This article first appeared in the August-September 2014 issue of Time Out Delhi
First, the news. Calcutta’s finest, The Supersonics, have an album out, Heads Up, and it’s the best thing you’ll hear all year. Five years since their scene-making debut, it’s been a long wait for the band once dubbed the future of rock’n’roll in the country. When I asked Ananda Sen (vocals and guitars) about it in May, just after the band had finished recording the songs, he gave a wry smile and nodded. “Yes it has been a very long time,” he said, “but I’m glad we waited. Unlike that album we went in this time knowing the kind of sound we were looking for, and how to get it. I think it shows.” It did, even in the first mixes that I heard back then.
Way back in 2009, when Maby Baking came out to wide acclaim, the band were the pick of a scene of pop-punk bands across the country trying their own spin on the sound pioneered by The Strokes, The White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand. Sen, Rohan Ganguli (guitars, vocals), Avinash (Chotu) Chordia (drums) and Nitin Mani (bass) went on to tour the album and get a sizable nationwide following on the back of some incendiary shows, before disbanding in 2010. That hiatus lasted a couple of years, while the band members followed their own interests. They remained friends through it all though, which made coming back together easier.
Although they’ve played fewer gigs since they re-formed, they’ve certainly gone hammer and tongs at writing songs. “Our focus has been this second album,” says Sen. “Although I have hundreds of songs to work with, we had to find the right songs for the band.” According to Rohan, most of them came about with him and Sen sitting around with acoustic guitars, trading licks and ideas. “We did most of our composing on acoustic guitars. This helped us get away from the more simplistic vibe of the first album, and helped give the songs more space to breathe,” he said on the phone, while the band rehearsed behind him in Sen’s house. This ‘space’ that Rohan talks about has resulted in vastly more nuanced songs. Even When the Sun Don’t Shine would have been out of place on their debut, yet on Heads Up it’s the centrepiece, a soaring, yearning song that’s both a sophisticated bit of songcraft, and a touching tribute to the persistence of love. An instantly infectious chiming guitar leads the way to Sen singing, “You can fly, even if you can’t get high, you can shine, even if there ain’t no light, not a crime if you really do feel, lost at sea,” over a sea of pretty arpeggios to a lover who needs reassuring. The crack team of simpatico players that they are, the band changes track completely when the middle eight gives way to a gorgeous slide solo from Rohan over a cut up reggae beat and a sinuous, rolling bass. Then the whole band floats off into the ether following the wafting solo, before it leads the melody over a precipice and brings them back to earth. In the outro, the band tries to ride its arpeggio magic bus far out, and again a short, stabbing series of shrieking licks from Rohan’s guitar, like swooping seagulls, brings them up short. In this ebb and flow that lasts just a shade over 3 minutes, the band embodies the unsure narrator, who loves his partner, wants to tell her so, and yet… “Most of these songs are deeply personal, they’re about me,” laughs Sen. “I think I wrote eight to ten verses for each song, and then I junked them. I had to hide some of it, I didn’t want to give away too much. Everyone feels these things you know. That’s what I’m trying to communicate.”
The album starts off with one of their newest songs, Come Around, where, over sharply caroming guitars, Sen intones, “You come around me, I come around you, And everything you do is oh so true.” That’s one hell of a way to kick off an album! Especially from someone who’d previously written such Spinal Tap gems as, “I want to touch your thigh, honey pie, honey pie”. “Right there in your face, I see my place, and everything leaves just a beautiful taste, I think it’s time to draw a line, leave the past behind, look for another good sign,” croons Sen, throwing down the gauntlet. In a sense this is as true for the relationship he’s singing about, as for the band’s new approach. Smack in the middle of the song lies one of Rohan’s most beautiful guitar solos, a swaying, swooning slide guitar that channels George Harrison to deepen the song’s emotional heft. When Come Around closes out with a chiming guitar figure that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Buddy Holly song, you realise that this band’s in love, with pop.
