In Conversation with: Yatin Srivastava Project

When Yatin Srivastava came to Queen Mary University of London in 2013 he brought his progressive rock project (the Yatin Srivastava Project) from New Delhi with him. After reforming the band with musicians he had met at QMUL he released Constructing an Acoustic Dream this February – a live EP of his performance at the launch party of CUB issue #556. I spoke to him about the musicians who inspire him, the difficulties of producing professional audio on a student budget and his ambitions for the Yatin Srivastava Project.

Because I don’t think it’s on the internet yet, can you tell us your origin story? How you got started?

I was in my school band. There’s this thing back home, it’s really competitive. The school level competition scene is just huge – there used to be seven to eight competitions every year and they’re not just small stages where you go up and play whatever. They used to set up stages with fog machines, amp heads and stuff so it was big. We were introduced as a school band, we were in eighth grade and I’d just picked up the guitar the year before that. So I was ok, everyone was sort of ok. We learned, and by the time we got to grade ten level it was really competitive. We were playing Dream Theater from start to finish, all we’d listen to was Dream Theater.

After a period of time we’d also start working outside of school with our own thing as a prog metal band. I started getting into prog rock, Porcupine Tree and Tesseract and the whole djent thing so what I wanted was not really fitting in with that school band, Dream Theater-esque prog scenario. And then there used this whole thing of our music teacher only allowing one guitar player to play per competition so that it would be easy for him.

That led to us having fights on what song to play, who’s going to play. After I was like “I’ll just do my own thing.” I decided to do the whole recording aspect of it so I got a cheap audio interface. I did start off by just plugging my guitar into my laptop through Audacity. After a point of time I came up with these two, three ideas of songs I had in my head. That was the time I got into Devin Townsend and Mark Tremonti and then Steven Wilson also started doing his solo thing.

Was that in your mind? Devin Townsend Project – Yatin Srivastava Project?

That was not…I was like “Ok I’ll have a solo project and I’ll name it something. I’ll give it a name.” After a point of bickering around with names I was like “I don’t have enough time to think about that.” If Devin Townsend can do it, why can’t I? My bandmates are like “You just promote yourself by saying your own name over and over again.”

So, I made these three, four songs and they were just lying around. Not in a pre-production way, just 11 minutes of guitar. Although I wasn’t in that band we were still in school, we were still best friends so we would keep discussing each other’s music. I was the first one to do my own thing, which I still think was a very intelligent choice. I didn’t send my music to new people because I was scared, I didn’t know what they would think and I was more comfortable sending my music to people who I already knew musically and personally.

The people I was in a band with, I sent them this stuff and they said “This is really nice, we would like to work with you on this.” Then I just wrote more, it was in I think 2013 when I went “This can be made into something.” I was still back home, I had six, seven months of free time before coming to university I just played and kept recording. I spent hours and hours on YouTube learning how to EQ and compress. As the classic thing is – you would imagine the song in your head. I would get ideas in the shower, so I would run out, quickly change and hit record.

We recorded the first EP in a very haphazard way. The last song on the record, ‘The Dream Plays In Reverse’, its vocals were recorded on the night I was to come here. I was flying out that night and rather than spending time with my parents I was recording this vocalist in my bedroom who’s like “Oh, my voice isn’t working, this isn’t happening.” I had to be like “Dude, I need to leave!”

Then just released it online and I was surprised at how many people listened to it. There’s still about 1000 listens on it and I’m like “What? People are still that interested?” So that gave me validity in terms of doing something as a band. Sitting at home recording was fuelling another agenda – my producer based want. That was fun compared to the real work of practising with a band, playing gigs and whatnot.

First December I went home for two months, I got an opportunity to do a gig. That gig turned out really well so then I was like “I can actually do this seriously.” After writing for The Dream Plays In Reverse I had serious writer’s block for six, seven months. It got to the point of me hating to pick up the guitar. It was bad.

Was that a matter of having made an EP you were comparing what you had in your head to what you had on record?

Yeah, I liked the EP but it was something I had listened to about 1000 times. I took on this huge project – I can mix it, I can master it, I can do everything. I was like “Oh no, I’m not going to do programmed drums, I’m going to do live drums.” I literally worked on a snare sound for six months. Still sounds shit!

