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Motherjane: An Indian Tale

How a band from the South injected the East into the West, and then took it places

Bobin James Jul 25, 2009
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I am a sucker for stories. And Motherjane (they prefer spelling it with a lower-case ‘m’) sure has a lot of them. There’s the one about guitarist Deepu Sasidharan walking – and occasionally running – the fifteen-odd kilometres back home every day past midnight from the Kochi, Kerala, hotel he used to play at. Only so that he could save up the money to buy his first guitar unit. “The last bus would be at 9.30, and autos would be too expensive,” says Sasidharan. “And at night, the street dogs get really wild, chasing bikes and people. So I would collect small stones in my pocket to fling at them, and mark out spots on the road that had stones I could pick up the next day,” he says. “A true rock musician,” laughs vocalist Suraj Mani. Then there is the story about how lead guitarist Baiju Dharmajan used to keep his homemade guitar pedal from falling apart using cellotape. “Good equipment was not easy to come by in those days,” says the soft-spoken guitarist. And then there is the story of a young John Thomas seeing a drum kit for the first time in his life. “Pop used to take me to The International Hotel [in Kochi] and 13AD [forerunners in the Eighties rock scene in Kerala] were playing. I was like 5-6, and when I saw this kit, I was awestruck,” says Thomas who started really playing the drums only years later in college.

The story of Motherjane itself begins back in 1996 when Thomas formed the band in 1996 along with bassist Clyde Rozario to stand in for another band that had backed out. “I was the cultural secretary at St Albert’s [college] in Ernakulam and had booked a professional act for a festival. At the last moment, they backed out because there was no cash for a performance – we had only enough to provide them good sound. So I had no other choice but to form a band and play,” reminisces Thomas. This hastily-put-together band lived on beyond the college festival and continued playing covers for the next four odd years, with a revolving door of members, which included at various times names like Deepak Dev, now a music director of some repute in the Malayalam film industry, and vocalist Biju Peter, who went on to join Dreadlocks, a Calicut progressive metal band that rose to prominence in the Nineties. It was when the latter moved out that the band – now a four-piece with Thomas, Rozario, and guitarists Baiju Dharmajan and Mithun R – was left without a vocalist and started playing instrumentals at the Ancient Mariner, a restaurant on Kochi’s Marine Drive.

And the Ancient Mariner is where one of the most important chapters of Motherjane’s story began. Sometime in August 2000, an engineer running an air-conditioning dealership in Kochi stepped in for a cup of tea and to watch this bunch belt out instrumental covers. This engineer, Suraj Mani, had sung occasionally with bands in Bengaluru (from where he had moved in 1997), and in Kochi (where he had met some of the guys from Motherjane earlier). “Then one of my friends said, this guy sings and so I also got on,” as Mani puts it. After about a week, Thomas invited Mani to sing with Motherjane full time, which he did for about a month. (At around the same time, guitarist Rex Vijayan also joined the band.) But it wasn’t quite what Mani wanted to do – learning the lyrics to Metallica, Iron Maiden and Dream Theater songs and doing covers, while juggling a new marriage at home and growing pressures at work. “We had a band meeting and I remember saying, ‘There’s really no point in what we are doing because ten years from now, another bunch of young kids will sing Iron Maiden with more energy than we can. What will be our relevance at that time?’ ” says Mani. “I said, ‘At least, if we are making our own music, then we are not replaceable.’ I was saying that as an exit line.” Little did he expect the band to take up the challenge: Dharmajan said, “Okay, let’s make a song.” And that’s how Motherjane sat down to craft their first original.

I have a dream that consumes me

I bring along a simple question

Can your perception be my reality

And mine become an intrusion?

– ‘Disillusioned’ (Insane Biography, 2002)

“The title came first. I had never written before and I was sitting there, when John comes and says, ‘Why don’t you write a song called ‘Disillusioned’? You look disillusioned, you know…’ ” says Mani of his personal introduction to the world of writing lyrics. And he believes ‘Disillusioned’ came from the personal dreams of each band member, of making music, in the most immediate context. “We realised that we were all singing about the same thing. When I am saying ‘sing,’ I am also talking about playing. So I sang ‘Disillusioned’ the way I felt it, John played the way he felt it, Clyde and Rex, the way they did.” And everyone brought in their personal influences: Thomas his death metal, Mani his classic rock, Dharmajan his progressive and Rozario his country music. “It didn’t matter what the style was. We met thematically. And that provided a good framework [of working] for us,” says Mani, the spokesperson for the band. The guys would come up with a general theme for a song and then jam about on it. “It’s almost like a conversation between friends. Sometimes one guy will talk a lot. Sometimes another guy won’t say much, but when he does want to say something, he will say something very forceful. Other times, another guy goes off on a tangent that is very valid and very relevant. It’s very liberating to make music like that,” he continues.

