"We got stones thrown at us". Sahil ‘Demonstealer’ Makhija helped India finally embrace heavy metal - but the scene is facing more challenges than ever

(Image credit: Demonstealer)

Walking around the backstage area of Oslo’s Inferno Festival in 2010, Sahil ‘Demonstealer’ Makhija wanted to pinch himself. After a decade of hard slog, his extreme metal band Demonic Resurrection had finally bagged a slot at their first international festival. Suddenly, Sahil was rubbing shoulders with his heroes.

“You grew up watching these metal festivals and then you’re seeing members of Emperor and you’re like, ‘Is this real?’” says the guitarist and vocalist, who has also spent the last 15 years releasing epic extremity under his solo moniker, Demonstealer. That weekend, he met Emperor frontman Ihsahn and Norwegian metallers Keep Of Kalessin, and embraced his inner fanboy. “It was just nice to be standing among them and trying to pretend to not be starstruck.”

It’s the memory that comes to mind when Sahil is asked to pinpoint the highlight of his illustrious career. After 23 years on the frontlines of the Indian metal scene, he stands as one of its central figures. His CV includes solo artist, label owner, festival founder, YouTube chef and all-round DIY innovator, having almost single-handedly laid the building blocks for the scene. An appearance in Sam Dunn’s 2007 documentary Global Metal and winning an award at Metal Hammer’s Golden Gods ceremony in 2010 turned him into an international ambassador. It was a far cry from the state of things when he formed Demonic Resurrection in 2000 after leaving school.

“There was nothing geared towards metal in India,” he tells Hammer over Zoom, from his home in Mumbai, of those early days. “There was no, ‘You can go to this record label and get signed.’ There was no promoter that you could ask to book tours. At that point, touring didn’t exist in India.”

The scene has developed since, and Sahil – who’s about to release his fourth Demonstealer album, The Propaganda Machine – has played a huge part in it.
But he’s also spent much of that time battling logistical nightmares, societal apathy and financial burdens. Indian metal may have taken its place on the international landscape, but making it as a metal musician at home is still far from easy.

Sahil first encountered metal as a child when a friend played him Iron Maiden’s Running Free, though it wasn’t until two years later when he got into Metallica that he properly fell down the rabbit hole. As a young teen he wanted to be a computer engineer, but by the time he left school he had set his heart on being a full-time musician. “I wanted to form a heavier band because I was getting into more and more extreme metal,” he says.

Now 40, his greying beard hanging over a Demonstealer t-shirt, the mild-mannered musician is every bit as dedicated to that vision. “I dropped out of college,” he says. “I worked whatever job I could to find space where I can make music. That was the priority for me.”

That stoicism has earned him a rep as the Godfather Of Indian Metal among his peers. “Sahil’s role in the scene has paved the way for us and other metal bands in the country,” says Bloodywood rapper Raoul Kerr. The New Delhi band’s vivid blend of nu metal and traditional Punjabi instrumentation, together with their savvy approach to online content, has seen them reach metal fans outside of India. “He puts the scene first; he didn’t necessarily love our music, but he chose to support us.”

That scene began to stir in 1988, when the country’s first metal band, Millennium, formed in Bangalore. Even as it began to grow, opportunities to play live remained scarce. Few venues were willing to book metal bands, and those that did had terrible in-house equipment. Any acts that did snag gigs were expected to play covers of Western acts such as Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slayer. Little had changed by the time Demonic Resurrection played their first gig in 2000. 

“We got bottles and stones thrown at us,” says Sahil, remembering the band’s first gig at a “half venue, half brothel” called Razzberry Rhinoceros in Mumbai. During their short set, they played three tracks of their own, Dungeons & Dragons-themed fantasy metal, followed by a Sepultura and Slayer medley. It went badly. “Our keyboard player got hit three or four times because he was the only one who couldn’t move around onstage.”

If getting fans to accept original material was one thing, committing it to tape was another matter. Unable to meet the “astronomical” cost of using a studio in Mumbai, Sahil taught himself how to record, installing a basic set-up at his apartment, where he self-produced Demonic Resurrection’s 2000 debut album, Demonstealer.

The same year, he established Demonstealer Records to get his music out into the world. While not the first metal label in India, it was the first to harness the power of the internet to connect the country with international markets. In 2009, he licensed and released Behemoth’s Evangelion, followed by Dimmu Borgir’s Abrahadabra, though even working with established names brought challenges.

“What I learnt was that India doesn’t have a big enough market that buys music,” he says. “In a country of close to a billion people, I had trouble selling 1,000 copies of Behemoth and 500 copies of Dimmu Borgir.”

Now Sahil only uses the label to release his solo Demonstealer material, but his can-do approach was inspirational to his peers. “That was a big deal back then,” says Nolan Lewis, vocalist and guitarist for Indian metallers Kryptos, whose career dates back to the late 90s. “I remember a bunch of us listening to Demonic Resurrection’s debut album and we were like, ‘Whoa, this guy actually put together something on his own.’”

If playing and recording material was a challenge, touring has been equally difficult for Indian metal bands. The vast distances between the main hubs of the Indian scene – New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad - makes it a costly, logistical nightmare, with bands needing to fly between cities rather than jumping in a van. Many have given up after ploughing money into tours only to get nothing back. The struggle to make a decent living from music has led to frequent line-up changes for Demonic Resurrection, with members leaving for more profitable careers. 

“It is a struggle constantly to email agents, promoters, festivals,” says Sahil. “To keep getting either rejections or hearing, ‘You need €15,000 if you want to open for this band.’ Who has that kind of money lying around?” 

