Friday, April 30, 1999

cornershop's gotta have it

Funky days are back again.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in Forbes in April 1998).

Tjinder Singh, the soft spoken frontman of Cornershop, bristles when told that some people call his music "sitar music." And so he should. The British band's third album "When I was Born for the 7th Time" is a sonic delight, mixing up, as it does, a range of influences rivaling that of America's Beck. Small wonder then, that Cornershop is called the United Kingdom's answer to that artist.

Things Indian may be hip currently but Cornershop's been doing its catchy mix of music for five years now. Singh is a Briton of Indian extraction. His parents moved to Wolverhampton, England, from Jullunder in Punjab. While growing up Singh played the dholki at his local gurudwara but would often sneak a peek at a neighboring hall where a black Christian congregation played gospel music. Those were also the great days of reggae music in England.

Not surprising then that "When I Was Born for the Seventh Time," which was named Spin magazine's Album of the Year, sounds the way it does. It's a bouncy collection of songs incorporating elements of Indian music, hip hop, Velvet Undergroundsy rock, beat box percussion and dancy Dj-inspired hooks and samples. The Village Voice ranked "When I Was Born" the album third and the single "Brimful of Asha" seventh on their top 10 lists for 1997. "Brimful" is a tribute to Hindu film songstress Asha Bhonsle, to musical influences like French pop singer Jacques Dutronc and to beloved seven inch singles and 45s. It is the remixed "Brimful of Asha" that sank Celine Dion's "Titanic" song "My Heart Will Go On" to second spot on the British charts in mid-February.

As Cornershop frontman Tjinder Singh, 29, would say, "Funky Days are Back Again." Singh and band member Ben Ayres, also 29, are quite overwhelmed. "We've been bowled over by a lot of things and that's one of them. Our success in England this time around has come from America. We are very glad that America exported it to England," says the soft spoken Singh who's been known to rile against British critics in the past. Singh and Ayres spoke to Little India in January at an interview at Warner Brother's offices in New York. They had just opened for British band Oasis in New Jersey, the previous night. Noel Gallagher of Oasis, a big fan, specifically asked that Cornershop open for their tour of America.

Singh, usually laid back and sardonic, is touched to the quick by people who call the music "East meets West" or "sitar" music. "That's bollocks," he says exasperated. (In U.S. slang, BS) "We juxtapose all sorts of elements in our music. Anything that sounds good. Asian music is considered passive and there are all sorts of preconceptions about it and it's a very restrictive thing."

And Cornershop is more for reaching than that. Consider that on the album, Singh rocks in Punjabi ("We're In Your Corner"), duets nasally on a country-western tune and on his previous album also had French lyrics set to a song inspired by a Punjabi folk tune. The elements of sitar, harmonium (a cross between a keyboard and an accordion), dholki (an Indian drum) and tanpura (another Indian stringed instrument) are decidedly un-traditional. Anthony Saffrey plays the harmonium and sitar, Pete Bengry does the percussion and Nick Simms plays the drums. Ayres plays the keyboard and the tanpura, and frontman Sing does the drowsy, hypnotic vocals, guitar, scratching and dholki.

Singh has a degree in business information technology and Ayres is history and geography. But both, being admirers of the William Morris school of thought, wanted to be involved with every aspect of producing the album, including the artwork. "If there was something we didn't know to do, we learned it, even the music," says Ayres. So everything was self taught? "Yeah, especially Ben's geography," quips Singh to guffaws.

Unlikely bands like Metallica and the Beastie Boys are said to be fans. The album is addictive with a punch at the end. A rendition of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" in Punjabi, that takes the song back to where it came from. Touche'. And Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney approved, thanks to Sean Lennon, who's also a fan.

Not bad for a band that got together almost 10 years ago, because they were bored. At Preston Polytechnic in England in 1987, Singh and Ayres were roommates. ("Believe it or not we lived with a vicar," drawls Singh). Both Singh and Ayres listened to the same kind of music and started to check out the local scene.

