Friday, February 2, 2018

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy Interview on 21 Years

This interview was commissioned by The Hindu. An edited version appeared in the Mumbai edition on 1st Feb, 2017. Here's the full transcribe: 

How much has the industry changed in the 21 years?

Shankar: No yaar, it’s the same industry. Slightly the method of working has changed in certain places. People are more welcoming new kind of scripts, new topics, new genres of filmmaking, some film even without songs. People are open to [new stuffs]. But all in all, I think, it’s the same.

Has your music changed?

Ehsaan: Well actually the thing is you go with the trend. You go with the right paths of the trend… and I am talking more about international trends as opposed to what would be Bollywood trends, because that you shouldn’t follow. That’s not what we stand for. You shouldn’t necessarily be influenced by the kind of industry that you’re working in. In terms of technology, in terms of new styles of music, we’ve been very up to date with that. Whether it works or not, that’s a different [matter].

Loy: Our kind of sound straddles two sides. The core is very Indian, so you can’t get away with that. That’s what roots our music, and then we have all other influences that we bring in.

E: …which also keeps changing, because we listen to more contemporary stuffs. Like, again, in Rock On 2, though the film didn’t do well, the rock which we did in that is too contemporary. Maybe it was too much for audiences to absorb first hand, after Rock On [1] which was kind of sweet and friendly. This was more aggressive. We have done all kind of stuffs. That way change with the trend but keeping in mind that we are still writing songs for [Bollywood] audience and not getting esoteric about it. All for that reason, not even going so [much] with the trend that’s going in the industry, in which case you won’t want to be a part of it then.

S: So that way, the music has changed; people’s taste has changed; kind of films that they make has changed; but industry as such has not changed. Same set of people.

Photo Courtesy: Rajneesh Londhe for The Hindu

As you said, in keeping up with the trend, the music has evolved, but the sound of SEL has remained the same.

E: The good thing about the sound of SEL is that there’s no sound of SEL. SEL only stands for good music, good compositions. Every time we do something is different… no two albums have sounded the same. So you can’t say that this is a recognisable SEL song because there’s a surprise element that should be in each album, each time that we do.

Actually, I meant that you guys have that sound that when one hears a song, one can say, yes this must be an SEL composition.

E: How you’re talking about.

L: Sensibilities and things like that, probably. I don’t know.

E: But yeah, I don’t think that way. As you said, we keep evolving.

Alright, let’s go back when you guys broke out with Dil Chahta Hai (2001). It was a new sound in the Hindi film music soundscape. Do you guys attribute it to the different schools of music that each one of you comes from?

L: I think, yes, part of that, and more so the fact that the script [of the film] was so different, modern, contemporary; and the director who wanted something [like that]. We had a lovely chemistry going on among all of us.

S: Between three of us, we pretty much cover the entire spectrum of music, from classical to rock to jazz. What we think is we design music for a film. It’s very difficult to have a sound of our own. What we do is dictated by the script, by the characters, their geographical placement. Like ZNMD’s Senorita, it had Spanish sound because the characters were in Spain. That can’t be put in Bunty or Babli which is [set] in rural Kanpur. So it has to be a Kajra Re there.

E: But the point is what the recognisable thing with SEL is, I would say, good compositions. We talk about song-writing which has got depth, is wholesome and appealing to listen to. It’s not something that will be just a hit for two days or a weekend and it’s gone.

2016 was quite a year. You gave one of your career best, Mirzya, a middling Rock On 2, and your career worst, Ghayal Once Again.

L: Well, that’s the way it is. You know, sometimes the wheels turn slow, sometimes it turns fast.

E: Unfortunately, the film bombed and all. I’ve said it before, let me say it again, when Rock On 1 music came, the reviewers trashed it. But when the film became a hit, the music became a hit. This time, the music came out, it was the same reaction because the music was one step ahead. It’s heavier and more committed – see it’s a band that is creating music after seven years, you can’t have them playing the same grunge; their lives have changed, their songwriting has become much more mature. Unfortunately the film didn’t click, so everything sank with it.

