Candid Chat with Bruce Lee Mani

(Click on the play button above to listen to the interview)
There’s nothing much to say about Thermal and a Quarter that hasn’t already been said. Their journey has been long and fulfilling from their Christ College jam room to being revered as one of the best indie rock bands. The extremely talented and witty Bruce Lee Mani, lead guitarist and vocalist of Thermal and a Quarter tells Parmita Borah about his musical journey across a decade and a half.

Photo source - Facebook
Parmita Borah: Anyone who visits Wikipedia 
knows the history behind the name Thermal and a Quarter. Your name Bruce Lee Mani - What’s the history behind it? 
Bruce Lee Mani: (laughs) Well, my father was a big fan of Bruce Lee and I was born around the time when “Enter the Dragon” released with great fanfare in Bangalore Theatres and he decided to call his son Bruce Lee and Mani, because we happen to be palakkad Iyers and I carry my Grandfather’s name which is Mani. It gets a lot of laughs from many people, and it gets us through airport immigration very quickly because the mood gets lightened when someone called Bruce Lee shows up at your window and it ensures that people don’t forget me very easily.

PB: So do you know any of Bruce Lee’s moves as well? 
BLM: I didn’t have the place to study Wing Chun Kung fu in Bangalore back in the 90’s or 80’s but I did study some Karate and I infact do hold a blue belt in chokushin taekwondo.

PB: Not many people know that I am sure. 
BLM: No! (laughs)

PB: Thermal And A Quarter has essentially been a three piece band, but you’ve had a lot of talented musicians playing with you.
BLM: That is correct. Since we started in 1996, a lot of great guys have passed through the band, but it has essentially been, at the core, a three piece band. I don’t think I can’t actually go into all the names of the people who have been here and there are various websites and blogs where those things are discussed but I must say that all the guys who’ve passed through definitely lent something to our sound and it's part of what we call our evolution and we are still evolving, I hope. We are still growing and learning how to play our instruments better and express ourselves better and get the sounds in our heads out there.

PB: Shut Up and Vote and Kickbackistan are two very quirky takes on voting and graft. How did you come up with those two songs? 
BLM: Well it’s funny that you mentioned these two but they are only two more on a long list of socially relevant songs that we’ve written. This goes back all the way to in 1998/99 when on our first album we had a song called ‘Humpty Dumpty’ which was quite pointedly dedicated at a certain portly politician from Tamil Nadu who at one point almost brought down the government by having too many shoes or something like that. But it was from then on we’ve always sort of tried to respond to things that are going on around us. Also because in the late 90’s as a band that was writing music in English, as one of the few bands that was writing and releasing music in English at that point. The first accusation level against us by critics and friends alike was “Oh you guys are just doing what the west has done years ago and so on”. When we were trying to form a new expression, looking at things around us, I mean our songs are completely Indian, our perspectives are Indian-our stories are Indian- the idiom is western. We play guitar, bass and drums and we sing in English, but that doesn’t make it less of an Indian. So at that point it was almost a religious fervor that I must say that we try to write about all the things that were going on around us, because that’s where our music should come from. So Shut up and Vote and Kickbackistan are just further down from quite a long list of socially relevant songs. So I think in whatever small part we played, we did change something.

PB: You did mention that just because you write songs and sing them in English, doesn’t make you less of an Indian. Have you had critics or fans requesting you to sing songs in Hindi? 
BLM: Not any more, because we have been doing this for 15 years now and I guess people have gotten used to the fact that ‘These guys can’t speak any other language’. The naive figures have given up on us, the progressive thinkers have sort of embraced us, I think. People who are discovering us are seeing us a one of sort better known bands among a sea of other bands who are doing the same thing.

PB: You have done a lot of international tours - you have performed in Glassgow, London, Dubai and Bahrain. 
BLM: Honkong, Jakarta, Maldives, Singapore (laughs)

PB: So how different are the audiences in these venues. Are they any different for that matter? 
BLM: I would say that there is a greater amount of maturity in terms of audiences, abroad, simply because they have had a longer history of live performance culture. If you go to Glassgow or London, you’d have, I don’t know, fifty gigs every night no matter what day of the week it is. So live music is part of their culture and this live music can be anything. It can be anything from completely abstract jazz to top forty covers, there are bands doing everything. There are no strange issues like we have here, where suddenly the cops will bust you because you are doing western music or something else that doesn’t fit with the local morality or some nonsense like that. You don’t have those issues, because for some reason those societies have evolved beyond that. They have a whole set of different problems, but atleast for working musicians like ourselves-we can go and perform to an audience and that its taken pretty much at face value, in the sense that it’s your music that’s more important. If you play well, if you have good musicianship and if you have good songs, you’ll be appreciated. The first time we went to UK, people said that ‘nobody will listen to you if you don’t have a sitar or tabla. You’re coming from India, what’s this nonsense, why are you going to play our music to us?’ But the point is that when we played our music was so different from the local rock that was being played there, they thought us as exotic anyway, even though we didn’t have a sitar or a tabla. It’s just that because of who we are and the kind of music we play, we were already exotic and we were already different and we were appreciated for that.

