John Leckie gives young Indian rock groups a push with Soundpad

The Times, London
Cover feature

A top English producer aims to bring Indian rock to the world — defying the terrorists

October, 2008: the Leopold Café in Mumbai. A young Indian rock group, Medusa, celebrate the end of a recording session for a unique musical project organised by the British Council, called Soundpad. Over the course of three weeks, four talented bands – hand-picked from auditions by the super-producer John Leckie – have been playing their hearts out in the studio under Leckie’s guidance, for an album that will be released in the UK and in India this May.

With a tour of the UK’s Barfly venues to coincide with the record and a slot at the Great Escape festival, it is hoped that this project will shine a light on India’s growing alternative rock scene, giving these bands a chance to be heard and valued internationally. In this sense, Leo’s is the perfect place to celebrate Soundpad.

A shabby, buzzy nightspot, Leo’s is packed to the gills with, well, everyone. With tourists who’ve read about the café in the bestselling novel Shantaram, with businessmen unwinding, artists firing-up, and cool kids like Medusa – who, at this moment, are midway through their second yard of beer, explaining how cosmopolitan Mumbai has become. “And this project,” says Raxit, the singer, “it gives us a chance to work with people you wouldn’t ever work with here. You can, in your wildest 4am dreams, imagine it. But we never thought this would actually happen. So it’s amazing to be part of it.”

A month later, two gunmen – the same age as Medusa – open fire in the Leopold Café, killing ten people. The series of synchronised attacks that took place in Mumbai last November targeted financial trading sites (the city’s big hotels have become international business hubs), but also places of cultural trade. “It feels like an attempt stop the progressive outlook that we’re trying to achieve,” says the British Council’s Tasneem Vahanvaty, and this, she says, makes Soundpad’s success more important now than ever.

Leckie, who has worked with such iconic artists as Radiohead, George Harrison and Pink Floyd, agrees. “The project represents the youth of India,” he says, “and in a kind of perverse way, I’d like to think that what’s happened is going to draw attention to Soundpad, and to where they’re coming from.”

In October 2008, weeks before the attacks, *The Times joined Leckie and the bands in Mumbai; to witness the artists at work, and discover where the youth of India really are coming from.

Sitting on Bhandra seafront at midnight, Leckie and his co-producer Dan Austin have just got back to their hotel after today’s studio session. Tired, and wired from the day’s work, Leckie explains how the project began. “I wanted to find rock music that felt distinctly Indian,” he says, “that I could take back to the UK and take back a flavour of India with the music.” So, early last year, the British Council started talking to its music contacts – movers and shakers with grassroots knowledge of India’s rock scene, such as the indie label Counter Culture. The plan was to find bands with limited experience but a lot of potential, and get them to audition for Leckie.

The auditions did not go quite as planned, however. Of the 40 or so bands who played, most were either screechy metal groups, immaculately-groomed Bollywood boy-bands (complete with dance routines), or ploddy pub-rockers; “I felt guilty about not choosing them, because I felt that was patronising,” sighs Leckie, “Because they were trying their hardest to be un-Indian.”

While India’s visual arts scene has a huge international reputation — as shows at the Serpentine and Saatchi Galleries attest — it has been harder for India’s young musicians to find an authentic voice.With radio stations playing round-the-clock retro pop or Bollywood and devotional music, there’s no sense, at least in the mainstream, that being musically original might be valid. Were there moments during the auditions when Leckie felt it was going horribly wrong? “Yes!” he laughs, “all the time!”.

But at the end of a dispiriting afternoon in Mumbai, Medusa came onstage. “And they were great,” says Leckie, who perked up visibly when he heard their tuneful fuzz of skittering electro beats. Then, in Delhi, in a tiny basement studio, Leckie saw Indigo Children (“they made a racket, and I like that”), and the classically-tinged Advaita (“that was the fusion I was looking for”). Finally, Bangalore revealed the giddy, jangling charms of Swarathma. So Leckie had his four bands, each with a totally different sound, and very different experiences of growing up, musically, in new India.

Advaita are the most traditional of all the bands, fusing together breathtaking classical musicianship with Sting-toned soft rock and a singer who sounds a bit like Seal. Sitting on the steps outside the state-of-the-art Yash Raj studio in the muzzy heat of the day, their seranghi player explains that in India, you don’t just choose to learn classical music at school – you’re born into it. “We’re very strict in these families,” he says. “I mean if you pick up an instrument you’re trained very seriously, it’s a 24-7 musical environment.” Impressive stuff, and musically Advaita hit some truly transcendent moments. But that serious, Pink Floyd-y, jazz-rock edge seems a little odd given that some members are as young as 19.

