They are Namma Bengaluru’s beloved folk-rockers whose visually electric, high-energy live act is one musical experience to die for! Yes, it took 3 years for them to release their second album ‘Topiwalleh‘ (blame it on their extensive tours) but it was worth the long wait and you will agree if you listen to the numbers. Our very own musical genie Usha Amudan in conversation with Vasu, Varun, Sanjeev,Pavan and Jishnu of Swarathma.
I have to say there are very few covers that actually stand out. Both your album covers are colorful. It’s like Holi on a single page. Creativity much?
Vasu/Vocals & Guitar: Actually we don’t do covers, we play our own compositions… well…sorry I couldn’t resist that.
We believe that our music is a reflection of what young India today is and our art-form (designs) reflects that. When we have costumes and performance that reflects a vibrant celebration and theatrics, the intention is that our design should also reflect the same to have a cohesive message to put across. Each medium of work should support each other: music-costume-graphic-film-marketing. So there is no way that our designs could be anything but colourful; be it the truck/Indian Kitsch art in the first album or the newspaper as our theme in the second one. Having said that as a designer and as a person I also have a natural inclination towards colourful stuff, you should check out my wardrobe some time (3D goggles available before opening it).
What has changed since the release of “Swarathma”?
Varun/Guitars: There have been a lot of changes both musically and personally. Musically we feel a lot more confident to enter a recording studio or even play gigs. Songwriting has evolved a lot over the years with each of us exploring constantly and expanding our musical boundaries to include a wider spectrum of everything we come across in our daily life. This has brought out a great sonic difference in the band. Besides travelling with the band and spending so much time together has helped us understand each other so much more than what we did a couple of years back. And it is a journey and this will only grow into something bigger with each day passing by.
“Topiwalleh”, how has the response been for the new album?
Varun/Guitars: There have been some really good responses and a couple of not-so-good responses too, due to sharp shift in the sound of the band with a lot of heavy influences being added to the band’s sound. As a matter of fact there are still a lot of reviews that are still coming out as we speak. But from the point of view of people who matter, their response has been very encouraging, and we’re happy about it!
Tell us about the collaborations involved with “Topiwalleh”? How has that aided in the formation of the album.
Sanjeev/Violins: In Topiwalleh, the collaborations happened at multiple stages. During the songwriting, we collaborated with Devanand Varaparasad, a folk artist, during our song writing workshop in Mysore. The idea for the song Koorane was born out of this collaboration.
Once we were ready to record the album, we were helped greatly by Loy Mendonsa, a veteran musician of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy fame. The best part about collaboration with Loy was that he did not try to change our songs, but he gave them that extra edge to take them to the next level. Thanks to Loy we managed to up our production levels compared to the first album.
If you thought the percussion section sounded nice and tight in Topiwalleh, here’s why: Vivek Rajagopalan on mridangam, ghatam and Raju Sardar on the dholak. Both came on board and nailed the parts in no time!
We got second time lucky when we had the rare opportunity to collaborate with the legendary Hindustani Singer Shubha Mudgal for The Dewarists. Little did we know when we wrote and recorded this song in Mysore in less than 4 days that it will one day become part of our second album Topiwalleh. But considering the vibe of the song and the overall reception it received, there was no way we could leave it out!
On the lyrics department, we were helped a great deal by Puneet Sharma, Samir Shisodia and Imran Chowdhury. In fact, the term Topiwalleh for the title track was coined by Imran.
It was a great experience working with each one of them and without their help and support, this album wouldn’t have sounded the way it does.
The growing indie scene is largely popular among the younger Indian audience, incorporating the social factor into the lyrics might actually entice the older population to give your chords a listen. What’s your take on that?
Pavan/Percussions & Vocals: First of all I don’t think the indie scene is largely popular only among the younger Indian audience. From the personal experiences I have realized that audiences from all age groups tend to enjoy the music. Usually the older population is less seen at the venues, may be because of reasons like inability to stand for long periods of time at gigs. The indie scene in India has been there for the past several years, but only now it is gaining popularity. I am sure older people also wanted to make independent music but might not have been accepted positively then. But incorporating the social factor into the lyrics might add an advantage also, both for the young and older audience. Reason being everyone in the society has something to say. And when we as artists bring that out on stage with along with music, it is like representing their concern. So naturally it will be embraced, across age groups.
