Peter Cat Recording Co. A Portrait

“To copulate in ease
You know me
You know I can never justify
That all I have is age
That all I am is aged”

— thus go the lyrics of Copulations, a lilting track from indie music band Peter Cat Recording Co.’s (abbreviated as PCRC) most recent album, Portrait of a Time: 2010-2016 where two dogs cavort on a beach with abandon in the accompanying video. The words extend beyond the scope of the song to the band itself, whose music evokes the vintage allure of all things dead or decayed while speaking to contemporary sensibilities. Starting out with wedding gigs and tailed by an immense underground buzz, PCRC has created an eclectic body of work today. The lyrics carry a weight of simplicity, and, with the ballroom waltz and space disco, looming questions of identity politics, war, unrequited love and urban ennui are read through a playfully irreverent lens.

Peter Cat Recording Co. was conceived by frontman Suryankant Sawhney in 2008 in San Francisco where he started making music under this pseudonym. The team underwent several transitions until it became the much-loved collective comprising Kartik Pillai (guitars/organs/electronics), Karan Singh (on drums), Dhruv Bhola (who recently replaced Rohan Kulshreshtha on bass) and Rohit Gupta (on trumpet and keys) besides Suryakant himself. PCRC has inadvertently cultivated a niche audience in Delhi and elsewhere over the years by virtue of a music that defies easy categorisation. Variously touted an ‘anomaly’ that deals in psychedelic, cabaret pop and gypsy jazz, PCRC remains unfazed by labels. Characterised by a distinct strain inspired as much by classic Bollywood disco as American soul and jazz, the band produces tracks culled from a mélange of cultural strands. While looking for a name for the collective, Sawhney says he stumbled into a café by the name of Peter Cat in Kolkata and realised that the title fit their aesthetic of laid-back jazz. He later found out that Japanese author Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club by this name and was happy to know that they both shared the same idea of what it meant- across time, geographies and generations.

Their debut album, ‘Sinema’, which released in 2011, evokes nostalgia and melancholia in equal measures. It consists of tracks that reveal Suryakant’s formative grounding in cinema. The album used sound samples from lo-fi Hindi movies of the 70’s and news pronouncements which function as surreal interjections in the tracks. The sound of this album does not draw from any one specific genre in cinema but jumps across periods, the transitions discernible only with attentive listening. The music videos have a unique aesthetic that issues from an organic process of shooting what feels aesthetically pleasing and then arriving at a final video through a process of elimination and integration of digital effects. Portrait of A Time, their latest album, has been shot and compiled as a retrospective. Released on vinyl by Paris-based record label Panache, the album is a compilation of tracks composed between 2010 and 2016, and is an earthy, wistful mix of psychedelic rock, gypsy and waltz.

While Suryakant’s dreamy crooning reminds many of Frank Sinatra or Scott Walker (even as Sawhney himself references Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Hemant Kumar), the singer-songwriter also has a solo electronic side-project called Lifafa through which he channels his fascination with the Hindi language. Hindi music has its own unique aesthetic, says Suryakant, and that is what he is trying to explore through this avatar where he channels his childhood memories of old Hindi songs into an electronic soundscape. Departing from the ubiquitous drive to emulate Western (or the idea of a globalised Western) music, Suryakant uses this project to create an original sound that’s more locally anchored. In other words, while PCRC renders club-friendly music to an Anglicised urban Indian audience, with Lifafa, Suryakant sings only in Hindi. A manifestation of his emotional and socio-political view of the world, Lifafa is directed by an individual search for identity outside PCRC. The other band members are also part of projects outside the PCRC. Karan Singh and Kartik Pillai, for instance, have been working together on experimental rock band Begum whose psychedelic music has Carnatic influences; it’s the osmosis of their practice across these projects that makes PCRC the unique hybrid of sensibilities that it is.

PCRC’s aesthetic percolates into their distribution methods as well. During the release of Climax, the band declared to their audience that the album would not be released on CDs. Instead, they handed out to each audience member, cases with red pills inside that contained the download code to the album. Suryakant believes that business is art and that the audience could be invited to engage with their projects more creatively. Opting for a non-conventional launch such as the above lends a timelessness to the product itself, where the music becomes more than a throwaway item for its consumer. Suryakant believes they should create something that can have a place in history; that which is desired and kept out of love.

Departing from mainstream Bollywood music while using old samples from the same and repurposing them with electronic interventions, PCRC has created a dedicated audience base for itself. Their tracks on digital platforms and vinyl records allow the possibility of repeated listening, which enables an immersive experience as each track extends beyond the normative five-minute mark into eccentric dreamscapes. Ranging from slow burning and deeply emotive tracks to live sampling and loops, PCRC’s sonic landscape is characterised by no specific genre. With daring formal experiments with every album, the band is perpetually mutating at its own pace.

Images:  Peter Cat Recording Co.
Article originally posted in Zine issue #3.