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New electronic band ‘trips and hops’ down the rhythms of melancholia

With their unique soundtrack, Bangalore-based band Sulk Station is being touted as the next big thing in the indie music scene. Balancing many accolades, they plan to take a break from touring & make good music before making a comeback, writes Nidhi Gupta.

NIDHI GUPTA  13th May 2012

photo: Sachin Soni

n a lovely spring evening recently, we found Tanvi Rao and Rahul Giri of the mercurial band Sulk Station recording a couple of songs for Balcony TV on a terrace in C.R. Park. The Trip Hop/Downtemp band was in town to promote their first album – Till You Appear – and in the same vein of self-discovery, they've just wrapped up playing their big hit Bindya for the online music channel.

"This was so much better than our previous performance," says Tanvi Rao, referring to their promotional gig at Out of the Box in Hauz Khas Village. "We were just so nervous – it was our first actual live performance. We've never had such an attentive audience!" she laughs, as she goes about packing up their equipment.

When real talent has arrived, can fame be far behind? This Bangalore-based band has taken the nation (or at least the part that cues in to indie music and has a decent working broadband network at hand), by storm. "We've been getting so much Internet love, it's not funny," says an overwhelmed Rahul Giri. Their exquisite concoction of Ambient or Trip Hop music, laced generously with classical Hindustani and peppered with strains of jazz was a hit from the word go, especially for the atmosphere it has created, enabling flights of fancy and triggers of despondency alike. With this entrant on the Indian indie music scene, electronic music and melancholia have taken on a whole new dimension.

Their journey began in 2009, when they chanced upon each other while jamming at a friend's party in Bangalore, where they were both pursuing mass communication at Christ College. Needless to say, it was love at first sound. "I heard her fooling around with the mic and thought she was pretty good," says Giri.

Probe deeper into their personal histories and we find that Rao, born and raised in Bangalore, was a trained Western contemporary singer and was part of the choir at her college. Meanwhile, Giri came from Kathmandu to pursue journalism in India. He had to take just a single class in electronic music while studying at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, to get started on producing his own sound in the comfort of his bedroom. After some mails going back and forth, the two decided to experiment with collaboration.

We’ve never before encountered an audience that actually sings our songs back to or with us! Usually it’s just people listening from their dinner tables. But this sudden awareness of who we are and where we come from was just so flattering. — Tanvi Rao

Deeply influenced by Portishead, Massive Attack, Radiohead, King Creosote and John Hopkins, James Blake and Glorybox, among others, the first single that emerged out of layering sound upon sound was Bindya, a deeply resonating track that crackles on electronic beats and sizzles on Rao's voice interpreting chota khayal, a minor component of Hindustani classical music. While her sultry voice does more than justice to an admittedly tough form of music, her training has only just begun. "I've been learning Hindustani for two years now. I became interested only after we had formulated our sound," she says.

Armed with this phenomenal song, they opened for the German band Mouse on Mars in Bangalore in 2010. "Not only was this the first time we performed live, but for that one night we called ourselves 'The Bobbleheads'," giggles Rao. The name may not have stuck, but the song did and so did a few promoters who eventually turned out to be their biggest supporters. "Once they noticed us, Lounge Piranha, Counter Culture and B-Flat just kept asking us to keep coming back to play for them. A lot of our songs got shaped while we were performing," says Giri. Soon, they had strung a decent line-up – Contentment, Wait, Piya, Splendour – and compiled it all in one album built for those brooding about unrequited love.

nd yet, despite having performed in public so often, they found themselves nervous at the Delhi gig. "We've never before encountered an audience that actually sings our songs back to or with us! Usually it's just people listening from their dinner tables. But this sudden awareness of who we are and where we come from was just so flattering," says Rao. The effect they had on the crowd that night would not warrant such self-effacement – like moths to a flame, their listeners crowded in on the band, swaying in silence, for most parts, with arms folded and eyes closed in as if in a trance.

The audience may have been energised, but made for a small assembly. Does it seem at all risky to delve into a genre that is relatively niche? "First," says Giri, "we didn't begin making music with the aim of becoming big names. It wasn't until much later that we began to contemplate the possibilities of our music."

Secondly, he feels that the music scene in India has undergone tremendous change. "Today, we have a whole rank of budding musicians who want to experiment on their own sound. The cover culture is dwindling," he notes.

Their appeal lies in their unique sound, where the element of fusion basically makes it approachable to anybody. Again, an evolved indie scene has a lot to do with this. "A lot of people are getting into laptop productions, belting out tracks from the comfort of their bedrooms. This erases the patterns of traditional 'jamming' – there is that much less compromise on creativity and that much more scope for flexibility," Giri explains.

Their own working relationship seems to be a hoot, if their casual camaraderie is anything to go by. "Contrary to what he's been telling people all over, he's the real 'sulker' on this station," laughs Rao. Names and labels are a conflicted domain, in their case. When asked to define the essence of their songs, they give each other puzzled looks and snort.

Rao concedes she finds it absurd when people are bent on categorising things. "Why must we decide what to call our music right here and now?" she demands, adding that any true fan wouldn't particularly care about what to call it. But Giri seems to have all the answers: "This is why we thought of calling it 'mellow-dramatic pop'. But the rest of the labels are just for the sake of convenience," he shrugs.

Perhaps, defining, bracketing and boxing it up would restrict their music from reaching its stratospheric heights. The young band that has so far been mentioned in Toto Funds the Arts' shortlist for musical talent in 2009, featured on BBC's Next Big Thing, named 'Soundclouder' of the Day, and is being said to have this year's award for best album by Wild City in the bag, also claims to be the 'indie' of indie music. "Even in India, indie's become corporatised. We'd count ourselves among the ranks of those that are struggling to get their sound out," says Giri.

Now, with a steady trickle of orders ("3-4 to be shipped per week," says a proud Giri), they've decided to take a little break from touring. But they'll continue to make songs for now and would also like to figure out the live music scene eventually. And till they come back, they leave you to lose yourself in their "all out bedroom venture full of flaws and a little bit of heart".

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