Photo Credit: Ashwin Mohan & Nishin Dinesh
We got on a call with Abhinav Krishnaswamy, the guitarist of The F16s, an eclectic band of four from Madras who like to sing brooding songs about the mundane in a small-town with melodic strums and unpredictable guitar licks, to discuss influences, music-making philosophies and the ups and downs of the process.
What is the band's philosophy when it comes to creating music? Is there a particular method you guys follow, or is the approach more flexible?
Abhinav: We don't follow one set method because we don't necessarily have a formula. The process is more natural. Josh (the vocalist) might have written down one aspect of the song, and we build on that. If he already has a fully realized idea, then we feel there's no point messing with that. But, sometimes, he'll have skeletal ideas - like a verse or a chorus, and then, we take the song elsewhere from that point by adding more instruments, etc. Sometimes, a song's halfway done recording in the studio, and we decide to change it. Occasionally, our own disillusionment is a reason to change how a song is written. Lyrically, Josh brings the idea and musically, the rest of us do.
Who are yours and the bands' main inspirations and local artists to follow? Also, who are your international inspirations? And a particular album that's inspired you guys and why?
Abhinav: Musically speaking, in the last few years, 'Peter Cat Recording Company' has always been an inspiration. They've been doing their own thing for a while. They've gone through a lot of changes - different line ups, etc. Suryakant's solo material is really good (Lifafa). Delhi has a nice scene going on right now. 'The Derelicts' from Kerala are a cool band too. I've not heard a lot of their material, but we've played a few shows with them. Kavya Trehan's material is good. She's got a great voice, and she can command a great presence on stage. Inspiration wise, guys like SKRAT are quite cool - they're doing a little less than what they should be doing, but it's always fun to trade ideas, shake off cobwebs in case you haven't jammed with anybody outside the band. Internationally - Hot Chip, The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, St. Vincent, Charlie XCX - more danceable stuff. A couple of artists from South East Asia who we've met who're really fun.
Who are the emerging artists you'd advise your listeners to be on the lookout for?
Abhinav: Shashwat Bulusu, he put out an album or an EP a few months ago. I think he's from Ahmedabad, I want to say or Baroda, but he's moved to Delhi recently. He's got really good guitar music. I like that guy. There's this band from the UK called 'Black Midi,' nothing like what the term would suggest. A lot of punk and noise. Some pretty far-reaching musical ideas. 'Sunset Rollercoaster' from Taiwan, if you like 'Rex Orange Country' - the same guy who writes for Tyler The Creator. Similar to Marc Demarco, very Alt rock-ish.
Safe to say '2019' was a huge year for the band. What are some of your highlights of 2019?
Abhinav: We got signed, so that was a big deal. Not a label, just distribution, but still attached to something bigger than the four of us. Getting the odd royalty cheque felt good. It wasn't a lot of money, but it felt good. I mean, take what you get. We're eternal pessimists so. We were to go for SXSW, but that didn't happen.
What happened there?
Abhinav: Lack of funding is a perennial issue. We feel like we may have jumped the gun on doing it this year and not next year. We were happy to be on board when they announced us; we realised how much money we'd have to raise in three months. We considered crowdfunding and tried something similar a while ago, but it didn't work out. Asking family is a nightmare of its own. We didn't have enough shows to pack in and make money there. Payments from shows take their own time. (This interview took place before it was announced that SXSW 2020 would be canceled on account of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S)
Do you mean local shows or shows there?
Abhinav: Shows in India beforehand to be able to fund the trip. SXSW doesn't pay, it's a showcase thing, and you're kind of like hedging your bets and going there. You have to rent equipment; you have to find a place to stay, etc. Plus, according to their contract, you can only play SXSW and can't play any other shows that result out of it unless those guys get you a work visa. It certainly helps, though, from a marketing perspective, although, we didn't push out too much PR regarding the same. We did get an increase in the number of people listening in the United States, etc.
If you could change certain things within the industry, what would they be?
Abhinav: One big change would be Indie bands unionizing, which could end venues' lowballing of artists. Right now venues have it so easy because there is no quality control. They'd much rather have the continued patronage of their regulars than pay an artist their due. So it's case of either the venue employing a cover band because old folks like to think it's still 1987, or employing any band that succumbs to this ridiculously low fee because there aren't other options. Other than that, I see bands that are moving towards singing in Hindi, especially bands from Chennai, who haven’t spoken a word of Hindi in their life. The songs unto themselves are nothing to write home about but the fact that it’s in Hindi, it immediately reaches a wider audience. The issue I have is that it’s that simple, I really wish it wasn’t.
Is that something you guys would move towards?
