Monday, March 09, 2009

How Trickbaby got their sound (and broke into Bollywood): An exclusive Drift interview

Formed around the creative partnership of Saira Hussain and Steve Ager, Trickbaby is one of the most unique acts to have broken into Bollywood.

Their first CD - Hanging Around - a delectable collection of amped down Punjabi and low key British house beats came out in 2004.

It was a year later that they broke big for fans in India when Rohan Sippy invited them to reboot Sabse Bada Rupaiiya for his movie Bluffmaster. In a CD full of highlights composed by Vishal and Shekhar, Trickbaby's composition was a standout. A few of their songs also made it into the soundtrack - Neelaa (which samples Silsila's "Sar Se Sarke"), Indi Yarn and Nine Parts of Desire .

One more year went by and Trickbaby did more Bollywood - composing the title track to the Fardeen-Vivek Oberoi-Esha Deol-Amrita Rao starrer Pyare Mohan .

Now, two years later, Trickbaby (which also includes Vikaash Sankadecha  and Jeevan Rihal) have their sophomore CD - Chor Bazaar - out in India.

Steve, who is measured and reflective, and Saira, who has a gurgling, warm personality (she mentions she has read my review of their CD and brushes aside my apologies for not understanding music formally by saying 'your ears have no problem, let me tell you') were both wonderful enough to do this fun Q&A with me.

Saira Hussain, Lead Vocalist

Aspi: Saira and Steve, why on earth is your band called Trickbaby (see urban connotation here)?

Saira: We started making music in about 1996. I was reading a book by Iceberg Slim who used to be a pimp in the 1930s I think. The first book he wrote was Pimp: The Story of My Life, which really had me absorbed.

And I moved on to his second book which was called Trick Baby. And the central character in Trick Baby called White Face was albino black guy. He used his whiteness as an advantage in the black community and his blackness as an advantage in the white community. It was his way of utilizing both his identities to the max. And I thought that is what I want to do with my brownness and my whiteness.

Aspi: Ok that makes a lot of sense. Because I used to think: Hmm, Trickbaby – so who is the hooker in this and who would be the baby here. Steve you were ok with the name?

Steve: Its funny – that’s the long story. The short story was we had a tune everyone liked. We need a name quickly. We chose that name because of the story in the book. Not that much thought went into it initially

Saira: And once we used it, we stuck with it. The first song we did got us recognized very quickly and so we couldn’t really change the name after that.(laughs).

Aspi: I have to dodge questions from the kids about it: 'Well kids, it’s a really nice band but we’ll talk about the name later'. 

Ok, when and where did you two meet for the first time?

Saira: I was working as a radio producer at Radio 1, which is a well known pop radio station in the UK. Steve was a plugger who used to work for record labels and would get music from them and come play them for me. There were some really bad records. We started to dissect them.

Steve: Can I just add here that I had some good ones as well.

Trickbaby, Mumbai bus stop (l-r)
Steve Ager, Vikaash Sankadecha, Saira Hussan, Jeevan Rihal
Saira: After a lifetime of picking brilliant records, Steve sold out and we started putting the musical world to light really. And as a result of that we both realized that we had extremely diverse, extremely different musical experiences but had a lot of shared passion and a shared desire to put the musical world right. And that’s really how it started.

Steve: I had the recording equipment. And when I heard her say 'I can do better than that', I challenged her to prove it. And here we are.

Aspi: At what point did you say 'Maybe we can do a band here'?

Saira: I never did say (something like) that. I still haven’t gotten around to the idea that its happening.

Steve: The reality was that a lot of my friends work in the media and we made one song which was Indi-Yarn. And just about everyone said 'that would be a hit, everyone will play that'. We just really had a go and it did really take off here.

We really had only one song at that point. So when you asked us (earlier) why we took so long (between CDs), we were very successful with that one song.

So we took some time out. I hadn’t thought much about Indian music then, so I spent a lot of time learning it. At the same time I didn’t know much about producing records – I just had the equipment and that was it.

I learned how to use it by working with the group and producing and doing audio programs. The first album took its time as we wanted to develop into what we wanted to be. Once ‘Hanging Around’ came out, that was our official start.

Aspi: Let’s talk a bit about your sound. Saira, you grew up listening to ghazals. Steve, you grew up listening to punk and later reggae. How did the Trickbaby sound evolve?

Steve: It was combination of trial and error. It really helps to have a huge musical back catalog to cull from. We were quite specific with what we liked. Initially we sampled Indian rhythms, but once we found Vikaash (Trickbaby’s percussionist), we took off.

Saira, Mumbai Bicycle Shop
Aspi: Steve what do you listen to most of the time?

