Vishal Dadlani should have gone right.
On 15 January, the lead singer of Pentagram took a wrong turn off the stage after a gig in Gurgaon and missed a career-defining encounter.
Bloodywood: EMI/CounterCulture Records.
The band had just finished their short opening set, filled with new songs from their upcoming album, for British electronica giants The Prodigy. The Prodigy are a huge influence on Pentagram’s sound, and a band they’ve always “dreamed of” playing next to.
Last song done, Dadlani exited the stage from the left, while guitarist Randolph Correia shuffled off to the right. Correia went down a dark stairwell, placed his guitar down to catch his breath and looked up to find The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett and Keith Flint beaming at him. “You’ve been watching us?” he asked them incredulously. “Yeah, we have,” Flint smiled. He took Correia’s hand, shook it and said, “Respect, man.” Correia couldn’t believe it. “I f****** lost it. Holy s***,” he’d say later, breathless, to the camera crew following him around.
“I can’t believe I went left, b*******,” Dadlani replies, caught between incredulity and despair. “I had a choice! I was in the middle. I could have gone left or right, but I went left. F***!”
In their 16 years of playing together, the members of Pentagram have never tried to stay in the middle. The middle ground is too boring for their brash and experimental sound. When not playing crunchy riffs on stage for Pentagram, Correia moonlights as one half of electronica duo Shaa’ir + Func. Dadlani, meanwhile, is one half of Bollywood composing unit Vishal-Shekhar. They straddle these genres and contexts with ease, injecting electro influences into their rock sound, or indie influences into Bollywood projects (just listen to Right Here Right Now from 2005’s Bluffmaster).
The incident in Gurgaon is recounted in an episode of PentaTV, a series of online video shorts the band is putting out before the release of their fourth studio album. Called Bloodywood, the album is a rare, curious kind of beast in Indian indie—a concept album.
The line-up: (from extreme left) Shiraz Bhattacharya, Papal Mane, Randolph Correia and Vishal Dadlani.Photographs by Kunal Kakodkar
“I think there’s a lot on the album about how Bombay affects you. Maybe not directly, not in the sense that, ‘I woke up in the morning and the city f***** me over,’ not ‘The city raised me to great heights,’ whatever,” says Dadlani. “It’s a more real expression of actually being here. This time, this place.”
Songs in Bloodywood draw their imagery from “day-to-day” incidents, and not grandiose conceptions of the city. The album, more than telling a story, seeks to create a sonic signature that is somehow unquestionably Mumbai. “It’s the most personal we’ve ever been,” says Correia. A lot of the lyrics are takes on the glamour and excess of the entertainment industry. “It’s not literally a Bollywood-Bloodywood thing. It’s much deeper. It’s us, singing from the gut, about things that we’ve kept hidden for a long time.”
The song Nutter, for example, came from bassist Papal Mane’s experience with having long hair that brushes his hips. “Papal told me about how people would stare at him when he walked through Mulund station, because he would take two trains to come to rehearsal,” says Dadlani. “That dichotomy of living here and being us, there’s sometimes a bit of a communication issue. Nutter is about the perception of Papal as he walked through Mulund station in 1998.”
Sonically, Bloodywood isn’t a radical departure from Pentagram’s previous albums, at least not the way 2002’s Up was. “With Bloodywood it was like dude, we just have to nail this, present the focus that we’ve acquired over the last three years,” says Correia. “Not to prove it to anyone, but maybe just to ourselves. We’ve arrived and we can accept and love that we are this and it’s f****** great. Let’s not stress.”
Part of that “stress” may be the persistent presence of a vocal group of dissenters at any Pentagram gig, loudly booing either their electronica-inflected sound or Dadlani’s Bollywood connection.
“People tend to think of it as Vishal’s side project, or Vishal’s band,” says Anirudh Voleti, their current tour manager. “With Bloodywood, we want to change that. Make people realize that this is the product of a unified entity called Pentagram.”
But apart from a few detractors, Pentagram is undoubtedly one of India’s biggest indie bands. A recent concert in Guwahati drew more than 6,000 people, who trailed the band post-concert on bikes, singing the lyrics to Lovedrug Climbdown. The band also remains the primary focus for both Correia and Dadlani, in spite of the lucrative success of their respective side projects.
“Look, Pentagram is who I am,” Dadlani says. “The other stuff is the stuff I do. There’s no balance required. That’s my job. This is my life.”
Pentagram start a five-city tour beginning with the Hard Rock Café in Mumbai on 22 March.