Smalltalk, big impression: Mumbai-based neo-soul quartet discuss their dazzling debut EP, Tacit
Before embarking on their multi-city tour, Smalltalk took some time out to have a chat about their influences, their debut EP, Tacit, and how it came about.
The urban clamour of Mumbai has been a backdrop for its iconic music scene since the golden age of jazz in the 1930s. In the following decades, the city garnered an unmatched reputation for its genre-bending, cross-cultural approach to contemporary music. A long-time cultural hub, it continues to breed talented new musicians quite unlike any other in India.
Adding to this ever-growing family of artists is Smalltalk. Merging soul, R&B and jazz influences, the four-piece act have made a name for themselves in Mumbai's thriving live music scene with spacey, intoxicating jams that you can't help but get pleasantly lost in. The band — comprising vocalist Samarth Bahl, guitarist Siddharth Shankar, bassist Yohann Coutinho and drummer Linford Owen D'Souza — released their debut EP Tacit last week and will soon be going on a four-city launch tour starting this Sunday.
Before embarking on their tour, Smalltalk took some time out to have a chat about their influences, their debut EP and how it came about.
Smalltalk (then stylised as smxlltxlk) began as a song writing project for Bahl, Jared Creado (bassist for BLEK) and D'Souza. On Creado's exit, Coutinho was drafted into the band as they soon graduated from practicing in their basement to a well-equipped jam room. After being featured on BalconyTV, Bahl brought in his fellow TSM (The True School of Music) alumnus, Siddharth, to add another instrumental element to the music.
There was no doubt Smalltalk had a unique gift for hook-driven pop-rock music and they balanced it with an indie edge and just the right amount of the city's melting pot inventiveness. But in Mumbai's flourishing music scene, they were just another promising but relatively unknown multi-hyphenate band.
It was in the pop-rock-electronica space but as Bahl pricelessly puts it, "Siddharth came and jazzed all over it." And soon, the band became a more recognisable name at Mumbai's premier live music venues.
Following numerous gigs and well-received performances at venues like antiSOCIAL and Bangalore's The Humming Tree, Smalltalk also had success at Pune's Bandcubator and IIT Bombay's Mood Indigo Livewire contests in 2017 helping them establish a substantial fan following. And Siddharth can't help but gush over the impact these events had on the band's fortunes. "Winning Bancubator was definitely our first break into the collective awareness of people who follow the music scene in Mumbai and Pune," he says. "It also provided us the material assets that allowed us to go ahead and create this EP. The cash and the recording deal removed to a large degree the usual considerations of time, money, etc. that can discourage a venture like this for a new act — like we were at the time — and allowed us to concentrate purely on the quality of the product. So, overall, we owe quite a lot to that competition for enabling us to get to where we are now."
But they knew they needed to extend their ears beyond the stage and develop a more distinct soundscape if they were to establish their artistic identity. So, they began working on their first EP to raise awareness about their music.
Though they started out as four strangers with a shared interest in music, they became good pals over the various jam sessions and that band camaraderie sure shines on the end product.
D'Souza says, "We jam as often as we can. Our jams are structured but, at the same time, designed to channel spontaneity. We try to make the most efficient use of inspiration when it strikes."
Tacit's sound is a convergence of the band's four personalities, who all lend their individual influences and abilities to a common voice. "We listen to a lot of different music but the sound of the band is shaped largely by the soul and R&B movement — artists like Kendrick Lamar, D'Angelo and Hiatus Kaiyote" says Coutinho before adding, "We do incorporate certain styles that aren't synonymous with these artists, but that is largely credited to us individually growing up to a variety of different sounds — from John Mayer to The Beatles to Limp Bizkit to Dido to Shpongle."
With such granularity of styles and influences among its members, genres often become blurred. Expectedly, Smalltalk don't concern themselves too much with genres, sub-genres and other labels coined out of commercial demands or critical pedantry. Bahl, articulate as ever, says, "In my experience, the act of verbalising something tends to dilute its meaning; that's why we compose music after all — to communicate things we can't verbalise. We didn't want to suggest much with the title either and let the songs speak for themselves."
The four tracks spread over 20 minutes boast all the essential qualities of a solid studio effort with captivating hooks, introspective lyrics and pristine production. Blending elements of neo-soul, funk and jazz, Smalltalk have taken a refreshingly bold, experimental direction to deliver an authentic sound of reflection and contemplation. Siddharth's funk-fuelled guitar melodies, Coutinho's undulating bassline, D'Souza's syncopated drum grooves perfectly complement Bahl's understated vocals.
The EP opens with 'You Don't Even', an ambient neo-soul and funk medley with strangely beautiful tempo shifts. It was also the first song written by the band as a step in the direction to their current sound. Filled with rich percussion, 'What A Mess' is perhaps their most experimental track on the album. "We really messed around with this one. The structure and sound of this song grew over a period of few months as we kept introducing new elements into it," says Bahl. "The song's about confronting the slightly more uncomfortable aspects of a situation as a means to get past it."
'Come Back (It's Not Broken)', arguably the best track on the EP, sees the band explore different rhythmic and structural ideas. The song describes both the futility and fun in trying to escape from reality. The EP's closer 'Blindspots' is a masterfully layered track with incredible rhythm sections, accented bass grooves and hypnotic guitar-picking.
To accompany their impressive EP, Smalltalk will be shooting a music video which will be conceptualised by Sajid Wajid Shaikh, the visual artist who also designed their avant-garde cover art. Shaikh will look to incorporate a similar bizarre but striking visual imagery in the video.
After their multi-city tour to the main metropolitan cities, the Mumbai-based quartet hope to take their music to Goa, the North East and the South.
Smalltalk's Tacit is an incredible debut effort featuring four skilfully produced, genre-busting compositions that charm the ear and move the feet. Each member of Smalltalk brings his own thoughtful expertise into this excellent collaboration, instantly proving themselves to be a force in the Mumbai music scene.
You can watch them play the EP live in the following cities.
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