BAND MATES: Rila Banerjee, Ben Westley, Nondon Bagchi, Dominic Saldanha, Sumith Ramachandran and Sankha Subhra Ghosh at The Park. Picture by Rashbehari Das
Led by Nondon Bagchi, Sumith Ramachandran, Rila Banerjee, Sankha Subhra Ghosh, Dominic Saldanha and Ben Westley, Hip Pocket is ready to make Sundays at Someplace Else special. t2 tunes into the city’s favourite band and their journey...
So after getting people to headbang to your retro classics, Hip Pocket is ready to make Calcutta dance?
Nondon: What we do on Wednesdays and Fridays is actually a listening thing. People stand, listen, soak it up and enjoy. Here we are looking at light, popular entertainment music. No long songs with improvisations, no solos. This will all be about short entertainment music. The band was saying how about another day in the pub without upsetting any existing schedules? So I thought, since we already have Rila singing a lot of the old pop material at our club nights that goes down very well, why don’t we tweak that and do a third day? A veteran like Sumith also has the same experience. He’s done Swahili songs with Ushadi (Uthup) in Johannesburg. So if you have those colours in your system, why repeat Wednesday and Friday and overkill it....
Sumith: Like Nondon said, we wouldn’t like to repeat a Wednesday and Friday. Maybe technically we won’t do much of distortion or loud stuff. We’ll be playing between 7pm and 9pm, so it will be soft, light, entertaining music.
Rila, you’re all set to take the spotlight. What are you bringing to the Sunday Hip Pocket?
Rila Banerjee: I call myself coin pocket because I hope whenever I’m in the band, we get more money! But honestly, we have been doing this music for years. Whenever I’ve figured in Hip Pocket, I’ve been singing this kind of music.
Nondon: When Hip Pocket was being formed, Rila and I were already a part of a band called Pop Secret.
Rila: And before that I was in a band called Crosswinds when I was 14 years old. So all these songs are....
Nondon: Cabin baggage!
Rila: What we’ll do on Sunday is an extension of what we do in our outside gigs. It’ll be a change for those at the pub not familiar with that face of Hip Pocket. We’re concentrating mainly on ’80s music — Abba, Laura Branigan, Billy Joel, John Denver.... Songs that mostly everyone is familiar with. I get to sing the lion’s share for starters, and Ben and Nondon will take turns to sing many of the songs too.
Let us rewind to 1996. Tell us about the start of Hip Pocket...
Nondon: Gyan and Jayashree (Singh) were the people who formed Pop Secret where Rila, myself, Jeff Menezes and Willie would play. When Pop Secret broke up, I wanted to carry on and since I like the plain and simple entertainment side of music also that is just for fun and doesn’t expect people to think about style, chords and improvisation, I got some people together and we had our first line-up for Hip Pocket. It included Jayanta Dasgupta, now with The Saturday Night Blues Band, Jeffrey Menezes, Samidh Mukherjee, Shaukat Ali, Ramona and myself.
Sumith: I joined Hip Pocket around 1999. Before that I was in the Gulf playing. I came back and started attending their practice sessions. I was alone, had no friends, so this was the only place I could meet some people and do music.
Nondon: And we would have free consultancy. He knows 90 per cent of any song ever performed. So every time there was controversy about any chord, we had free consultancy from Sumith.
Sumith: I was there for Someplace Else’s first day first gig featuring Hip Pocket.
How did the first day first show at Someplace Else go?
Sumith: People were there booing us, asking us to get lost and urging Austin to take over the DJ booth.
Nondon: Someplace Else was not a live venue at all. It was Abhijit’s (Bose, the F&B manager at The Park at that time) idea that people at the hotel thought was crazy. It took sometime to pick up. We would be carrying an entire drum kit through the pub, asking people to move. We used to take over the dance floor for 90 minutes of loud rock music. It wasn’t exactly the thing the doctor ordered. We were the only guinea pigs for a very long time and then I asked the hotel for a nine-month gestation period and six months down the line, suddenly things started happening and the footfalls increased, especially on Wednesday nights.
Why the name Hip Pocket?
Nondon: I do believe there are other bands on the planet with that name. I had asked Jayashree actually, who had named Pop Secret, to think of a name... so she came up with Hip Pocket. It sounded good and it stuck. For me it signifies where you put your wallet and your flask!
If you had to break Hip Pocket’s journey into phases, how would you define each one?
Nondon: We’ve developed over a period of time into two phases. One was what we started off as — a dinner, dance and entertainment band for club nights. Second, when we became a highly regarded classic rock band.
The Hip Pocket profile on Facebook says: ‘We never read our songs. We’ve developed certain signs and symbols to convey the tracks amongst ourselves, and all of us understand instantly’. How does that work?
Nondon: We have code names for songs. For Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, we just say ‘never’ even if it’s pouring outside.
Sumith: Yes, I use a lot of signs. I don’t like to talk during a gig or shout out the names.
Nondon: Very often he just starts a song without a sign and we recognise it as the intro flows.
Sumith: I like to keep a little bit of suspense with different intros to the songs.
Nondon: He holds up an imaginary umbrella for Riders On The Storm.
Sumith: For Proud Mary, I just tilt my nose up. (Laughs) It’s an easier way to communicate.
Rila: I come from a background where I need to see the setlist and know what’s coming next but when I’m performing with them, I never know what’s happening. So I wait and hope for the best!
Sumith: We don’t have a setlist because it depends on the crowd and their behaviour.
It’s been a 15-year journey. Why have you never looked at originals?