Steve: Its funny you should ask that because there is a side job I do in the UK which is that I program music for the Indian channels on Sky TV. Its only Bollywood but now Sky has expanded in India and I have to do all their stuff for them there – all Indian music. So my catalog is expanding and I’m just discovering stuff there too.

Saira: Normally Steve is more up knowledgeable about desi music than I am. I go to him to find out if some music is any good. So the white man fills in the desi girl about her own music.

Steve: In the UK in general, most white men I know more far more about it (desi music) than British Asian people.

Aspi: Saira, what about you?

Saira: Kings of Leon. Gaslight Anthem. At the moment I’m disillusioned with modern music. I’ve got my iPOD at 21,000 songs and I’ve pretty much covered my whole back catalog. I’ve given myself the opportunity to go listen: going from A to Z – stuff that I’ve been putting in my iPOD but not been listening to. Like my western music back catalog. And I’ll go ‘Wow I forgot about that’, like a Peter Gabriel song or an album. Revisiting Blondie ’s Parallel Lines which I hadn’t listened to in 20 years.

Aspi: You seem influenced by old Indian music. Do you feel more of a connection with the older Bollywood stuff. Do you not like the new stuff at all?

Saira: From the beat point of view, the new stuff just doesn’t quite do it for me. It tries too, but it tries too hard sometimes. Some of the modern voices are quite good and shaping up quite well. For me it’s about missing the old Lata Mangeshkar and others – I make some of my noises in homage to them rather than in imitation.

I want to create the mood, the authenticity, the atmosphere. I couldn’t ever dream to have a voice or make the kind of noises that Bollywood divas made. I can only make the noises I make and sort of tip my hat to them.

Aspi: Give me some idea of how one of your songs comes together.

Saira: Steve works on making noises. And when he has enough of them put together, he calls me in to do my “Lalala la lalala”

Steve: We are very critical of each other. I just like jamming away with myself or Vikaash or whoever and when we get to a point where Siara feels its good enough to sit in on it, she’ll come along with some ideas and when we think they’re good enough, we’ll record them.

Saira shoots the Chor Bazaar CD cover
Aspi: Saira, Steve mentioned his job on the side. Do you also do other work?

Saira: I work for MTV. I produce and write for them.

Steve: We don’t make enough money, Aspi if we just do Trickbaby.

Saira: That’s why it takes us so long to do Trickbaby albums.

Aspi: And the decision to invite Gogol Bordello to help out on the title track to Chor Bazaar and sing in Roma – what was behind that?

Steve: Its called Chor Bazaar because we felt it was stealing things from all kinds of music. It came about I know Eugene very well. And he’s fascinated by Indian rhythms especially

It was really good fun making that song

Aspi: So have you ever been to Chor Bazaar?

Saira: Definitely. Part of this story was about an incident on a particular trip to India. On that trips one of the things that happened was that I had my mobile phone stolen from me and our driver said to us: 'maam, if you want your phone back then Chor Bazaar chalte hai shaam ko, definitely it will be there.'

And I thought: how audacious but indeed convenient that you could lose your phone but you can go to Chor Bazaar and buy your phone back again by the evening.

And Chor Bazaar is full of rickety typewriters and broken cameras and spanners and things. Old knickety knacks and people’s own histories and everything tells a story. It reflects India’s entrepreneurial spirit. You can buy and sell anything and there is a market for everything.

Knickety Knacks at the Mumbai Chor Bazaar, photographed by Trickbaby's driver
Steve: Those pictures in our album sleeve you see are things from Chor Bazaar.

Those were taken by our driver - in Mumbai, he used to live on the streets when he was seven. We once got stuck in with him for about eight hours in the record Mumbai floods of about three years ago. Apart from telling us his life story, he told us about Chor Bazaar and then he took us there.

Aspi: What about the Bollywood opportunities? How did they come about?

Saira: God knows

Steve: I don’t know either! I met an Indian journalist who introduced us to the vice chairman of EMI who was based in Hong Kong at the time. So I reckon it must have come from Sameer Tandon who must have decided to use our song.

Then we were invited to play at the MTV style awards where there were an awful lot of Bollywood people in the audience. And that was the start of everything.

Aspi: So Bluffmaster came next. Did you work with Vishal Shekhar at all?

Steve: No, we dealt directly with Rohan Sippy.

Saira: When we did Sabse Bada Rupaiiya, the original had such dodgy vocals. We knew we were adamant that we wanted to use the vocals but they weren't quality vocals to work with. So we went back to Rohan and asked for new vocals. But by the time it came back, it had completely messed up the feeling of the song. So Steve married the two vocals – so we could have the quality of the new voice.

