In Conversation: SURESH DE SILVA

Originally published in LT Magazine, People feature, September 2015

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A crazy diamond. A shooting star. A rider on the storm.

Suresh de Silva can be called many things, but the one thing that truly stands out is his boundless talent. He spent the last 15 years as an ad-man, writer and caregiver to the many stray canines who now form a part of his home and family. But rock & roll fans know him as the front-man an vocalist of Stigmata, the island’s pioneering metal band, now in its 15th year of existence, with multiple albums and international performances to their name. His performance of Judas Iscariot in the Workshop Players’ production of Jesus Christ Superstar, his recent collaboration with classical baritone Sanjeev Niles and the lyrics to practically every song Stigmata has recorded, combine to propel the notion that we are very much a breeding ground for originality in Sri Lanka.

As he prepares to launch the band’s 4th album, embark on a tour of New Zealand and finish his debut novel, Suresh looks back on his journey with us, leading on to where we have come as a music industry today.

What do you love about our island?

That Sri Lankans can be very easily underestimated. We are called lethargic and narrow minded. But I think there is an embedded propensity to be more that what we are. I think that’s where you push the ordinary into the realm of something extraordinary. There are a lot of Sri Lankans in a lot of industries who are doing that and will continue to do so.

How do you measure success?

The generic formula is judged by how much money you’ve made, ROI and how well evolved your lifestyle and living conditions are. But look through history – from Beethoven to Paganini to Janis Joplin – their successes haven’t been measured by these things. For me I think it’s what you leave behind. If you are in a creative professional, what you aspire to leave behind is a legacy and how many people are loyal to you and how many lives you’ve changed as a result. As a musician, if you have a steadfast discography and memorable performances, then you have that legacy.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Primarily the band, because they push me to create at a whole new level. And everything around me, really. An article, a film or a life experience that I go through – they all fuel the inspiration.

What was it like to don the robes of Judas Iscariot?

It was an official production of the international franchise under approval by Andrew Lloyd Webber so it was a dream-come-true. I firmly believe that the workshop players are the only ones who could have pulled it off and its one of the reasons I wanted to be involved. I don’t think I’ve surrounded myself with so many talent people at the same time. Judas was a troubled man and it was a challenge to pull off the role, even vocally.

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What’s your favourite Sri Lankan food & drink?

Food? That has to be rathu kakulu (red rice). A good pork curry, pol sambol, amba curry, papadam and fried chilies. A good Sri Lankan rice and curry basically. With drinks, if it’s hard spirits then arrack and if it’s not, it’s got to be EGB.

Have you seen the underground music scene grow in recent years?

It’s a paradox – the things we are lacking are the very things that have triggered a massive outburst of creativity. Innovation, foresight and great talent are always present, but only a handful knows how to put Sri Lanka on the map,
irrespective of genre.

You have over 25000 fans. That can’t really be an underground.

We had an audience of 35,000 people at our Dhaka. I think it’s because we’ve made brand and band correlate. We’ve created great equity for ourselves. They say the devils in the details; we’ve been meticulous with the quality of everything we’ve done. We always had the gift of being able to create and capture those musical moments on record, but we’ve also been able to deliver them live.

The average listener finds heavy metal hard to digest. Why is this and why don’t we have more metal fans here?

I think people tend to get perplexed and a little intimidated by something they can’t fully wrap their heads around. What you can’t understand, you can’t categorize or put into a box. Metal has multiple connotations and that’s not for everyone, I suppose.  You can’t merely experience music as background artistry, especially music like this. Having said that I think people here are becoming bolder and braver – not merely with musical choices but in their willingness to explore.

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What do you feel the industry lacks from an infrastructural standpoint?

There is no point complaining of a lack of infrastructure. There is no use complaining – you build with what you have. We have made international alliances on our own, that’s how we’re getting out there. We have 3 generations of fans for the scene now. Plus, there are a lot of gigs happening this year with the big 15 concert series to mark our 15 years as a band. The gigs are diverse with everyone pushing the boundaries of originality. Things are happening. We also see more corporates coming into to sponsor us; they see the value of the music and the intelligent fan-base it attracts. The reason it’s not moving entirely forward is the lack of volume in quality music, not infrastructure. We need more good music from every genre coming out to make this work.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a book – I’m done with two-thirds. But putting together an album and tour negotiations have got in the way. The book itself I can’t quite talk about other than to tell you that it is dark fantasy meets high crime in a Sri Lankan context. The 4th album, The Ascetic Paradox is also coming out this year and we’re touring New Zealand soon after the launch.

What can young musicians learn from your journey?

Never be averse to constructive criticism. In fact, be your own worst critique and always tell yourself you haven’t done your best yet. Tell yourself the next one is going to be. Someone in the audience is going to be mesmerized that day. You have to aspire to do that, to challenge yourself to be better. And of course, you have to stick to and believe in what you are doing to the very end.

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Words & photography by Natalie Soysa.

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