Nondon: I think all the songs we play are original. No two bands can play the same song, the same way. I’ve played with High, the first ones to do serious originals of a certain standard. Even in that band, we did a lot of covers. When I heard the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1993 at Boston, half of what they did were originals and half covers. But whether they did a Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, unmistakably they were the Grateful Dead. Just like somebody else’s signature can never be like yours. For the last 15 years, we have done some originals now and then, songs written by Dilip Balakrishnan, but it hardly matters.
Sumith: Hip Pocket has been a cover band for years but we don’t follow note for note of every record. I put in my own personality through my guitar, and people start noticing your style and approach to a song. It might be a cover song but has our own take on it.
Nondon: The songs are always recognisable and not weird, abstract transformation of a song. We’re always fooling around with creative colours but we don’t go that far.
Will we ever get to see a Hip Pocket album?
Nondon: It’s only this part of the world that has hang-ups about doing albums only if it’s full of originals. A jazz musician will spend his entire life working on a Charlie Parker composition or one can be a Rabindrasangeet singer all his life in Calcutta, but as a band you-don’t-have-a-feather-in-your-cap-unless-you-do-originals is not something I believe in. It’s not just about originality. I’ve heard so many original songs that I’ve forgotten them before I’ve reached the pavement of Park Street. They can often lack personality. It’s unlikely that there ever will be a Hip Pocket album because we don’t have enough originals.
Hip Pocket’s most sought-after songs…
Nondon: Jump by Eddie Van Halen, Baba ’Riley by The Who which is completely different from the original with an Indian classical improvisation in the end.
Sumith: (Pink Floyd’s) Coming Back To Life and Wish You Were Here, and (Bob Dylan’s) Blowin’ In The Wind.
Rila: It’s always the ABBAs and Boney Ms when I’m singing with them. Songs like Mamma Mia, Ring Ring, Voulez-Vous.
Rila: For me it was when I married Sumith. I got a band full of in-laws!
Nondon: The time when Samidh and Rishi were a part of the band. They were a bunch of crazy guys who would do things like hanging a baggage tag on their spectacles while going through security at airports and insist that the guards stamp it! Another time in Assam, they wore blankets like a lungi, put a belt around it and landed up on stage. One time at Park Hotel in Chennai, they took off their jackets. Their shirts were back to front, collar front was behind and ties were hanging on their backs. They played the whole show impassively, like nothing had happened.
Most memorable show…
Nondon: Four or five years ago at the Independence Rock in Mumbai. It was a college campus show. The sound clicked, the audience knew the music and all of us got wowed out.
Sumith: For me it’s every Friday at Someplace Else. I feel comfortable. It’s like home, the crowd is close and the communication is very good.
| Gary Lawyer jams with Hip Pocket during Someplace Else’s anniversary celebrations in 2004
Rila: I hadn’t sung for 12 or 13 years and one fine day I just picked up the phone, called Nondon and said: ‘I want to sing.’ So he said, ‘Okay, come for rehearsals next week.’ I didn’t know where I was going to sing or what I was going to sing but I was there for rehearsals. I finally performed after a long time at one of the 31st night gigs at a club. It was almost seven years ago and for me that has been the most memorable.
How does Hip Pocket handle all the female attention?
Nondon: (Laughs) We live in a part of the world where people don’t really fling underwear at you. They come and say, ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and you say ‘Thank you very much’ and that’s the end of the story.
What’s your strength as a band?
Nondon: The fact that we’re dead serious about detailed work, get it right and don’t mess around. We have a lot of fun because if you can’t have a blast, don’t make a band.
Rila: It’s also the ability of the engine driver, which has been Nondon, for all these years to keep a band together.
Sumith: Bands all over the world have a lot of problems but this one band does not have that many. Everyone’s having fun. People have left because they want to move on, want to do their own thing. Because of Nondon’s goodwill, everything about the band has been very black and white.
Nondon: If you think about the value system of the world expecting more success and money, our weakness must be we don’t think about all that too much. We’re not very organised. We don’t send out flyers, work on our production or website details, hunt for shows or promote ourselves. We just go from day to day and have a good time.
Rila: Zero PR and terrible marketing is what I’ve figured out in the last few years! (Laughs) It’s a band that could have gone great places....
Leader of the band?
Sumith: Dadu! (All fingers pointing at Nondon)
Nondon: Actually, that must be because of seniority but everybody has a say. And about calling the setlist, I’ve gradually given that responsibility to Sumith.
Favourite live music venues in the country, apart from Someplace Else…
Nondon: A pub called Opus in Bangalore.
Sumith: Yes, we had a great interaction with the crowd. A lot like Someplace Else, it was a place where people sit and enjoy the music.
Rila: I’ve played with Hip Pocket mostly at clubs but I loved performing at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi last year.
Bands that have been the biggest influence on Hip Pocket…
Nondon: Pink Floyd. Not because we play their music but a lot is shared in terms of commitment, vision to do things our own way even though we are a cover band. They had that thing of ‘let’s be different’. We are being different by not doing what other cover bands normally do. Not consciously, but the way they went about their work is the way we go about our work.
Sumith: Music from the Sixties and Seventies and bands like Traffic, The Who, CCR, Pink Floyd.
Rila: The songs I sing aren’t by bands that would have influenced Hip Pocket in any way. I’ve been brought up on folk and country and started listening to classic rock after I got married to Sumith! (Laughs)
One thing you’d like to change about Calcutta’s music scene?
Sumith: More English singing bands. These days we find too many deejays. We also need to encourage more live music in any genre with more options for live venues.
Nondon: Patronage for the performing arts and music in particular because it’s a struggling profession. Only those at the top of a pyramid have made money and even they aren’t making as much as someone selling bathroom fittings.
Rila: I feel people in Calcutta don’t give too much patta to original music. People are more comfortable listening to what they’re familiar with. Maybe that needs to change.