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Members include Ben Ayres, (born c. 1969, in Canada), tamboura, keyboards, guitar;Peter Bengry, percussion; Anthony Saffery, sitar, harmonium, keyboards;Nick Simms , drums; Tjinder Singh, (born c. 1969, in England), vocals, guitar. Addresses: Record company--Luaka Bop Records, Box 652, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276. Home--London, England.
Cornershop merges elements of British club music--trance beats, distorted electric guitar, sampling--with the weaving, elliptical rhythms of traditional Indian music. Its singer and songwriter offers the occasional lyric in Punjabi, his first language, and the band has evolved from an unschooled punk outfit who did their 1-2-3-4 intro counts in Punjabi, to a smooth, solidly produced modern-rock chart success. "Brimful of Asha," their 1997 single, made Cornershop huge but they still retained much of the iconoclastic attitude that got them there in the first place. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke compared their body of recorded work to "serendipity in overdrive: volatile, compelling collisions of primal guitar menace, rubbery `70s funk, budget-synth techno, ... hip-hop and Punjabi folk.... Cornershop make commercially improbable, dangerously messy music."
The creative force behind Cornershop rests in Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres, both near thirty when "Brimful of Asha" and their third album, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, met with tremendous critical and commericial success. The son of a teacher, Singh was born in England into an immigrant family that hailed from northern India, the state of Punjab. He grew up in the Staffordshire city of Wolverhampton, in England's center, which was perhaps an even worse place to be a foreigner than London, where Singh was assaulted on the street for having a non-Asian girlfriend as late as 1995. Singh described his youth in Wolverhampton as rife with racist incidents, and "pretty terrifying" in an interview with Rolling Stone's Jon Wiederhorn. "I've always lived in an intimidating rather than happy atmosphere. It's really fueled my aggression and given me a sense that I don't belong." That malaise would spark his musical drive.
As a teen, Singh had to attend temple services, where he played such traditional Indian instruments as the dholki, a type of drum. Wolverhampto's Punjabi community rented a house of worship, however, and they shared the place with another denomination whose sacred tunes leaned toward black gospel; the simultaneous auditory experience made a profound impact on him. In college in Preston, England, Singh became friends with Ayres, a Canadian by birth. By 1992, dissatisfied with what they felt was the feebleness of the British music scene, they decided to start their own band. For a time, Singh's brother Avtar was their guitarist; he later dropped out and in time, the rest of the line-up coalesced: Anthony Saffery on sitar, harmonium, and keyboards, percussionist Peter Bengry, and a drummer, Nick Simms. Ayres had to learn to play most instruments and not just the exotic ones like the tamboura, a string instrument; he later said that in the early years he played what he assumed was an acoustic guitar, only to discover it was actually a classical guitar. Singh used a range of instruments, from the dholki to a Casio keyboard he bought at a thrift store.
Though Cornershop was derided early on in the British music press for lack of ability, they improved considerably. Singh became proficient on an array of instruments, both eastern and western, and also produced the tracks he and Ayres wrote. As a live act, their sound was initially limited to the size of their mode of transport. "We couldn't afford to buy a van," Singh told Fricke in Rolling Stone, and thus only played what instruments they could fit in a car. But from the start, Singh used the band as a vehicle to address social issues. They took their name from the British slang term for the corner convenience store. "A lot of people think that all Asians do is run cornershops," Singh told Village Voice writer Jon Savage, "and that they're timid and they don't socialize. We want to destroy that stereotype."
Signed to the Wiiija label not long after their first performance, Cornershop achieved notoriety in England not just for their politically charged, anti-racist songs ("How Can Any Asian Vote Tory?") but for their concrete actions: they burned Morrissey posters onstage after the former Smiths' singer and cult idol emerged with a new look in the early 1990s sporting a shaved head and new album with songs construed by some as racist. Cornershop was particularly outraged about the tracks "Asian Rut" and "The National Front Disco." The band held a press conference in front of EMI Records denouncing the record and some recent remarks Morrissey had made in the media. However, Singh and Ayres were accused of trying to engineer publicity for themselves. Singh defended the acts of protest in the 1996 interview with Wiederhorn. "We felt it was required," Singh said, noting that in the eighties the gay, vegetarian Morrissey had had a profound impact on his fans' lifestyles regarding those choices. "Now he was ... [peddling] right-wing paraphernalia. Asians bear the brunt of racist hostilities in England, and we were very grieved by that."
