Symren Gharial’s artistic identity has never entirely fit expectations. His band, the dark and visceral Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster, were a violent haze of booze, drugs, rockabilly riffs and crushing rhythms, out-of-step with the sanitised indie sounds of the early noughties.
Piano Wire fused the psychobilly leanings of B-Line Disaster with post-punk rhythms, confounding expectations further. But it runs much deeper than superficial discussions on music, his Sikh/Indian identity put him at odds with the music and the scene he felt drawn to, even to the point of suppressing his heritage to “fit in”. This was laid bare in a two-hour chat just before the release of his second EP as Primitive Ignorant.
He explained that his deep-seated issues with identity were obscured by a rock n roll lifestyle of drugs, booze and debauchery and it wasn’t until he got sober a few years ago that he started examining his true inner self.
The result of that soul-searching was last year’s autobiographical EP ‘Sikh Punk’ which gave form to his conflict between his Sikh upbringing and rock destiny. A vibrant electro-punk mash-up it took on a different life than his previous output, mangling pop and punk traditions into a new Sikh-shaped whole (or at least the interpretation of one Sikh).
The latest EP ‘Infant Joy On Midnight Streets’ delves further into the identity issues, stepping away from the personal into the fantastical, also pushing further into electronic music utilising electro, techno and dubstep ideas to create alternative pop.
Conceptually and musically Primitive Ignorant has a lot to say, in particular some very important things about identity. Here are a selection of quotes from our chat presented in full form:
On the Indian community’s place in indie and punk
“The door [to indie and punk] is definitely shut. I feel like the Indian community, the Asian community has always felt the door is shut to it and, therefore, they feel like it is a world that they have no right to navigate. It’s a vicious cycle.
Has there been enough exposure of Black artists and South Asian artists? No! I think it is slightly a problem in Indian culture, maybe South Asian culture, because of the stereotypes and the way that when they came over to England after partition or whatever, I guess, there just wasn’t that kind of an option or that liberty to kind of go and be creative and go and do a band, so it was kind of quite mad that I ended up doing that really. It’s a deeply embedded culture thing. So there’s not that many Indians who are doing rock and roll, so in a way, it’s a problem within the community itself as much as with the rock scene.
That’s [the lack of involvement in rock music] been caused by suppression of that community and oppression from colonialism, partition, where we feel segregated from other parts of the community, so we are always on the periphery of pop culture.”
Addressing his personal identity through his music
“I think I’d gone into this kind of denial anyway, that I felt like I wasn’t really Indian. That I’d sort of run from it. Yeah, it’s just hard. I was like, I don’t want anything to do with that, you know, that’s not me, but you always know the truth is always there, always kind of eating away.
I had never really thought about it until recently. I always considered myself to be alone in lots of ways, how I have grown up. I’ve spoken about feeling a shame around ethnicity and background stuff, and it was only when I sobered up nine and a half years ago that I had that kind of thought, that I really wanted to explore that side of me. I found more pride in acceptance of where I was from and having the narrative of that.
And I always felt like I was kind of on the fringe. I suppose in Eighties Matchbox it was interesting because Andy Huxley was half Sri Lankan. So with us in that band, and obviously, he’s got dark skin, we had some diversity. But I don’t think we never really talked about it. Like, you know, that was never something that was talked about, or the media never talked about it, you know?
The new music was like it was a search for identity and really sounds like my old self, you know, which which was a Sikh growing up, and then there was that, that identity I had, I suppose when I was getting into Matchbox and I was doing a lot of drugs, self-harming and kind of in a, in a dark place.
The idea of the music and then the band [Primitive Ignorant], the aesthetic kind of just kind of evolved and evolved. With my latest EP I’ve kind of tried to be a bit more, not that it was a negative album in any way, it was never supposed to be negative, it was always about trying to kind of help people identify and kind of share the truth and stuff. I suppose like London’s been, and Britain’s been, so sort of repressed and depressed, for the last sort of 10 years and Coronavirus was just sort of the combination of it all, wasn’t it? I think I felt like I wanted to write something that was maybe a bit more uplifting.
My first Primitive Ignorant album was all autobiographical, sort of telling my story and it’s kind of littered with all these noises from Portobello Road, it’s a bit like a sort of play in a way, I act to it, and different characters in it. In lots of ways I was trying to kind of dispel this idea of stereotypes around Indians and Asians as being how they’re portrayed in the media and they’re probably not portrayed enough in the media, but certainly portrayed in a stereotypical way, you know? I wanted to tell a story that might help some other people, or that people might identify with it or relate to it in a way, you know, I’ve got quite a lot of backlash for it.”
The response of the Sikh and Indian community to his new project
“I’ve got a lot of backlash from within the Asian community. Because of that the symbol, logo that I’ve used. It was inspired by the Sikh religious symbol, but it’s not a religious band at all, but what I’ve done is I’ve kind of like, turned it upside down and added to it. I was watching lots of documentaries about the Black Panthers, and it just got really into who they were, what they stood for and just clothes and everything. I’m just fascinated that we’re getting really obsessive about things. So I mashed it together with the kind of Black Panther Party symbol with the swords in the seat thing and I guess it was being really disrespectful and what I was talking about was kind of bringing shame to the religion. I’ve had some death threats online actually. I mean, obviously, realising it was just a load of nonsense, but a really scary thing.”
Changes in the internet age
“The internet and modern-day pop culture have broadened so much that now there’s this kind of cross-genre and cross cultures kinda thing. The more you sit at the forefront of these different cultures, speaking for them, you almost have a responsibility, I think, to say something with a bit of a message.
It’s great that things have evolved now, to the point where people are talking about it. And I feel like there is kind of a bit of less shame. And I think there’s a lot more dialogue. That’s one of the good things about the internet, actually. It’s kind of amazing, and suddenly terrible, and so many ways, isn’t it encouraged more diversity that has encouraged more dialogue and people’s opinions? You know, there are a lot more opinions on there, which is a great thing. And a terrible thing.”
The representation of women in indie
“There’s just not enough women on at festivals! For that to happen something has gone wrong or it has to be deliberate.
That “lads” culture was predominant in the 90s, and, I suppose those laddy kinds of indie bands generally tend to bring that kind of football fanbase. I’ve not got anything against football fans, I’m really into football, but it comes with its own stereotypes and ideas that might not be all that inclusive. I think indie is often still trapped in that idea.”
Infant Joy On Midnight Streets by Primitive Ignorant is out now: