Peter Cat Recording Co.'s (pcrc) timeless poetry and music has spoken to me since the Delhi-based band was formed in 2009. I've binged on every album and demo tapes they've put out in the last decade, and found comfort in their retro/jazz/gypsy/psychedelic sound that transports me to a different mindspace with every listen.
On Valentine's Day, the band's newsletter arrived in my inbox with the news of a new album - Bismillah. Being someone who loves picking brains and understanding individual processes, there was an immediate sense of curiosity, especially because I'd been looping Jaago, frontman Suryakant Sawhney's new solo album as Lifafa for the past month since its release.
I got in touch with the band, who were kind enough to let me hear the magnificent album in its entirety, and agreed to do an interview. Suryakant and Kartik Pillai (guitars/organs/electronics) talk about the band's direction, its visual aesthetic and the upcoming tour:
The lineup has changed considerably since the band’s inception. How has that played out in the music and band dynamics? Is it hard to maintain a specific pcrc sound with nearly all of you having other projects/bands?
Kartik Pillai: The lineup change was a great thing, to be honest. I think we’re stronger than we’ve ever been now. I don't think we're trying to maintain a sound at all, actually. The sound is just a question of who's in the room. The influences we bring from our other projects is natural, but we're not trying to edit or fight them.
Suryakant Sawhney: The lineup changing was a necessary development, and I personally believe we are only now venturing into a truly exciting period for the band. The end result of the so-called pcrc sound, I believe, will blossom into more of a take on various cultures themselves as opposed to simply meddling with genres of sound. The hope is to transform into a truly transnational/transcultural group which while rooted in India, is the expression of a group which has absorbed from around the world in its infinite variety. Bringing in new musicians like Dhruv (Bhola) and Rohit (Gupta) has been akin to a shot of adrenaline. Nothing like drinking some young blood.
What headspace did Bismillah emerge from? What was the songwriting process?
Suryakant: Bismillah is full of several headspaces and processes. A lot of it is just the exorcism of old songs/sounds, some many years old, some barely born. For me, personally, it’s the end of an era and I'd like to look into a completely brand new future further on. Some of the songs like Memory Box began as jams, which completely transformed over four years. Songs like I'm This or Where The Money Flows were mostly solo efforts while songs like Heera or Remains were a moment of spontaneity between Karan and myself. Vishnu <3 is actually a Jamblu song that Kartik wrote that we were able to recreate and add our ideas to while being as loyal to the original as possible. I'm particularly fond of that song as everyone was able to provide their own touch into it, however small. We've tried to find a way of fully refining and ending almost a decade of exploring a particular approach to music while putting a foot out into our future, unknown as it is.
Do the lyrics come first or the melodies?
Suryakant: Much of the initial lyrics and melodies happen simultaneously. I tend to write maybe 60% of the melody and lyrics spontaneously, spending more time, later on, to refine both and find a meaning to the song beyond the initial emotional outburst.
Are the samples in this album found sounds or stock samples?
Suryakant: There's always been the influence of hip hop and sampling in our production process even though we aren't beat-based music as such. Many synths and keyboard sounds are constructed from milliseconds of jazz records, for example.
Kartik, I thought I heard you singing many of the parts in between. What's your process been with this album?
Kartik: Yeah, I am singing here and there, though mainly in Vishnu <3. I wrote that song a while ago, and when I played it for these guys, we thought it could sound cool in pcrc. Eventually, Bhola and I finished it together. Other than that, I'm just doing backing vocals in Heera. For this album, I pretty much did what I wanted - from trumpet parts to keys or guitars, and also adding a lot of noise-based samples (which is something I love to do no matter what project I'm composing for) in Remains or Shit I'm Dreaming. That, and spending countless hours in the studio trying to finish each song - mixing and mastering it with Suryakant, Robin and Shab was all quite satisfying. It was also in the recording process for this album that I brought in Rohit to play with us, which has been great.
Suryakant: Kartik wrote the original Vishnu <3, and you hear Dhruv and him singing together on that, he also sings the initial refrain. In addition to this, the two of them also add backing vocals on Heera. His influence on the album runs in many veins, as a composer of horns on Floated bye to producer/singer on Vishnu <3 to sound designer of so many escalations and moments in many of the songs. No band member has a singular role in the group. You are only a bassist for a particular song, not for the band.
pcrc’s visual aesthetic has always intrigued me. What’s the story behind the cover photo for Bismillah?
Suryakant: The man on the cover is my father in law. I got married last year in April, and this is a photograph from the wedding. The story behind the name is the fact that he likes to say Bismillah when he takes a drink. It's his way of saying Cheers.
Since you’ve conceptualised and shot most of the band’s music videos, what are the plans for Bismillah?
Suryakant: There are several videos in the pipeline for the album. In the past, our videos have been the result of a combination of pure chance and filming it (such as Copulations or the Great Wall of China in I’m Home) and then adapting them into videos. Interestingly, that seems to be a fairly regular way of how I like to go about making them. We are doing some more planned and choreographed ones this time though.
Let’s talk about stage design. I’ve seen the band go from performing live with an erotic film playing in the background at AntiSOCIAL, Mumbai, to creating the gypsy-inspired stage at Magnetic Fields. What is the visualisation process?
Suryakant: David Lynch decided this would work best for us. There are some simple concepts which we find ourselves attracted to and usually as a group, we can find a way of distilling them into a simple stage set up. Personally, I'm trying to move us into a more dream space and not too obviously gypsy etc. Tenting doesn't help though.
Are you planning to put this album out on vinyl too with the French label Panache?
What do you feel about the indie music scene in India today? Despite having a fan following, were there limitations within the music distribution model in India that made you go with Panache? Suryakant: I think the indie scene in India is as Indian as somebody in the indie scene could have imagined what indie in India would be. While we a pretty self-sufficient group , there was definitely a need to become a part of something larger in order to push away the danger of stagnation. Working with Panache has been a bit of revelation for us. I think the kind of love and freedom they've given us in all the vital ways is something without which we would have been left dead in the water. I mean let's not fuck around, the music isn't going to be some culture-altering hurricane in India.
Listen to this incredible album on loop here.