Shalini Chatterjee Profile/Interview

When 3-year old Shalini Chatterjee discovered the cartoon “Josie and the Pussycats” on Scottish TV, this brought on a fascination with music and performance. These interests developed into a lifestyle when she immersed herself in the indie rock scene around the University of Wisconsin in the ‘80s. Later, a relationship with Game Theory main-man Scott Miller led to her meeting Mitch Easter – Let’s Active mastermind and producer of early R.E.M. and many other college radio luminaries in the heyday of ‘80s indie rock; she and Easter are now married, play on each other’s records, and live in North Carolina. After releasing two albums while fronting the band Vinyl Devotion, Shalini (current band name) released her/their masterpiece (thus far) in 2004; Metal Corner is an album of spellbinding Power Pop – something like Cheap Trick if they had a cool girl singer. In late 2007 Shalini’s second album, The Surface and the Shine, appeared and continued to explore the terrain of catchy, ‘80s-influenced pop songs driven by ‘70s-style power chord riffs. Shalini, currently busy organizing a 5-day film and music festival which will take place this summer, recently took time out to have the following e-conversation with me:

*You seem to have had an interesting upbringing, being born in India and spending your early years in Scotland. Can you tell me about your family, what you all were doing in India and what prompted the move to Scotland? When, where, and why did you first move to the States? Where did you spend your teen years?

My dad is Indian. He's from an old Calcutta family. The big family house still exists. He had a job as a country doctor of sorts in rural Northern India, which is why they were living there when I was born. The place was really beautiful and green and peaceful. It's called Digboi, near Margarita, near Assam, where the tea comes from.

My parents decided to move to the USA for various reasons. They were attracted to Los Angeles, and my dad was offered a job at UCLA, so after living in Edinburgh for 4 years, we packed up and landed in LA in 1973. I had never heard an American accent. Everything seemed big and either deluxe or rundown. In Edinburgh, things were on smaller scale but were kept up. No crappy buildings. We moved around a few times in LA, living in Amherst, then South Pasadena (it was a pokey cute place back then not the crowded overpriced spot it has become, although the nice small Norton Simon art museum still exists), then Rancho Palos Verdes on the peninsula.

Then they decided to move to Northern California, which was kind of a bummer for everyone. We all liked Los Angeles. We moved to nearby Davis, California. I had a great elementary school- Pioneer Elementary – with awesome 5th and 6th grade teachers, a lot of nice friends and an excellent Girl Scout troop. I loved singing with the other girls, going on nature walks, and camping. I earned every badge I could until my sash was full. Teen years were spent going to high school in Sacramento. Black years, nothing much to say except I was immersed in bands and music.

There were a lot of great bands in Davis back in the 80s. I was often too young to go to the shows but snuck in house parties to see the early Camper Van Beethoven shows, stuff like that. I read the news on KDVS – I was in high school so they wouldn't let me DJ – and I worked at the local records store in town called Barney's where some band people worked. People assumed I was older than 16 and 17. I moved out of the house when I was 17 to attend the University of Wisconsin and joined my first band in the first week there. I had taken four bass lessons that summer, so thought maybe I was passable, ha-ha. Obviously, I am a self-taught rock musician.

*Do you have siblings?

Yes. I have an older sister named Sharmila. She became a doctor and has a Master's in Public Health from Harvard. I am not sure if she practices medicine any more – doesn't seem to want to talk about her job, ever – all I know is she is on staff at Boston University. She's a couple years older. My brother Arun is 4 years and 4 days younger than I am. He is a teacher and lives in Sacramento. That's everyone.

*Were/are any of your family members interested in music or other arts? Did any of them have anything to do with you deciding to become a musician and performer? Did you have any other early influences that may have guided you into having creative ambitions?

Sharmila liked bands and the indie scene. I snuck out of the house and hitched a ride with her to see my first live band, the Bangles in 1983 playing at a small club called Club Minimal (apt name) in Sacramento. No one in my family is musical and they don't seem interested in art at all. I can't really relate to anyone in my family. It feels like Them and Me.

I really got inspiration from things I heard; I always had my ears open and was mesmerized by music, obsessed with songs I thought were good and recordings that seemed so powerful. There were three singles my dad had that influenced me: “Baby Love” by the Supremes, “From Me to You” by the Beatles and “Rock a Hula Baby” (awesome drums!!!) by Elvis.

And of course there was Josie and the Pussycats which looked like the ideal existence to me when I was 3 and watched it Tuesday nights in Edinburgh. I loved the colors, the action, and the music. And their costumes! And I thought Josie was such a cool name, and the fact she was the band leader was just the center of the universe.

*You started playing the bass at age 17. When did you start playing with other people? When did you start writing your own songs?

I started playing with other people in the dorm at UW-Madison, out of our state dorm called Princeton House. We had a semi-joke punk band called Phlegm. My stage name was Phlegm Fatale. We played our first gig at a birthday party in the dorm in September 1986. My knees were shaking, I was so nervous to be standing in front of people Playing in a Band! I started trying to write songs in 1987. It was harder than I thought it would be. I co-wrote with Ryan Jerving of Kissyfish. He was more of a proper musician, had played in jazz bands and was a really, really good guitar player.

*How did playing with Kissyfish and the other bands lead to you forming Vinyl Devotion, then Shalini?