S: Things work, things don’t work. If it works, it’s great. Afterwards, we sit and analyse why it didn’t work and all that… it doesn’t work that way, you know. But one thing we can say for sure that our quality of music doesn’t go below a standard. We are still proud of music Rock On 2. Who’s there in the industry who’s got only hits… only flops, maybe there are (laughs).

Speaking about Mirzya, it’s one of your career best and it didn’t get the recognition that it should have, even at the recently concluded Filmfare awards (where it was nominated but lost to ADHM).

S: Thanks for saying that. We really feel that it’s one of our best works, easily.

E: It’s kind of unfortunate. Also the way things work out here. A lot of money is paid for the album and then if the film flops, the record company just washes its hands off the music. I don’t see why you can’t keep promoting music even after the film is gone. You know ADHM has become a hit, so they are still promoting the music. Music should be promoted either way. It’s an entity with the film but it’s also a separate entity. So promote it, keep putting videos on. It’s not that you want people to go see the movie, you want them to buy the album now. According to me, [Mirzya] is a catalogue item as good as Dil Chahta Hai or Kal Ho Na Ho or anything which should be on that shelf forever.

S: Honestly, for me, [it’s] better [than DCH, KHNH].

E: Maybe, better.

S: After being there for 20 years, and after talking about all these aspects of this should be promoted, that should be done… we have gone beyond that. At the end of day, what matters is we should feel proud of our album. And we are really, really proud of Mirzya. Truly, without being immodest, I don’t see any album in the last five years that has come out from this industry which is of the level of Mirzya. I am not saying because I am a part of the album, I am just saying as a spectator. Like, Meghana Gulzar that day told, after a long time I’ve got an album which I feel like taking a CD and putting into the CD player and sitting and listening to it. And we don’t have control over film not doing well and all. It’s unfortunate.
Winning an award feels good for a moment. Next day, we are back here [at the studio], working, that’s how it’s been.

E: Not winning an award doesn’t feel bad, let me put it this way.

S: Absolutely not.

L: Shankar rightly said, if you know what you have done is good and you evaluated it [to be] good enough, you can’t let someone else…. Yes, if it’s appreciated, great. If someone has not heard the album or doesn’t have the opportunity to listen to it and evaluate it, that’s sad because of the situation in which the industry is.

S: When you get complimented by the greatest writer in this country, Gulzar Saab, saying that this is an album I am proud of, and it reminds me of the way I used to work with Pancham, I think we can’t a bigger compliment than this. See who’s validating us.

E: And he’s not one to just say things, you know.

S: Yeah, he’s not a person who’s just going to say thing just for the sake of it.
So these things matter, whom we are working with, are we doing the right thing, is it musically and aesthetically a good piece of work. We look at it from an outsider’s perspective. It’s not that we are just into the project, so we’ll say only good things.

Is it because of working with different kind of people…

L: Obviously, it’s like going out with two friends, not necessary both of them want to go to same restaurant. One might like Chinese, one might like Indian.

S: Between the three of us, we are very well musically equipped. Our musical database is very strong, to make music. Now when director walks in, we have to literally psychoanalyse a director first… what his sensibility is. A hardcore commercial director will never get the sensibility of Mirzya. He will never say yes to an Afghan folk singer coming in, blabbering in a language we can’t understand. It all depends on what he listens to in his car. So we have to create music of his sensibility which will satisfy his film and his vision. If we want to make music for ourselves, we can do that in a non-film album. Right now, we are working for a director who is the captain of the ship. If he is not happy with a song, we’ll throw it and do another song.

You guys have a huge discography of albums sinking down with the film, especially if you look at your earlier work like Armaan, Kuch Naa Kaho.

S: Speaking of Armaan, you see every reality show, the song, Mere Dil Ka Tumse Hai Kehna, has to be there. That’s gratifying for us. Or even Sapno Se Bhare Naina from Luck By Chance. Any Rajasthani kid who comes to television, has to sing Baawre. Even JBJ.

E: This is all legacies which will be left behind.

