Peter Cat Recording Co: End Of An Era?
4 October 2019
If you want to miff or bore Peter Cat Recording Co., a sure shot way would be to ask the band what genre their music belongs to. They're not the first act to feel that way – heck, that's how most artists feel if you try to pigeonhole them or reduce them to a bunch of generalised terms – but they have a particular aversion to the practice, which is wholly fathomable. Because anyone who's ever really listened to PCRC or seen them live would know the question is redundant.
If I want to go meta, I'd even go ahead and say this article is redundant, or in fact any writing about music at all, because there's no surer test for the music or better way to experience it than to, of course, simply listen to it. Perhaps that's the reason music journalism and criticism has been at the helm, ironically, of criticism throughout the brief history of music journalism and criticism. Just listen to the damn music and decide for yourself! However, for some reason the practice has prevailed. So here I am, and here is PCRC, fresh off the back of their extensive Europe tour promoting their latest album 'Bismillah'.
Having accidentally stumbled upon the band some time nearly a decade ago, I'd secretly vowed to myself to promote and support them in every way possible, while also keeping them my best kept secret (by my own flawed, conflicting design, I failed miserably at the latter). This, of course, was at a time when they remained obscure, traipsing the underground – whether on purpose or not, who knows – and had resigned their fate to playing the occasional show on a rooftop in Hauz Khas Village. I don't blame them – India simply wasn't ready for them and their dizzyingly plethoric experimentation back then. Or maybe they were just bad at marketing and promoting themselves, because I'm yet to find a person who heard their music and disliked it, though plenty have been known to twist their heads in doubt, frown as if they smelled something suspicious, and dub it “weird” and “unusual” (which in my world is always a good thing). But then I'm only talking about their relatively better known older albums 'Sinema' and 'Climax' here – it's only the true fan that will have heard and appreciated the releases in more raw and vastly more experimental transmissions like 'Wall of Want' and 'Transmissions'. For those of you feverishly looking them up, my apologies, they no longer take up space online, and now exist solely across some scattered hard drives (though the band promises they will be back soon).
Peter Cat Recording Co. at Rock en Seine, Paris
But that's only the story of the first half of the decade or so of their existence as a band. The arrival of 'Sinema' gave PCRC a gentle nudge out of obscurity, with crowd hits like 'Pariquel' (adapted in Hindi as 'Jaanam' for the Bollywood film 'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!'), 'Love Demons', 'Clown On The 22nd Floor'; the bizarre, psychedelic experience they created on the music video for 'Love Demons' was step two towards their emergence into the light. If you try to map it, it was perhaps the release of 'Climax' in 2015 that really pushed them above ground and forced them to tread out of musical limbo and indulge Indian audiences with frequent live shows and irreverent humour on social media. There isn't much to say about the period between then and now except that Peter Cat Recording Co. really got big, to an extent that they've often been endearingly called “indie favourites” or things like “the best band you've never heard”. Some of this very recent escalation in global fame can be attributed to the fact that Delhi-based label and management agency Pagal Haina, and French label Panache relieved them of marketing and promotional duties; mostly all of it, naturally, is because of their incredible talent and indefinable sound.
Well, you've heard them now (you need to drop everything, cancel your schedule, and head here if you haven't) and so has half of Europe, thanks again to the very ambitious and extensive tour they embarked on in the summer of 2019, and this is what the band – which, I forgot to mention earlier, comprises of Suryakant Sawhney, Kartik Pillai, Karan Singh, Dhruv Bhola and Rohit Gupta on various, constantly-morphing duties – had to say about it: “The tour was great. We ended up playing at various festivals, mostly the Netherlands somehow (not complaining, of course). The highlight of the tour being Rock en Seine where we all kind of came together on stage in a brand new way. New experiences and just the experience of being on a road tour for a month and pretty much spending every other waking moment together definitely gave us a new perspective on our music and each other. Also, since we all took recording equipment along, we were able to jam and create brand new music.”
Pillai thought playing at Rock en Seine was “pretty cool”, too, and offered a more personal perspective, telling me, “It was great, 7/8 people roaming around Europe in a van, what's not to love?” Even if there ever were anything not to love, it seems to have been made up for by the fact that the band got to watch Deerhunter and Aphex Twin live, play a lot of table tennis, make frequent detours to Amsterdam and, bizarrely, that “everyone who drove, drove on the sidewalks” (I'm not sure what to make of this one, but I hope the people who chanced upon that tour van are okay).
The tour van
If you're wondering, it wasn't just PCRC that had a good time, but also their audience. The response was overwhelmingly positive, the band tells me, and their album launch shows in Paris very well attended. “The crowd had done their homework, so there was a great call and response ritual happening,” they say. Now I don't claim to be a patriot or particularly fond of the idea of a nation at all, but watching an underground, indie Indian band being embraced just as wholly by international audiences does spark a touch of pride in me, and no, it's not my post-colonial hangover talking. The fact is, the audience in India for non-mainstream music is consistently growing, but niche and limited. Most artists and bands from the Indian independent music community, thus, even those with a dedicated fan-following like PCRC tend to peak and plateau after a certain point if they limit themselves to audiences in India. That's not to say they'll struggle to book or fill shows, but there's only so many times you can watch the same artist play the same venues and festivals, or as an artist, play the same venues and festivals to the same audiences, before you reach a point of stagnation. And it's general knowledge that the Indian music community largely exists in a bubble, like a loosely knit family, spread majorly across the few major metropolitan cities – though it's been gratifying over the past few years to watch relatively “smaller” cities actively working on growing and evolving their independent music scenes.
