Living The Austrian Dream: In Conversation With Grey Shack
“No one had any idea of what to expect from this bunch of Indian boys who showed up. We were the only brown skinned guys at the festival [laughs]. We got a question from the security team – ‘Are you guys gonna play some bhangra’ and we’re like ‘Uh, no we’re a rock band.'”
And rock the festival they did – the European Bike Week, to be precise – shattering the audience’s expectations of what an ‘Indian’ rock band should sound like. After doing the country proud by winning the opportunity to perform in Austria this past September, Grey Shack – a four piece independent hard rock act from Chennai, India – have been on a [rock and] roll ever since. The act features Rohan Sen on vocals, Vikram Vivekanand on guitar, Conrad Simmons on bass and Ramkumar Kanakarajan on drums. With new material in the works, gigs across the country, broke after their Euro tour but rich in experience and filled with inspiration – band’s frontman Rohan Sen chatted with IndiEarth about what the future will bring for the fantastic four.
IE: How did you guys land this once in a lifetime opportunity?
Rohan: Well we played a concert in Kochi with the Black Letters and Baiju Dharmajan Syndicate – and it was a fantastic show! We found out that there was also an online competition, and the winner of that gets to head to Austria. So we entered, played the finals in Bombay, and won. Pretty smooth that way. I think this is the first year they’ve sent an Indian band to the European Bike Week.
IE: Tell us about some of the other musical acts at the festival?
Rohan: We had a band called Joan Ov Arc playing before us, so we got chatty with them, another band called the Tenors Of Rock – but 97.8 % of the bands there all played covers, we were one of the few who played an entire set of originals. No one had any idea of what to expect – and the response was still fantastic.
IE: How did Austrian audiences (and bikers) react to your music?
Rohan: Everyone was shocked – wondering how these sounds were coming out of these brown boys, they were like ‘who are these exotic people’ [laughs] – but the crowd loved it. We had a few head bangers in the front too, yelling “Grey Shack!” and we even got an encore! That was the crowning moment of the show. And it’s crazy, when you get a completely alien audience, but you experience that one moment, when people are dancing, singing your songs – you know you’re getting closer to that one thing you’re striving for. When the music is just understood, and transcends those divisive boundaries.
IE: Tell us more about the Austrian independent musical landscape that you got to experience?
Rohan: Well at the Bike Week it was a pretty set formula, all the bands at the festival were sticking to rock and covers – but we went to Vienna after the festival, and made it to this busker festival where we saw everything that’s happening now in the Indian scene – live loopers, crazy beat boxers, drum machines – there were these two guys sitting with drum machines making fantastic music, another German beat boxer who kept the crowd going with covers of Billy Jean and Ghostbusters – and you know, Austria isn’t exactly the most extroverted culture, but at that festival we saw the underbelly of what’s coming up. We were also walking through the town centre – Stephansplat – and there were a few violinists and cellists busking – so a lot of street performances and music.
IE: Did you notice a difference in the way Austrian audiences reacted to a band they’d never heard of before, versus the way you’ve found audiences in India reacting to brand new sounds played live?
Rohan: Definitely! At the festival I noticed the audience was far more open and accepting, they stuck around cheered us on, and they were happy, there was no snobbery – whereas in India it’s still happening, but then again it depends on how the show is presented. Here the Indian indie scene is still developing – I mean, here there’s inevitably huge excitement when a Mute Math is coming down! But here it’s still a growing industry, and people need to get out of the comfort zone mentality – out of the comfort zone of “my friend is playing”, of staying home, of knowing the band – we need to be more open to experiencing new, fresh sounds.
IE: Most memorable experiences from the trip?
Rohan: This was the first international show for the band, and the first trip for all of us – it was amazing to experience this different way of living that was so super organised for everything – even crossing the road. And also we all met Deborah Bonham – John Bonham’s sister! There was one night when Ramkumar was playing Rock N Roll on the cooler, and she was like ‘hey my drummer can’t even do that’! So that was a pivotal moment of his young career.
IE: Greatest learnings that you’ve taken back home with you?
Rohan: One thing I would definitely do… is a lot more cardio. Just so I can breathe cold air easily. Because when evening sets in, the weather changes completely! I mean otherwise I think we’re on the right track, and our tunes definitely have a touch of us as 21st century Indians in it – it’s not just about taking sounds from the 70’s and 80’s, it’s about putting your own spin on it. One thing this has also taught us to expect is high quality production. The first thing that happened when we arrived is we were shown around backstage, they came up to chat with our drummer, told him “We have three kits available,” gave us a choice of what amps and guitars we wanted – so just that level of basic professionalism and treatment of artists, is something we can aspire to back here in India.
IE: What’s in store now for Grey Shack?
Rohan: We’re very broke post Europe trip – and all funds went towards travelling point A to B, we were eating from the streets on two-euro doner kebabs and sushi. But we do have about seven songs that are already recorded and we just need to sit down in the studio to mix and master them –it’s called The Sound Garden Sessions, a compilation we plan to release. We already have Country Song, we are mixing and mastering She Bites, and now we’ve written even more tunes. And we’re heading to Bangalore in December to record also at this audio academy there, and play a show at BFlat on the 12th, and come back to play at Hablis on the 13th. So releases will happen – it’s like a good drug, comes in doses.