Dipping into the indie underground via the Listening Room sessions — bizarre experimental music, non-traditional venues, oddball stage set-ups, the spirit of DIY.
Squawks and pained yelps of manufactured feedback added a sense of creeping tension. The absence of an AC upstairs, or even proper lighting, made the place a little dingy, so the crowd mostly just stayed on the ground floor. Everyone had this little X marked on their wrists with a black felt-tip pen. We were at St. Jude Bakery, that colourful little spot on the Bandra map that’s recently become quite hip following its street-art makeover. Anupal Adhikary was nevertheless upstairs, with a couple of people watching him there as he made loads of noise during his set. ‘Noise’ as in like the form of sonic art that’s revered and dismissed in equal measure, not ‘noise’ as in making a racket. Which he totally was.
Washing over the feedback were these spurts of truncated machine sounds, the kind of sounds that set off instant panic and a burbling sense of gloom in the chest. Maybe the speakers were malfunctioning, but who could tell? What is this shit, asked one person to no one in particular, and walked off, never to return. Which is OK. A dozen people stuck around, trying to figure out how to absorb this very challenging craft, staring at a screen playing appropriately oddball visuals. Many just chatted through the hiss and drone. Which, in a John Cage sort of way, is also OK. There was no alcohol available so people were drinking hot coffee and Nimbooz.
Experimental music can be quite something. Last Sunday, 10 April, St. Jude Bakery played host to the seventh edition of Listening Room, featuring seven (often eccentric) performances between 3 PM and 8.30 PM (along with, predictably, the neighbours complaining). It’s a series of gigs organised by REProduce Artists (run by Delhi-based writer and filmmaker Rana Ghose) that tries to, at the risk of resorting to clichés, push boundaries in terms of curating inaccessible, weird, unfriendly experimental music, and provides an unfamiliar experience through smart use of space and non-traditional venues across the country. It started in February this year, and they’ve done gigs in Mumbai (the previous one was at Project 88, an art gallery in Colaba), Bangalore, and New Delhi. They tend to programme outlier artists who probably don’t fit into conventional gig set-ups, musicians (mostly leaning towards electronics) who experiment with their craft and explore not-easily-digestible sounds — things that might fall into ideas of noise, ambient music, the avant-garde.
Bhanuj Kappal, a Mumbai-based journalist who’s heavily involved in curating and organising these gigs (along with Ghose), mostly the ones in Mumbai, explains: “The regular venues we have are commercial and driven by food-and-beverages. It’s a sales-driven business model. But there’s also music that doesn’t work for people who want drinks and dinner, or who want to dance. That music is starved for space to perform in India. They’ll drive the diners away; the venues will make losses.
“The only way we’re going to be able to see noise acts, or that sort of music, is to have these events; make them happen. Find spaces, encourage artists doing this stuff. Let others know there’s a space to perform. We can only look at non-commercial, non-traditional performances, and set it up as a DIY thing. You know, hire a PA, get a performance space, manage the backline.” The artists they try to get, he says, can often be abrasive, but not necessarily; they’re looking at “interesting, unique, innovative sounds” and, in a way, giving them a platform. (Disclosure: This writer has known Kappal for several years. That said, the entire indie music community can after all fit inside an average-sized OTIS lift.)
Of course, there’s a fine line between experimentation and formal wankery. Between art for art’s sake and art for fuck’s sake. Between art and fart. “The line is subjective, so there’s always that risk,” says Kappal. But he and Ghose trust their musical judgement enough; they’re the ones curating it and programming the artists so it’s mostly stuff they find interesting.
The Listening Room gigs have seen a turnout of between 50-100 people each time. At St. Jude, there were around 100 people who paid to enter (Rs. 300 per head), in addition to the performers and organisers. It’s not like everyone was inside at all times — it was a rotating situation where people would walk in and out depending on whether they liked the music — so it rarely got unreasonably packed or stuffy.
Animal Factory, Aditya Nandwana’s grimey techno-industrial project straddling the line between sludge, drone, noise, and pure melody, had set up near the entrance, placing his gear on this huge table spread across the room. A woman tripped over a stray wire and almost knocked the entire thing down, leading to a moment of crushing horror — by my estimate, the losses would have gone into a few crores. Sanaya Ardeshir, better known as Sandunes, played a piano-driven set that, by all accounts, was fantastic. She’d set up in a different corner of the room. Adhikary, one-half of Kolkata’s JESSOP&CO., was playing upstairs in a very unassuming, Merzbow-like way. At the previous edition in Mumbai, at Project 88, Kappal tells me, the artists had utilised the space in a way where they incorporated the artworks on display to turn the whole thing into a performance art piece of sorts.
This manipulation of space is something that really stands out, especially given the standard set-up a gig-goer is so attuned to. “We’re largely looking at non-traditional set-ups at the moment. Given the nature of the music, we can experiment with the space; create an experience and atmosphere different from the typical gig. Very few people were talking constantly [unlike the regular gig]; people were paying attention.” There’s no separation between the artist and the audience with an interactive set-up such as this, so people don’t fall into set patterns, allowing for an interesting (if at times jarring) experience. It’s a collaborative spirit, where the organisers work with the space and the artists, and maybe also integrate the listener.
Beyond that, another element they’re trying to bring in is getting mainstream producers and composers to try out atypical performances — in the vein of how Ardeshir explored an entirely different side to her musical personality at St. Jude. While the logistics of live bands do get a little more complicated, they’re still keen on getting some metal and punk bands to try out collaborations and unconventional sets.
They’re happy with the response, where people are at least trying to understand the music —even if they don’t always ‘get it’. “You want an audience receptive to these artists,” says Kappal. Artists have also shown an interest in trying out stuff at these gigs. “It’s a safe space, there’s no pressure. And I think we’ve been successful in getting the right sort of people interested in giving these sounds a proper listen, to check out what the idea behind it is.”
It’s all very DIY at the moment — they rely on some clever maneuvering and curation — and on a fairly small scale where they’re breaking even but not much more. Plastering brands on logos isn’t an option, but they do want to grow to an extent where they can pay the artists, maybe even take some money home. For now, they’re planning the next Listening Room session in Delhi, taking place regularly at the artists’ association Khoj, while there’s another one in Mumbai in the works.
By Akhil Sood
Photography by: Shadaab Kadri