The words punk rock, alternative, or space age are rarely used in the context of Indian music, but a musical outfit based in London, England, known as Cornershop, have set out to change people's perceptions of South Asians and the music they make.
They began life in 1988 under the name The General Havoc when Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers met in university in Preston. "We both went to the same college and from the second year we shared the same flats in the same buildings," says Ayers. "We just got on really well. I had my mum's classical acoustic guitar, which I didn't even realize was a classical guitar, with nylon strings and it sounded really 'plinky-plunky.' Tjinder picked up a bass and he had an old acoustic guitar as well. We just made up songs because there was no interesting music around. We'd get drunk every night and just wanted to have some fun. It evolved from there."
Oddly enough, one of the band's early fixations had to do with vacuum cleaners. Why vacuum cleaners? "Because that was what we had at hand. We used anything we had at hand...pots, pans, vacuum cleaners." Ayers sings a bit of an early General Havoc song, "Vacuum cleaner/You suck me up/You spit me out/ And I'm on the floor/All you wanna do is Vacuum." He explains, "There's a clever analogy in there about being sucked up by the system and sucked into a vacuum cleaner..."
Those may not have been stellar beginning for Singh and Ayers, but fortunately the best was yet to come. In 1992 the band changed its name to Cornershop in an attempt to make a statement about Asian stereotypes in England. "I got a lot of racist shit [in University] and we just wanted to go against that sort of stuff and be a bit more focused," Singh says.
The earliest Cornershop recordings featured loud, distorted guitars superimposed against a sitar, dholki and flute, played with the amateurish aesthetic of early punk rock music. Singh's political and satirical lyrics, sung in both Punjabi and English, added yet another dimension to the strange brew that Cornershop were concocting.
Hey, hold on, here's a chap who supposed to be promoting Asian-ness. But I don't think [Hanif Kureishi] is. I think he's actually stealing Asianness and using that as a means to get on with his life.
Singh explains the early Cornershop sound as follows: "What we were trying to portray was the way Asians are seen. The Asian instruments represented the view that Asians are seen as passive and not adding anything to society and the guitars were how we really felt in the waste and how fucked up we were about it. It was an artistic [statement] that was made and unfortunately it went over a lot of peoples' heads. Again, the groundswell of people got it, and so we kept it, developed it and used what we had on the first EP as a back drop for what we're doing now (the use of samples, different languages, the use of political and non-political songs). Its good now that with [the current Cornershop album], Woman's Gotta Have It [people have] delved back into those [old songs] and got it now. They've seen the development and can see...more of the story. And that's good, it gives us a lot of depth I think."
Many of the people who didn't "get it" initially happened to be music critics in England who were left scrambling trying to describe exactly what Cornershop was. "We've always been stigmatized [by the press] and people [have been] trying to put us into fads," says Singh. "Whether its the 'rebirth of Asian cool' or 'riotgrrrls' or whatever, we always go away from that." Ayers adds, "It really works that way in England as well. The whole press thing exists on the little scenes it creates."
A related problem Cornershop continue to face is people prefixing everything they do with the word Asian. "I don't think its really fair to do that," Singh says. "I think we're an amalgamation of different ideas, whether its African or Asian or whatever. There are a lot of Asian elements in there but I don't think that's all it is. Our use of different technologies, too, now days is moving more away from that tag and I don't think it applies." Ayers suggests, "Also, if we were touring India, we'd be called an English band. We'd have English as the prefix every time!"
An interesting twist to people's notions about Cornershop is the reaction of Asians to their music. Singh talked a little bit about the band's status among Asians in England: "[We are] pretty well cemented, really, because of what the last album's done and what [the single] Jullandar Shere's done in the clubs. Its there. There's a groundswell of Asians who are into it. We don't expect there to be anymore. [In] the case of a lot of Asians, they don't like Cornershop because what they want to listen to is music that will take them off their x-plane, whether its folk music, social or spiritual music or religious music. We don't do that. We pose a lot more questions, even if we don't have a lot of lyrics. We don't expect a lot of Asians to get that. If I were an Asian who wanted an easy life, it would be the last damn thing I'd be listening to."
I asked Singh why he thinks there are so few Asians making the type of music Cornershop make. "Because I'm about the only Asian mad enough to go out there and do it. You have to sacrifice an income, you have to sacrifice a lot of tension with your family. Other Asians aren't willing to sacrifice that, unless its got money behind it."
So how does Singh reconcile his career choice with his traditional Indian upbringing?
"There's no reconciliation," he replies, shaking his head. "My family wants me to do my degree and get on with my life." Singh sighs deeply. "I don't really want to do a 9 to 5 job so I've always pursued [music]. We've had a lot of encouragement over the years; that's why we've carried on."
