Hotel Kali’s self-titled debut album crisscrosses between ambient music, synth pop, rock and industrial dissonance. Based in Kolkata and Berlin, the band comprises electronic artists Varun Desai and Suyasha Sengupta, with double-bassist Debjit Mahalanobis and multi-instrumentalist Theresa Stroetges forming Hotel Kali’s acoustic section.
Across seven songs, the 46-minute album has an improvisational quality, given Hotel Kali’s origin as a one-time gig without plans for an official release. The album is consequently experimental, with snatches of melodic pop strewn about.
Their musicality is best exemplified by the track Viola Rave, which consists of a dialogue between Stroetges’ viola and Mahalanobis’ double bass over beats by Desai and Sengupta.
“Since all of us come from different musical backgrounds, we would step away and give each other space to let them follow their train of thought and nurture their ideas,” Mahalanobis says. Like a live band where everyone gets to show off their solos, “some songs have more of one instrument over the other'', he adds. Hotel Kali was released digitally and on vinyl by Berlin-based Antime on 4 June.
The album opens with Intro and ends with Calm-Storm. Both feature Mahalanobis bowing the double bass instead of plucking the strings. Intro begins like a whale’s wail emerging from the oceans before moving into a Krautrock space, while the latter is a meditative experience that slowly turns harsh.
Say When and Disco Shobar are reminiscent of Sengupta's now defunct kitsch rock group Ganesh Talkies. Fake Horse, a cover of a Stroetges song, is the closest thing to electronic rock on the album. Buntes Schwarz features a voluptuous crescendo combining sounds from all members, stacked over Desai’s polyphonic synths.
The album eschews overproduction expected of an electronic album, or the “militancy of pop music” that demands sonic crispness, Desai points out. “A lot of bands sound different on record than they do live because you can do so much in the studio that you sound unlike yourself,” he explains. “Here, we tried to retain our live aspect, by keeping our mistakes in, because we don’t see them as mistakes, but personality.”
Hotel Kali emerged from an arts residency organised by Border Movement, a cross-cultural programme of the Goethe-Institut that promotes collaboration and engagement between German and South Asian electronic music scenes.
When Stroetges left Berlin for Kolkata in 2018 as part of a two-month residency that required her to make a live “presentation”, she set out in search of collaborators. She found Desai, who got Sengupta and Mahalanobis on board.
The name Hotel Kali was coined as a joke by Stroetges, who was amused when Desai told her that most of Kolkata’s concerts use The Eagles’ Hotel California for soundcheck.
All four are established independent musicians in their own right. Desai performs as 5Volts, and is part of other projects, including Strings and Circuits featuring Mahalanobis. Besides being a solo artist, Mahalanobis is also a session musician for film soundtracks.
Sengupta performs as Plastic Parvati, with her debut album winning the 2019 Toto Music Award in Bengaluru. Stroetges performs as Golden Diskó Ship, and is part of other acts as well. Sengupta had previously met Stroetges in Berlin, where she had travelled to as part of another Goethe-Institut-backed programme.
It took time for each to figure out their roles in a four-person setup. Desai settled on being the “drummer” with his drum machine, for instance.
“We had no preconceived notion about the direction the band would take,” Sengupta says. “For the first two hours, we just made noise, as everyone was playing everything, until slowly, Theresa would play something on the guitar, and I would sing or do something on Ableton.”
Because they needed a setlist for the gig, the band wrote a few songs, complete with an intro and outro, which bookend the album as well. In line with Border Movement’s distinctly European tradition of organising electronic music events in industrial spaces and old buildings, Hotel Kali’s first and only gig was held at a warehouse, some kilometres away from Alipore in Kolkata.
It received a positive response. The crowd’s enthusiasm during their closing song, Viola Rave, prompted the band to play it twice back to back, without stopping in between. This encouraged them to consider making an album. After the gig, Stroetges left, only to return to Kolkata in 2019 for an intense recording session in the studio, where they wrote some more songs.
The lack of a verse-chorus structure gives the songs a fluid nature and ample scope to improvise during live performances, the band says.
“Although we played on the beat, we did not use a metronome or a click track,” Sengupta says. “The good thing about being in a band is, while playing these songs live, we can cue each other in, extend different parts, and play accordingly.”
Desai adds: “It’s fine if the listener thinks that the album runs in loops because that’s the idea. We will sound even better live.”
The multicultural Hotel Kali experience has been “beautiful”, Stroetges says. Noting that “residencies are crucial for artists to connect”, Sengupta says, “Cliched as it may sound, music does transcend nationality.” The thought inspired Disco Shobar, meaning “Disco is for Everyone”, which features her vocals in Bengali.
The album’s release has lifted the spirits of the four musicians, who had been missing gigs and performing opportunities through the pandemic. “What has kept us going is the knowledge that everyone has lost something during this time and that we are not alone,” Desai says.
While Desai released a swathe of Indian ambient music under his new label Social Isolation, Mahalanobis kept busy with session work. Stroetges is looking forward to gigs as Berlin has begun to relax lockdown rules. It will be a while before Hotel Kali reopens.
Devarsi Ghosh is a Kolkata-based journalist writing on film, music, and culture.