. “As we were kind of working out our new sound, we had to take on new players to bring it to life and make those changes,” says Kenny.

It was really their 2005 full-length album Themata that brought them into the spotlight they deserved. Odd-time signatures,  buzzing riffs and jagged guitar lines, soaring and harmonized vocals, cerebral writing – it all made for some fantastic progressive rock/metal. It also brought an inevitable comparison to American prog veterans Tool. But if you were to listen to Karnivool carefully enough, you would hear a sound that is entirely theirs. Ask Kenny how he would classify their music and he’s quick to respond, “I think Karnivool plays a type of alternative rock with a sort of progressive background.” He also lets in on what makes Karnivool’s music so incredibly catchy. “The one thing that is attractive about our sound is the fact that we do pay attention to melody and how important melodic movement is within the piece of music. We also try and pay attention to how things feel and how things groove. And if you can combine a feel and a mood with the other complementing melody across the piece of music, then that’s what’s we try to do,” he says.

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At the same time, he admits that pigeonholing their sound is not the easiest task. “We don’t sound like a rock band, we don’t sound like a pop band. But we try to have a progressive alternative kind of rock thing.”

Themata was followed up in 2009 with Sound Awake, another slab of progressive rock and metal, this time with a lot more textural layers to it than the previous album and EPs. This album, written together by the entire band – as opposed to Goddard writing Themata almost all by himself – also featured unusually lengthy tracks like “New Day” and “Deadman” clocking in at 8:21 and 12:04 respectively. Bolstered by these and songs like “Simple Boy”, “Set Fire to the Hive” and “All I Know,” Sound Awake would become a critics’ favorite that year. International tours soon followed.

Ask Kenny if they imagined when they started off that they would be doing this as a career and touring the world with the band a decade later, and he say in a genuinely non-cocky manner, “Well, I guess we did. We sort of never thought of NOT playing music. We always knew that we would always play music. So yeah, we decided a long time ago that we wanted to play music as a career.”

“It’s hard to start something… I mean to get a band up to a national level where you are selling records and where you are touring the country. And you have an established fanbase. Hence, there is a lot of work you really have to commit. You have to really take on music full time as much as you can, because it takes many many tours and many many shows to create a fanbase. Once you have a fanbase then you can start to work that and tour a lot more and release records and if you start to sell, you have an audience. And from there you can grow it,” he says. 

(The full story is out in the November 2012 of ROLLING STONE India.)

(Karnivool will perform in India at the Bacardi NH7 Festival on November 3rd at Amanora Park, Pune and as part of Oz Fest on November 7th at Hard Rock Cafe, Mumbai.)

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