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In Conversation With Tjinder Singh Frontman for ’90s Rock Band Cornershop Celebrating 30 Years in Music

8 min read

From working as a bartender to forming one of the most iconic bands Cornershop in the ’90s, Tjinder Singh is a pioneer in his own right. Tjinder Singh first formed a band at University under the name The General Havoc in 1988. In 1991 Tjinder Singh formed the band Cornershop after unmitigated racist attacks whilst he was working for the students union as an Entertainment Officer. Cornershop has spanned eight albums throughout the years. Cornershop and Tjinder Singh have received cosigns from Paul McCartney and Yoko-Ono for their cover of “Norwegian Wood” in Punjabi sung by Tjinder Singh. The band’s song “Brimful of Asha” was number 54 on the UK Singles Chart and the remixed version by Norman Cook went to number 1 on the U.K. chart and number 16 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The group can be described as an indie rock band that merges multiple genres. Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh has predominantly toured Europe and America and produces music on their own schedule. Continue reading to learn about the incredible individual Tjinder Singh’s creative journey!

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We would love to learn more about the different times of the South Asian music scene happening in the U.K. during the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, and what types of music influenced you early on.

In the ’70s I mainly listened to Sikh devotional music and Punjabi folk music. My father became the stage secretary and general manager of the local Sikh temple and I played dholki there from time to time.

In the ’80s Temple procedures became stricter as more right wing elements of the community decided it was religious to bully temple goers to augment their bullying through their day jobs. CVs were vital and fil-o-faxes were very thick.

So for Wedding receptions musicians suddenly found themselves having to omit the Temple ceremony and go straight to the reception hall. This gave rise to better sound systems, and more professional PAs. Adding to this simple Punjabi folk music became bastardised with western instrumentation purely for the ideal of a bigger performance, but the sound was often forced, and that was what became Bhangra — only a few got it right like Alaap, in fact only Alaap. Indian’s took on Disco a decade later than its first inception, but Biddu with Nazia Hassan also got it very correct. Bhangra itself was a race to try and get Indian music into the charts, and there were all sorts of hell going down to move a dance floor.

The West Midlands area I was born was a once productive manufacturing centre — so industrial that the factory chimneys never stopped, hence it was and is called the Black Country due to the black chimney dust of furnaces. Immigrants were encouraged over to this corner of the world to do the most deplorable work under gruesome conditions, and still the Indian community was despised — this hatred was as in the air as the dust itself, as exemplified by the Conservative MP Enoch Powell whom create popularism through talk of repatriation — he was a precursor of Trump, and indeed I believe started the flames of Brexit way back then.

Slowly me and my brother got into western music and this opened up a real can of worms. We dressed differently and were targeted by the offspring’s of the right wing elements of the Indian community I talked about above, and the standard folk. It’s much easier to put into words nowadays. We had slowly also started to collect a record collection that was not handed down to us and eventually played records at venues. In 1989 I lived and worked in Manchester whilst the Manchester scene started to blow up.

As we picked up guitars, the Indian community resented the idea — to be in a band as an Indian was as rare as hen’s teeth, we found it extremely difficult to make anyone happy. However, at the start we simply enjoyed the abandon of making sound. I had been used to recording things since my time at the temple. Eventually we ventured out, a very risky ordeal but luckily for us we got signed at our first southern gig. We were on a political label with riot grrrl groups and things moved very fast from then on. Music used to be linked to politics, and we never saw politics as a dirty word, but something that could help shape your society — we were about reshaping it — but it was still a lonely world for most Indians that liked music, still only a puddle of them were into lovers soul and R&B.

Our label office at Rough Trade Shop, Portobello, in then a run down area called Notting Hill. Everyday was different, offers of gigs, interviews books, free equipment, lectures, talk panels, even acting requests. For me it was a case of either making it work, or being out of work so we stepped up where other groups held back. I started to produce, write and sing which wasn’t always the case.

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From your first album, we hear influences of indie rock, alternative, electronic dance music, post-punk, and South Asian music. What were the first grueling years like for the band Cornershop in the early 1990s, did the group face adversity, and what was the process of creating your first album?

The first album was difficult but its variety was enough to let us know that the music would be anything we wanted it to be, not just noise and guitars: sitars, harmonium, percussion… We survived because we went to mainland Europe, and there they treated musicians with respect. In England we survived because we never stuck to one sound. We were the honorary all male group in the riot grrrl scene, then a song like “Born Disco Died Heavy Metal” got us on indie dancefloors, and songs like “Jullandar Shere” and “We’re In Yr Corner” put Asian music out there. ‘Butter The Soul’ was a big step forward in getting our last traducers on our side. Gone was the reticence of the Indian community towards us. By now we were taking 6 week trips at a time to America, and that is when we unexpectedly realised who our most open and avid audience was. One day you are reading the Bhuddha of Suburbia, the next month you are living it.

