Peter Cat Recording Co.
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Peter Cat Recording Co.

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The best kept secret in music

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Peter Cat Recording Co. are probably the most important band to come out of the Indian indie music scene in recent years. Their songs sound like life’s classroom backbenchers’s takes on love, played to the simultaneous background score of many Golden Era Hindi movie scenes.

Their impending second full-length album (out, hopefully, in March) should be causing anxiety attacks in a world that ‘loves music’, but frontman Suryakant Sawhney still finds the time to answer interview questions about parents, cutting an album, and planning a tour of northeast India with Peter Cat Recording Co. Read on for excerpts—

Movies clearly have a lot of influence on your music. How did studying film come about?
Post high school, I was desperate to travel to a different country for a bit and I happened to get a partial scholarship to a university in San Francisco under the ignorant impression of studying 3-D animation. On arrival I realised that sitting in front of computers was definitely not going to work for me and switched my major to film impulsively. It was really a matter of me sitting there thinking of film as a career, right for the first time as I went through the curriculum. So I made the move but as time passed, I spent less and less time devoted to college work and more time on writing my music. So in a sense, the fact that I learned making music and filmmaking simultaneously resulted in this development.

What was it like, readjusting with a change in lineup and country? How different were the way that songs came about in the two settings?
Actually, I didn’t have a lineup in San Francisco. My friends, Jeffrey Abplanalp and Jeremy Kane and I wanted to start Peter Cat as a band on the basis of some of my demos but we never got an ideal drummer or a serious work ethic in place. That plus serious financial burdens basically made it impossible for us to pursue a San Franciscan Peter Cat Recording Co. So the first proper P.C.R.C. gig actually happened in August 2010 at the I.A.F. Station in Palam in the N.C.R. It happens to be the venue for the ‘wedding videos‘ on YouTube. The initial lineup of Rohan, Andy, and myself formed easily but we peddled between drummers till Karan settled down. As far as the songs go, most were written and almost all were completed in Delhi itself. San Francisco was the birthplace though.

For a lot of the band’s fans, the first brush with your music have been videos of Peter Cat Recording Co. playing at weddings, exuding a very different ethos from anyone before. Did it all naturally fall into place?
In short, no. Although Rohan, Andy, and I had been jamming a short set together, we only found a drummer, Caleb Prabhakar (Fringe Pop, Superfuzz) the night before that wedding gig. So we practised late into the night and the next day we showed up at the Air Force Station’s Gentleman Club for the show. It was being thrown for a friend’s friend’s friend. Long tale short, it was a fucking ridiculous night full of drunk uncles and aunties, Delhi band kids, and just lots of drunk everything. The videos were shot by our friend Bheem (vocalist of Lycanthropia, incidentally the metal band all my bandmates also play for), and the combination of a ’90s V.H.S. camera with its nightshot mode just made it into something sinister.
“Long tale short, it was a fucking ridiculous night full of drunk uncles and aunties, Delhi band kids, and just lots of drunk everything.”

What changes for a band like Peter Cat Recording Co., and for you personally, when critical acclaim pours in about your music? Does it change the way you look at making music?
I don’t think it’s really affected us as much as it affects our parents who could see this as some sort of sign that we’re doing something smart with our lives. Personally, I’m very embarrassed by someone complimenting our music to me in person as opposed to being written about favourably. When drunk, it makes us more ambitious and maybe want to rule over everything. Regarding the music, new sounds and artists appearing all over the world are really giving us new ideas to explore but I do appreciate intelligent gig reviews as it’s impossible to know what your live act really has going for it (or lacks).

There are a lot of post-Bollywood love affairs lamented on your album Sinema. How many relationships does one have to go through to become as wise as you sound on some of the songs there?
One for every type of woman in the world or just pretend you’re unlucky in love.

What are some of the Indian bands that you’ve liked in the past? Which ones of the current bands has it been the most fun gigging with?
None. We’ve hardly gigged with current bands but there are definitely some who look like they could be a crazy bunch to play a show with, like Menwhopause.

Have your folks heard your first album? What’s their take on it?
My mother’s not sure but she does think I have a creepy voice. Overall, the nature of the album pretty much makes it impossible fo - Helter Skelter


The birth of a sound can occur in unlikely places. Even a Russian pawnshop in San Francisco. That’s where Suryakant Sawhney bought a beat up keyboard, which would play an important role in his band Peter Cat Recording Co. “I saw this old keyboard, which turned out to be a ’70s organ,” said Sawhney, who was in SF to study filmmaking. “Instead of $360 they were selling it for sixty.” Sawhney took it home and tricked it out. “Normally it produces a mellow tone,” he said, “Something that you play at a funeral or wedding. I amped it to make it louder and it produced this cool, crunchy sound.”