“India *loves classic rock,” says Bobin James of *Rolling Stone India. He has travelled from Delhi to watch Leckie and co at work. India’s rock conservatism is evidenced, he says, by the fact that the only international bands that tend to play here are such rock megaliths as Iron Maiden, Scorpions and Bryan Adams. And up until five years ago, any band playing live had to play covers, for fear of being booed off-stage – “because people wanted to hear Hotel California.”

Two days later, Indigo Children are in the studio, a complete contrast to Advaita. Bullish and full of bluster, they turn up late and red-eyed, flirt with the girls and flop over each other on the sofas. “People in the West don’t realise how similar our lives and social environments are to elsewhere,” says Sanchal, the singer. “They expect a kid from India to be into Indian folk music.” “It’s the same as people thinking that India still has elephants and camels walking in the street,” says the guitarist Rahul. “But that is true actually,” says Sanchal. “But we also have cars! And GPS!” He roars laughing.

Indigo Children are the most Brit-sounding band of the bunch, their muscular guitars and petulant vocals a match for Arctic Monkeys. But, says Sanchal, the band’s Indian-ness comes through via their love of psychedelia, the kind you can trace back to the days of the ancient poets. Later, their psychedelic “direction” becomes clear, as the band quiz the studio’s formidably cool manager, Shantanu, on the finer points of psychotropic drugs. Their eyes widen noticeably at his tales of villages getting high on snake bites and fields of trippy pollen flowers.

Naturally, when Advaita and Indigo Children play a Soundpad showcase together, it’s a bit of a weird pairing. But what’s really awkward is the gig venue. Blue Frog is – like the posh music studio, and like so much of new Mumbai – sparklingly modern and swish. It serves gourmet food and everyone looks gorgeous. So, from a British point of view, it seems an unsuitable place to see a band.

Venues – or rather, the lack of them – is a huge problem for rock bands in India. Mumbai, for instance, has a population of 18 million – and three live music venues. This is one of them. “People like us don’t go to places like this,” says Sanchal, looking around. “When people ask what can we do to improve the gig scene, I say make the beer fifty bucks [rupees] and people will come.”

He adds: “There’s a lot of music but there’s just no culture as such happening.” Leckie agrees. “What the cities are crying out for is free clubs — not upmarket yuppie places. Because rock’n’roll is about dirty, sweaty cellars. That’s where it comes from.”

So how does the scene exist? How do the kids get to talk to each other, share influences, turn each other on to mind-blowing new sounds? The answer, of course, is virtually. The rise of the internet has changed everything – at least for those kids in the cities who have access to computers. “If it’s happening, it’s there,” explains Medusa singer Raxit, over a cup of hot, sticky chai at the studio (the spicy tea is such an important part of daily life in India that the studio has its own chai-making man standing on call during the sessions).

“If I’m living in Bombay and there’s a band from Goa, there’s no way I’d know about them because it’s too far apart, if not for electronic media.” It is thanks to the internet that Medusa – who work in the day as Bollywood bloggers – are into obscure, bleepy bands such as Squarepusher and Prefuse 73. And thanks to laptops and their own musical curiosity, that Medusa got into electronic programming and what Raxit refers to dreamily as “beautiful little sounds.”

But what about going out, getting drunk – all those things that British kids take for granted, and that it’s assumed, are key in making music. You know, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll? House parties are not an option for socialising, says Raxit. “You can’t do it, because you’re living at your parents’ house,” he shrugs. “There are some stupid laws here. You can’t have a house party with drinks, you can’t do a live gig in the open unless it’s some really clichéd, acceptable form of making noise.” “Whatever you’re doing,” says the drummer Vinayek, “drinking, partying – you need permission to do it.”

All the same, Medusa know how to have a good time. The band begin an alternative guided tour of Mumbai at a guitar shop called Musician’s Mall, where the shelves heave with harmoniums, serangis and tablas, as well as standard rock kit. Pretty soon, everyone (staff included) is playing something, strumming or plucking along the band’s rendition of Gorillaz song, Feel Good Inc. The boys stop in at an all-night Persian ice-cream parlour, sing songs on the briny seafront – and then of course, there’s the Leopold Café. Tonight, it’s humming with life. Just as it would be a few weeks later, on November 26th.

How badly the terrorist attacks may have dented the Soundpad project – and the development of India’s rock scene – is not yet clear. According to the British Council’s Tasneem Vahanvaty, “A lot of artists and entrepreneurs are now thinking twice about coming into the city.” And because of the worldwide recession, many of this year’s big Indian rock festivals have been postponed, due to sponsors pulling out.

But Medusa – who happened not to be at the Leopold Café the night of the shootings – agree that if anything, these attacks will provoke young musicians to work even harder at being heard. “Music is a better way to express yourself than attempting to blow up hotels,” says the guitarist Rahul, “so it’s really important for Soundpad to go on.”

Four days after the attacks, the Leopold Café opened its doors again – bullet holes still in the walls. “There’s nothing that’s going to hold us back,” says Vahanvaty. It is very tempting to believe her.