'There's never been an attempt to go with the times or do something just because it seems to be 'in' at that point of time, or compromise in any way with what we believe at that point to be true for ourselves.'
'The very fact that there is not much money is good. You will also find that there is a very 'hardcore' element that is so committed to doing things, that something of great value I built up'
'We did a show called Bhoomi Jathre with an assortment of Bangalore's musicians, where we played to an audience of about 400 to 500 people. The next day, we played to a crowd of 2,500 at some corporate party. It was the most pathetic show we've played. '
'If not this, what will you
do with your life?'
Bruce Lee Mani, lead guitarist and vocalist of the rock band Thermal and a Quarter, says his is a band living on the edge
Thermal and a Quarter (TAAQ) are well known in their hometown of Bangalore for their odd name and unique music. They have an impressive repertoire of achievements: from releasing two self-produced albums to opening for classic rock legends, Deep Purple.
Starting off in the late '90s as a successful college-level band, Thermal and a Quarter soon graduated to professional status with a rather radical approach: playing only originals. At a time when typical Indian rock fans were clamouring for covers of Pink Floyd and Bon Jovi, Thermal decided that the time had come to wean them away from such unhealthy diets.
Playing an out of the ordinary mix of funk, jazz and rock, and citing influences as varied Blood, Sweat and Tears, Slayer and James Taylor, Thermal and a Quarter's music is hard to classify. They recently released Jupiter Café that features their unique sound and values. I talked to guitarist and lead vocalist of the band, Bruce Lee Mani (yes, that is his real name) about the album and his views on the growing Indian rock scene.
Do you have any particular philosophy with which you run things in TAAQ?
I don't know if it's one particular philosophy, but if there's one thing on which we all see eye-to-eye, it is that if you do something, believe in it, do it honestly and do it for just about as long as you possibly can. There's never been an attempt to go with the times or do something just because it seems to be 'in' at that point of time, or compromise in any way with what we believe at that point to be true for ourselves. Those things also change. You can't say what you believe in 1995 is what I believe in 2003. Things obviously change, but if you think that something is true for you at that point, do it as honestly as you can. I guess the whole thing boils down to honesty. This is going to continue for as long as we keep playing. I mean, that's what keeps the band together. If we are not honest with our music and with each other, it won't happen. That's it.
How difficult has it been to be original?
I may not be the right person to say this, but I do believe that we have been pioneers in that sense. In Bangalore at least, when we started playing all-original sets at competitions, nobody else was doing it. When we released a self-produced album, nobody else had done it. We've tried to set a standard. This is Indian rock music; it may not sound extremely original at that point of time because we were also finding our voices and developing our own talents. I see myself getting better every week and the stage at which your musicianship is changes what you play. At this stage now, after six years of playing, I believe that we are a lot more unique in our sound. Our original sound may not sound very new or fresh, but we just try and get better.
Why do you think it's important for Indian bands to play original music?
This is not special to Indian bands... any band, if it wants to be more than just a band that plays at parties and says "Hey, we've got some songs to write. We have something to say" has to play originals. There's no question of not doing originals. It's important to do original music if you feel that that's what you want to do. The good thing is that a lot more bands have their own thing to say. If it's important for that band, then it makes sense. But if a band has a very clear agenda to make a lot of money and wants to play big shows, parties and have fun; if they are not interested in struggling to get their own thing and going through five years of pain and torture just to write five songs, then that's their trip. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just that both have to be there. For a long time it was only people saying, "Why do we have to try and buck the system? Let's just go with the flow and do something that makes money". But we need this bunch of guys who are saying, "No, we want to do our own shit. You listen to us. At some point there will be something that comes out that you will think is great".
Do you think that Indian audiences will be more open to Indian rock music?
At the moment, it's really small. That's why doing it is important. This is not like a four or five year plan. This is a 30-year plan. We plan to be doing this for the next thirty years. Maybe, after 25 of those years, there will be a crowd big enough to say that they want to listen to this music. It might take that long. It's just this country. It's just so huge. There's one billion and something people here. It's just too big.
What keeps you going against these odds?
Sometimes I really don't know. It' just that if you don't do this, what will you do with your life? It becomes that much a part of you. Even going back to work now feels so crazy because for the last three or four months, we have been practising three or four hours a day. That's not something I have done for many years now, since I left college. Once I started work, I just didn't have that much time. Now that I've started a family, even that takes so much of my time. To be able to put in four or five hours of practice a day is a luxury; an incredible thing to do if you have the time. Over the last few months I've learnt so much. I'm also teaching now. The amount of information you can push inside yourself is really incredible, and I'm really going to miss it when I go back to work. That's the kind of drive. If you don't do this, you're not even alive. It has to feel like that. Earlier, with work, it was fun, but it wasn't my life. Right now, the band is unable to feed us all and feed itself. So, it's very clear. It's not easy to get back to work, but if we get the chance to go and do our music, we will just go! If we get a record deal, we'll go!
How probable do you think that record deal is?
I don't know. We are still looking at it. At present we have a contract in our hands. I can't divulge anymore than that. It's not something that will happen, or is going to happen. It's come about and we are giving it a good hard look. And what's good about getting it at this point in time is that we know the ins and outs of the business. We've done this. We've released two albums. We know the sales tax, distribution, how much it costs to actually print one measly inlay card, that if you want to sell the album, you have to have this launch show here, this college tour there... the whole deal. We know how it works, and if a company is not willing to do the same thing for us, it doesn't make sense, because we can do that. If we know that money is going into it, it makes sense. And for that to happen, it's got to make sense to the company. They have to see that there is potential in this to make money. That's what everybody is looking for. At some point you have got to make money.
