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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > Indian Oceans Rahul Ram Unlike 80s and 90s Indian film industry is becoming more accepting of independent artistes

Indian Ocean's Rahul Ram: Unlike 80s and 90s, Indian film industry is becoming more accepting of independent artistes

Updated on: 21 May,2023 08:02 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Nascimento Pinto |

On the heels of the release of their eighth album 'Tu Hai', Indian rock band Indian Ocean is set to take the stage this evening in Mumbai. In an exclusive interview with Mid-day Online, Nikhil Rao and Rahul Ram talk about their latest album, collaborating with Vikku Vinayakram and George Brooks, changing indie music scene and avoiding record labels

Indian Ocean's Rahul Ram: Unlike 80s and 90s, Indian film industry is becoming more accepting of independent artistes

Indian Ocean will be performing in Mumbai this evening at Phoenix Market City in Kurla. Photo Courtesy: Indian Ocean

“Climate change is one of the foremost issues of this generation,” says Nikhil Rao, lead guitarist with iconic Indian rock band Indian Ocean. “There are so many things that people are fighting over today. So, whatever your one personal fight is, this is an issue that is going to overwhelm the individual and the community,” he continues. It is a theme, they realised, that has subconsciously evolved and given fruit to their latest album; interestingly, it isn’t one they particularly focused on but somehow seem to come together when they started creating songs after their last album, Tandanu (2014). 

Now, nine years later, as the heat gathers on their latest studio album ‘Tu Hai’, the Delhi-based band is as excited as can be since its release. The songs are 'Jaadu Maaya', 'Jungle', 'Iss Tan Dhan', 'Tu Hai Pt 1', 'Tu Hai Pt 2' and 'Rebirth'. These come after hits like 'Bandeh' and 'Kandisa' among others. While most of the six-track album was ready by 2019, Rao says, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the release by an unfortunate three years. It is not only the band but also their fans who are ecstatic after the release on May 5, and even more for their live performance and tour, as a part of which they will be playing in Mumbai this evening at Phoenix Market City in Kurla.

Making of the album
So, what took the band nine years to put together their eighth album, barring the Covid-19 pandemic? Rao explains, “After 'Tandanu', as with every band, we kept writing songs, jamming on riffs and song ideas and that kept happening. We were ready with a bunch of songs about maybe around 2018 or 2019, which is when we first started talking about what will be the next album after 'Tandanu'.” The guitarist admits that there were other “distractions” with a lot of live shows and film projects but that wasn’t necessarily hampering their creative process because they were just going out there and doing their thing.

“We were ready to release this as an album in 2020, and that's when the pandemic hit us, and we lost three years.” However, now that they have moved past that, the guitarist who joined the band 10 years ago, says that each song has an interesting story. “Nothing is linear, nothing is predictable, especially with the Indian Ocean because each song is a story and multiple stories. But I think all of us started agreeing and seeing some of the hidden connections, where these songs are trying to draw a narrative. As a band, we do have something to say about what is happening around us,” he shares. It is also how the environment and climate change became the central theme of this album, which is aided by cover art that depicts it beautifully.

He shares, “So each song then builds on that theme. It's not completely sour and dark because there's also a celebration of nature and the environment and being grateful for all the things one experiences. It's a nice story that has emerged on its own like all good stories. We aren't here to sell anything in that sense. It's just like we continue making songs and we feel it's the right time to put it out. So that's what we're doing,” confirms Rao, showcasing why they are in no hurry to put out music if it isn’t something they feel strongly about. 

Interestingly, bassist Rahul Ram, adds that while they were making songs, they soon realised, the environmental theme was what was working in their subconscious. “I'm very much into environmental stuff and I've always been saying that we can fight on this Hindu, Muslim, religion, right-wing and left-wing but all of this is meaningless in the face of global change. You will sit back and think I was wasting my time doing that, when my entire world was about to crumble,” shares Ram, animatedly. 

Collaborating with Vikku Vinayakram, George Brooks
For this album, the band has also collaborated with celebrated Indian percussionist Vikku Vinayakram and American saxophonist George Brooks. While Vinayakram lends his Indian classical expertise to 'Iss Tan Dhan', Brooks elevates 'Jungle' with his saxophone. It's interesting to see how even with both of them, Indian Ocean retains their sounds, and makes the song their own, giving listeners the best of both worlds. It is something that Rao shares, "The Indian Ocean has its unique sound. But it is also a sound which is open and one that can accommodate a plethora of a range of artistes."  

It is something the 33-year-old band has been able to retain in their music being unmistakably Indian Ocean but also being unmistakably Vikku Vinayakram, George Brooks or Shankar Mahadevan, who they have collaborated with in the past. "It's always been an interesting process of collaboration, where neither identity is subsumed completely. It stands on its own and also, it is not a collaboration crudely put together for sponsor. It is a song that usually comes from the Indian Ocean out of a lived or felt experience, and it goes forward," he shares.  

