Hoirong's new album is a heartfelt homage to the late Daniel Johnston; frontman Kamal Singh tells us more
We speak to the lead singer of the band about how he discovered the cult artiste and why his music resonates with him so much
The first Daniel Johnston song Kamal Singh heard was the 1983 number Casper the Friendly Ghost. “This was in the mid ‘90s. It was on a mixtape that I got through some friends in Kodai International School,” says Kamal, who is the lead singer of the band Hoirong. When Johnston, the iconic musician died in 2019, the music fraternity across the globe felt a deep loss. Almost a year later Hoirong releases a 12-track tribute album to the legendary artiste, titled Into The Sunset And Back.
Hoirong, which was formed in 2013 as Kamal’s solo lo-fi project, now consists of bassist Avinash Manoli, guitarist Akhil Sood, and drummer Akshat Nauriyal. While terms like punk, art-rock, noise, and post-rock can be used to define the band’s music, it's the heavy dose of irony that its songs are peppered with, that is its essence. With albums such as Mwah (2016) and the tongue-in-cheek Cow Gives Milk (2019), the band has created its own eccentric and left-field niche, as well as a cult-like following. So perhaps it is fitting that its new offering is a tribute to Johnston, an artiste known for his raw and radical outlook.
American singer-songwriter and visual artist Johnston, over his four decade long career brought out albums such as Yip/Jump Music (1983), Continued Story with Texas Instruments (1985) and Rejected Unknown (2001). The artiste also spent time in psychiatric institutions for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But it is his childlike and unfiltered approach to music, as well as visual arts, that made him a cult figure.
And that’s exactly what impressed Kamal too. “I first thought it was sung by one of the kids from the school, but it was too intelligent to be so. I’ve been a fan since then. And have been fascinated by his stories and music,” says Kamal who also used to front Bengaluru-based post-rock outfit Lounge Piranha.
“I think my fascination with him starts with the humour. And the madness follows, and I don't mean madness like his mental illness, but more like his eccentricity. It reminds me of my childhood and my friends in school. We wrote songs like White Saree, about a ghost who walks around in the night and Tea Bush, about the tea estates in Kotagiri. But ultimately it becomes admiration for his work — his sense of melody and his amazing lyrics,” Kamal tells us. The new album Into The Sunset And Back features tracks such as Don't Play Cards With Satan, Some Things Last A Long Time and Peek A Boo. The songs are covers of Johnston’s originals.
“I think covering Daniel’s songs is like the opposite of everything else. He presents his songs with so many barriers that regular music does not, which is why he remained obscure - he wanted to be famous but he could not be. Even though he should be. You have to ignore the presentation to see, or even understand, what he is doing. I think I intentionally tried to make it easier to listen to by working around some of the barriers that I struggled with. (Which is funny because I've been told so many times that Hoirong is hard to listen to),” Kamal reveals.
Although it was recorded in a hurry and during the lockdown, the album stands out for its decidedly rock foundation, with Kamal’s vocals shining through. When asked whether the songs have been given a Hoirong spin, Kamal says, “Not much actually. Normally we would totally eat up a song we cover, but we tried to stay true to the song, and not change or add much — what is there to even add even! This was done with lots of respect,” he says, adding the band felt a sort of allegiance to the late artiste. Into The Sunset And Back is clearly the band’s heartfelt homage to an artiste that resonated with the members for more reasons than one.
Listen to the album on Hoirong's Bandcamp page