After that I was rather exhausted for a while, or rather I wasn’t used to doing that amount of work when it came to music because I would just generally jam with people. When the gig worked out it was like “I can seriously do this.” Then, when I sat down and started writing, then it just flowed. Till that day to now, I can just sit down and flow out songs.

It’s got to the aspect of I have a B side, what should I include in the record? Even though this release was not something that was planned, this was just out of the blue, what I had in my head all this while was either release another EP or a full album or a double album. I have that much stuff.

For about six months I made these 15 or 16 huge songs then after that started pinpointing. That’s what I’m working on now. I wouldn’t say the coming together of the whole project was a fluke, but it was something that took time for me to get into.

Before we talk about those songs, let’s talk about the current EP. That was the first gig with a band of – apart from you – all new members.

And members who had never played a gig before.

Not even Archie?

No, no one played a gig before. I had experience of playing through six years of school, so I was used to playing, but these guys had not played at all.

Why did you do that? Rather than tentatively do a gig and see what comes out…”No, I’m going to make an EP out of this gig with acoustic versions of songs I’ve played but not actually played like that before.”

Biggest reason is that I don’t have money! To correct you: making this an EP was not the idea in the beginning. We came back home from summer, worked my ass off in some big internship and I had two weeks of free time. Two weeks of sitting at home and Meet brought out his acoustic guitar. One day I sat down in front of my interface and recorded a rough scratch track of ‘Unexplained’ just for fun.

Next day, I see a post on Facebook saying musicians are required for a gig, I was like “Oh, CUB magazine…they might not like what I do! But maybe I can do something…”

So I had a chat with [CUB Head of PR] Robyn and she was like “Feel comfortable in doing whatever you’d like to do. It’s a chilled out environment, people are going to be sitting in couches.” So then I was like, can I make my songs which already exist into acoustic songs? My songs have a lot of chords in them, they’re not that riff based. There’s a lot of vocal sections and melodies. It is possible to convert it into an acoustic version…but obviously songs have riffs and heavy sections in between.

It’s not just the notes, it’s the tone as well.

Yeah, for example the main ‘Blackwater Park’ riff won’t sound nice on an acoustic when there’s the whole band. So it took me one or two days to decide if…I knew I was going to do this but then the groundwork for that was all me. Making 34-35 track based songs for these two songs I’m converting and recording and then telling these people. “Oh, are you interested?” I only asked them after I was done making all this so I made them listen to it.

This is still two people – Meet and Archie – they were like “Yeah yeah, this is cool, sounds good.” We had a month before the gig was to be held and I was like “Well, we don’t have a vocalist”. Meet was asking around and it was the first pub crawl of the Rock and Metal Society and there’s this chick who’s there. She started talking about music and was like “Oh, I sing.”

“You sing?! What kind of music do you sing?” She was like “I can’t growl, but I can sing really high notes.” Perfect! So the next day I messaged her and sent her the tracks and then we got around and practised a fair bit. These guys did put in the time – the EP is not edited at all, it is not quantized. It’s off at sections as well but that’s deliberate. Start to finish they did an amazing job and it was because we played through it over and over again.

I was nervous at the beginning, because I’m fine with me. I was fine with Archie as well because when he gets into his headspace and starts playing he’s fine. Meet I was really scared of – he was like “Are there going to be people? How many are going on the event page? I don’t like people when I’m playing.” So that took a bit of convincing for him to be ok.

I knew that it could happen, then after two/three days of practice it was sounding good so I thought I could record it. I was like ok I’ll just release it as a live EP, then they said they had a projector. So I can make some media to go on the projector and then I was like…it would be cool if that gets filmed!

Luckily enough I’d just worked sound for this short that people are doing on campus which is going to be released soon. I just asked if they were interested and two cameramen from that said “Yeah, sure!” All of this was just me thinking of an idea, asking people and people saying yes. If people had said no, I might not have done most of it but because everyone said yes…why not?

Is that video going live at the same time as the EP?

I’m confused about that…I mean an album stream works. That’s fine, I’ve not spent any money. Mixing, mastering, everything, I’ve done that so I’m fine letting that out for free for now. When there’s another multimedia platform I’m providing…I’m thinking currently of what to do. Do I only let people who buy the CD get a link to the video? Or only the people who buy a DVD? I’m getting CDs and DVDs printed, I’m doing the whole packaging thing.

