We planned to meet and do a Sridhar/Thayil interview at the now closed but soon to re-open, ‘The Living room’ in Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi. A few days back, we had just played at a festival together, so I thought it best to let things take their natural course. I didn’t prepare any questions. We found a table close to the smoking balcony, and Jeet exercised his artist’s discount at TLR and ordered a wine at 3 pm.
The format of the interview is crushed by Jeet who begins by asking me a question.
I love this guy.
Jeet: So Neel, I’ve got a question for you. Are you sick yet of sleeping on couches, travelling on shitty buses, and being paid jackshit for your excellent music?
(Suman laughs out loud)
Jeet: Dude, You’re a better man than me.
Yes…I mean no! What I mean is that I’m not sick of the travelling.
Jeet : You’re not satiated with the suffering and pain?
Suman: It makes the music better.
Jeet: Yeah well… that’s what I thought 25 years ago, but after two decades of pain in the service of art, I’m beginning to have my doubts.
I think it’s a stage of life thing …at my stage, it’s OK for me to think like this, and it’s OK for you, to think the way you are, at yours.
Suman: Yes I agree…that’s where our disagreements start. He’s at a different stage of life than mine.
Jeet: But that might also make for good music!
(The three of us ponder on this for a bit)
Jeet: OK!!! Now my question to god is…… “If not now, then when? Is it ever gonna get any better?”
What if god tells you, “This is it!”
Jeet: Then i’m gonna say, “I want my money back !”
Suman: No, but seriously, I think he’s finally getting somewhere with the book. Music is relatively newer in his life.
A lot of people might assume that you are the writer of all the lyrics, and Suman makes all the music, just because your stature as a writer supersedes your status as a musician today and also because Suman’s formally trained in music from Rutgers University. Do you get a lot of that assumption from people?
Jeet: It is a ridiculously arrogant assumption to think that, because I’m a writer I write all the lyrics, but an equally arrogant assumption is that, because Suman is the one with the degree in music that she writes all the music.
It’s quite obvious to me that you don’t write all the words and that she doesn’t make all the music.
Jeet: Yes that’s exactly it. But normally, it’s quite obvious to people that she also writes lyrics but no one knows that I also write many of the songs. Only when they read the credits of the album… But no one reads that shit.
Suman (protesting): No, no… When they see you playing guitar they can see that you have a sense of music which logically goes to prove….
Jeet (cutting her short): They think I’m just the guitar player, no one knows that I write songs… and good f@#$%*g songs! I deserve credit for that +*&^%$#cker!
(He says shaking his fist at the TLR ceiling) If not now, then when god?!!!
Is there a second album?
Jeet: Yes of course.
Artists give birth to songs in a variety of ways. There aren’t any formulae for these things, so before we get into your second album could you give us an example of how a particular song was written by Sridhar/Thayil? Any one of your choice…
Jeet: Let’s talk about a recent song which was a collaborative effort with Tala Faral ( a jazz pianist and saxophonist from Jakarta settled in Mumbai), Word Works. Suman turned up with this rap. This amazing rap partly about Bombay partly about…
Suman (cutting him short): No, no. You’re talking about Boomtown. This is a rap about gender and power.
Jeet: I get confused because the process of initiation for both these songs are similar. Suman turned up with this rap. Tala put chords to it. I put a riff to it and a hook which went like (he sings)
‘sometimes word come easy
sometimes word come hard’
…and I put an ending where we repeat…
‘Word works not the world’
Yet again it’s very unusual what happens here. People would think I wrote the words and she the riffs and hooks, but in fact it’s the opposite. The one thing that makes ST such a creative force is because we never do what we’re supposed to be doing. And when she writes lyrics that are as good as anything I could ever write, it inspires me to do better musically. I’m always comparing my musical chops with hers. She’s the real music in the band. I’m always comparing my musicality with hers because I’m with a real musician here. I’m an illiterate musician, I taught myself. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to music school. They cribbed to buy me a guitar.
Suman: You went to school for writing.
