Chuck a stone into any college campus in metropolitan India, and chances are it would land on a student who plays in a rock band. That’s how common they are now. No real story there.
Okay then, how about those who’ve made their name by not covering songs by other bands? This list is certainly smaller, but here too, you’d probably find several bands in each city, all trailblazers in their own right. Tinier still would be the list of bands that have endured without the support of music labels.
The band retains a preference for odd time-signatures and tempo changes but the tunes stand up to some ol\' fashioned groovin' too.
So in which of these lists would you place Thermal And A Quarter, or TAAQ, as the Bangalore band are increasingly called? The short answer would be: in none of them, for TAAQ have created and occupied a space that never existed before.
Bruce and Rajeev, and more recently, Prakash, have been around for 15 years, written more than 50 songs, and released four albums, without compromising on their values or giving in to temptation (Bollywood, ad jingles, etc.). They’ve learnt how to make a proper living out of their music, no easy matter even in urban, anglicised Bangalore. They’ve built a viable financial model, which is remarkable given that they sing in English. And in the past, they’ve fought music labels that told them to write songs in Hindi, refused to give in to journalists who wanted favours, and released music without charging for it.
And now they have a fifth album.
Dedicated to the humble auto-rickshaw, it’s called Three Wheels, Nine Lives. The auto or ‘rick’ is a metaphor that we’re all familiar with, and some of the songs in the album neatly sum up the urban condition. An urban condition that members of Thermal And A Quarter are very familiar with, since the trio grew up and came of age in Bangalore, at a time of unprecedented change, exploding opportunities and environmental degradation in the city.
The album has 28 songs in it and if there are any departures from their established sound, they aren’t radical. The band retains a preference for odd time-signatures and tempo changes but the tunes stand up to some ol' fashioned groovin’ too (Surrender, Chameleon). There’s local flavour (Metre Mele) and the obligatory rant against the media industry (Who Do We Have Sex With?). As a long-time listener I’d say the newish bits include the tribute to Cat Stevens, For the Cat, and the acoustic piece, Terrible Trouble.
At the heart of the band is drummer Rajeev Rajagopal. He was schooled in metal music, and inspired by drummers with a taste for the eclectic. That’s why he doesn’t exactly sound like Coldplay’s drummer. Rajeev anchors the songs with muscular dexterity, exploding with a fury when he has to. There’s subtleness too if you listen carefully.
TAAQ have remained a trio for almost their entire existence with just the drums, guitar, and bass guitar. What this means is that their bass guitarists have had to do more than just lay down the beat, or lock into a tight rhythm with the drummer. In the album, Prakash KN takes the freedom that the band has afforded him to express himself. It helps that he has meaty fingers, for he sports a bass guitar with 6 strings, and is now threatening to unleash one with 8 strings.
And then there’s Bruce Lee Mani: writer, guitarist, singer. In Three Wheels, Nine Lives, his skills as a lyricist remain sharp, even at times touching the heights of Look At Me from their second album Jupiter Café. He doesn’t go in much for the screaming guitar thing these days, but you wouldn’t know the difference, what with all the twiddly bits in the songs. Bruce’s voice has changed too: a certain vulnerability adds a new dimension to what has been described as a Vedderesque baritone in the past. Whether that’s due to his voice or an improvement in sound engineering is for listeners to decide.
Yes, there are issues with the album: the 28-song album feels about 8 songs too long. Surely there wasn’t any need to pack in everything. But these are minor quibbles, and you’re inclined to be indulgent, especially when you know many of their singles (Kickbackistan, Grab Me, Simply Be) might never have been released at all.
So there you have it, a new album that’s raced to the top of the charts from the pioneers of Indian rock. They aren’t our answer to Soundgarden. Neither are they a desi Steely Dan, nor an oriental Phish. No, they are India’s (Bangalore’s!) Thermal And A Quarter, purveyors of a unique Indian-English sound, and they just Won't Stop.
The album cover
Three Wheels, Nine Lives (EMI Music India) by Thermal And A Quarter is available in music stores & Flipkart for Rs. 300. It is also available for digital download from iTunes and Flyte, the digital store of Flipkart.