Bamboo Shoots: The star-spangled manner

Here’s a profile I did of the band Bamboo Shoots as it ran in India Abroad’s July 10, 2009 issue.   They’re a homegrown Jersey-based rock band, but with a variety of Indian influences – everything from classical to filmi music – in their pasts.

Avir Mitra, Karl Sukhia and Shiv Puri were gathered, one recent evening, in the basement of Ankur Patel’s family home in North Brunswick, New Jersey.

The mood was euphoric; the four – who when rocking on stage go by the name of Bamboo Shoots – had just returned from a successful tour of India; they had the release of their debut album with a major label looming ahead.

There is the classic rock band composition: three guitar (Avir, Ahmed and Karl); percussionist Ankur who, besides the conventional kit, also uses the dhol and other instruments more familiar to Indian pop, and a keyboardist, the Egyptian Ahmed Mahmoud who had skipped the day’s rehearsal owing to some prior commitment.

The band writes all their own music and songs, with Avir and Karl sharing song-writing responsibilities, while the former sings lead, with Karl and Ankur backing him.

Bamboo Shoots are the sons of the Jersey soil, having grown up in proximity in the Garden State and being currently scattered across Parsippany and Cherry Hill as well as North Brunswick and Jersey City.   The group grew out of a childhood friendship between Avir and Karl, with Ankur appearing at a practice session.

“My older brother is friends with one of Karl and Avir’s friends.   I just showed up and Karl had a mrindangam and said “˜Try this out!’ and I told him I had a dhol and we did a couple of fusion things, playing around with different ideas.”

All five eventually jettisoned daytime jobs (in Shiv’s case, a promising career on Wall Street) and studies (Avir had been accepted to medical school) to play music full time.   “Our parents are sort of pleased and worried,”   says Avir.   “They realize we’ve got an opportunity in front of us that we have to give everything to try and make this happen,” Karl adds.

“We’ve all been wanting to do this since we were little kids, and when the opportunity came up, they saw that we have to grab it.   We’re worried too but we gotta do what we gotta do.   It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”  

“I know if I hadn’t worked on Wall Street my parents would probably forbid me from doing something like this.   They feel “˜Ok, you paid your dues, now go do what you want,'” says Shiv, while Ankur jokes “We’re good Indian boys gone bad.”

The nascent group received a countrywide boost in 2007 when they beat out 1600 other bands and won the MTVu Best Music on Campus competition.   The main prize was a recording deal with Epic records, an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien and two summer tours of the Six Flags amusement parks across the US.

“After we won the competition, we toured with The Plain White T’s and All Time Low and that was kinda’ nuts cause we were playing in front of thousands and thousands of kids, something we had never done before,” recall Karl.

More recently, Shiv and his girlfriend of eight years decided to get married, and that necessitated a trip to India.   Seizing the opportunity, the band planned a five-city tour of the country, “to test the waters” as Shiv put it.

They began three days after the wedding and played in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata, in a variety of spaces from a small Irish pub called Someplace Else (Kolkata) to the hip Zenzi and Blue Frog in Mumbai, to being the inaugural act in a large dinner theater called Kyra in Bangalore.

Of playing the last venue, the guys laugh, saying “They opened a week early so we could play there.   While we were rehearsing, there was painting and hammering all over the place.   It’s got a huge stage and an amazing sound system.”

The band, which had no brand-name recognition on the Indian circuit, figured only family and friends would turn up – and were pleasantly surprised to find every venue packed to capacity.

“A lot of media coverage happened through our tour management company and their publicist,” recall Shiv. “Every city we were in, every major news channel and papers were there.   The word was there was a New York City band full of Indians.   It was more than we could handle: The Times of India, CNN-IBN, Mid-day, Hindustan Times, Rolling Stone, DNA.   We had to split up interviews and sit with a laptop and type one up while someone else was on the phone.   We never got a chance to rest.   We’d go to a city and arrive early in the morning and as soon as we’d get to our hotel they would give us requests for interviews and emails.   Then at the venues there’d be other people waiting.”

One TV reporter in Mumbai compared the group to the fictional one of Rock On, actor-director Farhan Akhtar’s hit 2008 film which, say the boys, they are yet to see.

All four guys have ties across India.   Ankur is from Gujurat.   Karl’s parents and Avir’s mother are Parsis, and Karl has family in Mumbai and Pune, as does Avir, who also has ties to Kolkatta on his father’s side.   Shiv’s bride and family are from Delhi.   On tour, they divided their time between staying at family homes and hotels.   “In Pune we stayed at this old, old place, next to the OSHO ashram, right next to where all the action was and it was definitely haunted,” says Shiv.

Another commonality that has since gone on to influence their music is that all four had Indian music, whether classical or popular film music, around them at home growing up, and from a young age, several in the band studied Indian instruments at one time or another.   Shiv learned the harmonium and bhajans during a visit to India, and later studied the sitar.   Ankur started playing tabla and dholki at age five.

For Karl, who emigrated to the US when he was eight, it wasn’t so easy to embrace his musical heritage.   “When I came to the States I ended up in a class at elementary school where I was literally the only Indian kid, he recalled.   “I remember there was one Asian kid in the neighborhood, and he was one of my best friends.   When I was young I grew up being really embarrassed by Indian music.   I was very much into Michael Jackson, even in India.

“It took me a long time to overcome my personal embarrassment over where I come from, and to realize that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.   It’s something that has history and heritage that is so much deeper than anything the West has to offer.

“By the time I was 17 or 18 I was really starting to listen to Indian music in a totally different way and to appreciate where it was coming from, and also just India in general.   I started off running away from it, then totally embracing it on the other end, integrating it into what I’ve loved about music in general, whether it’s a dhol rhythm or a harmonium drone.”

Though the band is present in all the usual Internet hot spots – YouTube, Facebook, Pure Volume, MySpace, Twitter and on their own self-titled blog – it is still a relatively unknown commodity.   Hence, they say, they consider themselves fortunate in the people who worked on their album.

First, they got Jerry Harrison, former keyboardist and guitarist of the acclaimed band Talking Heads, as producer for their debut album.   The group went to live in Sausalito, California, Harrison’s home base, for several months while they worked on the album.   Avir says “It took a while, mostly because Jerry likes to go on these long hikes and we’d be walking in the woods for six hours then come home.”

A second coup came this spring, when they traveled to Los Angeles to work with Spike Stent, who mixed the album.   “Spike’s a legend in his own respect as a mixer,” rave Avir.   “While we were in the studio, he was in between Dido’s new album and Madonna’s last album.   After us it was U2 and Beyonce.

“When we proposed working with Spike to the record label, they just laughed and said “˜Get it out of your head.’   So we just emailed Spike on our own, and emailed him some songs, and it was a miracle because he wrote back and said “˜I love it.   Let’s do it.’   We’re a young band, we’re not rich, we’re just starting out.   He didn’t care and took us under his wing.”

The one missing member of the group that evening was Ahmed who is Egyptian and who is rumored (falsely) to play the oud.   “He was introduced to us through a friend and showed up at my birthday party, where he got a copy of one of our demos, says Karl.   “He knew we were holding auditions for guitarist, so when he set up an audition, he learned every guitar part that he could find on all of our recordings so he showed for the audition like “¦I remember Avir walked around the corner and said he felt like he was hearing himself playing.   He knew all of our stuff inside out.”

Even as Epic Records is busy putting finishing touches to their debut album – titled Armour – the band is busy rehearsing for a series of concerts July through mid-August, including some gigs in Florida.

Those live appearances will nicely set up the album release tentatively timed for end-August or early September, after which the band plans to return to India for a month to “do it a little bit bigger.”

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