Peter Cat Recording Co.
A cat may have nine lives, but Peter Cat Recording Co. has a multitude of dimensions. Formed in New Delhi around 2010 by the crooner Suryakant Sawhney, it’s a group that’s mutated over time, shedding members and accruing more, always evolving musically with each album: from gypsy jazz to psychedelic cabaret; ballroom waltzes to epic space disco; bossa supernova to uneasy listening. What’s more they play jajj, which you’ve almost certainly never heard of. More on that shortly.
“Gypsy jazz is the description we used around the time of our first album ‘’Sinema’’, that we sound nothing like now,” says Sawhney, before adding: “At the time I was really into Strauss.”
Portrait of a Time 2010 – 2016 is the first taste many europeans will have of this highly original, musically capricious and deeply inscrutable New Delhi five-piece. The compilation helps you get to know a band who are essentially unknowable, not that that will stop you from trying. Furthermore, in a capital city known for its mystery, madness and mayhem, Peter Cat Recording Co. is something of an anomaly there too.
“In India we are definitely a strange little group,” explains Surya, laughing. “It’s basically an unusual group of people. For some reason it came to pass that apart from me, everyone else in this group was in a death metal band called Lycanthropy. I’d written all this music and over time they got into it, getting heavily into Balkan jazz and all types of stuff into the bargain.” Right now, the band is a five piece crew members around Suryakant’s poetry, with names on their faces, from Kartik Sundareshan (guitar/prog/keys), Karan Singh (drums), to Drhuv Bhola (bass) and Rohit Gupta (keys/trumpet).
While Suryakant’s crooning is spookily reminiscent of a hipster 50’s Sinatra, it was more his intention to ape legendary Bollywood playback singers like Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and especially Hemant Kumar. There are diverse American influences in the mix too, including Sam Cooke, Etta James and even Tom Waits, and time spent in San Francisco studying film may have contributed to the cinematic melange. Thrown together it becomes something unique that equates less to a listening experience and more to an out-of-body experience.
“I guess I like to imagine that I have a mutant voice. I’ve been inspired by both Hindu Bhajan singers and more prominent US soul and gospel singers. I also absorbed the styles of Ethiopian vocalists like Mahmoud Ahmed and Menelik Wossenachew.” The psychedelic influence meanwhile is more a logical byproduct of “lifestyle” according to the singer.
Musically Peter Cat Recording Co. has its own genre, the aforementioned “jajj”. This neologism sprung from the unlikeliest of sources. Suryakant says there is no real touring circuit in Delhi, let alone a toilet circuit, and so to get gigs they’ve taken the unusual step of driving to other cities to look for shows. It’s an endeavour that’s proved surprisingly effective, and one of these gigs took place 450 km away from home in neighbouring Rajasthan. Suryakant picks up the story:
“One day we found this really shady hotel with a trashy Bollywood aesthetic. I love Bollywood but there’s no other word for this hotel. And so we played this gig there. We started performing and initially the crowd wasn’t into it but after time they did eventually really start to connect with us. The next thing we knew a group of police turned up, and naturally we assumed a premature end would come to our evening. Then the policemen really started to get into it too. This one policeman gets on stage hell wasted. We thought he was going to shut off the sound but instead he starts marching around the stage like a maniac shouting ‘don’t stop playing this jajj!’ He was out of his face but it was a great description: I think it’s the best description anyone’s come up with. Jajj music. Sort of unskilled jazz. None of us are amazing musicians. There are no Coltranes in the band.”
There may be no virtuosos, but Peter Cat Recording Co. is now the closest its ever been to a psychedelic wedding outfit, with blaring mariachi trumpets and multi-instrumentalists who can adeptly recreate the recorded sound live. “It’s the band I always wanted it to be,” says Surya with immense pride.
They were signed to new French record company Panache after label boss Alexandre Rabia was trawling through YouTube one day and happened upon their remarkable promo for ‘Love Demons’, which had been premiered in 2014 by Vice’s much-missed dance subsidiary, Thump. It’s a mind-blowing eight minute epic featuring the desert, one camel, a movie theatre, swirly organs over coruscating beats, dancing girls, more police and a cavernous pit that then-bassist Rohan Kulshreshtha falls into. It was enough to make Alexandre and his excited colleague Jérôme Alquier want to sign them there and then over the internet. Contact was made and terms were discussed. And their prerequisite for signing on? Surya requested a couple of microphones from Germany. “You don’t get this kind of equipment in Delhi!” he says. “And if you do you have to pay three times the premium. It’s nuts!”
Peter Cat Recording Co. went to Paris to record all of the vocals for their forthcoming as-yet-untitled album in 2018, and they mixed Portrait of a Time while they were there as well. “The guy who owned the studio, The Duke, was supercool,” says Surya. “After a while he figured out the sort of person I am and he’d say ‘I’m going to give you the keys and go to sleep now. You do whatever you want’. He had a fantastic selection of mics and preamps. That’s something you just don’t have access to back here.”
You can try to compartmentalise them all you want, but just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they will evolve and transmogrify and the description you have in your hand will slip through your fingers like sand. Who knows if Peter Cat Recording Co. has nine lives, but you can listen to a past life on Portrait of a Time, and a future incarnation – much of it recorded in Paris – will be available in the autumn. Just remember, unlike a cat, you’ll never put them in a box.