Interview with musician Prateek Kuhad

We’ve really enjoyed the music of Delhi-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Prateek Kuhad and after catching a live performance in Mumbai recently, we are even more sure that he’s the real deal – a rarity on the Indian indie scene where there’s often a lot of hype but not enough substance.

Kuhad’s nimble guitar work, clear voice and quiet demeanour ground his dreamy, wistful songs in something solid. Here he is telling us about his musical journey, the art of guitar practice, awkward post-gig bathroom conversations and what it takes to be a musician today.

I was going to pick Oh Love as the song to introduce your music to our readers but I thought I’d ask you – if you had to pick one which would it be and why?
I think going forward Oh Love is a good pick. I recently put out a performance video for a song called Big Surprise, that’s also a good place to start. My sound has slowly evolved over time, and you’ll notice that the next album is going to sound quite different overall. These two songs are more representative of this sound compared to some of my older stuff.
Where did you film the Big Surprise video and was the sound recorded live on location?
The film was shot at a farmhouse in Kapasera, Delhi. And yes absolutely, the sound was recorded live on location (and we’re pretty proud of how well it’s turned out). It is literally a live performance video 🙂

Great job with the sound on the video! How did you record it and what gear did you use?
[Ed. Note: I realise that the technicians matter as much as the gear. My question is purely from a technical standpoint – to provide a guide to the kind of equipment you could use in a specific scenario. We’re collecting data here, not assuming the machines do all the work :)]

We got our sound engineer from the shoot, Anindo Bose, to answer this one. Here is what he said:

“So the recording setup wasn’t very complicated, just used a few condenser mics to capture the sound as naturally as possible and placed them in a way that would suit the camera angles and yet not compromise the sound quality. There were two over head mics from the sides and one each near the guitar and bass drum and the cello. The camera boom mic was also capturing a bit of the vocals. I recorded it on Cubase 7 on my Macbook Pro using the Motu Traveler interface. The track didn’t really need too much mixing, as it was well captured and the musicians had a good dynamic amongst themselves :)”
What mics do you use to record your vocals and guitar in the studio/ home recordings? Your songs have a very warm, clear sound and I’m curious about what you use.
Raat Raazi was recorded in a studio in Delhi. The engineer there had some cool mics. I remember recording some vocals on a ribbon mic the engineer had built himself. He also had a vintage AKG C414, which was used on a lot of the vocals. That was a really nice, warm mic.
I have pretty basic gear at home. I use a Rode NT1-A for vocals and recently started to use the NT5 pair for guitars. But then again, some of the demos you’ve heard on the soundcloud page (like Be At Ease) was recorded on a really crappy USB microphone (vocals and guitars both!).
Tell us what it was like when you began putting the word out about your music in India: 

– what was the early reception to your music like?
The first real release that we did was Raat Raazi the EP and I’d like to think it was quite well received. I don’t think too many other people are making music like this, especially in Hindi, and that definitely helped Raat Raazi cut through the noise and actually get noticed.

– what were the early gigs like?
I’ve personally improved as a performer (although I still have a LONG way to go!) but that apart early gigs were mostly hit or miss. Some days there’d be a lot of people and some would stand up and take notice and like the stuff, other days there’d be a grand total of 4 people in the crowd. The latter has (thankfully) not happened in a while.

– what would you consider the point at which the music took off and people began to take notice?
Soon after the release of Raat Raazi pretty much.

I read a great interview with John Mayer where he talked about his early years performing live. He said, “It’s a very human place to play music and a very human place to live” You’ve been performing live a lot these past few months. Tell us how that has shaped your music and your guitar playing. 
I don’t think I’ve played live enough to have it start affecting my song-writing, but it has definitely changed my attitude towards things in general, and also made me think a lot more about my live set. You start to think of your live set from the perspective of the audience, and how to achieve that synergy where you’re having a good time on stage and so are the folks who’ve come to watch you. It’s hard striking that balance but it’s always a work in progress I suppose. So because of that, often I find myself playing some of the songs that I play live, a little differently compared to how they’ve been recorded in the studio.
Share some stories from gigs – any surprises, odd audience requests, mishaps on stage? 
So many mishaps, I don’t know where to start. Just this past gig at High Spirits, in Pune, was a pretty mishap-ridden set. I forgot words for one of my songs, made a few mistakes on the guitar and to top it off my bassist was playing guitar on one of the songs, and he suddenly blanked out on the entire guitar part! So we had to skip that song. Stuff like that. Mishaps are a lot more common than I’d like them to be. But I believe that as I play more gigs, I’m becoming better and better at handling them. Odd audience requests are also plenty. Often people have asked me to play covers (to which I have to politely refuse). This one time a guy told me I was really good (awkward conversation in the bathroom after a gig) and then proceeded to say I should play some Punjabi stuff later. That was probably the oddest request I’ve gotten.
People often have a romantic notion of what it’s like to be a songwriter – and I’ve heard them get very poetic when describing your music – but what is the songwriting process like for you?
Thankfully till now it’s only been an emotional and fulfilling experience. Of course you feel frustrated every now and then when you can’t find the right words etc, but I pretty much only write music for myself till now. Songwriting is a way for me to express myself and I actually feel happier and calmer after an intense session of songwriting. Hopefully this will not change anytime soon 🙂

‘Practice’ is a word that young guitarists dread. Now that you have a certain level of proficiency, do you also have a practice routine so that your guitar playing keeps getting better?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually and I’m still not sure. A lot of guitarists have practice routines like that, but I’ve never really done that. I’ve picked up my guitar skills pretty much by learning songs by other musicians I like. But I’ve developed a certain style of fingerpicking which I like to think is somewhat original. And I think that has happened because I’ve also spent a lot of time just playing the guitar organically, without really an objective in mind. In fact in the past year or so I’ve hardly played any covers at all. It’s mostly been songwriting and aimless playing. But I’ve still got a ton to learn and I’m still in the process of developing my songwriting skills, so I’m not really sure about anything at this point. Everything is pretty much trial and error.
What is the best (or worst) advice you’ve been given about being a musician?
Worst: “Don’t make music for yourself, write what the audience loves.” I don’t think that works in the long run. For any profession pretty much. Do what you love because that’s the only way you can hope to sustain it for a really long time. And you don’t get good at anything unless you do it for a really long time.
If you could change one thing about the Indian music scene what would it be?
Everyone suddenly becomes more professional and efficient.
What are the realities of being a musician and trying to earn a living doing solely that in India today? 
It’s difficult, but it can be done.
There’s a lot of talk about how you can’t just be a musician today in the business – you have to also be a businessman, manage your social media, build your brand etc. What is your view on this? 
I think you need to strike a balance. Definitely get management if you can. There are uncomfortable conversations to be had all the time, and more than anything your manager is the best buffer for stuff like that! You’ve gotta be involved in the process, because yes, it is about the business etc. but you can’t let it shift away your focus from what’s most important: the music. If that is not right, then nothing else is going to help. And for practical reasons juggling your time being a full-time musician and a full-time manager for yourself, doesn’t really work. But yes, stay involved in all the non-music aspects of your career as well, just make sure you’re spending the bulk of your time on the music.
What’s next for your music in the coming months?
A full-length album that hopefully comes out in Jan-Feb next year if everything goes according to plan.
Prateek Kuhad live at Puma Loves Vinyl 2014
For more from Prateek Kuhad:
Black and white photo: Parizad D / Courtesy Pagal Haina Records
Live performance photo: Elvis D’Silva