No more face paint for these boys.
Change suits motherjane. It is also what helps the band survive and stay relevant. While most of its contemporaries now headline history books owing to creative differences between their members, this Kochi-based band has always treated departures not as precursors for disbandment, but as a means to experiment with new sounds and styles. The 19-year-long, continuing timeline of the band is peppered with goodbyes from such pivotal members as Suraj Mani (vocalist, convinced the band to ditch covers for original music) and Baiju Dharmajan (guitarist, provided the trademark ethnic vibe to the band’s music). But at each of these potentially fatal singularities, its two founders – Clyde Rozario (bassist) and John Thomas (drummer) –made sure that the band survived by shoring up its ranks with great talent and using these new arrivals to avoid any stasis in the band’s musical evolution. Suraj was replaced with Vivek Thomas in 2011 who brought with him influences that ranged from Floyd to Alice in Chains and Baiju’s absence paved the way for guitarist Nithin Vijayanath, who joined in 2013 to complete the current line-up of the band.
The new faces – Vivek and Nithin - greeted me first as the band entered through our office door one after the other. They were here to discuss a collaboration as part of ‘The Brief project’ where we encourage a creative entity to come up with an original piece of art within certain parameters. At the risk of revealing a lot, the brief assigned to motherjane touches upon prohibition in their home state of Kerala. They broke out in spontaneous laughter when I asked them if the act had affected them. ‘We all love to drink, so I think that answers your question’ said Vivek with a smile. Nithin clarified, ‘It’s the bars that have been asked to stop serving hard liquor. One can still go to a liquor shop to get his fix’. ‘The long queues over there would hopefully teach some discipline to the people’, quipped John, breaking any ice that might have still existed in the room.
motherjane at the 101india office
As the conversation flowed more freely, I couldn’t help but notice how soft spoken the group was. All this felt in stark contrast to the Kathakali face paint wearing collective whose livewire act I had witnessed at the IIT Mumbai cultural fest in 2008. ‘The face paint was Suraj’s idea. He had this theory that we are half-human, half-god. Even though it sort of started defining the identity of the band, I had always imagined it to be just associated with our second album Maktub rather than a permanent thing. Once we had toured enough with that album, we decided to move on rather than have the paint on for everything we did’, said John explaining the reason behind doing away with the Kathakali personas. He also shared an incident that had helped make up his mind – ‘While shooting the music video for Broken (a smash hit from their second album Maktub), we had hired a trained Kathakali artist to perform in the video and to do our faces. After the shoot, I went to drop him home. On the way, the topic of his art form came up and suddenly he got very emotional. He told me that if he hadn’t fallen on hard times, he wouldn’t have agreed to do what he did for us. It was sacred to him. This further strengthened our resolve to ditch the look’.
This need to ‘move on’ isn’t just restricted to the look. As John put it, ‘we have drastically changed our musical direction in the last few years’. The change is nowhere more evident than in ClayPlay, the single released earlier this year to near unanimous acclaim. The track belies a mature band that is at the top of its game, but the song’s style couldn’t have been more different to the one that the old iteration of the band was famous for. The most obvious difference being that the Carnatic influences which, according to many, was the quintessential motherjane signature, have been kept to a minimum. ‘But it was always meant to be’, said John, ‘None of us are trained in Carnatic music and even though the second album had generous helpings of it, we might just use some other ethnic style in the third album. Incorporating Indian music on the other hand, is a conscious and ongoing experiment that we would keep pursuing’. The band’s disdain for labels, or being straitjacketed into a particular genre, was palpable.
This constant experimentation and change in line-up has been the biggest reason for the delay in producing the third album according to Vivek. ‘It takes time for a new line-up to work together as a seamless whole. We had to go through the essential phase of understanding each other’s influences. But now, we have a good groove going as a team’, said Vivek while indicating that the third album would be ready by next year.
The new faces - Nithin and Vivek
There has been a certain sense of urgency in the band’s demeanour since the start of this year. Case in point being the music video for ClayPlay which was funded by a group of friends of the band when they couldn’t find a conventional way of making it happen. The dip in financial backing is a problem that has become endemic across the independent music scene. Live venues pay a lot less than what they used to pay till a couple of years back, forcing bands to perform more shows to make the same amount of money. One would think that the band that was adjudged as ‘band of the decade’ by Rock Street Journal in 2010 would find it easy to bankroll albums and music videos, but even motherjane hasn’t been spared the downturn. Still, the band sounded optimistic. ‘The music scene is getting better in India. People are experimenting with different genres and the audience base is increasing’ said Vivek, as he got ready to leave with the band for the obligatory sound check at Hard Rock Café where they were scheduled to perform in the evening.
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I dropped by Hard Rock Café later in the night to see for myself how different the band felt on stage. I had my apprehensions about the new line-up not living up to my nostalgia of a Suraj Mani fronted motherjane, belting out 'Fields of Sound'. But as soon as Vivek Thomas brought his A game to the stage and Nithin nailed all my favourite solos and added in some interesting ones of his own, all my fears were laid to rest. If this is what change sounds like, I got no issues with it.
Words and Photography : Avijit Pathak
Location courtsey: Hard Rock Cafe, Worli
Here's the music video for their single Clay Play