Photograph by Paul Cook
A red paper border runs around the illusionary cover picture, which depicts a man in a trench coat and bowler hat floating on an umbrella on dark waves, while getting wet from the light of a lamp, with a Van Gogh-ish purple sky forming the background. The red continues to the back, forming a sort of envelope with a marble artfully stuck inside a blue paper strip. On pulling out the picture, two other pictures fall out with a small card, revealing the CD wrapped inside a translucent purple paper.
The card shows a whale’s tail along with the band name. One picture contains the details of the band members and all the people who contributed to the making of their debut EP, while the other has a small poem:
The sky bleeds into the sea.
A distant tune and the undying hope
of recovering what is lost forever
propels the vessel forward.
But it rocks in stillness.
Mired in the sea, despairing of the shore.
I put the CD into the drive, turn the lights out, and hit play. Soft words, shimmering chords and wistful whistling transport me to a strange land of velvet dreams. This hand made CD is of Marbles by Whale in the Pond.
Cover art by Reya Ahmed
Conventionally speaking, the band consists of Sourjyo Sinha on songwriting, vocals and guitars; Shireen Ghosh on multi-instruments, mixing, arrangements and production; and Deep Phoenix on guitars and percussion. But since all three of them are multi-instrumentalists, all of them played whatever they could in a sense, and the recording was a team effort.
Sourjya had been writing songs for a number of years and was offered a Sofar Sounds gig in August 2016. Shireen, his college mate, and he had composed music for a play, so he asked her to accompany him as she knew the kind of music he wanted to do. Deep came in a month later after Sourjya met him at The Artist Collective organised by Chaitown Creatives, and the band was formed.
Their compositional approach is spearheaded by Sourjyo, who forms a basic demo based on whatever idea he has, which then goes to the other two and they flesh it out together. “At first, the tune, element, or riff comes to my mind. I build on it by trying it out multiple times. I spend days trying to figure out what to do next. Then, I ponder on what it makes me feel, and the lyrics come at the end,” says Sourjyo. Thematically, their songs are varied while the lyrics tend to be dipped in humour, which is dark at times. Most of the songs in the EP deal with nostalgia and sadness pertaining to Sourjyo’s childhood.
A very comfortable theme for him is the end of the world, with two songs – ‘The Call’ and ‘Nova’ – being about it. The former is on the EP and is a very happy, jumpy tune while the latter is a bossa nova tune about a supernova. “It’s kinda ironic because even though all the songs sound chill and nice, they are sad. He has a song called ‘Night’s End’ which has a very nice vibe. You can imagine an alt pop band singing it. Then you realize it’s about a mother singing to her baby who’s dying, in a war-torn, conflict country. The Sylheti (a dialect of Bengali, primarily spoken in the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh and the Barak Valley of Assam) song – ‘Aaij Bhagle Kalke Amra Nai’ – is dancy, groovy, disco type; but it’s about martyrs getting shot. ‘The Call’ has got a Spongebob vibe, but it’s about the Cthulhu (an omnipotent monster) coming back and destroying everything. The contrast is insane!” says Deep, with a half amused-half amazed smile.
Though the songs are thought out on a guitar, it is made magical in the latter stages of arrangement and production by Shireen, who says, “I did a lot of stuff with production and learnt a lot while making it as well. ‘The Call’ has a sound design aspect to it as it’s basically sung by sailors on a ship. They are witnessing the Cthulhu rise out of the ocean, so there’s a lot of ocean noise and people chattering in the background, like the crew members. Our teacher, Dr. Ananda Lal, plays a pirate captain. We got to record funny parodies and random things that he wrote for us. Then there’s glasses clinking, people jumping, random noises and sounds, registered very underneath. I also recorded 4 takes of us singing nonsense and put all of it in, because why not? It created a sort of chaos.”
EP Launch Gig
Fascinated by James Joyce’s description of light in vivid details and the associated feelings it elicits in the short story ‘Araby’, Sourjyo wrote a song by the same name, and his version is based on that feeling and the light that falls on someone you like. The sound is very oriental with an oud playing lead parts backed by a mandolin. “Araby is the name of a bazaar that happens in Ireland in the 1900s. The Irish know the East through perfumes, rugs and similar things. They don’t actually understand it but have ideas that the East is beautiful and a rich and magical place. So, I wanted to bring out that exoticism fetish that Europe had for the East,” explains Shireen. Its ending parts has a bit of ocean sounds which seamlessly leads into the next song – ‘The Call’.
A dazed and swooning aura form the basis of the title track of ‘Marbles’ and ‘Autumn Winds’. Calling their music dreamfolk is perhaps apt indeed. The former, although initially about a person, is reinterpreted as a song about Sourjyo’s childhood in Shillong. The latter, which has a partially reversed guitar solo at the end panning from side to side, is about nostalgia and feelings towards a certain rooftop in JU which is very special to both Sourjyo and Shireen. “The view was so nice from there. Everyday, the sky had a different kind of a thing going on. That place was an escape for me and a lot of people. Sadly, it got closed down because people puked there all the time after drinking, besides leaving behind the bottles and trash,” says Sourjyo.