Steve: We found a program that could match the vocals together. It took hours – it was like a jigsaw puzzle. Putting the vocals on top of the other one.

Saira: There was a controversy over whether it was the original vocal or a recent one. But it was actually a combination of the two.

Aspi: So are Trickbaby doing anything in Bollywood?

Steve: We just continue to write. We are working on our new project.

Saira: The latest film I tried to butt in on, it didn’t happen, was Slumdog Millionnaire. I tried really hard. I knew the screenplay writer – Simon Beaufoy. So I got in touch with him and forwarded our stuff to him. He then forwarded it to Danny Boyle. I think Danny Boyle had already hired AR Rahman to do the soundtrack by then. Not that we could ever have done what he did. But we were just a little bit late for that project. But that would have been amazing.

We don’t do the kind of music that goes with mainstream Bollywood. We don’t make the kind of videos where I’m running around in a bikini. Makes us quite a difficult bunch of eggs to deal with really. But the kind of promotion and recognition we get from the movie stuff is really good for us.

Aspi: Did you watch Pyare Mohan and Bluffmaster?

Saira: I started to watch Pyare Mohan recently and I thought 'What a pile of junk'. I turned it off. Its such a shame because the song we did was actually pretty good .

Steve: Saira, you were going to be in the video till the last minute weren’t you?

Saira: I was glad I wasn’t! Can you imagine given a brief like 'we want you to write a song about a deaf man and a blind man.' And we were both like 'ok that’s not going to be too easy then'

Bluffmaster I quite liked. I thought it was clever.

Saira with 'The Big B', photographed by Abhishek Bachchan
Aspi: Ok, I’m going to play a little game with you. Its multiple choice questions – you have to make a choice and it has to be the closest one.

Your reaction when you met Amitabh Bachchan. (a) Ohmygod, it’s not really happening (b) Is it really him? He looks much older (c) Is that a hairpiece that he is wearing?

Saira: Hahaha! It was definitely (a) because I was on stage with Abhishek Bachchan and we were twirling around for this video we were doing for Nine Parts of Desire .

And suddenly there is a look of panic on his face and Abhishek goes ‘Oh my god, it’s the Big B!’ He called his own father The Big B! I looked to the corner of the room and there was this apparition. It was the most bizarre, almost cinematic moment.

Then I realized I had to check the hair as well and I got up close.

Priyanka performs Neelaa, MTV Style Awards
Aspi: Your reaction when you saw Priyanka shaking a leg to your song Neelaa. (a) Ohmygod, it can’t be happening (in a good way) (b) Ohmygod, it can’t be happening (in a bad way) (c) Priyanka really looks hot

Steve: All three, actually

Saira: Its one of those moments when you feel like you’ve really made it. Bollywood had embraced us!

Aspi: A test of your Bollywood knowledge: Who is older? (a) Salman Khan (b) Shah Rukh Khan

Saira: Salman! Isn’t he?

Aspi: That was a trick question. They are both the same age! 

If we asked your fans ‘Do you ever make out to Trickbaby?’ Do you think they would say (a) All the time! (b) Nope, we break too much stuff while doing it or (c) I haven’t gotten laid since (the first CD) Hanging Around came out anyway

Saira: Its got to be (c)!

Steve: Probably. All of our fans I’m aware of are either very young or very old!

Aspi: Final question: can either of you fold a fitted bed sheet?

Saira: Yes I can. I iron everything! I’m a compulsive ironer!

Steve: I don’t even make the bed, Aspi. I just roll it up.

If you are interested, more music from Trickbaby's label SaReGaMa here

Copyright Note: 
All pictures are Copyright Trickbaby. Please don't use without permission. Open season on rest of the content - you know what the deal is.

And very importantly - Tulika, Sneha, Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Aspinder !
This is a classy Blog .
As much as I share your views on Sallu , I found the blog unworthy of being posted by a top Notch blogger !

musical said...

Cool, finally it's here! Enjoyed reading the interview!
Thank you :).

Unknown said...

Yikes, is my VP of programming unhappy? Those weren't my views on Sallu - I remain his fan. But fun can be made of anyone. I don't let my love for Sallubhai stop me.

How about a Himesh post tomorrow? Will that help?

musical, you are welcome :)

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sukumar said...

awesome read.!!.. absolutely love the trick baby sound. I'm absolutely hooked to "neela" from bluffmaster. There has hardly been a day since I first heard that song when I dont listen to it or atleast think about it :-D. Also I went back to listen sar se sarke from which neela is sampled and it is hard to imagine how you guys come up with stuff like neela from that.!! amazing work. absolutely love it.