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POP MUSIC

The Breakthrough Break?

A tour with Oasis gives Cornershop an opportunity to widely display its diverse, intoxicating musical mix.

January 25, 1998|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

In the bustling chat room of the Cornershop Web site, fans of the English band are vehemently taking sides on the big issue: Is it a good idea to be touring the U.S. as Oasis' opening act?

Supporters cite the importance of exposure for a band on the brink of discovery, but most of the correspondents are worried. About being heckled by Oasis' mainstream audience. About the size of the big halls. About some kind of loss of integrity.

Tjinder Singh, Cornershop's leader, will have none of that.

"If anyone thinks that we shouldn't be doing it, well, we'd be saddened to hear that," he says. "On any grounds I think we should be doing it. If any groups need a helping hand, then I think it's a group like us that has struggled absolutely for five [expletive] years--no money, no organization, having to organize ourselves and doing it right from scratch. So we've got zero tolerance with people that say we shouldn't be doing it."

It doesn't take much to set Singh off. As warm and embracing as his music can be, as close as the band is to a breakthrough, he's still a thorny one, bruised and worn from the campaign that has brought the London-based group to this plateau--and from a lifetime of feeling like an outsider.

"Like he says in one of his songs, he's kind of a walking contradiction or puzzle or paradox," says musician David Byrne, who owns Luaka Bop Records, the Warner-distributed label that releases Cornershop's music. "I think a lot of his makeup is [from] not being accepted by either parts of his family to maybe parts of the music communities in England."

That makes the current swell of attention all the sweeter. Cornershop's intoxicating, eccentric blend of Indian instruments, rock dynamics, pop hooks, hip-hop beats and sampled collages has always had a cult following and critical interest, but things have picked up markedly since the release last September of the band's third U.S. album, "When I Was Born for the 7th Time."

The collection, which ranges from tracks produced by San Francisco hip-hop figure the Automator to a poem read by the late Allen Ginsberg to a Punjabi rendition of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," earned rave reviews and battled the likes of Bob Dylan and Radiohead in year-end critics polls--it was even named the year's best album by Spin magazine. Its sales of about 90,000 are less impressive, but the debated Oasis tour--which comes to the Universal Amphitheatre on Tuesday and Wednesday--gives Cornershop a further chance to secure its foothold.

"Well, it's very overwhelming for us," says Singh, 29. "It's very good that people actually care to listen to the songs. It's very good that we're in year-end polls with the likes of nonsense like the Verve and Radiohead. It was exactly those sort of groups that we were not too happy with when we first started."

Singh's parents emigrated from Punjab to England's Midlands, where he was born and raised in Wolverhampton, with a foot in both cultures. Sort of.

"I think it's also an element of growing up outside those two cultures as well." he says. "I don't consider myself either one of those. But that was a good thing. It meant that I was a lot more open about things.

"It was rough. . . . There was [racism]. But I did a lot of other things that helped me have a wider view of some things early on. Like playing on the chess team, traveling a lot with them. . . . My [friends] were pretty mixed, in the main nationalities that you get in England--African, Caribbean, Asian [Indian], English. . . . I quite liked that. I used to tend to get to know everyone."

Singh enjoyed Punjabi folk music and later picked up on American R&B, but he didn't get active in music until he went to Preston University in Manchester, where he and his brother Avtar formed a group called General Havoc with Ben Ayres and Dave Chambers. It evolved into Cornershop--a name intended as an ironic comment on the English stereotype of its Indian population as shopkeepers. Ayres is still there as second in command, with the current lineup filled out by another longtime member, sitarist-keyboardist Anthony Saffery, along with percussionist Peter Bengry and drummer Nick Simms.

The original sound--and attitude--was abrasive, a blend of feedback and sitar. More a social pastime than a career vehicle, Cornershop played clubs in the north, but once the band moved south and saw that people were fascinated by its unusual blend, the members got more serious.

They recorded a series of singles and EPs for the English independent Wiiija Records, which licensed the group's first album, "Hold On It Hurts" to the U.S. independent Merge in 1995. When Wiiija shopped the group's second album, "Woman's Gotta Have It," to U.S. companies, Byrne bit and released it on Luaka Bop that year. Sales were minimal, but the critical groundswell got started, with raves in several major dailies and Rolling Stone.

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