Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

Edison’s Legacy

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Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Its sound quality was poor and each recording lasted only one play, (the Gramophone and the Record were actually invented by Berliner in 1887) but it set into motion a change that completely altered the way musicians and listeners interacted with each other. Until then, music was produced only when musicians played and music was heard only when audiences listened to musicians play. But not anymore. People could now listen to music whenever they wished, and musicians had vastly greater opportunities to be heard; even when they weren’t playing. But it also changed the relationship between musician and audience dramatically – almost irretrievably – since the live performance ceased to be the sole, or even primary, medium of interaction between the two.

It also introduced a third player into the equation, one that would eventually grow to a gargantuan size, controlling both musicians and audiences; but more importantly, immensely influencing the development of the relationship between player and listener.

The ability to record music introduced technology and manufacturing into music, eventually creating three interrelated industries: recording equipment (recording consoles, for instance) manufacture, recording device (records, tapes, CDs) manufacture and recorded-sound reproduction implement (stereos) manufacture. It also gave birth to two discrete services: sound engineering and marketing of recorded devices. Of them all, Marketing became the biggest operation, eventually encompassing most of the others, simply because recording equipment was no use unless someone sold the recorded devices to listeners; and sound reproduction technology was no use unless someone put those recorded resources into the hands of it’s users. The source of the sound was still the most important component of all in the chain, naturally; but the source was not the musician anymore, it was the recorded device – millions of copies of vinyl and plastic sold across the world. The oxymoron known as the ‘Music Industry’ was born.

As Music Corporations grew in size and spread, their objectives too were transformed. Selling copies of the music became more important than the music itself; and maximizing profits became the primary objective. A&R Executives were hired not for their ability to spot high quality musicianship but for their ability to find what they could sell most. The latest fad that could right away sell 500,000 records became more important than the musician who could contribute 20 years of pioneering effort. Bands could be manufactured, milked, bilked and discarded at will.

None of this is surprising, since it is in the nature of all businesses to pursue profit by selling what the customer will buy, at the highest price the market will bear. What is amazing is how, for so many decades, the vast majority of musicians so willingly acquiesced in this quantitative measurement of talent. The greatest thing to happen in a musician’s career was to get a recording deal from a ‘name’ label. Success was measured by the number of records sold; and jet-setting across continents in the first-class section of the airplane became the pinnacle of musical success.

Everyone, including the music media, became a willing part of this frenzy for ‘success’. Many years ago, Guitar Player magazine put Danny Gatton on its cover with the title, “World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player”. They mentioned more than once in the article that, “success evaded him”. No one asked, “How can you say that? Here is a guitarist’s guitarist. Other musicians hold him in awe. He can also hold any audience riveted. Isn’t that success?”

The problem was that Danny got bored playing in only one style, so he’d go from bluegrass, to rock, to blues, to jazz – all in one jaw-dropping solo. Bootlegs of his gigs were circulated among the fraternity like the Holy Grail. But the music industry found it impossible to pigeonhole him into any of their marketing categories. So they couldn’t sell him. Which meant he went under the mainstream media radar, as well.

Most of you who read this will not have heard of Danny Gatton – because ’success’ eluded him. (Gatton shot himself in the head in October 1994. The reasons are not known.) I wonder how many great musicians we have missed hearing because they never got a decent record deal.

The Internet and digitization have changed this scenario radically. Recording technology is in the hands of the musician now, distribution is in the hands of the listener; and neither is going to let go. This is as it should be: the relationship between the two should be direct, and intermediaries should be facilitators and certainly not barriers or filters. The Industry of course, has found it hardest to accept this since it threatens their existence. They’ve reacted by using copyright laws with a heavy hand, threatening downloaders and sharing sites with legal action; and extracting heavy penalties wherever possible. (The long-term effect of this maladroitness will be to make it more and more apparent that in any conflict of interest between big business and the public, even democratically elected governments will invariably support the corporates, defending the interests of the non-voter over the voter; but that subject calls for an entirely different discussion.) This is futile. On the one hand torrent and blogger sites keep reappearing like mushrooms. On the other, new bands – and many existing ones too – are recording and sharing their music on their own. Elsewhere, Apple, currently the largest distributor of music, sets its own pricing and marketing policies independently of the industry.

Many musicians don’t seem to know what to make of this. There are metal musicians in mega-selling bands,who are strongly opposed to file-sharing. Those who raged against the system with urban angst now resent anything that will deny them Caesars’s couch and the peeled grape lovingly administered by admiring groupies. Then there are those who moralistically ask, “How can anyone freely trade music that is the product of my creativity & recorded with so much of time, effort and money? Are there no ethics any more?” The most naïve reaction though, is from the musician who asks,“How do I make a living?”

