Producer Kartik Pillai On How The Caste System Affects Indian Music

Kartik Pillai

Kartik Pillai. Photos by William Griffith.

Delhi’s rock scene is on the rise, says Kartik Pillai, one of its key movers. From a few scattered festivals and a smattering of metal acts playing college campuses, Pillai has seen the Indian capital’s indie rock scene grow enormously over the last decade. “When I started doing shows in 2005, 2006, there were maybe like 100 people, super tight. The biggest festival was GIR, the Great Indian Rock festival, which is no longer happening because they’re in debt. But there was GIR, Independence Rock and Mood Indigo, which was a college festival. Now they’re everywhere.”

With his solo project Jamblu, his membership in the groups Peter Cat Recording Co and Begum, and his soon-to-launch record label, the Hundredth Monkey Initiative, Pillai finds himself at the center of an actively expanding community. Originally from Kerala in South India, he and his older brother—a filmmaker in Bombay—spent part of their childhood there,  as well as in Luxembourg, Ohio, and Thailand, moving around for their father’s job at a tire company. At age 12, Kartik became enchanted with a cassette of Hans Zimmer’s Lion King soundtrack and wanted to learn the keyboard. He promptly quit—”as soon as I got a teacher is when I lost interest”—but picked up his brother’s guitar a few years later while bored at home, and was soon jamming in blues bands on Delhi’s university circuit as a precocious high-schooler.

Pillai linked up with Peter Cat Recording Co., one of Delhi’s better-known underground rock acts, at the release show for their debut album, Sinema. “I went to their show, and they didn’t know how to work the mixer,” he recalls with a laugh. He worked the sound for that show and a few more, then joined the band as a full-time guitarist in 2010.

Over the next several years, the infrastructure for independent music in Delhi and across India developed at a frantic clip. That led Pillai to form Begum—a shoegaze band that he started in high school—into a more serious entity, and to develop Jamblu, his solo electronic music project. Along with freelance audio engineering work, Pillai lives mostly off his own music: “If I can get two gigs a month for each act, I’m sorted.”

While leading a popular indie rock band in Delhi can be lucrative, it also comes with a social cost. “Anything that starts out fun turns criminal in Delhi,” Pillai says wryly. Until recently, he lived near Hauz Khas Village, a nightlife hub in Delhi that is patronized by upscale trust fund kids out for good drugs and bad EDM. Pillai’s Peter Cat band would throw shows drawing 200 to 300 people onto the rooftop of his apartment, raising the ire of neighboring club managers. One manager went so far as to tip off the local cops about a Peter Cat event, leading to Pillai’s brief detention and an attempted shakedown. He says officers beat him with sticks and insinuated some of the white women in attendance were hired prostitutes. The policemen—who recognized Pillai from their beat—assumed Pillai was rich and charged him a hefty fine for his release. “I was like, ‘No, man, it’s the opposite of that!’” Pillai recalls. He handed over his ATM card, which had the equivalent of $20 on it, and told them the PIN. He was promptly released.

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Pillai says he’s seen a great swell in fresh, interesting music coming up in Delhi, and recently decided to work with newer bands on the scene. He’s turned his side music production business into a proper label. He’s borrowed the term “Delhi Depression”—coined by Samar Grewal of the Bangalore band Hoirong—to describe the groups he’s working with, and says they’re united by a gritty, lo-fi sensibility and openness to experimentation that mirrors life in the chaotic Indian capital.

On a recent tour stop in Beijing, Kartik sat down with us to discuss his bands and his label, Hindi metal, caste-consciousness in the Indian creative scene, and how a Hans Zimmer tape led to such an eclectic musical career.

Start by introducing yourself. Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do?

I live in Delhi, in [nearby] Faridabad. I’m originally from Kerala, from the backwaters. I play for three musical acts, and I also produce a lot of music for other bands. I just started a label, like a month back, which basically came out of this production company that I’ve been running for a while. It’s just trying to get Delhi bands. The bands on the label consist of my friends, and specifically a lot of these bands that are not about to be picked up by other labels in India, because they don’t subscribe to the populist agenda of the scene. So I’m personally going around and trying to get these guys to release as much content as possible.

What are some of the bands you’re working with?

For the first year I’m concentrating on five bands. There’s one called Korsakov + Shupac, which is this half-French, half-Indian band. It’s like punk reggae, punk dub, and kinda weird. In France it’s pretty normal, a band like this, where the drummer’s a drum machine, and it’s guitar, bass and vocals. And my label has a couple of other acts like Caesars of The Green, a four-piece indie band whose album Thick Of Things was just released after three years of painstaking effort, and Smooth Relax, which is a hilarious band sometimes, very visceral.

How did you get into indie rock or underground music?

My brother made me start listening to metal. He kind of forced me into it. After the Lion King tape I kept on going for movie background scores, which I liked more than anything else, more than any pop music. One day I walked into my brother’s room, he was playing Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, and I was like, ‘This music sucks.’ He got pissed off and locked me in the room and put the speaker really high up, so I couldn’t reach it, and made me listen to it for five hours straight. [laughs] But I picked up the guitar around the 12th standard [12th grade], when I was 17.

Was there any sound in particular that you were going for? 

There was literally no sound. I’d been listening to Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and stuff, but didn’t really think about it much. But basically, during 11th and 12th standard (11th or 12th grade), there’s a holiday period. In that time, I was really bored one day, and I never knew that my brother had a guitar. So I was just going around the house looking for something interesting, and I found this guitar, a Cort Stratocaster with a strap. I found an amp and a cable, and the amp had a distortion button. It was kind of perfect. It took me around two months to pick up guitar.

You also play drums and trumpet, right?

