Arguably India’s most loved Blues band, Shillong-based Soulmate are into their 11th year of dazzling crowds, national and international with their brand of heartfelt, no-nonsense, no-pretense blues. They are also the only band to feature in all of the editions of the world-renowned Mahindra Blues Festival. Ahead of performing in the 2014 edition of the festival where they launched their third album ‘Ten Stories Up’, Soulmate’s Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar (Tips), quite like their music, did not hold back in a candid conversation with What’sThe Scene’s Ganesh Viswanathan, on playing the Blues, completing a phenomenal ten years and on playing with living legend Carlos Santana.
WTS: Studio or live?
Tips: LIVE, FOR SURE! WHAT KIND OF A QUESTION IS THAT?
WTS: Why do you prefer live?
Tips: Because there are people!
Rudy: It’s the energy. We love to play live and I think any band would love to play live rather than sit in the studio and just record.
Tips: I’d rather see people than see an engineer.
WTS:Tell us more about your songwriting process.
Rudy: Lyrics first and then the melodies happen after that. We keep writing as and when ideas strike, we put down lines that sometimes we build over time or sometimes they just come out straight.
Tips: I write when I feel like I need to write. It comes out easily.
WTS: So you have a third album (Ten Stories Up) coming up. Could you tell us more about it?
Rudy: There are ten songs in the album as the name of the album suggests. The album’s about ten years of Soulmate being together; in fact, ten years was last year, so this is our 11th year. We have played all of them on the road before recording them; so people are familiar with a lot of the songs, already. We hope that they sing along.
WTS: You release albums almost once every four years. What are the challenges that you face when you release it over such an expanse of time?
Rudy: It’s not because we don’t have songs; our songs are always there and more are always being written. It’s just that after the last album (Moving On) that we released in 2009, we’ve been really busy playing and like we said, we like to take the songs on the road with us and play them all, cut down the fat and then take them to a studio and then record. It wasn’t a deliberate thing that we took 4 years. At the same time, there were some financial constraints because recording at Yash Raj Studios was pretty expensive for us, but we decided that after two albums, we owe it to the people who listen to us to come up with a really good product, so it took us a little time.
WTS: Going back to earlier in your career, what was the turning point where you thought, “Yeah, we can be big”?
Tips: We never thought like that.
Rudy: It never ever struck our minds that we could be big. We’re just musicians, we play and love the blues; we’re very passionate about this music and I think that comes across when we perform on stage and the connection we have with the audience.
Tips: We just have a big connection and not that we’re big (ourselves).
Rudy: That’s very important and that’s why we are where we are today in this position, to be able to share the stage with some great musicians.
WTS: Speaking of sharing the stage with great musicians, you had recently played in Delhi to open for Santana and the great man himself joined you on stage while you were playing ‘Lie‘. How was the whole experience? Was it a surprise?
Both: Totally, yes!
Tips: That was a present sent from God.
Rudy: It was a total surprise because we thought we’d only meet him backstage. We never expected that he’d walk on stage and jam on our song.
Tips: I guess Santana felt the song and he wanted to join in. That’s what I feel. Meeting a musician like him was big! He is big, but he was not big when he spoke to us; was just normal as anybody like you and me. But I think it’s the music that we played that touched him and made him want to come on and play with us.
Rudy: The first thing he said when he met us backstage was, “I listen to the same music you guys listen to”. So, the connection was there. For us, that was a big thing and gave a boost to our confidence and the music we make.
WTS: Any collaboration planned for the studio or for live performances?
Rudy: Right now, we’re working with Khasi folk musicians for the gig today (Day 2 of the Mahindra Blues Festival 2014). We’re trying out Three songs, to see how it works, how people accept the music. This is the first time doing something like this live. We’ve played with them on Fox Traveller for one song. So if it works, we’re open to collaborate more.
WTS: Any Indian band that you wish to collaborate with in the future?
Tips: No. I don’t know, I’m being truthful (both laugh). There has never been a time that I saw a band from my country and thought that I would like to collaborate with them.
Rudy: Maybe not a band, maybe another musician. She loves Shubha Mudgal!
Tips: Among artistes, I like Shubha a lot and I would love to collaborate with her because she’s got the power of the Blues.
WTS: Any other artistes in mind?
Rudy: I don’t know, can’t really say. Anything can happen and we keep that open. We don’t make decisions like that. If we feel like something’s going to work out, then we just go with it. Because that’s the way the blues also is. To tell you the truth, I’m not really a big fan of fusing stuff, especially where the blues is concerned. We realized that connection is there with the Khasi folk. It is very rootsy. We’re concentrating this time on the folk drum beats. So yeah, if we feel it then we go ahead with it.
Tips: We never plan anything. Everything just happens. When we started this band, we never planned for it to be big or we never planned or saw anything coming up. It keeps happening and is a mystery for us. It’s amazing when you do not plan things too much, you know? Because you just do it from your heart and it happens.
WTS: Any gig that sticks out from your memory as one that you enjoyed yourself the most?
Rudy: Opening for Santana, that’s an obvious one. But I think the jam that we had with Robert Randolph here last year was also one. This year too, I’d love to jam with Derek and Jimmie Vaughan.
Tips (to Rudy): Don’t you think Memphis was great also? The second time?
Rudy: Yea, the second gig. That was fantastic!
Tips: I think it’s fantastic to play to a crowd that understands and knows your music, there’s nothing like it! It’s not about how nice the venue is, but how intense the crowd is. So tonight might be the best!