Well, I have news for you guys who think that way. Things have come full circle and the gig has once again become central to music. We’re not going to rake in millions selling copies – plastic or virtual – of our recorded music. For now, we’re going to earn our living playing live. That CD you laboured over isn’t going to make much money. Its going to do something else: “It will act like your Visiting Card, letting people decide whether its worth their while to come and listen to you play live”, as ace guitarist, good friend and general wise man Mark Haydon says. And this is a good thing, after all. Its nice to know you’re in the background while people go about their lives driving, tying shoelaces, eating lunch or waiting for the rain to stop, but the only time we’re truly fulfilled as artists is when we have a live audience that is doing little else but listen to us play.

We’re not going to live easy, tying ourselves to the coattails of large commercial interests any more. That happened only to a very few; and it involved a process that denied opportunities to many other musicians who could have made our lives a lot richer if only we’d had access to their music. (The most we can hope for, if we still desire “success” today, is to become ‘mediacrities’ who host or judge music shows on TV.) But the good part is that you don’t have to wait for your pittance from the man in the suit; you are in charge of your own music.

Of course, the wheel’s not going to stop here. Since musicians can own the technology for recording, and the means of distribution belongs to everybody, recorded music is now disseminated directly from artist to listener. Hopefully, an open-source, virtual marketplace for music will evolve, where good music can be bought by thousands of listeners at a cost of perhaps $1.00 each. Musicians would earn their living; and music lovers would get what they want at a price
that makes the word ‘free’ irrelevant.

But I hope we never again allow our value as creative sources to be measured by the number of copies we sell or the amount of money we make. Also, it’d be great if playing live continues to be paramount – anything less would be a considerable loss to our audiences and to us.

For now, things aren’t going to be easy (they never are, when huge changes occur); but then you didn’t really expect to lead a life of ease or elevation when you chose to be a musician, did you? As Frank Zappa said, “The social status of a musician is slightly higher than a pile of shit”. If you decide to devote your life to music, you’re going to have to hold down multiple gigs: be flexible enough to handle differing musical styles, accept instructions from all those who hire you, learn to get along with varied musicians and circumstances, do sessions, teach kids…

But you can be sure of this: Everything that you do will require you to play your instrument. What more could you ask for?

Vinoo Matthew

Vinoo has been playing music for longer than anyone ought to, and has played rock, jazz, blues, fusion and music that no one listens to. He plays/has played bass with the Rex Rozario Quintet, Aftermath, River, Gerard Machado Network, Ministry of Blues, Cantonment Jazz Terminus, Chronic Blues Band, Bangalore Jazz & Abstract Music Club, etc. ad nauseum. He also plays lead guitar with the underground group, the Sarjapur Blues Band, proving Frank Zappa’s statement: "All bass players are failed lead guitarists."

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The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

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The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival wasn’t promoted as vociferously this year; while we’re wondering why, we’re also thankful that it panned out that way because the number of festival attendees this time during peak hours was just right – it wasn’t claustrophobic and it wasn’t marred by huge patches of empty grass/tables with people desperately trying to look like they’re having a good time.

Counterculture in Whitefield, known for its extremely chilled-out vibe (you can take your dogs with you to a gig), was buzzing with activity a little past ten a.m. on D-day. It was amusing to watch people bustling back and forth toting everything from humongous ladders to newspaper sculptures to kites! Quiet warnings of “watch it!” or “duck” were uttered more than once by friendly bystanders.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

While the food counter wasn’t open that early (the event was to begin at 11 a.m.), people already had the tenacious audacity to walk around with bottles of Millers glued to their fingertips (whiskey was our poison, so we’re not judging)! The venue itself had been done up with kitschy, unusual displays of art made from recycled stuff. The dragonflies, with tea strainers for eyes, bobbing happily above the bands while they played, were particularly amusing as was the centipede-like structure in a far corner. The fest had displays of art by Ari Jayaprakash, literally strung up, and featured a counter with Astral Cat creations.

Members from the Chennai-based hard rock band Totem got onstage to set up a little over an hour after go time. They had the misfortune of playing the earliest set to a crowd that was only just getting lulled into the appreciative mood. There was a short burst of a riff with an electro tinge to it and the ten second vocal that was belted over it was impressive. Anticipation heightened as the band started in earnest but while the sound was fine and the vocals were noticeably good, they didn’t come together as they should have. The bass was particularly impressive with even, deliberate plucking; it overrode all other instruments, not only in technique but also in sheer volume.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

The songs they performed, while filled with angst, didn’t bring anything new to the table. We were three songs in and still waiting for something to sound as good as that ten-second sound check. The vocals were impressive in parts and we even appreciated the on-pitch maniacal laughter that accompanied the song ‘Little Gravity’. The last song was a bass-driven number with elongated notes but the incomprehensible lyrics were a tad disappointing.

