photo by Ashish Kamble
(Today we present Comrade Aleks‘ interview with Sahil Makhija, aka Demonstealer, whose star-studded new album The Propaganda Machine is set for release on March 31st by Black Lion Records.)
Sahil Makhija has been an active member of the Indian extreme metal underground for 25 years. Back in 1998 he started the Demonstealer solo-project, but his band Demonic Resurrection turned out to be more active and more successful. Since then Sahil took part in a few more bands, and most of them performed death metal laden stuff, and if it wasn’t enough he runs Headbanger’s Kitchen, an online cooking show where he cooks food and interviews members of other metal bands!
Right now Demonstealer demands more of Sahil’s attention as the project’s killer new album The Propaganda Machine is to be released on the 31st of March by the Sweden-based label Black Lion Records. The Propaganda Machine is bigger than just a solo album, as Sahil recorded it accompanied by experienced international musicians from extreme metal bands, and this material is remarkably extreme as well, and melodic.
And there’s an actual and sharp message behind The Propaganda Machine’s manifestos. This interview with Demonstealer will reveal more facts behind the project’s own story and the life of the Indian underground.
Hi Sahil! How are you? Is everything going according to your demonic plans?
Hello! I’m good, I cannot complain. Well, the plans have been laid out but whether or not everything goes according to plan has yet to be seen. But so far things have been good. I hope things are well with you too.
Your new album The Propaganda Machine should be released on the 31st of March by Black Lion Records, and this year the project celebrates its 25h anniversary. Accept my congratulations! So first of all. how did you start Demonstealer back in 1998?
Well thank you. You could say it’s 25 years for me as a musician. Demonstealer is my stage name and around 1998 is when I changed my internet handle from cyberfly911 to Demonstealer and decided that I would split my personalities between the music realm and the real world. The project Demonstealer, which was my solo material, only came to fruition really in 2008 with the first full length album …And Chaos Will Reign…. But truth be told I wrote music alone for two years before forming Demonic Resurrection after which all those songs were allocated to the band.
But having said that, 25 years ago I decided I wanted to write songs and I started doing that. Like my idols then, Dani Filth, Ihsahn, Marilyn Manson (yes, I listened to his music), Galdar, Silenoz, Hellhammer, Samoth, Nergal and many more, I wanted a stage name. Since I wasn’t well-versed with mythology or Lord Of The Rings I narrowed down my choices to Demonstealer and Demonslayer and since the latter was a hair cheesier I stuck with Demonstealer.
You’re been involved in the Demonic Resurrection band since 2000. How do you divide these two entities? What kind of ideas does Demonstealer allow you to channel which you can’t do through Demonic Resurrection?
Well initially Demonstealer allowed me to just be free and unfiltered. With DR around 2004 and right till 2016 really it was very collaborative writing between members in the sense that everyone had to be happy with things and a lot of my ideas would not make the cut. Also, having a band where it’s not a full-time gig for everyone meant that the band only worked weekends and when we all had time. However I always designed my life in a way that I had way more time for music. This means DR material took time and I had plenty of free time so I started focusing on other projects and music.
I had Workshop, a comedy rock band, and Reptilian Death, a death metal side project where I played drums. But there would be still more music in me and initially that’s why Demonstealer became a thing. Over time it became more about my solo vision and collaborating with my fav musicians. I also bought a 7-string to explore a different sound and tonality because I didn’t want the material to just sound like DR. Today it’s a project that has a style and a sound I think, and DR also has it’s own unique style and sound despite changing lineups. I guess there is just a lot of different music within me and many different things I wish to express via music and each project fulfills a different part of that.
Why did it take ten years before you released the debut album …And Chaos Will Reign…? It was a totally DIY release, wasn’t it?
I never really had any intention of going solo. My focus was Demonic Resurrection and my goal was to make a living playing metal music with the band. However a band is a group of people, and since being able to pay bills playing extreme metal in India is largely a pipe dream, everyone in the band had jobs, not to mention regular line-up changes made life difficult. So with this it meant that the band only was able to do important things when we could all meet on the weekend, and this meant things moved very slowly.
