There’s an intriguing motif in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun, the making-of film for Jonny Greenwood, Shye Ben Tzur, and the Rajasthan Express’s album of the same name. As a song begins, Anderson’s camera will scan the room – its kneeling percussionists, lined-up brass players, Qawwali singers nestled on cushions, Greenwood hunched in the shadows – before fixing on an open-shuttered window. After a moment's thought, it dives out. A drone bears the camera over the city as the music plays, intertwining the sound with the landscape – its leaning walls, streaming bodies, crowded architecture – and vice-versa. The result of the music, composed by India-based Ben Tzur to blend his adopted homeland’s energy with his middle-eastern roots, is like a gorgeous aerial view over a network of jostling traditions.
Ben Tzur, who grew up in Israel, met Greenwood after the Radiohead guitarist heard a band playing one of Ben Tzur's songs in the Negev desert. Last year in London they played a concert together, which went well enough to warrant further collaboration. Within weeks, Ben Tzur was scouting Rajasthan for possible recording spaces. He bumped into the Maharaja of Jodhpur, a longtime fan of his music, who suggested they set up at his regal 15th Century fort. The subsequent recording, overseen by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and documented over a few weeks by Anderson, was, in Ben Tzur’s words, "basically a big process of brainstorming and heart-storming and beautiful experience."
Pitchfork: Jonny, you've said that, as a Westener, you wouldn't have made this record without Indian musicians. What pitfalls did you want to avoid?
Jonny Greenwood: Rock music is quite big in India - but it mostly just replaces all the intricacies of Indian rhythms and Indian melody with lumpen rock drumming and power chords. So that was quite a good negative motivation. As soon as you impose Western chords on an Indian scale, something great collapses.
Shye Ben Tzur: The amazing thing about Jonny is he is so attentive and sensitive to music. He really realized, I think, what the special and strongest points are in some of the songs and what we shouldn’t do. He was trying to avoid harmonies and chords since Indian music is based on an aesthetic that lies within scales and rhythms, rather than chords. For Jonny, it was important that it would be very hot in the face and uncompromising; not manipulated just to be liked by others. The idea of singing in English didn’t even cross our minds.
Pitchfork: Shye, as the group leader, how was the power dynamic? And how did you find working with Jonny?
SBT: Jonny is the most senior musician; he sat among all of us to basically listen to what was being played, take it, use the best of it, and maybe bring in different ideas. But in reality, each one brings his own personality, tradition, and thought into the collaboration. Something I found very exciting with Jonny was that sometimes I would say, “Okay, which instrument should play together with this? Would you like some guitar line or computer thing on top of it?” And he said, "You know what? This one, let’s just leave it like that. Just your vocal, the vocal of the people, and then some effects towards the end of it."
Pitchfork: What drew you to Indian music, Jonny? I got the impression Junun was the culmination of a longer period of interest.
JG: The strangest part of Indian music is its lack of chords: There's no such thing as major or minor, and it's unusual to hear more than two different pitches at the same time. This means that melodies don't have to be pinned down to chords, so they sound much freer and more fluid than in western music. I was wary of falling into the trap of imposing western chords on everything: so a few songs on Junun have chords, but most don't – it's all about the raag and the rhythms. I thought of the bass and guitar as being droning percussion instruments – droning in the sense that they didn't change note – that could sit in amongst all the Indian drums. It was a little like how I'd imagine playing in James Brown's band – not many chord changes, but some captivating rhythms to kick a bass line off of.
Pitchfork: Why make Junun now?
JG: I guess part of it was wanting to make a record using Indian musicians, but trying to get sounds that weren't overly reverential. Lots of Western recordings of Eastern music are done with enormous care and caution – and, usually, absurdly polished production values. No wonder it's sometimes thought of as massage music. There's this desperate desire not to offend. Radiohead don't make records like that, so I figured we could record Shye's band with the same broad strokes. And with all those drummers and beaten up old brass instruments, it was like the noise and distortion was already taken care of before we played a note.
Pitchfork: Shye, how did you come to work with the Rajasthan Express?
SBT: Within the Rajasthan Express there are a few types of traditions. The singers come from a Sufi Qawwali tradition, singing music mostly in the Sufi shrines from 10 or 11 o’clock at night until five or six in the morning. Then there are other musicians ... coming from a community of Muslims, who used to play for the Hindu Maharajas. They were the court musicians, not only of the Maharajas but the royals in Rajasthan, so there’s a lot of emphasis on entertainment within their style of music. And then there's the brass bands. Brass bands come from a tradition of the British being in India, and are now used mostly for weddings and parades. I always used to hear the special sound of these parades, these brass bands playing. There was a sense of joy in it, a notion of a sacred thing. When Jonny heard the brass, he said, "We have to have these guys. This should be the sound of the album."
Pitchfork: I read that, after hearing a traditional Indian band playing in Jerusalem, you dropped everything and moved to Rajasthan to study music.
SBT: Kind of, yes. I was a musician since I was a kid, and after listening to a lot of kinds of music, I began to investigate different rock bands and other sounds. By that curiosity I came across Indian music. A friend brought me to a concert of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain. I was sitting there for a long recital, about four hours. Yet the time just passed in a very magical way and I was in awe. I remember the feeling was so deep. After that concert I really felt that I had to go to India and find out more about that type of music. But I didn't plan to spend most of adult life there...
Pitchfork: What did you learn?
SBT: When people talk about Indian music they think of one type of music, but India is a subcontinent with many traditions and cultures which have developed for a few thousand years. So at first I didn't really know what it means. ... I was studying North Indian classical music, but what really drew me in was Qawwali, which is a Sufi music. North Indian classical is a music that tries to basically play Ragas, which are musical scales with melodic rules and outlines. Qawwali music is very groove oriented, very trancey, very powerful. And the mixture of both creates a real magic.
Pitchfork: Jonny, you've described the music as both "celebratory" and "masculine."
JG: The music is all devotional: Shye is singing about his faith, so the music is quite ecstatic, and joyful. I've called it "masculine" because I guess I found that the most curious aspect – the male chorus singing these spiritual songs with such fervour. Maybe I'm used to religious music being gentler in the classical world.
Pitchfork: You seem to prefer to create before you get too familiar with a particular style or form. What do you get from that method?
JG: As I kid, I was always jealous of the music that my favorite bands had written – but not really of how they played. So I'd daydream about having written songs, and this way above being able to perform them. When I was at school, virtuosity was usually associated with insincerity... there's that Tom Waits quote about never practicing, and only playing an instrument when you're writing something new. That always felt right to me. Having said that, I'm very grateful for the music education I've had.
Pitchfork: It's sometimes as if you're searching for something innate to composition, that goes beyond genre. Does something like that exist?
JG: I sometimes wish taste wasn't ever an issue, and the sounds of instruments or synths could be judged solely on their colour and timbre. Judged by what it did to your ears, rather than what its historical use reminds you of. Or at least, this is how I try and argue my banjo/recorder/harmonica onto Radiohead records...