Jeet: I did, but when I was 38. I wanted to change my life.
Suman: He’s 53.
That I know. That shock happened a while back when you came to my place after dinner with Jayshree and Gyan.
(If you haven’t seen Jeet Thayil, he is a tall slim handsome guy who looks completely ageless. It’s very hard to pin a number on him. And if you do choose a number, it’d be under 35 for sure.)
So what’s happening on the second album? Is Tala part of the band or just guesting?
Jeet: He’s a part of the band for as long as he’s here. He’s gone in July.
Suman: He’s leaving the country.
Jeet: We wanna get some of the new tunes down (recorded) before he leaves. He’s as much a part of it as anyone. He should play on them and be credited. If we can do it before July I’m game.
And I think that’s the way to do it now. Record a song on the fly, once in a while and build it up. ‘Cause, when you go into a studio to do an album, which a lot of people do, it’s a big pressure. You often end up with fillers. I’ve seen that happen a lot. Whereas, if you’re doing it on an ongoing basis you end up with material that’s varied. With a range of moods.
So would you walk in to a studio with, let’s say, 8 almost finished songs or would you enter only once, you’ve done the pre production work at home?
Jeet (asks Suman): How did we do the last one?
Suman: The songs were recorded and re-recorded until we finally… I think the first album was just an experimental process of album making and music making. Because that was my first band ever…first ‘Serious’ band ever. So it was a lot of trial and error and making mistakes and learning about recording. Also technically, it was a curve, teaching myself. Logic (the software) and the language of cables and software, recording and sound cards, and many other things from the geek world. We made so many mistakes that we recorded the album three times over. We did one recording in Jeet’s room in…
Jeet: … in the summer. We put blankets on the wall and recorded with very few clothes on. (Suman laughs) It was that hot… summer in Mumbai. Covered in sweat.
Suman: With the fans off.
Jeet: With the crows cawing outside and eventually…
Suman: …eventually a lot of those home recordings were rejected by friends who were mixing engineers, saying ‘ I can’t mix this’ . So we went through the process of believing that. Jeet was not involved in the technical aspects of recording; I was doing most of that. So there was constant self doubt and I was new on the job … I knew how to sing and write a song but the production angle was new to me then.
That’s surprising for me. I thought Jeet took care of production.
Jeet: No way… that’s the gender switch.
Suman: That’s another thing, that everybody just assumes I’m the pretty singer and he’s…
Jeet: …actually I’m the pretty singer.
Suman: Yes! He’s the pretty singer. He’s the diva. I handle all the f@#$%^g gear (musical equipment). I carry all the heavy shit (no drug references here). I do pushups every day and I hang out with dudes and talk tech.
Jeet: She’s a total nerd and she talks pure technical shit with the most technical dudes on the planet.
Suman: People come up to us and say Suman I love your voice but Jeet’s production is really bad. You should get Randolph (Shaa’ir + Func / Pentagram) to do your production. And I’m like ‘What the f@#*%??!!’
Jeet: This is what I deal with all the time. They’ve heard the album and they assume that she writes all the songs…
Suman: … and you do all the production..
Jeet: … and they believe that’s all I do, while playing some shit guitar in the middle! They just think I’m riding on your coat tails, Check the writing credit motherf#$%^*^!
(Everybody laughs yet again.)
“Suman: …Playing wailing guitar, while I’m scrunching up my nose to keep my nerdy glasses, shouting at you! Bound by the slash.
Bound by the slash.
Jeet: Bound by the slash.”
So when you draped blankets on Jeet’s walls did you think those recordings would make to the album?
Suman: At least for me a lot of the initial spark was lost in the takes, because by the time we went to the studio to do the final takes, sometimes we bettered the home recordings and sometimes not.
Jeet: Sometimes they were worse. Our better takes were the first ones that we did in my noise sweaty bedroom. It’s a f@#$%*^g tragedy! You should hear the first version of Punk Bhajan.
Suman: But instead of beating myself up, this has been a great exercise for me to know what to do and what not to do.
