Vegas is not the sort of place that inspires Tjinder Singh. In fact, the driving force behind London's pop idols Cornershop finds the whole town a tad ridiculous. Opening for fellow Brits, Oasis, Singh and company are in the states to promote their latest disc, Handcreme For A Generation, and will support the brothers Gallagher for a few gigs before commandeering their own tour as headliners. The bashful Cornershop frontman, while happy that his music is finding an audience, is still struggling with some of the trappings of fame. "It's nice to get critical praise," he says, during a recent phone interview with The Indy, "especially when you're doing something so different." But apparently, audiences have been known to complain about a lack of rapport with the London-born Sikh. "I do enjoy playing live. A lot of people may think I don't, but I just don't like talking [to an audience]." The shy and retiring type, Singh prefers to communicate on a higher level, eschewing vacuous patter for sonic connections.
Singh and his bandmates garnered a decent amount of buzz with their '95 debut, Woman's Gotta Have It, during which time they ended up crossing paths with Chapel Hill's Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, co-owners of Merge Records.
"The first album was out in England, and Superchunk came over for some shows and we chatted about the licensing," Singh says. A deal was struck and the pair released Woman's Gotta Have It on Merge. "On the basis that they did it purely out of love for the album, we were thrilled to let them have it," Singh says. He goes on to bemoan the current state of indie labels, especially the ease in which the majors swoop in and take over, once the smaller labels have given an artist their initial exposure. "In England, a lot of those grassroots companies have fallen by the wayside; they've been snapped up by major labels," he says. "It's unfortunate that they're probably buying the entire label for one track."
But while their debut was a popular one, no one could have predicted the runaway success of their follow-up, When I Was Born For The 7th Time. Buoyed by the success of the strum-along single "Brimful of Asha," the band became critical darlings and sold out tours in both the United States and Europe. Cornershop's unique mix of low-fi string arrangements and hip-hop-inspired beats carved out a lovely niche in an industry beginning to be caught up in the boy-band/pop-slut phenomenon. Sales were also good, seemingly unaffected by the popularity of music downloads.
"I'm a record collector and I don't believe a record is complete until you've got the cover, the artwork, and you can smell it--scratch and sniff it, y'know?" says Singh, whose music tastes tend to run toward the organic. In keeping with that philosophy, he doesn't allow himself to be concerned with the potential loss of revenue incurred by file sharing.
"It's the same thing you would do in a record shop. You'd want to play the record first," he says. "I think a lot of people are using the [file sharing] debate in weird ways," he says, obviously alluding to the record industry. (While distribution companies cry poor over their copyrighted material being "stolen," they continue to charge $17 for a CD that's 10 years old; the artist, whose royalties from that $17 amount to a pittance, tends not to really care too much.)
The first single from Handcreme, "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III," harks back to the indulgent era of glam rock, echoing T. Rex and Thin Lizzy, among others. When asked about his fascination with the Rocky films, Singh surprisingly divulges, "I've never actually watched a full Rocky movie." In fact, he claims to find most modern films fairly unappealing. "I think the whole Star Wars thing sucks. I don't really give a fuck," he says. In a world where so many actors want to be rock stars and vice versa, Singh doesn't seem to find the least bit of inspiration from talented thespians.
Now untalented thespians are a different story: "I think I'm more inspired by bad actors, really. Ewan MacGregor and people like that. I've seen a few things that he's done and, y'know, why bother? For me, it's why cinema is so bad. These people are plastic. No one has an eye anymore for people who actually look like they could have lived the part."
Singh's approach to music is non-plastic in the extreme, allowing his music to evolve and grow into its own space. Collaboration is key to his method, and the guest stars on Handcreme are a testament to his well-stocked address book. With guest appearances by soul singer Otis Clay, former Oasis bassist Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and Noel Gallagher (half of rock's greatest sibling rivalry since the Van Zandt brothers), the disc boils over with talent. In keeping with their rep for slick beats and technically adept production values, the band also elicited the services of X-Man Rob Swift, a turntable magician whose sleight-of-hand makes David Blaine look like Captain Hook.
"Rob did a remix for us for 'Candyman,' and we thought it would be great to see how a totally different approach would meld with our music," Singh says. "I've always liked the turntablist stuff coming out of America--stuff like Q-Bert and Cut Chemist [of Jurassic 5]."
This openness and enthusiasm for music has served the band well. And as long as Singh and his cohorts can keep their grounded philosophy with regard to their sound, they'll continue to craft profound party music long after Ewan MacGregor has dropped off the radar, put out to pasture in some dank Scottish castle.