Monday, May 13, 2013

Agam the Band: A Profile for The New Indian Express

The fish --gasp, gasping for breath-- is back in the water. And does it feel good or what!? The New Indian Express (TNIE) was where I started my career as a journalist. It was where I worked seven days a week for a long time so that I could take my weekly offs together and go home. It was, as anyone who has worked there will vouch for, the best place to work at. 

For a thousand stories in those years of working there, of being young(er) and passionate and curious and all that, it meant a lot to be asked to write for it again. So here I am, writing for one of India's finest newspapers.

*Touchwood* for all the beautiful days and wonderful things happening right now in life.

The first of the articles in TNIE is on Agam, one of my favourite bands. Here below is a version of the story. Alternatively, read the rather oddly titled (I thought) profile published in Sunday Express here.

Photo courtesy: Agam

You have expectations, however misplaced. When you wear black, have flowing hair and hit the drums with a head bang, strum the guitar with a certain panache or embrace the microphone on stage with a meant-to-melt-you voice, the clichés of the world nudge you towards having certain expectations from rockstars. These are performers after all; their subscription to clichés is part of the act. Or so you think. Finding the contrary, you are happily disappointed almost.

Agam is a Bangalore-based band consisting of seven Tamil-speaking (mostly) techies, that generic word that applies to anyone who works in a large IT company. There is Harish Sivaramakrishnan on vocals and violin, Ganesh Ram Nagarajan on drums and backing vocals, his brother Sivakumar Nagarajan on ethnic percussions, Swamy Seetharaman on keyboards- he is also the lyricist- T Praveen Kumar on lead guitar, Vignesh Lakshminarayanan on bass guitar and backing vocals and Jagadis Natarajan on rhythm guitar. Fusion is a sexy word to describe a new sound that cannot be strictly boxed under any one category. Agam doesn’t use ‘fusion’. They prefer to write Carnatic/Progressive/Rock on their website. An eclectic mix.

On stage they are rockstars, they have standard theatrics that comes with the rulebook. Off stage, they are the sorts who will invite you over to a jamming session in a small room on someone’s terrace and let you listen to the birth of a new song. The band members aren’t too sure how a song is born. “One of us might get a spark and we take it from there, says Harish Sivaramakrishnan. Akin to how they changed Malhar Jam completely for a Coke Studio session, Agam might play a song for a year a certain way and then change it. The final cut is one that all the seven men have to like and agree upon. “We are very clear about that,” Harish says.

In the course of a three-hour jamming session, Ganesh, or GNR as they call him, is helping Vignesh get the notes right. Not all of them are formally trained in music. It takes a while, each member has a way of understanding and remembering the counts; there is much unlearning that happens as well. The camaraderie is peppered with das and ras, in typical Madras street style. While they allow themselves micro breaks to rib each other, once the notes are hit, each has a look of concentration about them. This particular song is only just taking shape, they don’t have the lyrics yet, they are not sure how it will turn out. They don’t give themselves a deadline.

These new sounds will possibly become Agam’s 11th song. Ten songs for a popular band isn’t a big repertoire but then they have been around for just 2.5 years. “As friends, as musicians though, we go back ten years. All the members are batch mates from college, colleagues or close friends and we all have, in our individual capacities, been writing music and strumming guitars for a long time,” explains Vignesh. “We became ‘Agam’ in July of 2010”, that is GNR clarifying.

Agam’s ten songs and their covers, which sometimes they work more for than for their original tracks, are much sought after in college fests, corporate shows and music festivals. Sometimes the band has to let good shows go, for their other professional lives might come in the way. But all of them insist that their bosses are immensely supportive. Music is not their main livelihood, and that makes letting a show go easier as well. With two of the band members based in Chennai, there are logistical issues, but music is a release, a passion and they always find a way to meet and jam often.

While for academic purposes they might all listen to all genres of music, their personal music players would each sound very different from the other. Harish is a huge ghazals fan, GNR will listen to just about anything, Vignesh will hum along to film songs, Indian Ocean and their other Indie ilk, Swami, the most socially conscious of them all, would prefer R&B, Praveen’s choices would mirror Harish’s, Shiva would be the hardcore Ilayaraja film music fan while Jagadis would be head banging to mellow death, trash metal -- higher volume of noise, as GNR teases.

2014 might see a second album, after The Inner Self Awakens, a self titled name in the sense that the word Agam means ‘the inner self’ in ancient Tamil. Their unique sound, classic Carnatic with progressive rock, will see a marked change in the next album, Harish speculates, “for we see ourselves moving toward true progressive metal while retaining the melody of our songs.” That philosophy will not change, they are certain, though like the song birthing process, they will not know what the final sounds will sound like.

Oh, also, this band is a foodie band. They eat out a lot.

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