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Uplifting Melodies on Demand—Sitting Down with Shorthand

New to the scene yet making waves in the university circuit already, the only trends Shorthand wants to ride are the ones they set. Wise enough not to define themselves by any genre that could come back to haunt them later in their career, the quartet recently enthralled students at the MIT Quadrangle. Flying down all the way from the national capital, they played as part of Impressions ’18, a music festival organised by Chords and Co. Euphoric concert-goers were treated to a rip-roaring set that threw pending assignment woes and the sceptres of sessional scores to the wind. We got the chance to have a chat with them about their music, plans for the future, and more.

 Can you give us some background on how you started off as a band?

We all met at university. Initially, we just wanted to play music together. We didn’t all have a vision of taking it professionally, so we started off simply playing covers and writing originals at a slow pace. Then we took our material to multiple Battle of the Bands competitions, where we realised that we had the potential for something more. Finally, in May 2017, we got our first gig at Depot48, a great venue in Delhi. After an overwhelming response from the venue owner and the crowd, we decided to look for more gigs, and eventually, after our first tour, to stick together after graduating from college.

A still from the music video for their original song, ‘No Surprises’. Clockwise from top-left: Sreya Muthukumar (vocals), Govind Narayan (bass), Prithvi Iyer (drums), and Abhinav Srikant (guitar)

What’s the story behind your choosing the name ‘Shorthand’?

We’ve been asked this question so many times, and every time we wish that we had a better and more interesting answer! The truth is that while we were picking a name for the band, we couldn’t decide upon one single name that each member of the band liked. Every name felt like it was boxing us in/typecasting us and our kind of music. So I (Sreya) began just throwing names around at random, and we all agreed upon the name ‘Shorthand’. In retrospect, I think we chose the name Shorthand because we didn’t have any other associations to the word. It was a blank canvas that we could use to paint overwith the hope that in the days to come, people would begin to associate our music to the word ‘shorthand’, and not have the word dictate what people would see in us.

 You’ve cited quite a broad palette of artists as your influences, from Linkin Park and Alter Bridge, to Steven Wilson and Plini. How do you feel these influences reflect in your music?

The music we write doesn’t by itself reflect these influences, not very evidently at least. When you admire certain artists, you, as an artist, begin to emulate them. You start looking for things you can learn from their style. This emulation informs your technique, and your technique animates your music. For example, our guitarist Abhinav writes solos that may not sound like Plini’s, but Plini plays an important role in how Abhinav approaches the instrument with which he writes music. This way, even if our influences don’t directly show up in our music, they inform our choices as musicians.

In the midst of lighting up the stage at the Quadrangle.

Do you think it’s a double-edged sword to be genre free, because not only do listeners not know what to expect, but you also lose out on those who stick to one particular genre?

It is definitely a double-edged sword, but thankfully we’ve only been cut by the good side of the sword so far, for the most part. We’ve had various responses from people who listen to very different kinds of music, and we’ve been able to give them what they like to hear, while also giving them a little bit of what they may not like very much. But it has happened in the past that we’ve been rejected by venues for not sticking to one genre. For example, a venue was once looking for a blues band.

Now, blues as a genre definitely inspires our music as our bass player Govind likes to think of himself as a blues guitarist as well, but our music cannot be exhaustively categorised as blues. We were told by this venue that we weren’t “bluesy enough”, and that our “jazz-inspired progressive soul” wasn’t what they were looking for. So yes, there are definitely two sides to it. But it helps when each person in the audience can find something different in your music to connect to; the possibility of appealing to people with a variety of musical sensibilities is very exciting.

To you, is making music more a way for emotional release, or do you also try to send a message to your listeners?

This is a complicated question to answer succinctly, because there is no single answer. Most of our songs evolve fairly organically. With the music we’ve written so far, I think the musical ideas that eventually make the song all come from different places/sources of inspiration. We all add our parts and slowly, the song takes shape and grows into a cohesive (sometimes not-so cohesive) whole. So I would say that the music is definitely more feel-driven than message-driven. Two of our songs, You’re Not Alone and Midnight Traffic began with clear concepts, so those songs were written to convey a message, but we mostly connect with the crowd through the feel of the song, rather than through any particular message. Since messages come mostly from the lyrics, I (Sreya) feel like I can answer that my lyrics are inspired by the moods of the instrumentation, and I try to do justice to what I think the music is saying.

 How challenging has it been, as an Indian band who writes songs in English, to break into the mainstream here? Do you feel opportunities for budding musicians are far too limited here as compared to the West?

It is a common misconception that the market for music written in English is very small here! There are many venues, festivals, and more importantly, listeners looking for music written in English. The language is less of a concern than the genre itself. Gone are the days when bands were the “thing”. With the rise of genres such as electronic music and hip hop, the market for bands is shrinking, and within this diminishing market, there are obviously more opportunities for bands that play more commercial forms of music such as Bollywood or fusion. But thankfully India is blessed with venues such as The Piano Man Jazz Club and Depot48 in Delhi, and many others in other cities, who are really sticking their necks out to promote independent music. Compared to the west, there is definitely a barrier both in terms of language and genre. But bands do get many opportunities to surpass these barriers and take their music to larger audiences.

How does it feel to go from touring in local places around Delhi, to have now begun playing for huge universities across the country?

It feels tremendously exciting! This is the dream for most independent bands in the country, and it is slowly taking shape for us. Watching the trajectory of our band gives us the faith that we are doing the right thing by putting so much of our time and effort into this venture. There are times when all the effort feels like it is coming to nothing, and at times like that, it is important for us to look back at the opportunities we have been given, and the people who have given us a chance to perform at their venues and universities. Things are picking up quite fast, and new doors are opening with every step we take. Sometimes, we feel like we are running to catch up with it all! So it’s definitely both overwhelming and exciting at the same time.

 Any plans to come out with an album soon?

Right now, we have another single planned for release, and we are working towards releasing an EP soon after. These days, it seems to be the trend to release smaller bytes of music in the initial days of a band. As more and more people listen to our music, we hope to eventually record and release a full-length album on streaming services. For now, we would like to release a four-song EP, and then see how it goes.

Images courtesy of The Photography Club, Manipal