Abhinav: If some director or production company would come to us and tell us they want to use a song we’ve made, we’d be more than happy to oblige. But I don’t necessarily think we’re trying to move into Bollywood - It doesn’t feel like it’s our territory and it feels disingenuous. I don’t know what it’s going to take for me to stop saying it’s disingenuous and shut the fuck up and just do it, but for our band, writing in Hindi doesn’t come comfortably. English is the language Josh is comfortable in. In the last couple of months, we’ve seen the rise of some artists who, for better or for worse, are singing in Hindi like Prateek Kuhad. Admittedly, his most famous song is in English, and I’d heard it a bunch of times, not even of my own volition but on TV and the radio. It was already a big hit, and then Obama pushed it further. But, his Hindi material is what pushed him to this point. It began getting attention on Netflix shows, etc. I’m not discounting him or his songs, his songs are great, but I couldn’t help notice that it’s that. This other band called Sanam from Mumbai, even though two of them are from Chennai (Venky & Keshav), have gone all out, and it’s amazing. It takes its own set of balls to do that; you have to sound convincing, but for us, we’ve considered it, and we feel like we won’t sound convincing. We’ve spoken to Josh about it, and he gets annoyed, but we try to explain to him that he doesn’t need to write in Hindi - somebody else can do that, and he can control it phonetically but there itself, there’s a flaw right? If there’s no mind-mouth connect, it’s not going to make sense.
What would you like your listener to feel when they listen to your music?
Abhinav: It's nice enough for me to imagine that somebody is listening to a song I might've written at some point. Not a feeling of contentment, but I'd like them to be interested in searching further. The rabbit-hole doesn't need to lead down our songs necessarily, but if it opens the person to kinds of music, they don't naturally go towards. I'd like to encourage a sense of discovery. The algorithm does that for you anyway, so it's like, you keep the music playing. Expecting people to curate stuff on their own is not something I'd expect them to do.
What would the band be doing if not music?
Abhinav: I have a journalism degree, but I don't think I was planning on doing anything with that post-college, anyway. I do write for Humming Heart, but that's more of a side thing. Maybe, film? Or, teach? It would be something related to the arts, though.
Who were F16s before everything took off?
Abhinav: Bunch of scrappy dudes who tried their luck in other bands but failed. I was in two other bands, but both of those imploded in one week. I remember telling my friend it would be nice to play for this band and two months later, the call happened, and they asked me to play for them. But, before that, just guys making music, going to each other's shows, not knowing how involved they wanted to be in it, etc. Better things have happened than worse for us to be still doing this. There are a lot of bands we've looked up/are contemporaries, and they've not been able to stay the course. We were just guys who'd hang out on a terrace with two acoustic guitars, a keyboard, a Bluetooth speaker, write it in the most barebones way possible and then eventually record it.
What's your most and least favorite aspect of what you do?
Abhinav: Least favorite, straight away, is dealing with the logistics aspect of the whole thing - things like the payments, etc. Standard practices dictate that you take an advance upfront, but we've tried that so many times, but it's funny how company policies only come into play when the payments have to be made. Harshan is the manager, and he's the one who usually handles this, but I feel like it's not something a band member should be saddled with. He's good with it; he has the patience, but to deal with these people is hell. We have to pay sound engineers on time or the drummers that we tour with. Dealing with the back end is definitely something we don't want to do, but we have to. The shows themselves, the process of writing - those are the best bits. Sometimes, even the not so good ones that have like, twenty people can be liberating. We don't end up having a chip on our shoulder and end up playing a great show. Sweaty bar gigs are still great. I'll pick that over festivals, any day.
How come you don't separate management and the band?
Abhinav: It doesn't have to be together, but we're at the point where we're trying to find somebody, and to pay the extra person is enough to offset all of it. We make an okay amount of money. We considered it, and we had management for a few months up until last year. It didn't go well at all. She expected a certain amount of money per month, even though it was technically more than we were making per month as a salary, which is fine. But then, we were on this Asia tour, where we got detained in Hong Kong for 24 hours and sent back to Cambodia, which is where we were flying in from because we got the wrong visa. The manager got that wrong. After that, it was pretty obvious we weren't going to work together. We had Hong Kong, and Manila left on the tours, but we had to can it. For us to have management, somebody has to be as hungry as we are. It's just hard to find those kinds of people, the ones who wouldn't just approach it as a managerial job. Somebody who understands they'll have to do it for a pittance like we're doing it for a pittance. Of late, we've been getting shows on our merit, so we're okay with this for now.
How does '2020' look for you? Do you have any solo projects lined up for yourself?
Abhinav: Josh put out his album end of last year. Harshan also has his project called Killpop. He's put out a single and will put out an EP soon. For us, we've been working on things, sending demos back and forth right now. There's obviously a lot more left to do. It just makes sense for us to put out an EP or singles.
Regarding the current socio-political landscape of our country, how does it affect you and the band when it comes to recording and pushing out music? Do you feel the need for your music to be political?
Abhinav: I think it permeates our collective psyche, so I do think it's going to find its way into our music, eventually. It's a lot closer now than ever before. You listen to political rock bands from the 80s and 90s, and you feel cool; it's not really like you're doing anything, but it's definitely inspirational. We all talk about it often now that it's literally at our doorstep. I feel like, in the next couple of songs, they'll definitely be undercurrents. We are products of our surroundings. We're not shying away from it. Lyrically speaking, I don't know where Josh is at, but I think he's getting there. He's deeply affected by what's happening; he's quite vocal about it online; we're not shunning away from it by only promoting our music or something like that. We're all in this shit, so we might as well will be.
Thanks for speaking with us, Abhinav.
Abhinav: Thank you.
Words by Alina Gufran & Adithya Mathews