Growing Cult Following
For several years, Singh didn't admit his real surname, in order to protect his family from violence. The anonymity grew increasingly difficult, however, as Cornershop found success both in an increasingly pancultural atmosphere in Britain, and a critic-driven fan base in North America. They released several EPs, and a debut LP, Hold On It Hurts, on Wiiija in 1994. The record attracted the attention of former Talking Head David Byrne and he signed them to his label, Luaka Bop, in 1995. A tour for their second full-length effort, Woman's Gotta Have It, marked their American debut in late 1995. Byrne also introduced them to mutual fan Allen Ginsberg, and with the famed Beat poet, Cornershop made an on the spot recording of Ginsberg reciting one of his poems to their music in his New York City kitchen.
Woman's Gotta Have It, recorded for around five thousand dollars, gave Cornershop a cult following among critics and eccentric alternative music fans inside the record industry and radio. Though not all reviewers found the album a solid, cohesive effort, most adored the front and end tracks that pay homage to Singh' s family's hometown in India, "6 a.m. Jullandere Shere" and "7:20 a.m. Jullandere Shere." Fricke, called them "long, droning beauties;"Village Voice reviewer Richard Gehr described them as "15 minutes of levitating Punjabi grunge." The record sold nearly 10,000 copies in the United States.
Catchy Tune Made Radio Impact
Iconoclastic execs at Luaka Bop decided to use Cornershop as an opening band for a diverse array of acts, from Stereolab to Oasis; they also played the 1996 Lollapalooza tour. With their third release, however, Cornershop became the headliner. Released in the late summer of 1997, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time and its first single, "Brimful of Asha," were instant modern-rock hits. The song was written by Singh in homage to the small Indian cinemas that once flourished in urban England's Indian neighborhoods; they played the "Bollywood" fare--action and romance movies from Bombay--that Singh remembered for their fantastic musical scores. Before the prevalence of VCRs shuttered the theaters, people used to dance in the aisles, he recalled in one interview. A singer named Asha Bhosle was one of the most popular soundtrack singers, and Singh and the other band members collect her old 45s and Bollywood singers from this era.
As "Brimful of Asha" became a radio hit, critics found effusive praise for When I Was Born. Billboard's Doug Reece wrote that with this record, Cornershop " cemented its reputation for creating brazenly eclectic tunes that are also extremely melodic," and termed Singh's voice "hypnotically soothing." The Village Voice's Savage wrote that "Singh's vocals have the insistent, distorted timbre of a muezzin or Indian Bollywood star." Wiederhorn, in the Rolling Stone piece, called the album "a sumptuous melting pot of politics, language and music." The music press also appreciated Cornershop's sly joke of including a cover of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," the 1960s Beatles track that introduced the sitar to popular rock music. Singh sings the entire song in Punjabi, an act that "brings pop colonialism full circle," remarked Rolling Stone critic Neva Chonin. "Even their covers are incendiary," she declared, and called When I Was Born "a cohesive, finely crafted LP in which the last album's low-fi funk expands into low, fat grooves."
Singh now travels everywhere with a portable DAT machine to make samples. To accompany the Ginsberg track, "When the Light Appears Boy"(on When I Was Born), he recorded a street band in India for some of the background. A second single, "Sleep on the Left Side," was released over the winter, but fared less well. He and Ayres have also formed a side project called Clinton. In late 1997, Ayres still had a job behind the scenes at London's Beggars Banquet Records, and bandmate Saffery was a social worker when not on tour. Singh noted in the Rolling Stone interview with Fricke that his full-time band duties meant he had to forgo a day job, but confessed that his parents were still in the dark about what he did. Traditional and religious, they still "think I work at Wiiija Records," he told Fricke. "I used to pick up my phone for two years, saying `Wiiija Records,' just in case it was my dad."
by Carol Brennan
Band formed, 1992, in Preston, England; signed with U.K. label Wiiija, late 1992; released several EPs, including Lock, Stock and Double-Barrel, 1993; released debut LP, Hold On It Hurts, 1994; signed to Luaka Bop Records, 1995; released woman's Gotta Have It, 1995; When I Was Born for the Seventh Time, 1997; made American performance debut, November, 1995; played Lollapalooza 1996; the single "Brimful of Asha" reached the Top Twenty on the modern-rock charts, 1998.As of late 1997, Ayres was still an inventory manager at London's Beggars Banquet Records; Saffery was a social worker in an eldercare facility.
- Selected discography
- Lock, Stock and Double-Barrel (EP) Wiiija, 1993.
- Hold On It Hurts , Wiiija, 1994.
- Woman's Gotta Have It , Luaka Bop, 1995.
- When I Was Born for the Seventh Time , Luaka Bop/Warner, 1997.
- Billboard, November 22, 1997, p. 103; February 7, 1998, p. 11.
- Rolling Stone, February 22, 1996, p. 32; August 21, 1997, p. 106; October 30, 1997; December 25, 1997, p. 168.
- Village Voice, November 21, 1995, p. 55; September 23, 1997, p. 69; November 4, 1997, p. 74.
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