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A Significant Sound

Bengali rock pioneers Cactus return to heavy rock in their third album.

Shamik Bag May 20, 2009
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As we sit and tattle in the room allotted to the band, a show-opening college band comes up on stage and plucks through an iffy version of a Cactus song. Sibaji Paul, drummer and founder member of the Bengali rock band, starts beaming. His expression soon settles down to that of someone who has heard this happen many times earlier but is glad anyway.

There is yet another reason Cactus is collectively pleased – Tuccho (Insignificant), its third studio album, has returned the band back to the brass-tacks of bottom-heavy rock music and is selling well too since the album released a few months ago. It’s their return to the authoritative rock sound that the band is busy showboating – the invaluable inputs of Delhi-based co-producer Anupam Roy, who has previously worked with bands like Superfuzz, and the mastering by Los Angeles-based Dave Collins, former chief mastering engineer at A&M Records noted for his work with Soundgarden, Linkin Park, Bruce Springsteen and Sting among others. Above all, the band is obviously reveling in the musical consensus reached by the members.

“It’s been ten years since we released our debut album and we realise how little we knew then about studio, production and performance,” begins vocalist Siddhartha Shankar Roy who gave up a career as a doctor to form Cactus in 1992. “Moreover, we didn’t know much about a band sound and had songs with clashing mood and sentiment in one album,” he adds of their self-titled debut album, which, according to the record label Saregama, sold well over a lakh copies though others in the music industry estimate the album sold twice as much. Released in 2004, the band’s follow-up album, Rajar Raja (King of Kings), had an undistinguished outing having sold around 35,000 copies till date, according to Asha Audio, the label which released the album.

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Eighteen years since the band emerged and broke ground for rock music in India to be sung in the vernacular, and a decade after HMV released its self-titled debut, Cactus can rightly claim to have led a musical charge in Bengal where hundreds of bands – 200-odd Bengali bands signed up for a competition that Cactus judged a few years ago – have appropriated rock music to sing in the local lingo. Meanwhile, the band itself has had a turbulent ride, contending with line-up changes, former members pulling the band in disparate musical directions, a growing reputation for syrupy tunes and the absence of a substantial output with only three albums released in 18 years.

With new members like former mates in the original English rock outfit Wise, guitarist Allan Ao and Sandip Roy on bass, Sudipto Banerjee on keyboards and Sayak Bandyopadhyay on vocals, lending to Cactus a smacking new melodic edge, the eight-track Tuccho is the band’s attempt to claw back. “This album is not just about power, but is also backed by our power of conviction,” says Paul. “We realised that it’s more important to keep plodding on as a band,” says vocalist Roy, reflecting on a work ethic that also finds expression in the album art depicting the single-mindedness of marching ants.

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Tuccho has been listener-supported. Within three months of its release, the album has sold 7000 copies, “a very encouraging figure in this age of audio piracy”, according to D S Lahiri of record label Asha Audio. The band is also in the early stages of designing a plan to tap audience pools outside of Bengal. Attesting to that are a handful of Hindi compositions by Cactus, one of which the band performed live when they recently shared television space with actor Shah Rukh Khan, for whose IPL team Kolkata Knight Riders the band had previously created the theme song, and Farhan Akhtar on the show Oye! It’s Friday.

During the photo shoot for Rolling Stone, Roy keeps to himself, while the newer members of the band talk music (a joint hurray goes up in the air for Kings of Leon, Porcupine Tree and Extreme’s new album) and exchange friendly jibes. Roy, who along with Paul, has kept Cactus alive as a professional Bengali rock outfit for nearly two decades, seems insulated from the goings-on, but at every opportunity is quick to apportion credit among the members. It’s a band, he explains. And the band, by most accounts, is in for the long haul.

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