The guitar man

Band Karnatriix frontman John Anthony speaks of his experiments in classical music and jazz

John Anthony

I am in an empty auditorium. Except for a few lights onstage, all the other lights have been switched off. There are a few stagehands clearing up the last piece of equipment. I am at the Lady Andal auditorium in Chennai, and I have just been treated to the most soulful and magical piece of music I have heard in a long time. The band Karnatriix has performed with French dancer Claire Le Michel, and the artistes have retired to the green room. I wait to meet their iconic guitarist and frontman John Anthony. After a few minutes, John Anthony appears with a big smile on his face. I’m seeing him after seven years, but he hasn’t aged. He comes over, shakes my hand, and we sit down to talk...

Tell us about this series of gigs you are doing with Claire.

The idea for this came about when Claire was introduced to me by the renowned painter Blodsow. She listened to our music and was moved by the range of emotions that the music brought out in her, and we decided to collaborate. The theme we hit upon was about the cycle of life — from the stillness of the womb to the last breath — portrayed in music and dance. Claire approached the Alliance Francaise in Trivandrum and the institute decided to have a series of five performances in Cochin, Chennai, Bengaluru,
Chandigarh and Delhi.

You are on the cutting edge of fusion music, experimenting. Does the audience always appreciate this experimentation?

We play to the audiences that want to hear something different. Experimental music is gaining acceptance and the testimony of this is that most of our shows in India and (especially) abroad are sold out. As a musician, you can find a niche if you experiment. I’m constantly tinkering with my processor and my guitar to get that special tone. I also experiment with jazz and Indian scales.

Are you trained in Carnatic music?

I’m not a formally trained Carnatic musician, but while in Trivandrum I had the good fortune to meet music composer and Carnatic vocalist M G Radhakrishnan. Radhakrishnan sir became my friend, philosopher, guide and mentor, and whatever I’ve learnt of Carnatic music over the years has been imparted to me mainly by him.

Why did you choose the guitar as your instrument of choice and when did this happen?

I was around 14. In those days, the latest songs were available only on radio — on international channels like Radio Australia and Radio Ceylon. One night, I remember listening to the song ‘Jingo’ by Carlos Santana. I was so moved by it that I decided I would become a guitarist. I got my parents to buy me a guitar and started practising day and night. I was immature and it was an impulsive decision, but here I am, 48 years later, with no regrets at all.

Tell us about the early part of your career.

I started off playing with a few bands in Cochin and I made a name for myself as a rock guitarist who could play the fast licks. In a few years, I was playing with the big Cochin bands (like the Hijackers).

About four years after I first picked up the guitar, I wanted to get formal Western classical music training and I went to Trivandrum to playback singer K J Yesudas’s music school, Tharanganisari, where the famed American pianist Roger D Jahnke was the principal. Soon, Roger sir asked me if I would be interested in teaching guitar at the school! I was only 18 and many of the students were older than me.

I told him I didn’t know how to read and write music, and he gave me a sheaf of notes, pointed out a few basic notes, and asked me to figure out the rest on my own. I burned the midnight oil for the next 30 days to fluently read and play the music Roger sir had set in front of me.

How was the move to Chennai and your life there.

I made the move to Chennai because that’s where I could make a living as a sessions guitarist for the movie

industry. I got a lucky break — to play for music director Shyam sir, and he was impressed by my style of playing. There was no looking back after that. I’ve played on over 2,000 film songs since then. It’s also how I happened to meet my band mates Dileep (A R Rahman) and Sivamani.

Tell us about your special relationship with A R Rahman and Sivamani...

They’re more like family than friends. Rahman had visited me in my house in Trivandrum a few months back despite his busy schedule. In 1984, Dileep, as A R Rahman was known those days, Sivamani, Jojo and I decided to form a band. We experimented with a mix of jazz and Indian classical. When we meet now, we talk about the good old days. Occasionally, we even talk of regrouping, but in our hearts we all know that’s just wishful thinking. 

And what about Karnatriix and your journey from rock to fusion?

It was a chance meeting with L Vaidyanathan that opened the door to fusion concerts for me. Through him, I got the opportunity to play with some of the big names in Carnatic and Hindustani music — M Balamuralikrishna, T V Gopalakrishnan, Karaikudi Mani, Basvaraj brothers, Zakir Hussain, L Shankar, L Subramaniam etc. During a trip to South Africa with the Basvaraj brothers, I learned to play Thygaraja’s ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’ and I mastered it in about a month.But while I was doing these fusion gigs all over the world, there was another music that was playing in my head. That turned out to be Karnatriix’s first album, ‘Namaste’, with Sarangi maestro Sultan Fayaz Ahmed Khan.

What are your plans for the future?

Karnatriix has about 12 tracks we are working on, and we are looking for an international release of this on various platforms like iTunes etc. I also have a separate rock act with the Canadian band Lazie Bison. We will tour Canada and North America towards the end of this year and early next year.

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