But since my entire life was geared towards making music, I had more time allocated to music. This is why I had other projects like Reptilian Death and Workshop. Finally in 2008 I had enough of waiting and decided to release a solo album. I think it took me all of 19 days to write, record, mix, master and release the album. Granted, I had a lot of riff ideas either hanging around or rejected by the band which speeded up the process. I did it completely DIY and just released it online as well. No PR build-up, no singles, nothing. I released it on my birthday which was 19th June.
And it took eight more years before you completed the album This Burden Is Mine. How did you spend this period between the albums?
The next album took a long time because Demonic Resurrection really took off around 2009/2010. We released our album The Return To Darkness on Candlelight Records who we signed to, we shot and released our first music video, we played our first international metal festival at Inferno Festival Norway, and followed that with an appearance at Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic. We won the Metal Hammer Golden God award for Global Metal that year and literally were touring and writing the next record The Demon King which released in 2014.
While the band was on a high and doing well I also had Workshop and Reptilian Death recording albums as well between 2010 and 2013, which was the year both projects dropped albums. It was only around 2014/2015 by which time both Workshop and Reptilian Death met their untimely end, leaving me enough time to get back to the solo material. So I guess recording four albums with three projects and touring with all three projects kept me busy.
Did I mention I also had a day job during all this and I ran my recording studio, record label, PR agency, consultancy service and my YouTube channel Headbanger’s Kitchen. Damn, just typing that out has me feeling exhausted.
How do you find enough energy and motivation for writing new material with such a hard schedule? Do you have moments when you want to stop, to have a vacation from all these metal feats?
Well if I am being honest I just kind of let it happen when it happens. The real hard part is everything else apart from actually writing the music. I’ve had more than my fair share of moments when I wanted to stop but it was more like I just wanted to give up on music because I got tired of struggling with the same shit over 20 years now. Like, it’s the business side of it that drains you. Like trying to find a decent booking agent or book a tour for the band that isn’t going to cost 15,000 euros or the constant slew of rejections from labels, press, promoters, festivals etc etc etc. It’s a lot and I’ve been handling pretty much all of it for 20-plus years now, and that stuff breaks me far more than a hectic schedule. In fact over the last few years I’ve made efforts to just go slower. I’m not sure if I am but I can manage my time easily, that’s not the hard part. But speaking of vacations, I just got back from one so I do feel quite refreshed.
The Indian metal scene is a pretty obscure place for foreign metalheads. Personally, I remember three doom bands from Bangalore and actually that’s all. How do you think – is metal music alien to Indian mentality?
Yes, India is not really known for its metal. It’s one of the many countries that started late and had many social, economic and cultural hurdles to overcome. When we speak of metal music being alien to Indian people, that is true. Metal music, unlike in the west, is music that people of a certain privileged and economic background listen to. It’s not the music of the common man. English music itself is consumed by a miniscule % of the population. The sound of western instruments with heavy instrumentation is culturally strange and also sonically not appealing.
You see, there are huge inequalities in Indian society. You will find slums just bellow giant highrises where extremely wealthy people live. The simple act of going to a concert is something only a middle class or rich person does. The average Indian doesn’t get that concept. Of course, these things are slowly changing as more and more western culture penetrates all layers of the population.
A good example is a burger or a pair of jeans. Both something so common in the west but in India they were things that rich people ate and wore. McDonald’s was a restaurant that rich people went to because it was a foreign brand and the burger is a western food that the common people don’t get. However, fast-forward 20 years and McDonald’s and denim have both transcended the economic barriers and are now way more commonplace. This is the case with most western culture. Unfortunately, for metal to reach this same spot, if that’s possible, might be 100 years away. And I am not exaggerating.
Here we touch the slippery theme of globalization. Metal is a good thing as one of the universal unifying factors, but what do you think about cultural identity? Is it possible to cultivate a true Indian metal band? Some foreign bands actively use outer attributes of Indian spiritual culture, but it’s hard to imagine metal music with Indian folk music influences for example.
Well, see, Indian culture, food, and music is all interesting to a lot of people in the west. I think the band Bloodywood has perfectly captured a sound of “Indian Metal” with Indian folk music elements. However that’s just part of India. When you think of Indian food most people think of butter chicken but that’s just North Indian food. India has many states and each state has its own language, culture, food and identity.