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Work on the originals continued in the same manner for about six months. Then things took a detour: Mani had to move back to Bengaluru. But this didn’t stop the flow of music, it only changed the style of working a bit. “We had made five songs while I was in Kochi. Then I wrote four more songs and then we would meet at some gig and jam on ideas,” says Mani. “There were instances when I would be driving and an idea would strike me. I would call up Baiju and sing the entire thing to him over the phone because otherwise I would forget it.” This arrangement meant that Mani had the freedom to write lyrics independently. “I have written the third and fourth album already. So maybe, one day, we will do a double album or something,” Mani laughs.

*****

Insane Biography dropped in on the then-underground Indian originals scene in 2002 to receive great acclaim. It wasn’t every day that Indian rock delivered such a well-produced album of originals. I remember getting introduced to this album by an excited friend in the university town of Vadodara, Gujarat, more than 1,700 kilometres away from Kochi, where this music was created. Suddenly, everyone around in the rock-listening fraternity there seemed to be speaking about one band – Motherjane. Nobody knew much about the band, only that it was from “down South”. Copies were made on cassette tapes and compact discs, and circulated. What perhaps struck a chord with these newfound fans was the fact that this was not just another band trying to ape a million other classic rock bands from the West. If you listened carefully enough, behind those walls of distortion and thundering drums, and ensconced among the progressive rock/metal guitarlines, you would hear little flourishes hinting at the direction that the band would be taking soon enough. “Among the last few songs we composed were ‘Maya’ and ‘Soul Corporations’, and you will see the beginning of the Indian elements in those songs. I think that happened because we started getting more comfortable with what we were doing. When you first start composing, you are not really sure what is allowed and what is not allowed. But as we went on, we were more comfortable,” explains Mani. But it was not only in tiny university towns in India that Insane Biography was getting attention: ‘Soul Corporations’ from the album managed to make it onto Geki-Teki Metal, a compilation CD released in Japan in 2004.

The first album, was, in Mani’s words, “a lot about life”. “You know they say that when an author is writing something, the first one is easy, because he writes about his life till then. But what does he do for the second one?” he laughs. The nine tracks brought in a sound unheard from Indian bands, until then, backed by mature songwriting, too.

Mature songwriting as is evident in these lines of inspiration in ‘Walk On’: “I’ll trade all my footsteps for a shot at tomorrow/Tattoo my intentions across these streets of time/And fight till the future is once again mine.”

And the lines of observation in ‘Maya’: “Sold into a brothel/Girlchild is just fifteen/Maya the name suits her well/This little life has never been.”

And the meditative lines of ‘Questions’: “Will I ever burn these bridges/I’ve built so strong and so sure/Or bound by my need for them/Will I linger by these shores?”

*****

Motherjane began gigging extensively on the back of Insane Biography. But very soon, guitarist Rex Vijayan exited the line-up. “After the first album, Rex left because he wanted to pursue a different kind of music,” says Mani. But the success of the first album also meant that the band started gigging a lot. “We spent a few years with stand-in guitarists but didn’t have a permanent guy.” Until Deepu Sasidharan stepped into the picture. A guitarist who was playing with 13AD in Dubai, he had just got a job in Bengaluru and come back to India. “I was ready to leave music and all,” says Sasidharan. “So I went to John and said I wanted to sell my guitar and processors. But he held me back. He said, ‘Deepu, you’ve been playing for so long. Don’t leave music now,’ ” he continues. Further egged on by Dharmajan, Sasidharan decided to join Motherjane.

