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Shonali Bhowmik straddles several lines, living in two different worlds with perfect ease, and whether it’s music and comedy, the law and rock n roll, or balancing her Southern roots and East Village hipness, she does it with style, making it all look effortless. Having grown up in Nashville, Tennessee, the “30-ish” Bhowmik started her acclaimed band Ultrababyfat while in law school in Atlanta, and has continued to play in New York as leader of her band Tigers and Monkeys, who’ve opened for Sleater-Kinney and, most recently, Ted Leo at South Street Seaport. Armed with bluesy rock songs that highlight Bhowmik’s sultry drawl that can border on a sneer, the band rocks with tracks like “Loose Mouth” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” and are set to release their debut EP in November. She’s also part of the offbeat movies/music/comedy show Variety Shac, along with Heather Lawless, Andrea Rosen and Chelsea Peretti, hosting the monthly Williamsburg event and taking part in their hilarious video shorts, about everything from a potluck a workout. When Bhowmik spoke with Gothamist about being an Indian-American woman in indie rock, the power of being onstage, and playing for thousands of people, her enthusiasm for her musical career rang through loud and clear.

How did you get started playing music?
My best friend growing up, Michelle, was in my last band, Ultrababyfat, with me, and when we were kids we made tapes with each other, with rock songs and stories, we called it the prophecies. I hadn’t heard it in so long and Michelle sent me a tape for Christmas as a few years ago from when we were 16 years old, and in the tape it talks about us being in a rock and roll band in New York and dating all the hot rock and roll dudes and it’s hilarious because I did it.

It was always a part of what I wanted to do but I don’t think I had remembered that. I figured I’d go to law school and music would be a hobby but it honestly was the only thing that I’d always done. Especially being Indian, where you’re told you need to be a lawyer or doctor or engineer, you grow up thinking that’s what you’ll do. But my hobby was just so well received by music lovers and critics and while I was in law school, we got signed to a label. That was when I started playing the most music I ever played.

It became what I knew I had to do as a career. I didn’t even practice law after I got out of law school, I just toured and played music. I graduated in the late 90's, and ever since then, it’s been the only thing that I’ve done. Everything else subsidized the music. I waited tables and tutored high school math at a private school in Atlanta. I also taught aerobics, I did LSAT courses at Princeton Review, I taught programs at Friends Seminary, whatever I could do. I was a producer for the Siren Festival, I worked at CMJ for a couple years. This is the first time I’ve fully worked as a lawyer, but it’s temporary for me, so I can leave when I want to play shows; it’s worked out perfectly.

What do your parents think of your career now?
They have been completely supportive of whatever I do, they fully approve now that I’ve been using my law degree to an extent. I definitely think that they’re surprised that I’ve stuck with music and it’s what makes me the happiest. They totally are a rare find when it comes to traditional Indian parents. I’m sure they’re wondering if I’m gonna just keep dating boys, they want me to get married. If they had an idea of my social life, they’d probably flip out. They come from such a different culture, they probably would never understand what I consider it to be a success in terms of music.

How’d you come to form you first band Ultrababyfat?
I’d been writing songs for the fun of it with a friend, Michelle since we were 10 or 11. Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, we worshiped all these male rock bands. We dated boys in rock bands, we were writing songs on the sidelines and watching them play, and we said, let’s do some open mic nights, while I was in law school. We were so scared, but our songs were well received, we started getting really great reviews in Atlanta in the press and then we started getting calls from record labels in different cities. It’s amazing how fast things happened for us. It’s all we did for fun, we weren’t doing drugs or drinking, we were just writing these songs, so finally we brought it out onstage.

It was just the two of us, and then we would ask different musicians we knew to play with us that night. Britta Phillips, who’s in Luna, played with us for years. We had no aspirations other than wanting all the male rock bands to come see us play and know that we were at least as good as them, if not better. Ultrababyfat toured with David Cross for his DVD Let America Laugh. He’d seen us in Atlanta and he was so supportive and we had so much fun touring with him. Then Michelle started going to grad school in Atlanta and we both had enough material to start doing our own thing. My new rock band, Tigers and Monkeys, are people I met while I was in NYC.

How’d you find them?
I knew one of them through an old bandmate in Florida, but what’s so awesome being a musician that tours in the United States is that you meet such a network of great musicians. When I got here and emailed friends in other cities and said do you know anybody in New York? Now I have two New Yorkers and three Floridians, 3 had come from Gainesville, Florida.

