From Metallica to Basin Street in a Submarine in Space

George Benson, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Albert King, “Basically all the Kings…” It’s not the sort of list one hears from the music scene anymore, especially not the prog-rock generation. Then again, Abhishek Mittal isn’t your average 21-year-old. He isn’t your average virtuoso, either. Philosophical and single-minded in his pursuits, to Abhishek, the frontman for Submarine in Space, his relationship with music is devout. He began playing the guitar at the age of eight and was performing by the time he was 11. He would trawl the internet for information, starting with the history of his own instrument, the guitar, which led him back to the glory days of Robert Johnson and the blues guitarists and all the way to Basin Street in New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong used to sing. “Musically, I’m learning things now that I would most likely have come across in twenty years,” he says. “It has changed the way I see life, it has changed everything.”  

That music would be his life was never the question, but where does one go from there? He soon learned that music schools in the West are prohibitively expensive and impossible, despite the scholarship he received from Berkeley. As it happened, his destiny found him and Abhishek formed his band in college. While he describes his journey with some modesty, a look at his presence online reveals a rather different picture: Abhishek, with the debut album he and his band have to their credit, are already in the elite of the country’s independent music scene.  “I have dealt with a lot of skepticism about my choices,” he says. “I would often hear from classmates and friends that I should just get a job, instead of taking a chance on music.” It was discouraging at first but he would return to what he knows best: His art. “I lost myself in that, it has taught me so much, given me wisdom and patience. I tried at first, to change the world, to change people but now I see that I can’t. So I work on myself.” And by the end of 2015, a trio was taking shape, with Madhur on the bass and Vaibhav on the drums. He’s still somewhat of an introvert, “I don’t talk to people very much. I can’t figure them out. And I don’t want to!”    

Then Sayan appeared on the scene “I had a tune in my head and I needed someone to pitch in, so I called him over. In no time, he had the melody down on his violin and I was just blown away. Sayan can play anything – he’s our violinist, but he plays the cello and the flute – all the string sections you hear are from him.” Their music is eclectic, much like the band’s name, a mix of jazz, blues, funk, rock, even metal. “I started off with Metallica,”  Abhishek recalls, with a chuckle. “From there, I found Dream Theatre and eventually, landed up at Basin Street with Louis Armstrong!”  Here, he found music that came from the soul, that told a story. “It’s always a story,” he says, emphatically, reappearing on Whatsapp soon after our conversation to reiterate. “It’s always a story.” The process of songwriting always begins with a scenario, “A girl waking up in the morning, for instance,” he says. “Then the next scene is about her getting ready for work.” Make no mistake, their band doesn’t do lyrics, “Because I can’t sing,” he offers, somewhat sadly. “One day, though, I decided to try and as I did, began to mimic my voice with the guitar. And there it was, my guitar was singing! That opened up a whole new world!”  

Their jazz trio with a twist  - guitar, drums, bass –  was very guitar-centric at first. Again, that changed with Sayan. “Now, we take it in turns. When one of my bandmates takes centre stage, we back him. I back him, so hard. It’s about that give and take for us, as musicians. It’s something I have learned along the way, too,” says Abhishek. “It’s what we have grown into, having played so much together and  spending so much time with each other outside of that, too.”  
Submarine in Space are currently in the midst of promoting Wavelengths, their debut album. “It took us nearly three years to finish,” Abhishek says. “Each song took us about three months, fine tuning every section.” 

His heart lies in performing live, however, like his jazz heroes. “Music is about life, it’s a conversation, it needs spontaneity,” he maintains. “Today, unfortunately, with the studio culture, everyone is a musician. Even Salman Khan can sing! It makes things very difficult.” Technology, despite its many advantages has left them in a bit of a bind – “Everybody wants things for free, they want it digital and they don’t want to pay. How do we work around this? For instance, we printed 300 CDs and nobody wants those. We now sell them after our gigs, which is when people who really enjoyed the show are happy to pick them up.” 

All this is only the newest phase in their journey, as far as Abhishek is concerned. “I have met wonderful teachers, that’s one really good thing,” he says. “And my bandmates are my life!” They wanted a unique sound, which they have found, their decision to stay instrumental also sets them apart. Now, Abhishek wants to travel and play across the world, a path he is currently charting. “That’s where I want to go,” he smiles. “To America, to Europe. I see myself playing at Wembley stadium!”


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