Rex Vijayan broke the conventional Malayalam music scene with his eclectic fusion of hard rock, metal and guitar sounds. There is nothing predictable about Rex's music; it keeps surprising you by its sheer audacity to sound different every single time. No wonder that he collaborates only with those directors who prefer to take the unconventional route, much like him. From Bridge to the addictive Mayaanadhi, Rex Vijayan is a true-blue breakthrough artiste in Indian film music.
A musical history
Van Halen’s Jump was a ground-breaking moment in Rex Vijayan’s life. He was just 8 years old and the guitar, screeching and acoustics blew him away. Since then he has been a hardcore rock music fan. “I was always enthralled by any music that didn’t sound regular. The more it swerved into the anomalous zone the better.” Being the son of Malayalam music director Albert Vijayan, the conversion to music came organically; it was almost as easy as breathing. “Our home was always filled with music, either dad will be composing, or songs will be playing all day along.”
When he was in the 4th grade, he switched to heavy metal and AC/DC (Australian hard rock band). All this while, Rex recalls how the “regular film and other mainstream pop music like Abba, Boney M and Michael Jackson” flowed in the background.
Rex wasn’t interested in listening to what everyone heard. And his father nudged him to explore the world of music. The training in classical music failed on the young Rex. And neither was he academically bright. “I was too lazy and impatient. I wanted to make music and get immediate reactions.” After pre-degree Rex decided to plunge wholeheartedly into music. His parents had no choice but to fall in line with his plans.
Avial and jamming sessions at Papaya
By the age of 18, he joined the progressive rock band Mother Jane as a guitarist. In hindsight, what really helped him was his dad’s recording sessions, being part of the orchestra. “Notations will be there, and I would improvise. I might not be reading what is required but somehow it will fall in sync. The ability to improvise, comes from listening to music.”
Avial really evolved out of Jigsaw Puzzle, founded by John P Varkey. “They came up with this ingenious idea of blending Malayalam folk with hard rock but somehow it didn’t get an audience it deserved.” It was Rex who suggested a collaboration to John. In 2003 with lead vocalist Anandraj Benjamin Paul, turntablist and backing vocalist Tony John, guitarist Rex Vijayan, bassist Naresh Kamath and drummer Mithun Puthanveetil, Avial was born. Their first single ‘Nada Nada’ was well received on YouTube.
From Bridge to Mayaanadhi
Rex says Avial eventually paved the way for his foray into Malayalam film music. He got acquainted with a lot of cinema guys during his jamming sessions at Papaya Media with Ajay Menon. Most of the directors who sought him out were choosy about their music. And that helped. Rex Vijayan is also one of the first non-mainstream music directors in Malayalam cinema. Bridge, which was one of the stories in the anthology film Kerala Café was his first independent work. He recalls how two of his albums came during the same time and created ripples—Aana Kallan where Aashiq Abu wanted a closing soundtrack for Salt N’ Pepper and Chappa Kurishu, where Sameer Thahir asked him to do an entire album. It was Sameer Thahir’s travel movie, Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (2013) in which he composed 6 tracks including a traditional Bengali baul song that gave him his first break in Malayalam cinema. “The music connected with non-Keralites too.”
Most directors, he says, sit down for detailed story narration and briefings. And during most instances, Rex doesn’t fully get what they want, but somehow things just work out. “”I am a bit dense in that area.” Once, for NPCB, he composed a song that was completely out of context. Later, it was used as the title track in North24 Kaatham. “I think sometimes that’s also fun. To compose a song not related to the story and yet fuse it in the film. Like they do in Hollywood. It’s like stepping out of the traditional process of film music composition. It’s challenging.”
Rex prefers working after midnight—that’s the time when he makes the “right decisions” in the backdrop of silence. He loves those songs which work more as a soundtrack than a typical film song, like the one he composed for 22 Female Kottayam—‘chillane’.”
In Parava, he says for the PyaarPyaar song, blending in the DDLG track in a child’s voice was Soubin Shahir’s idea. “Since it was about an adolescent boy’s crush, he wanted it to sound exactly like that and not like an adult love song. It’s a very sensitively done song.”
To sync with the director’s soundscape and preferred genres while also bringing in one’s own sounds, helps in the process of composition immensely. Rex says a lot of inspiration in designing songs for Parava came from the sets—“Just witnessing their friendship was such a gratifying experience. It gave me lot of ideas. Not that there were mind-boggling cinematic discussions, but those little conversations were enough to get inspired.”
Mayaanadhi and the magical voice of Shahabaz
Shahabaz Aman was Aashiq Abu’s idea. Since ghazal wasn’t his forte, the voice never crossed his mind. And Aashiq wanted his sound and ghazal—such a fusion deemed the presence of the maestro himself. “He has an international voice. It’s like being transported directly from Kerala to Glastonbury festival. That’s the best way to describe his voice. It contains everything—pathos, romance, happiness, energy.” Rex was floored by the man in their first meeting and admits they composed a song within 30 minutes.
“He is very positive. He is the best of the ones I have collaborated with—so transparent. Just music fills his world. And lots of comedy.”
Lyrics for Mayaanadhi came later, much after the song was arranged. And he is only fine this way. Unless there is lip sync or video sync involved, there isn’t a need for the lyrics to come first. Besides that’s also a traditional song format.
Mayaanadhi for all its rich melodious songs was a breeze when it comes to making it, says Rex. Uyirinnadhiye, a simple melody with a trance mood was done before the shoot.
I bring up the soft conversational vocals of Neha Nair that hit the right notes and he admits, she has a very distinct voice. Being a composer herself (IyobintePusthakam), Rex says, her inputs were helpful during the sessions of Parava and Mayaanadhi.
Rex isn’t about using only established voices. In fact he is known to have introduced a gamut of new/original voices into Malayalam film music—“as long as they get the mood and vibe right, everything is perfect. Most times I use the same voices who sang the tracks for the final songs.”
One cardinal rule: he will run a mile away if his music is being played anywhere. Otherwise music keeps seeping in everywhere he goes—and for some reason he loves checking out others playlists. “As long as it doesn’t sound normal, I am in.” He is a fan of Kailash Kher’s band Kailasa, Pentagram, Djent and Vishal-Shekhar (loved the Tiger Zinda Hai track recently). “I love to listen to completely disconnected genres. I can listen to one song all day and night if I liked it.”
And what’s up apart from Sudani from Nigeria? “Oh no, I can only take one film at a time. I am not that ambitious.”
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Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...