Chennai, capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu on India’s southeastern coastline, is home to the five men who make up The F16s. Billing themselves as a “Madras/Bangalore-based Dance/Punk band with a penchant for the weird,” the group has been recording and performing for about six years. There are many indie musicians in India, but few who write in English. And fewer still who present such an odd view of the world in their songs.
On the band’s first EP, Kaleidoscope (2013), “My Shallow Lover” is a good song to plunge in with. You get the ska-inspired guitar sound, somehow simultaneously frantic and laid back; it’s no accident that the other, more famous band named after a type of military jet is the B-52’s (and plenty of folks have also made the obvious comparison with Vampire Weekend).
And then there are the bizarre, flippant lyrics with the twisted sense of humor, in this case expressing how ridiculous love is when jealousy makes it self-destruct: “I wear an ego and he’s wearing Speedos. / Should I laugh or cry?” Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter: “I don’t give a f*** about who you love…’cause I’m more important than you.”
This early recording also includes some more serious, philosophical material in “Avalanche.” However, the lyrics, full of vague metaphors about being overwhelmed (“We try to paint the ceiling, but my walls are falling down”) are the less important element of this song compared to how it demonstrates the strength of the band’s individual musicians.
Those musicians are the laconic, deadpan, shades-wearing Josh Fernandez on vocals and guitar, and his cohorts: Shashank Manohar on bass, Harshan Radhakrishnan on keyboards, Vikram Yesudas on drums, and Abhinav Krishnaswamy on guitar. All of them have impressive resumes in the Chennai indie scene. It’s also clear that they work well together to develop interesting arrangements. I especially like the interplay between the two guitars on this track.
The F16s' early tracks seem to specialize in frustrating conventional expectations (a compliment, in my opinion). On the 2014 EP Nobody’s Gonna Wait, the song “Jacuzzi” is as baffling rhythmically as it is lyrically. The intro beat is so obscured by layers of syncopation that it feels like polymeter (more than one time signature simultaneously). Once Fernandez’s vocal begins, the meter straightens out, but then there is the meaning to contend with.
The lyrics evoke a nebulous feeling and flashes of imagery, nothing more concrete. That’s characteristic of The F16s. Although the musical style is very different, I’m reminded of REM’s lyrics, which often mean absolutely nothing when you just look at them on a page, but take on an indefinable but important meaning when they’re sung. Here’s “Jacuzzi” with the lyrics included in the video:
As determined as they are to be original, The F16s couldn’t resist some standard pop influences in the frustrating-love-affair song “Blackboard.” The simple repetitive melody with short, unresolved phrases is accompanied by non-threatening guitar patterns and a steady beat. They seem to be channeling Coldplay tracks from 15 years ago.
The F16s' first and only full album is Triggerpunkte, which came out in 2016. Triggerpunkte boasts the engineering talents of Christian Wright of the famed Abbey Road Studios. But it’s more than the mixing that makes this album the group’s most accessible work yet, thanks to some new musical influences.
Keyboardist Radhakrishnan has said in interviews that the album’s title refers to how emotions can be triggered in humans. To that end, the music is more sensitive than their earlier efforts. “Moon Child,” in a relaxed island style, lets Fernandez show off his vocal range (both in terms of pitch and expression) more than usual. The two acoustic guitars make the texture pleasingly translucent, a nice change of pace.
That’s not to say the F16s have lost all their strangeness, either rhythmically or lyrically. It’s just more subtle now. “Cannibal Life II” has an off-kilter R&B vibe. What should be smooth as a Seal track gets a hyper undertone from techniques like out-of-sync synths, staggering drum beats, and tremolo electric guitar. The lyrics are hard to understand (and have not been posted online, unlike for their earlier tracks), but snippets like “It’s quarter past three in the morning / it’s quarter past three in my brain” indicate that Fernandez is singing about the dodgy, exhausting existence of a working musician.
And they’ve finally created a solid attempt at a pop hit that doesn’t sound retro. The single “You Could Use Me As a Weapon” -- lyricist Fernandez calls it “vague interpretations of love, romance, and melancholy…just a song about how the youth feel” – has that combination of vocal angst and constant motion in the accompaniment that really sells these days. Judging by the band’s current tour schedule, it’s caught the public’s attention.
As they’ve grown older and more popular, The F16’s have started to sound less indie, even if their status has not technically changed. It’s a danger of success: you taste a little sweet approval and begin to craft your music specifically to repeat the experience. I’m hoping their second album, whenever that shows up, goes back to celebrating their “penchant for the weird.”