Almost always billed as ‘post punk’—a favourite shorthand used by all music rags to describe their songs—what most observers failed to notice was that The Supersonics were a band that’d swallowed the rock songbook whole. “We were, and still are fed up of these labels. I mean all this pop punk stuff. It’s true, that was our self-image for a while too. But then again, bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead mean as much, if not more, to us. In a way, this set of songs shows our love for classic rock,” says Sen. While that’s certainly true, Heads Up ultimately sees The Supersonics re-invented as a peerless pop band. Where their debut clocked in at almost 45 minutes, Heads Up is a trim 34 minutes long, much like the Sixties’ albums that the principals in the band, Sen and Rohan, are so fond of. Strawberry, a rousing, jagged new rocker is a case-in-point. Last year, when the band were still writing the song, Rohan told me that it’s their tribute to Revolver. And he’s correct: interlocking guitar lines move round and round in a circle like mean hunters, sparring with Mani’s galloping bass and Chotu’s thin, airy snare snaps while Sen sings in his best acid voice about his need for an enigmatic Strawberry. The song is quite the bastard child of Dr. Robert and And Your Bird Can Sing. When the band breaks this crepuscular circle with the bonkers chant of “Strawberry! Strawberry! Strawberry!”, you can’t help but pogo up and down. I ask Sen about Strawberry’s genesis. “It started out with Nitin’s bass riff and a basic melody. One day after practice, Rohan, Chotu and I were playing around with it. And we decided to make a Beatles song of it. Once we started, we had it written pretty fast.” Lending it that added Beatlesque touch are the carnivalesque organ figures played by the ex-Mavyns keyboard player Vivek Nair from Mumbai. “He understands our music, has pretty much the same tastes, so using him on the album was a no-brainer,” says Sen.
Nair is on some of the other tracks, including another of the band’s recent songs, It’s Alright. It started out life last year as a Dylan-inspired song that Sen wrote for a future solo album. “I played it to Chotu and he liked it. So we decided to draft it in for the album.” Another departure from The Supersonics sound, a short organ-trilling, low-rumbling guitar intro pauses for a heartbeat and dives into a Beatles-meets-Shirelles “bop shuwop, bop bop shubidowop” refrain. Bolstered by double-tracked acoustic guitar, Mani’s tasty bass and Chotu’s hi-hat-galloping beat, Sen has another conversation with a lover. Imagine a swooning Bob Dylan-Lou Reed hybrid crooning I Want You to the accompaniment of a billowing and warm cloud of harmonies and a woody old Hammond tone. “You felt the ticking clock, speed up every time; With all the masks you wear you still can’t get it right,” they sympathise in the a cappella bridge, before the whole band give a big hug, “So remember it’s not a crime, to be in a certain frame of mind, oooooh it’s alright.”
The song is a shorthand the abiding endurance of The Supersonics’ music. There’s such a tight understanding and emotional connect between Sen, Rohan, Nitin and Chotu that the constant flirtation with a descent into inept, maudlin derivativeness never materialises. Instead, a supremely confident, musically arrogant band marches right across your auditory spectrum for 35-odd minutes, pulling off every cool guitar rock move with incredible aplomb and that elusive thing, originality. Rohan says this ease is down to everyone in the band being in the same head-space. “The basic tracks were recorded live, and everyone’s performances were very good. It’s more subtle than in the previous album, not everyone just bashing away. There’s more happening in songs although they’re actually shorter than the last time. It was more open, more relaxed.” Sen agrees, “When we went into the studio in 2009, we didn’t know anything. How to place vocal mics, get the correct guitar tones, how to mic a guitar. We basically would go in and try to get a groove going. This time around, we played to the song.” “When we took the songs to the studio, they were basically complete. Just bits were missing here and there. The big question was how to treat the songs,” he adds. “Because we were more confident, we didn’t use as many pedals as we did the last time,” says Rohan, “most of the songs have very clean guitar tones.”
All this adds to the richness of the sound. As do harmonies. Almost every other song has extensive backing vocals, again in a big departure from their earlier songs. “That’s because the songs breathe more now. We filled up the spaces with voices,” says Rohan. “In songs like Heads Up, Strawberry, the chords and melodies were written with harmonies in mind,” he says. So are they more comfortable trying to recreate this live? “That’s what we’ve been working towards in our practices since completing the album,” says Sen, “We’d like our performances to stick as close to the album as possible.”
