Karnataka live at Islington Assembly Hall, UK
05 May. 2015

Karnataka live at Islington Assembly Hall, UK


Having recently reviewed Karnataka’s excellent new album, Secrets of Angels, I had the pleasure earlier this month of getting to see them live at Islington Assembly Hall. The pleasure was greater because I also got to meet most of the band before the show, for an informal interview. Here is, to the best of my recollection, my musings on what we discussed and what I thought of the show.

PRE-SHOW INTERVIEW

I arrived later than I had planned, and later than I had indicated to Karnataka’s keyboard maestro Çağrı Tozluoğlu. Fortunately, he was generously forgiving of this error. It also quickly became clear that I had no idea how to pronounce his name, for which he was also merciful. I got to spend the best part of an hour talking about writing, touring and the history of the band, with Çağrı, guitarist Enrico Pinna, and bassist and founding member Ian Jones. Singer Hayley Griffiths was feeling under the weather and wanted to preserve her voice (not that you could tell once she came on stage), and we bumped into drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi but he, understandably, needed to eat something before the show. When I asked about whether the others similarly needed sustenance, they seemed quite relaxed about it, Enrico explaining that he’s never actually seen Ian eat anything more than, perhaps, some chips. This relaxed humour permeated our discussion, and indeed the show itself.

Touring

I start by asking about how the UK tour is going, to which all three respond very positively. The tour has been unusually spread out, with 15 shows over two and a half months. They explain that this Islington show, the final night of the tour, had to be put back from its intended date in March. The Assembly Hall is a big and very elegant venue, and they are obviously looking forward to playing there. Ian comments, though, that he prefers tours where shows are closer together and he doesn’t forget all his parts. Enrico lets me in on the usual signals they use following a wrong note, though I’ll admit that I didn’t see such signals (or indeed hear any wrong notes) during the show, so they can’t have been that out of practice.

Crowds have been good on this tour, and have responded really well to all the songs, particularly the new ones. When I ask what the band enjoys playing live, they start listing favourites and before too long they’ve covered the whole set. All the songs have their own selling points, and none particularly stand out more than the others. The way that Çağrı sees it, some songs are fun to play because they challenge you, while the simpler ones are fun because you get to interact with the crowd and the rest of the band more. It’s clear, though, that they are very happy playing songs from the new album, which is evident in the fact that the set contained every one of them.

Karnataka’s history

We move on to chat a little about the band’s history, a topic which sparks a sudden bout of reflection in Ian as a founding member. As a relative newcomer to Karnataka’s music, I had picked up bits and pieces but was mostly ignorant about the journey that they have been on over the last 18 years. On the face of it, the band has had quite a turbulent time with a number of membership changes, leaving Ian as the only remaining original member. But when I broach the subject, he recalls it very philosophically, perhaps even fondly, which is very refreshing.

Indeed, the band was very stable in its first six or seven years. The lineup saw no changes, and the band released three albums in that time. But when Ian and original singer Rachel Jones, his partner, parted ways in 2004, the band came to an end. It wasn’t long, however, before Ian decided he didn’t want to let Karnataka go, and so he started again and brought in new bandmates.

The next six years were clearly more challenging for him, with numerous changes to personnel and only one album released, 2010’s The Gathering Light. Ian is very pragmatic when describing this period, and strikes me as very thoughtful and laid-back in general. He talks me through some of the difficulties in finding new members, not because it’s hard to find great performers, but because for stability you need bandmates who share musical interests and attitudes. He is quite positive about all the band’s past members as performers, but explained that sometimes things just aren’t working and you need to move on.

Which is what happened after The Gathering Light came out. Enrico was in the band by this point, having joined in 2006, but something wasn’t quite right and the two started again, only this time more slowly. Hayley and Çağrı joined in 2011, and the lineup has been steady since, with the only major subsequent change being the recent addition of Jimmy as a permanent drummer. They explain that the long gap before Secrets of Angels was recorded and released was due to longer touring while the band settled in, so that they could be confident in the new lineup. And indeed, it is very clear that they are enjoying playing together, and positive about the future.

Writing

We then explore the writing and recording process. As we do so, I am pleasantly surprised by how genuinely collaborative the process sounds, with each member bringing their own specialism.

Enrico and Çağrı describe Ian as the spark behind the core ideas and melodies for each song. What he brings, the band works on together to flesh out, but he generates most of the original ideas in the first instance. He comes up with a lot of ideas, and the three explain that they are quite ruthless in keeping things concise and coherent. They are clearly not afraid to scrap whole sections if necessary, and Ian opted to let go of a whole extra section in the middle of the Secrets of Angels title track that they couldn’t get to work. While some prog-heads will be horrified to hear that the song could have been even longer but wasn’t, for me this seems to have worked well, as the song flows excellently despite its 20-minute run-time.

Çağrı orchestrates the symphonic parts, and the others are clearly grateful for his contributions since joining the band. I myself was very positive about the orchestrations and what they do for the overall sound in my recent review of the album. He explains that he uses sampled sounds to produce demo recordings, and then overlay these with real instruments to give the album-proper a more natural sound.

And Enrico, as well as his excellent guitar work and involvement in song arrangement, also produced the new album. He has his own studio which he uses to record and produce other musicians, and for Secrets of Angels took on sound engineering duties. As I also commented in my review, the sound on the new album is really great, and has helped to make their music that much more engaging. The band certainly seems to be of the same view.

Ian also now shares lyric duties with Hayley, and has found himself contributing more lyrics with each album. His best place for writing lyrics, he says, is Starbucks, where he often finds he gets the inspiration. By contrast, both Ian and Enrico find it difficult to write while touring, as the process doesn’t allow the time and energy to give the creative process proper attention.

