Nischay Parekh and Jivraj Singh are making a name for themselves with not a sitar or tabla in sight. We go to Kolkata to meet the pastel-suited neo-psychedelic duo
Something is buzzing, so Jivraj Singh unplugs a wire from one box and plugs it into another. Try that? he says. A note plays, but the buzz can still be heard, and so more wires need to be replugged, until all unwanted scratches of sound vanish. We spend around 95% of our time trying to eliminate noises, says Nischay Parekh, sitting behind the synths.
Together, they are Parekh & Singh, a dream-pop duo from the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Ocean, the pairs debut album, features none of the stereotypical sitars and tablas that dominate Indias music scene. Instead guitarist, vocalist and synth-player Parekh and percussionist Singh produce music that sounds distinctly un-Indian, as though it could have been produced in any part of the world.
Rehearsals always start like this, the pair tell me, as they set up the bedroom-turned-practice-chamber in Singhs family home in an upmarket Kolkata neighbourhood, where abandoned colonial mansions squat among new high rises. Listening to their album, released by UK indie label Peacefrog, you could never pick apart the many layers of instrumental tracks that produce their effortlessly crisp, neo-psychedelic sound. But watching them in the flesh reveals the feat of assemblage, as guitars, synths, drums and various other musical toys and gadgets work together to produce their light, whimsical melodies.
Were putting out 24 tracks of sound at the same time, says Parekh. Thats 12 tracks each. Our music doesnt sound very electronic, but we use a lot of the same tools electronic musicians use. Because its only two of us, we have to use technology. Singh steps in: No, technology uses us.
Parekh & Singh: the name sounds more like a law firm than a pop band, but it suits the pair, who wear brightly coloured tailored suits on stage and in their Wes Anderson-style music videos. Similarly, their air of well-behaved schoolboys seems more suited to an office than to the booze-fuelled parties of Indias nascent indie music scene.
Parekh, 23, is the performer and dreamer, switching from keyboards to guitars and vocals, as they start to rehearse for a couple of gigs. He introduces each song with a small story: Oceans title track is about navigating difficult relationships; Newbury St is about homesickness; and Je Suis Le Pomme Rouge inspired by his unsuccessful attempts to learn French through an app tells the story of the troubadour English king, Richard the Lionheart.
After two semesters at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Parekh dropped out and returned to Kolkata to write and produce his own music. His mother, Sumona, lived in America in the 1970s, and fell in love with the music of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and the Mamas & the Papas. When she returned to India, she married into a very conservative family, but wanted her son to grow up with the worldview she had benefited from. So, when he was a young boy, she would have her cassette player on all day, blasting everything from Marvin Gaye to Geri Halliwell, singers who had never really been heard in India.
Singh often missed school to spend long weekends away with his musician parents, who toured the country performing covers of rock songs. He would sleep on stage next to the bands drummer as his mother belted out the songs. Despite this, young Jivraj did not want a career in music. I always wanted to be a documentary-maker and was much more interested in the visual arts, until college. Then I started playing the drums and realised it was just natural for me to make music.
Together, Parekh and Singh represent a new type of Indian: well-travelled, educated and fashionable, with tastes that have expanded beyond classical folk music or the mass appeal Bollywood song-and-dance numbers to include a western indie repertoire. But despite the international influence, the dreamlike quality of their music and videos is firmly rooted in their hometown of Kolkata, a city frozen in time after decades of communist rule, where shops close not at the end of the day, but whenever the owners decide theyve done enough to deserve a hot meal and a nap, where strangers stop each other for casual roadside conversations.
Their pastel-coloured suits are handmade by local family firm Barkat Ali & Sons, who established themselves making uniforms for Indian soldiers during the second world war. Their first video, for I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll, was shot in an old palace just outside the city. For Parekh, Kolkata was always central to his music. On the single Philosophize, he sings: Ive got a New York state of mind / In Indian standard time. He says: I liked living in America, and I liked not being in India. But I knew I had to come back if I wanted to make music. Because all the music I like, and I listen to, has always come from the musicians hometowns.
The pair went to the same school, Le Martiniere for Boys, but a six-year age gap meant they only met as teenagers, through friends. Now, they barely spend a day apart. As they prepare for two concerts, one in Kolkata, the other to an audience of thousands in Pune, the two shuttle between each others homes, packing kit, rehearsing scores, and continually teasing each other.
Although theyve been making music together for six years, things only really took off at the beginning of last year when, after a late-night gig in Kolkata, Parekh fired off a round of emails to record companies. I sent an email with an mp3 of our song Hello to eight or nine companies, he says as we hurtle through the citys narrow, palm-lined streets. People always tell you thats the one thing you should never do, that itll never work, but then two days later we got an email back.
Within weeks, Parekh & Singh had signed a contract and started shooting the video for I Love You Baby. With a budget of just $5,000, the shoot required a lot of DIY: the pair set about scouting locations, getting new suits tailored, and recruiting people to help. Thats the advantage of working in India, says Parekh. You can do a lot with a little. In New York or London, shooting a video like the one we made on that kind of budget is impossible.
The video clocked up more than 200,000 views a lot for an indie band in India. Emails started flooding in from such countries as Russia, where the band had never expected to find fans. Suddenly, it felt as though they had outgrown India, where their music reaches only a small network of young, urban music fans.