Musician Rex Vijayan tells about his journey from being a self-taught guitarist to pioneering the band Avial and his recent tryst directing Malayalam film music

Rex Vijayan on stage is a force to reckon with. As his fingers ease fast rhythms from his fretboard, his body does a light-footed dance, and his curls head bang in time. Mid-performance though, his eyes often close to a meditative silence and his head rises heavenward in ecstasy, lost to the music that speaks stronger than he does. Rex Vijayan in person is an extension of that picture—quiet and contemplative, carefully choosing words to articulate what his guitar does better. From his early days as Motherjane’s acoustic guitarist, to his time as a Daksha Sheth Dance Company musician, to pioneering Malayalam rock with Avial, and in his current outing as a rising film score director, Rex’s music has stretched many frontiers. Yet, threading through it all has been an untiring search—for that definitive sound that is at once global, yet distinctively Malayali.

Rex’s music roots begin in his hometown, Kollam, where his music-director father Albert Vijayan taught the guitar. Rex, however, was sent for piano classes which he disliked. While film and classical music was a staple at home, hanging around Albert’s classes opened Rex to different sounds. “Students would come with heavy metal and rock songs and ask my father to teach them! That’s my first memory of consciously being drawn to music.” He went on to teach himself the guitar, the drums and the piano, and join his father at recording sessions. One day, during his pre-degree, Motherjane’s drummer John Thomas came home looking for a rhythm guitarist. And he found Rex just right for their line-up. “Almost immediately, I left college and moved to Kochi for my first professional stint with a band,” smiles Rex.

Dance days

Five years with Motherjane introduced Rex to the musicians and music scene of that time. Through them he auditioned for, and later joined, the Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Thiruvananthapuram as a touring guitarist. “We played live rock-influenced, but traditional music to contemporary dance choreography.” Here he found Tony John, then a member of Jigsaw Puzzle band. “Tony showed me their rock rendition of ‘Nada Nada’, and I instantly felt a homecoming. Here was music that finally bridged the music I listened to and the language I spoke.” Avial was formed just to reimagine that one song in 2003, but grew to become the Malayalam rock movement it is today. “When we toured worldwide to audiences who knew no Malayalam but loved us, I realised that language wasn’t what stopped Malayalam music from becoming mainstream, it was a matter of presenting it right.”

A sign of that acceptance to the mainstream was film director Aashiq Abu’s choice of Avial’s ‘Aana Kallan’ song in Salt ‘N’ Pepper (2011). But Rex’s own debut as music director came in Anwar Rasheed’s Bridge, the eighth slice of the 10-director anthology Kerala Cafe (2009). “I knew nothing about songwriting for films but Anwar moulded me without letting me know he was doing so.” Further education came with Sameer Thahir’s Chaappa Kurishu (2011), which gave him space to experiment. Through four songs and a background score, Rex unleashed strong guitar-riff driven pieces contrasted by gentler guitar-plucked tunes that set the film’s tone. “Even as an individual music director, I think like a band person. For me, a melody always begins with the guitar, because while it’s a beautiful harmonic instrument, it can be really dynamic in touch too. So it’s everything in six strings.” Over this threadbare guitar-voice combination comes percussion, for Rex is a drummer at heart. In conversation too, his fingers are always tapping out rhythms on the table.

The difference though between Rex’s band music and his film scores, is the freedom to break out of templated sounds in the latter. “Avial is known for a signature style. Time-tested bands stick with the sound they’re associated with and build on that through each new album. But films need you to create a completely different feel for each story,” says Rex, who has assisted music directors Bijibal in 22 Female Kottayam (2012), Roby Abraham in Friday (2012), and Nikhil Rajan in Second Show (2012) for the background score. 2013 has brought rich dividends too. Shyamaprasad’s English saw Rex team up with American clarinetist Shankar Tucker, to compose a soundtrack that was typically NRI longing for home. Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi saw him at his innovative best. From the banjo, to the ukulele, mandolin and even the four-stringed prim, the score was a hat tip to world fusion, growing more oriental in touch as the road movie travelled north-east. Rex also turned singer with ‘Enthanu Bhai?’ in Da Thadiya and Neelakasham…’s title track.

Looking inwards

For how wide Rex’s repertoire is, his language is continuously self-examinatory. “I create by intuition. Since I wasn’t formally trained, my method is trial and error. They’re happy accidents mostly.” While praise and acceptance have validated his creative sense, he says he’s never certain when he’s finished a piece. “My music sounds different to me when I’m in different moods. But what I’m sure of is that when something surprises me, I know it’s right.” His own listening tastes range from the rock-and-roll greats to obscure folk musicians and ambient, electronica groups, all of whom are full bands, rarely solo acts. “I have a special liking for unpopular music. Those sounds that you’re unused to hearing, are strangely beautiful.” For this interview though, we’re in familiar territory — the recording sessions of Mother Jane’s upcoming single. Rex is here, not as a guitarist, but for his experience as an arranger, composer and producer of music. He has come full circle.