The issue of money isn’t confined to bands attempting to make a living. In 2004, Sahil established India’s first extreme metal fest, Resurrection Festival, with grand plans to bring more international acts to India. But when he tried to book Fear Factory and saw their technical requirements, the reality of the situation came crashing down. 

“We saw the list of equipment [Fear Factory requested] and shat ourselves,” he remembers. “We were like, ‘You don’t get this stuff in India.’ Something even as simple as a particular guitar amp – we couldn’t even afford to rent it and does anyone hire that in India? That list scared the crap out of us.”

“I don’t know if in India it’ll ever be viable for bands to do this full time,” muses Keshav Dhar, the producer and guitarist behind prog metallers Skyharbor. “If you define ‘making it’ as being able to rely on it for all your income and paying your bills, then likely it’s not going to happen.”

The stress of it all led Sahil to step back from touring in 2019, and he plans for his Demonstealer work to be studio only. For years, his main income has not been from music but his YouTube channel, Headbanger’s Kitchen, where he posts cookery videos for his 687,000 subscribers.

“Cooking is way more lucrative than anything I’ve ever done with music,” he says. “Music for years has been a very expensive hobby. Either I’ve broken even or I’ve just been trying to recover losses. Headbanger’s Kitchen pays the bills.” 

There’s no bitterness in his voice, but neither is there any mistaking that the constant hustle of two decades in the music industry has left him disheartened and exhausted.

“I don’t have the bandwidth to run promotions and festivals anymore,” he says with a sigh. “At least not ’til I get some sort of sense of motivation again. At this point, with not having a stable band line-up and having no manager, I feel it’s better for me to step back. Given the pandemic and visa costs, it was becoming more expensive and less profitable.”

While Sahil has struggled over the years, the impact he’s had has undoubtedly benefited the many bands who have followed in his footsteps. In contrast to his often-negative experiences within the industry, his peers paint a picture of a small but vibrant scene with a dedicated audience that is worth fighting for.

“In the early to mid-2000s the things he was doing inspired a lot of younger kids to organise their own gigs, put out their own albums, start their own bands,” says Kryptos’s Nolan Lewis. “But even if those things hadn’t happened, the scene would’ve continued regardless. When Demonic Resurrection formed, Sahil did the best he could with the resources he had, but because of technology and the internet a lot of bands have really pushed forward in the last five years.”

The obvious example is Bloodywood, who played Lollapalooza India’s inaugural festival in January – the only metal band on the bill. “What Bloodywood have done very well is find a sound that can easily transfer to the West as the sound of Indian metal,” reasons Sahil, as to why Bloodywood have been able to break out in a way other Indian metal bands haven’t. “They’ve also worked extremely hard, and were able to build up a following on YouTube and exploit that in full.”

Yet while touring both domestically and internationally continues to be a logistical challenge for all Indian metal bands, matters are improving, with more opportunities.   

“There’s a lot of stuff going on that’s taking the Indian scene to the next level,” says Nolan. He cites Kerala metallers Amorphia and Visakhapatnam’s Against Evil as bands flying the flag, who are spreading the word internationally via frequent tours of Japan and Europe. 

Meanwhile, upcoming bands such as thrash metallers Kasck and metalcore outfit Demigod are using metal as a platform to speak about social issues such as rape culture and political corruption. This development is welcomed by Sahil. 

“I always looked at metal as music that had an honesty and an integrity to it,” he notes. “It’s a genre where bands spoke truth to power. As an often judged, misunderstood minority I thought metalheads and metal bands understood discrimination, and so many bands I grew up listening to spoke about real issues, used music as a form of protest and just stood on the correct path.” 

That approach has seeped into his own work: recent Demonstealer singles Monolith Of Hate and The Fear Campaign have stepped away from fantasy themes, focusing instead on social issues. “The pandemic gave me a very different perspective and appreciation for life,” he says. “The whole world really has been in a state of unrest and disarray.”  

While Sahil’s experiences in the Indian music industry have often been taxing, he’s never lost his passion for the music. Last year, Demonic Resurrection released a new EP, Decades Of Darkness, and this year Sahil’s focus is on Demonstealer the solo project he started in 1998, which he describes as his most “unfiltered, honest and true musical expression”.

The latter has also been an opportunity to collaborate with “a bucket list” of musicians he admires. Where Demonstealer’s 2016 album This Burden Is Mine featured Nile drummer George Kollias, latest release The Propaganda Machine includes Martino Garattoni of Ne Obliviscaris, Aborted’s Ken Bedene and Triptykon drummer Hannes Grossmann. 

More importantly, this solo project has given him a sense of musical freedom, away from the hustle and stress of maintaining a solid line-up for Demonic Resurrection and the constant pressure of touring costs.

“I never did not enjoy making music,” he insists. “It’s everything else: the business, the social media, the promoting… that’s the stuff that really is swing and miss.” 

Even if Sahil never takes Demonstealer on the road again, there’s no doubting his passion for the music, or his position as one of the architects of the Indian metal scene… even if he is too modest to admit it.

“I’m just a guy who wanted to play metal music and did everything he had to do to make that dream come true,” he says. “I’d love to be remembered for my music. We always talk about the power of music in a positive way, and that’s really the legacy I hope to leave behind: music that connected with people. Everything else doesn’t really matter to me.” 

Originally published in Metal Hammer #375

Dannii Leivers

Danniii Leivers writes for Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, The Guardian, NME, Alternative Press, Rock Sound, The Line Of Best Fit and more. She loves the 90s, and is happy where the sea is bluest.