Mumbai airport, two a.m. It’s like a carnival out here. And I do mean “out” here: the Indian climate being what it is, they’ve dispensed with an actual building so the arriving passengers meet their loved ones and whatnot under a giant gazebo. We wheel our flightcases along, scanning the crowd for our handler, Anuj. “Look for an Indian Pearl Jam fan,” we were told. There are two hundred or so people waiting behind the barrier: liveried drivers, ladies in saris, white-shirted dudes, a couple of monks, dreadlocked travellers… some smiling chap in his mid-twenties wearing jeans and a Ramones T-shirt… I could be wrong, but I think we’ve found our man…
The Staves, who sensibly have about a tenth of the equipment we do, have already met Anuj and are chilling, smoking, drinking ice-cold water, looking very acclimatised. By contrast we bustle up, say our hellos and immediately start complaining about stuff. “Why don’t they sell lighters?” “Any coffee around?” “Any beer around?” “I can’t believe I forgot hand-sanitizer”, etc. Sound man Robalicious hasn’t even made it out of customs yet; his luggage has been left in London and this has clearly created something of a diplomatic crisis. Almost an hour later he appears, hot, sweaty and harried. “No one would listen to me!” he exclaims. We hesitate to point out this isn’t an exactly new situation. But never mind, Rob. We’re in India now.
We taxi to the hotel and briefly think we might have been taken to another airport by mistake; all our luggage (all twenty-two pieces of it) has to pass through an X-ray machine and each of us through a metal detector. But no, this is standard hotel security since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, and a necessary pain in the arse. We check in, greet Argy our lighting chief who is freshly landed from a kite-surfing trip to Sri Lanka, already tanned as a bastard, then order some beers and a biryani (yes, they do make it hot) and gratefully retire to our beds. Mumbai, bring it on.
This has been said before, in many different ways, languages and levels of exasperation, but I’ll reiterate: Mumbai is fucking crazy. Twelve and a half million people living on an island less than half the size of London. Astonishing extremes of rich and poor (on the shortish drive to the city centre, we drive past no less than five separate slum suburbs, right next to huge billboards advertising luxury cars and half-million pound condominiums). Enormous, filthy, dilapidated buildings with spanking new shopfronts crudely inserted into the ground floor. Thousands of cars, tuk-tuks, cabs and scarily dodgy looking trucks (but with beautifully coloured decorations) all tearing along bumpy streets and flyovers. Horns beeping constantly; but not, as we English might assume, in an angry, “Oy, watch it you facking idiot!” way, or even in an “Ayy! The lights have changed, you dumb-ass! Move it!” way – more in the manner of “Hey man, just a heads-up, I’m right behind you and I’m about to plough down the inside lane, so just chill for a second, yeah?” No one seems to crash. But I don’t think I’ll be doing the driving anytime soon, thanks.
We’re not far into our first day – ostensibly a day off, to prepare for the shows – before we realise Fin and Rob actually think the Mumbai gig is tonight. We put Fin out of his misery quite early on, but we let it get to about four p.m. before we break the news to Rob, once he’s started to ask reasonable questions like where the hell our instruments are. He’s quite relieved – as are we – to learn that the most strenuous thing we’ll be doing that evening is drinking beer and eating curry. But we’ve popped into the amazing art-deco cinema where we’re due to play tomorrow anyway, to sort a few things out and check the facilities. The building’s mains power is apparently not to be trusted so the whole gig is going to run on independent generators. We just tell ourselves it’s an urban festival. The cinema has a proper display board out front, on which the legend “FINK AND THE STAVES” is already emblazoned, and a massive billboard to the left of the building introduces the passing public to photos of Fin bashing his guitar onstage somewhere in Europe, and The Staves dressed for an English autumn: scenes that suddenly seem a very long way away. Here are flower merchants, juice vendors, chaps frying and selling delicious looking street snacks, people just hanging out as the evening approaches, and a weird truck pulled by a scrawny white cow. I stroll across the street to buy a glass of lemon and ginger juice for about thirty rupees (forty pence), and come across Guy on my way back, having a cigarette outside the cinema. “Dude!” he exclaims, horrified, his standard reaction to anyone drinking or eating anything that hasn’t come from a sterilised packet. “Enjoy that bout of amoebic dysentery, bro…”
We’re in for a treat next, as Anuj (already proving himself to be a more than capable handler, not to mention all the other things he seems to be doing) has decided to take us to Leopold’s café, a Mumbai institution, just around the corner from the Gateway of India. It’s an old-school bar and informal restaurant (familiar to readers of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram) where one can order huge cylinders of beer complete with their own draft taps and lots of very hot and tasty Indian-Chinese grub. Robalicious, a former drinker, vicariously enjoys himself by pouring the beer for everyone. After a while he gets a little too involved in his role and starts meticulously wiping the condensation from the side of the cylinder. “Rob,” says Argy, “can you please stop rubbing our beer?” Quote of the day. We have a five minute excursion to the Gateway of India, a giant, domed archway that I like a lot less once I discover it was built in 1924 by some British bloke, then we get our team of Hyundai drivers to take us round to the Gaylord restaurant, where after we recover from the name we order more beer, curry and, rather incongruously, sizzling chocolate brownies with ice cream. I am then sped back to the hotel in about a third of the time it took to get here, partly due to our understandably bored driver hurtling along the Bandra-Worli Sea Link at three times the speed limit.
