Understanding The Indie Underbelly Of Madras
“The thing about those guys”, the scrawny club owner said to me, “is that they come out of nowhere with a great album, and everyone goes nuts. And then their parents ship them off to college, and you never hear of them again.” It was a breezy evening in Bangalore, and the gig I had come to watch had gone down well: the man was obviously pleased with his club’s prospects, and this made him open up to me. We’d carried on a bit about the Indian scene, and some of the problems that come with hosting live music that was still largely a novelty in the country. And then, I had brought up the subject of bands from Chennai.
Chennai is an improbable city: everyone knows it as being large, damned by a merciless climate, and isolated by culture and language. Outside of Southern India, it is mostly reduced to stereotype. Nobody thinks very often of it, it seldom makes the national news, and all the while it chugs along doing fairly well for itself in a staid sort of way. And as I have described previously, nobody ever associates it with pop music of any stripe: that honour is reserved for the more “Western” cities, places like Bangalore, Bombay, and New Delhi.
“Oh, it’s not their playing”, he went on. “They play well, they have taste, but they haven’t any staying power.” This was interesting. Bangalore’s most well-known bands have been around for years and years, indeed some of them are almost institutions within the city. “They’ve never stepped out of their houses. You’ve got to know how to behave if you want to survive out here. These guys can’t hold their drink, they’re never on time for anything, they are awkward with the girls. I like their music, man, but frankly they’re too much of a bother to book.”
The story seemed to be the same wherever I asked. There had been a buzz about Chennai in the scene, and I’ve honestly heard some terrific music online. Even usually virulent websites like The Knife from Bombay and Bangalore’s Moop City had pushed the idea of pop-obsessed nerds making brilliant records in their bedrooms, yet you wouldn’t find a single club anywhere who’d have these bands on the bill with any frequency. I’ve spent a very long time wondering what all of this means.
“Everyone thinks, poor things, they can’t even get a show on home ground”, an event manager from Chennai snarled. She was burnt out from trying to give small, independent pop groups a chance, and the bitterness showed: “It’s hard enough to organise anything for stuff that’s actually popular – you know how we aren’t really a city which goes to gigs. The few clubs here are hangouts for super-rich college kids, they couldn’t be bothered about an indie band.” I knew that already – that was the usual excuse for why Chennai didn’t have a live music scene of any significance. But she continued, “And these guys aren’t helping. There are two or three really cool-sounding bands I wanted to help out, and I’d booked them slots. They can’t get their act together.
They’re so dificult, they miss their trains, they show up wasted, and they spill their beer over the PA. I really can’t afford to risk my job trying to help people that won’t help themselves. Then there’s the odd super-rich band or two, whose members bring their own sycophantic friends and followers along to their 4-star hotel gigs with the unspoken assurance of getting them in on their opulent after-parties. I mean, good for them, but that doesn’t really do much for anything else.”
At least two bands from Chennai are making slow, but steady, inroads into the larger country’s touring circuit. Adam & the Fish-Eyed Poets are on their fourth album, and they recently played to an adoring Bombay audience, which is the first step to making a dent; in the meantime, the twanging, harmony-singing Shakey Rays rocked the Weekender, Bangalore’s biggest music festival last year. They’re quite different in form, but they both focus on short, sweet songwriting which comes as a pleasant surprise in a country which is largely given to either stadium rock or EDM.
But then there was another someone I knew who worked with a promoter, this time in faraway Calcutta, who was as sceptical as everyone I’d spoken to so far: “They’re great records. They’ve clearly done their homework. They listen to cool stuff, and they replicate it. But it’s not Chennai’s isolation which is letting them down. It’s a small scene, you need to work hard at cracking it. You can’t make a reputation for being unreliable and then complain that no venue wants you. I wanted to invite them to a festival here, but I spoke to some of the other guys in the business. They all said the same thing – if you like their music, play their CD. Booking them is a headache, they’ll ruin your peace of mind. These boys from Chennai won’t be around two years from now, they have the music but they don’t have the work ethic. This is a business. You don’t become big on the back of albums alone. You need to know how to tour properly. But who knows, maybe one day they’ll learn!”
There’s one last thing I can’t neglect to mention. I had all of this written up, formatted and ready to publish an evening before watching one of these bands play a hometown gig. I knew I had to hold back yet – I was right because I got home utterly smitten, all over again – they were mind-blowing. The talent on offer here is outrageous. But it’s all very complicated and dangerously fleeting. That is probably why I feel the brutal honesty here is owed to them. The day these guys get their acts together, dig deep with all their resourcefulness and collective wit to actually sell their music with diligence commensurable to its brilliance, or simply find someone else to do it, they’re going to turn this scene on its head.
written by Spliff Enz
1.Chennai on rainy days, by’ thesimplecrew’
2.Winchester Bar at Radisson Blu Hotel, Chennai