"And when we couldn't find any, imagine our disappointment," says Singh matter-of-factly, chewing on a croissant. So he, along with his brother Avtar Singh, Ayres and a drummer started a band by the name of General Havoc. They put on gigs for anyone who would listen to them. Mod clubs, clubs, Christian festivals, etc. "We just wanted to get our music heard,' says Ayres. They soon changed their name to "Cornershop" - a supremely ironic reference - to parody the prevalent notions of Asians as essentially passive owners of grocery stores. Sort of like the Korean deli owners in these parts of the world.

They were signed on by Wiiija and released their first album "Hold On it Hurts" in 1993. While the production wasn't up to the mark, they did manage to get loads of experience making the album. When they started out their music had a lot more guitar and feedback. But long before the Asian underground became what it is today, Cornershop were mixing it up. Their first single "In the Days of Ford Cortina" had in addition to the guitar, sitar samples as well. It was released on curry colored vinyl!

Since then they've progressed marvelously. There is a discernible continuum in their music that is at once familiar, yet different. Their second full-length album "Woman's Gotta Have It," is brilliant. Cornershop took off from a critical standpoint with this album. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne heard the album and approached them in 1995 to sign on to his Luaka Bop label in the United States. There's been no looking back.

Always political, this album had a song called `Wog,' another reference to white England's term for non-white Britons. "This western oriental's going full circle" sang Singh, in obvious references to himself and other non-white Britishers who've grown up in England, but have a hard time being accepted by the white establishment.

"I feel Asian because of my color. But otherwise, I'm British." His music showcases that. On racism, Singh believes its one of these issues that's either in vogue or out of vogue. "Currently it's out of vogue to talk about it," says Singh, who along with bandmates staged a demonstration outside a record company in London a few years ago, burning singer Morrissey's posters, for his flirtation with white, skinhead imagery. Its not all about anger though.

His lyrics on "Jullunder Shere" that opens "Women's Gotta Have It" is a call for peace. A call to respect all religions and faiths. It says that people are doing things to secure a place in heaven. It's different for everyone and that no method is necessarily wrong. It doesn't matter who or what you worship to get to that place. Its an evocative song seemingly blaring over megaphone from a temple or a gurudwara. Singh's vocals are mesmerizing. The opening strains of "Sleep On The Left Side," their latest album's opening track, is deceptively lazy. To the strains of a harmonium, Singh takes off in a melodic chant to what becomes an infections mantra. "A lot of records now sound like funeral music. There's no joy in them," shrugs Singh.

"When I Was" is definitely a joyous album, "We had decided we want something upbeat. Something summery," says Ayres. Singh says that a song like "Funky Days" was composed on a tour bus in the United States while they were moving from city to city as part of the Lollapalooza tour. "It sort of preempted the Labour victor in England," says Singh. The country influenced track "Good to be on the Road" was composed in three minutes. Their hit "brimful" took a little longer.

"When the Light Appears Boy," a recitation of a poem by late beat poet icon Allen Ginsberg is spiced up with funky ambience sounds. In this case, the ambience being an Indian bazaar complete with a wedding band, that Singh recorded in Dera in Punjab. "I was walking between these two temples and there was this band getting loose," says Singh gleefully.

Interestingly, but understandably so, Singh didn't quite tell his family what he's been doing for the last five years. That is, the fact that he was a musician - professionally. To any Asian this should sound familiar. Common perception being that music's not really a "job." In Rolling Stone magazine Singh was quoted as saying that for years he would answer his telephone saying, "Wiiija Records" in case his father called.

What about now? Had his father heard the album? He shrugs. "I don't think so. I don't think he's much interested." His next album though is going to be under the moniker "Clinton," (an offshoot of Cornershop) that he and Ayres have formed to get around contractual obligations that leave Cornershop without much money despite their success.

"It's going to be a funky, dance album," says Singh, after which he goes on to inquire if we had heard the strains of a woman cursing in Punjabi in "When The Light Appears." "Listen to it! You've gotta hear it."

We do. We hear it all. The congas, the sitar, the guitar, the tanpura, the works. As more and more people inquire, "Who's Asher?