After the relatively enthusiastic applause for Totem died down, the band introduced their successors – Mushroom Lake. This band’s set was soothing and the words “ambient sound” were being flung around as people walked back and forth between the outdoor area with the stage setup and the indoor area with the food.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

This band had a settled feel to them, not only because they were seated for the most part, but also because of the sound they produced; there was a definite hint of whale song at certain points. A minimum of five minutes for a song, but what songs! While they were repetitive, there wasn’t any complaining about their finesse. The band was in sync all throughout despite the fact that they weren’t even looking at each other!

All four band members were bent over their instruments, hair shadowing their faces while they strummed, plucked and tapped for all they were worth. ‘6 A.M.’, ‘Acid Rain’ and ‘The Day After’ had the audience lulled into a sense of comfort as any beautiful Saturday morning should.

When Adam and the Fish Eyed Poets sauntered on stage later that the evening, we smirked because we were one of the few in on their secret. Here it is: there is no Adam. The frontman is Chennai-based singer songwriter Kishore Krishna who formed the current lineup of the Poets to promote material from two previously released albums. The four-member band put on a quick fire set with short punchy songs. A consistent post-punk sound with characteristic overdriven guitars sound punctuated with staccato-like riffs and break sections, a heavy chorus with extensive use of the crash, blended with some lyrical wizardry made for a brilliant show.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We happened to walk in right on ‘Little Monkeys’ and couldn’t help but notice Krishna’s Telecaster with analog stomp boxes. Typically up-tempo and energetic with classy crunchy-fuzz guitar tones and with running bass lines, the songs had Krishna moving from whispers to a rough-voiced lad to full throat screams. Often, even his vocals were drowned out by the music and the lyrics unfortunately were barely discernible. A few songs later, the band pulled a switcheroo with the guitarist and bassist exchanging places on a couple of tracks to end the show. The audience hollered for “one more”, and the boys obliged much to everyone’s delight.

We caught up with Krishna after his set for a little conversation about his influences and aspirations. The sound they have arrived at can be mostly attributed to the late 50s Stax/Volt Record Label’s music era along with the late 70s post punk movement. He said he prefers using his analog pedals because with the limitations in terms of sound, comes the opportunity to arrive at a distinct original sound. It definitely scores over a multi-light-bleeping-console with so much processing power it could take the focus away from the simple things. Since the material draws so much on the songwriting and lyrical themes, their next album has a very imaginative and dystopian concept album with an alternating first person narrative of a 30-year marital setting between a Dyke and a Schizoid. Heavy!

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We were just getting comfortable with watching a good act on stage when Adil and Vasundhara walked on. Adil Manuel (guitar) and Vasundhara Vidlur (vocals) head this project that experiments with Latin-jazz, jazz-rock and funk grooves with an extremely intimate RnB and soul-influenced vocal style. Adil and Vasundhara performed songs off their self-titled debut EP that was recorded after they formed the outfit in January of 2009. Most of their tracks on the recording feature as soulful acoustic melodies, so Adil went unplugged for the first few songs of their set. Saurabh on bass and their short-notice replacement drummer provided a funky, low-key groove backdrop to the dominating foreground of Adil’s vast repertoire of nomadic jazz voicing and inversions, harmonically balancing Vasundhara’s soul singing.

Tracks like ‘Just Another Blues’ and ‘Pinocchio Times’ showcased Vasundhara’s dynamics with a powerfully projected voice that could playfully shift from sultry and husky to a strong, big-bodied high note effortlessly. Her impressive stage presence is complemented by Adil’s fluid, McLaughlin-esque solo spots that leave you dazzled for their complexity. You could catch the bass and drums always right in the groove pocket, even over an odd-metered time that Vasundhara simply soared over, powerful and elegant at the same time. Adil had a ball with his ‘Cry Baby’ and went beserk on a solo section. On one Latin beat, Saurabh provided the bass and chord voice with a two-finger tap sequence over the guitar solo.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

They ended their set with a powerful song ‘Blue Bashing’, about a spat between two people that Vasundhara wrote after one such incident with Adil! While neither has been trained formally in music, Adil’s biggest inspiration is the legendary Allan Holdsworth and finally had a chance of meeting his idol recently in Mumbai. He also cites greats like Scott Henderson, John Scofield and Frank Zappa for their techniques that continue to inspire his sound. He says it is critical for a musician to develop a sense of “vocabulary” that speaks for your music. Without developing and improving on a vocabulary, musicians cannot achieve an individual style and would end up sounding like just another guitarist. He went on to say if Indian musicians took the effort to work on their identity and sound more original we would not have to seek fame and riches elsewhere. Adil has been a professional musician for years now, having played in bands like Asphyxia, MRP, Polio, The Rock Opera and more commercially with Bandish, Silk Route and Indian Ocean.

