The Ups and Downs of an Independent Band in Nepal
The Phosphenes have been making waves in recent weeks with their viral new song ‘Yestai Nai Hola’. With a refreshing take on the all-too-familiar lethargic nature of Nepalese bureaucracy, the song features a 70s retro-styled protagonist stumbling through Nepal from the 70s to the present day and into the distant future.
“We had a hunch from the start that the song had the potential to be turned into a fun, unconventional video,” says Phosphenes vocalist and guitarist Abhishekh Pokhrel. “The overall message of the song was sarcastic. Nothing has changed much for the people since the reign of kings until the advent of democracy in Nepal. So we wanted to ask: is it going to stay the same forever? »
The phosphenes are mainly known for their original, moving and sweet English songs. Their first EP, “Know This Time”, consists of four songs in English while their second album, “Sullen Days”, consists of 14 songs, including two in Nepali. The themes of their songs also mainly revolve around love and only a few of their songs come with a visual story.
Their recently released song “Yestai Nai Hola”, which is part of the album “Sullen Days”, immediately struck a chord with Nepali audiences, with the belated and apathetic bureaucracy shown in the music video being very relatable. Although the song features some of Phosphenes’ signature music
style – namely their simple lyrics and soothing melodies – the song also marks a sea change in their music. The song moves away from the minimalist music video style that was apparent in their early works, while also carrying a socio-political commentary, something that had never been seen before in their works.
“Although we have amassed a loyal following so far, we felt that our songs were not reaching the wider Nepalese audience,” says Phosphenes vocalist and guitarist Prajwal Aryal. “So we tried to experiment with Nepali songwriting too, while keeping our independent music style intact. This combination worked well for us.
Phosphenes, arguably one of the most popular independent bands in Nepal, consists of permanent members Abhishek Pokhrel, Aman Karna and Prajwal Aryal. In their recent songs, Nirita Yakthumba accompanied as bassist and vocalist. United by a shared love for indie music, the band was formed by Pokhrel and Aryal on a fateful day in 2016 when Pokhrel received a random message from Aryal asking “if it was too late to form a band”. They had been friends since their college days and often played together, so starting a band together didn’t seem like too crazy an idea. They were soon joined by Aman Karna who had experience in music production and was part of several bands in the past. Supriya Moktan was also a permanent member of Phosphenes in the past, but she left the group in 2019 for personal reasons, and the group became a trio.
“When I first listened to their music, I instantly loved it,” Karna, who plays multiple musical instruments including guitar and synthesizer, said in an online interview with the Post. “However, I wanted to see how serious they were about producing music, so I took my time before joining them. I eventually joined because I thought we could achieve something big.
On a recent chilly evening at one of Jhamsikhel’s many cafes, Pokhrel and Aryal were in high spirits after the success of their recent song. Meanwhile, Karna had left a few days ago on vacation as well as working in India. All were taking a well-deserved rest before starting to plan and shoot the music video for their song “Eklai Huda Ta Jhan”.
Aryal and Pokhrel confessed that they both didn’t think of music as a career when they started. “When we uploaded our first song ‘Dust’ to SoundCloud, we had no expectations at all,” says Pokhrel. “We were beyond ecstatic when the song hit 1,000 plays on SoundCloud. Encouraged by the response, we thought about recording an EP.
Their debut EP titled “Know This Time” was released in 2017 and included four songs: “Dust”, “Know This Time”, “I Will Be Gone”, and “Let The Universe Find You”. Aryal and Pokhrel co-write the lyrics for all their songs.
The big break for Phosphenes happened in December 2017 when they performed for Sofar Kathmandu edition alongside bands Mi Ku and Shreeti and friends. Sofar, a music start-up based in London, UK, specializes in organizing small concerts by three different artists or bands in unusual locations around the world. An intimate concert with a passionate audience was just what Phosphenes needed and their reputation as a talented indie band began to spread among concert audiences in the Kathmandu Valley.
“After our gig in Sofar, we gained a niche but loyal crowd, a crowd that wouldn’t cause unnecessary disruption but would resonate with our music and get lost in our songs,” says Pokhrel.
But even when they started gathering a loyal following, it was difficult to attend their concerts in the bustling live music districts of Jhamsikhel and Thamel. Bars and restaurants in these neighborhoods are often bustling with talented musicians and bands after dark, but most bands play covers rather than original music and Phosphenes wanted to take a stand against this trend.
“At first, we used to cover other bands’ songs, but it wasn’t rewarding. The audience resonated – cried, laughed and sang – but we couldn’t fully appreciate their feelings because they weren’t our songs and, by extension, our feelings,” says Aryal.
They stuck to their approach to music and only performed in venues that allowed them to perform their own original songs, and as of 2019 they began to notice a noticeable change in audience size during of their concerts. Their musical style also began to change. In their early days, folk music was central to their musical style. However, the group began to become more experimental and to move into other genres – jazz, electronic, psychedelic.
“Before, from a purely musical point of view, we really liked making folk music. But we gradually started exploring different genres like dream pop and synth pop,” says Aryal. “When we started working on our ‘Sullen Days’ album, most of our songs were folk songs, but there were some delays during the recordings, and during that delay we experimented with other genres and we replaced and added new songs to the album.”
For Pokhrel and Aryal, the Beatles are their greatest source of inspiration. Although the Beatles had their own charm, what interested them both was how they experimented with new genres and easily adapted them into their songs.
“They[The Beatles] first made love songs, but then they started experimenting with psychedelics and we looked at their process,” says Aryal. “They started with pop love songs and then they started incorporating new instruments like sitars and philosophical lyrics, which we found incredibly interesting.”
“This process of experimentation is something we want to do with our band too. For our next album, we want to experiment a lot more with dream pop,” adds Pokhrel.
But even with the band’s recent success, they are still not happy with the music industry scene in Nepal. Nepalese indie music artists still struggle to support themselves financially simply by making music, and the band have been vocal in recent years about their plans to enter the Indian indie scene.
“Here we have to give away our music on TV and radio for free for streaming so that we don’t get any royalties,” says Pokhrel. “We get a lot of support and love from the younger generation, so we thought why can’t we do the same in India too?”
Independent music in India has steadily grown in importance over the past few decades, and in recent times the success of Prateek Kuhad in particular has started a wave of independent music. While Phosphenes’ future goal is to ride the same wave towards mainstream success, band members agree the plan is easier said than done.
In Nepal, our reach is limited to audiences in Kathmandu since everything is so centralized here, admits Karna. “However, in India, there are Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, etc., and many more opportunities for growth. Although we may have to struggle a bit, I am sure we can achieve success in a few years.
While the band’s future plans lie overseas, there are countless obstacles in the present as well. The indie scene in Nepal is temperamental – young artists form hopeful new bands in their early twenties and the majority of bands break up when members reach their mid to late twenties. So far, the phosphenes have navigated this dilemma with little hiccups here and there. Three years ago, Pokhrel entered the world of finance and he now has a day job as a relationship manager for Mahalaxmi Bikas Bank.
“I was really interested in the financial world and wanted to explore that world as well,” says Aryal. “However, the happiness I feel in creating my own music is incomparable to anything else. The corporate world is hollow at its core.
“I think that’s the thing when you become an adult. Some people get married, some people have children, some go abroad. People change and priorities change,” says Pokhrel. “Nepalese artists like Bartika Eam Rai and Sajjan Raj Vaidya have their own work but they haven’t stopped making music. I think we will also have the same trajectory in life – no matter what, we won’t stop making music.