WTS: Do you believe in practising on the job or do you set aside a time for practice?
Tips: Yea, we always practice at home.
Rudy: See, because we go through different musicians also, especially drummers. We’ve had a lot of drummers. Gino (Banks) is playing with us today. Back home, we have a young guy just getting in; so I hope we can start working with him, try getting him up to speed. At home, we meet and practice thrice a week.
Tips: We are very strict when it comes to practice. But when we’re touring, we just relax.
Rudy: Then we practice on the stage (laughs)!
Tips: If we practice before going on stage, the feeling is not the same anymore. We just chill, try and sleep late, have the best meal, meet people. Then we go and just do it! I like to be like that, I don’t want to think about later. As a vocalist if I think too much, my throat gets dry and tense.
WTS: Wow. Okay, so you would have seen a lot of up and coming blues bands in your journey so far. Why do you think not all of them have the same longevity as you have?
Rudy: You know, yesterday, I was telling two girls who had interviewed us that the blues is all about feel. It’s all about being honest, open and real. Yesterday, when we went to stage 2 where the bar is, we met Zac Harmon there and he said exactly the same thing. You have to be real if you’re singing the blues.
Tips: You can’t fake it. And if you try too much then it spoils everything.
Rudy: There are a lot of people who are wannabe blues musicians, who play blues songs but don’t actually play the blues. So if you have to play the blues, you have to live that and cannot afford to hold back.
Tips: You have to be naked.
Rudy: You have to bare yourself and be emotionally naked.
Tips: When Rudy plays one note (pauses), then I have tears rolling down because I know that is exactly what he means. Just one note, no *vocalizes shredded notes*. Just one note! *hums one beautiful note*
Rudy: So we play one gig today and then one tomorrow, they won’t be the same because I might feel differently. It might sound even better!
Tips: Sometimes we are surprised by ourselves, at we do. We’re not going to the stage to do what we did last night.
Rudy: So we feed off each other. I listen to her sing and then the feel that I get goes into my guitar playing.
Tips: The sequence of the song is there, but the approach is different.
WTS: What would you say to those who ask why don’t you sing the blues in your native language?
Rudy: She’s singing a couple of songs.
Tips: I’ve started writing. Of course, when nobody knew us as Soulmate how can you sing to them in your native language? Nobody will want to listen to us. We have to get connected with people in the language that everybody understands. Then now, 11 years after, I can sing in my language and people will listen even if they don’t understand.
WTS: Since you have more than one songwriter in the band, how do you resolve creative differences?
Rudy: We’ve never really had a conflict. Tips comes up with a song and then I help her arrange it since she’s starting out.
Tips: Music is so beautiful that all these negative vibes shouldn’t be there. You have to come to terms.
Rudy: You have to come to some understanding in the end. Even when she was writing her stuff, she’d bring it to me; she’s got the basic thing down already.
Tips: Rudy is my hero. I’ve learned from him and I approach him for everything and he leads me, he’s my mentor.
Rudy: I’ve been making music for a long time now and produced and arranged in the studio for a lot of people as well, so I tend to see the bigger picture. So Tips brings her songs and it’s very raw, it’s got these chords but my mind already starts working and thinking that it might sound like this, might sound like that. Then I change the arrangement, maybe change some chords; but we try and keep everything simple. The song and the music are simple; the only thing that can get complicated are the emotions. And that’s the tough bit and very hard to explain. It’s tough to explain how one feels at that point of time.
WTS: So, even the arrangements are synchronous with how you feel on stage.
Rudy: Yes. Once we write a song, we can’t keep changing the song structure. But the feel of the song can change. It’s very tough to explain that. Today I may feel this way, tomorrow I might feel another way, but the basic structure of the song is the same. The moods that I play and the moods that Tips sings in will be different. Sometimes hardcore fans will come to us and point to us – Oh you didn’t play that solo that you played the other time – and I go, “Which solo? I don’t remember”. But some songs have fixed solos, like ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘The Price’. Those are just apt, I change them a little during rehearsals but live I feel like those solos are just right for the songs.
WTS: Where do you see Blues in India in the next 2-3 years?
Rudy:The way things are going right now, promising, especially seeing the number of young people at a gig like this. The media has really helped and online media as well in bringing the artistes closer to the common man. Now it’s not like stars, like when fans used to be in the awe of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards. But now, even yesterday when Derek and Zac Harmon had finished their gigs, they were just walking around, posing for photographs; it has all come together. It’s a really positive thing what Mahindra Blues is doing. It’s helping the young musicians understand more about the roots of the music they’re playing. Whether they’re playing heavy metal or classic rock, now they understand where it comes from. So if you know your roots, even if you’re not born in the States or the Mississippi delta or Detroit, you still understand where this music comes from; so you start playing with that attitude instead of blatantly imitating what you see on TV or what you hear on CD. So I really hope that the blues gets really big in the next two years. One of the main reasons Soulmate has been there for ten years is to propagate this genre of music. And I’m so happy to see it happening, quite a few blues bands in India now. So maybe we should have a National Blues Festival as well, giving a chance to young musicians to share stages and perform for their own satisfaction and for the people in India. Right now we’re at a stage where Soulmate can play, but there are a lot of bands who can’t get on stage yet. So having a national blues festival every year will give them a chance to play and to get better and better and then one day, they’ll come and play here! I think that’s the only way it’ll work.