Kolkota duo Parekh & Singh defy the common perceptions of what it means to be a band from India. Their recently released debut album Ocean is a whimsical dose of folky dream pop. It’s an antithesis to the vivid technicolor and bombast of Bollywood, and there are no sitars in sight.
The sound of singer-guitarist Nischay Parekh and percussionist Jivraj Singh draws from Anglo-folkm, with simple chord progressions, the squeal of guitar strings, a muted beat and earnest lyrics advance songs forward.
“I’ve got a New York state of mind in Indian standard time/ Sometimes it just don’t seem to fit,” Parekh sings on “Philosophize.” Singh, meanwhile, delivers xylophone chimes and other production. In their videos, they paint a desaturated world inhabited by characters from a Wes Anderson film. The mood is reminiscent of Sondre Leche and Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson’s solo project as Dams Of The West.
There are very few success stories of indie bands from India having success in English-speaking countries. The scene is a modest but vibrant one. Since being signed to independent London label Peacefrog Records (Jose Gonzalez, Little Dragon) earlier this year, Parekh & Singh are poised to go higher than either imagined.
Parekh took time out of his busy day (or was it night? Kolkata is 13 hours, 30 minutes ahead of California) to chat with RIFF about the charming aesthetic of the duo’s “I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll” video, how their hero Wes Anderson discovered their music, and how a self-released Indian album that had no fanfare changed the trajectory of their career.
RIFF: What led to the creation of Ocean? How did you meet Jivraj?
Nischay Parekh: Jivraj’s parents are professional musicians, so music was always a part of his youth. He lives a five-minutes walk from my house. We went to the same school but only started taking [music] seriously when Jivraj was 18 and I was 13. That was when he started taking drum lessons. Jivraj’s parents had an indie band called Skinny Alley. They were pioneers of western music in India. His mom sings and his dad, who has since passed away, played the bass. When I was younger, I would see him play with his friends, family, and always be intrigued. Not that music wasn’t a part of my life–my mom would listen to a new band every day. I grew up in a household where English pop music was just a fabric of our lives. In Jivraj’s home, his family nurtured my love for wanting to play music. We were both only children and good friends, so we hung out together a lot. We also share a love for great pop music like The Beatles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
How old were you when you officially started a band?
At about 16, but it was pretty directionless. Jivraj was also finding his feet. We still played shows, but were really learning the craft. Then I went off to the Berklee College of Music (Boston) in the U.S. Music then became an art, more than just a hobby. Things changed a lot. When I left home I couldn’t read music and … not [be] technical. I figured those nuts and bolts out and it opened doors. Jivraj got that education practically through his parents and I got it theoretically at school. When I returned we were musicians, as well as fans, of music. We had a lot of new references and had consumed a lot of different music by that stage. The internet culture of discovering new music also helped this.
What convinced you to submit your album to international labels?
A friend of ours who is a musician in Mumbai prompted us to do it. It was at a live show and perhaps there was an audience of only four or five people. It wasn’t one of our shows but we were planning to release our second album free to Soundcloud the next day. We were just going to do it independently. She said, “Why don’t you send it to some labels!” We knew of all these independent labels that we were fans of, but it just never occurred to us. Remember, this has never happened for any Indian artist before. But we had nothing to lose. I sent it to four or five labels who have artists that I really like. We had no manager. And I just sent a song on MP3 with my page; no press kit, no photo—everything that music industry-types tell you not to do. Peacefrog got back to us. At that time they were the only one, but since then several other labels and managers have contacted us.
You like to dress up in suites. Where does your visual aesthetic you have come from? Does the music inform the dress or vice-versa?
Songs like “Me & You” I wrote when was 15 or 16. I didn’t even know what this aesthetic stuff was back then. Once we made the music we still didn’t have the visual language. It was still pretty normal, if we wore suits, for them to be black or gray. Now, we have custom-made suits in mustard yellow and teal. Sonically, we were always there. Visually, we were still trying to figure it out.
Looking at the colonial history of Kolkata, it kind of makes sense. You have those gorgeous regal buildings. And you wear these suits that are incongruous with the heat and humidity. But it seems like throwback to a different era—like wearing a sports jacket or collared shirt to the cricket club.
Our first instinct was to reject the colonial heritage. It didn’t quite click for us. Then when we got signed to Peacefrog, we started working with them and [publicist] Miles Evans. [There were] many Skype sessions, photos and Pinterest boards. We developed a dialogue. Based on the things around us, plus music, movies and moods we love, the Parekh & Singh aesthetic started to emerge. [It] wasn’t Bollywood or world music. It’s our music, but you can’t necessarily place it geographically. We are from India but it is an alternate to the world of Slum Dog Millionaire.
How did director Wes Anderson discover the “I Love You baby, I Love You Doll” video?
A steadycam operator of Wes Anderson[‘s had] a common friend with us. They forwarded it to him and he liked it enough to share it. Wes Anderson also said he was interested in the locations in our music video and liked the music itself. We took a screen shot of that and it blew up on our social media. It was surreal. We are huge fans of Wes Anderson. That’s the power of the Internet.
Your music is miles separated from Bollywood. What’s your relationship to the genre?
It’s all around us, like white noise. There are some old Bollywood films I would still watch with my dad. But Bollywood is changing, too. The quality of the scripts are getting better. It’s such a big machine.
Does it bother you when, after listening to your songs, people are surprised that you are from India? Or if they have no idea that this whole other music scene is happening there?
It doesn’t bother us. The scene is tiny if you consider we have 6.8 billion people in India alone. Our biggest music festival draws 30,000 to 40,000 and even then, a big Bollywood star is needed as a headliner. However, if other ex-colonial countries like Australia and New Zealand have globally relevant acts like Tame Impala, Kimbra and Lorde, I don’t see any reasons why Singapore, Malaysia, India or Bangladesh couldn’t. We are also countries who have been under British rule and for many of us, English is also our first language.
Any other Indian bands we should be checking out?
Sand Dunes, which is our Mumbai friend’s band. Nicholson, an electronic duo [are] also from Mumbai [and sound] like an Indian James Blake. Jivraj has a super-experimental band called Pink Noise. It’s not normal music. Just this small group is indicative of the diversity in our scene.
How did Ocean perform in India, sales-wise, when it was released three years ago?
It was good by Indian standards. We got to play a lot of shows and it was a great introduction to the scene. I recorded it in 2013 between semesters at Berkelee. When it started to pick up steam, I left college to return to India. I didn’t finish my studies, but I felt that I had to be home to support the album.
What’s in store for Parekh & Singh in 2017?
We will be touring the U.K. and Europe, probably. We are hoping to come to the U.S. for a tour as well. And we will release our second album next summer. It has no title as of yet. But now that we have this relationship with Peacefrog and we know how things unfold, we are really just excited and looking forward to the whole experience.