In a world of nebulous truths, certain things are inarguable. Such as: Heavy metal will never die. The endurance of the Singaporean quartet Rudra is a close-to-home testimony of this. Since its inception in 1992, the band has been the gravitational centre of Vedic metal, a form that it pioneered, wherein sonic cues from the canons of metal, including black, death and trash, are brought to bear on those of Carnatic music, in service of the reinterpretation of Hindu mythology.
The current incarnation of frontman-bassist Kathir, guitarists Vinod and Simon and drummer Shiva, stand for a body of work that is fundamentally transcendental and existential. Every song is a tableau of the panorama of metal, classical Indian music and Vedic thought, an expansive vista wherein the farthest extremes of art are interrogated and enriched.
Overuse has blunted the impact of the term “legendary” but there is nothing controversial in deeming Rudra a legendary band. When Baybeats 2019 rolls around next month, Rudra will take the stage for the third time in its career, to a teeming legion of fans.
Ahead of the big day, we chat with Rudra about its legacy and its future strides in the ensuing interview.
You’ll be headlining Baybeats this year. How does it feel to play one of the biggest festivals in Singapore?
Vinod: It's a huge honour! This is the third time we’re playing at Baybeats, and the previous two times we played there were probably among the best times we've ever had playing live because the stages we played were probably the biggest we've played on. This time, we expect that the crowd is going to be bigger – it's just going to be great. We're definitely going to have a really good time.
Kathir: We are definitely very excited to be playing in Baybeats primarily because it's home ground, it's always very nice to play in the place where we grew up. So, we are very much looking forward to it.
Shiva: I think it's probably the biggest show in Singapore, if I'm not mistaken. It's got the biggest crowd and the biggest outdoor event for the local scene. To be part of it, this being our third time, it's a great honour.
Rudra has been a band for almost three decades. What keeps you together?
Vinod: The first thing is the friendship – that's the only thing that's keeping us together. [laughs] And then, of course, there's the love for music, and that playing music is the only outlet, outside of work and family, where we can come together. All of us are in our 30s and 40s, but this is something that we can still do, and we really enjoy it so I don't think we'll be quitting anytime soon.
Shiva: It's the passion that keeps us together. We are all in sync. Outside, we have our own lives, but when we enter the studio, we are all in sync and this is the one of the best lineups that we have, at the moment. The thing that keeps us moving is, as Vinod said, our love of music.
In the two years following the release of your album Enemy of Duality in 2016, what have you been up to?
Kathir: We have put out two compilation albums in the last two years. One consists of unreleased tracks from a very important part of our history, which was the Black Isle days. With Black Isle, we produced three albums, and we had some unreleased tracks and outtakes which we released as an album. And then we released another album of songs that went as far back as 1992, bedroom recordings from the crypt that no one has heard.
We are also about to release another album and we’ve been recording a series of covers of bands that inspired us. We rearranged songs from six bands that influenced us back in the garage days – so we specifically took songs that are prior to '92. The songs we covered are from bands such as Sepultura, Obituary and Black Sabbath.
We usually do not play cover songs, but we wanted to do something to pay tribute to these gods of metal. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are.
Shiva: For the covers, we made it in our style. So, it's different from what the original sounds like – we made them the Rudra way. It's interesting, it's different, and it will have the Rudra flavour.
In the time you've been together, what are some of changes within metal that have impacted you the most?
Kathir: I don't think the metal world has impacted us in that sense because we are quite agnostic to the genres. We have just evolved the way we want to evolve, without being pressurised by what's happening in the global metal industry, and we have done things the way we want to do. We have defined a path for ourselves, we have stuck to it, and we've been consistently creating and producing stuff that defines the music that we put out. So, we've never been pressurised by global trends – metalcore came and went; we were not bothered, never wrote anything in that style. We just let that be, not that it's a problem for us, we just did our thing. We kept evolving, which we still are, and experimenting, but never really straying away from what we are passionate about. That's probably one of our strengths, which allowed us to also create a new genre in the global metal scene.
Were there ever times when sticking to your guns proved to be difficult?
Kathir: We have a band strategy that works for us, in the sense that we know what we want, and we know what to expect from the music that we create. It has always worked for us. Of course, we have re-evaluated our position from time to time, but we always reinvent ourselves such that we can make this band self-sustainable. The sustainability of Rudra is a well-thought out process, and we have never been disappointed with what we have. In fact, there are times when we had to turn down shows and tours. If we happen to play on an international stage, then the audience is meant to watch us. Similarly, if we're not going to be there, it's meant to be as well.
Shiva: We put the band first. Like Kathir said, we have a certain way of playing and a certain way of doing things, so we stick to it. We don't really compromise. If this is the way, this is the way it is to be done.
I think we've got this band synergy – we understand each other, we know when to give in – and it's really working together well with this lineup. We've also set up a group norm in that sense. There's no one who's unhappy.