Next day is gig day, and in the main, it’s business as usual. Argy has constructed a faithful approximation of our dear departed Lamposaurus from bits of lighting truss and regular stage-lights, the only difference being, as he cheerfully tells me with his familiar “for you to know” introduction, is that this one is unlikely to be earthed properly “so try not to touch it. Ever.” Gulp. Given that we are crammed into half our usual space, and we still have to make room for The Staves, this could get tricky. I break the rule and potentially electrocute myself four times in the first twenty minutes.
Anuj is either very confident or he’s very good at smoothing over band’s worries. Seven o’clock, and the teeming mass of fans queuing up outside has failed to materialise. I ask him if he thinks anyone will show up. “Definitely,” he replies, before I’ve finished my sentence. “There are four hundred advance tickets bought, eight hundred expected on the door, nine hundred competition winners and a thousand people on the guest list. We might even have to open the balcony.” But Anuj, I ask. The upstairs lounge, through which everyone has to pass to get to the balcony, IS our dressing room. Shouldn’t we then move our personal items somewhere else now? Anuj smiles awkwardly and then suddenly remembers something he has to do downstairs.
In the end we do pretty well. The cinema is comfortably full, The Staves fill the space with their beautiful noise and manage to get the murmurings of an encore, and then we take to the stage ourselves to a gratifying ovation. And they do know their Fink songs here. Fin starts to sing “Fear Is Like Fire”, and an excited cheer ripples through the crowd. People shout out for various songs: “Blueberry Pancakes”, “If Only”, “All Cried Out” (sorry, whoever you were) and sing every word to “Sort of Revolution”, our sole Elbow-esque singalong moment. I have to admit we are a little rusty around the edges, also the fact that we no longer have Erica and Rae’s widescreen strings and piano is a little tough to get used to, but everyone seems happy afterwards and our first Indian gig is done. There’s just the small matter of a seven o’clock wake up call to deal with, and by the time we’re back at the hotel with all twenty-two bags squeezed through the X-ray machine, it’s about three a.m… ouch…
Bangalore – or at least, the tiny bit of it we see on the way from the airport to the festival site – seems distinctly un-Indian to me, in terms of landscape and climate. It’s more like some southern part of Spain or Italy. I share this musing with a passing Stave. “Is it because you expected it all to look like The Jungle Book?” she suggests, sweetly. I concur that this may well be the case, while mentally crossing her off my Christmas card list. But hell. We’re here to do a festival, and the NH7 Weekender, Bangalore branch, is a pretty damn well-organised and vibey one. We meet Vijay, the founder of NH7 (which makes him the Vince Power of India, I suppose), who welcomes us and shows us the rather scarily big stage we’re playing. A familiar band to us, Advaita, are currently soundchecking. We remember them from the Great Escape festival in Brighton, of all places, and they’re busily doing exactly what they also did there: running over their soundcheck time. In truth, it wasn’t their fault then and it probably isn’t now. I see them play later, and in fact they are glorious: a wonderful mixture of rock and Indian fusion, complete with wailing vocals and sitar riffs.
