We're back after a much needed break and we couldn't have asked for a better reboot than a "sit-down" with the omnicompetent Rohan Solomon, erstwhile frontman of the New Delhi alt-rock band Cyanide. (Well, him at his place and us at ours!)
For the uninitiated, the singer, songwriter, audio engineer and multi-instrumentalist is a global chart-topping artist and has even worked on the Grammy Award-winning song Bubblin by Anderson Paak.
A well-known figure in the Indian Indie circuit, Solomon recently released a brand new single 'We Demand Change' which has... (how do we say this?)... rocked our socks off over the past week or so, much like We Will Rock You has for most of our lives. Except that instead of 'Stomp-Stomp-Clap', in Solomon's song we have 'Stomp-Stomp-Pull Back-Fire'.
'Nuff said, let's get crackin' with the interview!
Tell us about your life, your back story and your journey with music till date.
RS: I was born and brought up in New Delhi, studied in Modern School, Barakhamba Road and then did my BBA + MBA from IIPM. I have pretty much been obsessed with music since I was a young kid. It all started with me constantly listening to some LP records that we had at home. That record player was my life. I used to love to listen to Michael Jackson, Jackson 5, The Temptations and The Beatles. It just so happens that the common element in all those artists is vocal harmony. This definitely shows in almost all of my older productions and releases.
When I was 12 years old, my cousin taught me a few chords on the piano and taught me a couple of songs that use those chords. Not too long after that, I taught myself the guitar and learned to transpose those chords from the piano to the guitar with a little guidance from my cousins and also using a chord book. I wrote my first song when I was 13 years old. The art of telling stories was just so fascinating. I would usually structure my songs in a way so that there is a story to be told. The story was always the most important thing to me.
By the time I turned 16, I joined the school band and we named that band ‘Cyanide’. That band ended up being my baby for more than 10 years even though every single band member that was there when we started, had left and we kept on going through various different band members. I had no idea about the amazing experiences I would end up having in that band and all the great shows I would play and tours I would do. Cyanide released 2 EP’s and a full length album called ‘Sugarcoated’. We played amazing music festivals like ‘Great Indian Rock Festival’, ‘Eastwind Festival’, ‘NH7 Weekender’ etc. and were also featured in a reality TV show called ‘Channel V Launchpad’.
Around 2008, I reached a point where I needed a change and wanted to explore a slightly more ‘pop’ side of music. So I started the process of making my very first solo album titled ‘Lead The Way’, which was released worldwide in 2009 and I released 2 singles on international radio from that album. In 2015, I released my second solo album called ‘Moving On’ , which was produced in Nashville, USA by the famous musician Scott Moffatt. The first single from this album is a song called ‘Dream Girl’ which was also released worldwide and had a lot of success on the radio.
Around the same time that Moving On was released, I was also working on my first project as a producer. It was for a musical at Kingdom of Dreams called ‘Wizwits’ which was produced by Sidhant Mathur and myself.
After getting a taste of the production life, I wanted to get deeper in it and learn more, so I moved to New York City and studied Music Production and Audio Engineering. After a 4 year stint over there and getting the opportunity to work with some amazing artists such as John Legend, Toni Braxton, Immortal Technique and Anderson Paak and also working on a Grammy Winning Song, I moved back to my home town of New Delhi and set up my own studio in my house. I also started a band in New York named ‘By Chance’ with 2 other guys and released a trilogy of songs, around the same time as I moved back to India.
I started working on my own singles as well. I released 3 singles in 2020 which were influenced by the pandemic to some extent. The first one is called ‘Keep Holding On’ which is about the very first lockdown. It is meant to give people hope during such a stressful time. The second one is called 'Victoria’s Secret'. This is a fictional story about a character named Victoria but speaks about some very real things like depression and creating a facade (a dual personality in a way) to be liked by other people. It is something that we all can relate to. Hopefully the message of it being ok to be yourself sunk through to some people after listening to the song. This song also went to reach No.2 on the World Indie Music Charts and Euro Indie Music Charts. The third single is called ‘Without A Trace’ which I co-wrote with a friend of mine. It speaks of being at a point in your life where you are at a crossroad and you feel like nothing is going your way. But there is always a light to help you out of the darkness and guide you on your way. We just need to be positive enough to look for that light amongst all the darkness that surrounds us.
