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Songs from a cupboard: creating music during covid

Kolkata's Driftwood Band talk about the experience of creating and marketing their music during the pandemic

A still from Driftwood Band's video for the song ‘Coco Drank’
A still from Driftwood Band's video for the song ‘Coco Drank’

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On a cold evening in early January, Kolkata’s Driftwood Band are doing a combined Facebook and Instagram Live, promoting their new EP, Red. The electropop duo, Nabanita Sarkar, 27, aka Bonnie, and Atandra Chakraborty, 34, aka Buro, are sitting in a dark room with the word “RED” spelt out in red fairy lights behind them on a wall. For nearly two hours, they talk about the songs on the EP, which they released on 31 December. Sarkar and Chakraborty chat with friends, fans and other musicians, play some of the songs live, do a walkthrough of the dense production of the EP’s five main tunes, rap, clown around, and grapple with Chakraborty’s malfunctioning laptop. At one point someone asks why the EP is called Red. “If you scratch an itch for a while, it turns red,” says Sarkar. “This is just me scratching the itch of some feelings of mine.” Chakraborty rolls his eyes.

Red is Driftwood Band’s second EP, after 2020’s Bloo. The band’s fairly eclectic music could, at a stretch, be called electropop, though the songs end up straddling a wide spectrum of styles. While Bloo consisted of short and extremely danceable pop nuggets like I’ve Got A Crush and What I Want, Red’s songs are longer, harmonically more complex. In songs like Coco Drank, I Like It and Comes And Goes, Sarkar sings of love, longing, riding a bike and getting high over highly textured soundscapes awash in synths—a sound the band calls synthwave—and angular-but-funky guitar riffs that help create a highly sophisticated sound for this young band. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that the band recorded both EPs in Chakraborty’s bedroom, in a cupboard.

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Nabanita Sarkar and Atandra Chakraborty of Driftwood Band.
Nabanita Sarkar and Atandra Chakraborty of Driftwood Band.

“Now we have a set-up in this cupboard,” says Sarkar, giggling. “We have a pillow, two pieces of foam, a pop filter, a mic behind it, the laptop just below it. There’s also space for food and water in there.” The band isn’t on any music label, doesn’t have access to a studio and runs the entire operation on its own, from composing, singing and producing the songs, to promoting and marketing the EPs. They are as independent as a band could possibly be. Sarkar, who is in the process of completing a master’s in law, and Chakraborty, who works as a music analyst, had played music together on and off over the years while pursuing their individual professional and musical careers. However, they formed Driftwood Band only in May 2020, smack in the middle of the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic.

“I was in a lovely acoustic phase, writing songs. Buro and I were on a break then. We weren’t in touch. Then I met Buro again and we started jamming on the acoustic songs. This was just before the lockdown. Buro lost his phone, so we wrote a very nice song about him losing his phone. Then the lockdown happened and I acquired a MIDI keyboard. And that’s how we stumbled on to this sound,” says Sarkar. Although Chakraborty is primarily a guitar player with a remarkable feel for jazz and swing, and Sarkar is part of another band that plays folk and bluegrass, both share a love for 1980s’ synthpop, hip hop and singer-songwriters like Sen Morimoto and Grimes. On top of that, Chakraborty has been creating ambient soundscapes for over a decade.

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Cover art of Driftwood Band's latest EP, ‘Red’.
Cover art of Driftwood Band's latest EP, ‘Red’.

“My old synth had all these drums in it that are very 1980s and 1990s and shit. So I would try them and it sounded fresh. When I would send them to Buro, he would say it’s very tacky. I would say, no let’s go with it. I loved all the horrible, beautiful beats it used to throw up,” says Sarkar. Chakraborty, for his part, would write guitar riffs and send them to Sarkar to write melodies and words over them. “He spams a lot,” says Sarkar, laughing.

Just how musicians have suffered during the pandemic, unable to do live shows, has been well documented . Gigs are often the only source of income in an industry where music labels are unwilling to take a punt on new artists, and streaming platforms such as Spotify are notorious for the revenue artists make from original music (a dollar for every 250 streams of a song on Spotify). Driftwood Band too suffered from the inability to play live, but since the band formed in the middle of the pandemic, creating music together was also a way for Chakraborty and Sarkar to seek refuge from the horrors of covid-19 in art.

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“When you are in that kind of a situation, nobody’s out on the streets, the whole area is empty. Everything is so eerie, everyone’s dying all around. You had to counteract that feeling by doing something else to occupy your mind. And I don’t mean procrastinating or having a feel-good hobby. You had to actually train your mind to focus on something that is creative, that you can look back on and feel proud for creating at that point in time. For me, it was a way of surviving,” says Chakraborty. “I was having a gala time with my keyboard. I was exploring it and having fun,” says Sarkar. “So both these things merged and Driftwood Band was formed,” adds Chakraborty.

Once the first wave started showing signs of abating, Sarkar started cycling to Chakraborty’s apartment to rehearse and record. “To record Bloo, I would cycle 15km to Buro’s place and carry my cycle up to the second floor, where he lives. Then we would work on the songs, and I would cycle back home. No pollution, all that exercise. My lungs were absolutely clear! I was singing like an angel,” says Sarkar. “For Red, it was more public transport,” laughs Chakraborty. The two of them stockpiled songs and decided to record two sets of EPs while working on a third collection of songs, this one for an album, provisionally titled Green, that they intend to release later this year.

