Technology, Human Error and Love: Inside Donn Bhat’s ‘Connected’

c9X1A6210Image credit: Neha Dixit

Donn Bhatt just put out his third album, ‘Connected’, on 28 September. Two weeks later, any nervousness on his part seems to have been allayed by an outpouring of love for it on social media. “I’m surprised at how many folks have been sharing it, talking about it and writing in to let me know what they think”, he says, in a tone completely beside the brooding drawl we hear on the album. In any case, there’s no room left for anxiety.

He recently played his first gig in support of the album at Ziro Festival, Arunachal Pradesh, and a hectic launch tour is in the pipeline. Ashhar Farooqui (aka Toymob), a frequent collaborator and band-mate, is en route to Mumbai from his home in Kumaon. The two are going to work on new music, some of which might make it to their setlist. People have also been calling Donn for quotes and interviews. “It’s a busy time”, he says.“I’m really happy.”

A bit weary about dissecting the album’s contents with over enthusiastic writers, he resignedly offers that it’s “a minimal record, man”. Construe that however you like, but ‘Connected’ is definitely his leanest release yet. The sound palette is limited – strings, bass and vocals form the underpinning for a few other embellishments – but the basic elements are explored in a variation of different moods, tempos and volumes. It’s a testament to Donn’s talent as a composer. Despite this straitjacketed approach and the album’s short play time (35 minutes), the songs range from stadium-sized trance melodies that would be at home on a Shpongle record, to others which sound like Bob Dylan finally signed up for a class on modular synthesizers.

cDonn-Bhat---Profile-2---Photo-Credit---Srijan-Mahajan-(1)Image credit: Srijan Mahajan

Lyrically too, Donn meanders less on ‘Connected’. It’s an apt title for an album which draws parallels between modern notions of love, human and technological interaction, existential dread and politics. It’s the chronology of these themes – as they move from personal to political – which creates a sense of narrative that was lacking on 2014’s ‘Passenger Revelator’. Ultimately, it’s an exercise in using Donn’s established ‘leftfield-electronica-meets-pop sound’ for the purpose of better storytelling, “in whatever sense that word relates to music”, says Donn, adding that his parents are both English teachers, “so the books I read early on have really shaped my aesthetic this time”. He loves Ernest Hemingway’s prose, how it’s been pared down to simple sentences, and Kurt Vonnegut’s no frills approach to telling fantastical stories. “I’ve tried to keep things pretty self-evident. I just want people to listen to it and see it for what they see in it.”

Toymob (of Teddy Boy Kill) features on five of the album’s seven tracks. Donn still writes most, and arranges all of the material, but admits that Ashhar’s impact on these tunes is indelible. “He knows exactly what to do with something I’ve been writing”. Take the song ‘Desh Bhakti’, for example. Donn had been working on a dark, downtempo groove with samplings of Tibetan singing bowls and Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’. He felt it sounded a bit empty, until Farooqui decided to perform a spoken word piece he’d previously written over the music. They debuted the song at a performance in Mumbai’s Phoenix Market City, and a refined iteration appears as the final track on ‘Connected’, closing the album on an overtly political note.

A self-confessed gear nerd, Donn’s been shopping around for new equipment since the last LP, and ‘Connected’ is a proving ground for some of the toys he’s acquired.“The bass on Passenger Revelator came out of a computer, but on this one I used a fucking Moog Minotaur dude”, he says, with a little more enthusiasm now. “It’s not easy working with analog synths. I spend whole nights trying to get a certain piece of equipment to do a certain thing, but it pays off. You can hear it for yourself.” The digital medium is too sober for him; he always knows what he’s going to end up with. “I like to leave room for mistakes”, he explains. During a recording session, his Prophet synthesizer screwed up due to a faulty MIDI input, but the glitch eventually found its way onto ‘XXL’, the opening song on the album. What he’s created is an LP about technology taking over our lives (the press release describes it as “a love song to a phone”), but one that is simultaneously replete with elements of error, a nod to what really makes us human.

DonnBhat + Passenger Revelator performed at antisocial, Mumbai on 3rd October. Next stop on their six city tour is Delhi on 20th October, then Pune on the 21st, Bangalore on the 28th and Chennai on the 29th.

Listen to ‘Connected’ here, and write to Donn if you like it here.

written by Prayag Arora-Desai

NEWS - 12. October 2016   CITY - Mumbai ARTIST - Donn Bhat + Passenger Revelator

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