That's another reason why it's also a good idea to get some additional perspective on the music flourishing in your music community, if nothing else but to prevent stagnation (and to also get further moral and financial support). PCRC mentioned in an interview with The Alipore Post, when asked about the indie music scene in India and its limitations, that “there was definitely a need to become a part of something larger in order to push away the danger of stagnation”, which is why working with Panache immensely benefited them. And their globalised, boundless sound surely worked in their favour, especially with the arrival of 'Bismillah'.
PCRC, in their typical nonchalance, settle for calling their sound “cabaret / gypsy gold / bathroom waltz” and “midnight moonlight car chase music”, which, though whimsical, is somewhat accurate but also fairly reductive. But then it's hard to describe a sound that has touches of jazz, gypsy music, disco, electronica, Bollywood, waltz, classical, noise, psychedelic, cabaret – you name it – with Sawhney's Dean Martin/Sam Cooke/Mohammad Rafi/Kishore Kumar-inspired vocals. You can blame this melange of genres on the band members' disparate influences (from jazz and Afro Cuban rhythms to bhajans and harsh noise) and musical backgrounds, which notably emerge in their solo and side projects: Lifafa, Jamblu, Begum, bowls, and Karan Sings. PCRC members, as you can see, like to stay busy.
“We're mostly late to rehearsal and early to soundcheck,” quips Pillai. The band, in their collective response, claim to take it one day at a time, iterating with uncharacteristic optimism that “as long as one is inclined, there's nothing to stop someone from doing as many projects as one wants to”. Pillai, however, is more articulate: “We don't manage shit, it's a fucking Jackson Pollock painting.” Here's a Jackson Pollock painting below for reference:
Giving in to PCRC's ditzy, kitschy, infectious charm, particularly on 'Bismillah', arguably their breeziest and most accessible album yet, is easy. Resisting the urge to sway or swing at their versatile live shows, on the other hand, is not. And perhaps that's all PCRC may have amounted to – cheery, summery, danceable – had their music not been cut by their zeal for experimentation (refer: 'Wall Of Want', 'Transmissions' if you can find them, or current tracks like 'S**t I'm Dreaming', 'Vishnu <3', 'Hail Piano' or 'Bebe de Vyah'), and by heavy, impressionistic undertones of melancholia, cynicism, guilt, and socio-political commentary.
In an interview about 'Bismillah', Sawhney told Indulge Express, “I think while the album generally has a mood of celebration, the writing is extremely personal and very inward looking. I like to explore issues of lifelong guilts, the guilt of holding people back or ignoring the mass injustices we see daily. Being used as an instrument of labour. PCRC’s music has generally been very philosophical, aimed at the hearts of individuals as opposed to larger societies.”
More than the presence of the philosophical undertones and lyrical themes, it's their delivery that sets PCRC apart. Sawhney's crooning voice is at once warm, expressive and somewhat disaffected (just like our entire generation) and if you don't pay attention, you might just miss the context. He cheerily sings of isolation on 'Heera' (“So give me what I need, to suffer in peace, living on an island”), about the temporary nature and tyranny of money and life on 'Where The Money Flows' – “The song is about the human experience and how everything you once valued can one day be used against you and be rendered meaningless,” the band tells me. The running theme here, if you haven't already noticed, is this juxtaposition of the externally perceivable exuberance and cheeriness, painted by the band's music, with the rather melancholic, heavy themes of the lyrics. Stray a little to either side, and you lose balance, but PCRC have perfected the tightrope.
Peter Cat Recording Co. at Meltdown Festival, London
Personally, my favourite experience with PCRC was watching their live set, 'The End Of The World With Peter Cat Recording Co.' at the Peacock Club during Magnetic Fields 2018, where they first previewed 'Bismillah'. The stage design may be indulgent, but thick, red, draped velvet curtains and a tent somehow seemed the perfect setting for their music (boarding passes for their performance, which was “set” in a spaceship headed into outer space, was a nice touch). There was a sense of mystery and magic that saturated the air as I sat in front of the stage in the middle of a desert, with about 300 odd people steeped in anticipation. When the band started, there was at once a vague sense of community, a collective wonder with a touch of sadness, like you're part of something bigger than yourself, something larger than this isolated tent in the middle of the desert. It felt, almost, like one was seated at the edge of the world, watching a magnificent parade unfold, and struck with the sombre realisation that the world is coming to an end.
When PCRC announced 'Bismillah' earlier this year, and wrote that they will “close a chapter of [their] lives together”, many of their fans experienced a feeling akin to that, and worried that it marked an end to the band. I can't blame them – speculation, especially about perceived dire circumstances, is an integral part of the human experience. But I'd like to do my part by putting those worries to rest. Though the band dismissed my pervasive questions about the same, and claim they were merely alluding to “the current state of all affairs”, they've dropped sufficient hints that it isn't Peter Cat Recording Co. but their previous notions and ideas about making music that will change, setting them up for a transition into a “completely blank canvas”.
So move over, darling... I will take my chance; and now this must end.
***Off the back of their successful Europe tour, on Sunday, October 6, Peter Cat Recording Co. will be kicking off a run of gigs in India, with three larger format shows in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Find information about the tours here.***
Words: Satvika Kundu
All images courtesy Dhruv Singh, Pagal Haina // Carousel Image: Polina Shapova