Having tried hard to get deals with the Indian record industry, have you ever grown cynical?
I don't think that there is any point in getting cynical because, in a sense, there's really no logic in going up to someone and saying, "This is really honest art. This is great stuff. You have got to promote this." If it doesn't make money, no one's going to be interested. To be absolutely honest, I don't know even if a company spends Rs 50 lakh on a band, they are going to make it back. Is the crowd willing to go and spend money on a bunch or brown guys that sound very much like white guys? I don't know if that's going to work. The point at which they know they can make money, it's going to happen.
Do you think that there are any merits to the scene being so small?
Of course. The very fact that there is not much money is good. You will also find that there is a very 'hardcore' element that is so committed to doing things, that something of great value I built up. Something that people want to have. Even now, it feels really great when guys in Delhi are begging for our CDs. If it was available everywhere, it's a different thing, you could just go and buy it. Now, someone has really got to want it to buy it. It's nice. It builds a real core following. We have played huge shows, but of late we have much smaller attendance of about a hundred to two hundred people. But it's a hundred people that know every song and sing along. And maybe that's all there is. Maybe there are only a hundred people in Bangalore who really dig our stuff. But it's ok. We don't want to play to three thousand people, because these guys are the guys who really matter. They'll come and they'll support us.
Does the need to 'feed yourself' ever interfere with the satisfaction you get from doing such small shows?
We did a show called Bhoomi Jathre with an assortment of Bangalore's musicians, where we played to an audience of about 400 to 500 people. We played for 15 minutes because it was three o'clock in the morning, and we made a small amount of money. The next day, we played to a crowd of 2,500 at some corporate party. We got paid a shitload of money, and it was the most pathetic show we've played. The best shows we do are the ones in which we make the smallest amounts of money. We go back saying, "Man! That was a show!" The shows with which we can pay our rent and cut albums and do all that other stuff, we end up saying, "Shucks! Why did we do that?" (Laughs). It's been like that with this band. It doesn't have to be that way with other bands. But it's always happened like this, except for the Deep Purple show, where we didn't make any money; that was a good show for us.
Tell me more about Jupiter Café. The first album was made on such a small scale, while this album is just bigger. How did you go about doing that?
It's only bigger in relative terms. To sell a thousand copies is still something big (laughs). The production was an attempt by a small-time band to get a product that was comparable to anything you could get internationally. It would sound as good and look as good as anything out there. Just to say that we can do it also. And it is very close to what we had in mind, but there were ertain compromises we had to make because we simply didn't have the money. But in terms of sound and how the CD and inlay card looks, I think we have come very, very close to anything that any band abroad has made. We keep going back to 'abroad' because that's where we feel 'it's been done'. A lot of our influences come from there.
Is making it big abroad a dream for TAAQ?
I don't know. I think we'd rather make it big here. Looking at the way things are here it might make sense to go there, make a name for yourself, and when you come back, somehow your worth has tripled or quadrupled even though you are making the same shit. That's just how this country works. It may make sense to do it, but it's not so simple.
Jupiter Café seemed to have a thread to it. What's behind the whole album?
There is a thread to it. I wrote eight of the songs and Rzhude (bass and vocals) wrote two of them. For some reason I've been interested in studying things: small systems, large systems, people... As a band we are always observing things. That's just the way we are. At that point, we were writing a lot of songs about living in the city. All of us were in our first jobs, we were trying to balance our careers, our music... finding so many things that were lacking in one that we found in another. Various complications happened trying to do both. Jupiter Café is pretty much about that: living in the city, trying to do things that mean something and at the same time trying to do things that you really don't care about, but that we just have to. We didn't write the songs like that. They were all written at different times, but we found that there was a very perceptible thread running through the whole thing and that's why it's in that order. The title track itself is slightly different. It's an interesting, but sad story about a guy in IIT Kanpur who was sort of messed up; he was a druggie and he committed suicide. The song is about his room, which had a sign outside saying, 'Jupiter Café, Regular trips to Jupiter and back'. Even though I don't do anything like that, it just seemed like an interesting story. It's not really about the drugs or anything; it's about the rebellion they stand for. It's about doing things outside the system and being able to believe in something that other people don't think is right or what you should be doing.
Do you find that TAAQ inherently does not fit into the system?
I think so. In many ways we are not very tied to the system. Even in our personal lives, we have always been consciously against it, even though at certain times, like now when we are searching for jobs again, and we are forced to get back into it, we are always on the very edge. We walk the fine line and if there is even a whisper of a tug we will fall and keep flying for as long as we can. For me personally, over the past couple of years, I have become more and more conscious of the things that I believe are wrong about the way we live in this society. Simple things like not drinking Coke anymore. It just doesn't make sense to me. If I think about it long enough, I may find reasons to substantiate that, but I don't want to. I just want to do it. I am not asking anyone else to do it.
TAAQ organised an anti-war concert called Peace Rocks. Do you work with a strong political view that comes through in the music?
I think that, even though we don't consciously strive to do that, there is a strong undercurrent of anti-establishmentarianism that is not very open. We have often been accused of writing very cryptic lyrics. We like that. You can make your own interpretation. If it makes sense to you in one way, great! If it doesn't, I'm sorry, pick another song! But I think there is a strong undercurrent of getting away from what other people tell you is right. You know, find your own truth.
Read review of TAAQ's debut self-titled album
Published on 22 May 2003
to the editor