It’s like trying to say ‘European’ folk metal or ‘European’ food. But Europe has many countries and each country has its own language, food, culture and so on. That is how you have to look at India. That is also why it’s hard to box up what ‘Indian Metal’ will sound like because which part of India are you talking about? In that respect I think Bloodywood found the sound that I think western audiences can relate to as ‘Indian metal’. I think in due time we will see a lot more bands following this path.
Let’s return to Demonstealer. It was your solo project, but the EP The Holocene Termination (2021) was recorded with the help of guest musicians from seven different countries including Russia and Ukraine. Metal unites us, governments divide us. And that takes us straight to your new album The Propaganda Machine. How was born the idea of such a wide collaboration with so many musicians from different bands?
It was after the 2008 LP that I started working with different musicians. Even for my 2016 LP my original idea was to have multiple drummers playing about two songs each and getting them to film a play-through video which I could then also upload to my YouTube channel. I was a huge fan of drummers like George Kollias, Hannes Grossman, Derek Roddy, an Krimh, and I loved watching their videos on YouTube. That was my first idea to collaborate with different musicians. However when I wrote to George Kollias he said he loved the music and wanted to play on the full album. I guess that pretty much sealed the deal and that’s why I stuck to just 1 drummer on that record. I had my bandmates from DR help me with bass and a few guitar solos.
On my 2018 album The Last Reptilian Warrior is when I was finally able to execute my plan of different drummers, getting play-through videos, and putting everything out as ‘content’ on my YouTube channel. That album had five drummers, two bassists, and three lead guitarists. I simply followed that format for the next LP The Propaganda Machine, which I actually started work on in 2019. It just took me a very long time to set the full line-up and get all the musicians to record and deliver. Since I was waiting for them, I decided to write the EP The Holocene Termination which again took time to put together different musicians and waiting for them to send me stuff, which made me write my 2020 EP And This Too Shall Pass where I decided to not wait for anyone and do everything myself.
I guess this is what Demonstealer is now. I write the basic song idea and then collaborate with my fav artists to fill in the blanks and take the music to the next level. In the process I guess I’m the conductor to the orchestra.
How did you orchestrate the songs’ recordings?
When it comes to writing the music I generally sit down with the guitar and just jam till I hit upon something I like. From there I build a basic song structure on just guitar. This is what I send to the drummer. I give them a blank canvas to drum on. Most of the time they record rough ideas or program their ideas so I can listen, and then once we finalize the parts they go ahead and record it.
After that I send this drum and guitar file to the bass player I selected and again give them free reign with the bass lines. Once again I get a rough track which, once finalized, gets recorded. I generally follow this up with working on the vocals, and once I’ve done that and marked out spots for the guitar solos I send the files to the guitar players to record something.
For this album I had Anabelle on keys, so once the bass was done she had all the songs to start working her magic on, and as she got done she’d send me her ideas and we’d finalize stuff and she’d record it. There are only a few parts and sections where I might insist on something different from what the musician played because of what is in my head, but 90% of the time their stuff just blows me away and it’s either what I was imagining already or they just did something unexpected and blew me away. It’s a lot of emails more than anything else.
Which elements shaped The Propaganda Machine’s sound? Did you keep in mind the strong sides and the background of your guests on this recording?
When I write material the only thing I really think about is whether or not it sounds good to my ears. I write riffs and structure songs with just the guitar and then I kind of play mix and match with the tracks and the drummers I have selected. Once that is done I give the drummers a blank canvas to play over, no reference track or anything, just a guitar track and give it your best ideas. From there I can then again pair the bassists I think will work well with which drummer. Once that solid rhythm is laid down then I can edit, tweak, and finalize the riffs and we’ve got our basic song ready. This allows me to get the best results from the musicians and turn the song into its best and strongest form.
What was the most difficult part for you in this recording session? How long did you work over this material?
The most difficult part for me really was deciding, finalizing, and coordinating so many musicians. I started writing the material in 2019 and was done and ready. In fact, Hannes Grossmann had been finalized and he finished recording his drums in December 2019. But then to finalize all the other musicians, work with their schedules, etc etc, all that took a very long time. I think for a long time I couldn’t finalize the fourth drummer. I’d written to so many musicians. Sometimes schedules didn’t work, sometimes I couldn’t afford their fee.
