Advaita, Indigo’s Children, Medusa and Swarathma get a headrush in the studio with UK producer John Leckie
There’s a buzz around YRF Studio’s sprawling Recording Theatre 1, in suburban Mumbai. This time, it isn’t the recording of a star-studded Bollywood film soundtrack but some young punks – rising stars of the alternative music scene – who take over the studio.
It is a first for Indian bands, where a recording deal with a legendary international producer, has practically come knocking at their doors. Advaita, Indigo’s Children (earlier called The Superfuzz), Medusa and Swarathma are amongst the chosen bands that auditioned this March for UK-based producer John Leckie, as a part of an initiative by the British Council of India. Leckie, who has worked with an impressive line-up of acts including Radiohead, is down in the country again to compile an album of these four bands’ best works for an international audience. Over the past three months, the bands e-mailed their tracks to Leckie, who responded with suggestions to enhance them musically and lyrically. But the implication of “being produced” struck home only when the artists stepped into the studio with Leckie and Dan Austin, a cutting-edge engineer, also from UK, who has worked with the likes of The Doves and upcoming UK electronica acts such as The Winchell Riots and Richard Walters. The UK crew’s technical expertise, the uber cool studio that can hold an 80-member orchestra and is a sound engineer’s Disneyland blew the bands away during the Soundpad Sessions as the British Council calls it.
On Day 2 at the studio, Medusa, the rock-turned-electronica band had settled into the groove comfortably. “The best part about both Leckie and Dan is that they ease into your music, they just sink in and let you be. We went in with the feeling that something good was going to come out of it,” offers Raxit Tiwari, the group’s 22-year-old lead vocalist and songwriter. Medusa had e-mailed five tracks to Leckie of which ‘I Become I’ and ‘On A Hilltop’ were the ones that were picked to go on record. Leckie who’s worked with great songwriters such as Richard Ashcroft says that he selected Medusa tracks with lyrics that had universal appeal. “These songs will be played in all countries around the world that have a British Council office. So we didn’t want something introverted or a downer. ‘I Become I’ for example is very minimal and stripped down and lines like “East becomes West, I become I” is something I felt that everybody could relate to,” says Leckie.
‘On A Hilltop’ is on Day 3’s schedule and Tiwari wraps up the day’s job in his easy, singing style. To embellish Tiwari’s effortless vocals that sometimes face the risk of sounding monotonous, some effects are added to sharpen it almost to the point that it sounds digitised and sometimes more pronounced like a sexy drawl. The result is terribly impressive and this isn’t even the final product but just a small glimpse of what Leckie and Dan can achieve.
Apart from adding layers to the string section, there was a new twist to the band’s sound – a short, yet marked harmonium section was added. “We’re not sure yet if that part will be retained,” says 21-year-old Rahul Nadkarni, the band’s guitarist who alongwith 26-year-old drummer Vinayak Pol was playing around the studio with the harmonium. “It was just lying around here and we were having fun,” says Pol. It surely wasn’t an effort to “Indianise” the band? “No, no it was just an impulsive thing. Both Leckie and Dan were quite clear from the beginning that there would be no extra improvisations, no crashes, just straight, clean sound,” adds Pol. Leckie calls the inclusion of a harmonium line a “creative moment” in the studio. Pol for his part is the proud new owner of V-drums, an electronic drum kit endorsed by drummers such as Rush’s Neil Peart. The V-drums have made it onto both tracks and Pol can’t stop raving about it – it’s convenient to set up, there’s no soundcheck needed and it’s more durable – although Pol prefers an acoustic kit when he goes live. Of course, an attempt was made to record on acoustic drums. “But both John and I didn’t like it,” says Pol.
“Medusa was no different from any band in the UK,” says Leckie, paying the band a well-deserved compliment, “It was like taking a semi professional demo to another level. Adds Austin, “Since most parts were pre-recorded on a computer it was just about embellishing those sounds. The bass part was entirely recorded on the comp so it’s not like sending a bass player into the studio, so Medusa has been relatively easy to record.”
The next band in line is Swarathma, who entered the studio quite pleased with themselves after wowing Blue Frog audiences with their weekend gig. At 6 pm on Day 1 of Soundpad, we find lead singer Vasu Dixit, 27, face down and out cold at one of the editing tables behind Leckie, oblivious to drummer Montry Manuel, 31, working hard at his kit inside. Guitarist Varun, 21, too has passed out on the soft leather couch, placed in the studio specifically for these times of fatigue after several late nights in a row, but we’re told that there’s also an entire bed tucked away somewhere. Bassist Jishnu Dasgupta, 29, after consuming several cups of chai is in his element, animatedly keeping beat for Manuel. The band has recently been in the studio with Indian Ocean drummer Amit Kilam stepping into the producer’s shoes for their debut album and is recording the rhythm section of a previously unreleased track named ‘Jumba’ for Leckie on their first day. “We realised right then that recording is a completely different performing art but this is like stepping into a spaceship. It’s been really awe-inspiring,” says Dasgupta. Swarathma’s first day was a learning experience as the band started out attempted to record all together as a band and then dropped the idea and set out recording individually. “We took time to set up,” says Pawan Kumar, 27, the band’s percussionist who explains how he lined up a test of sorts for Leckie. “I play one off beat because I want the dholak to be heard along with the snare drum. Nobody has spotted this off beat till date but John caught it straight away. We discussed why I played the off beat and he found a way where I could retain it but play it so that it’s in the metre.”
A few minor changes were made to the Swarathma tracks as well. “John was particular that we keep the sound and energy of the band as is because that’s the reason why he chose us,” says Dixit, “We’ve added a few English lines because John felt that if the theme is so strong then it should reach out to a bigger audience. But he also told us that we can remove the lines anytime we want.” ‘Jumba,’ the track which talks about pride was composed two years ago with lyrics in textual Kannada by Dixit’s friend Anil Achari and the second track ‘Yeshu Allah aur Krishna’ has a more universal theme of unity. “It has a line which says how everyone is born Kabir with a clean slate and no concept of religion and that it’s time you woke up the Kabir in you,” says Dixit, who maintains that he’s sung the English lines with an Indian accent that follow the Ram-katha story-telling format.
As the day wound up with Dasgupta going in to play his bass lines, everybody seemed happy with the day’s progress. “Indian producers especially in the film industry are not very flexible and don’t respect what we musicians want but these people are so cool,” says Manuel echoing Medusa drummer Pol’s sentiments. Shantanu Hudlikar, chief sound engineer at YRF studios who has been in touch with Leckie over e-mail after Soundpad was conceptualised is also terribly impressed with the bands. “Even though some of the band members have never been inside the studio, they’ve all come in after thorough rehearsals. And what we have here is high-ended, meticulously thought-out esoteric equipment to enhance their sound.”
While there have been artists such as Indian Ocean and Rabbi Shergill who have worked with a ‘producer,’ and caught onto the concept years ago, studio recordings have been pretty much DIY projects. One of the band members is invariably a techie who dives head on into the sound production and emerges as the studio hero. But this is an international collaboration has set a template for organisations and labels (indie or major) across the world whose aim is to genuinely promote music. While CD sales may not even be the purpose of the project, the bands will step out of the studio with impressively produced tracks and a lifetime of studio know-how.