All You Need to Know About Blackstratblues’ New Album ‘The Last Analog Generation’
Mumbai musician Warren Mendonsa channels Eighties rock, mush and a dash of blues on his most stellar release so far
Good things aside, what’s the downside to having a signature, instantly recognizable guitar tone that is synonymous with your name? “That no matter what gear you buy, you always end up sounding like yourself,” jokes Warren Mendonsa. The 37-year-old Mumbai musician has just previewed his fourth album The Last Analog Generation to us and is now kicking back by the window in his home studio, which also doubles as the guest bedroom and his nine-month-old baby’s den. It’s a space where strollers and Strats live in a sort of perfect harmony.
The Last Analog Generation, due on August 25th on Apple Music first, comes two years after Blackstratblues’ last, and much-awaited, release The Universe Has A Strange Sense Of Humour. If Mendonsa’s first two records (Nights In Shining Karma, 2007; The New Album, 2009) signaled the birth of something delightfully different from “just a guy in a garage,” The Universe… proved that his musicianship knew no bounds. Brand Blackstratblues is all brilliance and no bullshit, and that’s probably why every gig the band plays spawns a serpentine queue teeming with teenagers and granddads. “It surprises me every single time,” says Mendonsa, gushing a little.
Track listing, trivia and more
The first track “Lead Chain Swing” is Mendonsa’s Strat equivalent of ‘Hello, I’m back, bitches.’ And it’s a groove bomb all right—drummer Jai Row Kavi and bassist Adi Mistry set the wheels in motion with Mendonsa teasing here and there till the band reaches the sugar-rush refrain. #ArpeggioGoals it is. Fans of the band might go crazy over the delicious breakdown where Mendonsa soars to the sky. Beven Fonseca on keys is an underrated genius, not one to make his presence felt unless absolutely required. “Beven is the most reticent when it comes to soloing but his parts… they just fit in. If you take them out, you would know there’s something missing,” says Mendonsa, checking his phone for options of the final album artwork that have just arrived via WhatsApp from the designer, Arjun Rajkishore of Arkwerk. He shows us the three versions and together we pick the best. It looks good.
“North Star,” the second track, has been on SoundCloud for almost a year now, and is all Eighties mush, if you will. Warm, fuzzy, marmalade-on-toast. The second half of the song has the remarkable Mistry holding the groove down with an anticipative bassline while “the rest of the band is flying.” The arrangement eventually resolves so beautifully it brings a smile to your face. “We like leaving those gray spaces,” says Mendonsa.
The caramel composition makes way for the freight train that is “Sometimes This World (Is Not Such A Bad Place)”. “It’s straight-up Eighties rock…The Police, you know,” says Mendonsa and happily deconstructs the entire song when we ask him a question about a certain intriguing part. He picks up his Strat, plugs it in, loops the bass and the chugging rhythm guitars, and solos over them. As the writer/producer of the album, how does he ensure his band comprising geniuses ‘own’ the song as much as he does, we ask. “When you’re working with musician of a certain caliber, there is very little that you have to do in terms of guide them. You give them ideas… like the actual notes that I show on the bass to Adi, he plays them in a way that I can’t think of playing ever; the way he makes it groove and makes notes to sing,” he says.
Guest appearances and why Blackstratblues are not a blues band
The fourth song on The Last Analog Generation, “Mediatrician,” points to one of the biggest tragedies of this generation and these times—the irresponsible, partisan and untrustworthy media that thrusts opinions rather than offer perspectives. “It’s the closest the album has got to a blues song,” jokes Mendonsa, adding how most people mistakenly think Blackstratblues is a blues outfit just because of their name. “Yes, we borrow heavily from the blues, and other styles, but we aren’t a blues band!”
“Mediatrician” begins with a sample of a chaotic prime-time news hour debate which is demolished by the glorious (war) cries of baby Nia. Her papa’s plaintive guitars take care of the rest. The Mendonsas finally have a family album! (For the uninitiated, mama Mendonsa—Uttara–is also the band’s manager.)
Blackstratblues switch gears once again, and this time, brings in a voice on a ballad. Mumbai singer-songwriter Tejas is majestic on “Love Song To The Truth”—he sounds every bit and yet not quite his usual self, and successfully manages to install a heavy lump in our throat. If “Come Anyway” featuring Nikhil D’souza on The Universe… hit that sweet spot for you, this song comes very close to hitting it once again. Apparently, Tejas’s vocals are from a scratch that he randomly recorded at Mendonsa’s home studio, which the latter decided to use because it sounded so good.
For all his dexterous musicianship, Mendonsa believes music should touch your heart first. “We are not trying to be clever, in a technical sense. You have to have the basic idea, the foundation first–it can be the melody or the groove or how things add up. It shouldn’t rely on the technical things; those are the candy.” He adds, “Sometimes, just because you can play something doesn’t mean you should play it. My favorite band is still The Beatles and it’s all about the heart.”
It would be foolish to think the guitarist means to say music-making is simple as swiping a hot knife through butter; on the contrary, feel comes only after a whole lot of homework. “I mean you want to hone your craft to a point where you don’t want to think too much about it. It’s like breathing; if you think about it now, you will wonder what you’re doing.”
As far as his emotive trademark style goes, Mendonsa says it took form on its own after he realized all the stuff he didn’t want to or couldn’t do. “I always thought that it was your limitations that defined your sound. I never got into that fast, technical style of guitar playing, so I always concentrated on the melodies. And considering I don’t sing, I kind of sing through my instrument.” And learning never stops, of course. “As long as expanding vocabulary is considered, I still go to YouTube and learn and stuff. At the same time, I don’t want to get too premeditated about it… I like to let the growth be organic as well, not like ‘I want to write that song in this time signature as an exercise.’ Well, then it should be an exercise, not a song.”
The sixth track on the album is straight out of a jam at Cotton Press Studios. It’s called “Reconnaissance Mission,” has the same groove as “Renaissance Mission” from the previous album and is quite the rager. “This track is all Jai. There’s nothing complicated about what I am doing. You know, that’s how everybody’s contributions lift the song up way more than I imagine myself to do,” says Mendonsa, who also mixed all the tracks and admits it was a most arduous task. “As a writer, when you mix your own stuff, it’s like a black hole, man! You’re never really making objective decisions.” Thankfully for Mendonsa, Shantanu Hudlikar, the chief engineer at Yash Raj Studios, offered him to come over and listen to his mixes on his set-up. “It was good to have a new set of ears to bounce things off. That really helped,” he says.
“Aurora Borealis” is the shining light waltzing in at the end of the thick tunnel that was “Reconnaissance Mission.” It’s also the only song on the album in 3/4. “The second album [written while he was in New Zealand] was all 3/4 or 6/8; somehow coming back to Bombay just makes you all angry,” he jokes. But Mendonsa is probably at his mightiest on this song, which ends with a sample of nostalgic beeps coming from a dial-up modem, preparing you well for the last song—the title track. Among many other things, “The Last Analog Generation” serves as a benchmark for drum-and-bass locking—it’s not very often that you find Indian indie musicians that understand the power of pulling back. That in restraint lies real romance. The hidden track on the album comes after a brief pause and has Mendonsa and Row Kavi doing their thing.
It’s only August, but by the looks of it, The Last Analog Generation has all the potential to be the best album that will come out of 2017.
The Last Analog Generation is available for streaming exclusively on Apple Music for the first two days starting August 25th.