UTG INTERVIEW: Ajay Mathur Discusses ‘9 To 3’

“Music may not change the world or a system, but it does help to make us dream, give us hope, make us feel strong and even loved.”

Switzerland-based singer-songwriter Ajay Mathur released his newest album, titled 9 To 3, earlier this year. With 15 tracks of rock, spanning nearly every corner of the genre’s spectrum, there’s a lot to take in and at least something for everyone.

We had the chance to speak with Mathur about the record and went further to discuss his musical background, his various influences and the importance of his lyrical themes. Read through our conversation below and stream 9 To 3 at the end once you’ve finished.

To begin, can you tell me a bit about where your love for music began? Did you grow up around it?

I grew up in a family of musicians and artists. From my father’s side, there were some successful musicians who have made a name in the Bollywood circuit and in the Indian classical music scene. I think it’s in my genes…

And what specifically made you want to become a musician? Do you remember an exact moment when it clicked for you that that’s something you wanted to pursue?

My affection for rock music started in my early teens, probably as a mixture of rebellion and fascination for the new music that was popping up all over the place. I got a cheesy, pink acoustic guitar from my cousin and with the first three chords that I picked up, I was hooked. Next, I found out I was able to sing while I was playing. I felt liberated. At some point I played on stage as a guest guitarist at an open air festival. That is where the rock virus really infected me and I became serious about making music. It wasn’t long [before] I started my own band; a trio. We found gigs pretty fast at some of the music clubs and the college festival circuit. At the time, I was also a student of English literature at university. The great part of all that was how the gigs went all night long and people just got on the stage and jammed. Some of them were locals, but others were established rock musicians from outside India who were on tour in search of enlightenment. They all inspired me.

The Facebook page I was linked to for your music is named A Matter Of Time. Is this a separate project from your solo work or the actual name of the band you released your most recent album as?

That my Facebook page is named A Matter Of Time was an accident [laughs]. When my album A Matter of Time was released, a friend of mine started the page and named it after the album. I don’t know, maybe he thought I’d never make another album. I guess he didn’t realize that you can’t change the page name after a certain number of ‘likes’ or something. Even though it is pretty much a given that everyone has a Facebook page these days, I find that the exposure is limited there and I have much more direct, frequent and interactive communication with my fans who’ve subscribed to my website.

Who are some artists who you feel might have helped inspire the sound you’ve taken on with your most recent output?

I guess if I had to name a few, they would be really excellent songwriters like Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jonathan Wilson, Adele, John Mayer, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy–just to name a few. The musical craftsmanship of musicians like The Beatles, Jack White, Steely Dan, Derek Trucks, Alabama Shakes, Grateful Dead, Gary Clark Jr., Jimi Hendrix and many others have had a strong influence on me. I certainly can’t claim that I’ve taken on the sound of these amazingly creative artists, but they have definitely left their mark on my life and on my music.

How would you say 9 to 3 differs from your earlier works? Is there anything specifically you set out to do differently this time in terms of writing or recording the album?

There are a few notable differences between my earlier albums and 9 to 3. First, during the three years since my last album release, I stacked up a far bigger selection of songs to choose from than in my earlier albums. I worked on each song individually as if it were the only song on the album, like a one-off single. On 9 to 3 I wanted to have a broad selection of songs, each with its own atmosphere and sound. Each song on 9 to 3 is a world of its own.

Secondly, the way I recorded 9 to 3 was quite different from my previous work. The basic tracks for each song were recorded live in the studio with my band; Fausto Medici from Italy on drums and the exceptional Swiss musicians Christian Winiker on guitar and Richard Hugener on bass. This live approach added the extra surge of energy to the tracks. The overdubs were also recorded as complete tracks from the beginning to the end. For example, the guitar fills and solos were recorded in the same take. This was a new and exciting experience for my band members and the guest musicians who worked with us.

Finally, on 9 to 3 I experimented a lot with different instruments and sounds, some of which are unusual for rock and pop music. For example, on “Oh Angel” I combined a sitar with a classical harp. I introduced tablas to the grunge tune “Nothing Really Matters,” giving it an additional layer. “My World (SOS to the Universe)” has a 25-piece school choir with kids between the ages of 7 to 13 singing with me and the song ends with a poem rendered by Mary Lou von Wyl.