This is really what took the most time. Writing the music is easy, promoting it is easy, but coordinating recording, writing, and social media posting with 12 musicians is the hardest part. Especially because everyone is in a different time zone and they all play in active bands or are sessions musicians or teachers. So it’s very very taxing. I was done with guitars in like 2 months I think. Once I started doing vocals I was done in 1 month. But I had a long wait between all this time jotting ideas and other such things. But basically what should have ideally been done in 2020 got done by 2023 and it was worth the wait.
Speaking about promotion – how did you get a deal with Black Lion? And why didn’t it work with Candlelight, who released Demonic Resurrection’s albums?
I can’t say why Candlelight dropped us but it was probably to do with us not being a big-selling band, as well as a big restructuring in the label and being bought over and stuff. I also think we weren’t a big seller on their roster so we didn’t get the same attention and push that we needed to be able to do something.
With Black Lion Records it was really cool because I’ve been DIY for many years now and I was all set to print my own physical products and merch in Europe and have a company handle logistics for me. Turns out many labels use this company and my friend Kunal Choksi from Transcending Obscurity pointed me in the direction of Oliver Dahlback, the owner of Black Lion Records, who was also using this service and we got to talking about things and we struck a deal that worked for the both of us. It’s a win-win because I finally get to not just release physical formats of my album but also to release my first ever vinyl and tape as well.
You’ve said that one of your new songs “The Fear Campaign” from The Propaganda Machine deals with the theme of the government manipulating people. Which events inspired you to write these lyrics?
Honestly, all over the world this is happening. In India the Hindu population is the majority but the government here keeps spreading propaganda about Muslims and tries to keep the Hindu population in fear of the Muslims. You see the same in the UK/USA/Europe about the fear campaigns to make people fearful of immigrants. In America you see the same being done with race, religion, etc. It’s a global tactic. That’s what the song is about. The lines ‘Keep them in fear, Keep them obedient’ sum up everything exactly.
And propaganda kills effectively, as we see it now, and as we saw it before – the most rough example was Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines which fomented genocide in Ruanda, but you told it – UK, US, EU and Asia, and Russia where I live – all governments spread their propaganda or contre-propaganda, and as far as I see one of effective ways to oppose it is raising the education level and critical thinking education as well. It isn’t an antidote, but it helps. Do you see if it works in your country?
It will take a long time before it does because India is a massive country and there is extreme poverty and social inequality. There is a hope that over time maybe we can reach that point but most of the time it’s just running around in circles. If you see the quality of life in India, the state of the government-run schools and hospitals, you will see the situation. The thing is, with all the religious indoctrination and brainwashing and all the people holding on blindly to outdated customs and traditions there is a long long way to go.
Do you think that you can change this horrible social situation with your horrible music? Or is Demonstealer your instrument to speak out your disagreement with madness taking place all over the world?
Music has a lot of power. There is a lot of healing and positive change that music can bring. However when you play a niche genre in a country where it’s extremely niche and when you aren’t a big popular artist it’s not something to expect. Maybe it will affect some people but for it to be truly impactful I need to have a bigger audience. So for now it’s my instrument to speak out against the wrong I see in the world. If it speaks to people and they relate to it and the music helps them through tough times in life, that means the world to me.
According to The Propaganda Machine’s other song titles and the album’s artwork the whole album explores the same question from different angles. Can you reveal more details about the themes your raised in your songs?
The album kind of follows a sequence of things in the propaganda machine. It’s completely inspired by the way the world has been in the last few years. Especially it’s inspired by the events in India since the right-wing Hindu extremist government stepped into the picture. “The Fear Campaign” talks about how the majority are made to fear the minority, this helps the government keep them in control. “Monolith of Hate” speaks about the hateful politics and how the same majority through the fear campaign are made to hate the minorities.
“The Art of Disinformation” talks about how technology is a weapon. In India fake forwards on WhatsApp and fake videos are used to propagate this hate and eventually incite violence and even killing of the minority communities. “Screams Of Those Dying” talks about the actual lives lost in the last few years from lynchings, riots, police brutality, straight-up murders, and assassinations of people fighting for basic human rights. “The Great Dictator” talks about the right-wing leaders who promote and propagate this hate and violence for their own benefit.
