Blackstratblues on Latest Album: ‘It’s A Diary of My Last Year’
Guitarist Warren Mendonsa walks us through his new 16-track record ‘Hindsight Is 2020’
A lot has changed since we last visited guitarist Warren Mendonsa’s Mumbai home two years ago to talk about his 2019 Blackstratblues album When It’s Time. Of course, the pandemic has changed most people’s lives, but for Mendonsa and his family, that change happened to be a move to Auckland, New Zealand last June. He says, “We had been planning on going to New Zealand in 2020 in any case for the last two or three years, even before the pandemic happened.” Mendonsa adds, “I wanted to get here by the time my daughter has to go to kindergarten.”
However, this is not Mendonsa’s first foray in moving to New Zealand. Kiwi land is in fact the birthplace of Blackstratblues when the guitarist moved there in 2004 before releasing the project’s first two albums: Nights in Shining Karma (2007) and The New Album (2009). Upon his return to India in 2011, Mendonsa released three more records; The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour (2015), The Last Analog Generation (2017) and the aforementioned When It’s Time while also forming a formidable live act alongside drummer Jai Row Kavi, keyboardist Beven Fonseca and bassist Adi Mistry.
Now Mendonsa is ready with his sixth Blackstratblues album entitled Hindsight Is 2020. While all his previous records have included eight tracks, the new LP clocks in at just under an hour and includes 16 songs. Although some tracks are almost like little vignettes, ask Mendonsa why he decided to break that pattern of releasing eight songs per album? He says, “Well, I guess when you go through experiences like moving hemispheres in the middle of a pandemic you’ve got to express it a little more and channel that.”
If you’ve caught Mendonsa raising his eyebrows before kicking off his Instagram live sessions or even sampled some of his IGTV content over the last couple of years, you might have heard snippets of what’s on the new album. The guitarist says, “The good thing I guess about those IGTV videos, all the good ideas, I was able to turn them into full-fledged songs.” Even though the musician began writing the record in late 2019, it wasn’t until he was fully set up at his home studio in Auckland that things moved in full swing. With his guitars now nicely lined up neatly at an arm’s length away from him, he jokes about how in Mumbai his guitars would be in separate corners of the house. He says, “If I wanted a particular guitar, I had to first find out where it was, pull it out of its case, change the strings and by the time all of that is done your idea is kind of gone [laughs].” He adds, “So now I was actually able to channel a lot of those spontaneous ideas and record very quickly.”
Talking about the core theme of the new record, Mendonsa says, “Basically, it’s a diary of my last year.” That diary opens with the Steely Dan feeling of “Hey 2020” before we hear his daughter’s favorite song, the optimistic “This Will Be My Year.” The guitarist says, “She loves that little… It breaks down there’s a little melody there and she loves that. Now she’s heard it enough times in the car, she’s actually started singing some of the guitar lines [laughs].”
Nia (Mendonsa’s daughter) — who is seen on the record’s cover — makes her third appearance on a Blackstratblues album on the euphoric “Eleven” (she’s previously heard on “Mediatrician” from The Last Analog Generation and “Tiny Bit of Sky” off When It’s Time). “I just asked her some random questions and I edited her answers together to start the song.” The calming short pieces of music (“Remembrance,” “Kinder Days Past I,” “The Persistence Of Time” and “Kinder Days Past II”) on the album were initially composed by Mendonsa for a film score he was working on. He says, “These were the unused ideas. It [the music] was almost like a sense of loss in a way and I wanted them to be like little interludes.”
While “The Celestial Dance” opens with a dark feel, the song grows into a groovy and bright mood as it progresses. Speaking about the song, Mendonsa says, “When you learn to dance through life, you kind of learn how to take your problems on board and still find a way to look at the brighter side.” Next, we’re treated to Mendonsa’s favorite song on the album, the indie-rock offering “Hold On Tight (Up We Go).” The song is the guitar player’s nod to his move between continents and the track also includes samples of jet engines firing up at the start while you hear a flight attendant say “a very warm welcome to Auckland” as the song closes. Mendonsa says, “It took me ages to find that sample [of the jet engines].”
