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Donn Bhat.
Donn Bhat.

No excess baggage

Donn Bhat and his band are set to light up the stage at the Glastonbury music festival

Imagine a music festival with a dream line-up, featuring the likes of Kanye West, The Who, The Zombies, Motörhead, Buzzcocks, Billy Bragg, Donovan and Burt Bacharach. Well, that’s the Glastonbury music festival for you this year. Most Indian acts would probably do anything to perform at such a huge event. A few years ago, Raghu Dixit got the chance. This year, the Mumbai electro pop and rock act Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator will be the sole Indian representative at the festival. They will perform on 26 June. Guitar player, producer and songwriter Donn Bhatt has been performing solo and even released an album, One Way Circle, since 2006. By then, Bhatt was already a veteran in the Indian rock music scene having played guitar for the bands Friday the 13th and Orange Street. Perhaps, the urge to be part of a group again prompted him to form his own band, Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator, in 2012.

Passenger Revelator plays with many genres and styles as the self-titled album from 2014 shows—electronica, rock, pop, funk and even Indian folk and ethnic music. While a song such as Stars Align is dreamy bedroom pop, Samson Delilah sounds like a fusion of 1960s garage and electronic; 107 features guest vocals by Malabika Brahma, a Baul singer from Kolkata.

For his appearance at Glastonbury 2015, where he will perform at the Toad Hall stage, Bhat is appearing with his long-time collaborator Ashwin Andrew, the erstwhile drummer for Orange Street, and Suhail Yusuf Khan, the young sarangi player from the Delhi band Advaita. Bhat spoke to us about his music and his forthcoming gig at Glastonbury. Edited excerpts:

You are performing at Glastonbury, and I am sure that it is a very big thing for you. With so many big names performing at Glastonbury, are you wary that your music might get lost in the mix featuring so many known faces?

Absolutely. It’s a huge thing for me to be playing at Glastonbury. The biggest bands and artistes are playing. The whole size of the festival is 500 football fields I’m told, with some 100 performance stages. Am I wary? No, I don’t see music as a competition. I’m excited and nervous, yes…I’m hoping that we have great gig with good sound and can make a few new friends and fans along the way.

You have been performing solo for many years before you formed Passenger Revelator. What made you look towards a fuller band sound?

Actually I had been a solo bedroom music producer making tunes and putting them up on Soundcloud and other online platforms before 2012. I was working and reworking the music as I do everything myself—writing, recording, mixing, etc. A regular band set-up only happened after 2012, after the music was spread a fair bit online.

When I did decide to start playing live it was natural to get together a band because that was what I had grown up doing, playing live with musicians. I need that energy on stage to perform. Also, most of my music is written with very specific instrument parts. I do have to wear the hats of a drummer, bass player, guitar player, singer or whatever else, so it was natural for the music to be played out like that.

Where does the name of the band come from?

The Passenger by Iggy Pop is one of my favourite songs, and music for me among other things has been an instrument in revelation of my own self and the world around. It’s like an old friend that you can ignore for months and still find something new to talk with. But most of all, I think the name Passenger Revelator just had a thing to it that rang well for me as a name.

One of your recent tracks, ‘107’ has lyrics that are inspired by the ‘Rubaiyat’ of Omar Khayyam and features Baul vocals. Are you actively trying to pursue this blend of electronic and rock music and distinct Indian elements?

I always approach each song as its own identity. I don’t have a certain pre-decided way of working or a genre that I only stick with that works for me. It’s really the song that dictates everything. With 107, it had started out as an instrumental before I happened to meet Malabika at a Baul music festival outside Santiniketan. A month later we recorded Malabika’s vocals and mine; then the outro of the song was also a complete accident that really became my favourite part of the song. Some tracks do lend themselves to blending certain elements but not all of them. But yes, as a songwriter/producer, I do want to be surprised by what I hear myself making. If that won’t happen I will probably abandon the song pretty early on…which I do a lot. So in a way, yes, I do look to blend different genres in a way that would work for the song and keep my mind interested in it.

