Monday, 5 November 2012

An Interview with John Daniel

I was in my final year at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore when John Daniel started his first year (1997-1998). I remember John to be very polite, but then all freshers were extra polite to the seniors. John’s politeness was however the friendly, confident sort, which made me suspect he was putting me at ease rather than the other way around. I can’t say John and I have been close friends, but we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve always had extra admiration for people who sing (maybe because I’m tone-deaf) and my regard for John increased when he gave up working in the mainstream sector and switched to teaching music full-time. John is currently recording his debut music album.

Winnowed: When did you start singing?

John: Carols, Sunday-school, house parties where my parents and their friends sang “oldies”, and having two older very musically-inclined brothers exposed me to music from an early age. My brother, Titus, and I would insist that my parents’ friends hear at least 3 of our songs whenever they came to visit. We would then dance for them, but that story is for another time!

I remember singing my own songs as a child whenever I was really sad, mostly whenever my parents fought. Those songs were random words put to random tunes by a six year old child. Some part of that approach to my music hasn’t changed – I find it easier to write my songs when I’m a little down.

What was the first musical instrument that you learned to play?

John: The first musical instrument that I learned to play was the talaam, a percussion instrument, which I picked up while playing bhajans in Sai Baba’s school in Ooty. (While my mother is a radical Christian, my father is an Agnostic Hindu! That kind of explains why I’m a confused atheist.) I then moved on to play the tabla, dholak and harmonium during those bhajan sessions. This was around the 4th grade. Then during my vacation break, my mother bought me a 5 octave keyboard hoping to sway me towards picking up carols and hymns. The diversity of the keyboard in terms of instrument sounds and octave range really broadened my worldview of music!

Winnowed: Did you teach yourself to play the talaam, the tabla, the dholak and the harmonium or did someone else teach you?

John: Students could practice with any instrument they wanted to before those bhajan sessions in the evening and the talaam was the easiest to play because all one had to do essentially was to keep a constant metronome-like beat, although breaks and off-breaks could be done as well. Once I started playing with other student-musicians in the bhajan group I learned how to play the other instruments from them.

Winnowed: No guitars?

John: It was around the 7th grade that my eldest brother, Alan, started teaching me how to play the guitar. He shouted a lot and forced the instrument on me. In retrospect, I suppose I have to thank him for his approach because I was so mad at him that I ignored the painful callouses on my fingers. Three months into my guitar learning, Alan had to go away out of town for a few months. My mother then bought me a simple “how-to” book on learning the guitar and bought me a smaller guitar with a smaller fingerboard, which made it easier for me to fret chords. She would sit down with me after she returned from work and sing songs while teaching me simple strumming patterns. (At this point everyone in my family could play the guitar except my dad!) Her approach was radically different from Alan’s and I began taking each new song as a lesson and its completion as a milestone. By the time Alan returned, I had finished the book on learning the guitar. The result was a comical negative! Alan gave up not just on teaching me how to play but on playing the guitar himself.

Winnowed: Did you ever have music classes?

John: My mother enrolled me in the Calcutta School of Music just after my 10th grade and I was extremely fortunate to have had private one-on-one lessons with the legendary Carlton Kitto. Before meeting Carlton Kitto, I had already played in a few concerts in Shillong, even having had the amazing opportunity of being part of a band that opened for the Autumn Festival in Shillong, the same year where hugely talented musicians like Rudy Wallang had performed. And so I was as cocky as a teenager could be. But that all changed when I met Carlton Kitto. He cut me down to size in the first class and told me that almost everything I knew was rubbish. He started me out with the fundamentals of timing and technique and asked me to forget about speed. This is a lesson that I have never forgotten and it is something I teach all my students.

Winnowed: Did you join a band?

John: A bunch of us kids formed a band in Calcutta. It’s been so long ago that I’ve forgotten our band’s name, I only remember that we used to practice in our drummer, Samraat’s house in Salt Lake. I learned a lot from just being out there on the stage and in the jam room. Our biggest show was headlining the Calcutta Boys’ School fest.

Winnowed: What next?

During my pre-university in Shillong, I started collecting musical instruments by bugging relatives and family friends to buy me equipment. I had a drum set, a keyboard, two electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, a few effect pedals, a bass guitar, a microphone and three guitar amplifiers. My bedroom was a gig room and I loved it! I would invite talented musicians from around Shillong to jam at home and then try and work out what they did after they left. That way I learned to play the drums, bass and keyboard. My mother had also enrolled me for piano classes with Aunty Kungi, a fantastic piano teacher, but I was too impatient for music lessons from the start all over again and so I discontinued those classes. This is something that I regret because she would have taught me how to read staff notation better than I currently do!

Winnowed: What made you take up law?

John: I needed to get out of Shillong. NLS was my escape hatch. I had fallen into a bad rut, getting into street fights and substance abuse. NLS was one of the few ‘professional’ courses that a PU Arts student like me could shoot for. Law never ever really held any interest for me but in my youthful bravado, I decided that I would work really hard and learn to like law and excel in it. Ha.

Winnowed: When you went to NLSIU, did you expect to be able to continue to play music?

John: Just before getting into NLSIU in Bangalore, I sold all my instruments and cut my long hair. I had decided to give it all up for studies. Imagine my surprise when one of the first people I met at NLS was Pranjal Bora, a long haired bass player from Assam!

