Rock trail: ‘Music remains very much the foundation of my existence’

In the early 80’s, he took the rock hungry audience in India by storm and thrilled them with Top of the Rock proving that indigenous music can be accepted by the masses.

By Amit Kakkar

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Published: Wed 29 Jul 2009, 3:32 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:35 PM

Considered as a rocker who broke away from the ‘cover version’ mentality and kickstarted the ‘original matter’ revolution, he later went on to become the Papa of the rock that is still played today in India. And this is the same man who back in 1985 had played in front of a meagre gathering of eight people - including his band members.

In conversation with City Times from Mumbai, India, about his journey from being a front man to a writer to the man behind the camera, is the lead vocalist and founder of Rock Machine – Uday Benegal, who now favours Alms For Shanti wherever he plays.

What brings you back from New York to India?

I have moved back to Mumbai from New York City for work. I myself don’t know when I decide to pack my bags and move again!

How easy was it to attempt to re-define rock in the early 80’s – when everyone was looking Westwards to the likes of Dire Straits, Stevie Wonder and Queen?

As a band, we were not consciously trying to define or re-define anything. It was quite simply the six of us wanting to make a particular kind of music. With this common purpose we formed Rock Machine and subsequently Indus Creed. What drove us also was the desire to express ourselves by writing our own songs. It’s one thing to play other people’s music because it is fun and because we love that, but it’s a completely different experience to write your own stuff and express yourself. And believe me, it’s more satisfying when it works. There was a lot of hard work that went into making our own music and a lot of frustrations as well but eventually it was dedication and luck that worked in our favour and we achieved success.

So from Rock Machine in 1984 to Indus Creed in 1993 to Alms For Shanti in 1999 – how has the journey been so far?

It is all about just following one’s instinct at any particular given point of time. So when we started out as Rock Machine, we started like most college bands and like just a bunch of kids who want to play Rock & Roll, we started out as a cover band playing other people’s music. We wanted to play the American and the British style Rock & Roll that was pretty much in at that point of time.

As we went along, our music evolved - we evolved as people, we discovered India through Rock & Roll and along that path at some point we decided that we want to make our sound a little more mature. Even in the first two albums there was commonality in style but a difference in the sound. We tried to up the sound as we moved on and make it production oriented by the second album. And when we thought of doing our third album, we were on the cusp of changing to Indus Creed and the intention was to make our identity and our sound more mature. We grew up as kids enamoured by American Rock & Roll but when we reached the level of Indus Creed we had evolved into different kinds of people, keen to find ourselves through our music. So the name change and the sound change was a response to that.

Alms For Shanti was formed by Jayesh, (who has been with me since the very beginning in the band), and me and we then decided to move towards NYC.

Rock Machine had band members walking in and out - why was there no permanency ever?

Well, the only position that saw the change was the drummer’s chair. The rest of us five were together from the start to the finish. Mark Menezes, the first drummer, moved to Hong Kong with his wife and he was replaced by Bobby Duggal. It was all good for a few years and then we had a falling out and it ended on not very good terms. Then there was Adrian D’souza on the drummer’s chair, who stayed with us till the end.

People nowadays recall Rock Machine or Indus Creed mainly through Top of the Rock or Pretty Child.

They both were hits. There are other good compositions by us as well but a band is always remembered by its hits.

You rode high on the success while in Rock Machine and later Indus Creed. You could have made it commercially big. Then what brought the band to an end?

By 1997, when I had got sick of living in Mumbai, we had already decided to end Indus Creed. Primarily because some of us were moving musically in a different direction and others weren’t too happy with that direction. So we sat down as mature human beings and without letting anything get nasty, we decided to call it a day.

What about Mahesh, the co-founder of Rock Machine? What is he doing these days?

Since I moved back to Mumbai, I am in collaboration with Mahesh and together we are working on an acoustic/semi-acoustic band, a project which should be ready by the end of August. Simultaneously I am working on another project of making a band with contemporary Rock that will have a lot of energy in it. So these two parallel projects are going on at the moment.

