Interview: Venusian | The Trip Hop Aliens of Jaipur and Liverpool
Venusian are a modern trip-hop duo based in Liverpool, UK and Jaipur, India. Formed by vocalist Yashashwi Sharma and pianist John Pearson, they have performed in the UK and India, with their music appearing in independent movies in London and commercials on international TV. Comprising of gloomy downtempo beats with keyboards and powerful, evocative vocals, to date, Venusian have released three albums: Patterns in the Ivy (2012), The Flight of the Flamingo OST (2013) and Wolf Track Mountain (2014).
Both are advocates for animal rights and for veganism, which is the rejection of animal products and byproducts of animal exploitation, such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather and silk.
Eye Art Collective speaks to the duo about their music, their vision, veganism and the trip hop music scene in India.
What’s the story behind your name?
YS: We were looking for a name, not sure what to call ourselves; so we looked for the ancient astrological way of finding out and asked an astrologer- he said something starting with V or Venus. Venusians are the supposed extraterrestrial inhabitants of Venus. Looking at our music and the way we do our music I thought it was an apt name for us. We wanted a name that would encapsulate the sounds of the universe- we’re both sci-fi fans, and Venus has been used by many sci fi writers. We wanted to create a sound that is universal, which goes beyond just music. Venus looks like a post-apocalyptic Earth- which is another common theme in our music. I feel like we are two aliens who are looking at all of the elements of what is on earth and making music from it.
Which advertisements have your songs appeared in?
JP: Our music appeared in the ‘One Cares One’ advertisements for 361 Degrees on China Central Television. I think the catchment area for that network is over a billion people! It was advertising an initiative where a pair of shoes would be given to a child in in a rural area for each bought by consumers. One of our old tracks got licensed for adverts several years ago, but I can’t remember what it was for.
When did you guys start playing individually? And with each other?
YS: I started singing when I was about 2 years old, but I took up singing seriously when I finished high school. I was inspired by trip hop and jazz, which I started listening to when I was about 15. I always wanted to sing and perform, I had a voice and I wanted to be heard, but it was difficult to let it out because I didn’t have the confidence. When I told my teacher that I wanted to be in a band, she said ‘you look like you can’t sing’, and hearing that made me want to forget about my self consciousness and become even more determined. I had a similar experience in the US when my teacher said that music wasn’t the thing for me, like he wanted me to give up- but if you tell a dog not to bark then he barks harder, and I have that kind of mentality. Singing was a part of me, but hearing them tell me I couldn’t do it gave me the boost in confidence that I needed.
JP: I started playing the piano when I was about 3 or 4, my dad is a pianist too so he began to teach me at that age. I started the violin a few years later. I learnt the guitar to play industrial and death metal with my friends at school, but when I was about 16 I unknowingly heard trip hop music, which flipped a switch in me and made me really want to spend my life doing music. I started writing music in this style, with elements of metal, and then I met Yash who properly introduced me to bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. I loved the music, and that is when we started playing together.
How did this project start off?
JP: This project began as ‘Patterns in the Ivy’ in 2009. Although our style and sound has changed since, the setup was basically the same- Yash on vocals, me playing piano and electronics. Back then we were probably more focused on the world music elements and we did more covers, but we wrote an album which is still available on our bandcamp.
Who composes the music? What do you keep in mind when creating music for Venusian? Who are your influences?
JP: I compose the music, but we decide together what instruments and sounds to use. The music is usually really downtempo and I try to contrast beautiful sounding instruments and sounds with really twisted and distorted beats and bass. And there is always piano. My main musical influences are probably the sadness and darkness of Akira Yamaoka’s music (composer for the Silent Hill videogames), and the atmosphere and depth of Burial (UK future garage artist). The piano music of Chopin is a big inspiration to me.
Who writes the lyrics? Is there any theme you try to keep to throughout? Who are your influences as a lyricist?
YS: Instead of writing a set of lyrics, I like to think of a word or a sentence or a scenario for the song, and everything evolves from that. I want to give life to that word. One of the themes I always end up using is the environment, how our lives affect it and how our lives are affected by it. I like to sing about the cultures, folk tales. When I was young I listened to the Indian folk songs. I liked to listen to Madonna and Michael Jackson. I like Björk’s lyrics, and Ikue Asazaki, and Gulzar. I find that there is an element of innocence in their lyrics.
What is your music making process like?
