30 Jul 2017 16:44 IST

Ahead of the curve

Even as scaremongers fret about the future of indie music in India, 'Aswekeepsearching' endures

Something bizarre is happening at Antisocial in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. There’s a gig featuring two live bands — drums, guitars, the whole shebang — and the place is absolutely packed. One person at the bar claims they’ve had 150 paid entrants. I later find out the actual number was closer to 260 (including those guest-list-hogging, I-know-someone-who-knows-someone pile-ons). This is not how it works, man. Here in Delhi, we like the idea of supporting the arts, but we don’t actually do it. And expecting us to pay ₹300 for the privilege? No, thank you — don’t let the door hit you on your way out. And yet.

It’s the launch gig for Zia, the second full-length album by Aswekeepsearching, who’re doing a quick four-city tour. “ Kamaal kar diya, Sarmah-ji (You’ve worked your magic, Sarmah-ji),” I tell Uddipan Sarmah, the vocalist and guitar player. There’s a merchandise table outside, while the performance area — usually ragged and all grimy — has been decorated with little paper swans hanging from the ceiling, lending an air of optimism for a change. (Birds always signify hope, unless we’re talking about pigeons.) When the band gets on stage, a screen behind them plays swirling kaleidoscopic projections. People are singing along. The performers are all dressed in matching black tees, jumping around on stage like carefree idiots, often to complex time signatures. One of the songs starts off in a fluid 5/4 time (like the Mission Impossible theme), later progressing into a staccato 7/8 (parts of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’) that catches listeners off-guard.

Aswekeepsearching play ‘post-rock’, a loose and abstract description, home to bands that don’t quite fit elsewhere. Their own sound probably owes a bit to the styling of Explosions in the Sky and God is an Astronaut (long, rambling band names are a trademark of the genre — unless you’re Mogwai, you need at least four words to qualify). Large, colourful, lush passages of sound give way to explosive cutaways, developing a consistent soft-heavy dynamic. The vocals are in Hindi — Sarmah has a knack of swaying into Hindi rock flourishes, imported from our Pakistani siblings — although the singing is rarely at the forefront. It’s supposed to just sort of blend into a large wave of sound that washes over the listener.

Unlike many bands in the same indie circuit Aswekeepsearching find themselves in, these guys tend to put a lot of emphasis on touring and performing live — they never want to only be a studio band.

They’re forever playing gigs in some city or the other, even booking a tour of Russia on their own after the release of their last album, 2015’s Khwaab.

The four-piece has built up a fan base on the basis of their music, of course — and the Hindi vocals make their work accessible to a wider audience — but also thanks to the back-breaking effort that performing requires. They’ll take a bus or a train to smaller cities, crash on couches at homes of friends, dump money into the band as ‘investment’. Sarmah, in addition to being a fourth of the band’s collective creative vision, also acts as the manager, and he tells me how he’s seen the numbers grow from 10 people at a gig to 50 to 150. “ Ragad ke kaam karte hain (We work our a**** off),” he says, “. No one’s going to offer you a gig if you can’t draw a crowd. You have to go to a venue, knock on doors, tell them: ‘I’m going to sit here for two days, give me a gig to play! We played so many free shows when we started off. You have to invest time and money. Zyada socho mat, gig mila toh baja do (Don’t think, just play). There have been times where the travel sucks, we’re getting no money, but we’ll still hop onto a bus and play. Then later, we’re like, ‘F**k, we’ve lost so much money!’ Then we plan better the next time.”

A great deal of attention is placed on the art of performing live, from how they look and behave onstage to the entire presentation of the set. A core team travels with them, handling videos, live sound, social media outreach, the works. “It’s about how best to deliver an ‘experience’,” says Gautam Deb, the bassist, “not just a regular live performance.” Each element has been carefully mapped out, and they stress on the importance of translating the experience of listening to their recorded music into a live setting. Summing up that timeless internal conflict performers face, Deb say, “On stage, we just want to have fun between the four of us. We care about the audience but we also don’t really care.”

