Indie in India

Touring India isn’t easy for independent bands, but UK-based Fink is determined to make it here. Lead singer Fin Greenall tells us why, and what makes it worth it
Music
PAST THE CLICHES Fin Greenall at Blue Frog in Delhi (Photo: DEVIKA BAKSHI)

When I walk into an empty Blue Frog, Fink is in set-up mode, gearing up for a pre-show sound-check. I manage to recognise Fin Greenall, the English singer-songwriter who forms the core of the band, on the basis of a shaky recollection of his face from the TV show The Dewarists.

He is introducing a little boy and his father to the three guitars that will accompany him on stage a little later in the evening. “Which one do you like?” he asks. The boy picks a luminous acoustic. Fin compliments him on his taste, and, despite the father’s protests, hands it to the boy, encouraging him to give it a go. While the boy tentatively picks at the strings, Fin fishes out a pick from an empty guitar case and hands it to him without a hint of ceremony. It is his last one.

It’s a Spanish guitar, I learn, eavesdropping determinedly; very lightweight, custom-made for Fin, handcrafted over a whole year by an English guitar-maker. “To me, it’s clearly a girl,” Fin tells the boy. “It’s not a dude.” The way he talks about it, it might well be the subject of the utterly flirtatious Pretty Little Thing, which he plays later that evening to a packed house full of swaying kids, singing along.

Fin goes on to explain to the boy how a guitar is made. How the wood has to be gradually bent until “it forgets it’s a tree” and becomes just a piece of wood, which can then decide to be something else. It takes, he says, about a year or two to persuade a piece of wood that it is, in fact, a guitar.

It is the same sporting candour with which he later speaks about touring India. “India’s a hard country to love,” he says at the very beginning of our conversation. It’s an entirely pragmatic assessment, and he appears completely unselfconscious making it. He doesn’t seem harrowed in the least, so I know it isn’t a complaint. I ask why anyway, and Fin displays an unusual degree of self-awareness in his answer, shrugging away clichés.

All but one. “The people are amazing.” Over the course of just two trips, Fin has made many friends and even more fans. His band Fink has quickly developed a following primarily among the kind of urban youth presumed to be the audience of The Dewarists, a show that bills itself as a part travelogue, part music documentary (also part marketing initiative for Dewars whisky). On the show, Fin was seen in collaboration with Bollywood composers Salim-Suleiman and Bollywood-adopted Pakistani singer Shafqat Amanat Ali. Asked about the experience, Fin talks at length about Shafqat’s bewildering vocabulary of songs and the intricacy of Indian music. Only, he says, “I can’t really use it.”

He says he’d love his own music to be influenced by his travels and some of what he has heard here, but is insistent on “avoiding, at all costs, all the bullshit cliché that comes with that whole new colonial world music crap”. He hates it. “Indian music is so intense and passionate and incredibly personal,” he says, “It seems so wrong to take that and turn it into bland, beige, global…you know. Does my head in.”

On the other hand, he is positively effusive about contemporary Indian music. “I’ve heard some metal, and it’s great. It’s really genuine, it’s not pretend,” he says, “Metal is always the first. They’re like the vanguard of new musical scenes, because metal kids, their idols are metal bands, and metal bands do gigs. So you need to get the venue, get the PA, get the instruments—they’re always first. I think it’s a really encouraging sign that there’s a real metal scene here. Any second, there’ll be a real indie scene, and then there’ll be a real hip-hop scene... I’m seeing it happen. More venues, more grassroots. Soon there’ll be more blogs, more stuff to do, more local bands, more scenes: it’ll just feed itself.”

That certainly seems to be the case. The live music scene in Delhi, at least, has expanded rapidly in the last few years. An eclectic array of venues has given room to small bands of all shapes and sizes to audition for a following among an audience of city-youth who have time to kill and money to spend. And there is hope even for those who do not have a head for metal.

Fin is optimistic about India’s musical future. “For me, the ultimate thing would be when there’s a band from India that’s as good as Radiohead and it’s got nothing to do with the fact they’re from India. But they’re huge in Bombay, can do gigs for 2,000 people, and the music’s really cool. ‘Haven’t you heard of them yet?’ That’s what I want to see happen. And if we can be part of that process even just by coming here and playing, that’s wicked.”

He is full of praise for OML (Only Much Louder), the entertainment firm behind the NH7 Weekender music festivals, which brought him here and which he sees as laying the foundation for India’s emerging music scene. “[OML is] putting the absolute building blocks in place.” He is impressed with the company’s efficiency, reassured by how similar Bangalore’s NH7 Weekender—where Fink played the second of its three gigs in India—is to any other festival anywhere else in the world. “It’s just like it’s at home: taxi at the airport, taxi to the hotel, wi-fi, do the gig, back to the hotel. It’s just like it’s in Europe.”

Even more comforting has been the apparent global exposure of the NH7 crew, which has earned his affection as much as professional trust. “They’re brilliant. They’ve been to Europe a lot, they’ve been to a lot of festivals, a lot of gigs, and they’ve learnt lessons. They don’t want to be exploited, they don’t want to exploit. And it is honestly just like hanging out with friends from home. We like the same bands, we YouTube the same shit, we Google the same stuff. The internet has completely shrunk the planet… if you can get onto the internet.”

“We are absolutely overjoyed that [Apple’s online music store] iTunes has opened in India, because doing a gig here or doing a festival year is not new—DJs have been doing that for years. Coldplay and Madonna, they’ve all done it, everyone’s come here and done gigs in stadiums. Coming here and playing isn’t a problem... selling a hundred thousand albums is a problem.”

The cost of touring with equipment and crew is high, and, unlike in Europe or the US, physical record sales simply don’t make up the difference. By the time a CD is made, shipped and placed in stores, it becomes unaffordable to most. Without record sales, touring is unsustainable for independent bands, which is perhaps why we see so few of them in India. Digital sales, though, could change the game. India is especially interesting, Fin says, because “there’s no language barrier with our fanbase”. For a singer-songwriter, popularity where one is understood is a point of pride—it saves one’s music from becoming “a virtually instrumental affair”. The singing-along in Delhi seems to reaffirm that.

I had only heard a couple of the band’s songs before the show, but many in the audience knew its music rather well, calling out requests after the end of a song and cheering through the opening bars of the next.

Some of the more powerful ones, like This is the Thing, begin with an intimate, lonesome murmur and gradually swell to a striding, soaring anthem. I feel like getting behind the wheel and speeding off on some imaginary highway, but am glad to be suspended between the stage and a speaker, required to perform no motor functions, just one more object in the room against which the music can reverberate.

This is what I love about a good live show—the sensation of being just a body suspended in waves of beautiful sound, and walking away with my rhythms reset, at least momentarily. Only weeks later, I find myself listening curiously to a guy with a guitar performing at a bar—all original songs.