Carnival Catalyst over at The Steampunk Empire first brought my attention to Sunday Driver, and later that same day, I read Libby Bulloff's glowing praise for their work (and smelled a snowball effect coming on. And, boy, do I like making snowballs. So I checked out their site and brought In the City of Dreadful Night from iTunes to hear for myself and was blown away. From the fusion spin on traditional Indian chant in "The Gayatri Mantra" to the smooth-to-edgy variations in "Heroes" to her darkly whimsical jazz croon of "Rats," lead singer Chandrika "Chandy" Nath gives a strong and varied performance on this album, with strong instrumental support from band members Joel (Guitar & Sitar), Kat Arney (Harp, Clarinet(s),Spoons), Matthew Sarkar (Tabla - though recently Rahul Ghosh has taken his place), Melon (Bass), Chemise (Guitar), and Scot Jowett (Drums).
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Chandy—with the occasional pop-in answer from Joel—about their music, their band, and their views on steampunk.
Hello & welcome to Beyond Victoriana!
Chandy: Hello and thanks for inviting me!
Let's start by telling us about where you're from, how you became interested in music, and any musical training you'd like to mention.
Chandy: Where I’m from—that’s a complicated one. I was born in the town of Hartlepool in the North East of England (Industrial heart of the Victorian world! Sadly those days are gone…). My parents were newly arrived in Hartlepool from the town of Hospet in South India, and a local family took them under their wing. So I was brought up in an environment that was a cross between Geordie and South India. These two cultures have a lot more in common than you think—effusive hospitality and a great fondness for food for example. Hartlepool is famous for hanging a monkey during the Napoleonic wars, thinking he was a Frenchman.
I have been surrounded by music my earliest years, listening to my mother singing Carnatic music (Classical music from South India) to the sounds of sizzling spices in the kitchen, and my Dad chanting Sanskrit mantras every morning and evening. I sang along to hymns at school every morning and to musicals like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Wizard of Oz, and Oliver Twist every evening.
I didn’t take well to music training as a kid—I hated giving up my lunch breaks to be shouted at by bad tempered old piano teachers and shocked my family by failing my grade 4 piano, something I am quite proud of as I’ve never failed any other exams.
The training that has really shaped me musically has been in Hindustani music, in my adult years, from Baluji Srivastav, a London based sitarist/tabla player/vocalist/composer/all round genius who has also trained Sunday Driver as a band.
Were you part of any bands in the past? Have you always had the goal of being the lead singer in a band?
Chandy: It all started—rather inconveniently—when I was studying for my doctorate in physics in the ‘90s. My brain needed an antidote to relativistic quantum mechanics and I became well known in the department for singing joni mitchell on my guitar late at night in between working on my thesis. One day I took off to London with my guitar and ended up busking with a celtic harpist. I formed my first proper band in Hamburg where I spent 2 years collecting data at an underground particle accelerator.
Whoa, forming a band while working in an underground lab—sounds almost like someone's "steamsona" backstory right there! So, then what's the story behind the formation of Sunday Driver?
Chandy: Sunday Driver got together back in the summer of 2000 but its origins are rooted in the Antarctic. After my PhD I got myself a job as an ice scientist. I spent the first few months of the new millennium monitoring ice flows near the South Pole. It was a surreal experience and I wrote some of my best tunes there like Spindrift, Snow songs and Trip. They were triggered by mechanical sounds like tent poles whistling in the wind, the roar of snowmobiles and the swoosh of blowing snow on canvas. I promised myself I’d form a band when I got home to turn them into real songs. So I put an advert up in a local music shop. It just so happened that Joel was looking for a singer. When we met up and it was almost like he could hear the songs in my head that I hadn’t known how to translate, his guitar parts were so perfectly fitted to my tunes.
So you escaped from the underground lab to reconstruct your next hideaway in Antarctica, I see, I see.... ^-~ If your own story is this surreal, I suspect all the other band members didn't just meet in a pub one night.... What's the musical backstory behind the other members? Have any of you worked with each other before?
Chandy: I’ll let Joel help answer this one. [confers]
Joel: Well, I met Mel at college (1997), we formed a grungey metal band as part of the music course we were both on.. back then Mel was fronting the band as lead singer. After I left college I played in a couple of rock bands before deciding to exploit my acoustic skills. . Kat found us through a strange twist of fate... I think it was that she woke up with overwhelming urge to join her first band... and found an old ad of Chandy's on the net somewhere.
For a while it was the four of us, then I met Goshi in a Weatherspoons in Cambridge (2002ish). My mates failure at trying to impress a pretty girl who was sitting on Goshi's lap with my new found knowledge of indian music got Goshi and I trading numbers ... Chemise had played in rockbands with mel when he was 18 in his hometown of Dunnmow... he joined when he moved to Cambridge (2002) and hit it off with me (at first we were writing acuostic duets together)... Scott joined recently through another band Mel was playing in in Cambridge....also Goshi left us in 2003 to study for five years in Edinburgh, when he returned we were playing with the fabulous Matthew Sarkar... however fatherhood opened up the opportunity for Goshi to return ... and so he has!
And now you're all one big crazy family. How does Sunday Driver create their music & lyrics? Are there certain members who take care of the lyrics, another for music, etc?
Chandy: I guess there are two main ways we write songs. Songs like "Bol and Spoon" and the "Gayatri Mantra"—come about when one of the guys (bassist Mel, sitarist Joel or guitarist Chemise) come up with a riff during a band practice, and the song somehow writes itself in the course of an extended jam. It always strikes me as a minor miracle how six people can in the course of a few hours, turn a few notes into a complete song which everyone has left their stamp on.