So I don’t know, because I have got a few pre-orders, which is surprising to me! So I’m thinking that if people are actually interested in pre-ordering, let alone buying it, I might just not release it for a month or two and maybe release it when I have a subsequent amount of sales or something. Even if I make £50, minimum £50, that’s a day for me to record in a studio.

That leads on neatly, because I’m quite interested in your production. When you were working on the first EP it was just stuff you’d taught yourself off YouTube, I’m assuming just a Macbook and a DI box basically?

Macbook and an interface, people hated me for that as well! Laptop, interface, guitar. That’s it.

Have you taken courses in this kind of thing?

I have not taken a single course. I would like to, I would love to go to Berklee or Musicians Institute in Los Angeles and do a one year thing. I consider myself to be a bedroom producer, a total DIY bedroom producer, and my ideal set up of expensive gear would be something that is available in these institutes. So if I were to join an institute like that I would have on hand experience of dealing with things that are high end so that when I eventually do my own thing I already have a knowledge of what these things are.

The thing with equipment is…nowadays you can get low priced equipment that has a base audio quality that you can still do a lot with. There’s this friend of ours, he’s in a death metal band and he does a production course in his A levels and the other guitar player does production in college. They just recorded a whole EP on a £60 interface and it sounds good! It doesn’t sound bad, it doesn’t sound like something that’s cheap. I’ve seen bands go into recording studios and have a worse quality than that.

It’s more about me being a bedroom producer, not learning anything and at the same time learning everything possible that was available through YouTube and the internet. The best thing that that approach taught me was that there’s no rules except basic things like knowing what frequencies an instrument has and knowing what gear is good and what isn’t. Basic stuff, but after that it’s all whatever sounds good to you.

I think that’s one problem which people don’t understand, people always try to mimic a sound. I mean, I am obviously trying to mimic a sound that I think sounds best in my ear. But after a point where I get close to it I am employing my own methods which gives it a personal character. That’s my take on what in my head sounds best to me whereas a lot of people just go “We’re going to make it sound like that.”

Considering the fact that there’s so much music…it just sounds the same! Not just because it’s the same riffs and same song structures, because it literally sounds the same. Every other metal band has programmed drums and that Superior Drummer kick and snare is noticeable everywhere. So I look at it as every day I’m trying to do something new with whatever I record and I just go with it and see what works and what doesn’t work.

It’s absolutely possible to have Drumkit From Hell for drums and Devin Townsend’s actual rhythm and lead sounds.

Yeah! I mean, you can do well with it but that again is going away from presets. I hate people only using presets. Most people go “Oh, this is the preset so we’re just going to stick with it.” I take a preset and change it around 180 degrees. I’m bored at night I take raw DI tracks from the internet and mix the snare. That’s what I do for fun. Every time people are like “Why don’t you go out?” I’m sorry, I’m literally mixing a snare drum right now.

Mixing samples and stuff like that…it takes a lot of time and hard work. It takes a lot of hours but it’s just something that I don’t get tired of. My ears certainly get tired, but sitting on a computer making music doesn’t tire me out. It’s something that I can keep doing.

What is it you’re looking for in a snare track?

My ideal snare sound is Gavin Harrison’s snare sound. The problem with that is that doesn’t just involve a snare drum and how you EQ it. The problem is the fact that Gavin Harrison, when he plays that snare exactly in the centre every time, that is when you get that sound. I don’t think any drummer can replicate that. There’s a lot of good drummers out there but there are only two people who actually hit exactly in the centre every time – there’s Tomas Haake and Gavin Harrison. So that’s my dream sound.

In terms of snares, I like a fat snare. I think that works well with prog, I think people like a more natural sounding snare. I know Steven [Wilson] does. Steven has a really`nice, natural snare because when you have someone who is an absolutely amazing drummer then you can work their plus points in their playing and how they make the instrument sound more diverse even before you start mixing. So then you have a wide range of options. If you have samples of people that don’t hit in the centre every time then you have to go for a sound that can, over a period of 40 to 50 minutes, sound good.