L: And every composer has that. The more work you’ve done, you’re subject to having both hits and flops. I find it very unfortunate that there’s no way out for the audience to hear the song once the films is done. Hardcore music lovers are gonna probe and find songs.

E: And there were not so many movies being made as much as today and so many soundtracks releasing. Kuch Naa Kaho came on a weekend and there was nothing else for next two weeks. Even though the film didn’t do well, the music was a hit. So did JBJ. Now on a Friday, four films come out and there are 10 songs and all are gone by the next weekend.

L: It’s like buying cheap plastic pens, all are disposable.

S: If there’s a song which has become a superhit, you think people would actually take a CD, put it and listen to it? There are songs on which I dance too on parties and functions, but that’s not a song I would put in my car and say hey, lemme listen to this song. 

E: I have heard so many songs which are big hits but I haven’t seen anyone listening to it.
S: There are hardly three or four avenues to listen music: radio, TV, mobile, internet. The top 10 on each of these platforms are same. You are restricted to 10 songs in a week. What about the other songs?

L: It’s like walking into a mall and finding only one brand of pair of jeans. That’s exactly the situation that we are in right now. If you go back to late 60s or 70s, there was only radio, and radio had the dealing. So when radio came on national hours, entire country heard the popular songs, which is not the case now.

S: Take one radio station, switch to another, it’s the same song playing.

L: How do you have an identity as a radio station then?

S: I am doing a show called The Unheard on I am so happy doing it as I am hearing new stuff. And I am happy talking to the composers who are also happy thanking for doing this show.

I feel there has to be a parallel platform which plays music for the sake of music. People are worried about TRPs and all, but there will be listeners. You will not put off a song because it’s a non-film song.

Look at Dangal, there’s no song which was intended to make only for marketing. All the songs work beautifully with the film.

E: Other films need one hit song to market the film, so where’s the confidence of the film?

It’s a flop formula. Look at OK Jaanu, they recreated Humma Humma for the sake of it. But now the film is nowhere.

E: Oh, I feel bad for Shaad.

L: For me, when I look at a film, it’s really about being able to tell a story correctly. If there’s a problem in your storytelling, nothing can help you.

This has become a trend: to recreate an old song…

E: Give it 3 more months, it will go.

S: I see the state of helplessness in this. We don’t do films with one or two songs here and there, unless it’s a very dear friend, like the Marathi film we did, Mitwa.
I feel they are helpless because they are not able to get good melodies nowadays. Why would someone do it otherwise?

How is it different from the Instant Karma?

E: It was a completely different project. The idea was to do respectable versions of songs which became so big that people started doing bad versions.

S: It was the beginning of remixes, yaar. Abhi bhi tum wahi karte baithe ho.

L: Actually, it wasn’t even remix. It was reinterpretations of the songs.

E:  I am trying to understand what is it today that people do not trust today’s songwriting or what?  

L: For me, the analysis of it, there are two sides of it: Either there are no good songwriters or you are not in position to judge what a good song is. And I don’t buy the fact that there are no good songwriters. It’s impossible.

S: That’s unbelievable.

E: The thing is music has become like a commodity, something that you buy from a market and dispose.

L: Music is an important part of your life, on many levels. Just party, disco, dancing, jumping is all very cool. But there are other deeper levels at which people use music, like going back to old songs from a memory perspective, from a healing perspective. That’s an important side and you can’t negate that.

S: There’s a set of creative people, they have the music, they have the ability to create music, they have the talent but not the power. The power lies with someone else who has got the money but is completely non-musical and they take the decision.

E: Basically the industry has done it to itself.

L: It’s like music is a patient lying on a hospital table and there’s a rich man coming to operate him not because he is the doctor, just because he is rich. (everybody laughs)

E: World’s biggest producers, like Quincy Jones, say that there’s no industry left. They laugh when you say “music industry”, saying “what industry?” Where is the music industry the way it used to be.

S: Today is Javed ji’s birthday and I would quote him. He says, I have a very close friend Naresh Goyal and he is the owner of the biggest airlines in the country, Jet Airways. He owns maybe 100 of planes or whatever. But I have never seen him going to the cockpit and tell the pilot, “Ae zara left lena na.”
(Everybody laughs and sighs).

