'If that would be music, I'm in'
Singer Benny Dayal and composer Ehsaan Noorani discuss the influencers who drew them to the craft.
When Benny Dayal hops out of his car to join us at the mid-day office studio, he apologises before greeting us. With a scheduled recording in Andheri West delayed, Dayal is running significantly late for this interaction with Ehsaan Noorani, who arrives minutes prior than scheduled. Evidently perturbed about keeping the senior musician waiting, Dayal has (literally) got a spring in his steps. He refuses to wait for the elevators, choosing instead to dash up four floors as we scramble behind him. Noorani, a picture of calm throughout this while, breaks the tension with a smile. Even though the duo has collaborated on only two songs so far, the camaraderie they share is worth noticing. Dayal is brimming with questions that he hopes to pose for Noorani, which is why, he takes the lead.
Benny: You have been playing music for so many years. Where did your passion for the guitar stem from?
Ehsaan: When I was in school, I had a friend called Allan Sayani; he's the famous Hamid Sayani's son. He would play the guitar, and, one day, he played Here comes the sun by the Beatles.
Benny: That's strange: That's also the first song I played [the] drums on, with my band in school.
Ehsaan: So we have a connection! When I heard him play that song, something attracted me to it. That's when I started playing the guitar. He had a teacher called Bismarck Rodriguez, who eventually taught me also. He died two years ago at the age of 90-something. He was teaching all the way till then.
Eshaan: You did a lot of stuff before you got into music. Did you know all the while that you wanted to take to it?
Benny: I was schooled in Abu Dhabi. One day, I was travelling by school bus, which had really good speakers [installed], so that we could enjoy music. The previous night, the album of Dil Se had released, and [this morning], the driver played it for the first time. When the song got over, I ran from the back of the bus, where seniors sat, to the front, and said, can you play that song once again? He rewound the cassette and played it. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was nothing like what we had heard throughout these years. There was something uber cool about that music, and I was like, if this is going to be [how] music [will be], then I want to be a musician. That was it.
Ehsaan: We worked together on Coke Studio. I watched you perform a Michael Jackson tribute, [which had] African [influences]. Who were your multiple influences?
Benny: The first piece of music that anybody would have heard, as an Indian, is [that of] Mory Kante. I listen to Richard Bona. He doesn't always sing in English. In a lot of movies, I'd hear [certain] scores and samples; the kind that no one in India would sing, back then. I would imitate those pieces. Then, I started listening to other artistes.
[I was also influenced by] Michael Jackson. Then it was [KJ] Yesudas for a long time. Then, there was AR Rahman as a singer; not him composing, him singing. His singing quality is very unfinished. It touches you, but it is unfinished. Then there was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I love him. Stevie [Wonder], Freddy Mercury, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, were others. There were a lot of female vocalists. There were only a few hand-picked male vocalists [who I'd follow]. Sting was one among them. I wish I had a voice like his. Then there was Seal; Oh my god! I like the whole black-American unit. They are my favourite.
Benny: You're such a blues guy. Which is that one guitarist who drives you wild?
Ehsaan: Robben Ford.
Benny: I knew it had to be someone I've never heard of.
Ehsaan: When I went to America to study music at the Musicians Institute, there was an orientation week, for which we were divided into two groups. I was in the second one. I decided to go for lunch [with a friend], and, as we were stepping out, I heard a voice from the concert hall saying: "We'll play some blues". So, I said, let me hear who this is. I heard this guy play, and that was it. I was completely into him. [Even today], I follow his albums, and other work. Then there were many other guitarists, like BB King and Eric Clapton.
Eshaan: We [Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy] have got used to the idea that when a film bombs, our music can go down with it. How do you feel about it?
Benny: I don't keep expectations. Every time I step into a studio, I keep telling myself that I have to start from zero. I end up doing a lot of stuff that's in the same palette. But I don't regret it because the song is great. But, I avoid [repeating] what I already know, unless told to do so. For instance, when I work with you, Shankar [Mahadevan] sir says, "Benny, I want RnB." And I'm like, yeah cool. But I love it when I'm called for something I've not done before. I'm grateful that I'm given that chance.
Ehsaan: It's quite sad when a song fails though. Together, we did this song called Pepsi ki kasam. We thought it would do well, because it had a funky tune. But the film [failed], and everything went down with it.
Benny: I love that track too. I enjoyed recording it. Recording with you guys is quick. I was nominated for the other song we worked on, Locha e ulfat. It was a weird day. I had a show in Surat and some locha had happened. Some musicians' families got drunk and came to attack us. So we had to escape. Sitting in the car, I was traumatised, when suddenly I got this message [stating] the song was nominated. And I was like, when one bad [thing] happens, one good [thing] happens too.
Ehsaan: Do you prefer recording in a studio, or doing live shows? I think it will be the shows.
Benny: No, I love both. I love recording. When I used to record songs initially, I would say, I wish I die in a studio. I should just pop while singing a song.
Ehsaan: I'd like to die on stage, with my shoes on. That's happened to a couple of guitar players. Johnny "guitar" Watson was a famous guitar player. He was playing a guitar solo on stage; he was really [going all] out. He finished his 12th bar and dropped dead. Okay, now this conversation is getting morose.
Benny: You guys would do ads before, right? Which was your first ad?
