Is Anant "Donn" Bhat a prototype realist? It's not every day that you speak with a musician who doesn't place the ego at the very top of the pile of vague priorities that define one's creative pursuits. In place of pomposity, Bhat has self-awareness. He's got years behind him, so it may just be his wizened maturity speaking, nevermind that he's just 32. In 2006, he came out with his debut solo release, One Way Circle, back when he was still living in Delhi. It was, in his own words, his "education in production", with the whole album written and produced by him at home. Much has happened in the meantime, and now, Bhat is all set to perform at this year's Glastonbury Festival in England — the Mecca, holy grail and final frontier of contemporary music? Possibly — on 26 June, at the Toad Hall, hot on the heels of Shai'ir + Func and the Raghu Dixit Project, Indian acts who've played at the festival before. "We're playing late at night; the last band of the day. That's the scene. I believe it's an open, intimate stage," he says. Bhat places all credit for the prestigious booking at the door of Mixtape, the agency that manages him. For Glastonbury, he'll be performing a live set with Suhail Yusuf Khan on the sarangi and Ashwin Andrews on the drums.
Bhat has been playing his music for a while now — when pushed, he terms it "danceable folk electronica", but it acquires plenty of forms, from deep ambient, textural sounds to introspective melody-driven pieces. A bouncing, rhythmic spine holds it all together. His sophomore album, Passenger Revelator (which has also in the past doubled up as his live band's name), came out last year, and it's caught the fancy of the indie population. A guitar player by trade, he used to be part of New Delhi's popular metal band Friday the 13th way back when. They weren't actually metal: "At a gig of ours, we would play anything from Iron Maiden to Blink 182 to Dave Matthews to Dream Theatre. Also some Poison! We got popular covering Dream Theatre and Maiden," he laughs. Soon after, he joined Orange Street, one of the first breakout bands from India, experimenting. heavily with electronics and traditional Indian sounds at a time when such occurrences were not commonplace.
Back to the present, until a year ago, Donn Bhat's gigs would feature a revolving roster of live musicians. He admits he's had trouble finding like-minded musicians to play with. But the line-up is far more stable now and he sounds happy with the people he's currently collaborating with. He's been playing regularly with singer Ashar Farooqui, formerly of radical '90s band Envision and also Teddy Boy Kill, and the last few gigs have featured Anand Bhagat on percussions, a regular fixture now — "We need that rhythmic live energy on stage. A lot of this music is groove-heavy and driven by rhythm". Bhagat's sound, influenced heavily by African music, blends seamlessly with the music. Joining them soon will be fellow Orange Street alumnus Ashwin Andrews on the drums. Quote On
Bhat has only just returned from the French Reunion Islands, where he performed at a festival as part of a showcase of Indian music (along with the Ganesh Talkies and Tritha Electric), targeting booking agents and industry insiders and meant to encourage exchange and exposure. It was a great experience for them — conversations were had, phone numbers exchanged, so things are looking bright.
Dropcap OnAfter the release of One Way Circle, Bhat moved to Mumbai. Thus began his tryst with the advertising world, which continues till date. He composes and produces jingles and scores for television ads primarily, providing him with a steady source of income, one that allows him the space to purchase new and expensive gear and also experiment with his own music. "Initially, it feels very different because you have a 'brief'. One thing that's very important is you have to understand human psychology. It's all about understanding people and what they want. Apart from all the industry bulls**t you have to deal with, you also end up doing things you wouldn't have otherwise. I might never have used a toy piano or accordion much. I know now what effect certain sounds or instruments will have; it hones your production skills in a very short period of time. You explore a lot more. But, you also have to forget... you need to remember that you're making music for a product at the end of the day. If the film has emotional value, then you can express that. But you have to distance yourself because you're making music for someone else — you're serving a purpose for someone else's vision. It's not about the ego, it's about delivering on a job and understanding the point of view of the director, the client, the agency, and finding a commonality in all that."
“At the end of the day, we are doing this, we’re making music, to be heard and to communicate. A lot of the audience would open itself up if only the language were different. I’m not talking about Hindi like… jaanu or saajan or slang Hindi, like Aati kya, Khandala types. Just regular Hindi.”
Following Glastonbury, for which he leaves on 21 June — Suhail Yusuf Khan joins them in London — Bhat has plans to complete and release the follow up to Passenger Revelator, a new EP called Connected, featuring four songs. While Passenger Revelator was written over several years, encompassing different sounds and influences — disco, funk, Indian music, alternative, EDM — Bhat says the new EP is going to be a "little more cohesive" and should fall under the dancy, folk electro bracket, with a clear emphasis on songwriting.
Farooqui and his many collaborators have handled vocals in the past (while he plays the guitars and keys and programmes all the music), but now he feels a little more confident singing on the songs as well, understanding the strengths and limitations of his voice. "I've finally managed to find the right key for me. I have a certain range and texture to my voice that I can be convinced and confident about. [Farooqui] has a much higher register, and it resonates really well. We don't overlap in terms of creativity." Lyrically, the material remains moody and introspective, and usually spontaneous, based on the direction the music dictates. "It's very instinctive. If I feel something, or I hear a sound, it suggests something automatically. I don't write outlandish lyrics or anything. A lot of it is centred around boredom. The eventuality, the boredom of sort of dealing with yourself."
The majority of the music thus far has been written entirely by Bhat — although he ends up leaving space for others to incorporate their bits in to the mix — but he sounds more open to writing more with his band members now. His ability on the guitar has been a definitive part of his musical journey, but the music he's been writing seems to rely heavily on rhythm, on the bass and drums. "My first instrument was actually the bongo. I always liked rhythm; I always thought I'd be a kickass drummer but I never got around to it. But I can finger drum pretty well! It's fascinating."
The Indian influence in his music — classical-tinged singing on a few of the songs as well as use of unconventional sounds — is a natural byproduct of his upbringing, he says — "If you've grown up here, you're bound to have certain influences," — but beyond that, language is something he's been reflecting on of late. "How do we make this grow out of this tiny indie scene we have? I don't see how the music is moving people beyond the same 20-25 people who're there at a gig. Lyrically, we wonder how we can go beyond that same crowd." He's considering writing lyrics in Hindi to reach out to more people, not sticking only to English. "Why not, man? Why not make something that helps you communicate with people? At the end of the day, we are doing this, we're making music, to be heard and to communicate. A lot of the audience would open itself up if only the language were different. I'm not talking about Hindi like... jaanu or saajan or slang Hindi, like Aati kya, Khandala types. Just regular Hindi. It's something I'm still debating in my head. I've grown to see this great divide between the people who listen to the music." It's this thoughtful, introspective approach to spreading his music that seems to be serving him well.