I soon bought a Serena 22 fret electric guitar with a Zoom 505 multi-effects pedal and a Stranger amp and formed a band with Pranjal and a few other people in college. I was a little frustrated with the fact that while in those jam sessions back in Shillong I was the weakest player, in the band in NLS I had to help the drummer, bassist and vocalist figure their parts out. I was also massively frustrated with academics in law school and applied for a guitar course in GIT, Musician’s Institute, California – one of the best guitar institutes in the world. They sent me the admission forms but my mother refused to consider it because of the exorbitant tuition fees and the fact that I hadn’t yet finished my degree in NLS.

Something snapped in my head and I bunked months of classes and I started smoking a lot, not much of which was tobacco. I got involved with Strawberry Fields – a music festival organised by NLS, and loved interacting with all the bands that came down to play. Towards the end of my prolonged time in NLS, our band (with a different set of much younger band-members) even had a chance to open for Strawberry Fields on Finals Day. Interestingly enough for me, I got to see a different facet of Strawberry Fields when I was made a Judge for the next two editions of the show. I absolutely loved being involved in music in any which way whatsoever.

John @ PlanetM

Winnowed: After NLSIU?

I travelled through France for a month or so immediately after college and was given an acoustic guitar by my friend Alex after I played a few songs during his wedding celebrations in La Rochelle. I carried this guitar to the UK, where I spent time visiting my uncle in Little Hampton and my friend Sameer Singh in Oxford. But most of my time was spent as a self-imposed house guest with my friend Dev Krishan in London. I played that guitar throughout the day and even wrote my first serious singer-songwriter composition – “Ain’t Yellow” – in Dev’s house.

Winnowed: How long were you in Europe altogether?

John: Almost 3 months. I missed my return flight back to India (I overslept on the day of my travel!) and so my stay in London got extended. I was on serious holiday mode.

Winnowed: After returning to India, what did you do?

John: After returning to India, I tried working under a tax lawyer and then in a corporate law firm in Bangalore, but I couldn’t handle the mind numbing boredom.

So I started a Music Rights Management company (called ‘BandTonga’) with a law schoolite friend of mine, Sachin Malhan. The aim was to collect and collate music from all over India and then copyright all this music so that it could be used for advertisements, radio & television airplay, movies & documentaries, and essentially any commercial usage of music. BandTonga was to be a clearing agent of diverse music that could be easily accessed and used without infringement fears by anybody who wanted to use music from India for any commercial purpose. To promote the idea, I met musicians from all over India. Vernacular folk artists of different states, rockers, gospel singers, DJs, the works! Unfortunately, Sachin and I could not work things out on certain issues and the company never really took off.

Winnowed: Were you upset?

Yes, it broke me.

Winnowed: What then?

To get away from it all, I began working with “Giorgios”, a hospitality sector training institute that my cousin and father were starting up in Bangalore.

I trained corporate employees and college graduates for almost 3 years. I realized that I liked teaching but that I still liked music more than anything.

When my son was born at the end of 2008, I was just too tired shuttling between diaper duty at night and office during the day. I quit Giorgios to stay at home and help my wife look after my son as we didn’t have a nanny.

In early 2009, a friend in Delhi invited me to join her event management company. I was excited about this as their company focussed on music events in a big way. I was to set up their Bangalore office. Somehow this didn’t work out either!

That was it for me. I decided that I didn’t need a backdoor entry into a full-time role in music.

John @ Freedom Jam

Winnowed: Wow! What did you do then?

I decided to start teaching guitar at home. To motivate me, my wife bought me an expensive Yamaha guitar!

I posted information about my classes on the Internet and started with 8 students. 3 and ½ years later, I have about 450 registered weekend students and I teach music during weekdays at corporates and in an international school.

You said you are working on your debut album?

John: Yes, I am currently in the middle of recording my debut album. Most of the songs in the album were written by me, but there are some really nice songs that were co-written by a friend of mine, Paul Lyngdoh.

Winnowed: You’re still based in Bangalore. Did you ever consider going to any other city?

John: I grew up in Bangalore in the 80’s and hated leaving Bangalore to study in Ooty and then Shillong. When I had a chance to come back to Bangalore in ’97 to attend law school I never felt like leaving again. I absolutely love this city!

Winnowed: What’s your motto in life?

John: I don’t really have a motto, but I’ve learned that Life has a funny way of working things out. Although, that being said, sometimes getting closer to where you want to be isn’t half as interesting as getting lost trying to find that place!

Winnowed: John, could you please play a song/ a couple of songs for Winnowed’s readers?

John: Here’s a link to ‘Rooftop Living’. This song is centred around the NLS boys’ hostel rooftop, where fellow tokers climbed up to go even higher. Rooftop Living is dedicated to all those people in college who walked up those stairs, but it especially goes out to the memory of Jai, Medhi and Alyosha.

Here’s a link to ‘Special Leave Petition’. I co-wrote this song with Paul Lyngdoh. This song was written as a result of my frustration with the legal system after my mother’s legal troubles began. Coincidentally, at the same time there was a contest being held by Rainmaker wherein they wanted any lawyer-musician in India to write a song with the words “Special Leave Petition” in the song. I leapt a Shaolin leap at the chance to take part in a contest and vent my angst at the same time and an Olympic leap when my entry was adjudged the best for original music from India!

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