Phlegm split into two bands that became Madison mainstays in the late eighties: My Cousin Kenny, and Kissyfish. I was the bass player and singer in Kissyfish. We played with Otis Ball some in the late 80s, who tried to get Bar None interested in us, and eventually wrote some really good songs, but the guys wouldn't give up this corny vaudeville posturing, so I wasn't totally sorry when the band split up in 1990 when we graduated. I wanted to be in the Pixies, playing rock music, not some frat band with accordians. Ow. We made recordings on 4 tracks and sold cassettes. I still get requests for them over the internet.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1990, I didn't know what to do. I really wanted to play in my boyfriend Scott Miller's band Game Theory. They needed a bass player, and never really had a cool one after Suzi Zielger left in 1985. I had a lot of experience playing by then, and had become a real bar rat in my years in Kissyfish. I could have handled the transition to a more grown up band easily and was as good as Suzi in 1990. However, Scott was adamant about not wanting his girlfriend in his band after 2 psycho girlfriend experiences. I thought that was pretty lame, because I was way more responsible and sane than those other girls could ever be, but I wasn't going to beg!

So I just played with two or three bands that weren't going anywhere for a while. I had my own vision for a band, so started Vinyl Devotion by recording a single in 1992, produced by Scott and recorded at Paul Wieneke's home studio for $15 an hour! Paul was super nice and played keyboards on my cover of "Nobody Told Me." Scott contributed his really excellent background vocals. I played guitar and bass. I was seriously working on my songwriting all the time by then.

I established my own record label called Mitochondria Records and got distribution by making a zillion phone calls. It was fun and easy to do the single; the hard part was putting a band together. I killed myself looking, placing ads and holding auditions. As soon as I had some stability, someone quit. Booking was so hard in SF. It was all extremely difficult. A highlight was the band in 1994. Our first EP (out on CD! Can you imagine that being a big deal now? But this was 14 years ago! World was a different place) got great attention. I got letters (typed!) of interest and met with A & M records in NYC in 1995. Sadly, they wanted another Courtney Love. There is probably no one less like me on earth than her! I couldn't pretend to be an aggressive drug addict.

*Do you find it easier to work with male band-mates than with other women?

Yes. The girls are flakey and/or psycho, the ones I've ever worked with, except a couple in all these years. They don't work on their musicianship and are not generally reliable.

*Describe the relationship you have had with the two labels you’ve recorded for, Parasol and Dalloway. Why are you moving away from Dalloway with this next album?

Parasol was great! Friendly, opened some doors, had other good bands. Some people who work there are musicians, notably the awesome Angie Heaton and Paul Chastain. Dalloway was run by two women I could really relate to on a musical level. They liked the 80s and especially 90s girl-led bands a lot, that I could identify with, like the Breeders, Veruca Salt, Throwing Muses, Garbage, and the Lovelies from the 2000-era.

A lot of the indie purists around here sniff at some of the music I like the best. None of it has a country twinge, maybe that's why. NC indie musicians are prone to going country. I don't even own an acoustic guitar and I wouldn't be seen in overalls unless I was pitching hay.

Eve and Christina were interested in being urban and stylish. They moved to Boston and had trouble keeping their label afloat. They had probably lost quite a bit of money on Metal Corner. I had the chance to go with Electric Devil/125 Records so I took it. I still keep in touch with the Dalloways, and if we're ever in Boston we'll hook up.

*You play bass in the studio and guitar live – which, if either (both?) do you write songs on?

I write songs on electric guitar.

*Where and when did you first meet husband/band-mate Mitch Easter? Did the romance form before or after the musical kinship developed, or was it all wrapped up in one?

I first met Mitch in July, 1991 when Scott and I went to see him play in Marshall Crenshaw's touring band. Mitch and I got together in 1995 or 1996, after I had split up with Scott, contrary to negative gossip about "overlapping". I lived alone in a SF apartment for a couple years and Mitch and I were long distance. I moved here Christmas Eve 1996. Mitch and I didn't play music together regularly for a long time. He was super busy in the studio in the late nineties. I started playing with him and Eric Marshall in 1999. They were such pros. After all the many, many years slogging through practices with bad musicians, it felt like flying, playing with these guys. They were fun band-mates. We had really good synergy for a while and ended up playing together for 7 years. I play live with another drummer now, Chris Garges of Charlotte.

*What other interests do you have besides music?

Reading, walking, dogs, animal protection, environmental causes, and film. I started a film festival called the Revolve Film and Music Festival, the state's only regional Triad-to-Triangle festival with monthly screenings revolving around a 5-day core festival in June. I used to work at another film festival but just had a lot of other more positive programming ideas involving art and music and style. They screen some films I find questionable and do not use violence warnings.

*Write out the index of what would be a Shalini desert island mixtape – 10-20 of your favorite all-time songs.

Of course, this changes all the time but here's a rough mish-mash list that isn't thought out, just off the top of my head:

The Real World, Bangles; Surrender/anything from In Color, Cheap Trick; Shayla, Union City Blues, Blondie; 25, Get Back, The Speed of Candy, Veruca Salt; Don't Let Me Down, Nina Gordon; Remember You, Chris White (Zombies); Friend of Mine, Jealousy, Supernova, Cinco de Mayo, Liz Phair; No Aloha, Breeders; Easy Does, Room with a View, Let's Active (really all of Cypress); 24 (all of Real Nighttime), Together Now Very Minor, Dripping with Looks, Game Theory; Don't Bother Me While I'm Living Forever, Slit My Wrists, Loud Family; Phonograph, Stateside; White Leather, the Lovelies; West of the Fields/We Walk/Shaking Through/Perfect Circle – R.E.M.; Our Lips are Sealed/How Much More/Fading Fast/I'm With you/Mercenary – Go-Go's, who were underrated songwriters; Nina Nastasia – I like her as an artist but can't name her song titles; Blue Spark/Los Angeles/+ many others – X

*How do you like living in North Carolina, as compared to the other parts of the U.S. and the world that you have lived in?

I like it. It's a great place to have a band! People have pretty much space, it's low crime, and there are a lot of talented musicians.

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