Back To The Future: How The Other People Became India’s Biggest Retro Pop Cover Band
“I can very honestly and confidently say that’s not the reason,” said The Other People’s frontman and lead vocalist Zarir Warden when we asked him whether they decided to release their debut album over a decade into their career to gain a sense of validation. “We don’t care that people think of us as a cover band. Touch wood, we’re doing a lot of shows. A good number of people know about us. We get paid decently. And we’re doing what we’re really good at.”
The Other People is the biggest retro pop band in the country, but they’ve been dismissed for being exactly that – an act that is popular for performing other people’s songs. You could say they’re the Mumbai pop rock equivalent of Delhi hard rock veterans Parikrama whose note-perfect versions of tracks by AC/DC and Led Zeppelin have won them a staunch following. Parikrama’s own compositions, of which they have enough to record an album if they wanted, sound like tributes to their idols. Similarly, the tunes on The Other People’s #Dreamers #Believers #Lovers sound a lot like those of their favourite groups, specifically Bon Jovi. Cuts such as ‘Hold On’ and ‘Save The World’ have rousing, sing-along choruses that make evident the city-based six-piece’s aspirations for them to be anthems.
To create an anthem however, one needs an audience, which The Other People seem to have eating out of their hands at their packed-to-capacity gigs at Blue Frog where they perform a ‘retro night’ on the last Saturday of every month. Many of the songs they play were made before most of them were born. Lead guitarist Gavin Cason, 45, and bassist Aloysious ‘Loy’ Henriques, 64, are the two members to have witnessed a time when the hits they cover were yet to become classics. Warden is 29, rhythm guitarist Samuel ‘Sam’ Berlie is 30, keyboardist Garth D’Mello is 24, and drummer and percussionist Atish Thomas is 23.
Warden and Berlie are the only two members from the original line-up, which staged its first show 11 years ago at the erstwhile Not Just Jazz by the Bay, which used to be among the city’s most popular music venues until it was converted into Pizza by the Bay in 2012. How did the pair, who were teenagers back in 2004, come to love the sounds of their parents’ generation? Like most kids at the time, they heard it on MTV, where they spotted a local hero in the form of Gary Lawyer. “‘Nights On Fire’ was one of the biggest reasons I started listening to this kind of music,” said Warden.
It just so happened that a couple of teachers at their school, Campion, were musicians. Choir master Sunny Rodrigues would occasionally sing at now-shuttered Churchgate restaurant Starters and More, while math and biology professor Savio Alphonso was a member of Infra Red, a group that would regularly perform at Not Just Jazz by the Bay. “He used to give us tests in the daytime and entertain us by night,” said Berlie.
Though they went to the same school Warden and Berlie didn’t become friends until they were in college. But when the vocalist from Jai Hind and guitarist from H. R. decided to start a band with some of their pals, they were, in their own words, amateurs. “We couldn’t complete a simple four-chord song from start to finish without stopping time and time again,” said Warden. “Once we got through ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ with hardly any mistakes, we were thrilled.” To hone their skills, they attended concerts by the likes of Lawyer and Darren Das, “guys who were in the scene for so long, they knew how to hold the crowd, which songs to pick and when to play them.” They also rehearsed, for eight to ten hours every day.
Today, somewhat ironically, The Other People is among the last groups standing from the Not Just Jazz era, many of which have since disbanded after changes in taxation laws made hotels reluctant to hire bands and most communities started hiring DJs for wedding celebrations. “Gavin and I used to do 31 gigs in 30 days,” said Henriques, a former member of The Bonaventures, who along with Cason, who was in Aqua Flow, is a veteran of the Mumbai gigging circuit.
The reason The Other People have survived has less to do with their age than their strong work ethic. “It’s easy getting fans,” said Henriques. “To keep a fan is very, very hard.” Retaining their fans involves always putting them first, both on and off stage. After the show, this means never refusing a request for a selfie, autograph or even a quick drink. During the concert, this means always playing a particular track – like ‘Faith’ by George Michael, which they’ve done at practically every show – updating their set list with two or three new tunes every month to keep things fresh – this July, they added ‘Drive My Car’ by the Beatles, ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ by Cher and recent US top ten smash ‘Shut Up And Dance’ by Walk The Moon – and even dropping personal favourites that just don’t click with the crowd – such as ‘Bottom of Your Soul’ by Toto and ‘Why Don’t You Get A Job?’ by The Offspring. Said Warden, “Whether we’ve spent days working on that song or minutes, if it falls flat, we never do it again.”
They realised they had reached some level of fame in early 2010 when they were asked to open for American alternative rockers Saving Abel in Mumbai and Hyderabad. A couple of months later, they supported Danish pop stars Michael Learns To Rock in Bangalore. Today, The Other People is among the busiest acts around, playing up to 15 gigs a month during the ‘season’, which runs from October to March, at clubs, corporate events, wedding parties and birthday bashes across the country. The busy schedule has enabled them to be full-time musicians for five years now.
Despite their success, they’ve had multiple line-up changes. They’ve had 15 former members over 12 years, including five drummers, one keyboardist, three bassists and three guitarists, some of whom left to pursue more regular careers. Though they appear to be the most populist outfit around, there are some things that The Other People consider out of bounds. “At a lot of the meetings that we go for, people always say ‘Dude if you do Bollywood, there will be ten more shows every month, lots more money, etc. etc,'” said Warden. “Can’t do it.”
#Dreamers #Believers #Lovers is their shot at the mainstream, except that they’ve set their sights not here but abroad. It’s the result of a three-year contract Warden has signed with Universal Music Publishing (which collects royalties on behalf of songwriters as opposed to the record company, which distributes the music) in India. The contract got them studio time and the guidance of managing director Achille Forler, the Mumbai-residing Frenchman who was able to get them clearances for the two covers on the album, ‘Dark Side’ by Kelly Clarkson, their remake of which won them a YouTube competition in 2012, and ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk, which they chose because it’s become such a crowd-pleaser “there are times when we do it twice”.
“We want to do Glastonbury (and) Madison Square Garden one day,” said Warden. “(While making the album) we actually stopped and said, ‘If we have 1,00,000 people in front of us, would this make them jump or that?’” With the Maroon 5-ish mix of pop, rock, R&B, disco and reggae they showcase on stage – “Adam Levine is one of our idols”, said D’Mello – and the Bon Jovi-esque music and lyrics of their album, The Other People have, as Forler told them, a better prospect of breaking into the East rather than the West.
“Achille strongly believes that our album has a chance of being successful in South-East Asia,” said Warden. Indeed, audiences in places such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have a soft spot for soft rock. To the ears of a music critic, #Dreamers #Believers #Lovers is the work of a band trying – and succeeding – to sound like somebody else, but one that does so with an absolute lack of pretence. It’s an unabashedly cliched collection, and they don’t have a problem with that, even if you do. “There are a couple of very cheesy songs,” said Warden. “But the world loves cheese.”
#Dreamers #Believers #Lovers by The Other People will be released on Friday, August 21. The album launch is scheduled to take place at Hard Rock Café in Worli on Thursday, August 20. Get directions here.