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Interviews |  03 Jan 2011 16:25 |  By PavanRChawla

Agnee's Mohan: 'CDs don't sell, so labels don't invest in you'

Agnee, one of India's most popular bands, was the first major act in the country to release free music online, and is now into film music direction. In a definitive and exhaustive interview, Agnee's award winning percussionist and singer Mohan Kannan, who, along with Koco, fronts the extremely popular band, speaks of life before and after MTV Splitsvilla, the challenges private bands are facing in popularizing their music, Radio One's �One Chennai One Music' initiative for non-Bollywood music, the influences and vision of Agnee, why he gave up a senior banking and finance job for a full time musical career, and more. From a conversation with Pavan R Chawla, Director Content & CSO – Indiantelevision Group, and Editor

Describe the Splitsvilla experience. In fact, the entire process of receiving the mandate and recording both, the theme song and Splitsvilla Anthem. How did you go about composing both elements, as a team? What changes did each element go through before it was finalized? What was the creative relationship and exchange like, with MTV's creative team,  in the process of creating both elements?

The process of creating this song had actually nothing to do with Splitsvilla. It so happened that we at Agnee wanted to start a way of reaching out to our fans and release singles. So we decided to start something called Create with Agnee  with this song,  which didn't have lyrics till then. We said let's try and get our fans to write the lyrics, so that they get involved with it before the final song was even released. When we met Ashish Patil from MTV while looking for a partner to promote the contest, he came up with the idea of using the track as the theme song for Splitsvilla,  as it gave us the show as a platform and in parallel we could run the contest for the lyrics.

Once we ran the contest and when we sat with the winners subsequently to write the final lyrics, we did keep the show in mind so that the lyrics fit with the basic context of the show and could also lend in parts to situations in the show. So this is one time when the theme song for a show was actually composed in a silo before even discussing the creative part of the show!!

Has life for you and Agnee been distinctly different as in before and after Splitsvilla? If so, how? What has Splitsvilla done for you?

Very distinctly different. We are probably the only band in India that doesn't solicit shows or has a manager who looks out for shows. And we're probably lucky to be getting people to our website and to our Facebook page to call us for events, films, shows etcetera. In hindsight, the whole plan to release singles, to release them free, to start Create with Agnee, to tie-up with a reality show – everything worked like a dream, but frankly so much more out of chance than by design! Except for our conviction that releasing free music online was the way to go -- we were the first mainstream act to do it in India -- we were not really sure about how the contest would go. Some people had asked us whether we had a safety net and had rigged the contest, and were extremely surprised when we said �No, we're just lucky that we found a great partner in MTV, superb lyricists who wrote a tough song, and super listeners who've given us more love than we could have dreamt of'.

What are the challenges that private bands face in popularizing their music amongst the masses?

The challenges are very primary. CD's don't sell, so labels don't invest money in you, tv channels don't play non-Bollywood songs, and neither do Radio networks, so there's no point in releasing a video or giving it to radio. And finally, the internet is too vast a medium to drive traffic to actually listen to your song or watch your video.

Whenever young guys in bands ask us whether the best way to release is online, we discourage it, as for a new band to release only online is asking for trouble. We had the huge advantage of a Sony BMG having released our first album and putting out 5 videos -- it's unheard of to have 5 videos out of 8 songs in an album! -- and us releasing at a time when Indi-pop, for want of a better term, was still played on tv channels and we had stuff like MTV Artist of the Month and V Spotlight etcetera to promote. That made us mainstream and well known before we decided to go independent and release free singles!

Again, in hindsight, we're very fortunate to have had Sony BMG first and then MTV, and the chance foresight of tying up with a reality show rather than going the music video route.

Internationally, radio is used to launch new music through airplay, but in India Radio mostly only plays Bollywood or other Film music. Any suggestions for radio and private bands on how they can work together – bands, to get more variety in the kind of music radio plays, and radio to give bands a platform for popularity?

Radio is getting a little more experimental, and there are channels that are starting Sunday jam sessions, unplugged sessions, special Indi-pop hours etcetera. Our firm belief is that it's a circle.. and there should be no moral obligation on a channel or a medium to promote an artist or a particular category of artists. The smart way to do things would be to create a show that would still generate listenership and therefore make sense for a radio channel and still have private bands and musicians playing.

Musicians need to cut the clutter much more than ever before now, so that in the midst of a million multi-crore films with stars and promotion budgets for each song that are more than that of the entire private album, their songs stand out.