He adds, “Before the pandemic hit, I was pretty much on 15 or 20 flights a month. So, it became a routine, especially all those flights would be early in the morning, and you would catch them at some absurd hour. You would put on your headphones and hopefully get the window seat so you can just lean against the window and pass out. But that sound of those jet engines, you’re idle and then just before it takes off, it was like that final thing.”
On the punchy “It Just Got Real” Mendonsa signals about how all this while he’d been planning his move to New Zealand and that now it’s happened and it’s real. Apart from Nia, the musician also includes voice samples on the seven and a half minute “Anesthesia” and the soaring “We Are Responsible.” New Delhi artist Tarana Marwah aka Komorebi also steps in with lush harmonies on “We Are Responsible” and the album closer “Let It Shine” with vocal textures. Ask Mendonsa how important it is to him to have these instances of voice on a purely instrumental-based album? He says, “They add a bit of atmosphere and mood. Even some of the Pink Floyd stuff will have these bits. I’ve always been a fan of that kind of stuff so might as well make use of that.”
There aren’t enough superlatives to express how versatile and dexterous Mendonsa’s playing is across the album. From his wails, arrangements, solos, chord progressions, tones and dynamic changes, there’s so much he offers being the one-of-a-kind and genius musician that he is. Oh, and blues lovers be sure to tune into the emotive “Low Down Lock Down” – a track that we hope will be a staple at Blackstratblues gigs in the future.
With Mendonsa helming bass, keys, guitars and percussion work, drum duties on the album were shared by New Zealand-based Cole Goodley (who played on The New Album) and Row Kavi who has played on every Blackstratblues album since The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour. Mendonsa says, “Cole has a modest setup in terms of mics. There’s just like four or five mics. So, you can hear the stuff that I recorded with Cole sounds a little bit more vintage and garage-y and Jai sounds a little bit more modern.” He adds, “So it actually was good to have one drummer who is a little more modern and one who is a little more classic.” On Marwah’s inclusion, he says, “Her voice sits really well with guitar tracks, and she sent her parts, and they were perfect.”
During the last decade, Mendonsa built quite a unique chemistry with Blackstratblues as a four-piece alongside Row Kavi, Fonseca and Mistry, of which the latter two aren’t heard on the new album. Will that lineup join forces again? The guitarist says, “It would depend upon whether the four of us are in the same city.” On Fonseca and Mistry, Mendonsa informs us, “Beven I believe is traveling around the world on his cryptocurrency gains [laughs]. And Adi, the last time I spoke to him he was baking pizza and enhancing his culinary skills while he’s at home.”
Another iconic quartet of Mendonsa’s that’s sort of been revived recently is the legendary Mumbai-bred rock outfit Zero. As recently as June, the band – comprising Mendonsa, drummer Sidd Coutto and brothers; vocalist Rajeev Talwar and bassist Bobby Talwar – launched an Instagram handle teasing fans. The four Dadar boys announced that their 2001 hit album Hook was remastered and available on streaming platforms. The band is also in the midst of remastering 2005’s Procrastination. “It was just a long-overdue process, I guess a bunch of kids can listen to the music.” He adds, “We were supposed to do a YouTube thing where we’re just reminiscing about certain gigs and stuff like that. But there was this major tech thing that happened, and the audio didn’t get recorded. So, there’s three hours of content, but we had a blast.”
With Rajeev in London, Mendonsa in Auckland and Coutto and Bobby in Mumbai, the guitarist tells us that new Zero music would only happen if the four of them were in the same room together. ”With regards to sending files over everything, now we’re kind of so old and we know how good that organic process is, I wonder if there’s ever going to be a substitute to the four of us being together. So, the usual challenge with the distance and everything, but who knows?”
With the Hindsight Is 2020 chapter now closed, the musician is already thinking ahead and collating ideas for his next adventure. Mendonsa is also keen on putting together a band to play shows while he’s in Auckland. The guitarist concludes quite profoundly, “As the pandemic hit, now I’m just looking at each day at a time trying to make the most of it. If you write something new it’s cool, if you don’t also there’s no point putting pressure on yourself because we are going through uncertain times, and you never know how it’s going to turn out. So, till then all we can do is hope for the best.”
Stream ‘Hindsight Is 2020’ On Bandcamp below. The album releases on streaming platforms on September 12th (Mendonsa’s 42nd birthday).