Your ears perk up at the sound of a resounding trumpet. Soon your eyes turn to this group of men, all dressed in kurtas, taking center stage, ready to give you the performance of a lifetime. In the era of singles, Peter Cat Recording Company chose to break the norm and do things the traditional way, giving way to a niche sound that is better heard than explained.
“I would say it’s hard to put us in a box,” says Suryakant Sawhney (singer, guitars), who bursts out laughing right after. Kartik Sundareshan Pillai (keyboards, guitar, electronics, trumpet), Dhruv Bhola (bass and samples), Karan Singh (drums) and Rohit Gupta (keyboards, trumpet) form the rest of the group. Starting in Delhi, the group recently moved to Goa to undertake the next phase of their storytelling.
During a videoconference with YS Lifethe members of the group, each in their own environment, deceive each other about their respective environment during the call.
There is an undeniable energy between them and even more with the public. Crowds move effortlessly to the smooth, groovy jazz music of the ballroom in what sounds like a drunken stupor, almost as if you’ve been transported to your own realm. Except you never know what’s next. “It seems unpredictability is what works for us,” Suryakanth says.
Keeping it simple and straightforward is very much the Peter Cat way. You can see it in the way they dress, opting for a simple kurta, while most contemporary artists prefer flashy clothes. This accessible aesthetic was incidental, says Suryakanth.
“We were shooting a certain gig, and it was just easier for all of us to align ourselves to a particular look. We also took into consideration how it looked in a certain context, and we decided to stick with it,” he says.
“To be honest, Karan was the only one who probably dressed well back then,” adds Kartik. “I was showing up in pajamas, Suryakanth had maybe two shirts or something, and that’s when we decided okay, let’s all wear the same thing,” he says.
This unpredictability coupled with the honest approach to music has seen Peter Cat come a long way since their launch in 2011. The evolution is clear not only in their eminent popularity on social media and in packed halls wherever they go, but also in the way they sound.
Their last album Bismillah clocked in millions of streams on Spotify and put them on a pedestal for everyone to see.
Naturally, when you’re on the verge of success, the temptation can be to resort to old patterns, especially when you know your listeners well. This is exactly the sort of thing they want to avoid, opting for a more arduous process to ensure everything sounds exactly as it should.
As Kartik says, while it can take the band about a week to decide if a particular song works, it can sometimes take years to find the perfect track. This was the case for one of their flagship songs, Where the money flows.
“For where the money flows, Suryakant wrote the first draft in his bathroom… then it took another 8 years to complete. I’m not even kidding,” says Kartik. Suryakanth quickly chimed in, “Okay, maybe not 8, at least 7.”
“Our problem is that we’re just trying to do our best to become a better band,” Suryakanth says. “We try to understand better early on what the song is, who needs to play what, and if it’s good, that’s the real challenge,” he adds.
But for a band that also performs live, things don’t stop the minute they’re done in the studio. Having built the foundations of their success on tour, putting on a show is very much in their DNA. The decade-old band tour often across the country, with thousands of listeners flocking to each gig. Yet each time they perform, it comes as a surprise that so many people listen to their music.
“At a concert recently, people started singing the song before me, and I was like these fucking guys! It’s very nice but I’m also very surprised. I’m sure Suryakant has a different view says Kartik, giving way to Suryakant.
“It’s nice, but also quite boring,” Suryakant said with a laugh. “It’s only because when they sing, you’re completely wrong! But sometimes the sound quality of a lot of people singing together at the same time is quite overwhelming… it’s nice to see a group of people doing the same thing together, it gets me very emotional anyway. It’s just nicer to be on stage watching it.
But at other times, it can be liberating. “We have more freedom to publicize our idea,” says Karan. “With new material now, we are looking to see how we will play live. As a band, we love this aspect of playing in front of an audience,” he adds.
For any musician at the top of their game, the challenge is to maintain the streak.
This comes with a few hurdles to jump through to Peter Catlike Suryakant’s own career as Lifafa, a solo artist. Suryakant explains that he sometimes finds himself at a crossroads between the group and Lifafa.
“Sometimes I feel like there are songs I could perform better on my own, and some better with the band. It comes down to financial decisions…if that’s possible, I would then bring all the songs to the band, but with Lifafa, it is not only an artistic choice, but also a financial choice. I had to figure out how I could make money independently in music, and it also helped me to be happier in Peter Cat and do what I can,” he says. However, the two coexist in symbiosis, says Suryakant.
The future looks bright for Peter Cat. With fresh music on the way, they hope that experimenting with new sounds will propel them further beyond their base in India.
“We just want to keep making music our way. Each member of the band has their own creative outlet, but we’re coming together to create something wholesome, which is what we’ll continue to do,” he adds.