After that, swirling organ notes would give Peter Cat’s music its definitive fairground atmosphere. That fuzz tone helped Peter Cat turn heads in Delhi, along with their lyrics about prostitutes and their delusional lovers, alternate universes where Japan won World War II, and melodies that draw on gypsy music, crooners like Frank Sinatra, The Velvet Underground, old Hindi films, and the indie angst-rock heroes Neutral Milk Hotel.

The swirl of vintage themes and references is pure Peter Cat; the band is even named after a Kolkata restaurant. Sawhney later discovered that Japanese author Haruki Murakami once opened a jazz club with the same name. “Peter Cat sounds jazzy to me and it was interesting that he had thought along the same lines,” Sawhney said.

“It’s not that I read his work. Or that I particularly like jazz. It’s got to do with the artistic sensibilities of the time, the clothing, styles, the whole classic Hollywood thing.”

Somehow, Sawhney sold this antiquarian vision to three guys – bassist Rohan Kulshreshtha, lead guitarist Anindya Shankar and Karan Singh on drums – in a metal band called Lycanthropia. Listening to them now, backing Sawhney as he croons out “Happiness”, you’d never imagine they were metalheads.

Peter Cat’s early live gigs were also surprising. Their first concert was at a posh Delhi wedding, which led to more nuptial dos, and even a party thrown by the wife of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Unsuspecting guests received a dose of such Peter Cat chestnuts as “Don’t Rape My Baby”. “Some noticed the song, others didn’t,” Sawhney said. “We’ve never had a better sound setup as that gig. The CAG’s wife came up to me after the show and said we reminded her of Bob Dylan.”

The bizarre, arthouse imagery of their songs speaks more to their indie-rock lineage. Some songs, like “Love Demons”, take seed from a single, freak image – in this case, “this guy who gets creepier and creepier over time and commits a horrific act.” Of course, it’s all reported with the ironic detachment that allows Sawhney to say, “I like things like failure. People don’t want to discuss it, but that’s what mostly happens, isn’t it?”, and more honestly, “I like the idea of jealousy and debauchery, but I don’t live my songs.”

Unsurprisingly, the title of Peter Cat’s debut album is Sinema. Meant to be heard in one sitting, Sinema opens with “Pariquel” (a play on “prequel”) and ends with “Tokyo Vijaya”, an instrumental track that imagines Japan as victorious in the Second World War, and taking out a parade.

“I got the idea from Japanese films,” Sawhney explained. “No matter how the films end, you watch their ending credits – as it rolls out, the music is insanely cheerful.” Their MySpace page describes their music as a “failed circus”, but Peter Cat is actually a big success – they’re just pulling down the tent on purpose. - TimeOut


Peter Cat Recording Co. are unlike any Indian rock band you’ve heard before. Their music, described by themselves and others, as everything from “cabaret folk” and “gypsy punk” to just “orchestral”, is as distinctive as their lyrics, so sardonic and surreal that you find yourself listening closer to each word and inflection every time your hear their songs. It’s a surprisingly fitting juxtaposition of carnival sounds and dark lyrics, where the ballads read like anti-love songs and the jauntier tunes, like the soundtrack to a particularly black comedy. It’s a level of loveable quirkiness previously only seen in such Indian indie acts as Sridhar/Thayil and Emperor Minge.

It’s no surprise then that Delhi-based Peter Cat Recording Co., which released its debut album Sinema in January, is influenced by bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the now disbanded ’90s American indie rock group known for their obscure lyrics, as well as the surrealist writings of Haruki Murakami. In fact, frontman Suryakant Sawhney was thinking of changing the name of the band, originally christened after a restaurant in Calcutta, but decided to keep it when he found out that Peter Cat was also the name of a jazz club opened by the Japanese author in Tokyo in the 1970s. “I use a stream of consciousness technique while writing, that is to just blab out things until it all makes sense to me in some sort of way,” said Sawhney. “I read a lot of Sci-Fi, both early and contemporary, which I’m sure has some sort of influence on the process. Mostly though, I think I tend to harvest my stories and images from films and dreams much more than literature.”

Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Sawhney, 24, formed Peter Cat Recording Co. in 2008 with a couple of his flat mates in San Francisco, where was he studying film. When he moved back to New Delhi in 2010, he decided to continue the project by recruiting three members of metal band Lycanthropia. The line-up now includes Rohan Kulsheshtra, 27, on bass, Anindya Shankar, 23, on lead guitar and keyboard, and Karan Singh, 22, on drums and “annoying panflute”. Their influences range from “Bob Marley and Portishead” to “Sikh hymns and solo Theremin music”, but more identifiable inspirations include the psychedelic soundscapes of acts like The Velvet Underground and the laidback croons of 1950s pop artists such as Bobby Darin. “As a collective, all of us love [the] old Bollywood music of the 1960s and ’70s–with a secret admiration for the ’90s and Anu Malik–not just the songs but the background scores of many films,” said Sawhney. The lighting sound you hear on “AndroJean”, off Sinema, has been sampled from the 1994 Hindi film Karan Arjun.