Can you tell me a bit about the lyrical themes on this album and what you hope listeners might get from your messages?

The lyrics are the crown jewels of my music and clearly play an important role. I write most of them myself, but for some of my songs, I collaborate with Mary Lou von Wyl, a very talented and creative writer. The lyrical themes span from personal, circumstantial or cynically narcissistic to social, political and environmental. “Sitting By Your Cradle” for example, talks about most people’s daily grind–the struggle for money–while their lives and loved ones just pass by unnoticed. “Latin Lover” celebrates life full of passion and fun, living it up as if ‘fun is going out of fashion.’ “Nothing Really Matters” is about love lost, betrayal and the blame game.

In my opinion, the combination of music and message play a huge role when it comes to opening up new perspectives in the minds of listeners. Music may not change the world or a system, but it does help to make us dream, give us hope, make us feel strong and even loved. Music can evoke powerful emotions in people. I am a part of the society we live in and everything that happens in this society affects me and my creativity, directly or indirectly. I’m not shy about writing and singing about what’s going on around me or inside me. My music, especially the lyrics, reflects that. “View From The Top” is about social struggle and growing mistrust in the status quo. A cry for help rings out of “My World (SOS to the Universe)” where we attempt an escape into the unreal virtual world of cyber space as fading ethical, ecological and emotional realities become unbearable.

15 tracks is clearly a lot. Were there other songs that you cut from the album or did you specifically write and record 15 for it?

Both my albums–9 to 3 and the previous one–feature 15 songs. As I previously mentioned, I had a far bigger selection of songs this time to choose from, 26 to be exact. Although I had been quite ruthless in getting rid of songs during the selection process, yet I felt that 15 is a good number. Of course I could have brought it down to 12 or even 10, but hey, people who download my album deserve the extra couple of tracks of good songs. I don’t intend to be miserly about that.

At first glance the album’s artwork looks like an actual photo with paint around it but I realized that the entire thing is a painting. Who did the work on that and where’d that idea come from?

I’m happy you noticed. It’s an oil painting on a 50×50 centimeter metal plate. Tirza Matter, a young and extremely talented artist did the painting. I always wanted to have a painting as album artwork as a kind of a glimpse of my artist past. I was a passionate painter myself during my school days. So instead of a microphone or a guitar, I’m holding an artist’s brush. I believe that a good painting tells stories that evolve and change as you look at it from time to time. The same happened with my cover art. Initially I felt that in the painting I’m using the brush and red paint to cover-up the space. But now when I look at the painting, I’m certain that I’m cleaning off the red paint using the brush. The painting seems to be opening up, bringing out more and more of me every time I look at it. It’s phenomenal how my perception of the artwork changed from when I was still working on the album to the sense of clarity that I get looking at the painting now.

9 to 3 has been getting a lot of positive attention in reviews and such. How has it felt knowing your music is reaching people in these ways?

It feels really good! I’m very happy and grateful for the positive reviews I’m getting. I’m also getting a lot of e-mails from fans telling me how they love a song or how my music makes them feel good. I even get emails about very personal situations and how my music has helped them. I reply to each and every e-mail personally of course. This is exactly what makes writing, recording and releasing songs worthwhile for me and fills me with joy to hear directly from listeners about how my music makes a difference in their lives.

As the album’s been out for a couple months now, what have you been focusing on since its release?

I’m playing live, jamming, writing and recording new songs. I’m in an extremely creative phase right now and I’m keeping busy promoting my album.

As for the foreseeable future, any other goals or plans you’re looking forward to? Anything you’d like to mention that we didn’t discuss?

One of my goals for the foreseeable future is to play a live tour in the USA and Canada. I have an excellent band and I’m sure we’ll rock. I am also working with a promoter organizing a club tour of major Indian cities for early 2016. I’d love to open for one of the favourite songwriters I mentioned earlier. That would be a dream come true.

Brian Leak
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