PB: I couldn’t agree more. You guys are really huge on the internet. Is that part of your ‘Do It Yourself’ policy? 
BLM: I think coming up in Bangalore, which is sort of spoken of as being the IT hub of the country (I don’t know if it still is, but think at one point it really was) we were growing up with a lot of technology around us, growing up musically. And we had a lot of friends who worked in top notch international Information Technology companies. So in terms of working with technology like bit-torrent and sharing, having your own website or keeping a blog or selling your music online or distributing it for free. I think the technology came pretty easily to us and from the beginning we sort of embraced it and we think it was a new way forward, especially for an independent band that was not signed to a record label, so from the beginning we’ve been pretty keen on pursuing it. We tried to have our own sort of inimitable fashion because it’s not like we were born in the cusp of technology of anything like that. It’s just that we’ve tried to use it to the best of our ability because a Do It Yourself model like us which-it’s exactly what it means, you have to do everything yourself and between doing gigs and paying bills and keeping your cool, whatever time is left, you know, we spend on doing this.

PB: In your last album ‘This is it’ you’ve worked in A R Rehman’s Studio with Multiple Grammy Award Winner Jeff Peters.What was that like? 
BLM: That was incredible. We’ve always tried to take every succeeding album a big step forward, in every possible way. Our first album was thermal and which was recorded for a really small amount of money, the second album Jupiter cafe was done with much better production values, a better design, everything was a big step forward. Plan B was another big step forward; it was mixed at Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad. This is It had to be an international product, and that’s why we decided to work at A. R. Rehman Studios. Through a couple of friends we managed to get Jeff Peters interested in the project and he came down and worked with us in Chennai for almost 15 days. It was great having someone like him with so many years of experience behind him, working with huge names in international rock-people like Ringo Starr from the Beatles, UB40, the beach boys-his credit includes so many amazing musicians and to have his perspective on our music was great. It was not just helpful, but also showed us a way forward of what we could do with our music.

PB: So the first album was Thermal and a Quarter and that was way back in 1999. I understand the production values were lower production values. So how did you get the record deal? 
BLM: That was a very easy record deal because there was no record deal. The record deal was ourselves! There was no company involved. The company was our own. So we recorded it, we mixed it, we went to the CD printing press and printed out the CDS, we went to the printer and printed out the jackets, we packed the CDs in the jukeboxes, we wrapped it in plastic and we went out to the colleges and sold it. So there was no company involved, it was us, it was completely Do It Yourself. It was very hard but it also taught us the entire process from end to end.

PB: When you came up with the first album that was a time when Bollywood and Remix Videos were ruling the music scenario. So was that a challenge to get acceptance as a new upcoming band that was not doing covers? 
BLM: Ofcourse, we’ve been booed off stage several time. Like I said, when the audience isn’t used to watching many live bands, when they get a chance they want to hear familiar things, things that make them happy, to come out and have a good time. It’s only when there’s so much of it going on people start thirsting for something new. So back then we were being adamant and saying ‘No, we will be playing only our songs, even if you’ve never heard them on the radio, even though may not even like them because you are hearing some strange time signature’. We just went ahead and played them because that was the only way for us to get music out. Definitely it was an uphill battle, but you’ve got to persevere. If you are really serious about writing your own music and getting it out and making people listen to it, you’ve got to keep doing it. Eventually you start to get a following if your music is good enough and it strikes a chord with the people. You can get people who like your stuff; who want it, who come to shows and ask for your song. When that starts happening, you know you are doing something right.

PB: Do you endorse or recommend any brand ? 
BLM: Gibson has given me a guitar, so you could say that I am a Gibson endorsee. An American brand of strings called La Bella has recently signed me on as an endorsee. Now that’s become a great thing for musicians in this country where big brands are looking out for them and making sure that their stuff is being promoted by helping musicians out. So I think it’s a great thing.

PB: Indeed, that’s a great piece of information for Indian musicians. What about your favourite Indian band?  
BLM: Among the Indian Band, I’d say there’s a band called Something Relevant from Mumbai, which we really like a lot. They’re a great young bunch of guys, great vibe, very happy positive vibe, very nice music, we like them a lot. Ofcourse, there are our seniors like Skinny Alley and Pink Noise whom we really look up to, because they have been in the scene for so long, and they are still pushing boundaries and doing new things. Those are the two names that come straight up.

PB: So from live music to teaching music, tell us a bit about this initiative called Taaqademy? 
BLM: Taaqademy is about a year old and it’s our way of giving back of little bit of what we’ve learned across the last decade and more. So it’s just seems to make sense that all of us got together and opened up a little school where we could share the stuff that we’ve learned across the last few years of playing and so on. But also we put together a few things that bands really require in a city like Bangalore, which is a place to rehearse. We have a great rehearsal space, we also have a recording space. If you want to record a demo or an album- we can help you do that. So, Taaqademy is great for us and more people should join Taaqademy.

PB: We’ll sure put the word across. So Bruce, we have come to the end of our conversation. Before we wrap it up, do you have any words of wisdom for the readers of EF News International? 
BLM: Words of Wisdom? Oh Boy! That’s a tough one. (Laughs) Well if you are musicians, just keep playing. I know so many musicians who stopped playing because they say they don’t have the time. They have jobs and families and so on. I don’t know, music is really important in so many ways. If you’ve been touched by it, keep doing it. Keep playing. Don’t stop playing and tell other people to go and play as well. It’s an amazing thing to do. 

PB: Cool. Thank you once again for joining us. 
BLM: Thanks