The Brooklyn and New Jersey-based rock band Bamboo Shoots gained national attention in 2007 when college students from across the nation voted it the MTVu/Epic Records 2007 “College Artist of the Year.” Shortly thereafter, an electrifying performance of one of its signature songs, “Hey Girl,” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien introduced a wider audience to the band of four Indian-Americans and an Egyptian-American.
The five members of Bamboo Shoots are Avir Mitra (vocals, guitars), Karl Sukhia (bass, bass synthesizer, keyboards, vocals), Ankur Patel (electric drums, percussion, keyboards), Ahmed Mahmoud (guitars), and Shiv Puri (drums, percussion).
As the MTVu/Epic College Artist of the Year, Bamboo Shoots was awarded a record deal with Epic, and in September 2007 the band headed to Sausalito, Calif., to work with producer Jerry Harrison (Live, No Doubt, Violent Femmes) on its first full-length album. Recording was recently finished, and the album is now being mixed by Mark “Spike” Stent (Madonna, Bjork, No Doubt).
Shortly before the guys headed west to work with Harrison, the band took a break from an all-day rehearsal in New York City to speak with me via telephone.
Is there a story or a meaning behind the name Bamboo Shoots?
Karl: We had been a band for a few months. At the time, our name was Paper Tiger, but that wasn’t really even set yet. We had only played one or two shows. We were all just walking somewhere after a show and one of us said the name “Bamboo Shoots” and no one could knock it. There was nothing not to like, so we were all good with it.
Shiv: And what’s cool is that over the years we’ve grown into the name, and it’s started to mean different things to different people. I think it means more to other people than it ever did to us. We’ve heard things like it’s an organic name, it’s kind of neutral, it’s also kind of Asian, it has a kind of mystique, it’s not obvious, it can mean everything and nothing at the same time.
Ankur: My interpretation is strength and growth.
Do you guys have formal training in music?
Ankur: I have been playing percussion since I was very young. I developed my rhythm playing on pots, pans, and Tupperware containers as a small child. Later I found that I had a natural ability to play Indian percussion instruments, and I worked to build on that. I have never had formal training.
Shiv: I also grew up playing pots and pans. I got my first drum-set when I was 12, and I just taught myself by playing along with Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and Jimi Hendrix. And then I started playing with hip-hop. My only formal musical training was that I took sitar lessons in high school and college from Ustad Shujaat Khan.
Avir: I started playing piano when I was little. I played saxophone starting in fourth grade. When I was 12 I picked up a guitar, and then I was all about guitar. With saxophone and piano I took lessons. With guitar, I’m mostly self-taught.
Karl: I started off when I was around four or five. My mom would enter me into singing competitions, and I would sing Beatles songs. In elementary school I started playing the trombone. I picked up the guitar at 14 and then there was nothing else. Later I picked up the bass and now I play bass in the band, and I picked up keyboard more recently. Avir taught me what I know about keyboard playing.
What about your educational backgrounds?
Shiv: I went to NYU, plus I spent a semester in London. I graduated in 2002 with a degree in finance, then worked in that field for a couple of years. I was always interested in globalization and politics.
Ankur: I’m the youngest. I never finished my degree in civil engineering. I always wanted to do music and decided to go for it.
Avir: I attended Brown University, studied biology, and graduated in 2003.
Were you pre-med?
Avir: I like science, but I’ve wanted to do music since I was 14.
What about you, Karl?
Karl: I went to the University of Maryland and majored in political science. I graduated in 2003. I was thinking law. But I had to make a choice. I really wanted to do music, and I knew that if I didn’t give 100 percent to music, I’d have less likelihood of really achieving something with it.
How did you end up with two drummers?
Avir: That happened over time. A lot of the music we were writing and listening to was very percussive. I was watching a lot of James Brown, and he had two drummers. A lot of hip-hop groups use two drummers. You can’t really play that music with just one drummer.
Have you guys heard what the comedian Todd Barry says about two-drummer rock-bands?
He says if you’re a drummer, and you join a rock-band that already has a drummer, then you’re a jerk.
