Early in March 2020, Kartik Pillai took his parents for a quick trip to their home state of Kerala. Covid-19 was in the news, with rumours of a lockdown coming, but the Pillais figured that at worst they would be stuck there for two-three weeks. They weren’t able to leave for six months. Cut off from his friends and Peter Cat Recording Co. (PCRC) bandmates, forced into cold-turkey nicotine withdrawal, Pillai occasionally tumbled down the same mental health hole that plenty of us found ourselves in during the lockdown.
“I was having these miniature breakdowns every couple of weeks,” he told me when I caught up with him over the phone last week. “And there are these songs that come out when I am at a low point. Usually, at those points I come up with these hyper-honest songs where I am not pulling any punches, not even being metaphorical at times.”
Armed with just a guitar and a MIDI keyboard, he began writing down these songs. He found someone to lend him a microphone and then rented a little more equipment from a small local vendor. For Pillai, who plays in two fairly successful bands and has a side gig creating fantastically dissonant soundscapes as experimental noise-maker Jamblu, this amounted to an incredibly stripped down setup, almost back-to-the-basics. Perhaps that adds to the sense of vulnerability at the heart of these songs, eight of which make up the latest Jamblu album, Service Animal.
Compared to the dark monolithic grandeur of earlier releases like Bone Ringing, or the mind-bending sonic adventurism of 2019’s Gone Swimming, these songs are grimy and raw, lo-fi scuzz and scum dripping off their simple, sinewy harmonies. The opener If I Could Be Born Again harks back to the early PCRC sound, with its interwoven key-and-synth melodies buried under a layer of church-organ fuzz. We Never Fight (Cause We Never Talk) is practically a folk ballad, with its acoustic guitar and mournful saxophone, and the tipsy drawl of Pillai’s soft croon.
But the artist’s obstinately experimental side resurfaces on the opening seconds of the next track, titled Surround Yourself With The People You Love (And Who Love You). Shards of noise stab at a bassline destretched taut to the point of distortion, like shrapnel slicing through a dug-in trench-line. Pillai’s voice soars majestically above the battle below, like a war god stoking and revelling in the frenzy. The one-and-a-half-minute Get New also lurches with a disorienting arrhythmia—it’s like a normal song falling into the early stages of a dissociative episode.
Unlike earlier Jamblu releases, Pillai’s voice takes centre stage here, and you can even make out the words most of the time. As he indicated over the phone, the lyrics—and for that matter, the song titles—are more direct and honest than ever before. In Love Songs For Bad Friends, he sings, “If I really cared, I’d be dead,” before eviscerating the song’s target for their narcissism. “I need to get new friends,” he intones emotionlessly on Get New, a familiar mantra for the neurodivergent.
Service Animal captures the essential loneliness of post-industrial life, the isolation that lurks behind our hyper-connected facades. The context of the pandemic—essentially a shock and awe campaign on our social lives—only accentuates that social alienation, which is increasingly at odds with a digital life that is all about the algorithmic smoothing out of any wrinkles, whether they are on your face or in your life. In that sense, the album’s raw, lo-fi sound is necessary to add some grain back into the image, to throw some dust into the gears of post-industrial perfection.
Perhaps that’s why the harsher, more abrasive side of the sonic spectrum has become a haven for discontent and malcontents who use experimental music to interrogate and assault our Instagram-mediated spectacle. It also explains the resurgence of noise in the last few decades, almost a century after the Italian Futurists declared noise as the music of the future. I have wondered in recent months about what keeps artists like Jamblu, Sister, Hemant SK and others coming back to mine this territory of noise and glitch, still trying to create music for a future that took a different turn decades ago. It’s not like there’s money or stardom to be found here.
We speak of noise and experimental music as avant-garde but that’s just old tropes refusing to die. What even is the point of a vanguard in a culture that has given up on the idea of teleological progress, that has instead devoted its energy into flattening time and space, turning culture into an endless stream of ahistorical text and images? Maybe the renewed charm of noisy music is because it’s now a rearguard: a motley collection of people compulsively obsessed with process and failure, using the most dissonant features of our recent industrial past to pop the bubble of our post-industrial just-in-time perfection, tearing away the veil of graphic user interfaces and shiny glossy software to show the guts and gears of the boring machinery underneath. Maybe noisy music has now become a rebellion against a future that is too perfect, making inhuman demands of the people that have to live in it?
Or maybe I am just an old romantic looking for a grand narrative. Either way, as long as people are willing to willingly torture their instruments or their VSTs to create weird, awe-inspiring, otherworldly music, there will be people like me waiting to listen to it and lose ourselves in waves of eldritch sound. It’s not logical so much as a compulsion to explore the negative spaces of music, the darker shadows of sound. Even Pillai seems nonplussed when I ask what prompts him to keep making such raw, intimate and fantastically out-there music, so out there that it would take a telescope to find the—commercially viable—mainstream.
“I don’t know why I do it,” he says. “I just know I am going to keep doing it.”
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.