"I found song ideas coming to me, after I just opened my mind out. It’s Newton’s Third Law at work. There’ll be events in your life that you’ll either experience or witness, and you will have a certain reaction to it, so I guess songwriting for me is about chronicling that reaction."
Jamshedpur based singer/songwriter Surjo Bhattacharjee released his debut album titled The Key Has Turned in 2014. After playing in Shilpa Rao's band initially for around 3 years, he quit the band in August 2014 and decided to go solo. Guitar Gabble recently hit Surjo with few questions spanning his album, recording process, playing and general approach towards music. Read on!
Guitar Gabble: Hi Surjo! Thanks a lot for doing this interview with Guitar Gabble. What are you up to these days?
Surjo: Hi Guitar Gabble, you’re most welcome, and now you have to tolerate my babble.
I have been upto quite a few things actually musically. There’s been a lot of writing going on, and a lot of work improving my vocals, and working on my Bollywood cover project called ‘The Chitr’Ahaar Reject’.
Guitar Gabble: You released your debut album The Key Has Turned last year. How has the response been so far?
Surjo: Well, the album did well; it was the top-seller on OkListen for about 2 weeks, which sounds cooler than it actually is. People who heard it liked it. I’ve personally cooled off with the album, and seeing it in hindsight see many deficiencies in the product.
Guitar Gabble: Tell us more about the recording process since we got to know that the whole process was completed in a week.
Surjo: Not a week, 2 days, 18 hours to be precise. Recorded the guitar and vocal takes in 10 hours, and then mixed in 8 hours, and that was with my DAW hanging on me every 10 minutes. It was a really stressful set of days, and I’m really glad I did it that way, because the product was out there, and there was no turning back. It’s almost like a bungee jump, the chances of you dying are there but minimal, but the chances of you having a thrill after taking the plunge are quite high.
Guitar Gabble: What was the recording setup for the album?
Surjo: Hmmm, 2 mics and a line-in for my acoustic. I played my Ibanez AEG8E-NT on the album exclusively. I used a Shure SM57 and an AKGD40 for the 2 mic tracks. The Shure was pointed at the soundhole, and the AKG was on the 12th fret. Then 1 vocal track, with an SM58.
Guitar Gabble: As a follower of your work on YouTube, the album came as a complete surprise to me since I was expecting something laden with shreddage and in contrast it turned out to be completely mellow and melodic acoustic stuff. What was the reason for the transformation?
Surjo: Well, not being in a band, and also, wanting desperately to perform the songs, left me with no choice but to keep it at one acoustic guitar and a vocal. In terms of aesthetics, I’d always heard bands say, ‘If the song sounds good on one acoustic guitar, it’ll sound good with everything else behind it’ and I think I was trying to see the validity of that statement with this album.
Guitar Gabble: Tell us about the songwriting process and how long did it take you to complete writing the songs? How did you find the song ideas?
Surjo: Well, I was in Bollywood singer Shilpa Rao’s band for nearly 3 years, and I quit in August 2014, and at that point in time I had one song. The album released in 14th Nov 2014, and by that time the album had 12 songs and some spares which didn’t make the album. So the songs were basically written in a three month period.
I found song ideas coming to me, after I just opened my mind out. It’s Newton’s Third Law at work. There’ll be events in your life that you’ll either experience or witness, and you will have a certain reaction to it, so I guess songwriting for me is about chronicling that reaction.
Guitar Gabble: Initially you became famous as the guy who covers Motherjane solos. Was it difficult for you to break out of that identity and establish yourself as a new artist?
Surjo: No, I would say that those who liked me covering Baiju boss’ solos have also taken the time to hear my album, and have been supportive of the songs that I have created. And apart from that, the same struggles that all artists go through, in trying to establish themselves. Those never really go away.
Guitar Gabble: As a musician, what is your philosophy towards writing music?
Surjo: I’ll talk about writing music and words here. If I could talk about a general approach, I would say my songs are meant to express, and not to impress. I want people to be able to listen to the songs, and then listen to them some more. I want them to be able to relate to what I am trying to communicate. I don’t want them searching for a dictionary after listening to my songs. I don’t want them unable to understand the words because the phonetics weren’t looked at properly. I want to able to convey my sincerity through the songs. If there are unnecessary bits in the song, then they go to the trash. If the lyrics are roundabout and don’t tell a story, that’s in the trash. If the guitar melody is something I don’t remember the next day, that’s in the trash. If the vocal melody bores me while I sing it without any instruments, then that’s in the trash. The idea is to come up with something truly creative, and sincere.
Guitar Gabble: Any projects with other musicians that you're currently involved in?