Avir and Karl, how did you two meet and start writing songs together?
Karl: Our parents met first. One day Avir just ended up at my house for dinner, along with his parents. We were probably 12 or 13. We never went to school together, but what made us hang out together was the music. Both of us kept coming back. When we were 15, we figured out how to record on the computer. We made an album using guitars and piano and pots and pans. We used about 20 tracks. Making music was so much more rewarding than anything else we did. We always had a great respect for education, but music was where we really got fulfillment.
Do you guys carry recorders or notebooks with you to get down ideas? Or do you meet with nothing and write from scratch? Or both?
Karl: Yeah, we carry notebooks, and our cell-phones can record. If something comes to me, I’ll stop what I’m doing and hum it into my phone.
Avir: I usually start with a drum-machine pattern or beat, then add bass. Then I find a progression of chords to go over top of it, and start humming things. If I have my notebook with me, I’ll try some lyrics from the notebook; otherwise I’ll just make lyrics up as I go.
Karl: Avir and I were writing songs together from such a young age that we’ve developed an ability to write songs that sound like us. He has a studio in his apartment, and I have one in mine. And most of our songs do start with drums and percussion, then add bass, then we add guitars on top.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “This World is Beautiful.” The way it’s layered is truly beautiful—how it starts with the distinctive Indian percussion rhythm, then adds the lovely bass and guitar riff and then the mournful vocals and the guitar triplets. It’s stunning. How did that song come about?
Avir: I was listening to this Zakir Hussain CD, and I was obsessed with it. He plays 16 minutes of tablas with his father. It’s so fast that I had to slow it down to figure out the rhythms. And when I slowed it down I found this loop, and I just kept looping it and looping it, then started coming up with parts on top of it.
Almost all of your songs are in minor keys. Is that on purpose?
Avir: We do have one song that’s super major-chordy, which is Interstate 95—
(general laughter from group)
Avir: We don’t really think about it.
Karl: That’s not something we strive to do; that’s just what we tend to write.
As a result of all the minor stuff, the music tends to be pretty dark. Do you agree?
But paradoxically, your shows have a very positive, party-type atmosphere. How do you explain the dichotomy?
Avir: I don’t think we’ve ever thought about that.
Shiv: The music may be dark, but while we’re performing, our personalities come out. The energy we bring to the stage is very positive and fun. We want people to dance and enjoy themselves. And to hear our music. It’s inclusive. We’re not playing to the audience; we’re playing for the audience. The audience isn’t part of some songwriter’s depressing mental outlook. They’re part of the party.
Karl: Even with our dark music, when we’re on stage we are celebrating.
Yes, from the tapes I’ve seen of you, you guys seem to really enjoy performing live.
Shiv: Some bands are about the front guy, and everybody else is in the background, and has nothing to do with it except that they’re playing their parts. But with us, I really think that everybody on stage gets to express themselves and bring their personality to the table. We love playing the music together and we use it to express our love for one another.
When I watch you, I get a real sense of your band as an ensemble. Also, you guys like an open atmosphere. So it’s not so much as if the audience is watching you, but more like they are participating. Are you concerned that it might be difficult for you to maintain that spirit as you start to play bigger venues?
Avir: I’ve definitely thought about that. I get tired of going to rock shows where it’s about hero worship. I’d rather go to a club where there’s music playing, but it’s more about the people in the audience, and their experience—it’s not about worshipping the guy on stage.
Karl: It will be a challenge. But I don’t think the five of us will let the situation change into that kind of adulation and celebrity. That dynamic is not what has gotten us to this point.
Shiv: I used to go to a lot of Indian classical concerts. And there it’s all about the audience. The appreciation that audiences can show might seem like rude interruptions in some contexts, but in the Indian classical context, the audience’s reaction is a reflection of the artists’ performance. We’ve been to those concerts together, side-clapped the rhythms together, trying to predict where the next accent is going to be in a sequence. We’re not passive listeners—we’re part of what’s going on. As a band that’s something we’ve really learned and taken to heart.
