They started as a group of musicians intent on making their own unique sounds. An instrumental fusion band from Chennai, Oxygen, World Fusion Music Band, was founded in 2003 by a group of school friends.
The band that has been making music for close to 15 years now has worked with a number of eminent names in the industry, including AR Rahman, Aruna Sairam, Umayalapuram Sivaraman, Keith Peters, Pandit Janardan Mitta and Naresh Iyer among others.
In this interview, TNM talks to Girinandh, the band’s keyboardist and arranger, on their journey so far, their plans for the future and their thoughts on the indie music scene in Chennai. Excerpts from the interview below.
You’ve been an indie band for close to 15 years now. You must’ve seen a lot change during this time. Tell us about your journey.
Back in the days, cutting an album was a big deal. Labels were game changers. Our aim has always been to evolve as musicians. We didn’t try to have a social media presence, we directly connected with audiences. It was simple. But there is a need for social media presence now. People are too content with what they get and there’s plenty available as well. It has become difficult to have a loyal fanbase. But a lot of good musicians are coming up now. We have always been presenting the music we like and the journey has been exciting.
I would say earlier it used be more of a professional outlook. Today there are very few plays and magic shows. Earlier the headliner act would be the band. Today there are spaces to perform smaller gigs but the ideal feel of playing for a large audience is lost. Also, pubs, cafes, etc have space constraints. But it is a healthy trend. The genres are changing, tastes are changing. You get to interact with audiences of all age groups.
What is the most challenging part of being a band?
The beauty of being in a band is that anything we create is very organic. We have our own production facility and we are self-sustained. When you are in a band, you are not bound by any restrictions. With more members, we have more perspectives. We don't consciously put an effort to fix a genre. A band should have its own sound. There are certain ways a mridangam should be played and it has orthodox complexities. Now how would a mridangam sound to a salsa tune? That's the actual fusion of different sounds and tones.
You’ve collaborated with many different artists. How did it all work out?
We believe in musicianship and we have influences. Every band member brings in a different perspective. We get a lot of encouragement from our mentors as well. We were fortunate enough to make connections with such big artists. We collaborated with Aruna Sairam when she first did fusion music. Collaborating with Umayalpuram Sivaraman was another change. He is 80 plus and he has the urge to do something new. We have worked with Pandit Janardan Mitta, Naresh Iyer, Sikkil Gurucharan, Keith Peters, Dabuka Siva, Shankar Mahadevan and many others so far.
Tell us about your plans to revive terrace jamming.
We began terrace jamming 3 years back where we called for musicians. We wanted to know how many serious musicians there were in the city and we wanted to give them a stage. We had a very good response. We also got a lot of attention, close to 300 people would come for these sessions. Actor Vikram came, AR Rahman attended and he also sent his daughter. We had around 18 sessions before we stopped it last year after the police intervened. We are now planning to bring it back.
Chennai has a very good indie music scene. What are some of the bands that you like and follow?
Most of them are our friends, Karthik’s IndoSoul, Pradeep’s Poorva, Sapta… There are a number of passionate musicians here.
With YouTube, instant stardom can be quite a challenge for a creative artist (or maybe not). What are your thoughts on this?
It is pressure if you see it as pressure. I look at it as a motivation factor to create more content. It is also a good medium. Being true musicians, you just need to do what you feel like. If people feel connected, they will come. Initially artists should not be bothered about likes and views. Media accessibility is a good thing when your content is going places. I got my track placed in Miss India this year. It was selected as their title track and it happened only through social media.
You’ve said the band has always experimented with different genres. Will Oxygen venture into film music?
I have signed up for 5 films that are in pre-production. We once we got an opportunity to compose as a band but that did not happen. When ARR was composing for Raanjhanaa, he called us asking if we can compose for a song. But unfortunately that situation was later scrapped. If it had released, it would've been our film debut.
In recent times, there’s been a movement in Carnatic music, at least in Tamil Nadu, with singer TM Krishna breaking boundaries. What are your thoughts on taking music beyond sabhas?
Music is the only language that can connect everyone universally, beyond caste, language or any other preferences. This is what we believed 60 years ago. Only people who have been propagating have made these boundaries. It is not the fault of Carnatic music. The propaganda has reduced creativity. It is now evolving. People are agreeing to more forms of music. This change has to be welcomed. But I disagree with certain outlook where in order to make them look superior and to break the complexities, they bring in a complex thought process. You don’t have to prove a point, if you are doing something organically then it has to be encouraged.
Let’s talk about the MeToo movement in the performing arts sector. Several big names have been outed. What are your thoughts on this and what do you think is the right way forward to make sure spaces related to the performing arts are made safer?
The movement is a good thing. If people are able to voice out, it should be encouraged. No one should take advantage of anyone. But this has been very common in every industry. It all depends on the outlook. If it is happening, I believe one should voice out immediately. One should never take advantage of workspace and manipulate people. We’ve always made sure our workspaces are safe for everyone.
What do you have in store next?
Oxygen Ensemble will focus on making cover versions of songs. We plan to collaborate with singers like Sathya Prakash and Vandhana Srinivasan and will be making complete cover versions of the original. We are trying to make the cover versions our own. We are working on a song from ARR’s Guru for our next cover. It will be a different adaptation.
But the main challenge has been that we never got into the habit of taking notes. It was all about spontaneity. And so we are not very comfortable doing covers. The main reason anyone does covers is to gain popularity. For us it has always been ‘why not?’ Recreating originals is always difficult. It is better to readapt and that is what we do.
We are also coming up with our Oxygen instrumental song. This will be in a different time signature of 22 by 16 and will be completely different from our previous songs. We’ve tried to record the future version of live music.
The album will be called Tso which means flow/river/lake in Tibetan language. It took us 2 years and we have incorporated different sounds. We have recorded it in Ambisonics 360 format. This will be the first release in 360 video and sound format. You can listen to the song in 3D format. The video will be 360 degree too. Renowned sound engineer Scott Hull, who has worked for Quincy Jones, Sting and Miles Davis, has worked with us on this. It will be an experience unlike any other.
We also plan to create our own online series, which will feature indie bands and encourage original content.