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In The Studio: Blackstratblues

Guitarist Warren Mendonsa looks to his hometown, Mumbai, for inspiration on the third Blackstratblues album

Lalitha Suhasini Jul 10, 2012
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Warren Mendonsa Photo: Sukrit Nagraj

When guitarist Warren Mendonsa, formerly of Mumbai rock band Zero (that now reunites annually for a series of gigs), decided to migrate to New Zealand in 2004, and returned with a new solo project named Blackstratblues, Indian music audiences had reason to cheer. Mendonsa is one of the few instrumentalists who can hold an audience with just the black Strat doing all the singing.

Two albums on, (Nights in Shining Karma that released in 2007 and The New Album that released in 2009), Mendonsa has been in India since 2010 and gigging with both albums. We last saw Mendonsa perform an entire Blackstratblues set with Hindi film composer Loy Mendonsa [yes, they’re related –Warren is Loy’s nephew] on bass. The 32-year-old guitarist updates us that he’s also been taking jazz lessons from Loy.

Currently in the studio to work on his third album, Mendonsa discusses turning producer, putting together a new line-up to support Blackstratblues and returning home, in an interview with ROLLING STONE India.

Tell us about the ideas that drive your third album?

Drummer Jai Row Kavi in the studio with Mendonsa Photo: Roycin D’Souza

I’ve been largely based in Bombay for the last couple of years, so it’s been great reconnecting with the city I grew up in. The music is always influenced by my surroundings, so most of the songs have a flavor that only this crazy city can impart. Some of songs were written in New Zealand just before I moved back, so they have a best-of-both-worlds feeling to them.

Most of the songs are being tracked without a click track, so as to retain a live, improvisatory feel to the basic rhythm tracks. Most of my favorite music speeds up and slows down, just like a human heartbeat or breathing rhythm.

I’m really excited to have Jai Row Kavi and Karsh Kale on drums – two of the best drummers I’ve had the pleasure of playing with. I recently met Adi Mistry (Bass) while playing with Ehsaan & Loy on Coke Studio [email protected] We’ve been jamming a lot over the last month and I’ve found a kindred spirit in Mistry. I always love hearing what other musicians have to contribute to my music and these gentlemen have really added something special to the music. I’ll have Nikhil D’Souza singing on a song or two, and maybe a couple more singers for vocal texture like I had on The New Album.

You’ve also produced Nikhil’s yet-to-be-released album. How did you get so busy with producing for all these artists?

Singer Nikhil D’Souza Photo: Roycin D’Souza

It all just happened. Nikhil (D’Souza) came home with Gaurav (Gupta, guitarist with Ankur Tewari & The Ghalat Family) and liked the sound of some of my other albums. Sidd Coutto (ex Zero and Tough on Tobacco frontman) and Johan (Pais, Tough on Tobacco bassist) have had gigs with Ankur, and I’ve mixed his tracks for Ankur’s shows previously, before I started recording with him. Sidd was also playing with Vir Das at Blue Frog at one of those Weird Ass events last year. My Hindi’s not the best and some jokes went over my head, but I remember watching him and thinking he was hilarious.

I remember when Sidd and I were at Zero practice sessions, we’d go off on these tangents where we take the piss out of each other. We wanted to do a comedy rock band someday. I remember watching the gig and telling Vir that I loved it. I even told them that they ever needed a bass player, I’d step in. He’s got great timing, so even when he’s on the guitar, he’s totally on the groove and that makes it easy for Sidd. They [Alien Chutney, Vir Das’s band] asked me whether I wanted to play guitar on a live recording. So I went in for a couple of rehearsals and suggested they do a multi-track recording and offered to mix it for them.

That’s tall praise for Vir. Which of his jokes stayed with you?

I know the jokes a bit too well now considering I worked on the album. But his “Delhi Girls vs Mumbai Girls” cracked me up. Musically, it’s just another excuse for me to play rock n roll. Vir’s a really nice guy; really easy to work with, no ego hassles.