But the most distinctive element of the Peter Cat Recording Co. is the “fuzzed up keyboard”, and drums and waltz patterns that lend their songs an almost circus-like feel. And like the circus, their songs seem to be inhabited by a number of freaks including, “classy prostitutes and their delusional lovers”. But the beauty of their music is that you can make what you want of it. The insistent, foot tap friendly “I’ve Got Roses” could be about a dejected lover who loses his woman to fame, while “Happiness”, sung and composed like a Frank Sinatra lounge ballad, is perhaps a post-break-up discourse on the fleeting comforts of romance.

And while the band might seem a bit too artsy for their own good, fortunately they don’t take themselves too seriously. They did after all name their cinematic sounding album Sinema. “We’re a cheesy band at the end of the day,” said Sawhney, who added that they’ve already written enough material for a second album, some of which we’ll get to hear when they perform in Mumbai at Blue Frog on April 20, as part of a nationwide tour that will include stops in Jaipur, Chennai, Pune, Bangalore and Chandigarh. If you like what you hear on Sinema, you’ll be pleased to know that their newer tunes delve further into “ambient sounds”. Sawhney said they’re working on something along the lines of a “French romantic song” with “accordions in space”. - Mumbai Boss


Their first paid gig was at a wedding, playing to an audience that was not only unfamiliar with their originals but not exactly the kind of crowd/audience one would expect at any normal indie gig. They won over an odd mix of sozzled uncles – who betrayed any sense of rhythm while dancing – and old couples – who’d break into a waltz to just about any slow-swaying tune. “We were a shaadi band,” laughs Karan Singh, drummer for Delhi band Peter Cat Recording Co (PCRC). The guys in the band have a peculiar sense of humour about them and, what seems to be, a love for oddities and ironic situations. The quirks of this outfit tie in with the sardonic cheek that streaks its songs like ‘Parquel’ – “I could’ve warned you then/She’s done a hundred men/I could’ve warned you but I lied/She is not yours but mine.” The band released its debut album Sinema in January and is gearing up to a multi-city tour of the country by road this month.

PCRC marks a distinction for itself on the Delhi scene with its curious sound meld. A rich mix of various elements culled from the vintage allure of Hollywood classics of the Fifties and lo-fi, old Hindi cinema music; the dramatic soul of cabaret; the bounce of swing music and the idiosyncrasy of psychedelic folk. When vocalist/guitarist Suryakant Sawhney cites a few influences like Neutral Milk Hotel, Sam Cooke and the Velvet Underground, each influence works on a different level. Neutral Milk Hotel is a common favourite and one of the outfit’s major influences. Sawhney hints towards Cooke, Frank Sinatra and Kishore Kumar on vocal stylings and the Velvet Underground on lyrical inspirations. What’s interesting is that Kulshreshtha, Shankar and Singh also play for metal outfit Lycanthropia and their efficient switch of sensibility on sound from Lycanthropia to PCRC is nothing short of impressive. “We don’t have any preference in music. If it sounds good it sounds good,” says Kulshreshtha about the contradiction in sound. “One thing that’s common between all of us is that we like the simplicity part of our music. We never try to make it too complicated,” he adds. “Well, that’s not always the case; it does get complicated at times,” Sawhney chimes in.

Sawhney had already started moulding the identity of this outfit back when he was pursuing his graduate studies in San Francisco which he also credits with inspiring him to write songs. “I found people there who were really eclectic,” he says. “I found a group of people who liked the kind of stuff that I liked – vintage stuff, old stuff, decayed stuff.” He purchased a cheap keyboard from a Russian pawn shop which, once plugged into an amplifier, generated a strange “fuzzed up sound,” which is incorporated it in the PCRC sound today and hints at the outfit’s inventive instincts. While discussing a few lyrical themes and his general approach on writing Sawhney shares his inclination towards all things debauch and believes levity is key. “I like being a little provocative. We think about disgusting things – rape and all is not stuff you want to write about generally but we can make anything a joke in our heads. I like prostitutes – that is not to say I have slept with a prostitute – but I like the whole visual appeal that goes with it.” Right now the band is gearing up to introducing the country to its sound. Playing at cities like Jaipur, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai, the band will be on the road – driving cross country – through this month. - Rolling Stone India


Discography

"Sinema", Self Released 2010

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