Originally published in The Hindu Metroplus on September 11, 2012
It’s interesting that MTV, of all the outlets, is proving to be the source of a big boost for independent artists in the country. Right next to all the shouting matches on their reality programs, there’s MTV Roots, which showcases artists from India regardless of their genre, and then Coke Studio, which provides arguably the best performance stage for artists.
Agam’s lead vocalist Harish Sivaramakrishnan describes the band’s performance on MTV’s Coke Studio in one word: “Electric”. They played one of their classic compositions ‘Malhar Jam’, which was aired last week on the channel.
After Raghu Dixit last year, Agam is the only band from Bangalore to have featured on the show’s second season. Even more special for the band is the Youtube video of their performance on the show, has racked up nearly 40,000 hits and counting in the span of one week.
“It’s unbelievable! Arguably the biggest and one of the most special gig that we have played in our entire time of existence. The atmosphere, the vibe and the musicians that we shared the stage with makes it one of the most memorable experiences for each one of us as musicians,” Harish says.
In one sense, they are probably the heaviest rock band to play on Coke Studio. But they were made to feel no different during the taping of their performance. The band says their experience was more than playing just a song; “it was a week-long party which ended with a super awesome gig!” Harish gushes.
Having witnessed their live performances in Bangalore previously, this gig at Coke Studio had them seated, much more concentrated on the music they were playing rather than putting up a live gig, which seems to be the object of the show – to give more importance to the music rather than the performance. Their highly-improvised ‘Malhar Jam’ is known to stretch on to over ten minutes at times, but this version clocks in at the six and a half minute mark.
“We infused flute and Esraj into the instrumental set up and wrote a whole new section towards the end, with some intricate time signatures. Coke Studio gave us complete freedom to work the way we wanted. However, we thought a 6.00 – 6:30 minute song would be ideal to capture the essence of the sound that we create, together,” Harish says.
The response for the song in terms of YouTube comments and personal congratulations have the band feel a bit overwhelmed. Harish says, “It’s extremely heartening to see the way our song has been received. We have been getting overwhelmingly positive responses about Malhar Jam with some comments on YouTube calling it one of the best, this season. We are humbled that our effort is recognized well by the listeners.”
Bands such as Agam have been getting featured in several mediums in the run up to their performance on Coke Studio. However, they do not weigh one more than the other. Like every other artist or band from the local scene, they feel that any form of exposure, may it be gigs, TV, radio and print goes a long way in helping an artist make their music heard.
Speaking of the local scene, Bangalore is moving towards become one city with the most eclectic range of bands playing venues and festivals. Everything from trip-hop to folk rock, and Agam fits in with the diverse sounds fusing Carnatic music with progressive rock and metal. Harish explains: “In our set-up, we have majority of the guys doing the western side of music, predominantly playing progressive rock / metal. It’s me (on vocals) and Shiva (Indian percussions) that bring the Indian element, which is mostly Carnatic music inspired melodies and rhythm structures. I wouldn’t call Agam’s music as fusion in the classic sense. What we play is an 20% – 80% mix of Carnatic music and prog rock – hence the genre of Carnatic Progressive Rock.”
Coke Studio has featured a whole host of mostly electro/fusion/rock artists such as Karsh Kale, Advaita and Nitin Sawhney, and also big names such as Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy, Shantanu Moitra, Amit Trivedi and Kailash Kher. The seven-piece band tends to stick out a bit when you put them next to these names, with their Carnatic progressive rock. Still, Harish says meeting the likes of Shantanu Moitra, Piyush Mishra and Hitesh Sonik was “a huge honour” and that “hanging out with them was great fun”.
Up next for the band, though, is the biggest test to capitalise on their Coke Studio performance – an album release set for early October, according to Harish. “We are working on finalizing the actual dates – not fixed, just yet. After spending almost 2 years recording and re-recording, we are finally ready to release our debut album. It is being produced by Ashish Manchanda, who in the past has produced the likes of Avial and has done a bunch of work in Bollywood with folks like Amit Trivedi. We are also looking at an album launch tour across the country after we release.”
Like several other indie bands hoping to make it, Agam knows that even 40,000 YouTube hits won’t necessarily put food on the table. “All of us have day jobs – which brings its own set of challenges when it comes to playing music. But the stability that a day job provides monetarily gives us a clear mind to write music and improvise, without having to worry about ways to pay our bills when we are not playing gigs,” Harish says.
He adds: “This in no way suggests that full time musicians do not have the ability to write great music. It’s just a reflection of our state of mind and not be extrapolated across. Our employers have been supportive of our pursuit in big ways and we do see many of our bosses and colleagues at our gigs, cheering for us! It’s a delicate balancing act, but it isn’t that bad!”