WHEN SOUNDS ARE MUSIC
UNDAUNTED BY CHALLENGES, INDIAN MUSICIANS ARE BOLSTERING THE FLEDGLING GENRE OF LEFT-FIELD ELECTRONICA
Late last month, guitarist/composer/soundsmith Kartik Pillai dropped Service Animal, his seventh release under the JAMBLU moniker. Pillai is better known as the guitarist for indie rock band Peter Cat Recording Co., but he has also been putting out jagged, experimental soundscapes like JAMBLU since 2013. Recorded over six months in Kerala, where Pillai was stranded along with his family during the first Covid-19 lockdown, Service Animal is a collection of woozy lo-fi ballads. It is also the latest addition to the small but growing oeuvre of leftfield Indian electronica.
Casual music listeners tend to think of electronic music as pure dance fuel. But the original aim of electronic music was to break music free from the tyranny of “natural” tone and timbre, to see how far you could push the limits of sound and musicality. And while most commercially successful electronica has become boxed in by the constraints of the club, there have always been artistes, scenes and sometimes entire movements that have kept the flame of experimentation alive.
Over the past decade, events like The Listening Room, Disquiet and Synth Farm created spaces for experimental artistes to perform live. Soon, a horde of bedroom producers and parttime tinkerers emerged: noise exponents Jessop&Co and SISTER, instrument-inventors ISRO, sampledelic producer Babloo Babylon, political dungeon-dub artiste RAVANA, among others.
More established artistes, like techno pioneer Arjun Vagale, have also started dabbling in leftfield, non-commercial sounds. Vagale, who makes raw, industrial-edged electronica under the AsymetriK label, says, “Often, one gets pigeonholed for the
With more events creating spaces for live performances, a horde of bedroom producers and parttime tinkerers have emerged
sound they are known for. But once you break the mould, you allow yourself the freedom to express yourself, regardless of genre. AsymetriK is my playground for such experiments.”
Vagale, like Pillai, has a musical day job to pay the bills. Other experimental artistes have been able to shape their adventures into more accessible tunes, like Lifafa’s honing of his early freewheeling soundscapes into commercially viable avant-pop. But for artistes like Leh’s Ruhail Qaisar—who fronts SISTER and has an album out on Berlin’s Danse Noire label this October—it’s difficult to find financial sustainability. Far from dreaming of stardom, Qaisar is just hoping to build enough of an international audience to play the occasional European tour and do a day job alongside. “The industry in India is run by this gate-keeping network; there’s no money for experimental music,” says Qaisar. “But I don’t want to compromise on my music.”
That uncompromising stance runs through the current wave of left-field soundsmiths. Perhaps that’s necessary when you make music so abrasive that it can empty the room in seconds (as in the first time Jessop&Co played Mumbai), or so gut-wrenching that you leave with an emotional concussion (Disco Puppet). It’s not that the international experimental scene is a route to stardom. But in India, making experimental music can often seem akin to screaming into the void. JAMBLU, for example, has released three records since 2019, and received barely any review or acknowledgement from the Indian music press.
“That made me look deeper inside and ask why I’m doing this in the first place,” says Pillai. “Because this is not mainstream music, and I can make mainstream music. I’m not doing it because I have a vision for what I like music to be, and that’s deeply personal. If somebody connects with it, I’m finding that more and more special.” He concludes ruefully, “I don’t know what exactly is keeping me going. But I know I want to keep doing it.” ■