Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bombay to London and Back Again: An Interview With Sunday Driver

The colorful characters of Sunday Driver- courtesy of Sunday Driver UK

Good music takes you on a journey; across time, over land and seas, and though peoples' lives both real and imagined. The music of U.K. band Sunday Driver does just that. This eccentric blend of pop-rock, cabaret, Western folk, and Eastern traditional (I've even detected a hint of klezmer) styles creates a catalyst to tell the stories of smoky dens and mysterious temples. Unlike a lot of 'world' groups that I've encountered and listened to over the years- they're a lot easier to listen to and seem more frank (and less lofty) about their influences. Their fusion of East and West is unburdened with agenda, but still filled with purpose, which makes the music sound much more natural. They also have a heavy emphasis on real instruments and real skill with using them- which sets them apart from a lot of other popular steampunk bands. Most of all, you can tell by their musicianship and ease in their music- such as their 2008 album In the City of Dreadful Night that they're having a lot of fun.

This U.K. group consists of Chandrika "Chandy" Nath's swirling vocals, Joel Clayton pulling impressive double duty on the guitar and sitar, classically trained Kat Arney playing the harp, clarinet (which just MAKES the song "Black Spider" with its slinky sound) and spoons,  Amit Jogia on the traditional Indian tabla, bass-player Melon, Chemise on the guitar, and Scot Jowett playing the drums. The London-based band has played a variety of impressive venues, including the Asylum festival in both 2009 and 2010, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and has the distinction of opening the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2009. Their music has been played on several programs on the BBC and has led to a recent Grant for the Arts for their skill and drive.

Chandy Nath was kind enough to let me interview her with various questions about the group's history (which is as strange as fiction!), current sound, and future plans


The band playing in Birmingham 2010, photo by Catrina- courtesy of Sunday Driver UK

Miss K: I'm sure you folks are asked this all the time, but how did Sunday Driver begin? Who had the idea for this West meets East fusion? Was it difficult to get the group started up, taking into account the unique premise?

Chandy: Sunday Driver formed very organically. It began way way back in 2000 - I was working as a glaciologist (ice scientist) at the time and had just returned from a trip to the Antarctic, which was sublime, but still, 100 days spent in a tent with 3 blokes in the middle of nowhere, drilling endless holes in an ice sheet, had left me with a longing to do something creative... as well as with a load of song ideas recorded inside my tent!

So I decided to hook up with some other musicians - at the time I don't think I wanted to form a band necessarily, but just to meet up with some interesting people who would not make nerdy jokes about science. The idea of east-west fusion had not even entered my mind.

I met up with a succession of random guitarists who I didn't gel with at all, it was all rather embarrassing really- I suspect that secretly all that most of them wanted to do was to play Oasis covers in their bedrooms. So I was quite pleased when a chilled out rock guitarist barely out of his teens (that's Joel) - responded to my advert. Our musical tastes could not have been more different but strangely when we actually got together I found that his melodic and slightly brooding style really suited the songs I'd started to write in the Antarctic. (His guitar playing was not bad either).

Anyway to cut a long story short, we started off with two, and ten years later, have ended up with seven (no procreation involved). Kat found us on the internet - she was a classical musician but had always wanted to be in a band but finding a band whose music would work well with an orchestral harp was not easy! Mel joined because he shared a flat with Joel and at least that way, we wouldn't disturb him when we practiced. both quickly became indispensable. I am not sure where Chemise came from - one moment he was not in the band, and the next moment he was. But I'm very glad as he plays great lead guitar and looks amazing in a top hat.

I'd always thought it would be great to bring in some of my early childhood influences - Sanskrit prayers, karnatik music, even Bollywood - into our music but was never quite sure how as none of the others knew nothing about Eastern music.

The whole east-west thing arrived quite randomly one day when Joel was fiddling around with a funny tuning and suddenly his guitar sounded like a sitar. Hearing that, a Sanskrit mantra ("Guru Bramha") popped into my head that I hadn't thought about for years. I realised that the mantra fitted perfectly over what Joel was playing and that although he had barely ever heard Indian music it came naturally to him. I have a theory that he was Indian in a past life ... the others took to the mantra very naturally too, everyone suddenly got really into Indian music, we were awarded money for training from our local arts council and through that, we met our wonderful teacher Baluji Srivastav.

So that's really how our current sound was born. So in summary, the east west fusion thing was my idea, but then all the best things are my idea.

We have worked through about 7 wonderful drummers and tabla players before arriving at our current iteration. Holding on to drummers is no mean feat - they have a tendency to have babies or emigrate. Drummer Scott, tabla player Amit and Sound Tech Jo were barely born when the band started! They have all joined since 2009. But it feels like we have known them for much longer than a  year.
We have never consciously "put the band together" with a view to creating a particular sort of music. It's all just sort of happened. Fate...?

