Parekh & Singh: Pandas, ghosts and candy-coloured suits
There is something decidedly unmistakable about these boys from Kolkata, dressed in well-cut mustard-coloured suits, with a practised deadpan. Their lyrics evoke a dreamy parallel city where the world is often turned upside down, animals roam wild and teenage love and hate collide. Their musical and visual cues range from Michael Jackson to Geri Halliwell, Woody Allen to Wes Anderson. Despite coming of age in the city’s live music circles, Jivraj Singh (30) and Nischay Parekh (24) have carved out a new template for themselves.
In 2016, Parekh & Singh signed on with UK-based indie label Peacefrog Records, which re-released their debut album, Ocean, and helped the duo create a distinct visual language. Their first video for the song I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll had garnered 1,179,626 views as of 2 November, a record for an indie act from India. They have gained a new fan base and held tours across festival circuits in India, the UK and Ireland.
Lounge met up with the duo before their shows at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House and the newly opened performance venue in its compound, The Quarter, last week. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Your two shows in Mumbai’s Royal Opera House are very different from each other and also from what you normally do.
These gigs mark completely new territory for us. A few months ago, Ranjit Barot (musician and composer) reached out to us and wanted us to do two shows, which would be completely different from what we normally do. For the performance inside the Royal Opera House, he suggested a string quartet and it was an idea we had been toying with for a while as strings are already a part of the music. Given that we are a Calcutta-based duo, it is not easy to work with musicians in another city. A string quartet can practise their specific parts and it can still sound rehearsed. On our other tours, we have had different musicians perform with us, but they have played parts that already existed in the music. With the string section, we have a new voice in the music and performing in a sit-down proscenium-style theatre like the opera house is also very new and exciting for us.
The gig at The Quarter has songs that we studied and have grown up with. And these range from Michael Jackson and Coldplay to Drake, which we have reimagined, restructured and rendered in our style since the two of us obviously cannot sound like all these bands.
How challenging or liberating is it to be a two-member band?
When we first started out, it was only drums, guitar and voice. There was no technology, electronics or additional tracks, and we gradually built a template to what we are doing now. Over the last three years, we have learnt how to do this better. We felt that we had to write our own rules as we went along and grew and our project has been an exploration and discovery of that. Of course there have been many instances when we feel like, “Oh man if we only had a bass player, this would be so much easier”, but I think this constraint has made us stronger composers. Since it’s only the two of us, we can’t just jam and hope it sounds good. We actually have to compose pieces for every single instrument that we plan to use. It’s fun and difficult at the same time.
Your video for ‘I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll’ took the internet by storm. Do people recognize you on the streets now?
The song was already out there since 2013 and there were those who liked it in its own right. But the song with that kind of a video resonated more. As an Indian band writing English music, to get more than a million hits on YouTube was a huge deal for us. We thought that was only possible for those who did Bollywood or bad cheesy things. It is great to know that there is an audience out there and that they are ready to be engaged. And I think this is largely because of the context we created for the music. I wouldn’t say people rush up to us in the streets, and especially when we are not in suits, nobody recognizes us, but occasionally in performance venues like this, people come up and talk to us.
One cannot think of Parekh & Singh without the trademark suits. What is the story behind these non-regulation uniforms?
When we got together and started doing gigs, we tried a bunch of things, but never managed to come up with a proper look. We finally decided to wear suits out of sheer desperation, and were donning the standard blacks and blues. Then, when we got signed on by Peacefrog, they suggested a more focused look in different colours like mustard, powder blue and red, drawn from Yashasvi Mathis’ artwork on our album cover for Ocean. Before that, we hadn’t even thought of custom costumes, but then we realized that the suits made us instantly identifiable. A suit is about simplicity and structure, at the same time there is something nostalgic and classic about it as well. And those are the feelings we wanted to evoke with our music as well. We source the material in different colours and then they are tailored by the Kolkata-based bespoke firm Barkat Ali & Bros, and since they are also creative people at the end of the day, they get what we want.
Both of you live and work in Kolkata. How does the city inspire you musically as well as aesthetically?
A lot of people tell us that our music comforts them and feel that is possible because it comes from a place of comfort, and that is what Kolkata gives us. It is slow, things are not very expensive and it is a city that is basically frozen in time and culture and socio-economic growth. In terms of a larger picture and a more human perspective, this is a bad thing, but from a very selfish and artistic perspective, it is an incubating pod—a chrysalis that has embalmed us in a state of sleepiness, and you can afford to be lazy and not worry about things like rent or travelling from one part of the city to the next. Basically, it is an easy city and allows us to make music that’s easy. And it’s also beautiful, and there are untouched bits where the city hasn’t quite overtaken nature or has crumbled away, leaving something lovely behind.
Our entire project, in a sense, is an ode to Kolkata as this specific combination of things—our music, our suits, our videos—could only have happened in this city.