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Connected & Disconnected: Donn Bhat Is Never Signing Out

Connected & Disconnected: Donn Bhat Is Never Signing Out

The music composer discusses 'Connected' and its underlying theme of life in a big city.

A stray mandolin is lying in one corner. In another is a stringed instrument called the dulcimer, from the zither family. For what it’s worth, this instrument is made in such a way that it’s literally impossible to hit an off note. I tried. Everything sounds perfect in a mawkish, zither-like way. We’re inside Anant ‘Donn’ Bhat’s studio, which he’s set up inside his house in Yari Road. There are actual trees around. There’s a bass guitar that gets no attention. Obviously a Macbook. Some fancy, expensive-looking synths and MIDI controllers. A whole bunch of guitar pedals. The walls have a damp, musty essence — a spicy swirl of the soundproofing material used and Mumbai’s inbred humidity. His guitar, a new Fender Jazzmaster, is resting downstairs in his car. Bhat is a self-confessed insomniac, so this room transforms into his little playground once the sun sets.

Connect Donn BhatProducer/composer Donn Bhat's third album, Connected, is now out

Giving us company are two big bottles of almost-cold Tuborg beer, split three ways. It’s well after 2 AM. Iggy and Pop, his two cats, are fast asleep in a different room. Bhat’s new seven-song album, Connected, has just released on this day. It’s a committed guitar album couched as a slick electronic product. Or it’s a wandering electronic record, on the surface showing off its heavy guitar-rock sensibility proudly, before it reveals itself. It applies both ways.

We’re at what’s known in Mumbai circles as the after-after-after party. We’d met at a gig in Khar earlier, where Bhat, excited about his release, had been buying beers for pretty much anyone within one-arm-distance. He’d been a little annoyed about the release of the album getting delayed on one of the platforms it was supposed to be out on. “This wouldn’t have happened with Nucleya!” he’d said, only half in jest. But overall, he seems relieved and happy.

In between testing out the timbre of the mandolin, we begin to discuss the idea of “honesty” in music — how it’s a fluid assessment, often projected or ‘felt’ than designed deliberately. We take a quick break to stare at our phones for a bit; to see what’s going on in the virtual world. He’s content with how Connected has turned out; if nothing else, he says, it’s honest and done with the right intent.

Producer/composer Donn Bhat's third album, Connected, is now out This is what a large part of 'Connected' is about. Urban existence and its faint undercurrent of ennui

It’s a reflection of who he is — both as a singer/composer/producer/guitar-player, as well as a person. In time honoured musician tradition, Bhat is celebrating a new release by tanking up, maybe as a way to sort of relive the highs that the process of creation provides constantly. Soon though, the beer is over. Which brings us to the sixth song of the album, called ‘The Beer Was Over’. It’s Bhat’s version of a ‘happy song’, and it’s about nostalgia, and the bravado and artificial motivation that accompanies binge-drinking in the early hours of the morning. And then the beer finishes. Is it about alcoholism, I ask. “No, it’s about my love for beer,” he laughs. We decide to reconvene at a later date.

This is what a large part of Connected is about. Urban existence and its faint undercurrent of ennui. Life in a big city. Being a 20- or 30-something (Bhat is 34) and navigating traffic. Getting a meal somewhere. Breathing dirty air. Staying up half the night. The perils (or otherwise) of privilege. Technology. Viral videos and resentment. The professional and the personal. The “superficial idea of success”. It’s about boredom.

‘Spinning World’ features Bhat repeating “I’m spinning away”. In his heavy, floating voice, he asks: “Spinning world/did you notice/night from day?/Aren’t you bored yet/Of spinning away?” Discussing the song, he says, “We get a let of information, and then mistake it for wisdom. I have a big problem with that; a distaste for that moral high ground.” His lyricism reflects this weariness, an ironic acceptance of this life — a life he both embraces and mocks — while at the same time yearning for simplicity. There is, somewhat, a theme of artificial reality running through the album. “I think,” he says, “that’s just what I anyway gravitate towards when you leave me in a room to write music.”