How are the recording sessions shaping up?

I mainly want the vibe of the performance, so I make sure I catch a couple of gigs. Also when I’m recording, I’ve have to make sure that the artist is in a comfortable place so they can perform well. Even the sound that they hear on the headphones is important because that affects the performance.

These days, I don’t really like a pristine sound with everything in place. You don’t have to have the perfect drum sound as long as there’s a lot of character. It’s like a Persian carpet, in that you can really sense its beauty and how intricate it is when you look at it from afar. When I first started out with Zero, I was the perfectionist. Every little bit was stitched in place and perfectly timed. But I guess as you grow older you realize that if you have a good song and good musicians playing it, then you don’t change it much as a producer, but just make sure it’s aesthetically fine. I don’t like the sound totally raw and unprocessed either. There needs to be a certain amount of treatment and balance.

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Did an album that you’ve heard influence this change?

It was a gradual thing. While I was in Zero, I freaked out on Extreme’s Waiting For The Punchline. That album came out when grunge had just hit. It’s a raw recording of a band playing in a room with no trickery. That was a focal point where I felt you could also do that.

What’s it like being a producer?

I’ve always had fun in the studio. It’s like a big party unless we’re doing language dubs [laughs]. As kids, Sidd and I used to record on this small two-in-one stereo deck player. It also had this mic line at the back, like a karaoke mic so you could play a tape, sing along and record. We used to set up drums and bass in the room and record. Then we’d record a guitar part. Then, another tape layering stuff. Thankfully, those demos that will never see the light of day.

Mendonsa with Zero

For Zero’s Albummed, my PC used to overheat during recordings. We used to take out the fan and the heat sink, leave it in the freezer, go out and come back to record when they had cooled down. We recorded all the initial bits in my house, and shifted to Sonu’s [Rajeev Talwar, vocalist] house because he had a balcony and we had some acoustic isolation there. And all his vocals are recorded through a chaddi. The mic we used was one that my granddad bought at Lamington Road for Rs 600 and every time Sonu sang anything with the explosives ‘P’ and ‘B’ in them, it popped. So I realised we needed a pop filter. I’d read that a nylon sock on a sewing ring could be used as a wind barrier on the mic. Sonu said, “I don’t have any nylon stockings, so let’s use my chaddi.” [laughs] That album is seriously low-fi.

You’ve also been doing some unusual collaborations at gigs pulling off everything from Portishead to Led Zep. How do you choose the music that you want to collaborate on?

You just wing it – pick a song which doesn’t have too many chord changes. With Saba [Azad, vocalist] we did “Glory Box.” There’s so much we can do with that. Blackstratblues gigs have to have scope for improvisation. If I’m playing the same melody over and over again, I get bored; people are going to get bored. You have to be at that point where you’re just going to veer out of control but can still rein it in. If it’s not on the edge of the cliff, it gets pointless. Also, I only gig when I feel I have something to say. If I’m playing my own music, I need to really be filled up with something.

Yeah, when you play “Misirlou,” it’s a transformation from being a polite Bluesman to this crazy guitarist who’s playing his Strat like he would play the drums

It’s a quirky kind of melody which also sounds ominous at the same time. Dick Dale, whose piece it is, said he had some Lebanese ancestry, which is how it turned out this way. It was my ringtone and at one gig – I realised that when I held the phone to the guitar pick up, the ringtone ran through the amp. So I announced that this was my ringtone and now we’ll play my ringtone. It went off really well. People seemed to like it. So we left it on the set list. It’s a good break. It’s a really quick one.

There’s never an easy answer to this, but how does all the music come together?

You just have to be open. It’ll come to you when you least expect it. I’m just the antennae that the music runs through. Without sounding new age and shit, I feel most musicians have nothing to do with the best ideas. The music doesn’t originate from you unless you’re connected to something. Sometimes, I’m surfing the internet and playing subconsciously. I always wish later I’d recorded it. Which is why Photo Booth is so cool. So now I can also see how I’m playing the piece, so I don’t have to play back just the audio and wonder how I did that.

