Still going strong

What explains the success of indie musician Donn Bhat?

Written by Aditya Varma | Published:October 16, 2016 12:07 am
Growing up in Delhi, Bhat’s childhood played out to the soundtrack of his mother’s collection of  records by The Carpenters and The Beatles and his father's love for Urdu poetry and qawwali. (Source: Srijan Mahajan) Growing up in Delhi, Bhat’s childhood played out to the soundtrack of his mother’s collection of records by The Carpenters and The Beatles and his father’s love for Urdu poetry and qawwali. (Source: Srijan Mahajan)

“You’ve got to be really idiotic,” Mumbai-based producer, vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and electro-pop rock musician Anant “Donn” Bhat quips as he speaks on the prospect of trying to earn a living as an artist in the Indian independent music scene. A musician who does not speak in a common tongue will find an audience even more miniscule. Bhat explains, with a hint of exhaustion, that writing music that less than a fraction of the country’s population can understand — since he primarily writes in English — and not conforming to any stylistic trends in sound, has not made it any easier for him. “I’m just really glad that I’m still making music, and I value it,” Bhat, 34, says.

The poster boy for electro-pop rock and fusion music recently released his third album, Connected. The album is a more mature amalgamation of his ambient guitar tones with electronica in comparison to his debut release, One Way Circle (2006). Bhat’s songwriting for all his albums has, so far, been a reflection of an ethic he seems to follow: sincerity. At a time when there was more of a fascination with metal music in the independent circuit, Bhat was one of the first musicians in the country to heavily experiment with the traditional dreamy, ballad-like guitar melodies of rock music and the more curt and glitchy sounds of electronica in the early 2000s.

Growing up in Delhi, Bhat’s childhood played out to the soundtrack of his mother’s collection of records by The Carpenters and The Beatles and his father’s love for Urdu poetry and qawwali. When the time came for him to choose a vocation, neither of his professor parents were surprised when he decided to quit his job with a production house and move to Mumbai to make music. By then, he had already gotten his hands on a laptop and begun experimenting. He had also been handling guitars and electronics for Delhi’s rap rock band Orange Street, one of the first bands to begin writing original music. Starting off from playing small gigs at music stores and the few venues that offered a stage to metal music at the time, he quickly realised that this is what he wanted to for the rest of his life.

The late ’90s and early 2000s were not a particularly benevolent time for rock bands that were writing original music. The audience had specific tastes in rock, and expected Indian bands to only regurgitate their western counterparts’ music. “Everything was about how well you could ape your favourite bands on stage; no one was writing original music,” he says. But, a change was brewing and Bhat was at its forefront.

In an industry still in its nascent stages in terms of structure, Bhat’s stature seems like a mixture of intent and chance. He particularly emphasises on “originality” in music. “It’s about creating an immersive set that the audience can dive into,” Bhat says, explaining the idea behind focusing a huge part of the creative process around live performances, stitching together guitar melodies and vocals in a progressive electronic sound. Neither aspect takes the lead, but both are in a trippy tango with each other. The visual displays of his live sets create an encompassing audio/visual experience. His music is devoid of any gimmickry (either in terms of live performance, or the music on record) independent musicians often tend to bank on. “We’re not showmen, talking into mics, ripping guitar solos and climbing stages,” he says. “As long as the audience is into the music, I don’t even care if they see me.”

The seven-track album Connected is a compilation of songs that were written over the last two years with a largely apolitical narrative that could be attributed to a bystander’s observations of life. The new album, arguably his most impressive, was partly recorded at his home in Delhi and in different studios all over. In a sense, the album points towards his evolution over the years. Bhat seems to have begun leaning away from over producing or over working his music. He claims that Connected has a more defined mood as opposed to the previous records that were simply arranged as compilations. “I’ve learned to let certain things be,” he says, talking about the recording and production process, which sees him experimenting with samples (bits of pre-recorded sounds or music). Desh Bhakti’, for instance, creates its ambience with the use of Tibetan bowls and samples from Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album, something that is entirely new for him.

The primary collaborators on Bhat’s new album are his long-time mates, Ashar Farooqui of Toymob and Teddy boy Kill fame, and Advaita’s sarangi maestro Suhail Yusuf Khan. Together, the unit is known as the Passenger Revelator. Both Farroqui and Khan are musicians known for their versatility and accomodating music styles. The result is a cohesive album that gains from Bhat’s stripped-down sense of aesthetics, Farooqui’s unique song structuring and Khan’s melodies.

In the coming weeks, the Passenger Revelator front has set up its album release tour across the metros. But that doesn’t mean he is planning to take it easy. With his music being featured in a future release by filmmaker Aakash Bhatia, and a collaboration with composer Tajdar Junaid, Bhat isn’t letting up any time soon. It’s a good time to be an independent musician and Bhat knows that. “We’re going to see some interesting times ahead of us,” he says.

Aditya Varma is a freelance music journalist from New Delhi, mainly because he can’t play any music himself.