My latest single is called ‘We Demand Change’. It stems from a feeling of frustration. After seeing and hearing about all the incidents of hate and violence in the world, it’s very upsetting and needs to change. The overall system of anger being the first reaction to a dispute needs to change. If everyone looks within themselves (including me) and makes even a small positive change, it can have a cascading effect on the world. This song is currently charting in Top 30 on the World Indie Music Charts and Euro Indie Music Charts.
Apart from making my own music , I’m also a producer and mix engineer and I'm currently working on projects with multiple artists and helping them achieve their sound. Happy to share that one of my recent productions - Kiara Chettri’s single ‘Why’ has hit the No. 1 spot on the World Indie Music Charts this week.
We don’t find much rock music going around these days, right? Sure, there are rock elements in pop/hip hop and electronic music and electronic elements in rock music etc etc. But to actually find a bunch of good ol’ organic, ‘from-the-ground-up’ rock songs is something else. Tell us about the style of your music and also your influences.
RS: Yes, that’s a natural process of evolution of music or rather the evolution of what’s considered to be the “in thing”. There are still a lot of musicians that are sticking to their guns so to speak and continuing to make organic rock music, but they would usually have a far smaller fan base as opposed to pop artists like Justin Beiber or Ariana Grande.
I personally make the type of music that I'm comfortable with, which is singer-songwriter/ pop/pop-rock which is mostly organic in nature. Number of plays and number of fans is not a consideration for me while making music. I appreciate people that love my music and have been following my work through the years. I have nothing but love for them. It’s really comforting to know that they like the music that I am comfortable making. They get to listen to the real me. My style of writing music has also evolved over the years. There was a time when it was about how cool my riff can sound, but now it’s swerved more towards how expressive my story can get. Sometimes, I may need a fancy riff to achieve that. But the “why I’m writing this song” question has changed over the years. I would usually use a lot of vocal harmonies in my songs because that’s what I know and what I grew up listening to. But as of late, I'm enjoying scoring orchestra parts that surround the singer-songwriter a.k.a “story teller” and help become the symphony to my voice. I never realised how much freedom of expression you can get with a symphony orchestra. It’s truly amazing. I’m really having fun with this stage of my songwriting and scoring orchestra parts with my good friend Harshit Verma. We’re working on an album with that exact same sound.
My influences have varied depending on which decade we’re in. But here are some of the constants. Michael Jackson, Foo Fighters, Daughtry, Hanson, Metallica, Keith Urban.
We’ve listened to most of your songs. A lot has gone into writing them and there seems to be a deep personal connection to each one of them. Tell us about your writing process and the topics that push you to write.
RS: I’ve written about pretty much everything under the sun. But it’s very interesting that after a full circle, if I revisit a topic, my take on it would have changed and evolved a bit. In the past I have written about general topics that aren’t really personal experiences or any personal viewpoints with some exceptions of course… Pure fiction. But these days, my songs definitely have a more personal connection to them. I’ve opened myself up to express myself deeper within me now.
The songwriting process can really vary from time to time. I know that may seem like a typical answer, but it’s true. Sometimes, I might have a melody in my head that I'll record on my phone by humming into it. From there I would build on it when I get back home and pick up the guitar or sit on the piano. From there, depending on how the melody and chords make me feel, I would start writing lyrics. Depending on how the music is making me feel, it could be happy, sad, angry etc. The music would drive the topic. Other times, for example when I wrote ‘We Demand Change’, the topic was already in my head. The topic is what determines the chords I choose or the sound of the gunshots working as a beat to set the tone. I knew the words “We Demand Change, We demand Acceptance” and “Won’t take it no more” were going to be in the song come what may. So you see how both methods of writing are so fundamentally different. But that’s the beauty of songwriting. There are no rules. Over the last 2 years, the topics that have inspired me to write have been the state of the environment, Covid-based lockdowns, depression, crossroads, finding hope etc.
Sure, we get the theme of the song, but man, that’s an interesting beat! The gun sounds etc. How did that come about?
RS: Haha... Yes, it is quite interesting. While producing it, I first tried traditional organic sounding drums. That didn’t quite achieve the feeling that was in my heart. Then I tried a more modern sound for the drums and that also did not work. I just had to try something different , something a little drastic, but something that will 100% catch people’s attention and set the tone for the song. So I went to a popular website that producers use and downloaded some royalty free samples of stomps and gunshots and guns being loaded and placed them together in such a way so as to form a beat. After a little tweaking and processing, it just felt perfect. I was able to achieve the emotion that I was feeling perfectly.
