The School of TAAQ

Thermal and a Quarter’s ambitious fifth album, 3 Wheels 9 Lives, spans political messaging and groovy listening, says Aradhna Wal

Road trip (L to R) Rajeev Rajagopal, Prakash KN and Bruce Lee Mani
Road trip (L to R) Rajeev Rajagopal, Prakash KN and Bruce Lee Mani

IN 1996, three Mallus and a quarter Mallu formed a college band. Fan lore says that they called it Thermal and a Quarter (TAAQ), playing on their ethnicities. Fifteen years and multiple line-up changes later, TAAQ has emerged as one of the country’s favourite alternative rock acts. Bruce Lee Mani (vocals and guitar, the quarter Mallu), Rajeev Rajagopal (drums, one of the original Mallus) and their new bassist Prakash KN have been touring India to launch their fifth album, 3 Wheels 9 Lives, at packed venues in Bengaluru, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai.
TAAQ is not the only Indian band to have been playing for many years. But, unlike stagnating groups, it has remained unique, innovative, lyrically clever and true to its blend of jazz, funk and rock. 3 Wheels is a three-CD, 28-song behemoth. Despite the ambitious scale and diverse material, the strong vocals, complex guitar riffs and bluesy melodies make the sound happily familiar, satisfying long-time listeners and reeling in newcomers. TAAQ is more than just rock. Bruce’s jazz sensibilities play a huge part in the songwriting process, as heard on the album track Birthday and an old, highly inventive cover of Hey Jude. A large part of their appeal lies in their incredible live shows. The Delhi leg of their tour featured a two-hour gig with a tight set, amped-up energy, big sound and not one faltering note.
A demonic autorickshaw adorns the album art, making the ubiquitous public transport vehicle the leitmotif. The lyrical alchemy transforms it into a metaphor for life in the Indian city. Listeners go on wild rides with F1 drivers reincarnated as autowallahs who rip off customers (the ridiculously catchy Meter Mele One-and-a-Half), meet lonely urbanites looking for love (Billboard Bride) and artists fighting censorship (Won’t Stop). TAAQ calls itself Bangalore rock but every urban dweller will identify with the conjured cityscape. Misadventures in autos unite daily commuters across the country. “Our songwriting process is a response to what’s happening around us,” explains Rajeev. “The music documents our lives in India and things that affect us,” adds Bruce.
Their social awareness is patently obvious. Their Twitter feed has conversations on India’s political turmoil (“It’s the first time the words “PM” and “strong rebuttal” have been used in the same sentence in a long, long time!”) and the recent exodus of Northeasterners (“Folks afraid to live in parts of their own country, fleeing to their homelands. Difficult day for Bangalore!”). In a music scene littered with imitative style empty of any ethos, TAAQ is acutely tuned to its surroundings. A 1999 track, Humpty Dumpty, talked about Jayalalithaa pulling out from the Union government, a move echoed by Mamata Banerjee today. “I heard someone say that Mamata changed her Facebook relationship status from ‘it’s complicated’ to ‘single’,” jokes Rajeev, who is the most vociferous about their involvement with ground realities. “We wrote Won’t Stop when an artist was jailed in Mumbai for his work. We’re not chanting slogans but we have to protect artistic freedom in the face of moral policing,” says Bruce. They wrote Shut Up and Vote (2009) at the NGO Janaagraha’s behest, to make voting as cool as rock ’n’ roll. Kickbackistan’s lyrics, “the stink of your lust, it lingers”, pointedly talk about the dirty politics unearthed in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Their spontaneous reactions resonate with public sentiment. One Small Love spoke out against the Mangalore pub attacks, along with a very angry nation.
All is not deathly serious. The focus stays on the melodies and production. TAAQ gave the Indian rock scene its bona fide anthem Jupiter Café. The years have only added to their indefatigable enthusiasm about music in India. Back from their summer US tour, they compare the two experiences: “Everything there is well-organised and musicians can make a living off music. But, in India, there are limitless possibilities for things yet to happen. Music is a fickle and unforgiving industry but venues are growing and bands are experimenting with rock, funk and blues. The ecosystem is evolving.”
Such a band could probably not exist elsewhere. There are no outside references to anchor their music. They thrive on the chaos and the “wonderful treacly pace of the Indian juggernaut”. TAAQ knows its sound, and how to keep it rolling.
Aradhna Wal is a Sub-Editor with Tehelka.