Meet Peter Cat Recording Co., the India-Based Psych-Rock Band Pouncing on the U.S.
It’s pouring rain in New York City, and Mercury Lounge is packed wall-to-wall with a few hundred 20-somethings — so tightly that Peter Cat Recording Co. must clear a path through the Lower East Side rock club to journey from the front of the house to the stage.
Fans stand on sofas to catch a glimpse of the New Delhi-based five-piece as crew members climb over the audience, shuttling beers from the bar to the band. During the show, devotees hand gifts to the musicians and shout requests for deep cuts. Afterward, frontman Suryakant Sawhney, cloaked in a black button-down and eyeliner, smokes cigarettes outside with fans eager to shake his hand.
So why the hubbub? For years one of India’s best-kept music secrets, Peter Cat Recording Co. is finally digging its paws into America. Upon announcing their first U.S. tour, the band sold out three nights in New York and four in Los Angeles almost instantly — and they didn’t spend a dime on marketing. They attribute their growing popularity in the West partly to people discovering their music during the pandemic, bolstered by placement on several popular Spotify-curated playlists. It’s been a long time coming for Peter Cat, whose 2020 tour plans were scuttled by the pandemic, and who, due to the unforgiving economic landscape of Delhi’s music industry, have dubbed themselves “one of the last few remaining bands in India.”
“We’re an anomaly,” Sawhney says, referencing the band’s rare ability to make a living in their home country, which they say lacks a real indie music scene. But if this tour is any indication, Peter Cat is poised to trade underground cred for global success. When I ask if they’ve considered moving out of India, multi-instrumentalist Kartik Pillai doesn’t hesitate: “We want houses all over the world. We don’t want to live in one country.”
With 30 shows in just over a month, Peter Cat is not used to the non-stop nature of touring — and the attentive silence of American audiences compared to rowdy Delhi crowds. “The quietness is cool,” Sawhney says. “It’s like sharing a weird spiritual thing together.” In their limited New York free time, the band made sure to do some “standard tourist shit” and see “Wicked” on Broadway, which, according to the singer, was “very disappointing.” They haven’t been writing new music while on the road, but Sawhney promises there will be a new Peter Cat album within the next 365 days.
When I visit them in the basement of Mercury Lounge before the group’s third sold-out show in the city, I sit in a cramped green room opposite Sawhney, multi-instrumentalist Pillai, drummer Karan Singh and bassist Dhruv Bhola. Rohit Gupta, who plays keys and trumpet, is taking a cat nap in between Sawhney and Celeste Yumara Barbosa, a videographer who is capturing the band’s first stateside jaunt. The band also brought with them from India their own lighting and sound directors, Abhinav Khetarpal and Deniz Sagdic; and their team spirit is evident in their request for this article to also name the rest of their “Recording Co.,” which includes artist manager Jaivir Dhruv Singh, tour manager Patrick Higgins and monitors engineer/production manager Prathik Nedungadi.
Peter Cat is new to the U.S. but has been around for quite some time. While the current lineup formed in 2017, Sawhney adopted the moniker in 2009, releasing Peter Cat’s debut album “Sinema” on Jan. 1, 2011. Listeners struggle to categorize the band’s sound, and that’s OK with Sawhney, who proudly claims, “We don’t belong to any particular scene.” Their 2019 breakthrough, “Bismillah,” is soulful, vibrant and perfectly loose. Psychedelic disco-rock meets turbocharged gypsy jazz as trumpets soar over cozy chord progressions and swinging drums. What grabs you, though, is Sawhney’s voice — an agile, velvety croon that sounds like Sinatra on two tabs of acid.
The band’s individual influences range from Sam Cooke to Hindi film music to Bangkok surf rock. Says Pillai: “I listen to Marian Anderson gospel music and [Shanghai harsh noise act] Torturing Nurse, and everything in between. I like to watch multiple screens at the same time and torture myself until something slips out of my head. Just put on metal in the background and try to write.”
Sawhney mentions the Velvet Underground and Neutral Milk Hotel as examples of DIY bands “who had this mixture of making beautiful music that was a little dirty — it was never fully polished.” And Singh, who used to be a metal drummer, tells me about his love of jazz as he clutches a book about Buddy Rich.
But despite their eclectic inspirations, Sawhney says crooner music is one of the band’s common interests.
“That style of singing is really emotional,” Sawhney says. “I also enjoy it in this weird masculine way. I was drawn to that strong, macho voice when I was younger. But it was conservative, you know? Those guys couldn’t sing sleazy shit. They had to come up with cheesy ways of saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna fuck tonight.’ So I like the idea of it being grimy.”
He’s right. Sinatra never sang, “They can all suck my cock,” as Sawhney proclaims in the booze-soaked “Shit I’m Dreaming.” And in “Heera,” a “My Way”-esque farewell to a world that has abandoned him, Sawhney croons perversely, “This is how it ends / No money / No friends / And I just got a hard-on.”
The band’s sense of humor shines on stage, too. On Sunday night, as a front-row fan handed Sawhney an envelope, he asked, “Is this a vape?” When she told him it was a letter, he responded dryly, “Thank you, I’ll smoke it later.” When a cable died and cut off Sawhney’s microphone mid-song, Pillai broke the awkward silence by yelling across the stage at Bhola, “Bass solo!”
Before leaving the green room, I beg Sawhney to explain the origin of the band name. “I was in Calcutta and some guy sold me some weed in a meat market — I didn’t even realize it because he got me high,” he says. “I started pulling the sheets down and seeing the carcasses and was like, ‘I gotta go.’ So I ended up at this restaurant called Peter Cat. I don’t like the name, personally, but many years later I found out that the Japanese author Haruki Murakami opened a jazz club in the ‘70s called Peter Cat, so that was reaffirming.”
And why Recording Co.? “It’s nice to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs, like a business,” Sawhney says, then pitches his voice up mockingly, “rather than like, OMG we’re a band!”
Best of Variety
Tony Predictions: Best Musical -- Four Stand Poised to Give ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ Some Competition
This 'Fast and Furious' Arcade Cabinet Allows You to Step Behind the Wheel as Dom Toretto
From 'The Shards' to 'Daisy Jones & The Six': Books Made Into Movies and TV Series That You Should Read
Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.