Transcending boundaries since 1998

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

We usually start these interviews off with a small background introduction of the artist, but this week, it would simply be quite redundant considering there’s not a soul in the island who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of Bathiya and Santhush (BnS) – the one and only.

The wildly innovative musical act and now immensely successful brand has remained a household name since they first came out with their very first Album in 1998 “Vasanthaye”, which shook the Sri Lankan entertainment industry, breaking any and all sense of music conventionality for the time. They celebrated 20 years of Bathiya and Santhush (BNS) recently.

Apart from being two of the most innovative music personalities of this generation, BnS have transcended from a pop duo to two of the most successful entrepreneurs in the Lankan music industry, with their production group being one of the rare places that offers a 360 degree service in the entertainment industry.

Q. As it is in fact redundant to talk about how you got here, let’s get right to it. Celebrating 20 years in music, was it a happy coincidence that “Oba Nisa” came about in time for the milestone, especially considering that this is your longest break between albums?

Bathiya: The thing is that there was never a break. People may assume that due to the years between albums, but we have been performing all throughout. Since our last album, we’ve been doing the “Up Close and Personal” concert series up until last year.The reason why Up Close and Personal came about is also quite interesting, because “Sara Sihina” was one of our most successful tours, and what we noticed was that there were so many fans who attended that show repeatedly. But it came to a point where we simply couldn’t continue to give them the same content, and there was also a request from fans to have a more insightful look into our music and the composing process. So, we came up with Up Close and Personal, where we address the audience, and share anecdotes and insights into the music.

Santhush: As for the 20th year coinciding with the release of “Oba Nisa”, it was no coincidence. It was meticulously planned, and we actually had it ready almost two years prior, but we thought why not release it when we hit the two-decade mark.

B: Yes, but we were actually unable to release on the exact day of our anniversary, which was on 22 December, mostly because it’s really that mid break between Christmas and New Year’s and people are just far too occupied. We also got caught in between the political drama that transpired as well, and so we chose to go ahead with it in January, because the first two weeks tend to be pretty dry and we’ve experienced that off seasons work well for us.

Q. “Oba Nisa” is an interesting album. Would you say it differs from what we’ve come to know about BnS, and if so, was that just the natural progression of music or was it a conscious decision to appeal to a newer audience?

B: Over the years of performing, one thing we’ve noticed is that there are two kinds of concert goers: the ones who attend for that nostalgia of listening to music you grew up with, and then those who come for the contemporary tracks.
When we perform, we try to achieve a good balance between these two, performing older songs in the mix. But as of recent times, it’s been increasingly difficult; there are far too many songs and we’ve tried to be inclusive with mash ups, but it’s not possible or practical to include everything.

“Oba Nisa”, I think, achieves that perfect harmony; there’s something for everyone in it. There are those that evoke a nostalgia factor, and also very contemporary pieces with dub step, dance music, etc. like “Roo Sara”. We’ve had older fans tell us that there is that same vibe from back in the day and we think we’ve hit that sweet spot with this album.

S: I think the album still maintains that soulful sound people have come to associate with us; there’s that soulful flavour despite having many contemporary tracks, and they still hold on to that underlying element.

Q: What is your process like when it comes to putting together an album, in terms of how you decide which tracks make it on to the album and which are left out on the cutting room floor, and have you ever been surprised by the response to certain choices you’ve made? Also if you had to name some songs, what would you say are the most outstanding in Oba Nisa, and why?

S: When we compose music, the first step is always organic creation. We make music with passion, with the pure intention of creating good music and with a love for it. So thankfully, because that love and passion has remained the same, our sound has held on to that soulful quality, despite spanning varying genres.

All of the industry-related matters, the packaging, presumptions on would it be well-received, what should be the main single and all of that is decided after creating music. The process of releasing songs to the public is a very objectively handled process; the composing process is very emotional and passionate, whereas the technical aspect is looked at very logically.

We’ve certainly had some surprises where the two of us had absolutely loved a track and thought that “this is going to be the hit”, and have people not react to it as well as we’d thought or hoped.

B: We had a song “Kawada Ho” which was musically beautiful and the two of us were sure of it being received extremely well, but that was a real surprise.