In terms of mood, the odd one out is the furious ‘Gadha’r Baccha’ which delivers a jolting shock to the senses when compared to the fantastical and soothing vibe of the other songs. A seven string electric guitar was used for it. “Gadha’r Baccha is where we get into the political side of our band. We’re mostly not pro government and the song reflects that in the way that it’s Gaddha’r Baccha and it’s about the government,” says Sourjyo, very matter-of-factly.
The Sylheti song* also has political connotations as its about the atrocities of Assam’s government 50 years ago as well the current one. How the sound was achieved is pretty interesting. “The basic percussion was on the guitar. We were going for a Durga Pujo bishorjon feel, which is noisy. So, when the chorus comes, we put in dhak and a lot of stuff. We used 6-7 guitar takes which makes the sound rich and noisy. We also crowd sourced the ulus through random WhatsApp voice notes of friends and their mothers’ doing ulus!” says Shireen.
The recording process is where it gets really fascinating! It was done in true guerrilla style. From making blanket forts and using pillows as props to borrowing a laptop, soundcard, microphones and guitar strings, it was a heady experience for all people involved! However, doing it in this manner lended a different aesthetic and also eliminated the pressure of selling. And they still ended up selling more copies of their album than other indie artists in the city, besides being featured in A Humming Heart’s “Top 20 Indie Albums of 2017” along with the likes of Aswekeepsearching and Blackstratblues!
“We recorded at 3-4 different places. The recording process was conflicted primarily because we had to record acoustic instruments, and you need sound controlled environment for that,” says Deep, “My old house in Behala has a lot of blankets. So we used those, a sofa, and tripod stands to prop everything up and made a sort of blanket fort. Pillows were used to guard the front and back. There was one place to come in from at the side and a small flashlight for light inside. You couldn’t really sit inside. The idea was to muffle as much of outside sound as possible.”
As I stare at him with my mouth open in a state of speechless awe, Shireen quips in, “Marbles and Araby are actually recorded on Deep’s USB mike.”
“Which is actually a friend’s. That is insane! We own nothing. If anything, we owe everything to the people around us who kind of let us do it,” says Deep.
“And then we let them buy our own EP. They gave us things and then bought our EP. Essentially, they paid us money to use their things,” adds Sourjyo.
At that, everyone starts laughing, until Deep narrates another interesting tale, “We had to noise reduce grasshoppers’ sounds during the production of the Sylheti song. That day was very hot and stuffy, and we didn’t notice grasshoppers. Only later, we realized that the recording was full of the sounds of the insects.”
The blanket fort
The numerous instruments that one hears on the EP have mostly been placed digitally. They include bass, drums, tuba, accordion, cello, violin, mandolin, oud, piano, tambourine and bells. The actual instruments played were acoustic guitar, seven string electric guitar and the melodica, which people love. They even used Sourjyo’s toy melodica for a long while.
“The reason we started playing the melodica is because Sourjyo had one and played it on his demo recording of Marbles. I took it up because I’m a piano player and it was really easy for me to do all kinds of random stuff on it. And it kind of became our signature, I guess, and gives us a different kind of sound. It is quite flexible as you can do a lot of things with it, in terms of breath control. Wind instruments are generally used only for solos, but I kind of tried to integrate the fact that you can play entire chords on it into the sound,” says Shireen.
Live performances are completely different experiences as the sound is much more stripped down. “Logistically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to have a similar sound for live and production versions. The way we think is very experimental as we try different things for different songs. The other thing is that we go for a chilled, ambient, and casual ‘let’s have fun with the show’ vibe as opposed to listen to our music and smoke up or dream or whatever,” explains Deep. To be more accessible to the audience, they go for an improvised stand up set on stage during concerts. In fact, they used to share random whale facts at the initial ones!
Now, one might be curious about the oxymoronic band name. “My mother used to tell me that there’s a whale in the pond at the back of our house in Silchar (falls under the Barak valley region of Assam), and I wanted to catch that. That’s where the name comes from. The image from my childhood of a whale just sitting idly in the bottom of a 10 feet pond,” says Sourjyo, with a straight face.
The artwork for the band, including the surreal and breath-taking album cover art and the looping animation for the video of ‘Autumn Winds’, has been done by Reya Ahmed, a promising young artist who runs a bi-monthly artzine called ‘Saintbrush’. “That image is of stagnation (which is also dealt with in the liner notes’ poem),” says Sourjyo, talking about the album cover picture, “The man can’t really do anything about it. He stays like that for eternity. The only way he can stop getting wet is by putting the umbrella on top of him, but he’ll drown. But there’s a certain kind of hope involved as well as the man is not choosing to drown. Staying like that and looking for the shore.”
A rather fitting sentiment about ending a piece on a musical band, don’t you think? But there’s a better one. I hit play again, and sink back into their music’s velvety dream.
Photos courtesy: Artist
Buy the digital album at OKListen, iTunes and Bandcamp (ranging from INR 60 – 70))
For the physical album, you have to contact the band directly, as they are hand made and limited, priced at INR 150.
*Backstory of the Sylheti song is given in the text below the video on YouTube.
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