TNM traces the history of Motherjane, one of the most beloved rock bands to spring from Kerala, as the 26-year-old band brings out its third album, an extended play of four tracks called ‘1 1 1’.

Four members of the band Motherjane stand on red sands under a blue sky
Features Rock Music Monday, June 06, 2022 - 17:26

When John Thomas sits with his lime soda, calmly talking about angelic numbers and spirituality, you do not raise a brow. If you know Motherjane, the band he has been shaping since the winter of 1996, and the music they have been playing, you will give John an understanding nod. Of course. This is the band that sang You’re not here in body /Yet your songs with us remain / Like waves that will not weary / To claim these shores again (‘Fields of Sound’ from Maktub). In 2022, Motherjane, bringing out its third album – an extended play (EP) of four tracks called 1 1 1 – still sticks loyally to its core beliefs, but deviates largely from the genre it had introduced to a generation of young rock lovers in the 2000s.

“All of it comes from the calmness we let ourselves grow into, in the years that passed. There is no more ‘pushing’ to get things done. It is instead a path of least resistance. That’s how the music gets made now. It began with Clay Play, a single we brought out a few years ago, and is now part of the EP,” says John, the eternal drummer of the band.

Stop looking outside
Draw down that feeling
Not because the sun is shining
Can you plough a field
By turning it around in your mind

That’s from Clay Play, released in 2015. Motherjane fans noticed a change in sound, but still embraced the music. The lineup was different then – Vivek Thomas as the vocalist and Nithin Vijayanath on the lead guitar. Both left the band in subsequent years and two new members joined – Niranj Suresh for the vocals and Anubhav Langthasa for the guitar. Clyde Rossario, who had been with the band all along with John, continued on the bass. The new team added three more tracks to the EP – ‘Awoke’, ‘Planeman’ and ‘Contact Sense’.

‘Awoke’ and ‘Contact Sense’ were shaped from Carnatic rhythmic patterns, and ‘Planeman’ developed from a Franz Kafka quote – “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

The EP got named 1 1 1, because, John says, they had been seeing ‘angelic numbers’ – a series of repeating digits – at several places, and the idea suited the music they made. “Every member has made a lot of contributions to the band. Anubhav and Niranj are also producers, willing to experiment,” John says.

Earlier days of the band

When he says every member, naturally you go back to the earlier days of Motherjane, to the different line-ups when men like Baiju Dharmajan and Suraj Mani, Rex Vijayan, Mithun Raju and Deepu Sasidharan gave life to the band, along with the two that never left – John and Clyde. The first two albums, Insane Biography and Maktub – with nine tracks each – came out from this team. This was in the 2000s, when after years of playing covers, they began writing their own compositions.

“The band had formed by chance. We were students at the St Albert’s College (in Ernakulam) and I was the Arts Club Secretary. On a cultural day, when the band we had booked backed out, a few of us had to get on stage and fill in for them. I was there along with another drummer, Secil. Clyde was also there, besides three others – Mithun Raju (guitar), Nirmal and Laji (vocals),” John repeats the old story he has said in many interviews before. The band’s name, hurriedly whispered into John’s ears by a friend who is now no more, stuck.

It is still an exciting story for the fans, the idea that Motherjane had formed by accident. But it would have happened one way or another, you realise when you hear the rest of the story. The split-ups or the many changes of the years did not end the band or its music. So when Nirmal, Laji and Mithun left (the latter two also had their grunge band Pseutopia, now based in New Jersey), Baiju Dharmajan walked in to shock Kerala’s budding rock scene with his mesmerising guitar actions and its Carnatic touch.

“Mithun could not make it to one of our concerts at a bachelor’s party. Baiju was there at that party and he jammed with us. I asked if he would like to join the band. This was around 1999,” John says.

The first two albums

About a year later, Suraj Mani, who had briefly moved to Kochi from Bengaluru, saw the band perform at a floating restaurant in Marine Drive. He became the vocalist, and began insisting on original compositions. Rex Vijayan, then a teenager, also became part of the band, and together they brought out Insane Biography, their first album, in 2002.

‘Maya’, ‘Mindstreet’ and ‘Soul Corporations’ became instant favourites. This was new to Kerala, which did have bands from the 70s – Elite Aces, Highjackers, 13AD, 23 Knights, Axe Wagon, IX Hours and The Gypsies – to name a few. But there was a lull, and the alternate music scene kept itself to the niche few who loved rock. For some reason, despite deep influences of foreign cultures and music, people in Kerala stuck to film music through the decades and barely gave an ear to the rock bands chugging along. So music bands drifted off to Bengaluru, where they were assured a venue and an audience willing to pay to watch them perform.

But Motherjane did not shift its base from Kochi, even as Suraj had to move back to Bengaluru. They continued the magic with their more popular second album Maktub in 2009, underlining their unique sound with a very Indian touch. By then Rex had moved out and joined Avial, another veteran band singing Malayalam rock. He is now one of Kerala’s most sought after guitarists, composers and music producers.

“Rex is one of the most underrated musicians of our time. The dedication and the amount of work he puts in is unbelievable. I don’t know another music producer who digs into such details. Besides, he does not push things,” John says. It is Rex who produced their new EP, 1 1 1. He has continued his association with the band as a producer.

When Rex left in 2003, Mithun Raju had briefly joined Motherjane again. But he left soon and another talented guitarist, Deepu Sasidharan, came on board. Maktub had three guitarists – Baiju, Deepu and Clyde – along with Suraj and John. The music was something the rock and roll audience in Kerala had not been used to. Baiju was a magician with his guitar, music falling from his fingertips like drops of snow on a warm winter day. Peaceful, enchanting and thrilling. The Carnatic touch was much louder, stronger and powerful. Suraj’s words of life, death and emotion were soaked and sung along by an eager fan club. All the while, John stayed quietly behind with his drums, while Clyde and Deepu jammed along.

The face painting

Suraj went a step ahead and painted half their faces with Kathakali makeup – a symbolic gesture to say we are half god and half human. In ‘Broken’, one of their most loved songs from Maktub, the video shows a Kathakali artiste’s relation with his son.

We’ve all been broken
Shattered, left mute with regrets unspoken
We’ve all loved and lost
Been forsaken, repented our deepest trust

Those are the first lines.

“The face painting was later critiqued by some well-wishers. It eventually faded away,” John says. ‘Fields of Sound’, ‘Chasing the Sun’ and a revised ‘Mindstreet’ became masterpieces Motherjane got recognised for.

The band got picked up by American, Mexican and Japanese radio stations, won the Best International Rock Act at the Asian Voice Independent Music Awards (AVIMA), and in 2009, Rock Street Journal named them the No 1 Indian band of the decade. They opened for metal bands like Megadeth, Machine Head and Opeth.

Deviating further into spirituality

Those were the years when the band was also turning more spiritual in their ways, metaphysical concepts attracting them. As the old members left and others joined, they began writing songs with this new philosophy of not pushing things, and letting them happen in their own time. Baiju had left by then and Santhosh Chandran took his place for two years, before Nithin replaced him. Vivek Thomas became the vocalist after Suraj left. ‘Clay Play’ got written, making it clear that the band was changing tracks.

All the tracks in 1 1 1 have modified remnants of the old ethnic riffs Motherjane got known for. They follow the calmness its makers are settling into. “They represent our journey of awareness, surrendering control and finding our true self,” John says.

Read from archive: From musicians to technicians, independent artistes in Kerala suffer during pandemic

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