What is your view of the way Radio One Chennai has started One Chennai One Music initiative?

We haven't recorded with them yet, but the idea is a noble one. To extend from my previous response, and as your article about it on says at the end â€?Ultimately, listener response will determine the lifespan of the show', ,  time will tell as to whether the show will do well. It'll be absolutely great for private artists if the show does well, but as we've always maintained, if your music is good, people will listen to it eventually, and if it isn't, no amount of shows or promotion are going to help it! The only thing a radio station can do is to monitor content carefully and make sure it's seriously up to the mark. Something â€?different' is as easy to diss as it is to like. And that's what makes this such a risky, yet extremely profitable (if it works!) venture.

Describe Agnee – its composition, musical beliefs and strengths. What do you believe are the musical influences for Agnee? What are the USPs of Agnee that will help it in its film music direction career?

This is a tough one. We're still struggling with defining our music. We try to remain honest with our music. We never create music that we think â€?will work';  we try and create what we like. That's the only thing we can predict... and even for that, we try and live with our own song for a good few weeks before we decide whether it's good enough to release. That's our only way of creation and of trying to ensure our product stands the test of time. We don't stick to genres; we go where the song takes us, usually. Both of us (Koco and I) compose together, usually, so it's a reactive process, where one of us comes up with a tune and the other takes it ahead.

About our USPs, we really don't have any, except for the fact that if any of our songs even remotely reminds us of another song that's been made -- by anyone else or even by us before -- we reject it immediately. We'd like to remain as fresh as possible. So far the creative juices have helped us continue to create and remain fresh, at least in our heads, so hopefully that will continue for a while.

Our musical influences are seriously varied -- from Sting and Pink Floyd to Karraikudi Mani and Lalgudi Jayaraman in Carnatic music, and my mother who always points us in the right direction whenever we're stuck. The varied influence also probably helps us in keeping our songs fresh without a deliberate attempt to make it so.

Agnee is now the music director for a Hindi and a Marathi feature film. Tell us about both projects including key credits, and who in Agnee is responsible for what part of the creation of feature film music?

The Hindi film is called â€?Aalaap', which is a working title, and is being produced by these brothers-in-law, Nishant Tripathi and Abhishek Misra, and is directed by Manish Manikpuri. Its script is written by the fabulous Dilip Shukla of Dabbang-, Damini-, and Andaaz Apna Apna fame. It's an ensemble cast, with some fresh new faces along with seasoned actors like Raghuvir Yadav, Rituparna Sengupta and Abhimanyu Singh. It's a story about a band of college kids in Chattisgarh and follows their musical journey, and takes on the tone of the region and its particular issues, naxalism and college life in general. The music is mostly band oriented and young, except for a couple of songs that are montage songs that are not sung in the band's perspective. There's also an item song -- a first ever for us!!  There's some rock, some folk and some experimental stuff in it too. The singers are all not frozen yet; we'll be recording the final stuff in January to ready the album for mix and master in February, and we'll know then. The lyrics have been written by Shri Pancchi Jalonvi for the most part, Shailendra Singh Sodhi (Shellee) and me for a couple of songs.

The Marathi film is called Shala,  and is an adaptation of the award-winning Marathi novel by the same name  It's directed by this young genius called Sujay Sunil Dahake, and has been shot already. We've had a look at the rushes of the film and are blown away by it. The film is a school kid romance set in the backdrop of the declaration of independence. We've done two songs for the film and are in the process of recording a third. There's a romantic song, a very folk track, and a classical piece in it. The lyrics for the romantic song have been written by Smt Shruti Jakati, and the others are yet to be written in final.

As to who composes what, as I mentioned earlier, Koco and I create together (in fact, we avoid creating in silos, as the product is usually much better when we both sit together on it). Even between the two of us, it's usually difficult to say who's composed what in any song!

There was the process of creating music for Agnee's own album, and now there is the Feature film music creation process. Explain the difference between the two -- your experience and your learnings about the same.

We used to think making music for films might be limiting, but found it the opposite. We've had the chance to make songs that we would never perform live with our setup -- the item song, for instance -- and we've also had the chance to remove whatever conception we had of the Agnee sound and move to non-band sounds.

Composing to a brief, however, does have its limitations, and they can be irritating if the brief is not a good one. Tying in the creative intentions of the director, producer, lyricist and us is very difficult if even one thinks in a different direction. We've had those situations too, and have managed to work around them; sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but in the end, we hope, we've made some good songs!

