Indian Ocean on their 27-year-long journey and what it took to keep the band together

Popular New Delhi-based rock band performed in Hyderabad for the recent NH7 Weekender. 

A Harini Prasad Published :  09th February 2018 06:00 PM   |   Published :   |  09th February 2018 06:00 PM

Left to right: Amit, Rahul, Nikhil, Himanshu and Tuheen

When Indian Ocean performed the closing act at the NH7 Weekender Hyderabad in late January, the crowd rose in unison and swayed to the tunes of Bandhe (from Black Friday) and some of their other unreleased songs. A pioneer in the country’s indie music scene, this New Delhi-based rock band has an illustrious career of 27 years and shows no signs of slowing down. 

However, apart from their iconic folk-rock sounds and the breathtaking performance in the recent music festival, Hyderabadis have more reasons to love the band – the newest member of the current line-up, guitarist Nikhil Rao (who joined the team a couple of years ago). This self-taught musician met the other band members in Singapore and jammed with them a few times, before being offered to join the band. “Nikhil was fresh out of college and it was a unanimous decision to pick him. In fact, he has a following of his own in this city. Every time we’re here, he takes us to some popular Biryani joints after the show,” says Anurag Rao, tour manager. He adds that much of Nikhil’s work can be seen in their upcoming album that is set to release in August this year.

Road to success
With over seven albums, a few film scores and about thousand concerts across five continents, Indian Ocean spearheaded the fusion rock genre in India back in the 1990s. Their distinctive sound of contemporary rock blended with folk, jazz and fusion have earned them quite a following. However, success did not come easily to Indian Ocean, especially in their early years. Although their first album (Indian Ocean released in 1993) sold about 40,000 copies, it took them more than four months to get a gig opportunity. “There was no money, no gigs and nothing happening. Luckily, we believed in what we were doing and had supportive families who saw us through those days,” says Amit Kalam, drummer and vocalist.

Having said that, it’s not a surprise that the five-piece band thinks it’s much easier for a musician to have a career today than it was two decades ago, courtesy the increasing number of live venues and distributing options.  “Almost everyone has a studio set up in their bedroom. This is mostly liberating and we support it but it also brings about some mediocrity and lack of quality control,” the 44-year-old artiste shares. The flip side, he adds, is that it is harder to get noticed in a world where everyone has ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’. “But there will still be that uncle who goes ‘Music and all is okay, but what do you want to do with your life beta?’”


Through thick and thin 
Over the years, the five-piece outfit has been through turbulent years – the death of Asheem Chakravarty in December 2009 and Susmit Sen’s exit in 2013, which signalled the departure of the two founding members. Although the band stuck together through the tough times, there were a few phases when everybody thought it was the end. “Running bands and keeping people together aren’t easy. Often, creative and personality differences take root. Arguments over remuneration and composer credit happen. But we trudged along,” says Amit.

Meanwhile, the band also inducted a few new faces in the last decade. Vocalist Himanshu Joshi was invited by ex-member Susmit for one of their jamming sessions before he joined full time. “Himanshu is the most systematic and methodical human being that has existed. He was ready with his notes, lyrics, notations of every song we had ever done and blew us away,” he adds. Tuheen Chakravarthy was recommended by tabla player Gyan Singh. So how difficult was it for the members to adapt to each others’ styles of music? “Even though this line-up has been stable for five years now, it takes time. We aren’t in any hurry. We largely work for ourselves,” shares bass guitarist and vocalist Rahul Ram, who joined the band in 1991.


Bollywood encounters
Indian Ocean was one of the first few bands that broke ground in the indie music industry with their compositions for Anurag Kashyap’s film Black Friday. One could say that such collaborations in the early ’2000s widened the scope for indie artistes to try their hand in mainstream cinema. With song length restrictions and deadlines, the band adds that making music for movies is quite different from their usual works. “We write music to a brief, to a scene, often to lyrics. There is often a lot of back and forth. We enjoy the process, but making our own songs is closer to our heart!”

Changing dynamics
Belonging to a time when CDs and tapes were the way of listening to music, the band has seen the industry move from the former to the present-day YouTube and online streaming. “It is exciting, you never know where the next Jacob Collier or Jon Gomm is coming from, but it has a huge underbelly, which is that very few make any actual money,” shares Rahul.

Despite numerous ups and downs, Indian Ocean continues to produce fresh tunes with their unique style of music that has certainly helped them penetrate into a wider Indian listener base. If you have watched their documentary, Home – the Life & Music of Indian Ocean (released in 2010), Rahul talks about ‘Soch mat’ (Don’t think) being their school of thought (which is also the name of their upcoming song). Ask him if it has changed in the recent years, and the 54-year-old music composer says, “I don’t know. Honestly, we go by what the term conveys – Zyada socho mat!”

Advice for aspiring musicians:
Lage raho! Don’t expect too much too soon. Do what you enjoy and not necessarily what is popular. Be clear if you want to make a band or your own individual career.​

Current favourites:
Skrat, Parvaaz, Local Train, Kraken, The Revisit Project and Naezy

Pics: Ashima Yadava