Whether one intends it to or not, the music an artist creates will be labelled – by genre, by country, by era, by ‘vibe’. Often, artists get lost in these labels, treating them as the cause rather than consequence of making their art. Approaching work this way has its merits, but in a larger scenario, if the presence of one approach outweighs the other, maybe because of sheep-like thinking, then we lose out on the beauty of originality. In times like these, it takes one Hotel Kali to ‘disrupt’ the status quo and make music, labels be damned.
Hotel Kali is four band members – Suyasha Sengupta on vocals, instruments & production, Varun Desai on synthesisers, Theresa Stroetges on vocals, guitar & violin and Debjit Mahalanobis on double bass. Of course, these are just the primary instruments these artists play, often interchanging roles, taking up places that are not recognised overtly. Perhaps what comes out the most strikingly in their work together is how unified the sound of Hotel Kali is, despite the range that each artist exhibits.
We’re increasingly moving into a world where ‘collaboration’ (or ‘collab’) has become a buzz word that has lost all meaning. What once used to represent a coming together of like-minded individuals, who respect each other’s work, to bring out the best in each other and produce a work of superior quality is now a synonym for happenstance. Perhaps, we’ve taken the implications of collaboration too lightly, spending time on projects where growth is questionable. This, however, is not the case with Hotel Kali. Each artist has an enviable body of work which they manage to surpass in this collaboration.
Hotel Kali, from name to album, lays out the multitudes that reside within each of us. “It’s not meant to be a protest, but rather a celebration of identities and the freshness of our individuality and similarities combined,” elaborates Suyasha in the band’s album description. “It (“Disco Shobar”) talks of how disco does not discriminate — it’s for you, it’s for me, it’s for everybody. In an increasingly polarising world, we need to highlight that, as clichéd as it may sound, music brings people together. While our differences make us unique, it is our similarities that make us truly human.”
The execution of the concept album is outstanding. The intro builds up a dreamy synth atmosphere, an eerie baseline, a hyper-melodious lead, a smattering of the vocals and a dash of the viola. It forebodes of everything that the album promises. The moment the beat breaks and you’re guided into ‘Say When’ you’re already in the mood! Both ‘Say When’ and ‘Disco Shobar’ are going to make you want to shed whatever holds you back and dance away the day, the night. Over time, rave has come to be signified by underground techno and psy parties, made with pretty much the same instruments at work here. This album, though, teleports you of the OG raves back in the 70s. ‘Viola Rave’ is a work of art, not only for Theresa’s flawless violin playing but Debjit matching it with the double bass. It is almost like watching them jam infront of you. Perhaps the album is such a stunner because of the aptness with which its Intro and Outro, in this case ‘Calm-Storm’, bookend it. The Intro brings everything to a point from where the album takes off, ‘Calm-Storm’ collects points from all the tracks and ends in chaos, which is kind of perfect.
We were intrigued by the depth of the album and the work, and while we know the artists’ past work, we were curious about their perspective they brought to Hotel Kali.
Q. As mentioned in the description, the album represents the interaction of different identities and what it stands for in an increasingly polarising world. How does this play out in context of the 4 members of the band? According to you, what facet of your identity do you bring to Hotel Kali and how does Hotel Kali represent it?
Varun: My take on this question is a very personal one because I’m not a musician who’s been in a band like the others. I’ve played sessions on occasion and toured as part of a DJ collective but to be part of a band especially with my kind of experience with music was a game-changer. Firstly I discovered that I had to limit myself to trying to do a few things well and taking a call on how I could put my best foot forward playing with the other members of the band. It was a lot of listening and understanding at parts but also stepping up to contribute important foundations of the song such as the drum-machine rhythms, time signatures and tempos. So even though I was programming the drum machine and playing the synthesizer I did bring in those aspects from my experience both as a DJ and as an avid follower of Krautrock, Electro and Ambient music.
Theresa: For me, the combination of the musicians in Hotel Kali is a very special one. As a multi -instrumentalist who is very interested in different kinds of music and deconstructing borders of genres in order to be able to create freely, i enjoyed connecting with these 3 on different levels: The love for electronic beats and Synths with Varun, the mix of classical and experimental music with Debjit, and pop songwriting combined with electronic loops with Suyasha. Since laptops, synths and drum machines were covered and there was also an amazing singer on board, i focused on playing guitar, viola, sampling and electronic details.
Debjit: In an increasingly polarizing world, music and arts are the only things bringing people together. That’s the specialty of arts, you don’t need to compartmentalize it into genres.
Atleast that’s how we looked at it. Letting the music flow , like a river finding/taking it’s own course .
For the second part of your question, my take is-
More than the instruments and the gears, it’s the people behind them, the philosophies, the thought processes.
For me , it was like fluid philosophy, finding patterns and ideas in each other’s ideas and giving them a definition , while merging electronic, pop and classical genres, without thinking about other musical references and the general music writing processes.
Suyasha: I think the whole point of Hotel Kali was to somewhat prove to our own self that despite the world becoming increasingly distant, it’s still very much possible to come together and share an experience, a deeply personal yet somehow universal one. When asked to be part of Hotel Kali, my first thought wasn’t what I would actually “do” in the band but what aspects of myself I could possibly add to an already eclectic mix of human beings.The whole process of settling into roles was very organic and now that we’ve written and performed a record together, looking back, I think all of us allowed to our vulnerable selves. We play with our hearts and not our heads.
One of the most impressive things about Hotel Kali is how the Indian audience has lapped up the concept of a.. concept album! All four agree that the reception has been outstanding. Debjit quips “The audience in our first and only gig (at the end of the residency ,back in 2018) was pretty surprised, I would say, as they had no clue what to expect. For a couple of the compositions, I felt, a lot of people didn’t know how to react, as there was no reference point for the music and listeners generally (instinctively) start looking for references, while listening to music.
Over the course of time, I feel the larger impact started to take shape and we are just starting to realise the outreach of this album to a large non indian audience. The response so far is great and way more than what I had anticipated honestly.”
Suyasha echoes the sentiment but also reflects “Since our album released at a time when everyone was isolated and coping with the new dystopia that is Covid, four strangers making something together was a sort of testimony to the universal language that is music. There is also another part of me which doesn’t let the opinion of the listener affect my writing process because at the end of the day, it comes from a very intimate place that nobody else really has control over.”
Adding to the generous praise that has been showered on Hotel Kali, we hope they are going to continue disrupting the current scene. All the band members hope to perform live, tour with the band (“maybe to Europe?”, as Theresa quips). Varun encapsulates the hope perfectly, “When we played our first gig we didn’t even have a name. Hotel Kali came after that and then the album followed. After that Covid happened. We’ve pretty much gone with the flow as far as the future is concerned but our intent is definitely to keep this going somehow. A lot of that incentive has come from the great response to the album. I don’t want to verbalise all my hopes but I will say that I’d love to be able to travel and play music with this band because I think we have something very different to offer in the landscape of live bands”
A work of art that manages to traverse as many boundaries as Hotel Kali has, and be accepted in a largely unforgiving society, is a reminder of the power that music holds in bringing us together, even in the face of a pandemic.
Photos by Arhan Sett