Last year, while researching a piece I wrote about lo-fi music in South Asia for BorderMovement, I came across Shashwat Bulusu or BULLU, a singer-songwriter from Baroda, Gujarat who was pushing the sonic aesthetic of guitar-centric, laidback folk-pop music. While artists such as Prateek Kuhad and Nischay Parekh have earned widespread acclaim and, in the former’s case, mainstream success, Indian singer-songwriters and their releases these days tend to sound formulaic. They adhere to a structure and soundscape that is at its worst, a lazy attempt at fulfilling a basic criteria of being risk-averse and familiar for the audience.
Borrowing from the experimental aesthetic of Delhi-based indie band Peter Cat Recording Co., Bulusu has managed to create a fresh lens for singer-songwriters in the country, one that relies heavily on binding together glacial atmospheres with slow-burning melodic hooks. A browse through his SoundCloud page reveals gems such as “Ruksana”, “Disco Ode To The Fat Man”, “Lizards”, “Mosquitoes” and “Bukowski” and many others. Currently working on his debut EP, as well as a shoegaze solo project, we caught up with the Baroda-based artist and had a chat with him about his life so far.
VICE: What was your early life like? Where did you grow up?
SB: It’s been a very sheltered one. I spent a whole lot of time at home. I’ve lived in Baroda for the last 22 years now. It’s pretty difficult to remember what the dynamic was like. As a kid, I guess all of us believe that our family dynamics are brilliant and pure. Although, I do know that my parents put in a lot of effort to teach me to be polite, not greedy, and the like. It was a disciplined childhood with quite some freedom.
What was your introduction to music?
My parents were key. They put me in tabla classes at the age of 3 or 4, and I continued to play till my 10th grade in school. Although, till then it was just a hobby. During this time I started listening to a whole lot of metal, rock and so on. So, once I stopped tabla I picked up the guitar. Subsequently, the thought of taking it up professionally cropped up. Now, they’re really supportive of me doing music, but it’s not all that comforting for them to see it as a full-time profession yet. They’d be really happy if I have a day job, so that I can pursue my music without subjecting myself to the financial troubles that come along with being an indie musician.
Did you perform as part of any group before?
I used to play legit tabla shows till my 10th grade. In the 11th grade I was handling vocal duties for a metal-punk-ish band called Cromium with my juniors. I wrote a few songs with them. A year later, the guitarist Abheesht Singh and I left Cromium and started an acoustic duo called Imaginarium, where we wrote a bunch of Hindi and English songs. This is when I actually ventured into songwriting a little seriously. It was when I got into college that Abheesht and I parted and I started writing solo. I did start an indie rock project with Gagan Malhotra in-between called That Season Again which died within the year.
What was the first kind of music you started listening to? How’d you start writing your own songs and who were your influences?
The first kind of music was purely Bollywood, which evolved to American pop, and sometime when I was in the 6th grade my cousin from Bangalore introduced me to metal, punk, rock. He left me with an iPod full of these songs, which had quite an impression on me. I started writing since I got my first guitar in the 10th grade. I have somehow been anal about writing songs in all the projects I’ve been a part of.
When I started, I wrote basic four-chord songs with the “You are mine and I am yours” formula. When I was with Cromium I was severely influenced by Alterbridge, early Avril Lavigne and Metallica. During Imaginarium there was a whole lot of John Mayer and Oasis going on too. I’d also just started listening to Parvaaz and Peter Cat Recording Co. during my 12th standard, so they somehow trickled into how I approached music and how I wanted to be.
You've got two projects, one in which you experiment with lo-fi sounds and one which lies in a more traditional band space? Could you describe the ideas behind the two projects?
So, the two projects can be sort of imagined as a classroom notebook and a rough book. Shashwat is the traditional project where I play a significant role as a writer and BULLU is the lo-fi project where I’m primarily a producer. BULLU is primarily me trying out and experimenting with the songwriting process, structures, tones, recording techniques, and new instruments. That’s the project where I try building songs without limiting myself. I don’t consciously focus on the lyrics. However, recently I’ve started experimenting with lyrics, words, meters and flow. It’s not curated at all. That’s what helps in not limiting myself to a particular theme or standard.
The other project is my traditional singer/songwriter one, which is very curated. I’m consciously working with themes, narrative and lyrics with the macro vision of the song at the back of my head, unlike the lo-fi project. This is also where I’m trying to implement whatever skill or method I’ve developed as part of BULLU. I have a band that helps me put this out live. Currently, I’m trying to figure out a middle ground between the two projects where I’m able to produce music with the practice I’ve developed in both.
What's the album with the band about and how is it working with Ritwik De?
The EP we produced had three songs and each one has its own narrative around childhood. It’s like the show Rugrats, where small kids’ activities are experienced as adventures. Ritwik De has been a blessing. He opened up the songs to a sonic space that I couldn’t see when I was writing them. He stripped them to the bare minimum and started building it from there, often simplifying unnecessary complex sections. He has a habit of not speaking much, apart from occasionally poking around. I feel he has a crazy sense of where a song can reach sonically. A lot of the the rather “experimental “ ideas he had, I took back home for BULLU. We also had Amar Pandey, Amartya Ghosh and Krishna Rao in the studio who’d occasionally come in and help us out with sections. It was mostly educational for me. Also, I made friends.
You've also dabbled in comedy a bit; what drove you towards that and how was that experience?
Comedy was a very cool thing for me and I wanted to be cool. So I signed up for an open mic and spent the next two years as a stand up comic, doing a brief stint at a comedy collective as a writer. It was an interesting experience. I spent an awful lot of time thinking the crowd wasn’t smart and they didn’t understand my jokes. Then I realised that I just wasn’t funny. I found it comfortable to think of myself as the misunderstood comic rather than an unfunny one. Not surprisingly, a whole lot of indie artists spend their time thinking the same. Losing my job at the collective pretty much shattered my confidence. So when I quit comedy I spent a lot of time at home working on music instead of getting on stage. But, the process of comedy writing and open mics helped me a lot to understand writing as a medium, and how to work an audience.
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