JP: I compose the music first, but we kind of approach it together. The songs could start with anything- a lyric, a beat, a few chords on the piano; and it grows around that. It all comes together in quite a disorganised way and I usually do everything for the music in one sitting over several hours- I find it difficult to keep coming back to something, I need to do it all at once. Then Yash listens to it and comes up with the lyrics, and we record the vocals, then I re-edit the structure of the song to fit and mix everything. The song can change drastically once Yash has added the vocals, because I might feel that the song is now representing something different, or that the atmosphere needs to be adjusted.
It says in your bio, you’re both vegan and animal rights activists. What does that mean to you?
YS: I am a lifelong vegetarian and have been vegan about a year. I believe that we are all adapted to our surroundings, in our environment we are more powerful than other animals, in their environment they are. It’s not our right to exploit any animal or take their lives away. Animals bring me joy and happiness, most of all, I believe that their existence is as important as any human, so we have to find a balance. I think this is the natural way to think- I have never thought that I am superior to an animal, we are all equal on this earth. Animals have their own languages just like humans, we can communicate with animals and it works two ways, we are able to have a deep connection with animals. In my lyrics I like to describe what I see- the agony and pain that animals are in, the greediness of people. Every monsoon a nightingale goes to a house with a garden to sing beautifully, one year she goes and the house has burnt down, she looks at what is in front of her, takes it all in, and sings a sad song. I sing about what I see, whether it is good or bad.
JP: I went vegetarian about 3 years ago after seeing videos of slaughterhouses farms, and I went vegan 15 months ago, after watching the videos of the dairy and egg industry. Over that period, I discovered how unjust and dark the world really is, and began to see the mercilessness of our society. Music is what I am good at- I want to use it to express how I feel about everything. I reflect that darkness in our music, I think that the artists who write happy songs about superficial things are lying to themselves and to everyone about who they really are.
How do you express your philosophical/social beliefs through your art?
JP: I think it’s mainly in Yash’s lyrics, and also in how dark the sound is. We are mixing very natural and beautiful sounding instruments like piano, swarmandal and harmonium with distorted industrial sounds and synths, the sounds of static, tape and vinyl scratching. I often use sounds like waves on a beach, or whale song, and detune and distort them, twisting the sounds into something more unsettling.
YS: Buddha experienced a lot of things in his lifetime, I want to approach music in the same way, by taking inspiration from all kinds of things. Buddhism is left incomplete if you don’t apply the principles in everything you do, you become one with something by applying everything to it. In the same way I understand what Venusian is to the core, and I want to put everything into it.
Could you share one paragraph from one or two of your songs that would be a good philosophical introduction to the group?
YS: This is from a song called ‘Dream Flower’ that we are releasing soon.
Hold my hand
and take me to this white and blue sky
when I wake up from my dream
as I see, as I follow, the light on my path
the white beach
of a flower, how delicate
how beautiful is the night
is the night
What do you hope to achieve through your music?
YS: I want to enlighten myself through music. Music for me is the whole world, I want to learn and experience new things, I feel like it’s the only way I can grow.. I want to become famous. For a long time in my mind, I’ve been trying to create this person, this world, which is very forgiving and very kind, and I feel like it’s becoming perfect through music, and it’s feeding me.
JP: I want our music to be influential, to give people enjoyment, and to make people think.
I’ve heard there’s a thriving trip hop scene in UK but what about India? What do you think of the scene in India?
YS: Trip hop music is there but in the club scene, and there is nothing in my state. There are different scenes in different cities in the UK, it’s easy to get across to a different city for a gig, even if it’s on the other side of the country it will take about half a day… India is so big that everything takes more organisation. India has it’s own unique music industry and it’s own culture, and often mixes in Western music but the cultural identity is important. We get opportunities to perform at Qawwali and folk music events which aren’t really our scene, but we know the audience is out there as there are so many young people.
Have you been able to collaborate with any Indian artists? Do you wish to?
JP: We have collaborated with some folk musicians for ‘Raindrops’ in New Year 2013, the recording is on our bandcamp. We also did a live performance of that project, along with some work by a British composer at Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur with bansuri, sarangi, tabla and guitar players. We have not worked with any Indian artists since but we’re definitely open to working with like-minded musicians on new songs, or some gigs around India.
What are Venusians plans for the future?
We’re releasing a new single and video called ‘Dream Flower’ very soon. We’ll also be making it available on our bandcamp as an EP with the other songs we have released this year. We’re also collaborating on the music for a Finnish web series called ‘Silent Hill: The Promise’. You can follow the project on facebook, and see the trailer here.
Interviewed by Nayantara Gupta
Edited by Rohini Srinivasan