Many of the people who didn't 'get it' initially happened to be music critics in England who were left scrambling trying to describe exactly what Cornershop was.
An early Cornershop song called Hanif Kureishi Scene contains the line, Your life is so pristine, mine's like the Hanif Kureishi scene. Is Singh's life really like 'the Hanif Kureishi scene'?
"Its fucked up." says Singh. "I've got a lot of bad shit in my life, like money, my situation, my health's not too good. But other than that I'm having a fucking great life. I'm visiting a lot of people; we're going around America a good few times, visiting people again and again and their doors are open. It's really cool and that's about one of the best things about doing it. But, you know, I don't really dig Hanif Kureishi anymore."
I ask him if he has read the Black Album and what he thinks about Kureishi's treatment of the Asian punk rock band in his book?
"I read about 30 pages [of the book] and got bored. I don't think Kureishi knows that much about music. He did a list of his desert island discs [recordings he would take with him if stranded on a deserted island] and he mentioned all these different groups, which someone else must have told him about because I doubt he knew about them. At the end of the ten records, [there is] not one Asian track. You think, 'Hey, hold on, here's a chap who supposed to be promoting Asianness.' But I don't think he is. I think he's actually stealing Asianness and using that as a means to get on with his life. Now that's a very serious allegation but I strongly feel it." Interestingly enough, in a rather Kureishi vein, Singh is working on a novel about his days growing up in Wolverhampton. He says its going really slowly but really well...
Cornershop's most recent effort, Woman's Gotta Have It, has seen the band evolve dramatically since its early singles and first album, Hold on It Hurts.
"People have changed within the band and its always been because of natural reasons," Singh explains. "We've just plowed ahead with the same sort of attitude. I think its an approach to music more than anything else. With this last album I did the production for it and it was about knowing a studio and being at a level where I could now produce it. There's a lot of bad production on our last album as well... not on my part though!" Singh laughs.
6am Jullandar Shere is the lead off single from Woman's Gotta Have It, and it's the one track that's earned Cornershop more acclaim than any other. The song's music influences range from the Velvet Underground and German krautrockers like Neu to the other worldly drug music of Spacemen 3 and Indian folk. Its a melting pot of east and west, with its shimmering sitars, outer space analogue synth sounds, simple drum beat, and slightly distorted Punjabi vocal with lyrics espousing the virtues of people following a spiritual path and learning to live among those who are different from them.
Singh says, "When I wrote Jullandar Shere I didn't even know what was going to come out. Within three minutes it was written. And then we went back to it and it was like, this is so fucking simple! When it was done it was done with the vocal effect as well and I just knew within those three minutes that it was a good song."
In the tradition of Indian folk music, spiritual themes seem to be something Cornershop are inclined to explore in their Punjabi songs. "I've always liked religious music whatever faith it's from," says Singh. "I'm not really that religious but I believe that there's a God. I'm weak-willed and I need something there."
The success of Jullandar Shere and the subsequent release of Woman's Gotta Have It in America on the Luaka Bop/Warner label, has lead Cornershop to tour America, on their own and with the traveling alternative rock festival, Lollapalooza. When I spoke with them in New York, it was just two days after they had finished their Lollapalooza stint.
"[Lollapalooza] was a good laugh, we met some great people," Singh says. "[The audience response was] cool every day. Changed peoples lives. There's always a few people who come up to us and say they've been waiting for this for twenty years and its come...We certainly became a sort of band's bands as well. A lot of the other groups were into us and the crew people as well."
Even though Cornershop already have their next album completely written and have a double album of previously unreleased tracks coming out, Singh says the future of Cornershop is uncertain. "We're not tired of it, its just that we've accomplished a lot of the things that we set out to do. As people we had an agenda against the press [music critics], and against a lot of the music that was going on at the time."
In the mean time, Singh and Ayers plan on pursuing their dub project, Clinton. They have an album coming out soon. I mention to Singh that I was quite impressed with Clinton's Super Loose.
"Its not exactly what we wanted to get, but we had reviews on that saying it was better than the recent Mo'Wax [a very hip break beat/hip hop label based in the UK] stuff."
When asked what the next Cornershop album would be like, Singh's answer was typical of Cornershop's eclectic philosophy. "We're working with Allen Ginsberg...there's a tribute to Asha Bhosle (sic), there's a tribute to the Herb...there's a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra style duet..."
Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers seem to be on a wave that certainly has not crested. Regardless of people's opinions of Cornershop's bold, innovative, in-your-face attitude, one thing they will continue to do is explore, create, shock and not sell out.
