Bombay Black are back and ready to rock India’s indie scene once more
If you mention the words “Bombay Black” to a resident of Mumbai, you may get an odd reaction. For most Mumbaikars, Bombay Black is slang for the cheap, usually adulterated hashish sold on the city’s streets. But for Indian indie fans of a certain age, Bombay Black means something else entirely.
For them, Bombay Black was a band, and so much more. Their rise in 1999 was the moment when the Indian underground broke away from its slavish devotion to outdated 1980s hard rock and metal. The music collective – it had a rotating cast of 8 to 9 members – played an amalgamation of jazz, electronica, Indian fusion and avant-garde improvisation that was leagues ahead of its contemporaries.
Over the three short years of its existence, the group inspired a generation of musicians. Their story remains largely undocumented, but their impact can be seen in the freewheeling, genre-bending music that defines Indian indie today.
In February, Bombay Black reunited for a tour in support of their new single Boing Boing. Earlier this week, they released Snow White And The Seven Bungalows (seven bungalows is a residential area in Mumbai) their first album in 14 years. Much has changed in the intervening time. The underground is now a full-fledged industry, with hundreds of bands playing to thousands of adoring fans. So to understand why an old group’s reunion has so many ageing Indian hipsters buzzing, one needs to start at the beginning.
“1999 was a time of transition for rock bands,” says guitarist Paresh Kamath. Smaller venues and smaller crowds allowed them to experiment with their sound. It was also a time when recording technology was becoming more accessible and bands no longer needed a massive amount of cash to produce a record.
It was at the residence of producer and composer Samrat Bharadwaj that the band’s music took shape. “I was staying in this building called Lata Kunj, which has been used for a lot of haunted house TV shows. There we had a lot of space to make a racket and jam out, which is very difficult to find in Bombay. So Randolph (Corriea), T2 (Vibhas Rahul), Lindsay (Periera) and JD (Jaideep Thirumalai) would show up every other day to jam.”
Those jams resulted in the band’s first record, titled Volume 1. Initially put together in an attempt to get a slot at Australia’s Big Day Out festival, the record would be released on tape in December 1999 by Rock Street Journal, an Indian magazine that sent the tape out to its 30,000 subscribers. In those days downloading wasn’t an option and Indian rock music spread through word of mouth and cassette and tape trading.
When the tape came out, there were no faces on the cover, just a picture of Marine Drive,” says Kamath. “A lot of people had no idea who it was ... I remember meeting friends who would ask me if I’ve checked out this European band doing some amazing stuff called Bombay Black.”
Reactions were mixed. The rock and metal underground rejected the record, unable to understand it and unwilling to accept the use of samples and computers. But as the music spread and the band went on to play across the country, they found that there was an audience for this sort of music. Alongside the brickbats and the bottles thrown on stage, they met musicians and fans who were blown away by what they heard. The two poles were perfectly exemplified by their performance at the Great Indian Rock (GIR) competition held in Goregaon, Mumbai in 2000, a competition they won.
“The organisers got massively criticised for that because ‘these guys are not even rock, how can they win’,” laughs Bharadwaj. “We got bottled and someone accused us of playing CDs onstage.”
“But at the same time, there were a lot of people who enjoyed the songs,” adds Kamath. “Especially the elder guys – [popular rock band] Rock Machine, [GIR organiser] Amit Saigal – they said that you’re the only guys doing something worth representing India to the rest of the world.”
Their victory at GIR took the band to Los Angeles in 2001, where they opened for Aerosmith and performed at Levi’s Inland Invasion Festival, alongside bands like Incubus, The Offspring and Weezer. It was a big deal for an Indian band to play in the US. On their return, they recorded their second album – Volume II. The album had a more pop sound and was acclaimed critically, but by 2003 the members had drifted apart.
“We’d gone to America, opened for this festival and then we were back to playing a small club like Jazz By The Bay and getting paid peanuts,” explains Kamath. “We thought we’d hit the peak of what the underground scene offered us but we’re still here scrounging around trying to make a living and it isn’t happening.”
Bharadwaj moved back to his hometown Delhi and made a career as an indie electronica producer, while the rest of the members started working in Bollywood to pay the bills or started their own projects. Over the next few years, they’d all become big, respected names in the music industry. But Bombay Black would stay with them.
“Years later I still have musicians come up to me and say that the Bombay Black album had a huge influence on them,” says Bharadwaj. “It’s great because it tells you that everything which might be cool or hip might not take fruition right then and there. It might have a bizarre domino effect later.”
“We laid the foundation stone,” adds Kamath. “We made people believe that they could get out of that old rock and metal format.”
The group remained friends. But they didn’t all get together until March last year, when Bharadwaj and his wife visited Mumbai. “Believe it or not, the whole gang hadn’t been in the same room in all this time,” says Kamath. We had some drinks and someone suggested a Bombay Black reunion, he says. “Half the people were like no and the other half was like why not? By the end of the night, we decided to do it.”
The group spent the next four days jamming and recording endlessly. Those jams were turned into the seven songs that make up their third album. They announced their reunion with a tour and the release of a video for their new single Boing Boing, which has already garnered more than a 100,000 views – a big number for an independent Indian band. The new album features the original line-up of Bharadwaj, Corriea and Kamath, Periera, Thirumalai, Vibhas Rahul, Abhijt Nalani, Naresh Kamath and Tyrone Fernandes.
They’ve got another video in the works, as well as another record where the seven new tracks will be remixed by some of India’s hottest young producers. For a group of veterans, they sound incredibly excited to be back and ready to take the Indian scene by storm once again.
“We’ve all improved in our separate ways, matured as musicians and this time we’re trying to do a newer version of what we did then,” says Kamath. “We’re having a blast doing this, and this time, we’re going to get it right.”
Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.