Evolution of Indian Ocean's music
Interestingly, the three-decade-old band has come a long way from when it started in 1990. It has also subsequently led to an evolution of their music and one that Ram has seen firsthand, especially being an independent musician creating music. He explains, "It has been a 30-year process. Independent music in India existed before that because I grew up listening to rock bands in college but there was no outlet. Why would you listen to an independent band outside your local thing? Only HMV was releasing albums, and there were Doordarshan and AIR. There was nothing. No way for anything to become pan-Indian except for Bollywood or film music. In 1990, come liberalisation, there was a big explosion of indie music and music labels." The bassist and vocalist for the band, says, what many may not know, how the band, in their first five years, was barely able to earn Rs 1 lakh, after doing a total of seven concerts. While he admits it was quite a bit for that time, it was still less for a band, compared to today.  

While it was dissuading, Ram says they stuck to it because they were having fun. "Every time we played, which was rare, the audience loved it. Gradually, the evolution of the sound happened. In our first album, out of 43 minutes, there are about 40 seconds of vocals. It's all instrumental. The next album was a live album in 1997. We were the first band in India to ever release a live album, ‘Desert Rain’ that has maybe 20-25 per cent vocals."  

It was only with their third album, 'Kandisa', that Ram says they had more vocals. "We became a much tighter rhythm section, getting more shows and playing together and we used to practice our ass off." The bassist says it was just something they liked doing together and continued to do it regularly without fail. This constant dedication is also what took the band abroad for the first time in 2001; then in 2002, they played 40 concerts across four continents including New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. They were also the first band to release a live DVD called 'Live in Delhi'.  

Keeping at it, Ram says Amit Kilam started playing the clarinet, and the gubgubi which appeared in 'Ma Rewa', while he picked up the saxophone. However, the band suffered a setback when Asheem Chakravarty died due to a cardiac arrest in 2009, which Ram says left the band devastated. After that, Susmit Sen, who was the co-founder of the band with Chakravarty, left the band to pursue a solo career. "Himanshu and Tuhin came and the minute somebody new comes in, the sound changes." Apart from Rao and Ram, the band currently has Himanshu Joshi on vocals, Tuheen Chakravorty on tabla and percussions and Amit Kilam on drums, percussion and vocals. Through it all, they have stayed together and practiced and aged like fine wine. It is also probably why they are stalwarts of Indian independent rock music in their own right after 30 years. 

Challenges in indie music 
Just as the generations change, the thinking also changes and that is exactly what has happened and taken over the Indian indie music circuit. It is also why Ram says, "I know young people find it difficult today, they will say, 'Wait, what is the motivation? You're not playing anywhere? You're not making money. Why are you practicing together as a band and why aren’t you going and playing with 20 other people because that's what happens today." The fact that young musicians tend to play across the board with a whole bunch of different people, opens up different avenues for them. "It is probably another reason why bands don't form anymore," he observes.  

However, it is not the only challenge for indie bands today. "Your film industry eats everybody up," he says, continuing, "If I'm playing in a band, and have a choice between going to a recording studio and earning Rs 30,000 or going to Malad to play in somebody's flat and spending money instead. Which one would you do? So, there are various constraints." 

Interestingly, the Indian Ocean is among quite a few indie rock bands, who haven't signed a deal with record labels, and they have done because of the countless bad experiences they have had over the years. "Having watched record companies screw over artistes for years, I am very happy that their power has diminished massively. You get hold of a contract and read it. Everything belongs to them, nothing belongs to you. They used to take copyright. I make the music, they take the copyright because they are paying for the recording and paying for the release," Ram sheds light.  

He says artistes had to sign that income from all future live gigs as that will also belong to the label. However, the band decided to not sign any such deal. "That is the level at which they used to screw with you," he says as he expresses his disdain for record labels of the past. It is also the fact, he says that they don’t care about artistes that irk him. So, they made a change in their approach. "From the next album onwards – 'Jhini', we said, we will license the company the right to release our music. That means that we have to find the money ourselves to record." A lot has changed since then; especially with their latest album where they have relied on streaming. "Nobody cares about the music companies anymore. I am so glad," he adds. 

The changing Bollywood music industry
A band like Indian Ocean has not only made studio albums but they have also made music for films in Bollywood. Some of the most notable being for 'Black Friday' (2004), 'Peepli Live' (2010), Masaan (2015) and most recently 'Kanpuriye' (2019). It is through this that they have seen how the film industry is becoming more accepting of independent artistes and are very happy about it. "The Hindi film industry is 100 per cent opening up to more Indie music. I think the reason lies more in the director – the younger directors or the next crop of directors," says Ram. “It is a stark difference from the 80s and 90s when film music was concentrated only in the hands of five or six singers,” he adds.

"The younger directors grew up listening to indie music and they grew up in the Internet era, where they could access music from all around the world. This is the Tigmanshu Dhulias and Anurag Kashyaps of the world. So, it has opened it up," he adds. This Ram points out by reminding us how most Top 10 playlists today have more multiple singers and composers. "In the 90s, there were only five-six of them. In the 70s, six people sang, and then that improved in the 80s and 90s. Bollywood is infamous for its cliques." Visibly happy to see quite a few changes in the industry from when they started, they are elated to be getting back on stage, especially because they weren't able to do it during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that they are back on tour, expect it to be nothing short of a sonic treat. 

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