We hang around in the sunshine while the various other bands set up. This is one of the great international myths of rock’n’roll, whether you’re in Brighton, Belgium, Budapest or Bangalore: that soundchecks at festivals are actually worthwhile. What is the godly point of setting everything up, checking it’s okay, to then take it all down again and set it up AGAIN come your stage time? Nothing ever sounds or feels the same. Quick line-checks all the way, I say. We could have had a few hours’ more sleep at the hotel then. Anyway, I’ll quit moaning and report that once again, The Staves charm anyone within a country mile with their sunset slot, despite an amazing amount of sound spill from the other stages (“You’re getting two gigs for the price of one,” quips Milly Stave.) It’s just what I like to do when I’m in Southern India, watch an all-girl folk band and crack open a bee- uh, what? No beer? Anywhere? What, really? Even in our dressing room? Dewar’s whisky, you say? Seriously? Bacardi? Where do you think we are, a nightclub in Croydon? But yes, the rumours are true. No beer. So Fink play the first beer-less gig since they gave us Budweiser on our rider in Barcelona. And actually, we’re probably all the better for it. The stage and audience are bloody huge, and Testament are metalling their way into the stratosphere on a stage not too far away, so it’s “A” game time. We smash our way into the songs, pounding out “Blueberry” and “Warm Shadow” as if we’re on the metal stage ourselves, and amazingly, people seem to like it. It could be Argy’s video wall, however, filling the Bangalore night with images of people skateboarding in Tottenham.
That’s all from Bangalore, although I’d like to mention an interesting little situation with our dressing room. We get a standard-sized Portakabin room, like all the other bands, but for some curious reason (curious mainly because it gets ignored everywhere else) our rider requirements have been carefully adhered to and we get our own security guard outside and, halfway through the evening, a kettle and coffee machine. Periodically, the security guard mooches into the room, sticks the kettle on and makes himself some tea. No tremendous problem with that, although we’re being our usual smiling, approachable selves: it might have been nice if he asked. Never mind. Ten minutes later, he comes in again to make more. Fifteen minutes after that, he helps himself to a Coke from the chiller, and then another cup of tea. And so on. By now we’ve stopped being affronted, we’re just genuinely intrigued. I go for a walk outside the festival perimeter a little later and get the answer. All the guys who run the generators have brought their families with them: a whole bunch of ladies and toddlers hanging out under the trees, and they’re all drinking cups of tea and cans of Coke… happy days…
The final morning dawns, and forgive me if I sound a little unappreciative, but from this point on, we could really be anywhere. We catch a plane to Delhi, a quick set up, another show. Mumbai seems like another trip entirely: one where we had a bit of time to soak in the culture. But Delhi might as well be London, aside from the thick smog as the plane lands and the beggars perpetually coming up to our car windows (some of them six year-old kids: a little hard to handle). All we’re really concerned about now is remaining awake for long enough to do a show, and that our digestive systems aren’t suddenly attacked by some waterborne nasty. The Blue Frog, the venue for the Delhi show, is a standard sort of jazzy bar in a swanky complex of restaurants, and the food we are offered is blatantly western: nice, but we can’t help feeling a little sad. After all the build-up, this is basically all that’s left of our Indian trip. I take five minutes to go upstairs on the roof terrace, where I see huge outdoor cooking areas, domes and temples poking up in the distance, and a bunch of guys playing sunset cricket in the field next door. There’s a powerful allure to this place, but I feel strangely shut out from it. I want another week out here, I want my wife to come out and join me, for us to explore. We’ve barely touched the surface of the surface. But hey, that’s how it is. The final gig of the trip, and indeed, the final gig of the whole Perfect Darkness cycle, is mercifully a cracker: the Delhi crowd seem even more Fink-familiar than the other audiences, dancing, jumping, singing along with every word. At the last minute, nay, second, we decide to encore with “Sorry I’m Late”, a song we haven’t rehearsed for a year or so, let alone played in a gig, and it seems like a wonderful release in this tremendous, vast country we’ve been invited to play our tunes in.
Anuj tells me afterwards that very few western bands make the trip over here. I go through a few names, asking if they’ve been. Radiohead? “I don’t think so,” he says. Mentally I chalk that one up against my heroes, have a final swig of Kingfisher, then hit the sack before the return voyage to London. We’ll be back.