Remember last November, that initial bitter cold attack of winter? That was about the time the members of Milwaukee’s Painted Caves hopped on a plane, flew to India, and headlined an outdoor music festival in the picturesque, historic Lodi Gardens of New Delhi. Feel free to call them a bunch of bastards. Wait, no, don’t do that.
Fans of Painted Caves might be pining for some new music from the band. The group released a lone, self-titled album in 2012, but you’ll still hear songs from that album like “Paper Tigers: Ballad Of The Office Worker” and “The Ocean” getting airplay on local non-commercial radio stations to this day. Considering the fact that Painted Caves don’t fit snugly into a specific genre, and given the decreasing attention span of the average music fan, this longevity is something of a triumph, regardless of what tier of fame the band happens to be on.
Painted Caves haven’t been idle by any stretch, though, and hometown fans will have their first chance in many months to see them live on Saturday, February 7, at a free 11 a.m. show at the Milwaukee Art Museum. They’ve played midday shows here several times already, but singer/songwriter Ali Lubbad hints that he’ll be unveiling new material that the band has so far only played in India.
“I wrote material to go over and play at the festival that I’d never played before. I played it at the festival, and it really was well received,” Lubbad says. “We played two nights. The second night we headlined, and the first night, after we played, a kid came up to me—a young man, I should say—who was really affected by it. I can’t remember his exact words, but basically he was really blown away and loved this particular song, ‘Reincarnation.’”
That festival was the third-annual Amarrass Music Festival, put on by New Delhi world music label Amarrass Records, who are set to re-release the Painted Caves LP in March. As Lubbad discovered, it’s not exactly common practice for Amarrass to release new music by American artists. “The label owners are kind of these [Alan] Lomax-like characters that would go around India with their field recording equipment,” he says, “and I think that’s where they found a few of their artists, going out into Rajasthan, into villages, and asking for singers, or seeking out one person that they’d heard on an old record from the ’60s, and then finding out maybe they’re not around any more, but listen to this kid!”
The label happens to have its U.S. headquarters in Madison, which allowed for a serendipitous encounter in July of 2013. “We played the La Fête de Marquette Festival in Madison a couple years ago,” Lubbad says, “and I met one of the label owners [Ankur Malhotra] right after we had played. He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I missed you, it sounded really interesting.’ And I said, ‘Well, here’s a CD!’”
It may have seemed like an empty music-biz platitude at the time, but the band’s infectious blend of danceable pop and Middle-eastern folk wormed its way into Malhotra’s brain. “Almost a year later he contacted me, saying he had found himself listening to the CD for the last year pretty constantly, and that he really wanted to bring us to India,” Lubbad says. “I kind of thought, ‘Yeah, right, sure.’ But then I realized he was really serious.”
So, after the requisite bureaucratic hurdles, the band procured the necessary visas and flew to New Delhi to perform with various musicians from all over the musical spectrum. As one might expect, it wasn’t exactly the type of festival atmosphere audiences have come to know and scoff at in the U.S. “It’s hard to compare it to what a festival would be here, because a lot of the people that came were either musicians themselves, or they were music lovers to the degree that they were very serious about music,” Lubbad says. “It wasn’t like a festival here, where it’s young kids who want to have a good time, or people who want to let go and be in a totally different environment than the normal, nine-to-five working world. There’s a level of seriousness there.”
There are also no 15th-century Muslim tombs gracing your typical American bacchanalia. Lodi Gardens is one of the few places in India to boast well-preserved architecture from this particular historical era, making it a popular destination. “There are old Mughal ruins there,” Lubbad says, “and in the corner of this really big park is this restaurant, which is weird but very cool, with torches outside. A really beautiful, lush garden setting. They’ve been putting musical events on there, and started this whole festival thing. They’ve had Vieux Farka Touré and Bombino and some Turkish bands like BaBa Zulu. Some very interesting players.”
This year’s festival attracted musicians from Colombia, Mali, Brazil, and all across India, and the spirit of collaboration was much more prevalent than Lubbad had expected. “None of us could really speak a common language, but the music was the common thread,” he says. “Every day we’d wake up and meet on this terrace and we’d play, and different configurations would come out of it. It felt in a way, for me, like being at this incredible summer camp or something, where I got to do all these things that I really would’ve loved to do but I couldn’t find the time to do. There, you had all day to just play music and really immerse yourself.
“There were these moments where I was playing my Silvertone electric guitar between a kora player and a guy who plays the sārangī, who both have been playing since they were tiny little kids. Playing my songs with the two of them was such a huge honor, very unexpected. Because I’m a self-taught musician, and some of the players I went with, like Mike Kashou or Matt Wilson, who have a lot more musical knowledge than I do, I expected it for them, but not myself.”
In the spirit of the Amarrass mission, one of the most important features of the festival was to showcase traditional Indian music made by unknown, rural artists that the organizers had discovered during their travels. “These guys who have this label are like this rebel alliance,” Lubbad says. “What they’re trying to do is to help India appreciate and value music that is absolutely homegrown, Indian folk music that is being cast away for new, digitized, pitch-correction stuff that’s trying to emulate Western music. Or maybe not trying to emulate it, but definitely from a production side, it’s this super gloss-finish, pro-production stuff with models singing and dancing, like a Bollywood movie. And [Amarrass] is trying to take what is the organic, ‘free-range’ Indian music, and help people understand that it’s valuable.”
The trip may have had an even more profound effect on Lubbad than he could’ve anticipated. “I think I was a little insecure about some things, about playing music and not having any kind of training,” he admits. “In the punk rock tradition, that really is an asset, not to know how to sing, or to just teach yourself three chords, and I always believed in that to a certain degree. But as I traveled out of that into this particular music I’m trying to make, where there’s a lot more trained people, I always kind of wondered, ‘Is it okay that I’m just playing whatever my imagination thinks up? Is that okay?’ And I think taking this trip made me feel like it is okay, that you can trust your instincts. Having the ability to communicate with these master players and play and really enjoy ourselves, it’s really just about expressing what’s in your heart. If you can do that, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what discipline or style of music you play, that’s the goal of music, to be generous and to share what’s in your heart.”
It’s a positive lesson to bring back, but returning from a life-altering trip like this can also be a rude wakeup call, and not just in terms of the weather. Painted Caves may be yet another Milwaukee band that finds much more recognition outside the U.S. than right here in their hometown. “You know, you can imagine coming back from India, this wonderful atmosphere, and I come back here, and…I have to make my own shows, is what it comes down to,” Lubbad says. “I come back to this reality where, I wouldn’t say it’s no support, but it can be difficult. But the truth is it’s got to be done, just like those dudes driving around India with their two-track recorder. It’s got to be done because it’s the right thing to do, to put something beautiful in the world, because doing your best work is important regardless of who’s watching.”