The familiar strains of a popular Guns N’ Roses song drifted through the dimly-lit corridors of an old office building in Chennai. Tucked away on its third floor is Unwind Center, the city’s first jam pad for rock musicians, which has recently attempted a resurrection.
In the early 2000s, the Center was a jam-packed performance space where crowds barely found room to stand. That is certainly a far cry from the scene now. In Unwind Centre 2.0, a well-behaved audience is seated and waits patiently for the next song.
Advitya Thapa, a music enthusiast who volunteered at Unwind Centre during his college days in 2001, recollected what the Centre was like at that time.
“It was quite something, at that point, the city had nothing like it,” he said. “The entire place would be packed with atleast 100 people. All of us would go up ahead and head bang, and then come back with our necks hurting and T-shirts soaked in sweat.”
The Unwind Centre was probably the most popular haunt for rock musicians and rockers in Chennai.
Started in 1998 as a part of the Vinyard Church, it soon included secular music in its repertoire, and hosted a large music fraternity of experienced and aspiring artists.
In the year 2000, Unwind began hosting weekly performances in a basement space it had. These were usually dominated by bands playing rock music and its various sub genres, including grunge, alternative, metal and indie.
The Centre was one of the few places that encouraged original music unlike clubs and restro-bars that ask for crowd-pleasing covers of popular songs.
“It was the only place as such that promoted any sort of [original] act even if it was a week or month old,” said Tiburtius V, music producer and bassist with a popular Tamil rock band, Kurangan. He usually goes by the name Tibu.
Unwind, therefore, was a platform for young, earnest artists many of whom went on to form well-known bands like Junkyard Groove, Frank’s got the Funk, Circuit and Skrat – all of which draw their roots from the crowded Fridays at a basement theatre in Chennai.
“We started off at Unwind in the first year of college,” said Sashank Vijay, drummer of Franks got the Funk, a popular electro rock band that began in 2009. “It gave us a platform to play. Back then, it was really huge. It was one place where everyone socialised. So we got to know about other musicians in the scene.”
The Unwind Centre also hosted the likes of guitarist Prasanna, the Baum-Wessel-Harris Trio of jazz artists from the United States and the Pakistani Sufi rock band Junoon.
Scores of regulars attended these shows.
But five years ago, the Centre moved to a much smaller space and it eventually stopped live shows completely.
“We had one of the first death metal bands from the south,” said Edison Prithviraj, managing trustee of Unwind Center. “A lot of people thought that there was only Carnatic music in Chennai, but we used to have a whole lot of crazy metal bands.”
Prithviraj’s soft-spokeness belies the fact that he was once a vocalist for a metal band called Bonesaw.
In the latter half of the 2000s, the Center saw a perceptible change in its audience and performing artists. New bands took the stage more often, and it became harder to spot the familiar sight of an old regular hanging about the Center, hoping to get inside for free.
“We grew a little older, and people started doing different things,” said Thapa, who stopped visiting the Centre after 2005. “Slowly we started going there a little less.”
Even those in charge of the musical space slowly began to disengage. For instance, Prithviraj left for a while to restart Exodus, his event management company, which now supports the activities of the Unwind Center.
“The funding was bad, and everyone moved on,” said Prithviraj. “People even moved out of the music industry. In the South, when it comes to sponsors and decision-making, we have to look up to the North. It is always a struggle to get to the next level.”
Since Unwind Center did not pay artists, bands gaining popularity eventually chose to perform at the various pubs opening up across the city, which paid its musicians. “If you were playing at Unwind, you also had to buy a ticket,” said Ameeth Thomas, lead vocalist of Junkyard Groove, who began his career at Unwind. “This doesn’t make sense for any musician.”
Prithviraj said that while he understood the value placed by experienced artists on their music, he did not see why new and upcoming bands must immediately try to commercialise their music, as is happening now.
“You hit the gym, you start working out and it’s a growth,” he said. “Once the muscle pops out, you can demand money. But before that, with all that belly…”
Quiet new beginning
After three years of lying low, Unwind Center began its weekly live shows in April. But it’s still quite low key.
The Center has a strict “no alcohol, no drugs” policy.
Prithviraj said that he has been keeping things quiet so that he can first bring the content that would provide “good clean fun.” He added that his vision of Unwind Center is a place where even kids can hang around, watch bands and get inspired.
“I am very careful when I select the bands,” he said. “I don’t want messy bands coming and messing around, and trying to give the wrong messages.”
He added: “Recently, one of the bands wanted to promote legalising ganja in Chennai. I got to know this at the very last moment and had to cancel their performance.”
Despite its low-key restart, the artists who made it big from the Unwind platform are glad that it is back in business.
“It’s a really good thing that Unwind started again,” said Tibu of Kurungan. “At least now, there is a place to play original music.”