How was singing for Pritam like? Tell us about the song, the lyrics, the setting, the mood, the film,  and how you landed the opportunity, and how it was working with and singing for Pritam.

Well I got a call from Pritam's office and was asked to go and sing… and only after a few attempts -- I was never available in town the day they needed me to sing! -- did I manage to actually sing one of his songs. Turned out to be great as meeting him was fun, and we spent a lot of time reliving his times with Koco when he was in FTII, and also about our songs and his. Turned out we had a few mutual favorites, so it was a lot of fun! It's a mad situation at his studio, where there are some 5 projects on at the same time, and I don't understand how he can remain sane, when we are going berserk with one film at once.

Koco and I also had an opportunity to meet him and Rahul Ram from Indian Ocean when we guest judged an episode of MTV Rock On with them, and that was a blast!

I've already sung one song for Pritam and will be working on a couple more, but am under strict instructions to not talk about them yet.. so will let you know when it's time!

How did you land feature film projects?

Surprisingly, they came to us. As with shows, with films as well, we don't solicit business… yet. I think we were a straight up choice for Aalaap as the film was about a college band, and the producer's brother, Abhishek,  knew Agnee and wanted us to do the music. We had a meeting and things worked out easily as we loved the people and their energy -- specially the main producer, Nishant Tripathi.

On Shala, we were a simple choice as we're in the same studio as the film guys, Sujay and gang. The producers of the film, Kanchan and Anil Satpute, happen to own the studio. Thankfully, they liked our music too, so we weren't just a �lowest-hanging-fruit' option!

What is your future career focus going to be, as an individual and as a member of Agnee? Have you or Agnee hired an agent for film music direction and other creative assignments?

I don't think we're ever destined to work with managers or agents. We've tried and somehow no one can seem to manage us; I think it has more to do with us than with them! As of now, Koco and I manage the band ourselves, and are comfortable so far. Once our work increases manifold, we'll probably have to find someone who can handle and manage us!

Films are now definitely a focus. We've thoroughly enjoyed working on these films and are looking forward to a few more this year. Gulaab Gang, this film written and to be directed by Soumik Sen, is up next, and we should start work on it sometime March onwards. But honestly, the stage is where our hearts are, and so there's no way we're going to stop performing… it's going to be as many live shows as we can manage!

What is your ambition for your  musical career, say, 5 years from now?

We've always wanted to be the biggest band in the world. Bigger than U2, bigger than Pink Floyd or Sting or anyone; bigger than our idols. And hopefully, that's where we will be if we keep seeing that in our heads!

Where do the members of Agnee see it 5 years from now?

Koco's biggest thing has always been to be on stage as long as he can. He just loves it, and there's not a thing in the world he'd rather do than play on stage. So that's what he'll be doing 5 years later, and 5 years after that, and… you get the idea!

I just see our shows getting bigger, getting more international, getting more global than Indian, and I hope to God we're not seen as an eclectic Indian band who's trying to show our culture to the world, but just as musicians whose music people like!

You were born into a family of Carnatic musicians, and your education was for a banking career. Why did you decide to quite the job of an AVP with a foreign bank in favour of a musical career? Any regrets?

Well, I did a BSc in Economics  -- yes, Calcutta University has that! -- from St Xaviers in Calcutta, then MBA from XIM and then joined a corporate career and worked with four banks till I quit finally from Deutsche Bank as an AVP. I still don't know whether I would chalk the shift to an impulse that could so easily have gone wrong, or to a freak premonition that even I wasn't aware of. All I know is -- my God, I'm happy I'm doing this!

What's your family like? How was your decision to change your career received by your family?

My mother's a Carnatic classical violinist and vocalist; my father runs an organization dedicated to Carnatic music, my sister's a Carnatic vocalist and violinist… so yes, we're a very musical family. My mother ensured that music was in our blood; what my sister and I did with it was up to us! My sister's taken the Carnatic route and loves it, I've taken this one and I love it. While both of us studied –she was always by far the better student! - and had decent success at work, she's somehow managed to balance work life and music very well, and I could never do that; I'm too disorganized. So for me it had to be one or the other, so thank God this worked!

When I quit banking and decided to do this, while my family did have their reservations -- it's never easy to see someone you love take a decision that could throw all his education and work away. They were,  and always have been, superb about it. It goes without saying that none of us in the family, and by that I mean my parents, my sister and I, could do what we wanted to without everyone else's support.. so it's worked for us that we're close knit! And regrets? Far from it!

