The Guitar Society-Aug 4th 2011
You Share Your Birthday With
The Gibson Interview: Bruce Lee Mani
Bruce Lee Mani – guitarist, vocalist and leader of Bangalore Jazz-funk legends Thermal and a Quarter – has spent the last two decades playing to his own beat. When everyone else was churning out covers, Thermal and a Quarter were one of the first bands to focus completely on originals. When the Internet revolution hit Indian shores, TAAQ were among the first to join the party.
Fiercely socially conscious, the band’s songs are a running commentary of everything that’s right and wrong with our country, wrapped up in some of the quirkiest humour in Indian rock. Easily at the top of the honours list of Indian guitar players, Bruce Lee Mani’s legend and influence has spread across the Indian indie scene. We spoke to Bruce about a song called “Humpty Dumpty” and why the band decided that their music should be called “Bangalore rock”.
Why did you decide to play guitar?
I don’t think it was ever a “decision” thing: till I met some of the other members of TAAQ in college circa 1993, the only thing I really wanted to do was join the NDA and become a fighter pilot. I was completely obsessed with aircraft. Never dreamed I’d be a musician. My dad – who always encouraged me to follow my heart – passed away in ’93, and everything changed. I couldn’t leave mum alone, and felt the need to contribute to the home, etc. I’d played some guitar in school (a passing fancy that my folks supported) and college back then seemed full of musicians. I distinctly remember hearing my first rock riffs, played by a Christ College band, around then. At home, it was more jazz, Carnatic, early Bollywood, surf instrumentals and ’50s pop on LP. So it wasn’t a decision or a choice – it was simply a transition.
As a professional guitar player and musician for at least the past 16 years, what’s the journey been like – from the early days when you first started out, up to today when things seem to be looking up for independent musicians in India.
I’ve been a musician for over 16 years, yes, but I feel I’ve only turned truly “professional” across the last five of those; if you define “professional” as something you do to make a living. I’ve had various jobs since I got out of college in 2000 – including newspaper columnist, travel writer, English teacher, choir conductor and communications consultant for IT majors… I think, to some extent, that TAAQ was able to preserve its uncompromising focus on original music during those years because we didn’t depend on the band to pay our bills. Back in the ’90s we had to scream ourselves hoarse about Indian bands needing to write their own material, now it’s de rigueur. As for the journey (dare we say “the trip”?), we’ve just left The Shire, and the Misty Mountains beckon…
Four albums over a 15-year career – how has your playing style changed and evolved over time?
I think the evolution of any style is like learning to see. In the beginning, everything’s a bit fuzzy (yes, more distortion too!) and you’re blundering into many things, imitating your heroes badly and whatnot. Slowly things get clearer, you become a better lens, focusing all your influences and experience into creating your own sound. I think I’m now better at getting what’s in my head, out. I think I appreciate the holes between notes more.
What would you say is your “special sauce” as a guitarist?
I don’t really know. When I’m on stage playing or improvising, I’m just trying desperately to do the very best that I can, find all the right notes and spaces, and stay completely, totally in the moment. It works, sometimes.
You’re often cited as a huge influence by guitar players across the country. In the same vein, who are some of the other Indian guitar players you respect and recommend?
I remember Dhruv Ghanekar making a huge impression on me back in 1995 just before TAAQ; we watched Chakra-View in Chennai and were completely blown away. Amyt Dutta (of Skinny Alley and Pink Noise) is a great friend and I steal things from him every now and then. I dig Vikramjit Bannerjee and AJ [from HFT]. Warren [Mendonsa from Zero and Blackstratblues], Ehsaan [Noorani], Rudy Wallang [Soulmate], Sanjay Divecha, Tony Das [Karma 6], Randolph [Correia of Pentagram and Shaa’ir + Func], Baiju [Dharmajan, ex-Motherjane]… there are so many great players out there.
Thermal and a Quarter, besides making some of the seminal albums of the Indian rock movement, also goes beyond just making great music. The band is determinedly political and socially aware. Tell us how you use the music of Thermal and a Quarter to push for change and provoke thought and action.
