Evolution of post rock in India: How the sub-genre trounced unfamiliarity and apathy to earn a loyal following

Bangalore, 2005. Members of the band Lounge Piranha met twice a week. They spent hours jamming, letting their minds connect, allowing ideas to flow freely, and giving the sound the space to evolve into something intimately original. In looking to then describe their sound, they turned to the internet to research different genres. “I came across this thing called post rock,” recalls vocalist and guitarist Abhijeet Tambe, and since their “jams were super spacey and post rock-y”, they decided to use the sub-genre tag, making Lounge Piranha among the first post rock bands in India.

This was partly fuelled by Tambe’s interest in bands that had been around earlier and had related sounds, like Sigur Rós, Mogwai, Radiohead, Velvet Underground, and Sonic Youth, among others. But the other reason they decided to use the tag was simply because it was funny. “Saying ‘post’ something is always [considered] a cooler thing than the thing itself,” says Tambe.

This decision was in keeping with their overall approach to music, reflecting the one quality that above all else characterised Lounge Piranha: irreverence.

While the local scene at the time was dominated by metal, the band, through their jams, created a sound that pushed purposely in the other direction. Even as people advised them to play songs when they got on stage, Lounge Piranha, as a matter of principle, opened every set with a jam, taking listeners with them as they ventured into unknown territory. “It was our way of warming up with each other, speaking to each other and making a connection, before we actually started playing any songs.” While most bands took covers seriously, they indulged in parody covers, from performing punk versions of pop icon Britney Spears’ music to doing metal parody covers, and even picking up viral Kannada songs of the time like Rajkumar’s ‘If You Come Today’. “Whatever people loved to do at the time, we used to just take that and destroy that song,” says Tambe.

So while they never consciously tried to shape their sound in any way, and one could argue against calling their 2008 album Going Nowhere a post rock record, it’s their boldness that was in keeping with the ethos of post rock.

The spirit of post rock is essentially subversive, born as it was as a reaction to a certain established homogeneity.

In the mid-90s, British music critic Simon Reynolds noticed an un-imaginativeness setting into the alternative rock being produced, describing it in a 1994 article in The Wire as “the musical equivalent of reproduction antiques.”

But, in as much as the dreary and repetitive is constantly challenged by the fresh and innovative, he noticed the emergence of new groups. Subverting the established practices and sounds of the time, these groups’ sounds ranged from electronic to ambient and art rock to avant rock, leading Reynolds to describe them as “venturing into a more financially precarious, but aesthetically vital hinterland-without-a-name.” So Reynolds gave them the name ‘post rock,’ a term he thought “open ended yet precise enough to cover all this activity.”

(Although Reynolds is widely credited with bringing the term into public consciousness by using it in another 1994 article to describe English group Bark Psychosis’ album Hex, he did not coin the term. For more about its etymology, see Reynolds’ 2005 blog post about how, by the mid-90s, the term had already been floating around for over a decade.)

It’s this open-endedness that allowed the term to spread, eventually offering itself to a band in Bangalore almost a decade later.

And although Lounge Piranha disbanded in 2011, through their irreverence, they had breathed fresh life into an almost homogenous local scene. By challenging established practices and sounds, they were inspiring younger musicians to explore and experiment with music, and were introducing alternate ideas about the sounds and behaviours that were possible on stage. While neither the band itself nor audiences really knew what post rock was at the time, Tambe recalls that “by the time [their] band stopped doing it, [he] started seeing a lot of bands, especially those based out of Bangalore, [taking up the sub-genre].” “I started seeing a lot more post rock in India after that,” he says, as outfits like Eternal Twilight, Until We Last, and Farfetch’d took off around that time.

Even as sporadic activity continued, the big surge for post rock in India came around 2014-16. During those years, several international acts associated with the sub-genre toured India, including Tides From Nebula, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and 65daysofstatic. Post rock had started entering the collective consciousness of the scene, as a sub-genre worthy of one’s attention. It was in this electric atmosphere that aswekeepsearching (AWKS), arguably the biggest post rock band in the country today, released their EP Growing Suspicious in 2014, and debut album Khwaab in 2015. “I remember in 2015, there were somewhere close to 11-12 active post rock bands,” recalls AWKS’ guitarist and vocalist Uddipan Sarmah.