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While working on the songs for the two EPs, the band would go to comical lengths to get a good sound. They would book a jam pad for an hour at a time, spaces that bands normally use to rehearse, and use the better acoustics there to record guitar parts. “We would use the acoustics and the soundproofing of the place. It was poorly soundproofed but it’s still better than my room,” says Chakraborty.

The acoustic and electric guitars that Chakraborty uses in the EPs are the only analogue instruments the band uses anyway. “I don’t use any external synths. Everything that you hear, other than guitar and voice, is programmed in the digital audio workstation that I use. The bass lines, the chords you hear, the beats, everything is programmed on a piano roll (in the workstation),” says Chakraborty.

The band has tried to find ways to turn their resource constraints—like recording in a poorly soundproofed room where inadvertent reverb gets recorded with vocal takes—to their advantage, turning the workarounds into stylistic choices in their music. “There are ways to get around the disadvantages of the room. There are plug-ins like iZotope’s Tonal Balance 2, which shows a professionally mastered curve. And you compare your mix against that curve. So I can clearly see the frequency differences, where it is louder, when it’s supposed to be quieter. So I use that, and my ear, to make rough masters,” says Chakraborty. The band then sends these to a professional music engineer in Mumbai for the final masters. This is a process for which the band would pay happily because, as Chakraborty says, “You can’t put up poorly mastered tracks on streaming.”

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Whenever they hit a roadblock, with either recording or production, they look up YouTube tutorials. Recording without a studio and without the financial backing of a label is difficult but they insist they don’t mind. “The whole lo-fi genre came out of doing this: bedroom music. We can record for hours and hours and no one is going to say now you have got to leave,” says Chakraborty. “I am definitely more at ease when I am recording my vocals. Late at night, just by myself, no one to observe, comment or judge. It’s very peaceful,” adds Sarkar. “But it also means we have to work harder to make the recording as polished as possible. We need to record as well as possible and fix the rest in post-production.”

In a way, the band is forced to exert full creative and financial control over their affairs, which extends to promoting their music as well. In keeping with the unabashed pop joys of the music, Driftwood Band have crafted an ironically kitschy visual representation of themselves. This extends to their music videos, which are made with the help of a bare-bones production team, with Sarkar too pitching in with production design. Through the pandemic, the band has resorted to guerrilla tactics to make the videos—heading to outdoor locations before dawn and finishing the shoots by 7am. They consider videos to be an important part of what they do because in the absence of gigging opportunities, videos are one way of reaching a wider audience, alongside a steady social media presence. This also helps them earn some money from the music.

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Given the paucity of money to be earned just from streaming, the band hasn’t paid too much attention to mastering Spotify. What they try and do is to get listeners to buy the music on sites like Bandcamp, with Sarkar setting up PayPal, RazorPay and other payment gateways and keeping an eye on revenue. Sarkar says that to promote Bloo, she would spam unsuspecting Facebook groups with the band’s music. “I added myself to the (US space agency) NASA group. And post our songs there, saying ‘we’re Driftwood Band and here’s some of our music.’ Because in one of our videos we use footage of Apollo 13,” she says, laughing. “People are having intelligent space conversations and they suddenly stumble on our music. Then they hear it, like it and are commenting on the song.”

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Once, she created an account on Tinder. “And I would swipe on people. And if they responded, then I would say ‘Season’s greetings’ and post our songs.” Or go on the dodgy video-chat site Omegle. “I played I’ve Got A Crush for people. I was dressed strange, had 20 braids in my hair. And I had a cap on and a shirt. So people were like, are you a 13-year-old boy?”

With Red, the band is resorting to more sober ways of promoting the music. Like advertising on Reddit groups, or getting Blue Tokai Coffee’s cafés to play the EP. Just like Bloo, they plan on releasing physical CDs for Red as well. “We earned a good amount of money for Bloo. We recovered our costs, and maybe made a bit more. We had some profit,” says Sarkar. They are confident of making it work financially, and Sarkar thinks they will get better at it the longer they do it.

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Spotify remains a challenge, although their new EP is available there, as well as on Apple, YouTube and other streaming platforms. “There are lots of gurus on the internet that tell you how to get on Spotify artist playlists, or different niches, like down-tempo playlists. I tried it but it didn’t work out,” says Chakraborty, adding that he found that they would need to pay to boost a song or new releases.

Driftwood Band are certainly not alone in making and releasing music during the pandemic. What’s common to them and other independent artists is the sheer effort needed to market the music. Even in a mature market like the US, it was recently reported that more people are listening to old music rather than new releases. In an Indian market that’s heavily skewed towards Bollywood music, the job is even harder.

What Driftwood Band are happy about is the fact that they are building an audience, not just in Kolkata but across the country, and also internationally. And the band’s reach is extending all the time. “We have become friends with interesting musicians everywhere and this is opening up collaborations,” says Chakraborty. “It’s very inspiring,” Sarkar adds.

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