It started like the most classic of all-American fantasies: with a call from MTV. The Bamboo Shoots had taken MTVu’s Best Music on Campus contest, winning a spot on Epic’s roster and seats for the accompanying joyride.
First there was an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” then came the tour with Plain White Tees. Not long after that came the stage sharing with Soulja Boy, the producing sign-on of Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, and then – in a nod that seemed to shock even their label – the mixing talents of one Mark “Spike” Stent. Somewhere in the middle of it all the band recorded their first album, Armour, a lengthy process that resulted in something preened for teenage bedrooms and hipster hideouts alike. It’s rambling, retro, and tousled in all the right places – and to clarify, we were just talking about the album, not the unit of good-looking boys that stand behind the instruments (though similarities may be drawn).
Armour officially drops in late summer, and we’ve officially started paying attention. Armour officially drops today, and we’ve officially started paying attention. Read on as Avir , Bamboo Shoots front man, warms us up.
“We had to wait. I think we were sandwiched between Madonna, No Doubt, Beyonce and U2 and his assistant was mixing Dear Science and assisting us at the same time. But Spike never once cared that we were nowhere near the popularity of his other clients, he took it just as seriously and I’ll never forget that.”
Format: Okay – give us the basics. Who are the Bamboo Shoots, who’s on what, and how and when did you form?
Avir: Bamboo Shoots is Shiv on drums, Ankur on MPC, synths and percussion, Karl on bass, synths and vocals, and me, Avir, on vocals and guitar.
Karl’s parents are Zoroastrian and so is my mom – and there’s only like 13 Zoroastrians left in the world or something. So Karl and I met as little kids through that community. We’d have sleepovers (Karl slept with an electric blanket that I believe he uses to this day).
I met Shiv when I was crashing at a friend’s dorm at NYU; he had gotten a hold of some songs I did and we became friends when he made a huge wok full of stir-fried vegetarian. Plus he played drums – sweet bonus. Then Karl and I met Ankur – he was our friend’s little brother, and we found him in a basement in New Brunswick scratching records and banging on garbage cans. Oddly very talented. We nicknamed him Bintu and the basement C&C Bintu Factory (I don’t know why). Finally, Ahmed joined the band about two years ago, we needed a guitarist and he showed up at our studio during a thunderstorm already knowing our songs better than we did.
Format: Bamboo Shoots formed in 2004, turned out two EPs, were mtvU’s band of the year in 2007, and hung out with Conan O’Brian… but the band is only just releasing its full length album. Why the long time coming?
Avir: Well, we just wanted to get it right, and when you get signed to a major label there are so many opportunities for your album to get done wrong. It’s a long story.
We started recording with Jerry Harrison in October 2007 and finished in March 2008. Then we were hunting around for the right person to mix it. I was pretty picky, and my top choice was always this guy Spike Stent. He is seriously the best mixer, I mean when I was looking up who mixed what albums, he had done so many of my favorite mixes I couldn’t even believe it. He did Homogenic!! And I just felt like he would get us.
I told the label and they laughed and told me to forget about it, because he was way out of our league and he gets paid in pounds. So then I was sad, but I found his email on some site and just emailed him anyway. I didn’t hear anything so we moved forward, but nothing else was feeling right. Then in April we got an email from his manager saying, “Spike loves the tracks, is he too late on this one?” I almost cried.
By this point we were all set to mix with someone else. Plus we had to figure out how to make it work because we couldn’t afford Spike and his schedule was packed. Eventually it all got ironed out because everyone wanted to make it work. But we had to wait – I think we were sandwiched between Madonna, No Doubt, Beyonce and U2 and his assistant was mixing Dear Science and assisting us at the same time. But Spike never once cared that we were nowhere near the popularity of his other clients, he took it just as seriously and I’ll never forget that. Like everything in my life, it happened at the last minute in a way that’s sort of unreal. And now we’re just waiting for the label to put it out.
Format: You’ve got an interesting sound – kind of like a touch of disco kisses thrash meets pop hits the dance floor. Where did it come from?
Avir: I honestly have no idea where it came from. Musical influences are like scars you collect over time. We just happen to have gotten ours from all over the place. I like solid, simple rhythms. I like music that you can listen to in the dark with headphones and feel like someone gets it. I like Thriller. I’ve always believed that if you keep your ears really open, you can hear inspiration from everywhere.
