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The music of sleepless nights

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on March 10, 2018

Nepali jams: Rajan Shrestha aka Phatcowlee is a veteran of Kathmandu’s indie music circuit. Photo: Prasiit Sthapiit

Insomnia prompted Rajan Shrestha to write his first EP, but his songs are awake to the possibilities of pastiche

“Sorry, I’ve been a little busy dying,” laughs Kathmandu-based producer and multidisciplinary artist Rajan Shrestha, when I finally nail him down for a quick Skype chat. Dressed in a formal, buttoned up blue shirt and holding his ukelele in his lap as he speaks to me through a SM57 vocal mic (the one on his webcam is on the fritz), the 35-year-old tells me he has been battling a fever and chills for a week since the launch gig for Cinema, his four-track debut EP as alt-electronica producer Phatcowlee, in mid-July. He chuckles again when I ask if it’s a particularly severe case of post-gig blues. “Something like that,” he says.

The four tracks on Cinema are beautifully crafted downtempo compositions, built around crackling lo-fi tape samples from old classic Nepali films. Lilting flute melodies merge into somnambulist keys, birdsong and xylophone trills lure you into gently unfurling soundscapes populated by shuffling and stuttering beats, warm, shiny synths and Shrestha’s narcotic vocals. A sepia-tinted melancholy haunts the music, the ghosts of Shrestha’s childhood memories, perhaps. It’s hard to classify; instrumental hip-hop grooves rub shoulders with folk drum rhythms, ambient synths glide over the coy laughter of a female movie star. A soundtrack to the faux- depression that often strikes at 3am on a sleepless Saturday night, if you will. Which is fitting, because the EP was written during a particularly bad period of insomnia. “I couldn’t sleep most nights, so I ended up staying awake and writing these songs,” he tells me. “This EP was like a cathartic practice to me, a tumour that I had to excise.”

Shrestha is a veteran of the Kathmandu independent music scene, having started off with a guitar in high school before shifting to bass duties for his first band Elysium in 2003. Since then, he’s played for a number of local acts, including Cadenza, Atomic Bush and the popular art/post-rock act Jindabaad. He was in on the ground floor when the Kathmandu scene exploded in the early 2000s, and stuck around after most of the acts that came out during the time disbanded or faded away. “Around 2010, I think everyone started to wonder how to pay the bills,” he says. “Now that scene is kind of dead.”

A few years later, convinced that music wasn’t enough to satisfy his creative impulses, Shrestha drift away too. He quit Jindabaad, went to Bangladesh for a photography course and spent a couple of years working on documentary photography and video. “At that particular moment in time, I felt like I needed a medium that had more direct impact and that maybe music in itself was not doing it,” he says. “So I tried photography and video. But like always, I came back to music. I figured out it’s not one or the other. They’re feeding off each other.”

Shrestha continued to dabble in music while working on photography. Along with friend and Jindabaad frontman Rohit Shakya, he used his academic background in ethnomusicology to start a webseries called Fuzzscape, where they go to different parts of the country and create songs that draw inspiration from local instruments and folk forms. Last year, he collaborated with Pakistani producer Alien Panda Jury on the sidelines of a photography festival, releasing an EP of futuristic left-field electronica titled Mandal. The two, along with a Maldivian friend, also set up Sine Valley, a DIY grassroots music festival in Kathmandu.

All of which laid the seeds for his debut solo venture Phatcowlee (which takes its name from a photo of a big cauliflower — ‘cowlee’ — that he once Photoshopped onto a cow), but the final spark of inspiration came one day earlier this year as he was eating lunch and flipping through TV channels. “I stumbled on this funny little channel called TV Filmy which shows old classic Nepali films,” he tells me. “The channel reminded me of tuning in every Tuesday as a kid to watch this TV programme called Gitanjali. It’s the Nepali version of Chitrahaar. Basically that sense of nostalgia inspired this EP. I started recording samples off the TV, off the internet, and on one sleepless night I started manipulating the samples and trying to see where they’d take me.”

Along with films, the biggest influence on Cinema is adhunik music, a genre of modern Nepali pop that was heavily promoted on national broadcasting in the 1970s and ’80s. Recorded in Mumbai, with Bollywood sessions musicians on the instruments, Adhunik music has much in common with the Hindi film music of the time. “But it also had its own peculiarity, because of maybe the Nepali lyrics or the vocalists, so it had its own sound,” he says.

On Cinema, Shrestha takes the adhunik music he grew up listening to and morphs it into something else, post-modern Nepali pop (he calls it ‘post-adhunik’) that deals with 21st-century issues — such as insomnia and the relentless ambition of Nepal’s urban classes. By the standards of Nepal’s tiny left-field electronica success, the EP is already a smashing success, drawing praise from the Kathmandu art scene as well as the Indian independent music press. But Shrestha has bigger plans. He talks about the need to make music and art accessible to people outside Kathmandu’s upper class art bubbles. He’s already writing songs for a follow-up album, when he’s not recording with the reunited Jindabaad. He’s also got his fingers in a number of DIY pies, including collaborations with young singer-songwriters he came across at an art residency. Then there’s also the second edition of Sine Valley, for which he hopes to invite a number of young Indian artists. But all of that is in the future. For now, he’s happy to enjoy the warm afterglow of the EP’s success and focus on the one thing he can’t do without — writing music.

Published on August 18, 2017

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