This focus on playing live does come with its own peculiar set of annoyances. Robert Alex, the drummer, talks about the toll active touring can take. “We spend so much time constantly being in each other’s faces, so a certain amount of tension builds up between everybody. You should see our WhatsApp group messages; it’s a war zone over there! No one’s being diplomatic or anything. But that has its way of transcribing itself into the music — a lot of the music on Zia is a result of our fights and arguments,” he says. Parts of the album were, in fact, written while they were on the road, while the rest was a process of exchanging ideas over email, since they were in different cities. (Shubham Gurung [guitars, electronics] and Sarmah, who often initiate the songwriting process, both used to live in Ahmedabad, where the band originally formed. Now, they’re all shuttling between Pune and Mumbai.) Gurung and Sarmah even spent time working on new music in Kalga, a village in Himachal Pradesh, after they realised they needed to take a break from constantly travelling and touring. They packed up minimal recording gear and went off to the hills.

Once Zia released, Sarmah decided to host listening sessions for fans they had accumulated through social media and gigs, developing a decent four-figure database through online registrations. “I never focussed on networking with the musicians or the ‘after-party’ people. You know. I don’t even enjoy chilling that much; I like to work! For me, it’s about connecting directly with the audiences,” he says. He’s one of those guys who’s always pleasant, impeccably polite; always friendly with whomever he meets. He’s an excellent networker, no doubt (he understands the undeniably critical role ‘business’ plays in art) but it doesn’t seem insincere. Sarmah really is just one of those likeable, amicable fellows no one has a bad word to say about, someone who’s always positive and beaming — perhaps because he genuinely enjoys what he does. And he works hard.

Sarmah travelled to 16 different cities (including Kathmandu) over a hectic, compressed timeline of three weeks — the math barely adds up — so he could spend time with the fans directly after the release. “Every city, there’d be 15-20-30-35 people. I had to book a space where I could sit with them. Sometimes we’d just be in someone’s living room, with Bluetooth speakers playing the album,” he says. An active internet presence naturally helps, but this is a relatively novel way for indie bands (in India specifically) to grow. A lot of bands here, Sarmah feels, aren’t ready to put in the hours. They get disillusioned quickly, or just happen to be lazy or entitled. As Alex says: “In India, people are rockstars before they’re musicians.”

Indie circuit

Outside of Aswekeepsearching, Sarmah has been working diligently to carve out a space for Indian bands.

Today, in the indie circuit, there’s a lot of resentment and much scaremongering about the future of live rock ‘n’ roll. A sense of gloom exists given the absence of good money, dwindling audiences, and few-to-zero venues. Many people feel that bands are feeding off scraps (whether they deserve more is a can of worms that will stay properly shut for now). In that sense, Sarmah is a bit of an outlier (not the only one, but still) in that he’s pushing to bring live bands to the forefront.

He acts as a booking agent for a bunch of Indian bands, including The Circus, Mosko, and Fuzz Culture. Ahmedabad is a city where indie music doesn’t quite have the same subcultural presence as the metros. But Aswekeepsearching was born there, before breaking through to larger audiences, as was Blue Tree, a studio he started, where he’d record bands. He’s developed Blue Tree into a far bigger entity now (along with Karan Mehta from Delhi), and they serve as a booking agency, managing bands, handling live events. They got British progressive guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan down for a tour recently, and there’s a few other international acts in the pipeline, as well. Further, Sarmah also handles the Two-Stroke tour, an entirely DIY affair where he’ll get two indie bands and book an exhaustive tour for them, booking venues, arranging for travel and accommodation, food, and any other whims the artists may have. Blue Tree will pay for everything upfront, then they’ll recover the money. Profits (if any) are shared with the bands. Doomsday prophecies aside, Sarmah may be one of the few whose work could realistically make a difference to the indie music curve.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)