Peter Cat Recording Co on new album Bismillah, the band's visual aesthetic and aiming for more than escapism
Indie band Peter Cat Recording Co discuss how Bismillah marks the end of an old chapter for them and the start of something new. They also speak about the 'political' nature of their art: To not honestly respond to what's happening around seems strange and hollow to some degree, they say
Some bands have that one song which is capable of converting a non-fan into an ardent listener. For Delhi-based five-piece act Peter Cat Recording Co, that song is possibly ‘Portrait of a Time’. “I wasn’t breakin’ any rules/ There just wasn’t the time,” declares lead singer and guitarist Suryakant Sawhney at the start of a track that begins with upbeat jazz and has an electronic bridge, as NME notes. If I had to describe the vibe of the song, I’d say it’s akin to dancing at a Goan Catholic wedding – where everyone sways with abandon and the happiness is palpable (two drinks down).
“And why is it I pray/ To Gods that always fail,” asks Suryakant in the third stanza of ‘Love Demons’, which morphs into a fast-paced dance song, but not before an interlude that sounds a lot like the background score that played in Bollywood movies to announce the arrival of a villain or the occurrence of something tragic.
This coming-together of genres is characteristic of the band’s work, and writers can’t seem to decide how to categorise Peter Cat Recording Co: One RollingStone India article calls them a “gypsy jazz/waltz rock” band, while The New Indian Express describes their music as “retro Hindi music-inspired electronica meets Sam Cooke vibe”. Wild City terms them an ‘anomaly’, and Art Dose says their work is marked by “a distinct strain inspired as much by classic Bollywood disco as American soul and jazz.”
Considering this, it is unsurprising that the band doesn’t have a singular creative process. It varies from song to song, they say. “Some are made in unplanned moments after a long night, some skeletons are written by Suryakant or someone else. There's always a pool of ideas to begin from,” they explain in an interview to Firstpost. The band, which is nearly a decade old, is currently composed of Dhruv Bhola, Kartik Pillai, Rohit Gupta and Karan Singh.
The visual aesthetic of the band is as striking as its music. Sample ‘I’m Home’, where a man dressed in black – an embodiment of Death (the video credit seems to suggest this) – visits a woman at a funeral. Before he can barge into the funeral, he stumbles through the Great Wall of China, presumably drunk. Or watch ‘Copulations’, which starts off with real footage of suffering and strife in human society, interrupted by shots of two world leaders. This is followed by four minutes of dogs frolicking by the beach.
“With time, the visual aesthetic of the band has become clearer, and it seems to straddle the space between realism and romanticism of ideas and philosophies. There's definitely a tendency to imbibe genuine moments and experiences caught on camera with some sort of surreal perspective, as if one was able to view them with a different, objective lens despite being there,” they say.
Bismillah, their latest album, has been two years in the making. The band says that the vision for this album began to exist once the recording and the art started to come together. “Then it began to obviously feel like a celebration of something, and we felt it could simply be a celebration of an almost decade-long journey before we move forward,” they say.
Bismillah marks the end of a chapter for Peter Cat Recording Co, and the start of a new phase. Previously, Suryakant was the principal writer for many songs, but the group has now evolved such that there are three distinct songwriters. “We will finally be truly exploring this as well as finding closure in so many of the sounds and genres we began with. Musically speaking, there's a desire to begin from scratch and look towards something we aren't as sure of,” the band says.
‘Floated By’ from the latest album has been shot at a wedding – Suryakant Sawhney's own. The band felt it was the perfect opportunity to capture ‘a real portrait of so many people who mattered and contributed to life’. Filmmaker Sachin Pillai, band member Kartik’s brother, shot small portions over the course of two days, with contributions from Suryakant. “Like many of our videos, it was something we semi-planned and then watched [it] evolve into what it could be,” the band says.
Recently, the band spoke about how buying music directly from an artist can empower them. "We do not wish to be bound by the whims of streaming and internet companies. For once it all dissolves, so will we. Make an effort to buy our music from us so that we may become invincible. Make an effort to come see our shows so that we may move you,” they wrote.
This stems from their belief that today, artists are bound by technological monopolies, and that the disappearance of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook can result in the abrupt end of the thread between the band and its listeners. “There needs to be a direct mode of communication developed beside the existing ones. This includes how our music is distributed – mailing lists, for example, which allow people to directly contact the band for music or hear new pieces. Streaming and social media services must not be the only gatekeepers,” they say.
The band's music – and by extension, its social media presence – does not shy away from being political. In one Facebook post, the simply-put, unadorned words “Vote for Aam Aadmi Party” precede a link to ‘Where the Money Flows’. The video of this song is a comment on the Indian government’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes in 2016.
“We don't think our music really veers into the political realm but more of the philosophy behind living as both an individual and part of something larger. For us to not honestly respond to what's happening around then, albeit in our own way, seems strange and hollow to some degree. We don't judge those who don't, but this is our personal take on the matter. Escapism isn't the only emotion we wish to provoke,” they say.
Peter Cat Recording Co will be playing at Farzi Cafe, Aerocity in Delhi on 30 May. More details here.
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