For your Glastonbury gig, you are collaborating with drummer Ashwin Andrew and sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan. Will your music change radically with this set-up?

The music will not change radically. I will play songs off the last album and the coming up EP called Connected and also the two songs that Suhail and I had worked on before. The sarangi will be featured as a sound over a certain set of songs. I do think that Indian instrument will connect with people who haven’t heard the instrument before especially in this context of music.

What can you tell us about the songs on the EP?

The new EP is more centred on a sound of folk-lyric driven electronica. The title track Connected is about realizing that I must be in love with my phone since it’s what I reach out to every morning, half asleep and dreaming. So it’s a love song for a phone.

Another one is called Figured Out, which is about living in a city and going to the mall as the most exciting part about it. Spinning World is about wondering if the earth is just a person who is bored of all the speculation about her. Does it even matter to her if we think she’s a circle or a square? The Storm is the last track and Toy Mob wrote the lyrics to that. It’s about reason collapsing and what remains after that.

You have had a long career in music starting with the rock bands Friday the 13th and Orange Street. Now these bands are almost from a different era… Are there any things from that earlier time that you miss?

I think today there are more opportunities but back then it was a much smaller scene, and not many people were really making original music then. There was a novelty factor to be playing in a band… but if I miss anything it would be cheaper beer!

Electronic music is now huge in India. But do you see any pitfalls that such a deluge of electronic music can create?

I suspect what you are referring to is EDM or commercial electronic music. From the artistes’ point of view, I think in every genre of music there exists a huge bunch of artistes who are just following the guy who did something original or successful before them. Be it jazz, Bollywood or EDM, there are artistes who push the line and take it a notch higher or to another exciting space for everyone around. What happens after that is everyone comes on to that same sound thinking it’s going to be their quick ticket to fame. Look at the thousands of blues or rock bands from the 1970s or divas from the 1990s or dubstep artistes of today or was that yesterday? So it’s more like a business opportunity than music. As far as electronic music goes, I think most people here think of electronic music as EDM, which it’s not. There are some incredible musicians using technology—jazz cats embracing digital sounds, guitar players making surreal ambient music, drummers making groovy drum ‘n’ bass, and the imperative word being “using" to make beautiful music. It’s not abusing technology to make mass-produced garbage. I think it’s sad but understandable that electronic music gets misunderstood.

From an audience point of view, I think there is a small but growing independent music scene that will listen to an indigenous artiste, but it still cannot compete in terms of just numbers.

You are originally from Delhi, but you have been working in Mumbai now for some years. How does the proximity of the Hindi film industry affect your work?

Working on a brief for music is challenging, exciting, frustrating and rewarding in parts. But what it does do is force you to explore areas which you wouldn’t otherwise, and that is a great thing. Mumbai has some amazing talent pouring in from all across and you always feel the need to keep learning and exploring. Also, I have had the pleasure of working with some amazing session musicians here for work which has been an education in itself.

On the other hand, my own music is not made for mass consumption. The endgame for me has never been about how many people will buy it or how I could sell it. It’s about saying something that might connect with a few people. Sometimes it does feel a little disconnected with what most of the city is about.

Passenger Revelator has had quite a number of “passengers" on board. How do you decide which artistes you want to collaborate with?

Yeah, I’ve been lucky with having some great musicians on board for the band. We started out being six or seven of us at the Ziro festival to now performing as a three-piece. As of now, I’m confident with Toy Mob on vocals and Bhagat on percussion.

And how did the Glastonbury gig happen? Will you be doing other stuff while you are in the UK?

Glastonbury was all through our amazing management at Mixtape who got our music across to the right people. As for after, I’m taking a two-week holiday to Spain.

Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator will perform at Glastonbury 2015 on 26 June.

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