From Saadho Re, and Shaam Tanha, to Aahatein, and Keh Lene Do, Indian rock band Agnee’s melodious songs have been on our playlists for over 15 years now. But, ask the Pune-based group about their journey and they say that it feels like it has only been a “short while” since they started out. But this journey for Mohan Kannan and Kaustubh Dhavale (Koco), which began on a “lucky” note, has had its share of ups and downs — but there has been no stopping them as they vehemently believe that “good music does find its way.”
In an exclusive email interaction with indianexpress.com, the duo talks about their musical careers, singing for films like Laal Singh Chaddha, working with Aamir Khan, the challenges of an indie band in India, live shows, future plans and so much more. Edited excerpts below:
From 2007 to 2022, how would you describe this 15-year-long musical journey?
It feels super short, to be honest. All of us in the band were talking about it when we were rehearsing for the 15th-anniversary shows — and it’s only then that we realised we have made enough songs to last at least a 6-hour setlist! We’ve all been lucky to have each other in the band for all this time, and it feels like we need to think about the 30th anniversary soon!
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In all these years, in what ways do you think India’s music industry has evolved, especially the indie scene?
When we released our first album in 2007, we got quite lucky in the sense that we were among the last couple of non-film artistes to get a big release. TV and radio were still playing non-film music, but that just stopped in 2008. At that time, releases still were on CD and online streaming hadn’t started, except for maybe Limewire which was more of a file-sharing kind of thing.
Then, we saw how non-film music became more and more difficult to release as no label was keen to release them. But suddenly things changed again with the advent of multiple (audio and video) streaming platforms, starting with YouTube. Now, slowly we’re once again seeing non-film music starting to find ears and eyeballs and hopefully, soon, we’ll again start finding a lot more non-film artistes rising to fame and popularity through their music.
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Once big in India, do you ever feel Bollywood has taken over indie music/artistes in a predominant way; with many musicians veering towards singing in films?
Films have always been a big platform for music in India, and we think it’s a good thing that films nowadays explore so many different kinds of music as part of their storytelling. This just means that there’s room for a lot more musicians and also that the audience gets to hear a lot of different genres of music. The fact that film music gets promoted more than others is a big plus, too. Being part of films is a matter of choice for each musician, and in that sense, it’s not really fair to say that Bollywood would take them over. It’s just what a musician chooses to do and how they choose to do it. If they’re happy with the kind of music they’re a part of, it will only be beneficial to them to be part of films.
How challenging is it to thrive solely as an indie band/musician in India today?
We, as Agnee, have managed to be successful for over 15 years without really doing films of any kind. There’s been a fair amount of good fortune, no doubt, and a lot more goodwill from wonderful people we can now proudly call friends in the industry. Koco and I both have always been extremely keen to release our sound the way we like it, without trying to predict the audience and how they would consume it, and that’s probably why we’ve kept our music honest. Hrishi (on drums) and Chirayu (on bass) believe the same thing too.
There have been multiple other artists who have achieved a great deal of success in the non-film music space, like Local Train, Prateek Kuhad, many Punjabi singers, and others…and we’re hoping that number only increases with quality music. The format is different for independent music as there’s a smaller amount of money to promote the songs or to get everyone to hear them, but eventually, good music does find its way, and the proof of that is in the multiple viral hits we get to hear that are outside of film music these days.
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Mohan, you have sung in many movies — how different is the process/approach when working as an indie artiste, and a playback singer?
For me, as a singer, the process is pretty much the same: I try to emote the lyrics and the meaning of the song as well as I can. With Agnee, Koco and I both compose, so there’s always a composer’s touch in the way I sing and I guess that also bleeds into the film songs I sing even if they’re composed by someone else. In film music, one important thing to note is the visual reference. Every song in a movie is meant to justify the visual and enhance the story.
Working with Aamir Khan, known to be a perfectionist, can be challenging. How was your experience? How involved was he in the making of Kahani from his movie Laal Singh Chadha?
He was extremely involved, from pronunciation to style of singing and delivery. Kahani was supposed to sum up the entire film, and Amitabh (Bhattacharya) and Pritam had already done their bit in justifying that to the T in their writing and composition, so for me, it was a matter of trying my best not to do anything that would take away from the song. The song is supposed to be as matter-of-fact as possible, almost like an internal voice, and that was my main challenge in singing the song: being as matter-of-fact and non-deliberate about each word and line. It was great fun and took a lot of time, but I’m super glad I got to sing it and am very happy and proud of the way the song finally turned out.
You will be performing live at NCPA as part of its ‘One World Many Musics’ series; how would you rate live shows vis-à-vis e-shows that became the new normal until very recently?
Live shows can, honestly, never be replaced by anything else. We did just one virtual show in the lockdown (in fact, we’re doing one more soon) and it was much more fun than we expected…but the rush of having an audience in front of us, knowing our songs and singing along and appreciating the little extra bits that happen on stage is quite unbeatable. As Koco always says, “Tell me to spend 365 days a year playing on stage and I’m happy”. We’re definitely looking forward to performing at NCPA Tata Theatre (on October 8, at 7 pm). It’s an iconic venue and it’s our first time there, so we’re changing our set list around a lot — we want to surprise everyone who comes to the show! There will be something in it for classical music lovers, for sit-down listeners, for complete rockers, for people who like sing-alongs.. and of course, for everyone who likes our music. We can’t wait!
Agnee has had a successful journey, what are your future plans — where do you wish to take your band?
We’re just happy to continue doing music and performing all over the world. We’ve been very lucky with people who will listen to every one of our songs and hold us to very high standards on a recorded song as well as on stage, and we hope we continue to have that kind of goodwill through the next 15-20 years.
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How would you rate the Indian independent music scene as compared to the West? What do you think we did right and wrong, and what needs to be done?
India is the only country where we refer to non-film music as “independent” music. Everywhere else, independent music refers to music that is non-label backed. The primary reason is that the film music industry is pretty much the primary and biggest platform to release music here, and that’s how it’s been for decades. We’ve had absolutely outstanding artists like Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar and so many other legends who have sung for films but have not been created into a brand by any label.
As a music industry, we’ve not really invested in creating the next Michael Jackson or Beyoncé or Coldplay, since we’re better served in creating the next Shah Rukh (Khan) and Salman (Khan). While this might work for the film industry, it might not be the best move forward for the music industry. With films moving more and more from lip-sync songs, where an actor mouths the words to montage songs where the song plays in the background, it is only going to be a matter of time before the music industry will have to create stars of its own and not piggyback on the fame and face of film actors. In fact, a clear indication of this is that most popular songs now from films are dance numbers, where the songs are definitely shown as mouthed by the actors, and those are the only songs we’re getting to see as big hits. We need to really invest in musical talent and hone them to create a package and take a risk on some artists making it big on their own.
We have 25 songs coming out in the next few months, so we’re really excited about that. We have our own YouTube channel now, and we’re also finally present on all audio streaming platforms. We’re looking forward to a lot more shows, we’re already touring Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Delhi in the coming month.
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