I think it started around 1997, when there was a huge hullaballoo about India’s 50th year of independence. I remember we wrote this whole suite of songs about what that meant for us 19-year-olds – not much in truth, but a lot in terms of hype. Some of those songs are still unreleased (we wrote and recorded about 16 tracks pre album 1), but I remember we’d get really good audience reactions for them, and some longtime fans still cite those songs as being our best work! We’ve always written about events and things around us – and this country has no shortage in the inspiration dept. When we wrote “Humpty Dumpty” (for a certain portly politician from the South) around ’99, I remember kids coming up to us with their dads, to tell us how much they identified with it. That song is still part of our live sets, and it surprises even us with its continuing relevance. Playing music is definitely about having fun and expressing yourself and all that, but if you genuinely feel strongly about something, recognize the influence you have through your work, and then use that to inspire thought and action, it makes the whole thing more meaningful.
Take us through five of TAAQ’s top socially aware songs and what each one is about.
“Humpty Dumpty”, from our first album was inspired by J Jayalalitha’s shenanigans in the late ’90s; “Look at Me” (from Jupiter Café, 2002) spoke of modern, urban Indian identity; “Paper Puli” (from Plan B, 2005) attacked irresponsible journalism; “Shut Up and Vote” and “Kickbackistan” are newer, more familiar stories – participating in governance, attacking corruption…
You’re one of the people who helped create the Bangalore indie scene. How has the scene grown over the years and where, in your opinion, does it stand today?
We’re just seeing the growth of the ecosystem – schools where musicians can learn their craft, stores where they can buy world-class gear, spaces where they can get together and jam, venues willing to promote original music, cheap recording facilities, and a digital universe ready to get music to fans. Now it remains to inject the right amounts of professionalism, integrity and focus into the “scene,” as it were.
Could you name some of the bands and artistes who are helping carry forward the legacy of the Bangalore indie scene?
There are so many – The Galeej Gurus, Lounge Piranha, Kryptos, Inner Sanctum, The Bicycle Days…
Going by the Thermal and a Quarter web posts over the years, it’s pretty obvious that you guys have a wicked sense of humour! Who’s the funniest guy in the band?
Hmm, probably Rajeev [Rajagopal, drummer]. But a lot of that credit goes to longtime ally Bijoy Venugopal, who championed TAAQ on the web right from when we were nappy-changing our first website in 2000, up to late last year. His wit, cartoons and tongue-in-cheek take on all things TAAQ have defined our voice online.
You’ve often stressed that being part of a band is really important to you. Why is that?
It’s the way it’s worked for us. Having taught music for almost 9 years now, I’ve also observed first-hand the effect of group dynamics on individual musicians. It’s amazing what can happen. And many of the musicians we admire work that way.
Going back to your work as a guitar teacher, tell us about TAAQADEMY, your music education initiative.
TAAQADEMY allows us to share some of the tricks we’ve learned across the last 15 years. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and teaching music especially. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to turn someone on to playing and creating music. All of us are mostly self-taught – if we had a good place to learn from when we were cutting our teeth maybe we’d be much better than we are now. With TAAQADEMY we’ve also created a space for bands to rehearse and record – a huge hurdle in today’s urban sprawl and high-rise living.
You describe the TAAQ sound as ‘Bangalore rock’. What does that mean? Also, what are the different musical influences that have been filtered to create the TAAQ blend? We hear a lot of Steely Dan mixed in with jazz and jam band influences. How far off are we?
If you can have Chicago blues why not Bangalore rock? It’s what seems to describe our sound best! There’s a lot of stuff that has percolated through us. Steely Dan, Phish, Dave Matthews, Mahavishnu Orchestra, early Shakti, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Pearl Jam, some Indian folk/Carnatic rhythms, Cat Stevens, The Beatles, John Scofield, Wes Montgomery, Lou Rawls, Nat King Cole, The Ventures – the list could go on!
As an indie veteran, where do you think the music “business” in India is headed? The Internet, mp3s and torrents have turned everything upside down. What do you think the future is going to be like?
To put it in a word – interesting! It’s going to be about live music, essentially. You’ve got to cut it on stage. Everything else comes along for the ride.
You currently use a Gibson Les Paul Standard. What made you choose that particular Gibson guitar?
Well, it’s a classic! Looks and plays great.
What’s next for you and for Thermal and a Quarter?
Being “present” in the future, mainly. For me personally, I dig the new stripped-down version of the band, more in-your-face, more improvised, more unpredictable. For TAAQ, it’s all about world domination, baby.
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