In the days of Ford Cortina 7" (Wiiija)
Lock stock & double-barrel 10" CD (Wiiija)
Elvis sex-change (In the days of Ford Cortina + Lock stock & double-barrel) CD (Wiiija)
Reader's Wives 7", CD (Wiiija)
Born Disco; Died Heavy Metal 7", CD (Wiiija)
Change (live), split 7" with Jacob's Mouse, Bivouac, and Truman's Water (Free with Ablaze! Issue 10)
Born Disco; Died Heavy Metal (+ Tandoori Chicken) 7" (Merge)
Seetar Man split 7" with Blood Sausage (Clawfist)
6am Jullandar Shere 7" (Wiiija)
My Dancing Days Are Done (Mes Jours de Bal Perdue), split 7" with Prohibition (Bruit Distrodu)
WOG remix 12", CD (Luaka Bop/Warner)
Jullandar Shere remix 12", CD (Wiiija)
Hold On it Hurts LP, CD, Cassette (Wiiija)
Hold On it Hurts (+ Lock stock & double-barrel EP) CD (Merge)
Women's Gotta Have It LP, CD (Wiiija)
Women's Gotta Have It (different cover art) CD (Luaka Bop/Warner)
Clinton Singles (dub project featuring Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres from Cornershop):
Jamjar 12" (Wiiija)
Super Loose 12" (Wiiija)
Tjinder Singh is not shy about making his feeling known about other musicians. He had this to say about the bhangra scene in England:
"All they're looking for is commerciality. There's only a few people who run the bhangra scene. Before they wouldn't touch reggae music. When I was listening to Lee Perry and Scientist they wouldn't even listen to it and laughed at me. Now days they're trying to incorporate it into their music. Its only done for commercial reasons. You can tell the commerciality and you can tell the lack of integrity and it all sucks! My finger goes up to them."
So, I ask, I guess you're not into the bhangra scene at all...
"Not the bhangra scene at all, but Punjabi folk music, the older stuff, I love all that. I actually thinks that's the precursor of hip hop. The way that they've got rolls, the way that they've got little sections, the ways thatthey've got different vocal shouting's and what have you."
I ask him is he's heard Night Song, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahnis latest collaboration with Michael Brooke? Not missing an opinionated beat Singh replies:
"No. I wouldn't want to hear it. Fuck it! Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is really cool but when he has remixes done he does himself an injustice. Who's that famous bloke from fucking Birmingham, who's a pile of shit?"
Bally Sagoo, I gently remind him.
"Yeah, that remix was fucking tragic! Tragic! God, I could have walked into the studio and sorted it out. Like the doctor, I like to meet and greet my patients. What the fucking hell went wrong there?"
Now we're on an interesting track. I wonder what other celebrity's careers Singh would like to help out? What about Morrissey, the former singer of British band The Smiths, whose posters Cornershop once burned in protest of the singer's flirtation with neo-facist right wing imagery?
Singh retorts emphatically, "He ain't gonna get it from us. We'll leave Echobelly for that...motherfuckers."
Cornershop at The Knitting Factory, New York City, July 19, 1996.
The Cornershop live experience is not, as anyone who's seen them can attest to, your typical rock 'n' roll show. The electric guitars and fuzz boxes have been eliminated; instead, they've chosen to recreate their songs using rhythm oriented instruments, including a sitar, tamboura, acoustic guitar, dholki, drums and a wide assortment of percussion devices. Singer Tjinder Singh explains, "The thing is we could do what we're doing now, which is the 'different' set, or we could do a more guitar based one...[T]he logistics of doing both of them are too much, so we just [decided to] hone it down to what this is."
The legendary Knitting Factory was packed on this night with an enthusiastic and diverse group of people, rangingfrom New York's usual indie rock crowd to record company people and curious onlookers. The show itself began and ended with extra long versions of the hypnotic Jullandar Shere, which guaranteed every single person left the club that night humming Jullandar Shere to themselves (about 20 minutes of the 50 minute show was made up of Jullandar Shere). In between they played a selection of songs from Woman's Gotta Have It, including Wog, Hong Kong Book Of Kung-Fu, Camp Orange and My Dancing Days are Done (strangely enough, Singh began this song with vocals but seemed to grow weary of them, so they ended up playing most of the song as an instrumental). The set was rounded out by a raucous version of a B-side track called Rehoused, an Indian folk song style tune called Counteraction and two new songs, tentatively titled Butt in the Soul and Marshal. At the end of the show a 5 minute piece of Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry was broadcast over the PA.
As a result of the instruments the band was using, most of the songs took on the trance quality of jullandar Shere and tended to seamlessly melt into one another. For those unfamiliar with Cornershop's material, this may have resulted in some aural fatigue, but for others it provided a unique interpretation of Cornershop's songs and it was certainly a welcome relief from the barrage of loud guitars and pounding drums most bands inflict on their listeners.