Late last month guitarist/composer/sound engineer Kartik Pillai dropped out Service animal, his seventh release as JAMBLU. Pillai is best known as the guitarist for indie rock band Peter Cat Recording Co., but he’s also been producing irregular and experimental soundscapes like JAMBLU since 2013. Recorded for six months in Kerala, where Pillai was stuck with his family for the first Covid-19 containment, Service animal is a collection of woozy lo-fi ballads. It is also the latest addition to the small but growing body of leftist Indian electronica.
Casual music listeners tend to think of electronic music as pure dance fuel. But the original goal of electronic music was to free music from the tyranny of “natural” tone and timbre, to see how far the limits of sound and musicality could be pushed. And while most commercially successful electronica has become locked into the constraints of the club, there have always been artists, scenes and sometimes entire movements that have kept the flame of experimentation alive.
Over the past decade, events like The Listening Room, Disquiet and Synth Farm have created spaces for experimental artists to perform live. Soon a horde of bedroom producers and part-time tinkerers emerged: noise exponents Jessop&Co and SISTER, instrument inventors ISRO, sampledelic producer Babloo Babylon, political dungeon-dub artist RAVANA , among others.
More established artists, like techno pioneer Arjun Vagale, also started to dabble in non-commercial sounds. Vagale, who produce raw, industrial electronica under the AsymetriK label, says: “A lot of times you get pigeonholed for the sound you’re known for. But once you break the mold, you allow yourself the freedom to express yourself, regardless of genre. AsymetriK is my playground for such experiments.
Vagale, like Pillai, has a musical day job to pay the bills. Other experimental artists were able to spin their adventures into more accessible tunes, like Lifafa refining his early freewheeling soundscapes into commercially viable avant-pop. But for artists like Ruhail Qaisar from Leh, who heads SISTER and is releasing an album on Berlin-based label Danse Noire in October, finding financial viability is difficult. Far from dreaming of stardom, Qaisar simply hopes to build up a sufficient international following to play on the occasional European tour and do day work alongside him. “The industry in India is managed by this control network; there is no money for experimental music,” says Qaisar. “But I don’t want to compromise on my music.”
This uncompromising stance runs through the current wave of left-wing sound smiths. This may be necessary when making music so abrasive it can empty the room in seconds (like the first time Jessop&Co played in Mumbai), or so heartbreaking that you come away with an emotional commotion (Disco Puppet). It’s not that the international experimental scene is a path to stardom. But in India, making experimental music can often feel like shouting into the void. JAMBLU, for example, has released three records since 2019 and received hardly any criticism or recognition from the Indian music press.
“It made me look deeper inside and wonder why I’m doing this in the first place,” says Pillai. “Because it’s not mainstream music and I can do mainstream music. I don’t do it because I have a vision of what I like music to be, and that’s is deeply personal. If someone connects to it, I find it more and more special. He sadly concludes: “I don’t know exactly what keeps me going. But I know I want to keep doing it.”
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