In essence, he is almost writing simplistic rock songs within a framework of electronic music In essence, he is almost writing simplistic rock songs within a framework of electronic music

The music, too, follows that same pitter-pattery whirl of contrasts, casually wobbling and jousting. ‘The Beer Was Over’ transforms from a laissez-faire stroll into a frantic assertion of its themes with a sudden explosion and an eerie rhythmic diversion. ‘The Storm’, which references the climax of 1984, sees a distant guitar line set against its playful rhythm structure, before the sarangi further pulls apart its different motifs.

Even Bhat’s own voice, which he uses far more than he has before here, is set against the rather idiosyncratic and up-front stylistic tendencies of Toymob (aka Ashar Farooqui, who’s a part of IJA and has also been involved in experimental outfits such as Envision and Teddy Boy Kill). The songs have a colourful brightness to them, without ever resorting to electronic or instrumental gimmickry, with well-known Kolkata-based producer Miti Adhikari lending his skills for the mixing and mastering of four of the tracks. Throughout the seven songs, the record keeps wrapping around itself — it sheds and amasses layers repeatedly, as lavish as it is constricting.

He has gigs lined up across the country in support of the new album He has gigs lined up across the country in support of the new album

I call him again a few days later. I can’t get through. He calls back. But the signal is weak and crackling. So I call him back, on WhatsApp this time. We decide to meet at the Doolally Taproom in Andheri West. Over a couple of rounds of their very light wheat beer, the Belgian Wit, he tells me about his transition from Delhi, where he’s from originally, to Mumbai. We’re in the al fresco area, at which point an unseasonal bout of hostile rain — it’s October, traditionally sticky and aggressively hot — starts pelting down. The place is also pet-friendly, so a yappy, overfriendly Labrador vies for our attention from time to time. We talk about the standout song (for me) from the album, the title track, ‘Connected’. It’s in a way a comment on the modern dependency on technology — our phones specifically — and that relationship: in his own words, ‘Connected’ is a “love song for a phone”. As the words go: “You’re my plastic friend.”

Bhat used to play the guitar in a metal band called Friday the 13th in Delhi many years ago, before taking over guitar/electronics duties in Orange Street. He also does a lot of commercial advertising work, earning his keep through his music as well as commissioned projects. Connected is his third solo release, and while the previous one, Passenger Revelator, was chockfull of collaborations, this time he keeps the process restricted to his own vision, while the constant musical interaction with Toymob, whose sensibility he very much respects and often shares, adds a welcome back-and-forth dynamic. It’s a self-assured, confident release: “I don’t have any idea what I’m going to write about usually. But this time, I tried to make it singular; keep it in the same zone. [Not just the lyrics] I’ve tried to maintain a consistency to the ‘sounds’ used on the album as well.” (The album closer, ‘Desh Bhakti’, does have a jarring quality to it though, not quite fitting in with the previously established subjects, what with its politically-charged proclamations, but it remains an interesting experiment nevertheless.)

Connected had been in the works for the past two years, and has been recorded at studios all over, before finally reaching Miti Adhikari’s hands for the mixing process, which, he tells me, involved a lot of late-night bonding over rum before things got going. Now that the album’s out, there’s lots he wants to explore. To begin with, he’s written an acoustic, “Dylan-inspired” song featuring Tajdar Junaid as well, while the immediate plan is to develop an engaging live set — discard songs that may not work in a live environment; maybe even work out accompanying visuals. To promote the album, he has gigs lined up in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, and Chennai. But for the most part, Bhat is just enjoying the emotional release of putting out a record that’s been close to him for a while: “It’s therapeutic in a way, this process of creation. You work on something and put it out. But I feel, jo kehna tha, woh thode time ke liye keh diya hai.” Soon though, the beer is over, so we head our separate ways.

 

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By Akhil Sood
Photo credits: Srijan Mahajan /  Emmanuelle de Decker