Why is an album made by two brothers born in Chennai and raised in Dubai making waves in Texas? A chat with brothers Jeevan and Mathew Antony.
Last month, when brothers Jeevan and Mathew Antony released their debut album, Things Can Change, it quickly made waves on music blogs around the world. Which might seem curious for a group based in Fort Worth, Texas, called Madràs, but it could be their transnational background that endows the music with such resonance.
Take the album’s third track, “Tasmania”. This one song contains every aspect found on the 35-minute disc, which is held together by a pervasive sense of nostalgia. The opening soundscape calls to mind the synth-heavy kitsch of Tamil film music. Jeevan Antony’s hushed vocals have something of a choirboy effect here. He sings of restlessness, of the urge to move and to catch his breath; to reflect back, but only with distance. A scene briefly unfolds: “And in the morning she opens her eyes to butterflies, I chase just to/have around; will you have me around?” The words melt back into the music. At the three-minute mark, this dreamy atmosphere gives way to lush, yet gentle, guitar work. The reverie-like harmonies integrate seamlessly with sounds recorded from Chennai Central; fitting for a song that evokes romance, wandering, even diaspora.
Riskier musical territory
The album is full of emotionally bare lyrics, but Madràs could hardly be accused as overwrought or confessional. For starters, the minimalism of the lyrics is given an understated vocal delivery. “I’m primarily interested in the sound of the words,” Jeevan said of his approach to songwriting. In this way, his voice becomes just another instrument in a colourful palette.
Throughout Things Can Change, narrative details are eschewed in favour of subtlety and suggestion, which invite the listener to project her own imagination and associations onto the music. To be sure, Jeevan had specific experiences in mind when he started writing the album last year. “The album mourns the loss of innocence,” he offered. “But it’s also about being grateful for that experience.”
When he finished college in Texas last year, he found himself looking back on four years abroad (Mathew still has two left), twice removed from home. (The brothers were born in Chennai and raised in Dubai.) In this period of reflection, he began writing. But the resulting music sounded like nothing he and Mathew had ever made before. As teens, the two cut their teeth in Dubai’s metal scene with a four-piece known as Decoy Death Trap. Since then, they’ve showed a more playful side with the Fort Worth-based pop trio, Fou.
The new material was taking them into riskier territory; musically and lyrically. Songs like “Never” and “Tracing Paper,” which features a brief segment sung in an otherworldly falsetto, sketch the fragility of love. “Older”, the first new song Jeevan had written, conveys in a pair of simple couplets the simultaneous feelings of maturity and humility, of moving forward and starting over.
Jeevan and Mathew recorded the album primarily in Fort Worth, but didn’t always work side by side on the project. From his apartment, Jeevan would lay down vocal, guitar, and bass tracks, which he’d then pass on to Mathew. “He’d give me the skeleton and I’d flesh it out,” Mathew said. This meant tweaking the arrangements before adding the other layers: flutes, strings, percussion with his synths. When Mathew left for a semester in Manchester this past January, the production continued via the peer-to-peer sharing programme Dropbox. Drummer Ben Hance, frontman of Secret Ghost Champion, appeared on three tracks and helped mix the album.
What would A.R. Rahman do?
A veritable laptop manifesto, another remarkable aspect of Things Can Change is its use of samples. In addition to the natural sound from Chennai (taped dutifully by Jeevan and Mathew’s cousins), friends from around the world — Germany, India, Australia — contributed spoken-word recordings in their own languages, variations on the album’s key themes. “Each song is like a diary entry, with very personal lyrics,” Jeevan said. “But all of those experiences weren’t experienced alone. So, we wanted our friends to be part of the album too.”
Animated by such unique elements, the one label that tends to stick to Madràs is “shoegaze,” a decidedly mellow sub-genre of indie pop. But there’s something that sets the group apart. “We’re trying to connect to India through this music,” Mathew said. Aside from all the nostalgia on display, this desire manifests itself directly in the arrangements. The harmonies, for example, don’t follow the typical three-part pattern found in most rock. “Even the rhythm is much more ‘Indian’ than blues-based,” Jeevan suggested. When recording the bass or percussion, he recalled with a laugh, he’d ask himself, “What would A.R. Rahman do?”
It was natural, then, that the project would be called Madràs. Their family moved to Dubai in 1996, just as the city shed its colonial name and became Chennai. As self-described “third culture kids,” raised outside of their parents’ culture and not entirely assimilated into their new surroundings, they feel equally drawn to and foreign in their own hometown.
As for the accent mark, they added it to distinguish themselves from another band which had already claimed Madras as a name. At any rate, Mathew deadpanned with a knowing corniness, “We’re from Madras and have an accent.”