Words by Ben Robinson
For the past 12 years, British India have been a staple of the Australian indie rock scene. The band started off at their high school in Melbourne in 2004, before exploding and playing shows in venues all over the country. Their debut album Guillotine was released in 2007 and since then, British India have released four more albums, all of which have cracked the Top 10 on the ARIA charts, truly cementing their position as homemade juggernauts.
On the 12th of November they'll be taking the stage at Handpicked Festival in Langhorne Creek. We're not very familiar with the spot, but British India don't seem to mind. "Give us a microphone and a stage and we’ll do our thing no matter where we are,” says frontman Declan Melia. That, ladies and gentlemen, is British India in a nutshell – just along for the ride.
Two years ago, alongside The Preatures, British India were invited to support The Rolling Stones at an outdoor gig in Hunter Valley. When asked what he took away from the experience, it takes Melia – British India’s primary songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, a while to string together a sentence encapsulating such a momentous occasion. Instead, he opts not to talk about it as an egomaniac, but as a music lover.
“Honestly, I’ve been asked this question before, and the truth is that I didn’t really take anything away from it. It was just a great day. We were there with our entourage, some friends and family, and we got to watch the show, it was just a great day. It’s not like we were thinking ‘Alright, this is where we need to be’, you’re just stood there looking out at this panorama. It was a great day”.
With a Rolling Stones support slot under their wing and a progression towards a big, stadium anthem sound, is that level of success something they’re striving towards? In short, not really.
“We’re just an indie band”. Melia maintains the position of ‘if it happens, then great, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t’. But does he really consider British India an indie rock band? Again, not really.
“When we’re checking in at an airport with all our guitars and stuff and someone asks if we’re a band – I mean, obviously – we say yes. They ask what our name is, and one in ten times they’ve heard of us, or usually it’s 'my son’s heard of you'. When they ask what kind of music we make, I usually just say 'guitar music', because I guess that’s what it is.”
But, what they’re really interested in doing is “stretching the imagination”. After all, what does indie rock even mean? “There’s this quote by Kurt Cobain, he said that the difference between an indie rock song and a rock song was that the name of a rock song is a chorus lyric from the song. Like, if ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was called ‘Here We Are Now (Entertain Us)’ it’d be a rock song, but because it’s called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ it’s an alternative indie song”.
So, if the line between rock and indie rock is so fine, which one do they want to be? In fact, twelve years down the track, what is left for British India? What is Declan Melia chasing? The fame? The money? The passion?
“We just want to write good music”. Sure, it could be all about writing 'catchy songs' and playing the 'biggest crowds', but what they’re searching for is something else – “emotional honesty”. Melia views being honest with the band’s fans as highly crucial towards their success, and clearly it’s worked a treat.
But for now, let’s look at their most recent album, Nothing Holds Me, released in 2015. After taking a close look at the lyrics on the album, it isn’t hard to make one salient observation – they talk a lot about loneliness. Not only do many of the lyrics point in that direction (i.e. "Just to be in one place long enough to be alone”), but the album cover itself features a lone astronaut floating in solitude. Was this recurring theme intentional, or just a coincidence?
As it turns out, “just a coincidence... to be honest, I don’t think it is a recurring theme in the album. What I guess it’s really about is human collisions and two people trying to reconcile something. Or even desperation.”
But do you have to be lonely to write a song about loneliness?
“I just channel it through the lyrics. I don’t have to be sad to write a sad song. We always do the lyrics last anyway, so most of the time the music tells us what kind of song it’s going to be.”
That's how British India have always approached their music...
“When it comes to writing lyrics, you have to be strategic. How many times can you say ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’? There’s nothing more depressing than listening to a good song with shit lyrics”.
Catch British India this Saturday the 12th of November at Handpicked Festival (Langhorne Creek) - tix and info here.