Seeing how religion has recently interfered with experiencing live music in Singapore, what do you think allows Hinduism to be palatable to a form such as heavy metal?
Kathir: It goes back to the philosophy of ancient India, where there is a lot of opportunity to integrate sound into spirituality. There's precedence going back two thousand years where sound is not separate from spirituality and philosophy. Hence, it gives us the license to continuously contribute to the evolution of these two worlds. In that sense, we are not creating something new – we are part of a continuous process that's already been there, but we're just putting out our contribution.
We just took this already-existing genre called metal and fused it with an already-existing genre of Indian classical and folk music. We brought these two worlds together. So, in that sense, we're kind of innovators who're also contributing to the evolution of Indian arts. I think, more than spiritual, we consider ourselves philosophical and artistic. That's the key thing that defines us, because we consider our music to be philosophy and art, put together.
I mean, the common thing in metal is that we challenge norms and break boundaries. So, from time to time, we do that. Our lyrics present the ugly side of humanity, but also the best side of humanity. We've played Kalaa Utsavam twice, I think, so that's already a testimony to the fact that we are part of the Indian artistic fabric in Singapore. And I think globally, too, because we got to play Kalaa Utsavam because someone saw us play in India.
When did it first occur to you to harness the union of metal and Indian arts in this manner?
Kathir: It was around 1994 when we wanted to go down that path. So before that, for two years, we were just writing a lot of original songs. And then it came a time when we realised that we were just aping the rest and trying to follow the footsteps of bands we admired. Then, the question of why we can't be original occurred to us; instead of doing something that people have always been doing, why can't we be different?
We all come from Indian descent, so we thought we could take advantage of that. We wanted to see how we can take our Indian heritage and integrate it with metal. And, that's the birth of Rudra and Vedic metal.
Rudra is also famed in the cosmos of metal for its technicality. In 'Acosmic Self', for example, there’s a guitar solo that lasts almost two minutes. What place does technicality have in your musicality?
Simon: We don't approach any songs with the thought of being technical. We have a very open concept: We just bring in our riffs and build it from there. The complex parts come in much later, in terms of how much we can really embellish the music. So, when we approach a song, we don't think about how to make it technical; we don't really talk in that theoretical sense.
Vinod: Over the years of playing music, something that I've learnt is that when it comes to creating a riff, you can make it very technical and maybe a guitarist might appreciate it, but a non-musician will probably just think that it's a mess. With Rudra, we don't try to incorporate technical riffs or things like that. What we do is to play some riffs, and if it sounds nice, we keep it. So what you heard, probably just came out, sounded nice to us, and that's about it!
Have you ever felt isolated from the spectrum of music coming out of Singapore?
Kathir: Maybe. But we never really made a conscious attempt to be part of the arts scene, and we aren't averse to it when we are invited to be a part of it.That's was the greatest lesson we learnt: When Esplanade started to invite us to play, we realised that we could be a part of the arts scene as well. So when we get invited, we do that, but we don't make a conscious attempt to be part of it.
Shiva: On top of that, since young, we choose metal. By choosing metal, we know that we don't want to be a popular act. So, we never expected to be at the forefront because that's not our intention nor our priority. But of course, along the way, the world changed and metal became more accepted – so we simply just took the opportunity.
With how easy it is to make music, these days, do you reflect on the future of instrumentation?
Vinod: I have a ten-year-old. The thing is, my wife would initially force him to play piano and take classes. But what I feel is that if you force someone into something, they're probably going to hate it. So, I told my wife that when the time comes, our son will probably want to pick it up on his own; but right now I'm not going to force him into it. He's probably going to be influenced by me and by hanging out with the band, so there will come a time when he might just pick up interest and want to know more. And when that time comes, that will be the right time for him to learn and go further.
Simon: We shouldn’t force our kids into music – we should expose them to music. Kids on their own are very curious, so just get them exposed to all these instruments. But don't force it on them because it will backfire.
Kathir: A lot of my friends who are Grade 8 musicians have stopped playing music. They stopped because it's an achievement and it ends there – and these people did not go for music class because they wanted to, their parents sent them for the classes. So for them, music is another subject. People like us, we didn't go for music classes; I think all of us are self-taught. We didn't go for a single class.
But the thing is, we picked it up because we love music. It didn't happen very early in life, though. We wanted to play music because we wanted to play the songs that we love listening to. We need people who are proficient in music, but we also need people who are passionate about music. It's very important not to indoctrinate children to think that music is another subject. Most people who created businesses did not go to business school. The same applies to music as well.
Finally, you have a new original album in the works. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Kathir: We don't have a title yet. We have finished half the album so far. The theme will be around ancient women who have challenged norms, and it will be coming out hopefully sometime next year. We have shortlisted characters from ancient Sanskrit literature and Indian literature, so each song will present a woman who's challenged norms.
Baybeats 2019 will take place 23 to 25 August 2018 at the Esplanade. The festival is free.