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John P Varkey: Avial evolved out of Jigsaw Puzzle

The progenitor of Malayalam rock on Avial’s beginnings and his new band, Slowpedalers

Mohan Kumar K Apr 20, 2015
John P Varkey & the Slowpedalers. Credit: Suraj Khan

(from left) Jophy Chirayath (drums), John P Varkey (guitar and vocals), Rose Johny (vocals), Edwin Johnson (percussion and midi) and Rajesh Dass (bass and acoustic guitar) of John P Varkey & the Slowpedalers. Credit: Suraj Khan

From a gritty temple-percussion groove to the full blown stadium rock treatment dished out by Avial, “Aranda”, a folk-based song, which was first composed and recorded by Thrissur-based band Jigsaw Puzzle two decades ago, still coaxes young bands to take it for a spin. Case in point: The recent post rock version of the track by Ahmedabad band, As We Keep Searching, for the No Cover Charge show on YouTube.

But this is not about AWKS or Avial. This is about the revival of mid 90s band Jigsaw Puzzle into John P Varkey & the Slowpedalers, 20 years on.

The unsuspecting progenitors of the Malayalam rock genre had Varkey on guitars and vocals, Riyaz Mohamed on drums, Baiju S Babu on guitars and Anandraj Benjamin Paul on vocals. Says Varkey, who parted ways with Avial in 2004,  “Most fans out of Kerala won’t know this. Avial evolved out of Jigsaw Puzzle. They wanted something and I had something else in mind. But I love their (Avial) craft and instrumentation.” Songs like Nada Nada and Njan Aara morphed out of songs such as Flow and Farmer’s Song from Jigsaw Puzzles’ debut English album that had a heady mix of rock, blues and ethnic elements. The intro to Avial’s “Njan Ara” too had its beginnings in “Flow”.“We had some good fun for two years. Then things just didn’t work out as we started projects but never saw them through. We had spaced out into different zones,” Varkey recalls.

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The guitarist points out that their (Jigsaw Puzzle)  sophomore Malayalam album was recorded at a time when they had just got access to hard disk recording before software such as Pro Tools hit the studios and bedrooms of musicians. “It was risky and we were not sure if people will accept it but I always felt Malayalam was fit for rock music. Our first English album didn’t have any takers. But with the Malayalam album we got BMG on board,” Varkey says.

Now, Varkey fronts the Thrissur-based band, The Slowpedalers, whose current line-up features Rajesh Das (bass) and Jophy Chirayath(drums), who both go back to his Jigsaw Puzzle days. Das handled the drum programming and keyboards for their 1999 album As a Matter of Fact and the multi-lingual album titled Malayalam, released in 2001, with folk-inspired songs written by lyricists Engandiyur Chandrashekaran and P B Girish [who were also lyricists on Avial’s debut album]. Das says, “It’s been quite a ride with some of the new songs being recorded spontaneously. We have some production issues to take care of.”

Rose Johnny on vocals and Edwin Johnson on percussion completes the line-up of John P Varkey & The Slowpedalers that’s sticking to the traditional guitar, bass and drums format for now. Varkey says, “Our sound is not final yet. We’re looking at mixing some jazz and Latin progressions, a bit of world music too and go easy on the hard rock part.” On mixing electronics and synth, he says, “There’s no electronics as of now. We may use a Launchpad for live shows and play around with some lo-fi sounds.”

Watch “Aarkku” by John P Varkey & The Slowpedalers below

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Varkey sailed through a string of projects starting with the 90s band Karizma fronted by Avial’s vocalist Tony John, Jigsaw Puzzle, Avial and Karnatrix, an electro-Carnatic trio consisting of Varkey, Avial’s Rex Vijayan and veteran guitarist guitarist John Anthony. The trio recorded their stellar debut album Namaste in 2003, which was a period when Varkey juggled JP, Avial and Karnatrix along with occasional gigs in Scandinavian countries with Daksha Dance Company. About his roller-coaster ride Varkey elaborates, “I got disillusioned when some of the members left and after a year of lull, I met Rex who was excited about Nada Nada and Avial happened.”

The timeline of Malayalam rock music looks packed right now with a number of bands backing a vernacular language, once considered a ridiculous proposition. Scramble down the timeline a decade into the past and you’ll find the colossal Avial, glocalising Malayali rock, which indeed started the kaleidoscopic wave of success stories that followed in the form of Thaikkudam Bridge, Pathayam, Azazeel, Thakara, Vethaalam, Vidwan,  and more. The tide has almost taken over the Malayalam film industry and the masses as well. About current bands rigging this genre Varkey says, “There are some good stuff out there. But I don’t agree with the attitude of lifting funny old Malayalam songs and jacking it up with hard rock progressions.” Adds Varkey, “That’s just untamed use of our formula. There should be a wild element standing true to its concept. But who am I to be cynical,” says Varkey, citing Kannur act, The Down Troddence, who he holds in high regard.

John P Varkey & the Slowpedalers recently debuted with a one-hour show aired in two episodes for Music Mojo on Kappa TV. With enough firepower like the space-folk “Mandam” and the bouncy “Aarkku,” it looks like Varkey means to get the “wildness” back by launching a new wave of Malayalam rock.