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Blackstratblues’ New LP Takes You on a Journey Through Life

The Mumbai rock band’s talisman Warren Mendonsa breaks down the eight-track ‘When It’s Time’ for us

David Britto Sep 09, 2019

Mumbai blues rockers Blackstratblues' fifth album 'When It's Time' releases this week. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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When we arrive at Mumbai guitarist Warren Mendonsa’s residence to talk about his band Blackstratblues’ fifth album, the eight-track When It’s Time, the first thing that catches our eye is his strat sitting comfortably on his couch.

Mendonsa’s daughter Nia was born during the making of 2017’s The Last Analog Generation. He tells us that his child has certainly played a part while working on the new album, out on September 12th (which also happens to be his 40th birthday!). He says, “It’s kind of weird, she’s only been part of my life for three years but I can’t really imagine what it’s like without her. Just having a kid puts a lot of things in perspective.” He adds, “When you’re unattached and single there’s so many things you think you’re ought to be doing. Once there’s kids in your life you know very simply that this is what you have to do.”

Blackstratblues, comprising Mendonsa, drummer Jai Row Kavi, keyboardist Beven Fonseca and bassist Adi Mistry have gone on to create quite the fan following through the years. Ask the musician what drives listeners to his guitar-based instrumental music and he says, “Each person will kind of dig a different aspect of it and the thing is that at this point it’s not just me, it’s all four of us. I’m sure there’s plenty of drummers that come out and check out our gigs just because Jai is playing.” He adds, “I guess it’s the honesty of expression. We’re not trying to do anything that we’re not. We’re not trying to play any games with regards to publicity or whatever. On the contrary, we almost prefer the low profile.”

The band’s new record, When It’s Time, takes you on a journey through life. Mendonsa explains that each song is five years apart. He says with a laugh, “Five times eight is 40.” The guitarist further says, “The whole idea is, it just starts opening up as the album progresses. Obviously, once you reach a certain point, say, your twenties or thirties, then you know enough about the world and then your own perceptions shape your life at that point. But until you get to that point it’s almost like a lot of things are just new. So I tried to kind of have that graph.”

When It’s Time opens with his daughter counting the band into the mellifluous “Tiny Bit Of Sky.” On the track, he says, “[It] is almost intended to be like no concept of life because you’re coming fresh into the world. It’s almost like at a certain point in your childhood you learn things like fear, greed, hate – you don’t know that when you come into the world, almost like a clean slate.” Mendonsa also confesses that sometimes he wishes he could go back to listen to music the way he did as a child. He says, “Now I know the nitty-gritty of music, back then I didn’t know anything.”

The next track is the R&B/Gospel rock sounding “Happy E Friends.” Mendonsa tells us that his wife and manager Uttara Rajgopal Mendonsa loves that kind of music and that he likes it when she puts on tunes by American funk group Vulfpeck. “This song is [from] around the time I found the Beatles, around seven or eight [years old] and then suddenly that opened up a whole world for me.”

The third song, “Too Cool For Sunday School,” kicks off in a relaxed and melancholic manner before going into a crunchy blues section. The track stemmed from an Instagram video Mendonsa had uploaded of him playing an early version of the riff. He says, “It’s at that point [when] your concept of religion and spirituality is what your elders tell you and there’s a blind belief in whatever they’re saying is true. Then you get a little bit older and it’s like hang on ‘that doesn’t make sense.’ Then you learn to form your own view of what is right and wrong.”

‘When It’s Time’ artwork by Arkwerk.

“Interstellar Roadtrip” is when the album takes a sharp turn and moves away from a mellow tone to a much heavier sound. A majority of the psychedelic track was completed while Mendonsa was in New Zealand last year and also features him on bass and mellotron duties. “My first instrument was bass,” he says. He adds, “I was playing my dad’s bass. Every time I pick it up sometimes it’s almost coming back to me. Even when I play guitar, I actually listen to the bass more. Subconsciously my ears clue on to that. Which is why I can’t play with a bass player who doesn’t get the basic concept of harmony and groove.”

Row Kavi along with pulsating drum parts all over the album also adds his humor to When It’s Time. The crushing “Black Hole X3” takes its title from his comedic alter ego Vasant Rao’s band. You even hear the drummer saying the song’s name at the start. Mendonsa says, “Also the [first ever] photo of a black hole had come out so that led to that being applied as the title.”

According to the guitarist, the harmonically intense blues offering “Looking For Polaris” is related to their track “North Star” which was on The Last Analog Generation. “The time signature is completely different but the way the chords move is what I liked,” he says. To make his point clearer, Mendonsa shows us an optical illusion of a staircase where it just seems to go round in circles but actually each level is going up. The guitarist goes on to play the riff for us and says, “I stumbled on it by accident. I always dig tricks with chord progressions.”

The penultimate song on the album is the hauntingly magical “Little Castles.” Mendonsa says, “That’s kind of like all your fears of being a parent and then that gets mitigated watching the kid cope with the world on their own. Obviously times like this, I’m like, ‘Man, what kind of a world have we brought this child into? Everything is on the brink of turning to shit.’”

He further says, “Then just seeing how she copes, I mean it’s amazing because now she’s like between two and three. This is when their brain goes nuts.” The track also includes Mendonsa playing on a wooden cajon which was a gift to his daughter. He tells us that while he was recording those percussion parts his daughter walked in and threw a fit, “like how dare you touch my shit.” Mendonsa says, “At one point you can hear her crying. I was like, ‘I’m going to keep this.’ Plus it was a good take.”

The jamming record closer “When It’s Time To Go” packs everything from rock, jazz, funk and blues. “At that point, it’s about moving to the next stage in your life,” says Mendonsa. The song also features saxophone parts by Mumbai-based musician Sid Vashi. “I thought we’ll get a horn section to play on it but when I plugged in a fuzz pedal I found out that you can do cool horn parts with it. When you put the guitars along with the sax and just layer them together, you get this really cool thing which almost sounds like a synth.”

When It’s Time was recorded at Mumbai’s Island City Studios and mixed by Mendonsa and Shantanu Hudlikar at YRF Studios in Mumbai. For the first time, Mendonsa did not master a Blackstratblues album and instead left it in the capable hands of Austin-based Chris Athens. Ask him how he felt about that and he says, “When it came back it was almost very different to what I envisioned but then I kind of got used to it. It was that relief someone else has done it and not me.” He adds with a laugh, “Now we can’t change it. As long as I can listen to it, it’s fine.”

While it may be too early to ask about a follow-up to this record, we enquire if Mendonsa has material stored for new music. He says, “There are a couple of folders of unused things that once in a while I’ll go through and see if any of them are clicking but I haven’t really figured out the next album – but maybe it’ll be cool to have an entire album with vocals and just do something different.”

‘When It’s Time’ releases on September 12th and will be available on all platforms. 

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