If you can remember what was the first lyric you ever wrote and what are your favorite lyrics you ever wrote?

I can’t remember the first lyric I wrote but I do remember going for a jog, again a much scorned pastime in those days, and writing “Tera Mera Pyar” in my head, and typing it up in one fell swoop when I got home. I don’t have a favourite lyric I wrote, but I like all of them — they all have a part of my life in them. “The Role Off Characteristics of History” In The Making, “St Marie Under Canon” and “Highly Amplified” are cherished to me at the moment.

A cover of “Norwegian Wood” can be found on the third album. What was it like to receive cosigns from Paul McCartney and Yoko-Ono and what was the significance of covering the song in another language?

“Norwegian Wood” was covered, like a lot of songs we have ventured to cover such as Waterloo Sunset because we like the song and feel we can bring something different to it.

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Cornershop’s music appears on many TV shows and films such as Friends with “Brimful of Asha” in the ’90s Gilmore Girls with “Funky Days Are Back Again” in the early 2000s, the movie Dude Where’s the Party (Props to my sister for showing me this movie) featuring Kal Penn uses a couple of tracks such as “We’re In Your Corner,” and more. How does it feel seeing your music in iconic shows and movies?

We are always happy to see our songs used in as many places they find themselves. In fact it is an added plus that something is created and goes on to have a further reach than anyone would have expected, and obviously that also has parallels with the group itself.

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With the ’90s coming to an end you released your fourth album in 2002. With the change in the millennium, how did the band’s sound change during this time?

Our 4th album “Handcream For A Generation” came after we too time to do a side project called “Clinton” which allowed us to concentrate more on technology. By this time in 2002 the music scene started to flip over again, the four piece male group was coming back in vogue. We still did OK as songs like “Lessons Learned From Rocky I To Rocky III” still went down well, we Noel Gallagher playing guitar on a 15 minute Punjabi song as we had just toured with Oasis, and the technology we had leaned on for our previous album brought dividends to our sound too — “People Power In the Disco Hour”…etc.

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As the album “Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove Of” was a collaboration with Bubbley Kaur were there different ways the group went about compositions as Bubbley Kaur predominantly sang in Punjabi?

The Bubbley Kaur direction i.e. Punjabi vocals with modern beats was again going back to my early years in mind. It was so shocking for Bubbley to hear some of the songs for the first time. “Topknot,” she was nearly in tears with the music, but thankfully she was persuaded by her children that it was OK, but even that took months, very stressful months. Last year we released “Double O Groove Of” album on vinyl, it has just kept going and growing.

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In 2009 the band delivered their fifth studio album. As the music industry evolved over time what were some differences you were seeing?

The next album “Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast” again managed different styles that should not work but do. We had started our own label by this time, ample play records, and it was good to take things easy for once. Hence our next album “Urban Turban” was a whole heap of collaborations that we had done with nothing to targeted in mind. We did push this album with added art by our favoured artists, and creating the Singhles Club as a means to release tracks and keep people on our side.

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We have seen many groups and artists from decades past incorporate South Asian elements into their music. Some include The Beatles with “Norwegian Wood,” Elvis Presley with “You’ll Think of Me,” Guns and Roses with “Pretty Tied Up,” Stevie Wonder with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS with “People Like Us,” The Rolling Stones with “Paint It, Black,” The Yardbirds with “Heart Full Of Soul,” and more. We would love to get your professional opinion on if these artists utilized South Asian instruments in the best possible way or should more research have been conducted around utilizing South Asian sounds.

Indian elements in music, as you state have been used by many. It is always interesting to see what people do with such an influence, and as a group that like to do whatever we like from the African vocals of “Camp Orange,” to the use of bird song and countryside of “England Is A Garden,” we can only applaud such ripples of new ground. I disliked some aspects of Indian music for the pomp that associated itself with such high art — hence I was always more at home with a basic Punjabi Folk duet than 50 accomplished musicians, so I suppose that politics was always there in the music I liked.

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Who is your dream collaboration or dream collaboration as well as what is your most memorable performance?

I don’t have a dream collaboration, that would be too thought out a project and liable to failure from the get go. Likewise, I don’t have a memorable performance either — but we played in a junior school in ‘93 after which the pupils went away and wrote and drew their feelings — that was tip top. More than the meal itself we have always been happier with the after dinner light talk: That is to say since we started to establish ourselves, the ground was so new to us and those that heard us that it helped others, whether they were in fashion, films, cooks etc, and certainly those of different standing from the norm to be encouraged that things can change. That has been the best, to know that we always came with a government warning.

However, there is no sure shot way of helping anyone, this can only come about by doing things without any larger goals — from then on people are either inspired or they are not, encouraged or not, trees or not. You can either work hard or get good luck or both, or you could chuck a whole lot of money at it, and Bhangra the situation.

Photo Courtesy of Marie Remy