Metal has always been a global phenomenon. However, one of the communities we don't hear too much about outside of some fine work by filmmaker Sam Dunn is India. Decibel wanted to get a closer look at what's going on in India and how globalization and cultural shifts are shaping metal music there. We had the opportunity to talk to Sahil Makhija of Demonstealer Records to get the skinny on what's going on with our metal bretheren and the challenges of running a label and touring in a country of 1.2 billion. Make sure you check out Demonstealer's catalog and connect with them on Facebook.
How did you get interested in metal?
When I was 13 or so I was given some Iron Maiden and Metallica by friends who said I should listen to it instead of pop and techno. Once I had experienced the music I went deeper and deeper and I got into much heavier stuff. It came to a point where the same friends who introduced me to metal thought I was listening to noise.
Where do you live? What is it like?
I live in Mumbai, which is a crazy place. It is like New York but dirtier and with way more poverty and lots of rude, obnoxious people. It is, however, a city quite unlike any other. India is a huge country and Mumbai is the commercial hub. It's also probably the most important city for metal in India along with Bangalore (another Indian city). The history of India and the city is quite vast but the best way to truly understand or experience it is to visit.
What is the metal scene like in India?
Would you believe that we've had metal bands in our country as long ago as the 1980s (and possibly the 70s as well)? The scene in India is more or less undocumented from the early days but there were bands in the 80s playing metal. The only one that is remembered is Millennium who started out in 1988 and recorded and released a few albums as well as released music videos, which got airplay on MTV in India. When I found myself in the local scene it was 1998 and it was mostly cover bands largely throwing in one or two of their own songs. For the most part the metal scene has been the bastard child of the Indie scene in India, at least until recently. So from around 2000 onwards there was a wave of Indian bands that started doing original music. I've been part of this for 15 years and I could probably write a book on it. We still lack infrastructure here to release music and also to organize tours. It's not impossible but it's very tough.
What made you decide to start a label?
It was the simple fact that there was not a single label in India that would touch the music we were making. The only labels here were the major players so it seemed fitting to release my music under my own label. Ironically, my last two albums and the upcoming DR one are being released via Universal Music so finally we did manage to crack that one even though it's only a distribution deal.
You also run a web portal covering Indian metal, correct?
Nope, but we had one website for all independent music back in the day called Gigpad.com and then came rsjonline.com who were also the promoters for the Great Indian Rock Festival. Today we've got about 10-15 independently run blogs and websites. So people are getting involved and doing things. I've had a plan for the longest time to start one but given the amount of things I do it's rather hard to add one more to it.
Are you facing any issues with censorship or problems with freedom of speech? How does Indian culture approach metal?
Surprisingly, no one really gives a shit here because metal is so small it doesn't really get in the way of anyone. In India, all the problems start when you make shitloads of money. We have the regular problems just doing a show because you need to bribe everyone from the police to the government officials but that is mostly when you do big open-air shows and festivals. Corruption is rampant here but the people who work in all these offices don't know, listen or care about metal; they are all into Bollywood. A lot of metal shows happen in universities.
How does the caste system play into Indian metal? Are people able to express their discontent about social structures through music?
While the caste system is prevalent in Indian society it's not really as obvious in modern society, just in our rural areas where there are no traces of English music let alone metal. Metal in India is music of the middle and upper middle class so most kids don't deal with caste systems. I think most Indian metal bands haven't really picked up causes as such because there hasn't been too much trouble. The thing most bands choose to sing about is terrorism because we've been subjected to so much of it over the years. Women’s rights are being brought up due to a very gruesome rape case. A band called Sceptre dedicated their album to the cause of women. Another black metal band called Heathen Beast did an album on the communal riots due to the destruction of a mosque in a place called Ayodhya. So some bands take up causes, others don't.
Has the expansion of the Indian economy and the increase in foreign companies sending jobs to India been good for the metal scene? Do people have more disposable income?
The economy is growing but the price of living is becoming more and more unreasonable. There are constant price hikes. It's actually really expensive living in Mumbai so disposable income doesn't really trickle down to the metal scene here. Another reason is the audience is still very young. Most of the older crowds moved on to something else in life. Since we had no proper scene metal was almost like a 'phase' in college and once you finish you kind of cut your hair, get an office job and go for a fancy dinner instead of a concert.
Do bands in India tour extensively?
Not extensively because we don't have a touring network and venues are a big issue. So there are about three or four cities that have 'music' venues to begin with. Like I said, the metal audience is very young. Most venues have a huge cost to stay open due to the taxes, corruption and all that jazz. Most of these places need to pull in crowds that spend lots of money. Metalheads don't spend money hence most venues are closed off to metal. So what it leaves us with a band having to hire a venue, hire sound, pa, backline and basically be the promoter. In India, we also don't have vans that we can drive around in due to the massive distance between places. It's very hard to do any major touring. At best a band can do four or five cities and it's quite a struggle. Most bands earn and make money of college gigs because they have sponsors and big budgets
Do you get a lot of overseas business?
People are slowly by surely discovering the world of Indian metal. With bands like DR and Kryptos finding a home with international labels and younger Indian bands making trips outside to perform at various festivals and venues with magazines writing about the scene we're seeing a definite interest in our scene and it's only going to get more and more interesting.
What is the most popular genre of metal in India, at least based on your experience with the label?
Each city has a popular genre. I would say overall whatever is trending in the world of metal is popular here. Back in the late 90s and early 2000's when nu metal was huge in the world it was the same in India. We had tons of kids going apeshit over Slipknot and Limp Bizkit. Then came the whole metalcore wave.
Do you think Indian metal will ever get to the level where it is on par with, say, Europe and America?
To be very honest I think when it comes to quality of music being released we're almost on par. We're definitely 20 years behind on everything else. The thing is live music, live bands, guitars, drums, bass etc. are all alien instruments to our culture so there is a long way to go for all these to catch up and get the infrastructure and education in place. The bands that have stuck around could be put on any stage in the world and they will hold their own against any international live band.