So the chaos is created by the gunshots, the story is told by the guitar and vocals and the orchestra is this beautiful blanket of hope and light that just surrounds the darkness created by the gunshots and stomps. We (Harshit and I) took about a week or so to compose it all and go through various revisions before we arrived at something that just worked so well. There were different note selections for more heavy-hearted sections and different notes for more hopeful sections. Even the rhythm would vary. Heavy had longer notes in an eight note pattern or quarter note pattern, whereas the hopeful parts would be a more sixteenth note pattern. But it’s the back and forth movement from heavy to hopeful that creates the entire vibe of the song.
Why do you think we have found ourselves with a broken system and what can we do to change it?
RS: Well the “system” I am referring to is our own internal “processing system”. Why do most human beings usually resort to anger when faced with a dispute? Why can’t calm reasoning be the go-to solution? It’s the flawed thought process that most of us have (myself included). If we all were to even change one thing about ourselves that may lead to a positive change to ourselves and those around us, that would be a huge step.
The thing we can do is to approach problems with a calm and peaceful outlook. Find positive solutions. I’m not saying that small changes will get rid of all the problems in the world, but will hopefully be a start. We all know right from wrong at the end of the day. There is still so much racism in the world. Even racist people know that discriminating against someone based on the colour of their skin/faith is wrong. The positive change in that example would be for them to be more “accepting”. Even if they don’t want to be friends with someone due to their poor upbringing and racist outlook, they can still choose to not say or do violent or hurtful things. Even if you can’t change their entire personality, just changing the way they act upon those thoughts would be a start. It may take time, but at least someday people of colour will be able to walk the streets without having to look over their shoulders. It may seem like a small change, but to the people who have been subject to racism (myself included), it will be a huge and positive change.
You’re a fantastic entertainer. You’re seen playing a variety of instruments in your originals and covers. Though you’re doing a lot of it alone, there’s a sense of “hugeness” in your music. Do you think we’ve arrived at a point where there’s a lot of music going around, mostly produced using “technology”, but artists are slowly losing the ability to perform for audiences too?
RS: Thank you so much. Yes, I do work really hard and spend a lot of time to achieve that “hugeness” in my sound. There is no singular answer to your question because yes technology has entered into the world of music production and yes it has definitely made it easy to make a bad performance sound great in a record. But that in no way takes away from great musicians giving amazing performances in the studio and on stage. What it has done is increased the number of artists that exist because now it’s easier to make great sounding records.
There are two ways to look at it. One is that great musicians are losing jobs because less than average musicians can produce their own singles in their bedrooms or basements and use the amazing editing tools in production softwares to make those average performances sound as close to great as possible. So because of this, the value of talented artists is going down because a layman can not tell the difference between a guitar that has been heavily edited as opposed to an organic unedited guitar take which just sounds great. So for example, what’s the point of hiring a great guitarist to play on your record, when you can do it yourself and edit the daylights out of it. The second way to look at it would be that now more people are able to express their thoughts and have the freedom to make their art and have it be heard by people and get the satisfaction of releasing music and having their friends and family listen to it in their cars and be amazed at how good it sounds. My personal take on this would be that there is still no substitute for a great take. Artists that I produce know this very well by now that I don’t accept any bad takes. For my artists, I will make them do it again and again until we have some awesome takes. That doesn’t mean that maybe a few words here and there won’t be fine tuned. But we don’t use technology as a crutch. It’s no substitute for a great performance. If an artist can’t survive without auto-tune, then I'm probably not the right producer for them.
As far as performing in front of a live audience goes. It’s definitely a lot harder to “fake it” live on stage. So once Covid is over and things go back to normal, I feel the stage is still a true outlet for musicians to prove their skills and show their chops to the world.
What’s next for Rohan Solomon?
RS: I’m really in the zone and working on an album right now. That should be coming out early next year. I’m also set to release a few more singles this year including an original Christmas Song. I’m also running an online school for music production and audio engineering plus I'm producing some really good artists right now and am really excited for those songs to be released as well. I definitely put a part of my soul in everything I produce, so I take pride in those songs just as I do for my own songs. So yes, exciting stuff is coming out this year.
WATCH WE DEMAND CHANGE
Cover Image Credit: Yeshu Yuvraj