Yeah. That’s also self-taught. I learned the guitar first, and the first instrument I played as a musician in a band was the drums. That was in Delhi. Everybody around me only knew the guitar, nobody knew how to play drums or bass or anything else. That was a blues band. We just played in school and around, pretty much just jammed. This is two months after picking up the guitar. They told me they didn’t have a drummer, so I bought a drum kit for like 5,000 rupees [~$75], which is nothing, it was the shittiest Indian drum kit you can get, and I picked up the drums.

My impression is that as far as there’s a developed rock scene in Delhi or other parts of India, especially the northeast, it’s a metal scene. Is that accurate?

The only reason the Delhi scene even started was metal. It was nothing else. Before that, Calcutta and others were doing bourgie blues and jazz, and they wouldn’t have anything else, and it’s still like that pretty much. But Delhi, in the colleges, these metal shows started happening, and engineering guys with frustration started going. It was a big thing, but now it’s kind of died down with the whole EDM thing. It’s kind of sad. But it turns out there are Indian metal labels whose acts are touring Europe and the world, and they have good followings. It’s pretty nice.

Why is that? There’s not really a comparable punk scene, right?

There are no real punk bands in India, even though the lifestyle in India is pretty punk. I think metal comes mostly from people who are actually affected by the inequalities in society, and who have been marginalized. Most of the scene in India is rich kids. So they go to a show, and there’s a really good metal band, and they’re like, ‘Life sucks, drink blood’ or whatever, but when they go out, they’re getting into their Mercedes and going home, or their dads own hotels and shit.

So in a class or caste sense, would you say most of the indie rock music scene is mostly middle class?

Middle-upper Class, upper caste. Not in the same scene. There are the traditional arts guys who are—I hate this word—lower-caste, which is sad. People from the Kathputli Colony, they have their own forms of music, their own forms of art, and even though they tour the world, they still live in slums in Delhi, and were recently brutalized by the cops. The scene that I’m in, most of it is uber-rich people. Their houses are palaces. They’ve been around for the longest time. Even if they fail at it completely and ruin their lives, nothing’s gonna happen, because they have a huge trust fund. Financial security is a big thing in India, as it is anywhere else I suppose.

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Have you seen the Delhi scene grow since you’ve been active as a musician?

Definitely.  There are multiple music festivals in the northeast, in the deserts, in Gujarat now also, which is a no-liquor state. And before there was no semblance of an industry. Zero, nothing whatsoever back then. Now there are production houses, recording houses, booking agencies. It’s still got a long way to go. The thing about India is that whatever happens, it immediately commercializes itself. Even concepts like feminism, they will trivialize and commercialize anything you try to do. And that happened with the Indian indie rock scene really quickly as well. But there are enough people fighting it, so that’s good.

What about other parts of India? Is there anywhere else that has a distinct aesthetic?

Bangalore’s rock sound is very distinct. But it’s so overdosed on itself now. Every band sounds the same. It’s changing, thankfully.

Think of a rock’n’roll band, but put a high-pass filter on it. Boosted highs. Thermal And a Quarter really brought that sound, they have like 20 albums or something. They were doing two shows a day. They went to England once and did 36 shows in 30 days or something like that, which is ridiculous. Then they came back to India and did two shows a day for three days, completely different sets for every show. In my view they’ve defined the whole Bangalore scene. I adore Bruce Lee Mani, their vocalist and guitarist. Bombay’s also got this specific shiny sound.

Back to Delhi. What about the city makes the music scene the way it is?

Because it’s the capital, we get to meet people from different countries, and their point of view also matters. A lot of Indians, me included, have just started noticing how the caste system affects the social structure in a real way. People are very becoming more and more aware of their reality in the city and around the country, and as the newer generation of people are coming in who have been exposed to various other cultures, their tolerance for something that isn’t fundamentally right is also waning. Like when you’re a kid, you’re sitting around and your mother and grandmother are serving you food, and they eat after the men. I never really thought about it. I just thought that women are extremely giving, not that they were socially conditioned to be like that. As I get older, I’m noticing that these 45-year-old guys who are delivering food or whatever are calling me “big brother”. Which doesn’t make any sense to me. So when somebody from outside comes in and just puts it in your face, it hits home a little harder.

Like the French guy from Korsakov + Shupac, he was doing research on the Dengue-affected areas of India. So in the days he’s in the slums, and in the nights he’s with these elite Delhi people. Which I think kind of freaked him out a little bit, and he ended up writing a lot of music about it. I think that’s one thing about the city that really works. Everywhere you go, you have the chance to socialize with people who live and exist on completely different spectrums of life, but are physically only a few meters apart.

Delhi being a really aggressive city, it should have brought us something from punk, but metal happened. Then EDM, as I said. It’s rich people, people coming to Hauz Khas Village, spending five grand a night, and going home shit-faced. Also I think it’s like, every country it’s probably there, but what you see is what you’re going to know, right? The music that’s being used in movies, on TV and in ads, that’s what people will be comfortable with. Most people just don’t know. They have excuses for not listening to [rock or] metal, like it’s too harsh, or they can’t understand the lyrics. It doesn’t affect them.

How have you seen good, new bands come up? Is there anything you could call a “Delhi sound”?

One good thing is that most bands aren’t doing covers, they’re very serious about doing original music. I think it’s just a willingness to experiment that’s there in Delhi. Even though the sounds of the bands are quite different, they’re kind of reflecting a blank state of mind. Bombay has a very clear, polished sound. And Delhi has this weird, lo-fi sound. Most of these bands don’t want to get out of this lo-fi sound. Bands like Smooth Relax, they record on their Dell laptop microphone. When I first met them I said, “Why don’t you just use my pre-amps?” And they were like, “Nah, it’s cool, we don’t want to be that clear. We want it to be dirty.” Just like how the city is, it’s fucking dirty and crass.

Josh Feola

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