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Indian Ocean on ‘Tu Hai’ tour: ‘We are a band that is best experienced live’

Indian Ocean band's guitarist Nikhil Rao, an engineer turned musician, spoke about what took the band almost a decade to come up with their eighth album ‘Tu Hai’, their work in film music, and the importance of live performances.

May 27, 2023 / 10:11 AM IST
The Indian Ocean band, (clockwise from centre, front) Rahul Ram, Himanshu Sharma, Amit Kilam, Tuheen Chakravorty and Nikhil Rao, is currently touring with the their eighth album' Tu Hai'.

The Indian Ocean band, (clockwise from centre, front) Rahul Ram, Himanshu Sharma, Amit Kilam, Tuheen Chakravorty and Nikhil Rao, is currently touring with the their eighth album' Tu Hai'.

Indian Ocean put out their latest album Tu Hai earlier this month. And this much-awaited one where the band takes on a spiritual, contemplative route, is their eighth album in 33 years and means a lot to the iconic fusion rock band that has been loved over the years for their music.

Indian Ocean band's eighth album, ‘Tu Hai’ . Indian Ocean band's eighth album, ‘Tu Hai’ .

The band, comprising Rahul Ram (bass guitarist and vocalist), Nikhil Rao (guitarist), Amit Kilam (drummer, vocalist, and percussionist), Himanshu Joshi (vocalist), and Tuheen Chakravorty (percussionist), recently performed in Mumbai’s Dublin Square, Phoenix Market City. This weekend they perform in Gurugram, Chandigarh and Dehradun. Engineer-turned-musician Nikhil Rao spoke on behalf of the band to Moneycontrol on what took them around a decade to come up with the six-track album Tu Hai, about their work in films, importance of live performances, rise of indie music and more. Edited excerpts:

Tell us all about your latest album.  What all is different about this one and why did it take around a decade to release?

Tu Hai is our eighth album. Our last Tandanu was released in 2014, so, yes, it’s been a very long time; nine years in the making. We lost three years due to COVID-19, so it's six years. Actually, in the last few years, we have been busy doing shows, music for the films Masaan (2015), Chakki (2022), Kanpuriye (2019) and Jugaadistan (2022, an OTT series). We also did a play (Babasaheb Ambedkar). There were around 30 songs in those six years, before COVID happened, that we have not included in Tu Hai. It’s true we tend to take a fairly long time between our album releases, because we create songs, we internalise it and get all of us in sync with what the message is, what we are trying to convey. But yes, I want to promise my fans that the next album will not take so many years. It will be a lot sooner.

It’s been 33 years and just eight albums, why?

It’s not a race for us. When you are doing independent music, it takes a longer time because we want to do it the way we like, without any industry support and without much sponsorship. We put our heads together, we pool in our resources and then we do the release. It doesn’t really weigh heavily on our minds that in three decades we gave only eight albums. We give every single song as much love and affection as we can, and so it takes the time that it does.

You had started experimenting with the fusion of rock with Indian folk and classical traditions in the 1990s — how was it?

Everybody in the Indian Ocean is self-taught. In the first version of the band, everyone had their own influences and grew up with a lot of music from various parts of the world and they did not have any boundaries in their head, and felt free to experiment, try, fail. It wasn’t a contrived effort to be a fusion band and the music that emerged was the natural outpouring of everybody’s influences and what they wanted to say with their voices and their instruments.

You performed in Mumbai last week, what did it mean to you guys?

We are a band from Delhi and Mumbai is a very special place for us. We’d stayed in Mumbai for three months doing the background score and music for the film Black Friday (2004) and it is a city in which the band has a lot of strong associations. We have a lot of friends, family, and fond memories in this city. There is a great loyal fan following in Bombay. It is such a busy city and getting from one place to another is not so easy but whether we play in Thane, Kurla, Bandra, or in town, people just show up! We get to see a lot of the same set of faces over and over again and also so many new faces. And we are happy that even after so many years people still want to come and listen to us live. Indian Ocean is a band that is best experienced live and we put most of our energy and thought into it. We were so happy to play in Mumbai and we are looking to come here several times a year. There are so many things to love about Mumbai but, most of all, it is the people. People here are by far the nicest, sweetest, and kindest, than most people in the country.

There is a distinct rise in independent music after the pandemic. What is your take on this?

The indie music scene in India is doing incredibly well. What is most interesting is that bands are coming up from surprising places. Not just the conventional places like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore but there are bands from Kochi, Pune, Indore, Ahmedabad. It’s so heartening. Young people are freer and they are more open-minded, they are willing to experiment, they are willing to try and fail, so they are all doing different kinds of music and all kinds of experiments are being conducted. More power to them! We love listening to new indie music.

Your music has changed over the years. What do you have to say on that?

Change is the only constant. Not just our music, even the line up has changed. I have been in the band for 10 years. I took over from Susmit Sen, the original founder of the band. He had a very distinctive and unique style of playing. I am here on the scene with my own set of influences and ideas, and it changes over time. Sometimes, you get a little bored of what you did before, sometimes you want to break away from it and want to experiment in different directions.

Losing Asheem Chakravarty and Susmit Sen, how did that affect your band?

Well, losing Asheem was a tragedy that nobody was prepared for. He was a key member of the band, an iconic voice, a very creative, warm human being. He is missed and still talked about every day in the Indian Ocean. Susmit reached a point where he wanted to pursue his own solo career which was based around his compositions and his thoughts, which he felt was being diluted in the Indian Ocean. So, best wishes to him because he was the guy who started the band and got everyone together.

Debarati S. Sen is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and consultant content creator. Instagram: @DebaratiSSen