Let pilot do his job. Let musicians do their job.
S: Exactly. You are the owner, you run your company.

Coming back on your 21 years…
E: Your interview has gone into some other direction. Now please don’t ask us how we got together.

Has there been a low point when you guys felt that SEL is finished?
S: Ehsaan feels that during every project. When his melody doesn’t get approved by the two of us, he walks out, saying “I am leaving SEL.” But never seriously.

E: The lowest point in our career was actually the beginning of our career, when Mukul Anand passed away. It was like fate didn’t want this to happen maybe. It was one of the biggest films ever going to be made. If that film had come out, we probably would have been in some other space right now. Or maybe even done with the industry, god knows. After that we lost faith, because whoever tried to make that film couldn’t make it. Maybe it was not supposed to happen. When I went to meet Mukul, I didn’t want to do the film. He shouted at me, “You know who I am.” I said, “I know Mukul you are all like no 1 director.” “I am not like those guys. Why do you think I want to work with advertising people. I want to be different. I am telling you, you have to do it.” Damn sweet guy.

L: Even after Dil Chahta Hai, we had no work for 9 months. We were trying to figure out what’s going on, it was well received and all. People would meet us with scripts but instead of three guys, there would be four guys.

E: 90s was a very bad time for movies. Look at the kind of movies that were being made. Only Rahman came in with a breath of fresh air; Pancham da’s 1942: A Love Story was first time I put on television to listen to a song.

So when Dus fell through, what made you guys stick together for another film.

E: We were around, doing own thing. Shankar’s Breathless had become a huge hit. We weren’t even doing our shows.

S: We were happy doing ads.

E: In fact, we got more ads DCH.

L: Serious amount of ads.

E: Yeah, saying this is the kind of music we want. Just the right crossover between 
Bollywood and [contemporary]. We came together for small things like corporate work. Then Dillagi came out, then Mission Kashmir.

S: Mission Kashmir was a big turning point.

E: Rockford came just before Mission Kashmir. The album released while we were working on the songs [of Mission Kasmir]. We had to take permission from Vinod Chopra to go for the album release (laughs). We were very scared. So we asked Nagesh [Kukunoor] to come and ask him.

S: We were very glad to work with Gulzar Saab for the first time [on Rockford].

E: It was beautiful.

L: And we composed it in this very studio (Purple Haze, Bandra).

Talking about association with Gulzar Saab, you guys completed a little circle with him in Mirzya. From “Aasman ke paar shayad aur koi aasman hoga” to “Aasman kholke dekhne do, uss taraf shayad ek aur bhi ho.”

S: Correct. 

E: Oh my god.

S: It’s a full circle.

Highest point of the career?

S: Nothing like that. We are always on a high.

E: Everytime a movie does well, songs do well. Like we played at the IIT on 26th, it was a euphoric high, so good playing there.

S: Everytime we see people going crazy when we play live, we feel how blessed we are. Honestly, we don’t take it very seriously. Our references of music are very different. We don’t listen to only film songs. We all have our own little musical journeys and this is just a part of it.

E: We just have a lot of fun here. Shabana Azmi once came in here and sat here and said, “if any serious producer would think you all are working here, he is sadly mistaken.”

Current music scene is by and large Bollywood. No one is willing to invest in an independent album, and on the other hand, our music legends like U Srinivas (who was with Shankar on Remember Shakti), or Madhav Chari passing away…

(Ehsaan and Loy sigh together at the mention of Madhav Chari, and interrupt.)
L: Oh my God. E:Oh! He was the finest.

L: He never got his recognition. He was way, way, way ahead in the game.

E: Madhav was something else. Very intellectual. He was like a guru to two of us (Loy and him).

With these legends passing away, how do you see the alternate music scene shaping up?

L: It’s not easy. It’s like a rough patch. And not only here, all over the world. One tries to be a supporter as much as one can and as much it allows.