And how would this affect the next album?
Suman: I would now make it as fun and organic as possible. The process is as important, if not more important than this product you are chasing. So do it when you’re inspired. Also now I have way better gear, ‘cause I have worked my balls off in Mumbai and didn’t even take a single holiday. So now I’m working towards improving the home recording situation… (She rattles off a long list of gear she’s gotten recently)… I want to nail that first. So that when we actually record at home it’s something we can keep. So it’s still inspired and still holds that fire!
So does it mean that both of you will take a chunk of your lives out when you start recording the next album? Of course you can give the odd interview (towards Jeet) and you can sing the odd jingle (towards Suman) but largely would it mean that you (Jeet) don’t write a book and you (Suman) don’t take up another project during this period?
Jeet: Yes for sure. That’s the ways it’s always been. For that period, two weeks… whatever, it’ll be only that. Like recently we were on tour with the band. I had nothing to do with books. I did not think about Narcopolis, I didn’t look at email. I was a musician full on. Similarly when I was working on Narcolpolis, those last few months I did nothing else, I was consumed and obsessed. Or even like when we did the album. By the end of it that’s all we ever thought about. Nothing else. And I think all artists need that.
Do you think Narcopolis has cinematic possibilities?
Jeet: It’s already a possibility. But it means a lot to me. Now I’m thinking money. That’s important to me as well. I won’t give Narcopolis film rights away for nothing. I’ve had a lot of stoner friends come to me, like, at the bagel shop or something, and say, “Hey maan!! Hey listen, that Narcopolis, good book maaan. I make movies, so let’s turn that book of yours into a film. ”
I’m like “Sure. Here’s my agent’s email, get in touch with him. It’s part of the contract, he’ll let you know optioning rights etc.”
They presume that I’m a veteran stoner and I’ll be like ” Oh that’s sounds cool! Take it man! It’s all yours! Can I buy you a drink while we’re at it?!!”
And besides film is a different ball game, friendship aside. I would like Wong Kar Wai to make Narcopolis. Why just think about India? I want a great director. Someone who’s not going to make a ‘gritty low budget MTV version’.
Actually Gasper Noe would be the right guy. Don’t you think?
Jeet: I would love that! This is a big budget movie entirely made in the back streets of Calcutta.
Any music videos?
Jeet: I have a friend arriving in November. An excellent film maker. A Shanghai based American film maker called Eric Ransdell . He wants to make a video of one of our new tracks.
So you plan to full budget or underground?
Jeet: Absolutely underground for this. The first video was done by Suman’s sister, Suguna Sridhar. Of Drowning Song. Check it out. It’s a work of art. It’s a no budget work of art. She shot in a fishing village in Korea. Fishermen talking in Korean. Rhythmically edited with drowning song. Expertly cut! It belongs on the wall of a gallery. And I’m so proud of that video.
So that leaves me with no questions to ask apart from where are we getting wasted tonight.
Jeet: One last thing I want to say. The Slash in Sridhar/Thayil is a very important slash.
Suman: People say it’s Sridhar and Thayil but its Sridhar/Thayil.
Jeet: … And as Suman says in the promo for our tour, “We are bound by the slash”. The point of the slash … I mean why we chose it over the ampersand is because Sridhar/Thayil is a writing credit. It’s a project. It’s not a band. The music is one thing that we do. We also wrote a Noir Opera called The Flying Wallahs. We performed it at the Prithvi Theatre. It’s an insane two person opera. Again a no budget situation, two of us did everything. The point of the slash is to bend gender expectations, writing expectations, individual musician expectations, so that everything is blurred and in constant motion. That’s what keeps this project alive, sharp and honest because there’s no role that’s fixed. Often she’s the 53 yr old dude and I am the 18 yr old teenage chick, the slut, out there with my chest open showing my tits…
Suman: …Playing wailing guitar, while I’m scrunching up my nose to keep my nerdy glasses, shouting at you! Bound by the slash.
Bound by the slash.
Jeet: Bound by the slash.