How’d you come up with the name Tigers and Monkeys?
It’s primarily my brainchild. I came here and had a backlog of songs and I honestly just wanted to perform and I had comedian friends that were inspirational in terms of saying, “go play by yourself, just do it.” So I booked some shows by myself here and in Atlanta and Nashville and I didn’t have a name for it. I actually called Demetri Martin and he’s Mr. Word Game Man. I told him I wanted to promote the shows with a band name instead of my name. And he asked what are your two favorite animals? I said tigers and Monkeys, I literally love tigers and monkeys, so it was easy, it was that cute. It’s a project that’s based on my songwriting and being the conductor but now people that I play with are instrumental in the style of what I’m doing and they get it.

Do you prefer the solo shows over the full band shows?
My solo stuff’s a little darker and more mellow and spookier and my rock stuff is a little more upbeat, there’s still a dark side to it, it’s a little heavier and fun and I have vocals with the guys chanting along with me. With a solo project sometimes I just have one other girl sing with me and it’s a little more sparse, and I want to have the flexibility to do that.
I love both and they’re both things I need. I guess the band experience is probably fully more me because I still perform some things by myself within the show so I get it all out. For me, there are times when I just don’t want to see a loud rock band, and there are times that’s all I want to see. I think it fulfills both those things; it’s two forms of therapy.

Is the time you feel the most on about your music when you’re on stage?
Being onstage is everything to me. This band right now has been an amazing outlet in terms of me, at this level, in confidence wise, where I do things wise that I probably never wrote when I was sitting down. I feel freer about experimenting; whatever happens, happens. I love that feeling, and honestly, I feel like that’s an inspiration that’s come from my comedian friends. We’re so different but I see them willing to take risks that I don’t think I was able to before I got to be around it so much. They’re willing to fail tenfold.

I’d rehearse and rehearse and get things really tight, so it’s nice to feel free to be whatever way you want to be and take it to this other place. I love playing live cause I can feel myself doing it and not caring, if you guys like it great, but this is me and we’re having fun, hopefully you can get it, if people do get it, those are the people that I probably want to be around and if they don’t, I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me.

How did Variety Shac come about?
For me, it’s super natural in that my music was always built upon this relationship with my best friend, and all we did throughout our childhood is laugh.

I had been around male comedians and musicians for most of my life, and I had seen here in New York this strange separation between men and women much more than you ever see in music. I felt like I was always treated very much like an equal from male musicians and comedians in terms of my art form and I’d watch my female comedian friends, without them every actually discussing this, I would notice the female comedians were always on the periphery in every setting I was in. The guys were just excited to get attention from guys, cause they were such nerds as kids, they never got it then, so this is their first time to feel like a member of a fraternity, it’s like the nerd fraternity.

I’d watch talented women get done with shows and be on the outskirts and the guys were into each other’s performances. It’s very subtle. At one party after a show at UCB where Heather [Lawless] killed, I thought that the guys were all celebrating themselves. I thought, I have to talk to them about doing a show where it’s not about us being women, but about us being the leaders of the night and dictating the energy of what happens that night.

With music, it’s been super organic and grown from there, I feel like I fit in so well with these women, I never feel like I’m never being anything but myself, which is what they’re being. I am vain enough to say that without me really pushing forward with this idea the show wouldn’t have happened.

Is there a difference in playing a music show or a comedy show for you?
When I’m playing as a musician and playing a full set and people are there to see me as a musician, the focus is that and so the reception is different. I do think that I affect people, at least some people in the same way, with my two songs at the Variety Shac. At Variety Shac, I’m communication in a different way. It’s not just me doing music, it’s the four of us doing something altogether. As much as the 3 of those women blow me away, they’re translating something that’s coming from me too.

There’s a community vibe to it.
We’re all together, the whole show, whoever’s participating or performing is part of the team. I’ll sit back in the audience to watch Chelsea and I feel like I’m onstage with her. Before we did the show I wasn’t sure I was going to like these women that much, but we have become closer and closer and we so love that show and being together, and we work so well together, we’re so different and have different voices and we laugh at each other and are excited about each other’s ideas.

The other day Andrea emailed me this - she was at Whole Foods and two fresh-faced film students came up to her and asked if she’s in Variety Shac, they were so into the shorts, they watched them all.. They quoted each one of us at a different point in time, that’s so cool that people remember something each one of us have done. We’ve been getting emails from people like Fred Armisen from SNL saying he liked our videos.

