Guitarist/singer Ananth Menon, one of India’s most recognizable bluesmen talks about the local blues scene

"I think the blues will always have an audience in India, but the reality is the same for any genre – it’s a tough life, but can be a gratifying one."

Ananth Menon: Karmic Blues

Ananth Menon is one of India’s most recognizable bluesmen. Playing for projects like Galeej Gurus, By2blues, Parachute XV1 and many more he has always kept the blues alive and kicking in India.

Steeped in the blues tradition of guitar playing, Ananth Menon is a veritable monster on the six strings - effortlessly straddling the two worlds of groove and technique with a feel tempered by years of playing his fingers to the bone for various blues, and rock bands. He enjoys all sorts of music, and has even been involved with commercial cinema music briefly. Ananth, talks about the Indian blues scene, Roy Buchanan, Himalayan Blues Fest, Muddy Waters and Miles Davis.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?
When I first started learning guitar at the age of 11, I never really considered it a serious career choice. As far as I was concerned it was just a hobby; something to be good at. But in boarding school (Rishi Valley School), I met one of my first mentors, who would go on to become one of the most important influences in my life. Mr Peter Isaac is one of Bangalore’s most dedicated musicians from the 60s who continues to play even today. That was the first time I realized that playing music was a definite possibility as a career and that there were people around doing it. The fact that it may have been a slightly less-than-reputable career decision for conservative Indians perhaps made it all the more attractive to me.
I think in terms of blues musicians, it’s safe to say that Eric Clapton was my first idol as guitarist, and till today I think I unconsciously try to evoke his style in my playing. I also discovered guitarists like Roy Buchanan and Mark Knopfler, but at that stage I think Clapton’s simplicity really drew me in..

What made you fall in love with the blues music?
In the beginning, I was very unaware of this gigantic world of music called the blues. In fact, I was more involved with playing folk, and Simon & Garfunkel, John Denver and Joan Baez dominated my playlists. After meeting Peter, I think one of the first musicians he introduced me to was Muddy Waters. I was instantly fascinated. I had heard Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album (yes, before I heard any of his classic electric material), and I was vaguely familiar with the blues material on it, but because of my predominantly folksy leanings, I was always more attracted to tracks like Tears in Heaven, Lonely Stranger, and the like. Muddy Waters was a different kettle of fish altogether. The power and the sheer honesty  of his voice hypnotized me, and I believe that was the first moment that I fell in love with the blues.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
 I can’t believe in absolutes. I do believe that as a musician, or an artist, your craft is a daily challenge. The more honest you are with yourself, the more engaging and sublime your music becomes. So to answer the question, I think the best is yet to come, if there could be such a thing. Overcoming the worst is to me, overcoming the worst in yourself. For example, something as seemingly innocuous as lethargy could kill your entire career very easily. Facing these kinds of obstacles and overcoming them is an artist’s greatest challenge, and also what I believe makes his/her music more meaningful.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
The blues to me has never been an “easy” genre as people often believe it is. I’ve really had to work very hard at expressing myself the right way, without wasting notes, yet achieving the most amount of expression possible in, say, a single note bend. It’s a work in progress, and I can’t say that I nail it every time yet, but when that expression is achieved, I find that a single bend can make your day, and that’s really saying something. The blues offers me a chance to reach that elusive place.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music?
Like I said before, blues is not an “easy way out” as many believe. Time and again, when I see guys playing “the blues,” I can almost hear them think: “it’s just three chords, how hard can it be?” My point is that IS how hard it can be! It’s not about how many notes you can pack into 12 bars, although tastefully played stuff is always nice. I have always been an impulsive and reckless sort of person, and while impulsive is sometimes useful while playing the blues, I have over the years, learned a degree of restraint that is to me, almost a necessity while playing pretty much any kind of music. I think that this restraint is also bleeding into my day to day life.

How do you describe Ananth Menon’s sound and progress?
Again, the journey is never complete. I think you pass certain signposts along the way, and I may have passed a couple, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I have just about scratched the surface here. I’m thinking to myself, if scratching the surface alone can being us so much joy, then it must be insane as you go further on. And I’d be nuts to stop looking now.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
The answer to that question will always be – right now. I’m learning new things on an almost daily basis, and these new revelations are a constant reminder to me about why I picked up the guitar in the first place.

Which artists have you worked with & which do you consider the best friend?
In India, my first influence, and always a great friend will be Peter Isaac, who introduced me to the blues and continues to be a guiding force. My partner in crime – Vasudev Prabhu who is one of the best harmonica players in the country always remains one of my best friends. I have played with Warren Mendonsa and I consider him one of the finest guitarists in the country.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman?
If you’re looking for the standard answer that pain is what makes the really good bluesman, I’m afraid I consider that a misconception. Yes, the delta blues guys shared a lot of pain, and that pain manifested in their music, no doubt. But I think the ability to let your emotions out into your instrument, or your voice, is to me, what makes a true blues musician. The emotion could be joy, anger, pain, sadness; just about anything. If you restrict yourself to just one emotion, surely you will be limiting yourself as a musician, and what purpose could that possibly serve?