From being a crucial part of the rock scene in India to playing in New York City clubs, writing colums, co-hosting TV shows and now returning to India to make your feature film - it has been a long journey. So what exactly is your destination?

Ahh , I absolutely have no idea. My destination is death like everybody else’s, I guess. I don’t need to sound so morbid. I guess I am a kind of a wanderer. I just look at which way the path is taking me and I don’t try to define the path too strongly. I do try to find a path that gives me satisfaction but I don’t want to create my own tarred road but rather walk on a rough path and see where it takes me. Music remains very much the foundation of my existence.

Do you ever feel that you and your band suffered from media neglect in those days?

When we first started out, the only media neglect was the lack of airplay on television and radio because they were both controlled by the Government of India which thought that Rock & Roll was not something to be aired on TV or Radio. Our video was put on a for a very brief show on Doordarshan. When satellite TV came in, the scene in the 90’s changed drastically. But overall the media was quite a friend to us.

What inspired you to look Westwards in 1999? Was it the recognition factor that you missed in India or did you feel you would be better paid in the US?

It’s as hard for a musician in the States as it is for him in India. The reason why I went to the States was primarily to explore the niche markets. There, on one hand, you have the mass market commercial stuff like Christina Aguilera, then you also have many other niche markets that explore interesting things. So you could have a folk scene or a neo-folk scene, alternative rock scene, world music scene, opera, classical music or even the real quirky independent style of music which doesn’t get explored in India. I believe there was a more accepting audience in the West for the kind of music that I wanted to do with Alms For Shanti. My approach is a bit selfish where I do what makes me happy first and then I look for the right kind of audience. And the migration helped Jayesh and me in the growth of our music as well as growth as individuals. We played in a lot of clubs there in NYC and in some festivals and I miss it.

The lyrical content of songs created by Rock Machine/Indus Creed was pure English. What’s the language for your music now?

I express myself in English. Varanasi Trail is an English song with some words in Hindi and it has a lot of Indian influence. We also did a Hindi version of Alms For Shanti called Kashmakash for the Indian album.

So is Alms For Shanti an American band with Indian flavour or an Indian band based in America?

That’s a question I find very difficult to answer. I guess it is both! But it’s a band at the end of the day which gives you good music. For the most part the band was based in US but then Jayesh and I also play in India a lot and use musicians here. So Alms For Shanti is basically Jayesh and me, where ever we are and is based in two countries as Jayesh lives there and I now live here.

How was it sharing stage with Slash of Guns n’ Roses in 1996 in Bangalore?

We were invited to launch MTV in Bangalore and the MTV guys asked us (Indus Creed) if it was okay for Slash from Guns ‘N’ Roses to play with us. We agreed and did some songs together. Musicians are always happy playing with each other as long as they are making good music. Slash was nice and respectful and called himself an ‘Intruder’. It worked very well between us on stage.

You have now turned into a film-maker...

I did not turn into anything. I am a musician, a writer and now a film-maker and that’s like an add on. I am trying to make an independent style film (not a Bollywood style one) and it’s the main reason I am back from the US. To my eye, some of the most interesting cinema in the world today is being produced by non-English speaking countries. Unfortunately, India isn’t among the list despite the fact that we make the largest number of films here but they are least interesting to my eye. I decided to do film courses in NY, wrote screenplays, did a short film there and now am back in Mumbai as a film-maker; my stories are based in India because I know this place better. I am just trying to express in some other form now.

So how do you want people to remember Rock Machine?

A lot of people tell me what they loved about Rock Machine was the fact that we were very professional and the way we sounded. We rehearsed a lot and there were no excuses once we were on stage. I am proud of the fact that we changed the attitude of the audience and helped mould it to listen to original music. That time there was a lot of resistance to the original stuff and everyone wanted to listen to cover tunes. We will be remembered as a band that played good music and influenced the mindset of the audience towards originality and believe me 15 years ago it was a huge struggle for us.

Alms For Shanti will be playing in Kolkata on August 22 at St. Lawrence High School

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