The two-part harmonies that you create are quite different from what I’m used to hearing in any music. How do you create those?
Avir: Mostly Karl does the harmonies. He has a knack for it. When we had a studio in Karl’s basement in Jersey, on the first take he would come up with these pretty crazy harmonies that nobody else would have ever thought of.
Shiv: Karl and I are roommates. We listen to the same music, I’ll hear him sing along with something, in totally different keys and harmonies, and it sounds so weird and cool. I think he has a natural ability to do that.
When I saw your Conan performance of “Hey Girl,” I was struck by what a weird cool harmony that was.
Karl: Avir actually came up with that one. We’ve been working together so long that he’s kind of taking on that ability. It’s now one of our tools. There’s always the easy harmony for everything, the first one that comes to mind.
The good-old third above the melody.
Karl: Yes, exactly! Most people stop there, but I usually discard that first one, and try something else.
Is that a left-brain or right-brain thing? Do you say, well, this is an F-sharp minor chord, and it already has the third in the melody, so let’s try the fifth or the root for the harmony? Or do you just try something and see how it sounds?
Karl: I just sing and find something, but Avir works more the first way, because he knows more music theory.
Avir: We’re now working on incorporating some three-part harmonies. Ahmed is singing now. We’ve been working on that at our rehearsals.
You have a broad range of genres and influences represented in your music: electronic, hip-hop, rock, Indian classical and folk, sampling, and reggae. Where do all of these come from?
Ankur: All the band members bring something different to the table in terms of musical tastes. What everybody personally listens to makes our music … a fruit-punch.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Shiv: Ustad Vilayat Khan—a real musician’s musician. Also Questlove, Jon Theodore, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, Bjork.
Avir: Stevie Wonder, Lamb, Jay-Z, King Tubby, J Dilla, Rage Against the Machine.
Karl: Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, My Morning Jacket, Rage Against the Machine, Basement Jaxx, Refused.
Ahmed: Radiohead, Massive Attack, Tool, Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails, Miles Davis.
Ankur: I listen to R&B, hip-hop, rock, soul, jazz, house, and Latin music.
Does having all of those different types of influences in your music affect the make-up of your audience?
Karl: I’m sure it does—we have a diverse audience. I don’t see audiences like ours at any other concerts.
Ahmed: Recently Avir made a striking point to the audience in the middle of our set. He looked out at the audience and noticed we had all these different age groups at our show; there were 8-year-olds, teens, young adults, and older adults, and they were all into it!
Shiv: I think the audience really appreciates the diversity. They are around people they might not otherwise be around, but they all have our music in common. I think that also contributes to that party atmosphere that we have at our concerts.
Is your set-list fixed or always changing?
Avir: Sometimes we play the same cities, so some of the same people come. Now we have a whole bunch of songs, so we can do different songs at different shows. We’re experimenting with changing the set on the fly. One time we played at this weird off-the-beaten-path bar. We changed everything up because of the way the place was. As the set was going, we just called out songs and played them on the fly.
Ankur: It’s similar to how a DJ might read a crowd and cater to that crowd. That’s part of that dynamic of the audience being participants rather than just spectators.
Ahmed: I’ve been in several bands before, and none of them did what Bamboo Shoots does. Before a gig, we have a meeting and discuss the gig: what type of club, what type of place, what type of people, whether there’s another band, if so what are they like, etc. And we create the set-list from there. Most bands just say, this is our set-list, period.
To what extent are your lyrics autobiographical?
Avir: Mixed. They tend to be something that means something to us—probably something one of us wrote down at some point because of something that was going on or because of how we felt. Mine tend to be analytical of myself or a situation.
Karl: Yep, that’s Avir, the scientist. He’s very analytical and observational. I’m not so much like that.
When you were writing “Hey Girl,” did you know that it would become a signature piece?
Avir: Kind of. It happened really fast—it was an easy song to write. The funny thing is, we’ve also slaved over songs that nobody ends up caring about. Once “Hey Girl” was done, we knew that people were going to go crazy over this one. But it was painless to write.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|