S: Agreeably, that song was actually a moment where when the feedback wasn’t what we expected, but we still chose to leave it in the album because we loved it – we loved the musicality of it and we just decided to keep it. But every now and then, we’ve definitely had people come up to us and say that “Kawada Ho” is their favourite song and then we’re like “right? It’s so good”.

As for naming songs, we’ve had three songs come out particularly well from Oba Nisa: Ai Kale Adare, Roo Sara, and Mumunanawa. Roo Sara has a very contemporary vibe to it and Mumunanawa is a beautiful love song.

Q: As much as this is a commonly asked question, I’d like to know how the two of you have managed to hold on to this brand you’ve created for so long, remaining relevant? What is the secret behind your longevity?

B: If you take our partnership, it’s purely based on trust. We constantly have diverse opinions and very different views; 80% of the time it’s different, but the trust we have surpasses those differences. You know when the other man gives you his word, you just go ahead because you know they’ll take care of it. Yet at times, we take it for granted as well.

The other most important thing is change – if we take for an instance, when you reach the age of 30-35, it’s very easy to change because up till that time period, people are not yet set in their ways. But past that comes a time in your career where you have to consciously adapt to change.
You have to walk that thin line where you have a massive responsibility to fulfil for people who have been with you for the past 20 years, as well as for those whom you are going to walk with for the next 20 years. So, you have to consciously make a massive effort. It’s somewhat like training because it doesn’t really come naturally.

S: What’s also important is that when you work, you make decisions that are very rational whereas creative decisions tend to be very emotional. In that perspective, when you work with a group, you have to think to yourself “am I making this decision emotionally?” So, trust and integrity are the key elements that I would say one need in order to maintain a good, lasting partnership.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current music scene in Sri Lanka? There is an evident emergent trend of outrage marketing and banking on controversy to get views to garner popularity. What’s your opinion on these tendencies?

S: Musicians in Sri Lanka work in an environment where their creativities are not secured and intellectual property is not protected. If you go to Pettah, there are ample pirate copies, and with the digital evolution, it’s been even more difficult to control. It’s disheartening when you produce a great album, but the revenue mechanism is derailed because there is no regulation.

My take on the emergent trends – the “controversial” ones as you said – is that if there are no laws against putting a certain product out there, such creations cannot be stopped. But as artists, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves important questions: will I share this with my son and is it right to do that? Am I exposing this to the correct market?

People, of course, have the right to say what they want and express it as they wish, but it is up to society to react accordingly. Somehow, if Sri Lanka is able to provide that protection, to nurture the creativity of its artists, then that creativity will surpass these kinds of things. Even in the West, there is a lot of garbage that comes out, but if there is an abundance of creative work out there, people will consume that instead of being drawn to these other products.

However, suppressing these creations is not the answer; there has to be an infrastructure in place to nurture the art to allow for it to prosper.

Q: What would you say to the fresh talent coming into our music industry, and if you could name, who are some of the up and coming artists who have really caught your eye?

B: I think everybody starts off in their personal pace and that’s fine. But one thing I do have to say is that one should not get into this YouTube cover trap. It’s good to do covers – that’s how you learn, but some people get completely carried away with the views and the YouTube fame.
When you do it up to a certain point and go out to compose your own music, leveraging that fame, it would work. But if you do it for too long, you could surpass a certain point where you eventually come out with your own music, but people still request for covers.

It is dangerous that a lot of young people get caught to it, because they want to grow their social media and such, but if you take these hundreds and thousands of cover artists in the world, there’s only about one or two who really come out of it. Despite having one million views that doesn’t put you on the map, you need to be careful not to fade away.

Q: Finally, in a country where your brand is a household name, revered as pretty much “legendary”, what does it really feel like to be “BnS”?

B: That for us is very simple – we have not felt that. We feel very humbled that anybody who would say as such, but we’ve never felt that. We’ve always been very apologetic and just continued to one-up ourselves.

S: True, we don’t actually believe that. We’ve tried to always remain grounded, and you know it’s a rollercoaster; we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs and we’ve just trudged through.

And the biggest reason behind our drive and how we keep ourselves going is that feeling that we’ve got so much more to do – that nagging feeling that we’ve only just started. There’s just so much more to be done.