I think the crack is very important…I’m getting very technical here but above about 1000 or 1500Hz. The general body of the snare lies between 300-700Hz and the thing with that is that 300-700Hz is also the area of the vocal range. So you really have to balance your midrange in order to make sure your snare sticks out.

If you have a lot of stuff going on and you don’t have the midrange covered you won’t get the body of the snare, you’ll just get that high pitched *click* which most bedroom producers do because they don’t educate themselves enough to know there are certain base rules. If you have a snare track that is giving you a low buzz under 100Hz or 80Hz that is going to interfere with your kick sound.

So, ideally a lot of body and a nice high end is what I’m looking for but that is based on me recording one snare and samples. I always keep changing my mind as to what I like.

I’m aware this is more of a life question than a music question but, you graduate this year right? What are you going to do with the band afterwards?

I mean, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m thinking of doing law in terms of…doing a profession I’ll be fine with doing that’s the only profession I can think of. Both of my parents are lawyers and I’ve been brought up – not forcefully – in that scenario.

So that helps a lot because if you look at most Indian environments children are forced to get into a specific line of work. It’s totally different that I’m wanting to something that my parents do. In my mind I look 10-20 years down the line I want to be a lawyer, make a lot of money, use that money to buy studio gear. Works out perfectly!

There’s obviously the danger of holding my music for a while. I don’t know, if Tool can make people wait for eleven years and counting I can make people wait a bit.

I mean, David Gold from Woods of Ypres managed to fit a lot of doom metal around his career.

At least I’m not like the Sex Pistols, release one record and make my fame off that. I don’t think I’ll ever give up music but I know, practically, that I am not that strong willed to take music on as a full career because I’ve grown up in a specific environment and I’m used to standards of living which go right out of the window when you decide to become a musician on the road.

You’ve seen the Oh, Sleeper post about touring?

It’s just because anything can happen. I would see that as being adventurous but I don’t think I’m cut out for it. My ideal place would be a studio with just me in it 24/7.

You sound like Jari Mäenpää now!

My dad says that if something comes up, if you get a huge record deal then go for it, that makes sense. It’s certainly not a hobby, I wouldn’t put in this much time and effort if it was just a hobby! It’s a lot more than a hobby but I know the kind of person I am. I wouldn’t be able to sustain it and at the end of the day the product is most important. Sounds cliché but…I do care about what people think but if I don’t like it I am not going to release it.

So if I become a full time musician and because of circumstances that I can’t control I don’t make good music, that’s me crushing myself. I would not do that in a million years. Just work a boring office job, make money and then go home at night and do whatever I want. So I think that’s more practical.

Just in the near future, have you got plans for the material that’s in pre-production?

This time I’m definitely going to do live drums so, as mentioned earlier, whatever money I make off this is what is going to be used to do the next record. I really want to record drums in an expensive studio. I want to record them properly with vintage preamps, a Neve board if possible, Neumanns and £3000-£4000 microphones. As I’ve learned to produce I’ve realised that if your raw source file is perfect then you don’t need to put a lot of time into mixing.

I think people forget the point of the studio. People think that studios are expensive and you can do the same stuff at home but that’s the point. They have millions and millions of pounds of gear that make your raw file as good as can be. So when you bring it into mix, you can do that.

If I’m talking about spending money, I’m still not satisfied enough by anyone else in terms of the amount of money you spend to mix or master my records. I think I have the capability to do that but I would certainly like to duke out three, four days with a drummer in a studio, a day or two with a bassist. Just getting a live sound which is not so programmed.

I did record my own amp in the first EP but that again is in a bedroom. In a studio environment, where it’s treated and you can max it out to 10, then when you can get that sound it makes a heapload of a difference. If I am able to do that, I’ll notice the difference and I’m sure people will notice as well. I’ve already had some people telling me that my mix and master on this EP compared to the old one is grounds further. They’re like, this actually sounds good, it doesn’t sound like a muffled thing coming out of your phone!

So that is what I’m thinking. Do I take the tracks I have, make an EP, make a full record, make a double length? I don’t know, it’s frustrating because I come up with song ideas every day. Now I’ve got to the point of picking and choosing, can I make something out of what I’m playing here or should I work on something else? I really want to get into a studio and record.

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