Black Letters’ maiden album, ‘Shapes on the Wall’, is a reflection of the Kochi band’s evolving musical tastes

In 2008, three Kochi schoolboys got together to play and write the kind of music they loved — hardcore heavy metal. They found a fellow singer, called themselves Rome (and later Surfacing) and even released a four-song EP titled Snippets. Time, and new influences, drew them away from metal and into alternative rock. They re-invented themselves as ‘Black Letters’, competed in numerous band hunts, performed at India’s biggest music festivals and composed the original soundtrack of collaborative film 5 Sundarikal. In India’s indie scene, Black Letters is now a name to reckon with and has a sound to call its own, best heard in its seven-track debut album just out - Shapes on the Wall.

Across cities
In its current line-up, Black Letters is Sharath Narayan (vocals, guitar), Sarang Menon (guitar), Arjun Radhakrishnan (bass) and Akash Chacko (drums). Study and work commitments have taken Sarang to Chennai, and Sharath and Akash to Bangalore, while Arjun remains in Kochi. Shapes on the Wall (SOTW) opens with the confident, soaring track, ‘Roam’ that originated from Sarang and Sharath mailing each other short guitar clips. Every fortnight the band meets in Kochi to jam and such clips then flesh out into full-fledged songs.

This habit has resulted in quite an assortment of original songs. “Right from the start, we were certain that we wanted to write our own songs, not become a band that played only covers,” says Sharath. From songs that were light and bluesy, to more upbeat numbers, and even belt-your-heart-out anthem-like tracks, the band has experimented with different styles. “For this album though, we picked only those songs that define what we want to sound like, which broadly comes under ‘alternative rock’,” says Sarang.

The album took a while in the making. From March 2012, the band has been working with producer Vivek Thomas and Vivian Varghese from Vidwan at Vivek’s Kochi studio. “We were really lucky to have recorded with such experienced people. Every time Vivek acquired newer, better equipment, we would redo entire portions of the album. I don’t know many producers who would put in so much interest and effort,” says Sarang. The duo’s influence has also shaped the texture of some of the album’s tracks. One of the heaviest pieces, ‘Old Firebox’, initially had much stronger “overdriven guitars”, says Sharath, which Vivek suggested softening to its present form. It was also Vivek’s idea that the album be mastered by an engineer in Portugal, which Sarang says has paid off.

Lyrically, SOTW traverses a wide spectrum. ‘Roam’ dreams of free-spirited journeys, and ‘Remembrance’, the album’s gentle, closing song, was written by Sarang about missing his hometown.

‘You Say’ was born on the morning of a Chemistry exam when Sharath woke up to study but instead pick up a guitar, strummed a tune and penned most of the lyrics in one sitting. ‘You Say’ and ‘Find You’ were the band’s two options for director Amal Neerad to choose from for 5 Sundarikal. While he finally picked ‘You Say’, ‘Find You’ underwent a makeover from a “downer song” to its current peppy version when Akash added his pumped up groove. “We’re a band with two guitarists. So most of our songwriting starts with Sarang and I gelling our guitar ideas. The bass line, drums, vocals and lyrics fall in place later,” says Sharath.

“Since we’re in different cities a lot, we also end up individually writing music, recording it, and sending it to each other. We hope to all someday be in the same place, jam regularly and build up songs that way,” adds Sarang. Many of the songs on the album are a year or so old and have repeatedly proven crowd-pullers at Black Letters’ gigs in festivals such as NH7 Weekender, Delhi and Go MAD, Ooty, besides at competitions such as Saarang, Chennai and Decibels, Kochi.

Over this time, the band’s musical sensibilities have changed too. “We’re listening to a lot more electronic music and writing songs that tend toward electronica too.” says Sarang. The band is now working on a four-or-five track EP set to release near December. “We’re looking at electronica with ambient sounds, clean guitars and really tight drum and bass grooves that drive the songs,” says Sharath. He explains that SOTW was named so because they’re a constantly evolving band, whose sound is changing day by day. Until we see what shapes the band shifts to next, there’s plenty in this album to keep fans satisfied. SOTW can be found at https://soundcloud.com/blackletters