S: Also, to counter that. There is a set of musicians in the city who are busier than Bollywood singers. Look at supremely talented Niladri Kumar or Sivamani or Sheldon or Gino. These guys are playing every alternate day. Why? Economically they are viable [funded] by corporate, public shows, festivals. But that market is very limited. Limited set of people who are all the time busy. If you want to cut through that market, you have to be supremely, supremely talented. In Bollywood, you get one hit song, possibly you’ll get shows and you do make it and need not be talented at all. Sur me gaane ki bhi zaroorat nahi hai.

How do you guys find avenue for alternate music?

S: I always have. I really feel there should many more avenues.

E: There should more clubs, especially in Bombay. What a lovely city this is. It’s entertainment capital of India and there’s nothing… one or two clubs that have live music.

S: NH7 in Pune is beautiful. Mumbai should have such music festivals.

E: And less entertainment tax.

Shankar, anything coming up with Remember Shakti?

S: After Srini passed away, we are all so depressed. When we try to play, we just look at each other helplessly. It’s like one door, we feel, has shut forever.

E: Such a monster musician.

S: Who do you play with! Who is a musician of that calibre! There are some people who need to play 100 notes to communicate, there are some who need to play only one. Srinivas was that.

L: He was special. [He had] hand of God.

S: He doesn’t even need to play. It’s the same fret, even if you touch it, the same sound will come out. But when he plays it, the sound will go through your heart. This is a blessing.

E: U Srinivas was like an avatar.

S: And I played with him for 14 years. We have lived together, travelled together, eaten together, composed together in flights. They used to call us MIDI Sync in the group. My whole attraction towards fusion music has dropped by about 20%. We have a Shakti group [on Whatsapp], we keep bloddy cribbing on the group. But now we are planning some stuff, let’s see. But I don’t think anything like Remember Shakti… because John ji [McLaughlin] has scouted for talent throughout the country before he made this group. He has done lot of research and he is a man who knows his stuff.

E: You all should get L Shankar back.

S: They fight over stupid things.

E: What a player he is. You know Peter Gabriel uses him on every project. Something or the other you’ll hear him playing on the album. He is in love with L Shankar.

Any regret in these 21 years?

S: I think three of us as individuals have not reached where our music has reached. Our music has reached far and wide, in every household; every single person has heard our music. But we, as people, as brand, in terms of public perception have not reached out there. Because we are too simple, easily accessible. It’s broccoli v/s onions and potatoes. We are the onions and potatoes. When someone is as easily accessible, his/her depth is not understood or is not reached out.
Do you think the same?  We have been terrible in our PR. But we never attempted to build an image of ourselves or try to be THE Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

E: At some level, that’s also too much. That image takes away the music from you. Then at some level, you’ll start selling your music like that ‘I am so and so person’, but eventually it doesn’t hold.

Maybe some international perception. But we are working on some collaboration now.

The catalogue of directors we have worked with would be anybody’s wildest dream. Gulzar Saab just drops in our house at Karjat for fun, have a cup of tea. Where does this happen?

One album you wish you had done.

E: I would have loved to work on Mani Ratnam’s earlier films, like Thalapathy.

S: 3 Idiots.

E: Oh yeah.

L: No comments.

(everybody laughs)

S: Loy barely knows the movie we are working on.

E: He told somebody in an interview the first Hindi film he saw was 36 Chowringhee Lane. 
It’s not even Hindi, it’s in English.

L: I don’t listen to Bollywood music.

E: For that reason, nor do I. Not anymore. I used to listen all the old stuff, nothing contemporary. I love Amit Trivedi’s work, whatever he does.

L: I like Vishal Bhardwaj’s work. For me, only these two guys.

How do you see the next 21 years?

S: Superb yaar.  Lots more to do. Bollywood takes up a lot of your time. You sign up with three directors, your year is gone.

E: This year we are relaxing.

L: We’ll talk about it in 2037.

S: I would like Loy to do a Jazz album. I would like to Ehsaan to do a Blues album. I would like to do some stuff for myself, something non-film. I think the next 21 years will be that.

E: Hopefully, I will be abducted by UFO by then, which is one my dreams. (laughs)

S: That’s the other side of him. 


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