To give credit to Susmit Sen for the amalgamation of Indian Classical music with Western rock and jazz would be a serious understatement as the sound that emanates from the only folk-rock band in India is beyond categorization. Founder of the four-piece band Indian Ocean, and one of the leading jazz acoustic guitar players in India, Susmit Sen has come a long way from being just another name on the circuit to becoming a highly respected avant-garde musician of our times. Indian Ocean have released five highly commended albums to date, and the musical maturity gained in the last 15 years of music-making and touring has given way to soaring underground critical acclaim around the world.
Sen is essentially self-taught, and has evolved a unique guitar style based more on scales than on chords. There have been musicians and music lovers trying to comprehend the style of his guitar playing and the sound of the band as a whole, where the purity of scales reign much like the style which forms the basis of Indian classical music. There's seldom a scale change, if ever, to alter the mood in a composition, perfectly wrapped by bass guitar and drums. The scales are oriented on the Indian style, where there's much more freedom of expression through varied note selections yet a disciplinary restriction of never leaving the realm of those notes.
The combination of various notes in all their permutations has been passed down the hierarchy of Indian classical teaching through ages, each one having a significant name. There's an underlying philosophy that these combinations of notes or scales (Raag) have in evoking a particular mood. But, having said that, Indian Ocean is not an Indian classical band as their progressions are more rhythmic, and based on a western jazz/rock sound. There's much more to the style of Sen's playing and here he talks in-depth about what makes the unique sound of his guitar.
All About Jazz: To start with, how did you start playing the guitar?
Susmit Sen: My father bought a guitar for my elder brother from Mumbai when I was in late school. Being highly impressed by some of my brother's friends and my brotherwho could attract a lot of attention by singing some popular songs of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and othersI let myself fall into guitar playing on my own. One day, as my father tells me, he found me playing "Jumping Jack Flash, originally played by the Rolling Stones, but I had heard it, at that time, played by Anand Shanker.
AAJ: Did it take a while to feel as if you had a voice on the acoustic?
SS: I still look for a voice on my guitar in each composition I compose and play. As I am a completely self taught musician my technique always falls short of my expectations /expressions. I actually press myself to practice and find new ways of improvising and expressing my feelings to give new compositions a fresh texture, to not be repetitive in my playing. I do improvise on stage as people think, but much of that improvisation takes place during the time I compose and complete the composition to give it an absolute feel.
This does not hold true for songs like "Melancholic Ecstasy and "From the Ruins, both on Desert Rain (Kosmic Music, 1997), others which are not recorded yet. I just woke up one day and played complete composition, later recording them with few minor changes here and there. It would not be true to say that I did not recognize a voice in my playing of the acoustic guitar at a very early stage of my playing when I picked up some technique. At this point, I am very happy with the mould (scale based) form of music, as that is my base, my origin, and my expression and there is a lot more to explore.
AAJ: Did you always play acoustic guitar? How is playing acoustic guitar different from electric? Do you ever get a drive to change to electric guitar?
SS: I have always been an acoustic guitarist. I have played electric guitar on only one song "After the War from Jhini (Kosmic Music, 2003)with good amount of distortion. I think there is expressional variation in the attitude while playing the electric guitar. By and large, electric guitar players are more aggressive in their expressions due to the sheer sound of it. Technically one gets more sustain on an electric guitar and the action is smoother. To get a nice tone on the acoustic one has to have slightly higher action. I personally like the natural rounder tone of the acoustic guitar.
AAJ: How do you go about writing songs? Do you work on the lyrics first or the music? How do you deal with song variations?
SS: It is complex to say how our compositions come about. Initially all the compositions were mine and the band used to work out their different partseach one giving there own ideas to beautify the compositions. Over the years, everybody started coming up with ideas for new compositions. When all the members like an idea then we work on the composition together. We don't finalize the composition till the time all of us are satisfied with it. Then we put it to the test in our live shows before we go in for the final recording.
Lyrics come into our songs in various ways. When we choose to use traditional lyrics either the original tune fits our composition or we weave a composition around it and give it our own expression. Mostly the tune is completed with the instrumentation and then our friend Sanjeev Sharma, who is a lyricist, writes the words to fit the time scale. Only three songs were composed around the lyrics"Jhini, "Bhor and "Des Mera, all from Jhini
We don't have to deal with song variations, as we get tired of repeating tunes in a verse-chorus pattern and feel the need for change to express them more completely from a musical point of view.