Q&A: Thermal and a Quarter
One of India’s finest and oldest bands on being unapologetic brown people who play rock
If longevity was the only yardstick to judge the worth of a rock band, Thermal And A Quarter (Taaq) would be right there somewhere at the top of the heap. But that would be faint praise for this Bengaluru band, which has consistently produced great music and created a number of firsts by an Indian band.
Taaq, as they are popularly known, describe their music as “Bangalore rock”, a style that is rooted in the Western rock idiom, but is Indian in “subtle, inescapable ways”. Taaq’s songs pack in a variety of genres: rock, funk, blues, jazz, prog and soul, to name a few. They are also fine chroniclers of life in their city, which they describe as a big city with the heart of a small town. But in their newest album, The Scene, their sixth, Taaq cast their net wide and critique the state of the indie music community in the country.
Formed in 1996, guitarist and vocalist Bruce Lee Mani and drummer Rajeev Rajagopal have stuck through thick and thin. The current line-up is completed by bassist Leslie Charles, who joined in 2012. Taaq’s first album, Thermalandaquarter.com, which arrived in 2000, cast an alarming look at the pensioners’ paradise, Bengaluru, turning into India’s Silicon Valley. The concept album Jupiter Café, released a couple of years later, “reflected the angst of Bangalore, a city that was gaining notoriety as the back office of the world”. Plan B (2005) and its follow-up, This Is It (2008), cemented Taaq’s reputation as one of the premier Indian rock bands. By this time, Taaq had garnered a sizeable following in other parts of the country and even started performing abroad. 3 Wheels 9 Lives (2012) was a monumental effort featuring 28 songs spread over three discs.
Mani (BLM) and Rajagopal (RR) spoke to us about the album and the music scene in the country. Edited excerpts:
After years of writing songs about Bengaluru, have you now set your sights on the entire country with the new album? And is the music scene in Bengaluru any different from the rest of the country?
BLM: Sure, we’ve got quite a few songs that are obviously “about” Bangalore, and the bulk of our material probably has a south Indian perspective, but I wouldn’t say we’ve “set our sights” like you mention. We’ve travelled all over this land playing music and many of the ground realities are the same. The Bangalore music scene is great; I’d say it’s among the best in the country, for various reasons—audience quality, number of venues, number of bands…
RR: “Bangalore rock” is what we’ve named our sound…and that’s not only because we’ve written songs with references to the scene in Bangalore. It’s also because of a particular character of our music that we feel is derived from living in this city. The non-commercial independent scene seems to be the same wherever we’ve played, be it Delhi or Seattle, Chennai or London, Pune or Hong Kong. If you’re in it for the music, then the journey is what it’s all about. Our country feels like it has the entire universe in it…so yeah, if The Scene touches people in this entire country, it would be quite a feat.
There is a lot of vitriol in most of the songs on this album. Is it a more recent phenomenon that has precipitated this jaundiced set of songs?
RR: All our previous albums have a song or two touching upon some aspect of the scene: 3 Wheels 9 Lives had Who Do We Have Sex With?, asking that ever so important question about who we should be sleeping with to make it big in the music business. This Is It, the album title track, was written at a time when playing live music in bars in Bangalore was banned on grounds of immorality. Plan B had Paper Puli written after an “interview” with an Indian music journalist who generally did most of the talking himself. Jupiter Café had Look At Me, about us brown people playing rock music, while being totally unapologetic about being Indian in any way. Our first album had the hit song (smiles) Potatoe Junkie, urging audiences to get over their soap-opera addictions and get their asses down to live gigs. This is the first time that it’s been the central theme of an album though.
BLM: I’d say it’s something that’s grown on us after being around for so long on the scene. The 2013 Fringe tour also put many things in perspective for us—how artistes around the world engage in work that is non-mainstream or non-commercial, find a way, find meaning, and continue to grow and better themselves at every turn—while being confounded by ill-educated audiences, unfeeling sponsors, passing fads and suchlike. While The Scene might seem vitriolic, it’s also based very much on reality, on stuff that actually happens, on characters that we’ve actually met. You’ll see shades of this from Paper Puli times.
And do you see any silver lining amid all this gloom?
BLM: It’s definitely not all gloom! Apart from the title track and perhaps The Sponsors Backed Out, all the other songs are actually quite cheerful and upbeat, don’t you think? And like we’ve mentioned in the album notes, all this stuff is just fantastic creative fodder, which is always good to have around. Despite all the trials and tribulations and unsavoury characters, playing this music is what we love to do; all said and done, we’ve managed to be full-time musicians in this scene for some time now, so it’s all good actually.
RR: Taking the piss out of GodRockers (the so-called godfathers of the scene), who try to define the scene, medicated EDM fans and their groovy facial hair, etc., etc., has been quite a happy trip for us. This album is not about gloom at all.
Leslie Charles is the latest bassist to be a part of Taaq. Does having him in the line-up change the group’s dynamics?
BLM: Leslie’s been a great addition to the band. The classic “angry young man”, this is a guy with serious musical chops, not just bass-playing. He’s really low-maintenance and superb to work with. His R&B/funk/soul leanings are very evident in the sound now and some of those lines—man, they’re so greasy!
When were the songs on ‘The Scene’ written: after ‘3 Wheels, 9 Lives’ came out in 2012?
BLM: The Scene was written almost completely in 2014. It began with a bunch of lyrics I’d put down without really connecting them all together to become the “concept” album that it is now. The album process was fairly quick—the quickest we’ve done, in fact. Songs like I’m Endorsed, Are You and GodRocker were finished a few hours before they were recorded. So this whole album is pretty “fresh”, even for us. Our typical process across the last few albums was to write the songs, tour with them extensively and then record them—which sometimes meant that we were already sort of “tired” of the songs by the time we got to the studio to put them down. This was very different, and very nice in that way. The Scene was also the first creative process with Leslie, and going by how that went, we might get another album out this year.
‘The Scene’ features a lot of horns and keyboards. Is that something which is going to be a steady feature of Taaq songs?
BLM: We’ve variously told people that I received some sort of boon and can now play 14 instruments. The truth is, I acquired a guitar synth about two years ago. We had gotten tired of trying to find horn players and keyboardists, who would show up for rehearsal and play the stuff we wanted them to play, so I figured I’d try and do it all myself and become even more of a control-freaked megalomaniac. I’d first experimented with a synth many years ago and was unable to get much with the level of the technology available then. With the new unit, it’s quite amazing the stuff you can do, if you’ve got the time and patience to work with it and make it part of your sound.
We’ve always loved the layered sound of bands like Steely Dan and Blood Sweat and Tears, and this is the best way for us right now to get close to that. I’m running seven lines on stage now, and bringing in the horns and keyboards and accordions etc., all played on the guitar, during various parts of the song. I’ve got different strings assigned to different instruments. I’ve got alternate tunings running at the same time. Yes, it’s all live. It’s a bit of a bheja fry on stage and I’m finding the need for super-precise monitoring, but it’s a lot of fun, and I’m getting on top of it now. It’s great to learn to actually play like those instrumentalists do; you have to get into their heads and see how they approach their instruments, to sound believable.