How far does one go to join a booming music scene? If you're singer/songwriter Ramesh Srivastava, the leader of gentle indie-pop quartet Voxtrot, the answer is about halfway around the world.
Srivastava relocated from Austin, Texas, to Glasgow, Scotland, to ostensibly earn a master's degree in literature. It's a degree he has yet to receive. The real reason behind the move was his admiration for mopey, erudite bands such as the city's famed art-poppers Belle and Sebastian, post-folkies Arab Strap and post-rock instrumentalists Mogwai.
"They make cool music [in Glasgow]," Srivastava said in a phone interview. "The city has a long history of cool music."
Certain cities — New York, L.A., London, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Austin — have remained music epicenters for decades and will always remain that way. Other, usually smaller, cities have cropped up as hotbeds in an odd, unpredictable manner.
In the 1960s, aspiring singers and pickers put flowers in their hair and hitchhiked to San Francisco. In the '80s, it behooved a young, wannabe new-waver to enroll at the University of Georgia and join the Athens scene. You probably heard that a lot of bands relocated to Seattle to dive into the grunge movement. There have been others — small, big, flash-in-the-pan, enduring: Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, Omaha. And they're not just Stateside. As the '70s drew to a close, Manchester, England, was where any self-respecting English punk turned up. Fast-forward to the '00s, and Glasgow boasts the kind of scene that prompted Time magazine, in an August 2004 article, to compare it to Detroit and Liverpool in the 1960s. The assessment might be a stretch, but there is some merit to it. Glasgow today is for indie singer/songwriters what Greenwich Village was in the '60s for aspiring troubadours.
Like any other hot spot, Glasgow musicians don't all share one sound. For instance, the city's latest buzz-band, The Fratellis, is all about pints and pub-rock, and Franz Ferdinand offers decadent disco-rock. Belle and Sebastian specialize in dreamy, tortured love songs laced with the kind of detail-laden lyrics that make professors dole them out in poetry class.
On Voxtrot's self-titled debut CD, the Belle and Sebastian influence leaps out at you — especially on "Future Pt. 1," a mellow mix of folk and electronica that Srivastava opens with the oh-so-wordy couplet: "Late summer sky, two colors deep, three wide and a third all by/ And set to try to take away the shadows from your eyes."
On the chorus, Srivastava intones what sounds like, "We grow teeth, and we grow nails, and we scratch to the bottom of meaning." His voice is tender. Each word is delivered with delicate precision. Every note is pretty, perhaps too pretty. Maybe a little too Belle and Sebastian.
During our interview, someone hands Srivastava a copy of the latest edition of Rolling Stone, where there's a review of Voxtrot's CD. The singer pauses to read. It's gotten three stars (out of five) and includes some justifiable criticism. One comment in particular cuts to the core. "[Srivastava] cheeses out a little on songs like the Belle and Sebastian rip 'The Future, Pt. 1.' ... In short, a likeable disc but no reason to get hot and bothered."
Even Pitchfork.com, which drooled over Voxtrot's two EPs, pretty much slammed the full-length, granting it a 5.9 on its 10-point rating scale. Conversely, The New York Times hails the album as "marvelous." Go figure.
I skew more toward RS's take, finding Voxtrot pleasing yet slight, and imbued with more than its share of posturing. As one would expect, Srivastava gets defensive when asked about the mixed reviews. "It's cool to be in something like Rolling Stone, but I sort of don't care," he said. "See the shit on the cover. The fact that they give critical analysis to someone like Kelly Clarkson."
His voice trails off.
What about the Belle and Sebastian comparisons?
"I like them," said Srivastava, who stayed tight-lipped throughout our interview. To be fair, the B&S comparisons apply more to Voxtrot's lyrical content than to their sonic approach, which is more beat-oriented in nature, thanks to Srivastava's side gig as a DJ.
He formed Voxtrot in Austin in 2002. A self-released EP came out the following year. Then he left to go to school in Boston before migrating to Scotland to attend Glasgow University. The rich tradition of Austin country and blues greats — Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore — never appealed to Srivastava. "Indie listeners listen to mostly British music," he said.
And Scottish music. Although he won't specifically own up to it, it seems clear that Srivastava went to Glasgow to meet his heroes in Belle and Sebastian. He isn't the first aspiring star to seek out his idol. A young Bob Dylan traveled from Minnesota to New York, not only to ply his craft in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene, but also to meet, befriend and perform for Woody Guthrie, who was staying at Greystone Hospital in New Jersey. Srivastava got to meet the members of Belle and Sebastian as well.
"I became friends with almost all of them that are still around," he said. "But our friendship was really casual; it didn't really arise from songwriting."
Srivastava returned to Austin in 2005, and Voxtrot have been recording and touring in earnest ever since. In addition to writing songs, Srivastava is also a fairly active blogger whose musings can be found at Voxtrotkid.blogspot.com. In a post that coincided with the May release of Voxtrot, the singer wrote about being "addicted to attention."
"I guess it sounds really bad now that I hear it back," he said, responding to my question about the post. "You try to maintain and not build any ego, but when people say they value your opinion and find you interesting, it's kind of hard not to."
Although Srivastava sounds confident in certain online diary entries, a typical post begins: "Today was a good day, though, even if it was, in its own cruel way, possessed of a certain sadness." That same strand of melancholy informs the work of the music Srivastava makes and admires. In a near-perfect summing up, he said, "Maybe I'm too analytical to have a good time."