You are a percussionist  by training, and an award-winning one, at that. Tell us about your affair with the Mridangam – how it started, flourished, and how you are incorporating it in Agnee's creations.

When I was a kid, I was always banging on tin cans in the house, so my parents -- true South Indian orthodox musician parents that they are -- sent me to learn the Mridangam! I loved it, I remember, as I was obsessed with being â€?manly'  and didn't want to sing even though I was pressured to just because all the women around me were doing it anyway!

My Guruji, Sri S Sekhar, taught me everything I know about Mridangam and music. And a lot more that I couldn't probably grasp at the time. I still learn from him and am always amazed at how every time I meet him, I feel like I don't know anything, and still feel good just being in his presence. Even last month, he taught me a few things just before a concert, and that was my best concert till date! My Carnatic concerts, whether in Chennai or Calcutta every year, are my chance to learn and upgrade as it were, and also my coming back to roots, and I love it. I don't use the Mridangam in our songs unless there's a natural requirement for it, as I don't like forcing a sound on a song. We do use many Mridangam techniques (like the Carnatic versions of tihais) on songs when we perform them live. I've used the Mridangam to record on Raanjhan Yaar Di as that song just demanded it and it was a natural fit.

You trained in percussion from age six. When did you realize you loved and wanted to sing too, and how did the profile of vocalist on a band like Agnee get added to that of a Carnatic music percussionist?

I used to sing towards the end of school and college. I always loved being on stage, but that was after I had gotten over the �singing is not manly' thing! However, Koco's the main culprit for getting me to sing professionally and with Agnee. He had asked me to jam with him and then made me sing and play percussion for a show, when he was part of a band called Sankara. We both then became part of Sankara with these super other guys, Anup (the guitarist and main composer), Varun on drums (who also played with Agnee for a long time after) and bassist and composer Sid.

Sadho Re and Kabira were songs that started from Sankara, and Koco and I just took them ahead to their logical conclusion. Ujale Baaz was already composed by Anup before we even joined, so we just rendered the song as Agnee later. When Koco and I wanted to release our music, we did ask the rest of the guys, but since they all had day jobs, they wanted us to go ahead and do this separately. And once we'd recorded our demo Sadho Re, Ujale Baaz and a few more songs, we went to record labels, and they all said yes. Sony BMG had a contract ready for us in record time and we still didn't have a band name, which is when we decided to use the name Agni -- Koco's earlier band which was one of the biggest bands in India in the 90's --  but changed it to Agnee as the music was different. That's how Agnee happened.

Your three favourite international bands or individuals, and why those.

Sting, for his varied composition style and how his live shows are always different renditions. Peter Gabriel for his live shows and how each of his shows is a master class in concept and production. Pink Floyd, for being the first to benchmark â€?BIG'  in a concert or in sound. Michael Jackson, for everything from song writing to production to performance. And then some, but I already crossed the number three, right?

Your three favourite Indian individuals, and two favourite Indian bands to date. And why those.

Karaikkudi Mani and Lalgudi Jayaram for doing to the Mridangam, the violin and to music something that no one before them -- or after -- has done. And for being, along with my Mother and my Guruji, people that I can only look up to for inspiration and always, always, want to better myself.

A R Rahman, for making music non-Bollywood but still Bollywood.

R D Burman, for making the exact opposite happen and for making melodies that can never be compared to anything new.

Indian Ocean as a band for the people they are, and for their honesty as people and also as musicians, and for their amazing ability to keep their tunes and performances so simple and so lovable at the same time.

Agni (Koco's erstwhile band) for making true Indian Rock and -- my God! -- being good at it. And for being able to be Carnatic without having a bonafide Carnatic influence in the band, like songs like Tandav. And for being ridiculously superb on stage.

What you love about the Indian music scene.

There's place for everybody, when you really look at it. There's the college bands who are now getting brilliant,  there's Bollywood which also now has space for bands and experimental music, there's clubs where music of all languages is played live, and musicians have actually started respecting each other and varied forms of music put out by their peers. We're actually starting to see our cultural diversity in our music on a much more regular and accepted basis, and this rocks.

What puts you off about the Indian music scene?

I simply hate it when musicians say �what's this Bollywood shit!' and then promptly go and record sessions for a Bollywood song! And then crib about that song too and say �the things we have to do for money, I tell you!' The only thing about the Indian music scene that I just cannot stand.