It was a Jhanu concert in 2014 and James Thakara, frontman of alt-rock band Thakara was having the time of his life when a rap on his back brought him sharply out of his reverie. Behind him stood a policeman, clutching the offending object: a lathi. "Sit down,” the cop ordered him sternly and a now-deflated James quietly took a seat. “Standing at a rock concert in Kerala was, apparently, a bad thing,” he said, incredulously. This was the year 2014 and another odd phenomenon was sweeping through the state: If you wore a Bob Marley T-shirt, you were likely to be arrested! “Here were two bizarre rulings and we were forced to adhere,” he said. James, the self-proclaimed 'bathroom rock star' did what he knows best: write a song. “That's how Padilla was conceived,” he said. The song, which was revived later and is now in the final production stages, is their nod to the growing fascism in politics, a nod to Kalaburagi’s death in 2015 and the spate of nationwide bans!
Pithy socio-political lyrics define Thakara's music. There's Puttu Paatu, for instance, the band's second song and one of their most loved, which talks about economic disparity. In February 2015, a security guard died of his injuries after he was run over by a prominent Thrissur businessman in a Hummer. “The rich buy Hummers and use them to run over the poor,” James explained, rattling off the lyrics in Malayalam. (Kaashullavan hummeru vaangumbol, Kaashillathon idi kondu marikkunnu). “The point really, is that we can always go back to the simple things in life — like puttu!” This song found its way to a Music Mojo session in 2015 and there's been no looking back since.
All bands have an 'origin story' and its one they considerably enjoy telling. Thakara, however, prides itself on the fact that it has none. “Our music was born from hard times,” James admits. At the age of 22, he shared a flat with a group of budding filmmakers, all fresh out of college with nowhere to go. “We were broke and losing hope,” he said. James, who had always had an inclination for music, wasn't sure what to do either. “We decided to get together and write a song,” he said. Podi Penne became their debut and went, in James' words, “a bit viral.” It was a trying time in James’ personal life – “I was fresh out of a breakup at the time. A bandmate was going through the same thing, so we bonded really well at the time!” Puttu Paatu came later, with a music video shot with a budget of `700. “We had our equipment, of course, so we packed it all, hopped on a bus and took our shots along the way.” It was his friend and mentor, A.K., who pushed the collective forward – this has earned him a dedication in Puttu Paatu, along with Abru Manoj, the “unofficial fifth member of the band”. That song went more than a ‘bit viral’ and so did Koran’s Anthem, written in 2014, at the height of the excitement surrounding the Lok Sabha election, opening the doors to a spate of film offers. “We did the GVQ promo video and that did very well,” James recalls. “I had all sorts of plans at the time – how many films I would work on in a year and so on.” That was not to be, for James describes the experience as “rigorous. We’re not at the point where we can churn out ten songs in two weeks and those are the industry’s demands. We write what, two songs a year,” he laughs.
James’ turning point musically came in 2014, when he received a message from Bengaluru-based percussionist Montry Manuel. “He had heard Puttu Paatu and wanted to jam with me,” he says. It was at this point that James was examining himself a musician – he had never had formal training and the career choice had arrived rather late in his life. “I thought that would be a good thing,” he said. Thakara was still a collective, without a formal lineup or a set of songs. “Montry taught me what needed to be done. That’s how I formed the band and we started writing our own songs.”
Socially aware, with a love for literature, songwriting is James’ mode of expression, the platform on which he expresses the concerns of the youth. Democracy (and its failings), the rise of a fascist society and economic deprivation are the main themes, all narrated with James’ classic tongue-in-cheek style. “I’m very influenced by the depth and simplicity of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer,” he says in response to this. “He wrote with wit and sarcasm, which I, a layman lyricist, find hugely inspiring.”
Thakara is focussing now on live gigs – “I love touring and seeing new places. When the gigs come, it’s a rock star life, alright!” Writing songs in other languages is also on the agenda and he’s brushing up on his Tamil for the purpose. “There’s nothing to beat the energy of playing live.” He attempts to play down his musical talents, referring to himself as a “bathroom singer who knew five or six chords on the guitar.” Needless to say, his performances greatly belie his modesty. He laughs in response, saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I have to thank someone. So thank you, Someone, for giving me a unique voice!”
The opening act will be performed by singer-songwriter Mahesh Raghunandan, whose blend of blues and folk rock has found itself a place in the hearts of music-loving Bengalureans. He draws his influences from blues music and from songwriters like John Mayer and Damien Rice. He will collaborate with guitarist Ramanan Chandramouli.
When: July 29, 8 pm onwards
Where: BFlat, Indiranagar
Entry: Rs 400