“Please don’t ask us what our band name means,” they plead jokingly, just ahead of their performance at Birmingham’s O2 Academy3 when we speak.
I don’t need to ask. The four-member group – comprising vocalist Ashwin Gopakumar, vocalist-guitarist Achyuth Jaigopal, keyboardist Palee Francis, and drummer Pai Sailesh – has mentioned countless times that they came up with the name right before taking the stage for their first show. “Wow, we started seven years ago,” reminisces Ashwin. “We’re growing old.”
When Chai Met Toast made quite the impression when they set out in 2016. That was the year when several multilingual indie acts made their debut in India, in a music scene that was still dominated by playback singers and film soundtracks.
Switching seamlessly between English and regional Indian languages, the band’s songs have millions of streams on Spotify, and almost 600,000 active monthly listeners.
Achyuth, who has been performing professionally for almost a decade, remembers their first performance like it was yesterday. “The stage was much smaller than this,” he gestures to the slightly cramped dressing room we’re chatting in. “It was in a corner, there were foosball tables, and there was a cricket match happening at the same time.”
“IPL (India’s international cricketing league) was the main event and we were the secondary–” “No, tertiary!” cuts in Ashwin with a laugh. “We were the tertiary event.”
They were certainly the main event earlier this month when they played a sold-out show at The Garage in London – a venue often touted as a rite-of-passage-venue for indie and rock bands.
“It was great,” says Sailesh.
“Fabulous,” agrees Achyuth.
“Adipoli (fantastic),” adds Palee in Malayalam.
“It was unreal,” finishes Ashwin. “We try not to pick favourites between shows, but London was unreal. Seven years ago we only dreamed of selling-out international venues like this.”
Outside the venue, the fans are starting to line-up as we speak. “I listen to them when I have to relax,” gushes 23-year-old Tanya. “You can listen to them for hours and hours.”
Although their audience comprises mainly members of the Indian diaspora, there have been several instances when non-Indians fully jammed to their music as well. “There was this one lady singing all the lyrics to our song ‘Nee Aara’. That song is completely in Malayalam!” exclaims a bemused Sailesh.
Although several of their songs include lines from regional languages, they do not start the songwriting process intending to shoehorn a specific language. So far, their songs have featured Malayalam, Hindi, and Tamil. However, the band has no current plans to include more of India’s 300-odd languages. “It’s nothing personal, we just don’t think in any of them,” explains Achyuth.
Chock full of breezy sentiment and generally upbeat wholesomeness, When Chai Met Toast’s music means different things to different people.
There was the couple in London who said their songs had saved their marriage. There was the boy in Guwahati who came to their show to listen to their song ‘Remember’ – a ballad about the separation between a father and a son – and mourn the mother he lost two days prior. “You only have to go to our YouTube comments section to see the range of experiences that people relate our songs to.”
Do they ever feel pigeonholed into the ‘happy’ concept? “We’ve all gone through a phase where we played metal,” they laugh, talking over each other with an ease that’s born as much from mutual comfort as it is from sharing a heritage.
“85% of the time it’s just happy moments, curiosity, seeing things, finding things, eating food,” says Ashwin. “I think the rest of the 15% is just us ignoring the fact we can actually be quite dark sometimes.”
This is When Chai Met Toast’s second time in the UK, the first being a month-long stint in 2022 to record their EP with producer Richard Wilkinson. Despite having worked together for years, that was the longest time the members had actually lived with each other. “All four of us were like, yeah somewhere something will break and we’re just going to blow up,” Ashwin smiles. “But it just didn’t happen.”
“Touch wood, of course.”
And has When Chai Met Toast tried any unusual variants of toasts in the land most famous for it? The band members smile as Ashwin proceeds to wax lyrical about French toast with mulberry sauce. “My favourite is still Bombay toast,” says Sailesh resolutely, referring to the savoury Indian version of French toast. “From Indian Coffee House!” adds Palee with a grin, and everyone murmurs their enthusiastic assent.
An hour after our interview, the band is on stage in full form. “I see the colour, colour, colour, through their eyes / Joy of little, little, little things in life,” chants the crowd as they sing along to ‘Joy of Little Things’, some people with closed eyes. “We had a good long break where we had no shows for two years,” Ashwin tells the audience in between songs. “We thought our careers were gone, but here we are.”
The setlist runs through fan favourites like ‘Khoj (Passing By)’, ‘Yellow Paper Daisy’, and ‘Firefly’ before moving on to newer tracks from the latest EP, like ‘sushi song’ and ‘Hearts Never Break’.
“We know more about the songs and the lyrics than we do about the individual members,” muses 25-year-old fan Reksina. “I think that’s how they’re different from the typical boy-bands we see nowadays.”
“It’s about the emotions they bring that get us through the day.”