Is it rock? Or soul, perhaps? Or, is it jazz? No, it’s none of that. May be that’s why they call themselves a “recording company”. Right, Peter Cat Recording Company. Frontman Suryakant Sawhney says he’s excited to return to Kolkata with a concert on Friday, which he promises will be a mix of old and new songs, a roller-coaster ride for over one-and-a-half hours.
In a conversation with My Kolkata of The Telegraph Online, the Sinatra-sounding Sawhney opens up on the genesis of some of their popular tunes — most of them on way to reaching iconic status — while explaining how their music remains authentic even as it mines personal experiences. Excerpts:
I hope you know that many of us in Kolkata still consider Peter Cat Recording Co. to be a Kolkata band. I guess your fans want to believe that.
Ah (laughs)! Let’s just say I know where that is coming from. But cool, I get it.
The Telegraph Online got hold of two young, loyal fans of PCRC who have stuff to ask. Here’s a question from Kumudini: You experimented a lot in your earlier albums like Sinema and Climax. Now that PCRC is at the very forefront of the Indian indie music scene, is there any fear of experimentation?
Not at all. I don’t think we ever thought we were doing anything experimental then, too. The good thing about not being a really successful band, at least not early, is that since whether you do an A or B the result is the same, you can end up just doing what you want.
Another fan question from Shreya: Your album covers either depict many people huddled together in celebration (Portrait of a Time) or individuals (Bismillah, it has a happy man uncorking a champagne bottle). What would be the context behind these covers?
The old black-and-white one is my parents' wedding. And I have photoshopped some of the faces to put my band on them. And Bismillah is my wedding, and the gentleman you see is my father-in-law.
It’s a good click with the champagne flowing out of the bottle and across the picture frame.
Again, everything is luck. My wife and I had decided to not get a classic wedding photographer who would make you pose and click all sorts of pictures. So I pointed to this guy whom I had met randomly in Thailand and became friends with. And I said, ‘I’ll send you a ticket to India. Just come and have a party and just shoot’. He had never been to India and he agreed. So he clicked a bunch of incredible photographs, including this one.
PCRC frontman Suryakant Sawhney
I wanted to ask you about some of the songs I really liked, and how these come about. Let’s start with Love Demons, especially its feel, mix of instruments from the harmonium to electronics and finally the trumpet.
This is a very old song of ours, may be one of the first songs I ever wrote. Actually, it’s two different songs. The first part of the song, I wrote in 2011 or may be 2012. It was quite quick. One day I had this tune, wrote the lyrics and finished it. Then I didn’t touch the song for years. The second part, which is the disco jam, is the result of me buying this organ and distorting it and trying out different sounds. It was just a jam.
It immediately struck me as a tribute to the Hindi film music of the ’80s.
What you said is exactly what happened. There was a version of it that was recorded. And that’s what I identified it as. So we accentuated it to what it actually sounded like. So I start putting in samples from Don or Satte Pe Satta. Little things here and there you don’t really notice, but they are there and they just create this atmosphere. And then, when we talked of an album, I just stitched it together.
Memory Box is another lovely song. Good bass too.
I wrote the bass for it. That song has a crazy story as well. This is also about seven to eight years old. It went through I don’t know how many variations. All we had at one point was me and my singing. Basically, it was stuck for many years. We believed in the beat and the tune and the bass. But the song wasn’t really working. One day I spent a lot of time experimenting and I made that strings patch and played that on top of what we had. It did stitch the song together in some weird way. After like six years of that song going from A to Z to B to anywhere, it finally fell into place in the space of one afternoon. These songs come out even better live.
And We’re Getting Married?
Well, I was getting married. Basically, me and my now-wife decided to get married in January 2018. The three months preceding it were obviously the most stressful time of my life ever. Because we were funding the wedding ourselves and at that point I don’t think I had any money. And luckily, I ended up getting this project from a friend of mine who runs this fashion label, Raw Mango. I think I was so grateful that the money, which would allow me to get married, came that suddenly this huge stress disappeared from my mind. And also the band was going to play at the wedding. Two days before I had to head to the wedding venue, which was in Kasauli in Himachal, we had a practice session. I think at that point I just felt like this sudden weight of what was about to happen. And it was sort of a happy moment. And I ended up writing the song on the spot, and everybody just joined it. It was a very organic moment. I think it got done in a space of just 30 minutes.
So the footage in some of your music videos are from your wedding?
Yes. I thought if I was going to spend so much at my wedding, I might as well get something out of it. We make the videos ourselves.
And of course one of your most popular songs, Clown on the 22nd Dance Floor.
I think that’s probably the first song I ever wrote. Honestly, (it has) no deep meaning or anything. I was just enjoying the energy. I guess I was young and a little aggressive and energetic. It was just me learning how to write music. One part of it is that it’s the first song where somebody helped me learn how to record. He was the first person in my life who told me that maybe I should be more serious about writing songs.
Your album, Bismillah, has some nice tunes too. For instance, Remain in Me, a song I believe is destined to live long.
The song is about me and my relationship with my parents. It was closer to We’re Getting Married. I think it was me and my drummer Karan who wrote this together. It was after we were having a really tough week when we were living in Delhi many years ago. I think we had some serious money issues and we were drinking and walking around this lake in Hauz Khas Village in Delhi where we lived. We used to live in these barsatis. I think we just spent three or four hours walking around the lake and just chatting. We headed home at sunrise and jammed at his house. I think we had a moment where we just played. I think a couple of songs came out of that morning. Just on the spot, something happened.
How would you describe the music of PCRC?
Honestly, the way I want to see it understood is like a trans-cultural sort of music which, in my head, takes from everything around the world. It’s not genre-based music, it’s a romantic band. It’s not that ‘oh, it’s a rock band, or it’s a soul band, or it’s a jazz band. It’s unpredictable. That’s why it’s called a ‘recording company’ and it was never supposed to be a band, rather a factory of ideas.
Electrifying: PCRC in concert
How has it been post-pandemic with performance spaces opening up? Are you guys making enough to keep the band going?
Yes, 75 per cent of our audience is not even in India but in America. So a lot of our money and income come from royalties, streaming and licensing to movies — all from America. Actually, we are trying to do a proper American tour next year. Supposed to happen this year, but it didn’t happen. But that’s the real big step in our journey, I guess.
What songs can your fans expect at your Kolkata gig?
We haven’t played in ‘Cal’ since 2012 at CAW, an arts festival a group of young people organised. It was very small, but very nicely organised. Only 50 people came, which was such a shame. Now, we’ve reached a point where we will just play and let people take from it what they want to. We’ll play a 90-minute show. And it’s a roller coaster, it will go up and down like a movie. That’s the experience. We’re playing a couple of new songs. Otherwise it’s a mix of old songs.
By the way, is the information on your Wikipedia page all accurate? Well it’s all mixed up. Some are correct, some aren’t.
Maybe at some point of time you guys would like to correct it.
Well, maybe not actually. It’s more exciting to let people keep editing it (laughs).
Oh! Best wishes for your US tour next year.
Thank you. Lovely talking to you.