Swarathma’s music for the indie film, “Greater Elephant”. How does that feel?
Jishnu/Bass & Vocals: To begin with it feels great to be able to support the Elephant! On a more serious note, it feels wonderful to be able to contribute music to an independent film. We know and respect Srinivas Sunderrajan (of Enter Guerilla Films) via his association with metalcore band Scribe. In fact, we’ve even collaborated with Scribe on a couple of occasions. So when he came to us with the idea of the film and wanted to use our music, we were more than happy. If you watch the film you’ll realize that Swarathma’s music does fit in really well with the theme of the film and its sequences. It was also great to hear that the film won the jury prize at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York!
Tell us about “Action Replay”. What brought about the venture and how has the response been thus far?
Vasu/Vocals & Guitar: I’m not sure if the order of these events are right but here it is: We were travelling to Naukuchiatal (home of Shubha Mudgal ji) to stay at Shubhaji’s mother’s house and ‘chill’, that’s when Shubhaji’s mother suggested that we should perform for the locals there and some children from a residential school there. So we did jugaad for a basic sound system which could produce some sound and did a show which was the beginning of our Action Replay shows. As a part of the same tour, we went to Kolkata and played a show for the children (girls) rescued from human trafficking across border and it was an amazing experience to see those children smiling and dancing. This gave us more hope and strength in believing our music and what we can do with it. Basically we felt that such shows are the ones which satisfy us as artists and also do more than just entertain, there is an unknown connection that happens with such audiences who open their hearts and accept you with much love and warmth. So we decided to take this as a serious step and Jishnu with his marketing brains came-up with the name ‘Action Replay’. And from then on we’ve played at leprosy centres, Blind schools, Old-age homes and many such place where people wouldn’t have even thought of watching a live band play, they probably would never get close an opportunity like that in their lives. The response so far has been something that enriches and makes us believe in our music and keep going on. This is why I want to keep singing, because I know that I need to reach out to such people as well, while I also do corporate shows which pay our bills.
Recommend a track from either album for the first time Swarathma listener.
Jishnu/Bass: From the debut album Swarathma – ‘Pyaasi’. From the new album Topiwalleh: ‘Topiwalleh’.
What was the band aiming when it started off years ago?
Sanjeev/Violins: Swarathma started as any other college band back in 2002, trying to make original music and have fun in the process. Of course, the desire to do well was there – but so was the desire to make music that was original and music one can relate to. I think at that time, given where Swarathma was, getting a chance to perform on stage was a big deal. But the band stuck to what they were good at, writing songs and performing them at whatever opportunities came by.
Cut to 2007, the aim is still pretty much the same, only the desire has become much stronger. The lineup changed and with the new people came new ideas, new sounds and new expressions. The ideology remains the same, to make music one can relate to.
What’s next in the pipeline for the band?
Jishnu: I think we need a much needed break after the hard work we put into the writing, recording, post-production, promotion and touring for the album Topiwalleh! I don’t remember working so hard ever before, and everyone in the band played their part. I think it is important to rest, rejuvenate and return with fresh minds for what lies ahead. For the next year or so, we intend to promote Topiwalleh and the songs from it with more concerts, taking our music to more places and people. We would like to put out a live album, pretty soon. That will be our focus. We also want to start writing material for the third album and collaborate and share musical ideas with more artists.
Upcoming projects? Performances?
We’re working on the new anthem for youth TV channel Bindass. That should be interesting. As for performances, it is the end of the season, so you should ask us this 2 months from now.
A note to your fans:
Jishnu: Big love, thanks and respect for listening to us and supporting us for all these years. It would not have been possible without you.
Fill in the blank. People who love _____________will love our music.
Varun – People who would love us for what we are will love our music
Sanjeev – People who love listening to music that touches the soul will love our music
Pavan – People who love simplicity and honesty will love our music.
Vasu – People who love art which is more than just entertainment will love our music.
Jishnu – People who love the courage of conviction will love our music.