Ehsaan: The first one that got released was for a product called Sona Spices. I recorded the jingle on New Year's day in 1989. Zubeen [Garg] agreed to do it with me. We came to the studio at 11 am [on January 1]. Forget having a hangover, we were still drunk from the past evening. We were reeking of vodka. We got into the studio, recorded the single, and then, our careers changed. The jingle went through, then two films got made, and then it just went on from there. [SEL] still does ads. We just did one three days ago. They are a great discipline to be part of. Rahman started with ads too. The first time I met him was when he was doing a commercial for Bharat Bala. We went for dinner at The President, and he gave me a cassette and said, 'This is [the audio to] my new film. Tell me what you think.' That was Roja. Nobody knew that [soundtrack] would sweep the industry.
Benny: A lot of people have so many versions of how they heard [that soundtrack] the first time.
Benny: I work with Salim-Suleiman a lot. Salim was once programming with the keys, and was searching for some Fender sounds. He turned to me and asked: 'Benny, tell me, which guitarist in India makes the Fender guitar, sound like the Fender?' I started naming guitarists. He said, 'No one does it like Ehsaan. That's exactly why he has a signature series on his Fender.' Tell me, how did that come about?
Ehsaan: When Fender came to India in 1994, I took the guys who were in charge, around the country. We'd just talk about guitars, and they were freaked out to learn that I knew more about it than they did. I was also doing a lot to promote the brand. They said they wanted to present a guitar to me. So, I ordered one with the [elements] I wanted. Three months later, I get a call and was told: "[Fender] wants you to do a signature line of guitars." I said, you're kidding; it's impossible. They said, "No, we really want to, but we're not doing the expensive Fender. We'll do the Chinese version called Squier." I agreed to that, so that people could afford it here. You can't have a guitar that only you, or two others, can afford.
Benny: What went into making it?
Ehsaan: Of course, I wanted the guitar to suit my purpose. But, I had the bigger picture in mind. The first thing was versatility, in terms of its sound. I knew it shouldn't be something that one could only play blues on. I wanted to make it such that even a heavy-metal player could use it. So, the electronics were placed in that way. Also, most Indians have small hands, I do too. Americans have huge hands. So I kept that in mind when designing it. The first [version] launched in four colours, and sold out within months. Then we brought in a limited edition of gold sparkle, because I love gold guitars. There may be only two left in shops all over India. But that whole programme is discontinued now. I'm still a Fender artiste, though.
Ehsaan: Of all the musicians you've worked with, whose process do you like the best?
Benny: I started working with Pravin Mani. He is my godfather, because he produced my initial album called S5. In the studio, he'd arrange the vocals and harmonies of all the tracks. That's where I learnt the entire process of working in a studio. But, when it comes to song-making, I think [I admire] Rahman sir.
Eshaan: Yeah, he's a genius. There are no two ways about it.
Benny: On occasions, a session would start with nothing apart from you and him [working together], and the song would be created. There's a funny story. When Pravin was working with me, he had told Rahman, "Hey, there's this guy called Benny. You should work with him." But Rahman sir has got so many things on his mind that he cannot remember [everything]. Years later, Rahman sir found me in a studio. He called Pravin and said, "Hey, guess what? I found one singer. His name is Benny." Pravin was like, "Hey dude, this is the same Benny I told you about."
Ehsaan: What are some of the crazy experiences you've had in the studio? For instance, once I was working for a wonderful composer called PP Vaidyanathan. He used to do the local Hindi language jingles. There were Hindi composers [on one hand], and Louis Banks and Ronnie Desai, among others, were doing the Western music. I was called in for a Hindi jingle [for an aspirin brand]. The actor was shown suffering from a headache, and then he recovers, and is happy. They wanted me to play a guitar solo in those four bars. For me, [guitar solo] meant distortion. I went [all out], and they got a cardiac arrest. They were like, 'Are you crazy? The whole track will be [rejected]. We need something romantic.' The musicians were in splits.
Benny: If I must trace an incident like that, it will be one with Rahman sir. We all know he is the king of spontaneity. Once, we were singing a Tamil song and it was my first song as a solo vocalist. The track was a duet though. He was tracking both male and female versions together. He had divided us from mic to mic. The song had a question-answer kind of format. I'd say something; then the girls would respond. It was all set, we had the lyrics with us. But, for one question that I posed, the girls [unintentionally] began to laugh. He [Rahman] said, "Hey, sounds nice, man. But just laugh in key no."
Ehsaan: What are you most looking forward to doing in the future?
Benny: My band and I want to cross over. We've written a few English singles and are working on a few collaborations. I also want to do stuff that's relevant in India; work in Hindi and Tamil music industries. I want to do something in Malayalam too. There's not been anything funky in Malayalam, in the non-film space.
Benny: As a huge contributor to the industry, what are the changes you see the music industry will go through?
Ehsaan: I think every change is circular; it comes back in a more refined way. I don't think there's anything new happening. In the '70s, a record company paid Led Zeppelin to go out of the country and come out with something new; They didn't say, "Okay, we want 10 songs that are like this." Unfortunately, that's what's happening now. Look at India; [it's dominated by] covers. You [production houses] are boring people. You're making money, and business is essential; but finding artistes who do things differently is also important. I found this channel called North East Live, and they have a North East Beats section. I thought, it will be all about folk music. But some of the artistes are putting out songs that are of international quality. There's a producer called Mozzey; he puts out music which is as good as that coming out from anywhere in the world. Artistes from Mizoram are so good. They just need a little push to become mainstream. Once record companies start pushing them, [the music scene] will see a resurgence.
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