After years spent dwelling in a drug-induced haze, Tumbleweed Inc. is the sound of Sarad Shrestha’s rebirth.
During a concert in Dolakha in the mid-2000s, Sarad Shrestha, guitarist of The Axe, was reluctant to go on stage. Despite being a member of a popular rock band, and already a seasoned musician, he wasn’t sure about playing that day. Looking at the audience, all he could see were islands of children amidst a sea of red sarees. They were obviously in the wrong place. The Axe had been invited as a guest band to play for a dohori program (of all things), where the audience was made up of a crowd of women with unnaturally shrill voices singing bawdy songs. But what happened next came as a surprise. The audience sang all eight songs that The Axe had on their set-list word-for-word, for an entire hour. It was a moment that had a profound impact on Sarad. “I realized that we were recognized in the most unexpected of places,” he says. “And for that, I’m forever grateful for having been a part of The Axe.” Today, Sarad is no longer with The Axe. He hasn’t been a part of the band since 2009.
The wonder years
Sarad was born in April 1974, which makes him 40. He grew up around Putali Sadak. A “decent” student, he attended Adarsha Vidya Mandir, passing his SLC in 1990. He then moved on to Shanker Dev Campus, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, which he didn’t complete.
Sarad’s childhood was as normal as it could get in Kathmandu in the 80s. He bunked school to watch movies in Makhan, carried a lattai in his bag when the Dashain vacation approached, flew kites in Tundikhel, and broke his arm while cycling. As his childhood friend (and current band manager) Bishal Manandhar recalls, “He was the carefree type, the kind who do not dwell too much on one thing.” It is a characteristic that defines him even today.
Putali Sadak is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Kathmandu, an ugly street never without a traffic jam. But visualize the area in the 70s and 80s – with very few vehicles and open streets, with a bunch of children playing around. Sarad was one of them. “The street was our playground,” he explains. Spending his most impressionable years running around the pavements in the company of friends and neighbors this way, acquiring survival skills through experience, no doubt contributed to the kind of person he is today: resilient and extremely open.
Into the abyss
It’s with a similar openness that Sarad talks about the darkest days of his life - his years as a drug addict. “I spent about a decade and a half as a drug user,” he says, readily admitting that he hit rock bottom during that time. “I used to have a good job which I had to quit,” he reminisces, “and at the peak of Axe’s popularity, we had to cancel tours and concerts due to my drug problem.”
In order to kick the habit, Sarad spent time at detox centers and, ultimately, had a three-month stint in rehab. It worked – but only for a time.
The Axe years
Sarad first picked up the axe (pun intended) in 1990, after he was done with his SLC exams. His first guitar was a Master acoustic. He played with a cover band called Sound Mill for a while, but it wasn’t until he joined The Axe in 1997 that he plunged into music full time. The Axe had been around for five years when Sarad joined, and they already had an album out. But it was Sarad’s playing style that shaped what was to be the signature sound of the band. “I wasn’t into Nepali music then,” he says. “I was used to playing rock covers, so when I joined the band, the heavy distortion that I used didn’t really go well with Shiva’s thet Nepali vocals.” What he then did was get rid of the distortion and develop a playing style that owed a lot to funk. This, coupled with Shiva Mukhiya’s distinctively Nepali singing style, led to tunes like Thado Jaane Ukkalo and Chyangba Dai, songs that are distinct and instantly recognizable.
Sarad’s stint with The Axe lasted through three albums (Majhi Dai, A Decade, Kamasakka) and 12 years. In 2009, he quit the band, leaving his guitar and gadgets with them, and flew off to Hong Kong.
Reverting to old ways
Hong Kong, for Sarad, was an entirely alien place. His first time in the city was in 2007, while touring with The Axe. “We stayed for ten days, but I wanted to return after three,” he says. “I couldn’t deal with the pace of things there.”
But, two years later, he was back. “I went there out of curiosity,” he explains, “I wanted to know what the world outside Nepal was like.” There, by day, Sarad held an administration job in an Australian company. By night, he continued playing with bands.