What’s next?

With this in mind, I ask what the band’s plans are now that this UK tour is coming to an end. They are all very clear in response – time to get back to writing, immediately. The band is evidently very happy, relaxed and confident in its stable lineup, and they seem genuinely excited about keeping the momentum going. They promise that it will not be another five years until the next album. As both a fan and a reviewer, I will be holding them to this and eagerly anticipating it.

Having pelted them with endless questions for 45 minutes or so, I finally let the three of them get on with things, and go to take my place inside the venue for the show…

CONCERT REVIEW

Having never seen the band live before (not even in Youtube videos), I didn’t really know what to expect. Hearing an artist’s carefully crafted and produced music on a studio album is a very different experience to the spontaneity and energy of a live show. It is also highly dependent on the quality of the sound. Fortunately, in all regards, any expectations that I did have were far surpassed.

The sound

As with my previous experiences at the Assembly Hall, the sound was absolutely fantastic right from the off. All of the instruments were clear and precise and very in balance with each other. The keyboards could perhaps have been slightly higher in the mix, a complaint I often have at rock shows, but only slightly. The band also struck a great balance with minimal, but highly effective, use of backing tracks to fill out orchestral arrangements where necessary and additional vocal harmonies only where they are most important. This avoids the problem of certain sections that are multi-tracked in the studio sounding too thin, while steering clear of relying so heavily on backing tracks that the show no longer feels live.

The songs

The band opened with the first track from the new album, Road to Cairo. It’s a hugely catchy song, and a great one to kick the show off. For me, it was also an excellent demonstration of how slick the band sounds live. The only other new song in the first set was Borderline, which is not one of my favourites but which was also very energetic and a lot of fun. The rest of the first set focussed on older material, including two songs from 2003’s Delicate Flame of Desire, and finishing with the lovely title track from 2010’s The Gathering Light.

The second set was the longer one, and most of it was dedicated to the new album. The only other song it included was Your World from The Gathering Light, which I’d like to say a few words about because this song in particular stood out in showing how good the band sounds live. The original song is nice, but I must admit that it doesn’t hugely excite me. But live, it had a groove and a swagger to it, particularly driven by Enrico’s guitar playing, that made it tremendously fun and one of the highlights of the show.

The rest of Set 2 covered the remaining six songs from Secrets of Angels, all of which did credit to their studio counterparts. Two in particular stood out to me. Firstly, Fairytale Lies, a moody pop-infused piece that is probably my favourite on the album, and which they pulled off excellently. And secondly, of course, the 20-minute epic that is the title track, Secrets of Angels. I gushed over the song a little when I reviewed the album, but it’s perhaps even better on stage. In particular, the eastern-sounding folk themes at the start are bigger and bolder, with the drums thumping in the foreground to give a strong sense of foreboding. The more restrained percussion here works fine on the studio recording, but the intensity in the live setting was quite electrifying. Everything after that was largely as it is on the album, just all ramped up a notch or two.

For an encore, the band played a lovely stripped back rendition of the ballad Feels Like Home, which Hayley explained she wrote for her fiancée. She also explained that, only a day or two later, that fiancée was to become her husband. It’s a very nice song as it is, but in the context and with the emotion clearly there, it was a hugely touching performance and a great way to close the show.

The band

I’ll finish with some musings on the band, and on why I think they work so well live. I commented a few (hundred) words ago, when describing how the band writes and records, that there is something wonderfully collaborative about the way each member has something different to bring. And I must say, seeing them on stage brought exactly the same thought to my mind.

To start with, and quite importantly, Hayley is a really great frontwoman. She has a really strong voice live, quite easily replicating her studio parts and slipping in and out of different styles with ease. She was apparently not feeling well, but you couldn’t tell. Or if you could, then I can’t even imagine how great she sounds on a “good” night. She’s also hugely charismatic, and maintains nice rapport with the crowd and the rest of the band throughout. No matter how great the band is, to engage a crowd you need a good frontperson, and she definitely fits the bill.

On guitars and backing vocals, Enrico is also extremely charming, and clearly popular with the crowd (although those calling out his name may or may not have been friends of his…). He has a nice interaction with the crowd, and clearly enjoys himself on stage, which is very infectious and you can’t help but smile along. His guitar playing is, of course, excellent and another big selling point of the live show. Not just his technique – only on a couple of occasions does he let loose and shred away – but he plays with an incredible amount of groove. He mentioned before the show that by nature he likes to improvise, and seeing him on stage, I can see why.

On bass, Ian is more reserved for the most part, though he doesn’t shy away from joining in the fun as well, and interacts nicely with each of the other band members at some point or other. There’s something very pleasingly attentive about the way he plays and follows everything that is going on, keeping everything together. He exudes a focussed but very relaxed vibe, professional but without being stuffy. A class act, and top-notch bass player to boot.

Similarly, Çağrı is relatively quiet and professional, but again joins in the fun from time to time. What I feel he really contributes to the live setup, though, is the luscious keyboards and orchestrations that give Karnataka such a great sound. Every sound he chooses, whether organic ones like piano and strings or more digital-sounding synth pads, is perfectly suited to the music and fills out the sound wonderfully with a lot of warmth.

And last but certainly not least, Jimmy on drums is quite a beast. He is very talented and frighteningly energetic, and stays tightly locked in with what everyone else is doing right throughout the show. His ethnic percussion at the start of Secrets of Angels was one of the highlights of the night for me.

Karnataka are a band firing on all cylinders right now. They have released their strongest album to date, are enjoying writing and playing together, and are putting on high class and hugely engaging shows. I remain very excited to see where they go next.

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