With increasing activity came the need to really understand the term.

Reynolds had, of course, offered a definition when introducing the term in 1994. “Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes,” he wrote, following it with the example of “using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and power-chords.” This became the most widely used way of explaining the term.

But as often happens with art, it soon came to be that no single definition of post rock could fully encapsulate all the music the term was coming in associating with.

“I still don’t know [what] the definition of post rock is,” says Lounge Piranha drummer George Mathen, also an artist under the moniker Appupen. “It has to be a progression from a standard rock and roll set… Like we’re taking rock and doing something so it’s not just rock, it’s post rock. It should be like that, if you take it in the art sense. But even in art, it’s [post] also a term to make everything vague. Like if you’re doing modern art you can do anything. So post and alt modern, it became like that… Like how art is described in the Biennale,” he adds with a laugh.

While identifying musical elements, ascribing the sub-genre tag seems prudent. For Sarmah, “Post rock has always been about emotions. It’s about the steadiness and patience which it asks for. Because you don’t have too many things happening in the sound. There’s no second verse, chorus, [or] bridge. Just the flow of the music. And you can connect with it any way you want,” he explains.

This sense of freedom and being able to connect with the music in whatever way feels most instinctive is perhaps what draws several listeners to the sub-genre. What emotion is a certain chord evoking? What past experiences are being recalled through a soundscape? Does a particular layer of music sound buoyant and hopeful, or does it seem like a familiar wail one is holding inside?

Whatever the response, post rock rewards attentive, participatory listening.

This freedom is what Ronnie (Supratik Sarthak), an avid post rock fan, was craving when listening to songs with lyrics. “The problem I faced was, there are some songs which make me feel very happy but the lyrics are speaking about sad things. So it automatically creates quite a lot of disturbance for me. I have a conflict of emotion,” he says about the unwanted emotional tangent lyrics can sometimes lead to. “But with post rock, it’s all up to you. You decide whether it’s a sad song. A sad song can be a happy song for you and nobody has to say so. I can listen to one song and be happy today and sad tomorrow. Which is fascinating for me.” This is also how he introduces the sub-genre to new listeners: “Imagine, if you could remember all your dreams. Post rock is the soundtrack to all your dreams.”

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While the ambiguity and vastness of post rock offers musicians a boundless playing field where one can be experimental and innovative, there are also those who find comfort under the cloak of a seemingly undefinable term, as they then find the space to peddle mediocrity. “That post rock charm went away,” recalls Mathen. “[Sometimes,] people are just not practiced. You can tell in the first two minutes that they’ve lost their trip. That is also considered post rock… I thought it was a very lazy and effortless scene,” he says. This attitude stems partly from some musicians’ lack of willingness to put in any real effort, given the near-absence of monetary returns. “So if you can wing it, just pretend on stage and get away with it; most of the wannabe rock musicians get what they want,” adds Mathen, about the ostentatiously ‘rockstar’ behaviour some of the artistes put on. In this overpopulated milieu, Mathen finds that several genuine artistes got lost being caught up in complicated names and “long songs, which didn’t go anywhere.”

Unfortunately, such music also found an audience of listeners who were not genuinely engaging with the music and therefore, not identifying quality. “I’m not a big fan of the audience here,” says Mathen. “If you’ve ever played in a Hard Rock you’ll know. People are just talking. We’re like a replacement for a speaker. We could be in a glass case along with Prince’s underwear. Sometimes, if we have a quieter patch, you can hear the crowd noise and glasses and plates over us.”

While a lack of attention and respect from audiences is a phenomenon across much of the scene, this mentality is especially exacerbated in the case of instrumental music. “It’s extremely difficult to sell instrumental music to an Indian audience, because they are not very accustomed to listening to [such music],” says Ronnie. “Most people believe that post rock is usually used for background music, like music to study or something. Like they do some work with post rock, don’t listen to post rock as a whole,” he adds.

Without lyrics and the verse-chorus structure, post rock often throws new listeners off. “At the [2018] God Is An Astronaut show this guy was standing next to me, and halfway through the set he went ‘what the hell, does the vocalist need backup support or something?’” says Ronnie, about audiences waiting for lyrics. “India is still not very knowledgeable [about] and exposed to niche genres like post rock,” says Sarmah. If one isn’t first aware of the sub-genre then listeners find something lacking in the music or don’t often connect to it easily.

