To stretch the celebrations for Tomatrax’s 12th annerversary we decided to dig up interviews with some of the artists that topped the recent top albums of the naughties! We’ll start with the runners up, the Unseen Guest and the interview we did with the India based duo soon after their debut album was released!
The idea of using Indian instruments to make Western style pop tunes is not one that many people would have thought ould work. However the Unseen Guest has done just that and have pulled it off with amazing flair! The Duo is made up of Amith Narayan (Harmony vocals, guitars, mandolin, veena and bass guitar) from India and Declan Murray (Lead vocals, guitars, slide guitar, bass guitar, piano and bongos) from Ireland. The two met in 2002 while Declan was travelling around South India, he then went around Australia before returning to India to start the band. “I was travelling around trying to find some sun, as you often do when you’re from my part of the world, and wound up in Victoria picking fruit for 10 bucks an hour”, remembered Declan. “When Amith suggested we go back to India and make an album together, it sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard. I’ve never bored in India, and knew that, whatever happened out there, it would be interesting. Hence the title of the first album.”
In putting their music together the Unseen Guest use a wide range of instruments some of which are unfamiliar to Western style music. “The most unfamiliar instruments we use would be the Indian percussive instruments”, said Amith. “These are percussion instruments which are traditionally used in Indian classical and folk music. Other than that, we use just acoustic guitars, violins, mandolins, bamboo flutes and the occasional harmonium (an Indian instrument which sounds a lot like an accordion) and Veena (the south Indian instrument which sounds like a Sitar – which I play myself). When we are recording a song, we just try out different instruments and see what fits best with the song– even if we have this whole host of instruments to choose from, for most times it’s an effortless process and we know exactly what instrument will sound good with the song and we play it and that’s it. But there’s also the few songs where we have to try quite a few instruments and nothing fits and after a lot of trial and error – suddenly it all kinda blends in perfectly and the song sounds perfect – Let me in was a song like that.”
Declan and Amith are making music with Indian instruments and doing the bulk of their recording in India creating a different sound to most music around, even in India what they are doing is different. “I don’t think there’s anyone in India doing music like what we are doing but there are a lot of artists doing fusion music – which is mostly classical music and Indian music mixed with electronic beats,” said Amith. “The music scene in India is about 90% or more of Bollywood and music from soundtracks of regional language movies. The rest 10% is mostly traditional classical music and folk music. Rock bands singing in English in India are rare and the bands have a hard time juggling day jobs and music. They also find it almost impossible to get record labels to release their music locally.”
While many bands these days base their music base their music around previous musicians the Unseen Guest not only produce something of their very own, but they don’t think they could do it any other way. “I’ve always hated the idea of genres of music: Drum’n bass/Metal/R’N’B or whatever,” said Declan. “If you start off an album by saying. “Right, we’re gonna make a *Insert Genre Here* album, the best you’re gonna get is a good *insert genre here* album. We just make music and see what comes out. If it’s good, it’s good music. That’s partially why we went to India in the first place: Not because our plan was to make traditional Indian music: There’s lots of people that could do that way better than us. It was to see if being in India, playing with musicians who come from a totally different background, could make something interesting happen.” “It’s not like we ever set out to find our own sound and style,” added Amith. “It just happened that with Declan’s and my influences in music and input from the sessions musicians in Kerala we happened to develop our own unique sound. Recording music in India is a very unique experience – the sessions musician we work with are fantastic musicians but they not attuned to modern rock music at all, which makes it really interesting to work with them. In addition of course we have access to all these cool instruments and sounds that usually never make their way outside of Indian classical or folk music.”
In addition to putting out amazingly beautiful music the Unseen Guest have also received critical acclaim for their powerful use of lyrics. “I don’t, really have one place where I get my ideas”, said Declan. “It can be anything: A train journey, a person I’ve met, a mood I’m in that day. I don’t try to push the lyrics in any direction: I let them come and eventually realise where they’re heading and go along with it. After that it’s just boiling it down to the essence. They all have a meaning for me, but I’d like to think they have as many different meanings as they have listeners: There’s no wrong interpretation. They’re rarely direct songs whose meaning can be pinned down, which I think makes them more meaningful. If they’re often dark, that’s probably my own tendency towards the darker side of things: I mean how many shiny happy love songs can you take? It’s usually the bleaker side of things that is more interesting. Ever have a conversation with someone who’s just fallen in love? There’s nothing more boring is there?”
Some critics have also suggested that the power of the words are overlooked because of the quality of the music, however this isn’t something that concerns the band. “If the music is good enough, the lyrics could be a bus timetable and it’ll still affect you”, explained Declan. “If the lyrics also have a deep meaning, that’s a bonus. Look at The Beatles for example, great music, but the lyrics are often nonsense. They get away with it, cause initially music is a heart not a head thing: The head thing comes later. That said, I like it if music has an intellectual meaning as well.”
The band’s debut album Out There has been met with critical acclaim all over the globe however it is stills yet it has to be released in its country of origin. “I’ve approached quite a number of major and Indie record labels in India and they all like our music BUT nobody seems to be interested in releasing our album in India,” said Amith. “All my friends who’ve heard the album love it though! We also have quite a lot of Indians who discover us on the Internet.”
The band’s name came from a 1930’s Bakelite sign that a friend found discarded from a Catholic School. “A severe old- fashioned exhortation to watch what you’re doing, to bear in mind that Christ is watching your every move, remembered Declan. “It read: “Christ is the head of this house, the Unseen Guest, the Silent Listener to every conversation”. Our friend put it up on his wall, and we used to laugh at it while knocking back beers and playing poker on a Friday night. I liked the strict dust-bowl era vibe the name had and felt it matched with some of the music, and resonated with the lyrics.”
The Unseen Guest are currently in India working on their next release. “It’s darker and more groovy in some places, more upbeat and swingy in others, than the first”, said Declan. “There’s a bit more swagger to it and a lot more grit. I’d see it as taking some of what we had in the first album and giving it a bit more punch and a fair bit more humour. I think people who liked the first album will like this even more, but it’s not “more of the same.” It’s the musical equivalent of watching a shy person become more confident after their second beer, only in our case it’s our second album.” “We are more experienced with production and a lot more confident with our songs this time around and that shows on the record,” added Amith.
Check out the Unseen Guest’s facebook page to find out more!