Are there any memories from your gigs in local blues clubs, which you’d like to share with us?
I have this ideal in my head, and it’s not an original ideal. When a night really comes together, when the band “hits that groove,” or when “It” plays – I always held that as the ultimate goal to performing live. The truly great musicians have, I think worked out a way to hit that groove on a regular basis, and to recreate that experience.  In Bangalore, I think Counter Culture fosters a spirit that allows for just such a chemistry to take place, and I was lucky enough to be a part of one of these moments last year at the Ode to the Nlues Festival (in memory of Robert Johnson)

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your shows at Himalayan Blues Festival?
I think the funniest thing to happen there was when this musician from the US – Austin Walkin Cane – was playing his slide blues on stage and one very plastered audience member just waltzed up to the stage and offered him a massive joint. Without batting an eyelid, Cane took a couple of huge drags, bellowed with laughter for a second, and continued as if nothing had happened! I think the organizers got a little screwed for that, because some members of the US Consulate were present, or some such thing, but that was hilarious anyway.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
I’m a pretty shy guy when it comes to people, and I find that around celebrities I get terribly tongue tied. I won’t have a clue what to say to some of these giants of music, but I would have really liked to have hung out around Muddy Waters and Miles Davis. Just absorb some of the vibe I imagine they were putting out.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I don’t know if there are really any secrets as such. You learn things the more you play. If that is a secret, then I think it’s the most widely understood one there is. It ranks right up there with: there are no shortcuts; and, Practice, Practice, Practice.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
I think the blues will always be around for two reasons. When you are younger, you will think that it’s just three chords, I can do a lot with it. Pretty soon you will get disillusioned, and move on to other things. As you get older, you will begin to appreciate the subtler ideas of the blues, and that will draw you back again. When you have two age groups like that being drawn to the blues, I doubt it will ever leave the music scene.

How do you see the future of the Indian blues scene?
I think the entire music scene in India is encouraging at the moment. Here is a lot of experimentation with genres, and a lot of new musicians are trying new sounds, so things are looking very exciting. I am also working on a concept of infusing electronica into acoustic, as well as electric blues. I don’t want to rush into it and create sounds that people will just end up dubbing “fusion,” so I’m trying to be a little careful about it, but I’d say the blues scene is in safe hands at the moment at least.

What characterize the sound of local blues scene?
I think the general trend these days is to simplify sounds. While a few years ago, guitarists would use as much effects/distortion on their sounds, these days I find that the trend is going the opposite way. Cleaner guitars, less effects – a more basic approach to playing the blues, which I find to be a refreshing change from, say, ten years ago.

What do you think of folk Indian music & how close are to the BLUES?
While in terms of the scales and notes, folk music can be very different from the blues in its complexity, there are also many instances of singers being accompanied by just a single note repeated over the length of the entire song. More importantly, however, I feel that the emotions that the musicians let loose in folk music can sound very similar to the emotions you would hear in a blues musicians voice. I have met many uneducated folk musicians, but there is no doubting the sophisticated skill and passion when they are portraying pain, or love, or sadness. That I think is the common factor.

When it all began for the blues in India, who is considered the local "godfather" of the blues?
I wasn’t even born when that was happening, but I doubt there was any one such person. The impression I get from Peter, is that each area of the country had its own heroes, so to speak. Peter speaks very highly of Gussy Rick, whom he thinks of as a teacher to himself and many others. From the old days, Mr Lou Majaw still rocks stages across the country, and the reclusive band HFT (High Fucking Time) comes down from the mountains every once in a while to play gigs.

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in your country
I think the blues will always have an audience in India, but the reality is the same for any genre – it’s a tough life, but can be a gratifying one. As awareness is growing, so is the audience, and I believe that the popularity of the blues is only going to continue to grow.

Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?
Actually, this time of year is particularly good, because there are a fair number of blues festivals that are organized. There is a celebration of Robert Johnson’s birth anniversary called Ode to The Blues. A radio station is organizing a festival called the Indigo Jazz and Blues Festival which will be headlined by Bobby Whitlock and the Van Wilks band, which should be a lot of fun .

What mistake of the Indian blues scene you want to correct?
I think if every band pursued a more creative approach to playing music – if not actually writing their own material, the scene would become a lot more exciting. Also bands need to get their material heard online and play as often as possible, so their own skills are honed.

Do you believes it has the possibility of someone musician to live only with the blues in your country?
I’ll be honest – it’s very difficult. It’s hard enough for any musician, and a blues musician just has it that much harder. The money isn’t great, and gigs can tend to dry up at certain points in the year. The only way to really sustain yourself is to work in as many music projects as possible, or get a job. I say f*** the job, I’ll take option 1 anyday.

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