Multi-instrument musician, Kat. Photo by Catrina, courtesy of Sunday Driver UK

Miss K.: But it all sounds like some ancient epic- from the ends of the earth and back again, across lifetimes... So it's 2011 and you have a variety of instruments: guitar, sitar, tabla, clarinet, harp... if you could add another instrument to the group (sky's the limit) what would it be and why?

Chandy: I think if it was down to me to add another instrument (which it never is) I would add:

- A conch shell like those used in mythological times to mark the start of a battle
- One of those weird trumpet like instruments that snake charmers in India use to hypnotize
- Possibly I would commission someone to invent an instrument that converted mechanical energy (expended while playing) into thermal energy which would be used to heat up a cavity within the instrument, so that by the end of the gig you would have baked a cake.
- I would totally add a ghatam (clay pot).
Miss K: Oooh! A conch! I would love to learn to give one of those a good blast.

All right Chandy, this next one is specially for you. I sing as well, and I'm really curious as to who was your biggest influence when you were developing your voice? You have a wonderful blend of traditional Indian-style singing and talky cabaret, but wherever did it come from?

Chandy: Influences... . the talky cabaret bit comes from watching musicals continuously when I was a child - particularly Oliver Twist and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! I still know all the words off by heart. the Indian bit comes from my mum who always sings in the kitchen and it would float down to my bedroom... i never learned singing as a kid, I think my style comes entirely from mimicry of one thing or another. I also listened to a lot of Kate Bush and Tori Amos when I first started to write songs, I always find that slightly embarrassing to admit but I'm not sure why...

Miss K: The musicals make a lot of sense, now that I re-listen to a song or two- you have a distinct storytelling patter.

What is your favorite reaction that you've ever gotten in respects to your sound?

Chandy: Yes, I'm definitely drawn to writing songs that tell stories, although funnily most of the songwriters I really admire don't do that...

In Sunday Driver the best reaction was a drunk punter who absolutely loved the Gayatri Mantra and right in the middle of the song when the chanting reaches its peak he got so carried away that he yelled out "f---in' YEEEEAAAAHHH!!!", threw his hands in the air, and showered everyone with beer.  Highly inappropriate but we all burst out laughing and so did the crowd....

But we've also had some great dancing from steampunk crowds, someone once did a backward somersault in time to Black Spider....



Miss K: I've heard that the band has recently been awarded an Art Grant. First of all, congratulations! Second, any big plans for the award?

Chandy: The arts grant - yes, very very very big plans! The most exciting bit is that the grant includes money firstly to record a second album, which we'll be releasing later this year, and secondly the grant will help us develop a new all singing all dancing live show complete with dancers, poets, and visuals - so for example we are going to bring in  an Indian kathak dancer to choreograph a dance to Bol and Spoon, and maybe a ballet dancer on one or two of our new songs.  The first performance of this live show will be this October/ November as it will take a while to develop and rehearse. We would love to take the whole show abroad eventually. We're also going to be releasing a podcast soon. But anyway, the main thing this year for US friends there will be a new single out before the summer and then an album later in the year - watch this space!

Miss K:
Finally, if someone had never heard your music before, which song would you recommend for them as the best explanation of Sunday Driver?

Chandy: If someone had never listened to us I'd say listen to black spider - I'm not sure if there is an easy "explanation" of Sunday Driver but the song encapsulates a lot of our characteristics -  tongue in cheek
yet full of meaning, irreverent yet elegant.... at least I think so...! But then again it's my favourite song.

I'd just like to thank Antarctica for this. Courtesy of Sunday Driver UK

If you're interested in learning more about (and listening to) Sunday Driver, check out their website and facebook group. Their albums are available for purchase there, on itunes, and Amazon mp3. For those attending the upcoming 2011 World Steam Expo in Dearborn, Michigan (or considering it), Sunday Driver will be appearing and playing live in their first United States gig!

In celebration, Miss Kagashi will be meeting with Sunday Driver in person and filming a second part of this interview with YOUR questions- which will be placed on youtube. So, if you have questions for this extraordinary band, post them below or send them in an email to Miss Kagashi.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for a great interview - looking forward to meeting you in the US!
    Kat

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  2. If you ever play near Texas, I would be more than happy to play a conch shell to the 6 directions call in the powers before the concert if you like. I actually learned to blow a conch in traditional Aztec dance, but we are members of our local Hindu temple and the sound is the same as there are only a few notes that a conch will play. It generally starts low, carries a while, and ends with a high note.

    Ramon Leon del Mar

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