Other songs like "Rats" and "Black Spider" are created by me or Kat—i.e. we come up with both the lyrics and the melody and then turn it over to the band. I need to be doing something completely different for this to happen and then the song just pops into my head. Kat locks herself away with a piano to write hers. But neither of our songs really sound complete until they’ve been moulded into shape by Sunday Driver. There is always a heated debate but in the end what Mel says goes—he always turns out to be right.
Right now, steampunk as a music genre is still defining itself. How do you, personally, define steampunk?
Chandy: I am not sure if I can come up with a single definition! Steampunk has so many wonderful qualities. I love the fact that Steampunk, rooted as it is in a mechanical age, gives us an opportunity to look at the world around us as made up of objects with a distinct functionality. This is the diametric opposite of digital convergence where you can do the same thing on so many different platforms—make a phone call via your laptop, take a picture with your mobile phone, etc. The other attraction is that most of my life I’ve been marooned in the gulf between the worlds of art and science. But Steampunk by its very nature—fostering an aesthetic drawing on the beauty of mechanical objects and the wonder that science inspired in the Victorian era—brings these two worlds together and has created a vibrant community of articulate, imaginative and open minded people—a hotbed for new ideas.
At the moment Steampunk draws heavily on the Victorian age founded on colonialism and the wealth of the empire. This is a period full of inconsistencies and contradictions for me. I grew up trying to make sense of tales of the heroic feats of the Duke of Wellington on the one hand and on the other, of the suffering and cruelty inflicted on Tipu Sultan. So for me it is important to reconcile two sides of a story and to understand and actually celebrate the shared heritage of Britain and India. Steampunk offers a new way of looking at this period.
What do you consider the band's influences and inspirations (in terms of other artists or styles)? How about your own musical muses?
Chandy: My musical muses are probably Kate Bush, my Mum, and Julie Andrews!
Joel: Myself, Mel and Chemise's teenage roots are all in heavier bands like Tool, System of a Down, Alice in Chains,Rage Against the Machine... but from there they have all branched out in different directions... which kind of explain their instruments and styles of playing... Mel has a great love for Funk (Motown, Funkadelic, Harvey Handcock), I love classical Hindustani (especially Niladri Kumar)... and Chemise is big Jazz fan... Kat came from a classical background (she learned harp in church) and now she's a big Jazz Kat! Goshi loves Micheal Jackson and Prince and Talvin Singh.....
What, in your opinion, is the current state of "steampunk music"? Where would you like to see it go?
Joel: I think at the moment it's still very much emerging... it will inevitably be as varied as the movement itself. The main link all the bands we've played with at Steampunk events share is melodrama... I love the fact that we can share a stage with a punk rooted band and a Indy rooted band and all fit the Steampunk vibe. I'd like to see it expand like it is... as long as Steampunks adopt bands like us when they find us (ie Steampunkers who don't really know they are yet!) then it should grow nice and organicly.
Now this is for Chandy in particular: I think it's quite inspiring to meet a woman of color [WoC] working so prominently in a white-dominated music genre. Do you feel that you've faced unique challenges different from other bands with male or white leads?
Chandy: Not really, to be honest. Especially not since Sunday Driver really got going. The band and the kinds of audience we play to now are very accepting. Although sometimes it irritates me that they don’t understand when I don’t want to use certain lyrics that might offend my parents or the Indian community.
Joel wanted to let a night club owner in Delhi use the Gayatri Mantra as a dance track. The kinds of circles we mix in tend to embrace diversity. I suppose in the early days (i.e. pre-Sunday Driver) I’d get annoyed when people made assumptions about what I looked like after listening to my demo (in which, in Joel's words, I sounded like a typical “English rose”) and then were surprised to find out I was Indian when we actually met, although that’s no different. And it was irritating when people would approach me saying stuff like “why aren’t you doing more 'ethnic' stuff” or “you are just an Indian version of Charlotte Church”.
I completely understand the difficulty of celebrating one's cultural heritage in one's art without not falling into a certain "ethnic" box in others' eyes. Or being assessed not as an individual, but a racial equivalent of something. :p Still, you're managed to create a strong and distinctive artistic identity for yourself and the band, and I'm sure that's a feat artists can learn from. What's the most important piece of advice you'd give to a WoC musician starting out?
Chandy: I suppose I’d say, do what you do best and enjoy best, don’t let yourself be pigeon holed or forced into a genre because of the way you look. Stand your ground! And maybe it will be commonplace to see women of colour fronting any kind of band – whether it is a grunge metal band or Irish folk! In music I really think being a WoC (great acronym, never heard that before!) is an opportunity rather than a constraint.
Thanks! I first heard WoC myself in college. My steampunk intellectual comrade-in-arms Jaymee Goh and I have coined the term "steampunks of color" [SoC] to describe people like ourselves too.
How often does Sunday Driver tour? Any set dates for 2010? Obviously, this is my not-so-discreet hint that you should try and make it out to NYC sometime. ^-~
Joel: We gig as much as our lives allow us, we have a few things in the pipeline for 2010 .. but you'll have to wait and see. If people want us then we will come... so please readers... just ask (and feed us)!
And finally, any current projects that you're currently working on with Sunday Driver or with others?
Joel: We’re hoping to write a musical, but my lips are sealed for now. We’re also releasing a mockumentary in Feb as well and it might be accompanied with a free track from an earlier album.
A steampunk musical perhaps? Well, mum's the word for now, I should say. And I look forward to that mockumentary too--will you be showing us how to turn the amps up to 11?
Thanks again to you both for spending some time here on Beyond Victoriana! For you readers, you can get more information about Sunday Driver on their website here (and click here to get a free single!) or on their MySpace. Also, sign-up for their mailing list on the website for the latest band news and the occasional freebie.