“The Anti-National” talks about how people who question the government in India and in their own countries are called ‘anti national’ when they are the true patriots who actually care to question the government and demand better things rather than be a slave to the government. And finally “Crushing the Iron Fist” leaves the album on a note of hope that maybe if we work together we can find better governments who will work to improve the quality of life instead of working to fill their pockets and divide people based on their religion, caste, or race. A government that does what it is supposed to, work for the people.
Yes, they are all actual topics nowadays, and it’s great that you try to draw people’s attention to it. The artwork was performed by the famous artist Daemorph. Did you work tightly with him over the cover’s plot or was it his idea of this Propaganda Demon and tormented brainwashed souls?
The artwork is 100% Daemorph. I gave him a concept note about the album theme, the tile, and the overall framework of what the lyrics were going to be about. He sent me a sketch and I said this is kickass. He sent me an updated sketch and I said the first one was better, I like these few elements. Then BOOM! In two-three days he sent me the full artwork and my mind was blown! He’s a genius.
Oh, I almost forgot to ask you – what’s The Last Reptilian Warrior about? This album doesn’t look like a conceptual one, as The Propaganda Machine is, so I wonder…
The Last Reptilian Warrior is actually a fantasy-based album. It’s a story that goes from one song to the next. It’s quite similar in that I’ve followed a similar pattern of writing stories on the Demonic Resurrection albums. The Last Reptilian Warrior speaks of a massive war between humans and an alien race.
By the way, is Demonstealer only a studio project or did you ever play your songs live with some line-up?
This was never meant to be a live project. I cannot imagine ever being able to play this material live. It would take one of the most insane lineups of musicians to be able to perform this, and unfortunately in no universe will the economics of touring ever work out. I would need maybe 20,000 euros to get this project on the road and still it would be so hard to just find an agent who could book a decent tour for this. At the end of the day touring is becoming harder and harder and unless by some miracle this album blows up and I maybe have 100,000 listeners and I get touring offers I can’t imagine I will be able to even dream of taking it live.
Do you feel that you get some recognition in your country or does much of feedback come from abroad?
It’s really a mix to be honest. After 25 years of making music I can say I have a few fans in India. I think my biggest support is from the USA and then India. So I am very grateful.
Please tell us about Headbanger’s Kitchen, how did you figure out such idea?
Many years ago when Demonic Resurrection made its first music video, I was watching a lot of cooking videos on YouTube and I used to post recipes on Facebook because I liked cooking. So I asked the music video director Srinivas Sunderrajan if he would film my cooking videos for YouTube. He said okay but he didn’t want to do just cooking, he said it would be boring. So I came up with the idea to interview a metal band and cook a dish for them and at the end of the interview they will taste the dish and give me their verdict. That’s how the show came about.
That was a good idea actually! Thanks for the interview Demonstealer! Well, let’s sum up then – what are your plans for the rest of 2023?
For the rest of the year I’ve got nothing concrete planned except for promoting the crap out of this album, working hard on my YouTube channel, and maybe starting to write some new Demonic Resurrection and begin plotting the next Demonstealer record as well.
THE PROPAGANDA MACHINE – TRACK LIST AND GUESTS
1. The Fear Campaign
(Hannes Grossmann, Dominic ‘Forest’ Lapointe, Anabelle Iratni & Dean Paul Arnold)
2. Monolith Of Hate
(James Payne, Martino Garattoni & Anabelle Iratni)
3. The Propaganda Machine
(Ken Bedene, Stian Gundersen & Anabelle Iratni)
4. The Art Of Disinformation
(Sebastian Lanser, Kilian Duarte, Alex Baillie & Anabelle Iratni)
5. Screams Of Those Dying
(Hannes Grossmann, Dominic ‘Forest’ Lapointe & Anabelle Iratni)
6. The Great Dictator
(James Payne, Martino Garattoni & Anabelle Iratni)
7. The Anti-National
(Sebastian Lanser, Kilian Duarte & Anabelle Iratni)
8. Crushing The Iron Fist
(Ken Bedene, Stian Gundersen, Sanjay Kumar & Anabelle Iratni)