When Peter Cat Recording Co. said their latest album Bismillah marked an end of a chapter in their lives, they did not mean they are winding up as a band, as some fans speculated. It was a declaration that the genre-hopping quintet from Delhi is just getting started.
With two new members on board since 2017, the decade-old band is now “a self-aware organism”, said frontman Suryakant Sawhney – a “more well-oiled machine” than ever before. It still retains three of its older members: Sawhney, the principal songwriter; Kartik Pillai on keyboard, guitars, trumpet and electronics; and Karan Singh on drums. But adding fresh blood to the group after bassist Rohan Kulshreshtha’s departure are bassist-songwriter Dhruv Bhola and trumpet player-keyboardist Rohit Gupta.
It is not hard to see the synergy they have built. Their album Bismillah, which was released on June 7, is a smart collection of sonically congruent songs that are the band’s most accessible in years. The production is impeccable. The songs, like the band’s earlier work, still hula hoop through jazz, gypsy music, disco and what have you, but the madness isn’t erratic. There is a distinct pop sensibility at work.
Making of the album
The other reason to call Bismillah an end of a chapter is that with this release, the band has cleared its backlog of old compositions that did not make it to previous albums. Most of the tracks in the new release are about six to seven years old, if not more. The oldest is the disco-inflected romp, the eight-minute Memory Box. An early version of the song, described as “ambient”-like by Pillai, came out of a single session which produced other tracks like Flies (Portrait of a Time: 2010-2016) and Chronic (Transmissions, 2016).
“It was shoegaze-y before,” Singh said. “Then Suryakant got a new synth patch and began experimenting. My earlier beat wasn’t working then. I was trying out some disco grooves at the time, so I put that in, and the new version emerged.”
Similarly, the opener and the album’s first released single, Where The Money Flows, is six years old. “Suryakant would often sing it in his bathroom without taking a shower,” Pillai recalled. Remain In Me, a fan favourite played often by the band at live performances, is about five years old.
“We wanted to finish and re-record our old songs and just put them out,” Singh said. “Earlier we couldn’t execute the songs as we would like to, but with five people now, we could explore obscure sounds. Also, sometimes, you just get bored working on your own stuff for years. You need fresh inputs, which came with Rohit and Dhruv. It’s a good change with others contributing to songwriting, besides Suryakant or Suryakant and me.”
This is how Vishnu <3 was created. Pillai had written the song for his electronic project, Jamblu. The composition was readapted with live instruments, with Bhola joining in to write lyrics and parts of the melody line.
From Delhi to Paris
Bismillah did not happen quickly. Nor was it a result of linear thinking. Most of the songs were recorded – some with Kulshreshtha – at The Ska Vengers member Stephan Kaye’s farmhouse in Delhi in 2017. “It wasn’t a typical studio or jam room,” Singh said. “It had open spaces, an exciting huge-ass lawn, with peacocks around, writers and artists walking in and doing their thing.”
From there, Sawhney and Pillai went to Paris, working with Robin Leduc on mastering the tracks. It is a testament to the time and effort that went into Bismillah that a 10-second piano break in the song Soulless Friends took Sawhney 160 attempts to crack. “It’s trickier than you think to make it sound like it does,” he said.
As Pillai put it, signing with French label Panache Records, which has opened the European and North American markets for the band, meant “you really couldn’t half-ass the album”.
Upon their return to India, a fresh series of re-recordings began, and the album slowly began to take shape. The artwork, the title, and the music video for Floated By came out of Sawhney’s marriage in April last year. “Bismillah” is what Sawhney’s father-in-law likes to say when he has a drink, and it features him on the album cover.
Between the lines
The critical acclaim and the limited but zealous fanfare surrounding Peter Cat Recording Co. often leads to devotees going off point while speaking about their favourite band. The press too finds it hard to pigeonhole them in a genre, reaching for enthusiastic descriptions like abstract-gypsy-jazz-meets-funk-and-cabaret-but-with-disco-and-also-electronica.
“We don’t even answer questions like what genre you play,” Bhola said. “Such boring questions. People just have a hard time, I think, without classifying the band as this thing or that.”
One effect of such wide-eyed reverence is the over-analysis of the band’s music, its meaning, and their place in the zeitgeist. Take, for instance, the video of Where The Money Flows. It has Sawhney wearing a monkey mask singing into the camera. A while later, Sawhney is romping through mounds of 1,000-rupee bills, when a television appears, telecasting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation speech of November 8, 2016. Fans rushed in to call the song and its video a political act, though the lyrics had nothing political and no references to demonetisation.
“I think people write what they want to write,” said Sawhney, who co-directed and edited the video. “To read the interpretations was funny and fascinating. The song is about how temporary the idea of money is. How weak the structure of money is. It comes and goes. Modi and demonetisation were a vehicle to carry the idea, a reminder that money is transient and it can vanish any time.”
The band’s videos – such as those for Floated By or Copulations – usually emerge from raw footage shot without the active intention of turning it into a video. An exception to this general rule is the carefully conceptualised video of Where The Money Flows. A section in the middle of the song has Sawhney’s voice autotuned, which reminded him of a scene in Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film Nayak, where the protagonist dreams of sauntering through a world of rupees.
“Once we had that, we needed to find the head and the tail of the video,” Sawhney said. “The shooting happened in a corner of [the theme park] Mojoland in Gurgaon, which was turned into...like a petting zoo. The hot foam latex monkey mask is from Canada. The original Nayak sequence was purely philosophical but we found a way to connect it to the contemporary.”
In case anyone is left wondering, Sawhney clarified that “what you see on screen is about 15,000 fake notes”. The video ends with the bills burnt to ashes.
The way forward
Peter Cat Recording Co. began in 2009 by recording their nonconformist music in their homes themselves and playing it to small crowds. Over the next 10 years, they might have become one of India’s top independent acts, but their music self-admittedly remains niche. A few months back, Sawhney told Scroll.in how this thought influenced his second solo album, Lifafa, a collection of individualistic but ultimately Hindi language songs.
“The kind of music we make does limit the number of listeners and the money we make,” Bhola said. “But we don’t actively think about it. It unconsciously bothers us, I guess, that there are only so many people we can reach in this country. But this album was more approachable. We will find a way to make our music more accessible. The thought is in our heads. But it will happen organically when it has to.”
As the band prepares to go off on its Bismillah tour in India and abroad from the end of July, it isn’t actively thinking of the next album. “Right now, the focus is on the performance aspect,” Gupta said. “With composing and recording, there’s the opportunity to explore possibilities. With performance, you have to replicate your existing work.”
Added Bhola, “We’d want to make our live shows more fun. See, people come to watch live music to drink and have a good time. So, maybe we can have more dance-y songs like Memory Box and Portrait of A Time. Sombre music, you can hear, at home as well.”
Both Pillai and Sawhney are excited about the directions the band can take with the two additional members. “The songwriting won’t be as skewed next time,” Pillai said. “There will be more songs from everyone.”
An optimistic Bhola said, “I really do think what we have got going on here will last for a long time. Our music has longevity. Even if it’s not recognised now, it will be five years later.”