How would you describe your sound? There’s something very Southern about it to me, in part because of your accent, but even the rock songs seem a little slower, a little more sensual or something.
Tigers and Monkeys is a bluesy pop rock band in the vein of the Pixies and the White Stripes, mixed with country, and there’s a darkness to it. There’s a haunting sound beneath it all. Most recently I used minor chords a lot and I used to use major chords a lot and that’s a little more of a positive sound, so there’s a darkness that I’m grasping onto that makes me feel good.

Chuck Eddy from The Village Voice came to a show and he commented that he had some of my older band’s music and he said I enunciate extra words and syllables that don’t exist. I don’t even know that I’m doing that and I realized that I don’t hear many people doing that, ti was very organic. I’ll make up words within syllables, adding things for rhythmic sounds. There’s a line where I say “this pretty thing is broken, this pretty thing won’t smile,” and I add syllables that I don’t even know I do, that’s like three extra syllables for the word smile.

What’s your songwriting process like?
I sit in my apartment in the East Village with my 4 track and my guitar. I live by myself so can play my guitar at 2 am and sing into the microphone and I sortof sound things out. I come up with lyrics after the fact, I may have stuff written down in a book and then I fit it to the melody that I’ve been mumbling. That’s a lot of times why the words get extended or shortened, because I want it to fit in this space of time. I don’t think about the logic of how the words fit the sound. That has to come from being Southern because we already have a drawl.

Tigers and Monkeys has opened for bands including Sleater-Kinney and Ted Leo (at South Street Seaport). How did those gigs come about, and what were those particular shows like?
With my last band, I opened up for PJ Harvey and Pavement, back in the day, I thought I’d gotten accustomed to it, and now we’ve opened for The Shins and Sleater-Kinney, but it still always is electrifying and one of the best things ever. It’s always so wonderful to play in front of people who’ve never heard your music before.

I love when bands you love love your music and that’s slowly what’s been happening. It’s why we do it and it’s unique, that night at South Street Seaport, all their attention was focused on us and people were so into it. It’s sometimes hard to look at them, you’re almost blushing cause you can’t believe that all these people are into what you’re doing and you have to go inside yourself.

This woman who was 75 or 80 came up yelling to buy a t-shirt and a CD and at the same time there were 14-year olds flipping out to get an autograph, I just feel touched and lucky and special. I feel like I’m there to make sure those people feel as good about themselves. I’m so complimented by the fact that Ted Leo loves our band. I knew I could prove that we deserve to be there and with that comes a complete appreciation of the people that want to talk to us. Ever since the beginning, I’ve always been blown away by that interaction with people.

What’s been your favorite show you’ve played?
I would have to say it was that night at the South Street Seaport, it was transcendent. I was playing downtown, \the skyscraper I work in was in my line of vision while we were under the pier, playing to thousands of people on a stage by the water, outside, with tons of my friends there, it’s just like, oh, this is it, I ‘m done. With music for me, I’ll have an experience that’s just more amazing than the last, that’s why I will do it forever, I know that. The joke is that when I’m 80 I’ll still be making music with Michelle from Ultrababyfat, we’ll still write music when we’re old ladies together.

Have you experienced prejudice within the music world?
When I started, I probably wasn’t as confident, so I experienced more of it. When people, mostly male musicians that hadn’t seen me perform yet, would talk to me before my shows there was a bit of arrogance and condescension in terms of my ability to play but slowly over the years I just think I’ve proven myself and I’ve been treated really well.

I think people aren’t used to seeing an Indian woman play rock music and I think what sort of prejudice could be receiving, I don’t even know about it yet. This band can definitely reach a bigger level than Ultrababyfat did, especially being in New York which is a lot more open minded in terms of race and even musical, stylistically. There was one time a long time ago on one of my old CDs with a sitar in it, and this writer wrote something about the song saying it sounded like we wanted to be the next Cornershop. What the hell? All of a sudden, he’s just throwing out the fact that I’m Indian, there can be only one Indian indie rock band. Like when there was Living Colour, they could be the only black rock band.

Right now, with M.I.A., I would hope that she would be opening a door for someone like me, that there’s an Indian woman that’s playing independent music. In the end, I would say that the music speaks for itself.

Do you have any advice to people starting a band?
Keep writing music and keep playing shows and don’t get caught up in what’s on the radio or what’s in magazines and just stick to it because in the long run, usually the person that’s stuck with what they’re doing that comes out on top. Friends who’ve succeeded weren’t swayed by the press or radio or MTV and they’re super successful because they wrote great songs.

Tigers and Monkeys performs October 3rd at Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston Street, at 9 pm, along with Producto and Paper Cranes (Rain Phoenix). The next Variety Shac takes place Tuesday, October 4th at 8:30 pm at Galapagos, 70 North 6th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.