Here again, post rock’s subversive spirit demands an expansion of the listeners’ idea of what musical aesthetics comprise.

The lack of serious attention to instrumental music also means that artists face greater challenges, as they try to explore instrumental genres. For instance, AWKS’ latest album Sleep, released during the COVID-19 lockdown on 17 April, boasts calming ambient music while focusing on themes like relaxation and mental health — an “extension” to their 2019 release Rooh. But when they turned to online stores to distribute the music, the lack of demand from audiences meant the genre tag simply wasn’t available. “Think about this. When you upload something from India, you don’t have an option for ambient. Because people in India don’t listen to ambient,” says Sarmah.

But besides the mental barrier against instrumental music, there’s another aspect of audience attitude that led to the mid-2010s’ high, to a gradual fizzling out. “I think India has those phases where every new genre comes in with a bang, and then fades away,” says Sarmah. He’s talking about the trend of rise and fall of genres in the scene, like prog, then djent, post rock, and now hip-hop. This is the result of a vicious cycle of promoters only giving shows to whatever genre is trending, and audiences consuming the latest trends instead of genuinely engaging with the music. “Don’t like a few things!” is Sarmah’s response to this audience attitude. “Only then can we have a proper audience. [Right now], there’s no solid community in this country. That’s why a couple of bands will survive and the rest will all fade away,” he adds.

The attitude of fellow musicians as listeners also hinders community-building. “When we were small, we got support from everyone in the industry. The moment we started getting a little bigger, everyone stopped supporting us.” Without a loyal audience and consistent support, building a community proves to be tough.

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While individual bands still struggle, a community of listeners genuinely interested in post rock is slowly growing. Around 2014-15, when Ronnie first took to the sub-genre, he couldn’t find many takers for it, and conversation about it was limited to a handful of Facebook groups that shared underground music. It was during this time that he decided to start the YouTube channel wherepostrockdwells, so he could share and promote underground music. “Post rock is a very umbrella term; it’s a massive thing. It’s very difficult to point to a band and say ‘you sound like post rock but you’re not’. I just keep an open mind,” he says about the music on his channel, as he uses the sub-genre tag as an all-encompassing term.

“It’s a niche genre, but right now I think it’s coming more in the limelight because a lot of post rock has been used in movie soundtracks and in mainstream media as well,” says Ronnie.

Over the years, he has observed a growth in the awareness of the sub-genre and an increase in the number of fans for post rock bands in India. Today, according to the data Ronnie has collected over the years, India has 80 active post rock bands, and the scene has seen a total of 92 bands whose sound relates to the sub-genre, with bands emerging largely from Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Delhi. In 2020 alone, 10 bands have released a new album or EP, including Seeking Atlantis by Beluga, Hitherto. by Hitherto, An Exercise in Patience by Little Whales, and the eponymous MOIN, among others.

“Plus the overall post rock community has increased exponentially,” says Ronnie, as his database lists a total of 4,370 active post rock bands in the world. “Reddit, I’ve heard has 50,000 people in the post rock community, which is awesome. When I started, I think there were about 2,000-3,000 people,” is his observation of emerging trends among listeners. His own YouTube channel has 1,46,000 subscribers today.

As the community grows, the pressing question of gender disparity remains. It is not, for instance, by chance that all my interviewees are male. Female post rock artists are scarce and as for listeners, the analytics of Ronnie’s channel reveal that roughly 85 percent of his audience is male, an imbalance reflected across much of the Indian scene.

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In the face of the pandemic, it seems a futile undertaking to try and predict its effect on listening habits and the scene at large, let alone the future of the sub-genre. But what can be said with certainty is that post rock as a sound is varied enough to appeal to any mood, especially during prevailing times of mounting anxiety, frustration, with sporadic interjections of gratitude for the smallest signs of hope. And although live music is not an option at the moment, post rock lends itself just as easily to private consumption with headphones. So open your mind, close your eyes, and give post rock a listen.

— Featured image: AWKS during the Rooh tour. Facebook/aswekeepsearching




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