The best thing about Bollywood films is everything. The music, the dancing, the cheesiness, the colours, the cheapness, the lavishness, the lack of tongue bashing, the clichéd storylines, the amazing cultural clashes, the sheer bizarreness, and cultural uniqueness. Because lets face it, no other culture could do what they do. The music is incredible, often a unique fusion of Indian instruments and traditions alongside the blatant theft of prevailing western genres, and more often than not the very riffs of popular songs. Whilst many of the soundtracks these days utilise the highly popular Bhangra dance music, there was a golden period of Bollywood film music in the 60’s and 70’s when names like RD Burman and Ghulam Haider reigned supreme, dropping one amazing genre defining soundtrack after another.
I spoke to the skipper, Bombay Royale founder Andy Williamson.
Bob: I’ve just seen you play live at Womadeliade and it’s a visual feast with fantastic costumes and a real theatrical aspect to your performance. Is this what you originally envisaged or were you just thinking about the music when you began?
Andy: It was always about the music. So that meant both live performance and recording. The more I researched I had this growing awareness of this old cinematic stuff, Bollywood movies from the 60’s and 70’s. Fantastic soundtracks and no one really performing it live. So initially I wanted to be in a band playing this stuff live. I just thought it would sound awesome because it’s this mash up of Indian styles and Western cinematic influences as well which are really fun as a musician.
And on the other side I didn’t want it to just be a whole bunch of musicians standing there in jeans and t-shirts playing it really straight. It’s sometimes a double edged sword where audience members see us all dressed and see us doing that theatrical thing and take it on that level and get distracted by it. But it’s always been about the music.
Bob: Were you concerned that people might not realise that it’s a homage, that they might see it as a joke?
Andy: There is probably always going to be a percentage of people who will take it like that. But if people have watched those films and know about the genre they’ll know there’s the tongue in cheek element to it. Hopefully if they listen and if we’re doing a good job they’ll know that there’s a lot of effort gone into making it sound the part.
Bob: What attracts you so much to this music from the 60’s and 70’s Bollywood?
Andy: Especially in that period they were really making up the rules there was a big western influence but it is a genre into itself. Those films have everything from gangsters and bandits through to romantic and comedy and its all rolled into one. They’re mental.
I see us as having a conversation with that genre but we’re mostly from an Australian background other than the singers who are from an Indian background. We’re a Melbourne band and its our take on it and we’re having a conversation with it and using it as a springboard to create songs and music of our own.
Bob: Have you ever felt uncomfortable about playing music from another culture that isn’t your own?
Andy: Not really to be honest it was more something that I had to think about subsequently. As a musician in Melbourne I’ve played in all kinds of bands from reggae to blues to Afrobeat and no one says you didn’t grow up in the south of America in the 1920’s so you shouldn’t be playing jazz, you didn’t grow up in Jamaica in the 1950’s so you shouldn’t be playing reggae. You know what I mean? So we’re not predominantly from an Indian cultural band but if the music’s awesome and you think that you can do it justice…it’s only subsequently people have been saying what do you think you’re doing? Maybe it is a bit of a novelty that we’re a Bollywood band from Melbourne.
Bob: I thought Bollywood music had traditionally viewed with disdain by most in the West.
Andy: More recently its getting the recognition it deserves. I remember when I was a kid talking about Bollywood it was a by word it often had a derisory connotation about. But that’s something I obviously feel pretty passionate about. I mean its awesome music. We’ve missed out that no one has put something to play this kind of music a bit more often.
Bob: What do you think made the music at this time so mental, so amazing?
Andy: I don’t think they were trying to play music in a sense. It was their own take. They were having a conversation with Western cinema. I think. They were producing a lot of films and a lot of music and like anything that’s doing that there’s plenty of pretty average material amongst it, but you’ll actually find that even if the rest of the film is pretty bad often the production value and the effort and the thought will still go into the compositions and the dance stuff. It can go from really high production values in those sections of the films through to just one nonsensical dialogue that’s just been shot in a single take.
Bob: So you originally began by covering the music?
Andy: It was all covers initially and I charted out about 25 or 30 tunes for a full band so I wrote everything out because it’s very detailed. It’s not the kind of band that you could jam out week after week and get it happening. You really need that kind of structure there.
Initially it was something that I got happening that popped out of my imagination but as its progressed others have taken a lot more ownership of it. Then we started writing a lot more which is the reason why 8 out of the ten tracks on the album are originals. There’s only a couple of covers in there that give it a reference because it’s a different style of Bollywood music to the Bollywood of today. A lot of people wouldn’t recognise it as Bolyowood because its got that kind’ve Bhangra electronic thing now
Bob: So again why go back?
Andy: It’s the compositional elements, the arrangements, the big horn sections all that stuff in the 60’s and 70’s was the golden persiod for that. Same as Western music. Western pop doesn’t have the same elements these days.
There seemed to be more license for composers at that time, both in India and in the West there seemed to be more composers who could make musical statements in films. In the West you had people like Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schiffrin and Quincy Jones and in India you have people like RD Burman and Ghulam Haider and really all these people were famous in their time. You don’t have film composers with the same kind of fame these days or really stamping their sound on a film. With film you’re often at the mercy of the filmmaker and often they’ll have fairly conservative ideas about what they want you to do musically and often its fairly stereotyped. There’s a horse there so you have to make a clipity clop sound, and those old films they often made some radical decisions.
Bob: I’ve been expecting to see you guys pop up on a soundtrack soon.
Andy: We’ve had a couple of skirmishes with it. There’s an Indian based film set in South Africa and they used us for the title music for that. A heist kind’ve Tarantinoesque type film. I haven’t actually seen it yet as it was only released in South Africa.
Bob: I understand you’ll be highlighting the faux soundtrack nature of your new album at your launch.
Andy: We’re getting a video artist in, we’ve been logging lots of old film and we’re getting two big projections up. It’s epic visual bombardment.
Bob: So your character is the Skipper. Tell me how that came about?
Andy: There are a few skippers in different films. I’ve got a poster on my wall of a film from Pakistan called Miss Hong Kong that has a huge skippers head, but even in the Bollywood films there’s always officials or crazy chiefs of police or naval officers. There’s always someone in a uniform calling the shots. My Dad was a real ships captain that wasn’t conscious but maybe there’s some Freudian thing going on there. He’s this slightly corrupt Love Boat Captain. If I put him in a full military outfit it would’ve been a bit too heavy and a bit too wrong, but in a white sailors outfit he’s got a little decadence to him.
Bombay Royale launch You Me Bullets Love (Hope Street)
MELBOURNE May 19th – YOU ME BULLETS LOVE Album launch, @HIFI BAR
SYDNEY June 10th, 7.30PM – YOU ME BULLETS LOVE Album launch @THE BASEMENT