Indian indie scene: Who shrunk the music band?

  • Nirmika Singh, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 10, 2015 09:01 IST
From L to R: Imaad Shah and Saba Azad of Madboy/Mink fame.

Madboy/Mink - singer Saba Azad and musician Imaad Shah - can cause a fair amount of confusion to the uninitiated gig-hopper. The Mumbai-based duo's buoyant music - electronica-infused jazz, funk and disco - belies their extremely minimalist set-up on stage. It is limited to a guitar and a workstation that fuels all the overwhelming sounds one hears. But it's more than enough to send their young admirers into a euphoric tizzy; shimmying and swinging to their upbeat music.

Delhi-based electro-rock outfit FuzzCulture's grungy music can turn its audience into a mass of bobbing heads. The band includes drummer Srijan Mahajan and Arsh Sharma as the guitarist, who also handles the electronica mixer, working his magic to make it sound like at least three guitarists are working the fret boards.

Another Mumbai-based band, ViceVersa (founding members Manas Ullas and Rohit 'P-man' Pereira), creates a distinctive and unexplored kind of sound - electro/bass-hip-hop with danceable tracks.

The popularity of these bands and other two-member outfits point to a rising trend in the Indian indie scene - the truncation of the good old rock band. But what's causing the bands to shrink?

The small band phenomenon can be traced back to around the same time when an increasing number of solo DJs started teaming up with other artistes. Four years later, EDM duos like Lost Stories, B.R.E.E.D and BLOT are regular performers at festivals like Sunburn and Supersonic. As a natural progression of the electronica boom, artistes who earlier performed solo or were members of larger outfits broke away to experiment with newer sounds - in this case, a hybrid that mixed live instruments with synthetic sounds.

From L to R: Srijan Mahajan and Arsh Sharma of FuzzCulture.

The two-member band was thus born. The latest electronic drum machines, synthesisers, samplers and vocoders have been the crucial technological catalysts that prompted this evolution. Today, to spearhead a band of their own, artistes simply need access to any of these machines and a good music vision.

Small band, big money
Modern-day duos are gig organiser's darlings. For all commercial reasons, of course: duos require less sound equipment, which means less money spent on hiring them. Logistics - including travel and accommodation - is also scaled down considerably. Smaller venues prefer two-member bands since many of them lack a proper stage area. For instance, Andheri pub The Little Door and Khar's tiny waterhole Three Wise Monkeys are constantly on the lookout for smaller bands that can perform over the weekend. Organisers, too, have their reasons for hiring a smaller band.

"It means less tech (technical gear). More money can be spent on marketing and other aspects of production such as stage art, visuals and lights," says Suyash Mohan, lead operations, Artist Aloud, which organises shows across venues in the city.

So, are duos a threat to the age-old concept of the large band? Vasu Dixit, vocalist of the popular Bengaluru-based folk-rock band Swarathma (which hasn't gone electro yet) feels this trend is "part of the game". He seems diplomatic when he gives organisers the benefit of doubt.

"Yes, as an artiste you feel bad, but I'm sure there must be some logistical issue that forces them to make that choice," he says. Interestingly, a few bigger bands also operate as duos when the budget is tight. Mumbai-based electro-pop band Nicholson - which usually plays as a five to six member band - also does smaller gigs as a duo.

From L to R: Manas Ullas and Rohit Pereira of ViceVersa.

"In those cases, Rohan (Ramanna; percussion and samples) and I perform as a two-piece set-up," informs frontman Sohrab Nicholson. Reggae Rajahs, a five-member band from Delhi, also plays gigs as a duo at a small venue on a tight budget.

The downside
The obvious hitch is that as a smaller set-up, it may not be possible to include too many live instruments. Could this be the reason many electro outfits sound similar and repetitive? Probably. When the same tools are available to everyone, the onus lies with the artiste to find a niche. Shah feels that every artiste is a product of its time and exists for a "creative reason".

What kind of music would Madboy/Mink play if they were to exist in the pre-electronica age? "In 2015, we are interpreting music like jazz, funk and disco that was traditionally played by big bands, in our own, modern way. And if we were in some other time, we would've done this differently," says Shah.

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