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Which Indian guitarists do you look up to?

Lezz Lewis from Colonial Cousins is a great guitar player, Mahesh Tinaikar, Ehsaan, Gussy Rikh who used to play with Euphoria, Sumith Ramachandran fromCalcutta. Bruce from Thermal and a Quarter – I never got to see him live until we did that show in BITS Pilani. Nikhil’s an awesome guitar player. Even Sidd Coutto, just in terms of writing a song, is pretty nifty. I believe that a song doesn’t always call for a musical genius on the guitar. You can do magic with three chords. You just have to do it with conviction.

Who has been your biggest non-musical inspiration?

Well, my mum bought me my first Strat. I came back from the guitar shop and told my mum, “Mum, I’ve fallen in love with this Mexican blonde.” She was less shocked when I told her it was this Mexican Fender Strat. It turned out to be my birthday present and I showed off it to everyone on the road.

My first guitar was a Hofner that my parents got me only when I was 18 believe it or not. So before that, I played my dad’s Hobner acoustic. The Hofner looked the part but didn’t have the sound. But it’s something about the shape of the Strat and the sound of course, that had me hooked instantly. The guitar my mum bought me is inAuckland. That’s in unplayable condition. I’ve beaten it to death and back.

Where did you find the black Strat?

It’s the second Strat that I found on Lamington Road in 2004. The shopkeeper didn’t even know there was a Strat inside the hard case. It was the last guitar they had and it had a few blemishes. The shopkeeper quoted an astronomical price. I told him I have only this much in the bank. I’ll withdraw it right now and buy it. The only problem was that the guitar was gold in colour. Sidd Coutto instantly ranted, “How can you play a gold guitar?” So I painted it black in Auckland. When I came back, we had a gig the next day ay IIT Delhi. I remember leaving it on stage on top of the amp. The black paint started bubbling and I rushed to rescue it.

Have you picked up other instruments?

I started playing bass first. My dad [Darryl Mendonsa was part of the beat group Savage Encounter] was a bass player. There was a choice of the acoustic guitar and electric bass. When you’re a kid, you’re gonna pick the electric instrument of course, because it’s louder. I always remember going to gigs with my dad and just hearing that low end coming out of his amp made me feel all nice and warm in the gut. Till date, I really love low end sound in the mix. If it’s all screechy and tinny with no warmth, I can’t handle it.

You also played the electric sitar on the second album.

That came from recording an album for Lorina Harding, who’s an amazing vocalist based inNew Zealand. She wanted the electric sitar on her album and I thought she was nuts. She reassured me that it would work. She told me, “Do not play anything that you hear on a Beatles album.” I felt all the parameters that I would default to were lost to me. But it sounded right.

It’s actually six-stringed like a guitar with some resonant strings almost stuck to the string seat. It’s quite a cheap imitation of a sitar actually because the sitar is a gorgeous-sounding instrument. You have to treat the electric sitar’s sound and add some ambience, resonance and richness to it. I did The New Album just after we did Lorina’s album so I was really pumped about it.

Your site, at one point, said that the albums cost about $5 or more. Have you made any money off them?

Yeah, Bandcamp where I uploaded the albums has just decided to shift the paid module, so they can make some money. They were free downloads till recently. Someone uploaded Newness on a site called Radioparadise and I just got a huge amount of people buying the album. I just want people to listen to the albums. Blackstratblues is only my release and therapy, not the main focus. There’s enough commercial sessions work when I come toIndia. Blackstratblues is to stay sane.

Watch Warren Mendonsa recording his new album here

Warren Mendonsa performs with Vir Das’s band Alien Chutney on July 12th, 9pm onwards, at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Entry: Rs 300 (6.30pm onwards)

Blackstratblues performs on July 18th, 9 pm onwards, at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Entry: Rs 300 (6.30pm onwards)

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