Surjo: I did guitar sessions for a Bangla album last month, but those are few and far in between. I mostly have worked alone so far.
Guitar Gabble: You opted to be a full-time musician instead of managing it side by side with a day job. How difficult was it to get a break through?
Surjo: The moment when I realized that I wanted to play full-time was not difficult at all. I was playing the first gig with my band (when I say that, I meant a gig where we weren’t representing our school). I was in Std. 12 at the time, and we just had a lot of fire in us. None of us really knew anything about music theory, but we’d been playing together for about 3 years at that time, and every song we had figured out ourselves, no tab or nothing of the sort. So of course it wasn’t perfect, but it was honest. I remember playing this gig, and the people really enjoying themselves, and I just knew that day that this is what I was going to do. Of course that was a hammer blow to my IIT aspirations, but I made it to an NIT so it wasn’t that bad on the academic front either, else my parents would have been fretting a lot more than what they do now.
Guitar Gabble: What is your opinion on the 'shredding vs. soul based playing' war?
Surjo: The question seems to almost be a fast vs slow debate. It should always be soul-playing. Now if you are going through a major burst of adrenaline, then your soul should rip the guitar fretboard a new one. Soul playing never meant slow playing, it meant, discovering what your ears like, and treating them to the same through the guitar fretboard. Some of the best shredding I’ve heard hasn’t been the fastest stuff I’ve heard, just the most exciting, which takes the listener on a real journey.
Guitar Gabble: As a music teacher, what is your approach towards teaching guitar to your students? And what the students should keep in mind when learning from a teacher?
Surjo: My approach is what I tell my students. There are not guitar lessons, these are music lessons and the instrument in your hand is a guitar. I want them to understand the 4 basic questions for anything. What to play, how to play, why to play and when to play? Most times people just stop at the first two, and ignore the last 2 completely. The students get the sense of fun and then they develop quicker. They might know fewer songs than if I just taught them songs, but most of my students have begun writing their own songs, and pretty solid ones too, so that’s really what it’s all about.
What students should keep in mind when approaching a teacher for guitar lessons is that it’s not a crash course. Students have studied subjects like English, Hindi or Maths for years and are nowhere near perfect at it, yet somehow the language of music can be taught in a crash course in 3 months it seems. It’s a long journey, with brilliant highs and crushing lows, so keep your mental fortitude pills handy.
Guitar Gabble: Different guitarists have different idols whom they follow/imitate. Tell us one guitarist that everyone should listen to and why?
Surjo: There are many people who everyone should listen to. Picking just one is rather unfair, but if I had to, I’d pick Steve Vai.
The why for Vai is most important. The thing to pay attention to is not just all the licks he plays, but the absolute creativity which he uses in composing his music. Whether it is the use of innovative sounds effects, or innovative techniques, his compositional style has always been wildly creative. Just listen to any one song of his, and just write down, all the different effects used in all instruments(pitch shifter, wah, octave divider, delay,phasers etc), then write down all the different picking techniques used (sweeps, alternate, thumb brush ala Wes Montgomery), then the different left hand techniques used (1 or 2 handed legato, normal fretting), then different stylistic techniques used (slides, legato, whammy bar, bends, different sorts of bends, and then the sequence of the energy of the song, how it flows from the verse to the chorus, and notice that even when lines are repeated, they are not played the same way twice. That intense pursuit of creativity is often abandoned for hours spent on a metronome trying to learn a lick that makes you sound like some other dude in the first place.
Guitar Gabble: Any fond memories or proud moments of playing music on stage all these years?
Surjo: Many, there are many. Played to 25,000 people at IIT Guwahati last year, that was cool. I remember the first gigs in school, and loving the crowd reaction so much, that I decided to be a pro musician.
Guitar Gabble: Any awesome music that you are listening to lately?
Surjo: I am listening to a lot of music, and the funny part is, somehow, I think all of it is awesome. I’m in a phase where I am listening to an hour or so of Indian classical music, and a half hour or so of old jazz every day, aside from all the music which I play and sing daily. Like I said, just opening your mind up and having a positive outlook will make you see all the creative bits in songs that you might have overlooked in the past.
Guitar Gabble: What the fans can expect from Surjo in 2015? Any announcement regarding albums, gigs etc?
Surjo: More music boss, my aim is to release 3 albums in 2015, so let’s see how that goes.
Guitar Gabble: What advice would you like to give to budding guitarists?
Surjo: Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
Guitar Gabble: So, here we come to the end of the interview. Looking forward to listen some great music from you in coming time! Thank you!
Surjo: Most welcome GG, wow that almost could have been Guthrie Govan taking my interview. (Sigh)