The Rise of Alternative Electronica
Last year, a single album made sure that electronica was no more reserved for the party crowd. Till You Appear was a sad, gloomy album meant for lonely people sitting in cold bedrooms with laptops as best friends. The album went viral – well, as viral as you can go in a microscopic scene contained in big-city clubs and bars – and suddenly alternative electronica was cool again.
A couple of months ago, Sulk Station finally came down to Bombay and their afternoon gig at Bandra’s Bonobo packed the place. Smack in the middle of a raging Bombay summer afternoon, the gig was the exact opposite of the weather. Where, just a few months ago, I’d attended a Fink gig with barely space to cross your arms and failing air conditioning, the Sulk Station gig had people sitting around sprawled on the floors.
Sulk Station broke the floodgates for Indian alternative electronica. Trip hop and post-dubsteb were no longer vague sub-genres that only the music nerds knew of. Everyone was talking about “soundscapes” and “atmosphere”. Naturally, this mass attraction to Tanvi Rao and Rahul Giri’s product, an entire collection of people gravitating to the despondency these two were peddling, gave impetus to kids all over the country wanting to make weird music.
Recently, I discovered The Burning Deck, also from Bangalore, producing the same internalised electronica Sulk Station made known in Indian metropolises, and that internationally, bands like Portishead and Massive Attack do so well. Comprised of Sandeep Madhavan and Floyd Santimano, The Burning Deck dropped their debut album, Kalinihta – Greek for ‘good night’, – on the twelfth of April this year. Both band and album claim to be inspired by school-elocution-competition favourite Casabianca – a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hermans from the nineteenth century. The poem – a tragically dark one to teach children – is about a boy who won’t leave his post on a burning ship until his father asks him to (spoiler alert: everyone dies).
The tracks on Kalinihta are far more eerie, in the band’s own words ‘deranged’, than some hacked-to-bits classic poetry. Rather than take the melancholy, moody route, The Burning Deck’s music is unsettling. The songs on the album quiver and tremble dangerously over forty long minutes. Alexis D’Souza’s voice loosens the tension slightly on the parts that she sings over. Eponymous tracks Boy On A Burning Deck and Kalinihta are album highlights, stealing the show by being huge, menacing sonic walls threatening to crash over you at any given point.
I spoke to Sandeep Madhavan, half of the band, about the music they were making. “In all honesty, we didn’t set out to create a downtempo sound. But it just turned out that we’re both fans of trip hop, lo-fi ambient music and cinematic soundtracks. So it just evolved over time into a sound that was closest to downtempo, even though it doesn’t sit comfortably in that genre too… I think Bangalore has an atmosphere ripe enough for downtempo bands. The weather, the people, the areas we live in, the circumstances, the drinking joints, all laidback and easy.”
Since the release, The Burning Deck have received a fair amount of press from mainstream publications like The Times Of India and The Hindu. The kind that indie bands don’t usually receive. “Yeah, we’re surprised at the attention we’re getting. But it helps if you bring out a good bunch of tunes that segue effortlessly into each other, and back it up with great artwork and packaging, which we’ve surprisingly managed to achieve, since we’re pretty good slackers. And of course, the internet helps, and we’ve managed to get a bunch of people interested enough in our music to do our artwork, shoot our first music video, star in it, and market it, even.”
As of now, they’re trying to lock down a tour in July, and releasing their second music video next week. Their first music video – for Kalinihta – is already out. “The video was shot and directed by Jake Wachtel, a filmmaker/musician from Palo Alto who was couchsurfing at my place, and he did it in the course of three hours outside my apartment, before he ran away to catch his flight back home. He’s shooting a video for John Vanderslice soon, so we’ve become cool by association.”
Alternative electronica has been railed against as hipster-bait, rich kids messing around on Ableton, laptop music specifically tailored to be the-next-big-thing, with no heart, no work put into it. But just like any other form of art – ranging from design to writing to film-making – it’s easy to write off minimalism as less work, especially if you’re a layman. It isn’t. Balls-out angry music, and shiny, happy sing-alongs have their own place, but restraint in the crafting of a song is not something just anybody can pull off.
written by Mohini Mukherjee