Format: “Musical influences are like scars you collect over time” – that’s an interesting perspective. Scars can represent a few, sometimes contradictory things – nostalgia, annoyance, pain and respect come to mind. On that note, what’s your opinion on leaning heavily on musical influences – helpful or harmful (in regards to developing brand new sounds)?
Avir: Helpful when it happens subconsciously. Harmful if you’re trying. Think about it logically, nothing happens in a vacuum.
That whole solitary genius hipster myth is cute to me. It’s so white. Someone once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun” and that’s really true in every way. What is a brand new sound? Is it like a brand new person, that’s actually a mix of thousands of other people’s genes?
I guess it’s about how you lean on your influences. Like I love Tom Tom Club, Jerry and I talk about that band all the time. But I don’t have to dress like them or use only the same synths as them or whatever – that’s being influenced by the show and not the spirit. So many bands nowadays lean on the past for cred, and they miss the point. That shows me you saw a comet and only remembered the tail.
“I met Shiv when I was crashing at a friend’s dorm at NYU; he had gotten a hold of some songs I did and we became friends when he made a huge wok full of stir-fried vegetarian. Plus he played drums – sweet bonus.”
Format: This is your first full-length album, and the first listen post-prod is always interesting when compared to a band’s first tracks. What are your thoughts on your sound pre- and post-studio?
Avir: We had about 30 songs that we were considering for the album and Jerry patiently helped us whittle it down to 17, then 13 and finally 11. Tough choices sometimes because every song is like a baby, and I imagine even if your baby is a moron you’d still love it.
But the best feeling for us was finally hearing our music as an album – as one piece that ebbs and flows and has a life of its own. They say first albums are written over a lifetime, so it was wild to put together 11 tracks from different times and places of our lives and realize there was a common thread that we hadn’t planned or seen before. And that the common thread was a sketch of who we are.
Format: So the band discovered a lot of “common threads” in this album. Can you describe some of them?
Avir: No!! That’s what the album is for.
Format: Your music is incredibly energetic – like the kind of stuff you’d want to take along on an 8-mile run. Typically, music with that kind of vamp gets embraced by teens – is that who you’re looking out over at your concerts these days?
Avir: Our audiences really depend on where we go – our album isn’t out yet so it’s just too early to tell. I feel like people are always surprised when they like us. I wonder what they were expecting. Maybe five brown people walking onstage lowered their expectations.
When we played in Seattle with Thurston Moore it was older people who I thought hated us, but afterwards I found out they were just “appreciating” it. When we opened for Plain White T’s it was all teenage girls asking us to sign their shoes. I think I’m just as confused by our audience as they are by us.
But I agree about the 8-mile run. I wish our song “Where the Ocean Meets the Road” could have been on the Days of Thunder soundtrack. It makes me want to either drive on the beach or jump rope in preparation for something big.
Format: I just downloaded your latest mixtape, Music for Cotillions. As far as I know, I did this legally. Putting your record label’s inevitably negative influence aside, let’s play a game of ‘Would You Rather.’ Would you rather: A) Tour with a DJ that became famous after illegally downloading one of your tracks then using it in a mash-up (kicker: he’s the headliner), or B) Never have released that song at all?
Avir: That’s easy – A) tour with Girl Talk.
Format: So you just toured India. This is your first time playing overseas (right?) – what was it like ?
Avir: It was amazing. I don’t know how to describe it. Touring around India is not like home.
We took a 17-hour overnight train from Delhi to Mumbai. It’s a sleeper train, where they give you blankets and pillows and feed you. You make friends with strangers and it’s like a slumber party. The shows have been so surreal. People are so passionate here. Especially when they realize that some of us are also Indian, I think they feel proud. We played in Kolkata and kids were going bananas. I ended up in the audience and the audience ended up on stage. We had to leave straight from the venue to catch a flight, soaked in sweat. We played in Bangalore where dancing to live music will get you in jail. These jails don’t have HBO. We had people dancing with their chairs dragging behind them, girls screaming so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves, and we got in some trouble with the chief of police. We also played an acoustic set in the slums at a school for street kids. We barely had to play, they were just so happy someone stopped by. I could go on forever, but yeah – it was special.
Format: OK – time for last words. When can we buy your album, when is your next US tour, and, hmm…. ___________ ? (Choose your own adventure for that last one )
Avir: I have no clue about that stuff. I have a hard time thinking ahead. I don’t even know how I’m getting fed tonight.