Vasundhara said her vocal techniques initially developed while performing with the Choral collaborative ‘Artists Unlimited’ in Delhi, where she was exposed to Gospel, Soul and RnB sounds. She has since performed with international composers and even voiced characters on-screen. Her strength also lies in the fact that she is comfortable singing in French and has performed for various French Music festivals.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

After a fitful conversation with Adil and Vasundhara, we had spotted this deranged looking guy with a suit in the audience and thought “Man is he at the wrong gig!” Turns out it was Nikhil, the drummer for the band The Jass B’stards, who incidentally was celebrating his birthday. We had seen a video of these B’stards supporting the Indie singer-songwriter Noush Like Sploosh and were mighty curious about them. There’s an aura of what-are-these-guys-about-ness that surrounds and shadows them. A gamut of instruments was brought up on stage, some shakers, some tambourines, a Theremin (which didn’t work) and two fezs. Stefan (keyboards), Tony (Bass) and Nikhil (Drums) belted out their first track ‘Samba Sin Titulo’ or roughly translated from the Polish – ‘Samba without a title’, a wild instrumental jam led with an Electric Piano melody. Nikhil’s up-tempo, double-time style drumming kept the beat super-pacy along with Tony’s consistency on the bass.

It was more than evident these guys were having way more fun – with their antics and tomfoolery – than the handful of free spirits right below the stage gypsying around to the groove. Stefan scurried off to return with a transistor radio, belting out some static-scratchy Hindi tunes off it. It’s amazing how furiously a drummer can play even with a tweed suit on, so furious and erratic that the other two had to tackle him just to keep his impulses from hurting himself! Stefan kept things wacky with a conductor’s whistle, crying away over some looping convoluted sounds and textures on his Nord keyboard. It was fun all the way with the B’stards, so much that they called on Gauri – another prominent Indie singer songwriter – for a song they haven’t played before. But that’s okay; The Jass B’stards have refined the art of not practicing to an unattainable level. Gauri sang over some improvised lyrics and music, with a bold, broad tom-boyish vocal range, before she darted off stage to an equally improvised ending. Their last track featured some vocals by Stefan, poetry even with small mellow sections in between the main groove sequence that had a sense of terror rising within the music, creating epic tension that crescendoed into a dramatic piano-led outro.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We met with the band post set, and must confess, had the best interview ever. You cannot get a straight answer from these guys and each question meets with pithy, wry, sarcastic humor bouncing off each other just like on stage. It’s worth mentioning some of the band’s influences include the smell of a damp cat, poorly translated Chinese menus and creaky wooden stairs. Nikhil mentioned that of late, he’s been listening to some good Russian music. That was a marked improvement from the bad Russian music he’d been listening to all this while.

Nikhil – “You should also listen to some fine porn music”

Us – “What’s the best kind?”

Nikhil – “Vintage of course”

Four-piece ensemble Peter Cat Recording Company took to the stage next. My only regret is not being to meet with the band post gig, because these guys have the freshest new sound on the block. Their music has been attempted to be described with tags like Gypsy Jazz with Midnight Moonlit Car Chase music inspired by Frank Sinatra and old Bollywood film music. The music has lyrics that are cynical and sinister which, accompanied by Suryakant’s smoky velvet voice, make it sound like ‘failed circus music’. There was a light drizzle in the air when they took to the stage as the penultimate band. Their music is so ethereal and bizarre, yet has this reassuring old world charm like a black and white film soundtrack on vinyl.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

PCRC started out as material written by Suryakant Sawhney in San Francisco, which he continued when he moved back to India in 2008. He met members of a local metal outfit Lycanthropia with Karan (drums), Rohan (Bass) and Anindya (Guitars, Keyboard) to form PCRC to record their debut album. They performed the opening track of the album ‘Pariquel’, which seems to talk about delusional lovers and prostitutes, a recurrent lyrical theme. ‘Love Demons’ featured an extended surreal sequence, plunging into a heady mélange of sounds with a quasi-harmonium/Russian organ. The audience just had to have another song, the band brought on the popular ‘Clown on the 22nd Floor’ which has this whimsical swingy carnival sound that ends with a Hindi film dialogue playing in the background.

At the end of the festival, we caught up with Abhishek from Logic and Madness who said the intention of this year’s format was to open up the festival to new sounds and new bands. An alternative festival to bring together off beat culture, art and music and form a collective that would manifest in an out-worldliness of influence on contemporary images and sounds.

It was rather unfortunate that we had to inevitably miss out on the performances by Stuck in November, Avilente, The Family Cheese, Schizophonic and The Bicycle Days; we’re sure we’ll catch them some other time!

Sharanya Nair

Sharanya is a 'writer' and an 'editor'. You know the type. She loves her music too much to share.

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