“Deepu came and did four-five gigs with us, and then we started feeling the vibe again, and started composing the second album,” recalls Mani. “Sometimes when a new person comes into the room, the vibe changes. A tough part of being in a band is opening yourself up and being vulnerable in front of four other people. You find opening up difficult in a marriage – imagine opening up in front of four others. Anyway, when that happened, the music started coming differently… and we liked it. So we just went on that trip,” he says. This second album turned out to be Maktub, which incidentally turned out tops on Rolling Stone India’s list of Best Indian Albums of 2008, and also saw Motherjane being nominated in virtually every possible category – seven in all – in the 4th Annual Jack Daniel’s Indian Rock Awards, earlier this year.

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Guitarist Baiju Dharmajan (who incidentally had won the Best Guitarist trophy at the 3rd Indian Rock Awards for ‘Broken’), had in a 2008 interview, told me that Insane Biography was the “white man’s music” and how this time around, they were trying to get the Indian sound into their music. And the band nailed it, most audibly courtesy his Carnatic guitarlines. Mani insists though that Maktub’s unique sound is “actually the five of us sounding like that”. Drummer Thomas plays the chenda, a South Indian drum, on the record, adding to the “Eastern sound”. Mani says, “I think what has happened to us is that we are becoming a progressive Carnatic rock band. The element of rock is very much there. Then there are these progressive bits from rock. And there are definitely variations from the normal Carnatic style. All of it is brought together into a very rock format, so it works well.”

“We are all influenced to various degrees by Indian music. What’s important is how naturally it comes to us. If it happens by default, we keep it there,” says Mani. “The honesty is important. If you start using it unnecessarily, you will start hearing that it’s not coming from the inside,” he continues. “There are no blank moves happening here – there’s a lot of synchronicity happening on the record,” says Thomas.

While only Thomas and Mani eventually got their 2009 JD Rock Awards nominations traded in for wins, one thing was crystal clear – with Maktub, Motherjane’s time had come. Any college festival worth its salt had to have a headlining performance by this five-piece progressive rock/metal band. Over the course of the last couple of years, the band had gathered some very impressive feathers in their hat: An opening slot at the inaugural Rock in India concert in 2008 which was headlined by Megadeth and Machine Head. Then a couple of concerts opening for Opeth (one of Motherjane’s biggest idols) and Ensiferum at IIT-Madras and IIT-Bombay, respectively. The big one was when they got the Best International Rock Act of 2009 title at Malaysia’s Asian Voice Independent Music Awards (AVIMA) in March this year. “We were not expecting it, but everyone who we told were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we were expecting it,’ ” says Mani. “It’s nice to be able to say that Motherjane is the best band in Asia,” he laughs.

*****

When I meet the band at their hotel the day after the MySpace Secret Show gig in Mumbai, in May, the guys are all lounging together in one room. It’s a Saturday and they have lots of time to kill before they head off to the airport to catch their respective flights – Mani to Bengaluru and the rest of the band to Kochi. They let me in on the new chapters in Motherjane’s story. First up, there is their very own jam room that’s being built in Kochi. “This is a completely air-conditioned, acoustically treated jam room; a place where we can make music and probably do shoots,” says Mani. The band has also signed a five-year contract with their label, Aum-I Artistes, wherein they get a monthly salary (a rarity even today on the Indian rock scene) so that they can concentrate on producing the five albums they are committed to releasing in as many years. The first of these, due for release in 2010, is going to be called Graffiti Without Walls. “About 17 songs are lyrically ready. What we do is sit together and interpret it; so we are at that stage now,” Mani informs us. So, are they going to stick to their “Carnatic style?” “Well, let the songs decide that,” he says with a smile.

The band is looking relaxed but certainly high on the reception accorded to them the previous evening. When it comes to Mumbai rock audiences, there are two ways of looking at it – that they are too close-minded about the bands they like or that they are very finicky in their tastes. Either way, they are not particularly known for being very welcoming of bands from outside the city. Usually. But this gig – the first of MySpace India’s Secret Shows, also featuring local bands Black and Scribe – was perhaps the most packed that the Bandra Amphitheatre has ever been. Unverified reports put the attendance at 1,500. Amongst the audience were three winners of a contest run on the partnering radio station, who got a chance to meet the band and take home an autographed poster. One of these winners was a person who had never heard of Motherjane before and he was candid enough about that when he met the band for the signing, before the concert. Once the concert got over, though, the same person rushed backstage and told them that now, the signed poster was something he would treasure forever. Slipping into sensei mode, Mani explains this thus, “As a band we have noticed that it’s not about how many people will embrace you; it’s about how many people you embrace.”

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