As the brutal second wave swept India in April, Bangalore-based musician Bruce Lee Mani’s two children tested positive for Covid-19. Members of his extended family, who were also infected, required hospitalisation and spells in the intensive care unit.

Mani’s family pulled through, but like many Indians, he too was horrified with the panic for beds and oxygen and the disastrous government response. Finding himself gripped with a welter of emotions – anger, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, fear and worry – Mani took it upon himself to write a song a day for 30 days. The result is the 30-song album We’re All We’ve Got: Songs from a Pandemic.

The summer should have been different. Later in the year, Mani and his longtime bandmate, the drummer Rajeev Rajagopal celebrate the 25th anniversary of their band, Thermal And A Quarter. The Bangalore band has released eight studio albums (including the prescient A World Gone Mad in 2020), won severa; national and international awards, toured the world and earned widespread critical acclaim.


A long celebration with the band’s other members Leslie Charles and Tony Das and former members and friends would have been on the cards. Instead, this hard-working band was suddenly faced with the second period of relative inactivity – no gigs and not even a chance to get together and jam regularly.

Mani said they were doing all they could through the summer. Helping family, friends, making calls, contributing funds, amplifying necessary messages and whatever was possible. But there was a restlessness in him, and upon the urging of his wife Bindu, the 30-song, 30-day challenge became the channel for his shifting moods and perceptions.

In this interview, the musician spoke about the songs, the process, the collaborations and more.

Excerpts from the interview:

Thirty songs in 30 days! Did you compose all the music and write the lyrics yourself?
Mostly! There are notable exceptions – Sunil Chandy [founder member of the band, now living in London] wrote most of the music for What Bizarre Puppets, Sumana [from Paris, France] wrote the lyrics and melody for Help, Rajeev Ravindranathan wrote the lyrics to both Poke Me and On the Other Side, Pallavi MD wrote the Kannada lyrics and melody for her vocal parts on Believe the Tide and Vasundhara Vee wrote the vocal melody for Riches True. Everything else was, as they say, yours truly.

Tell us a little bit about how you wrote these songs. What was different this time around?
I had no idea where this “project” was going when I began. It was just me trying to find a way to deal with the darkness in my head.

I had never done anything like this before. My usual creative process with TAAQ [Thermal And A Quarter] involves several months of “assimilation”, where I am reading, watching, observing and so on, followed by a short burst of intense lyric writing where I will put together words for maybe five or even 10 songs at a time.

This is followed by a period of musical ideation, throwing together chords, riffs and whatever. Then presenting half or fully-formed ideas to the rest of the guys who will all throw in things during jams… an interesting, organic but extended process!

Here it was a song a day. No time for long deliberations whatsoever. The decision to keep the songs short was motivated by the realisation that this project was going to be a lot of work – and also by social-media attention spans (as the songs were just shared on my social handles every day).

The first from the project We’re All We’ve Got set the tone for the 29 to follow. Working alone at home, playing multiple instruments – guitar, piano, ukulele, vocal and programming all drums and other virtual instruments on my Digital Audio Workstation... it was one of the most interesting musical journeys of my life.

That was very interesting, getting a peek into the process. How hard did you have to work?
I did not really think too much about the amount of work involved before jumping in. I had to write words, compose/arrange the music, practice and perform it, record it, mix it, master it, shoot a video, upload to social media platforms and then engage with the folks that were kind enough to listen and do this every day. This was along with continuing to co-run Taaqademy, our music school that now has 1,000 students online across 18 countries and also not completely abandon my family. Perhaps if I had thought more about it, I would have just said “forget it – too much!” It is funny, but I also cannot remember a single day when it was a struggle. With all the crazy horrible things that were happening to the country and to friends and family, it felt like the songs were just lying around. I just had to pick them up.

That sounds insane! Let us talk about the songs. What are the themes running through them?
When I look back on them now, the songs were pretty much like a daily diary – a musical chronicle of the times from my perspective. So the themes oscillate between hope and despair, anger and sarcasm, joy and grief, loneliness and family. Songs like The Kindness of Strangers, Zoey dear Zoey, even the acapella Tomorrow are positive, even warm-and-fuzzy. Others like On the Other Side, A Fall from Magic and Uncle’s Fault are tinged with despair and unanswered questions. Some instrumentals like This Too Shall Pass and Outside Again are buoyant – so yes, quite a milieu.

One thing that stands out about Thermal And A Quarter is that unlike most other Indian musical artists, you do not hesitate to talk about political stuff. You have taken on J Jayalalithaa, the corruption of the United Progressive Alliance and now you do not back off from commenting on the current Modi-led government. Even in this lot, there are songs like Didi, Central Vystopia, Baat ki Mann and so on.
Well, with everything that was going on, with all the incredible short-sightedness, incompetence and downright villainy on display, I could hardly ignore it. I am not a “raging” kind of songwriter though, so my political takes may come off more as snarky/snide/sarcastic than anything. Baat Ki Mann was inspired by Parakala Prabhakar’s insightful video on our prime minister’s clear lack of empathy. Being Positive was a spoken-word diatribe on the troll armies that seem to descend on dissent, and so on.

Someday we should do a playlist of all your political songs. And what about the collaborations? My favourites are the one with actor Rajeev Ravindranathan (English Vinglish, Three Idiots), and the Carnatic one with Pallavi MD.
Several spontaneous collaborations occurred, beginning with friend and well-known actor Rajeev Ravindranathan, who wrote the words and also sang on Poke Me a cheeky take on vaccine shortages. Then with ex-bandmate and TAAQ founder Sunil Chandy who lives in London and wrote the music for What Bizarre Puppets, followed by Sumana, a Paris-based singer-songwriter on Help that is one of the truly special songs on the album.

Then with Bombay-based jazz vocalist and vocal coach Vasundhara Vee on the Riches True, followed by Delhi-based guitarist Abhishek Mittal who added a guitar solo and saxophone to a song dedicated to our pet dog Zoey dear Zoey and finally with fellow Bangalorean singer, actor and activist Pallavi MD, who sang and wrote Kannada lyrics for Believe the Tide.

I had message these wonderful friends and musicians I knew – who perhaps happened to view one of the songs or send me a note – and quite shamelessly ask them if they would like to write something together. Then I would send them the lyrics/musical idea and give them next to no time to add their parts in, remotely of course! It was probably rude and a bit crazy, but the energy just felt right and it is quite amazing how each one of them added so much to the songs.

Along with these 30 songs, you have written more than 100 songs as a singer-songwriter with Thermal And A Quarter. That is an astonishing record. Where do all these songs spring from?

As I grow older (but not much wiser), I seem to be developing an inordinate amount of respect for circumstance – for its ability to continually remind us about what is what while we are busy “making plans”.

That is deep. I probably have to parse these words to understand them. OK, Where can we listen to the songs?
The 30 songs are now available as an album on all streaming platforms, titled We’re All We’ve Got: Songs from a Pandemic. A longtime TAAQ fan in Delhi, Abhishek Majumder, contributed the cover art. And all proceeds, in perpetuity, from sales/streaming revenue are to be given to identified charities.

HR Venkatesh is Director, Training and Research, at BOOM FactCheck.