Ostensibly their first single, Into the Dark is the most Supersonicy song on the album. It channelises a flawless Franz Ferdinand vibe, from the jagged two-guitar intro onwards. It builds up a head of steam on the back of a locomotive riff before the band’s trademark angular, judderingly infectious interplay of interlocking riffs kick in. Over which Sen launches plaintive laments in his typical array of found phrases that convey perfect sympathy. “You know I’ve got no virtues, you know I got some issues…” Sen sings. A four-to-the-floor disco beat makes it almost campy. “It had been around for a while, just a chord progression with a disco beat, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Rohan. No wonder it was known as the ‘Disco Song’ till a couple of months ago. He continues, “So we heightened the beat, played with it for many hours, and once Ananda wrote the lyrics, we had the song.”
To The Mall, an anti-consumerist arsonist daydream, is another gem, and it sees the band at their innovative best. “Me and Rohan were playing together,” says Sen, “when I played him this Elvis Mystery Train riff I had. Then he said he had a Chet Atkins lick, since we were trying for an old rock’n’roll sound.” “Yeah, we got to a point where the song wasn’t going anywhere, then we got the idea to transition it into a Velvet Underground kind of song,” says Rohan. The song is a history of rock in 3 minutes, where a jangly, slapback-echo tinged first half segues into a monolithic drone in the second half. It’s a bit Velvet Underground with a “There she goes…” refrain, and a bit Ramones, but the effect is quite transporting.
The album has a few such re-tooled old songs, though their treatment is completely in keeping with the new ethos. The two-year-old Evil Fly which in its earlier avatar was never a particularly impressive song is here transformed into a tour de force. From their earliest live days, The Supersonics had been distinguished from other bands by their ability to don various musical skins during the course of one song. Evil Fly reflects this ability. If a great song is shaped by effective decisions, then Evil Fly’s hook after devastating hook, driven on the laconic genius of Rohan’s guitar, is the epitome. The band cast a Blur-like jaundiced pop eye cast on the smug square and then proceeds to transform into a Sticky Fingers-era Stones barnstormer. “You better lay down and die, ‘cause everything’s just a lie, and I’m the fly watching you from the corner of my eye,” they rebuke with a hip sneer. Guitars are deeply mined for dense interplays of melodic arpeggios and riffs and a duelling guitar outro sees the song out.
The elegant title track, Heads Up, which closes the album, is The Supersonics’ Moonlight Mile, their magnum opus. Rohan reckons it’s one of the first few songs the band ever wrote, which means it’s about eight years old. Sen says they’d played it live many times. And yet I can’t remember ever hearing it before. “Not surprising,” he says, “it didn’t sound anything like it does now. It used to be a very straight, rock rhythm guitar based thing.” It’s anything but that now. A delicate, spiralling Travis-picked figure gives way to a heavy legato guitar line which leads to Sen singing about identity and dreams before the band resolves the tension with a joyous and affirming harmony-laden “Gotta get our heads up, gotta get our heads up, gotta get our heads up now,” and achieves lift up. But then Sen utters a sardonic “Try to,” and a dissonant, atonal bend of notes, reminiscent of what Wilco do in Via Chicago, briefly disrupt proceedings. The rest of the song is a mini suite of stabbing notes, interweaving guitar figures, delicate two-part harmonies and hammered on and chiming notes that never repeat the same trick twice. It all finally resolves to the opening figure, and ends in a small musical sigh.
The five years between albums had many of their fans feeling forlorn, but for the band the time had flown, caught between personal projects, education and, of course, the work necessary to become better musicians, better songwriters. What remains the same since then is the small, tight team of friends and well-wishers who the band have always turned to for tea and sympathy. Today, The Supersonics are a tiny cottage industry with friends producing lovely artwork, and shooting videos, all in tune with the aesthetic values of the scene that the band had emerged from. This keeps the music fresh, and gives the band the space to grow. If in 2009 there weren’t too many other bands playing original music—barring a few honourable exceptions—today there are hundreds. The Supersonics may never receive the same hype that many of their contemporaries receive, but one thing’s a fact— they are India’s finest band.
The Supersonics- Heads Up
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