Among the notable bands Sarad was involved in was Dr. Eggs, with whom he experimented with styles of music he hadn’t played before. But the band that would, in a way, sow the seeds for what he would do in the future was the rap-metal outfit, Intellectual Morons.
While in Hong Kong, Sarad threw himself into the kind of life he’d initially found overwhelming - the sort of fast-paced lifestyle that is characteristic of major cities. That hectic existence soon took its toll on him. “I was barhopping and drinking every night,” he reveals. “And then I relapsed into drugs.” Sarad’s dark passenger had snuck up to him again.
What followed was a two-week methadone maintenance treatment, where methadone is prescribed as an alternative to other opiates. “It came with the realization that I had to get back home,” he says.
Sarad’s return to Kathmandu in 2012 began with a 10-day stint at Youth Vision Rehab in Gothatar. Since then, he has been clean. But his drug-fueled days, as dismal as they were, are no cause for regret, according to him. “I did enjoy those times,” he says, as candidly as ever. “It was the aftermath that was terrible.”
Today, Sarad stays away from most vices. There are no drugs, and he doesn’t drink either. He does, however, finish more than a packet of cigarettes a day. His tobacco stained teeth offer clear proof of that.
Stepping out of rehab meant a new beginning. His days with The Axe were over. “There was no interest from either side,” he admits. And this time, he wanted to start out on his own. While hanging out at the Silence Entertainment premises, he met Prasant Maharjan, a bass player, and Suwas, a rapper who goes by the alias Ktm Souljah. A couple of jams later, Tumbleweed (the Inc. was added later) was formed.
Tumbleweed Inc. continued what Sarad had begun with Intellectual Morons - hard rock, funk, and metal riffs led by rap vocals; this time a lot more socially aware.
Tumbleweed Inc. is the sound of Sarad’s rebirth. The band may not be breaking new ground musically, but just being a part of the group is breathing new life into the veteran musician (let’s face it, a Dev Rana he might not be, but Sarad has been part of the industry for 17 long years).“The three other members of my band—Suwas, Prasant, and Robin—are actually half my age,” he says. “But I still take inspiration from them. The chemistry is great, which is why we’ve managed to do so much is such a short time.”
At the age of 40, it’s common to see musicians drop off into obscurity. The few who manage to stay relevant hardly venture away from the music of their youth, or the company of similarly aged musicians. Sarad prefers to keep up with the times. Prasant, the bassist of Tumbleweed Inc., used to play death metal in Define Mental and grindcore in Wakk Thuu. Robin, the drummer, was in Plan Aftermath, another metal band. And Suwas a.k.a. Ktm Souljah, of course, is a rapper. “Playing with them, I’ve realized that there’s no such thing as a generation gap in music. I’ve learned from them, and they from me,” he explains.
“When we first met, I didn’t realize he was ‘the’ Sarad Shrestha,” says Robin. “He is more like a friend now. From Sarad dai, I’ve learned to be what I want to be, and to do what I want to do.” For Suwas, the lesson was learning to respect music in general. “I’ve also learned that a musician should be aware of why he or she is into music, and what it entails,” he adds.
Tumbleweed Inc. dropped their debut album, Parichaya, a few months ago. Their music is vastly different from what The Axe played, despite the presence of Sarad’s chiefly funk-based guitar playing. The demographics vary, so does the lyrical content, and the way the albums are distributed (Tumbleweed Inc. focuses on digital sales via Bandcamp, while The Axe belonged to an era of record labels and physical sales). One tag that he has been unable to shake off is that of being the guitarist of The Axe. It’s rare to find an article about Tumbleweed Inc. (including this one) without a mention of his former band, and Sarad is well aware of it. “But that’s slowly disappearing now,” he says, “especially since the release of our video for Badlido Samaj.”
Reactions from The Axe fans, however, have been mixed. “Some have liked what I’ve been doing with Tumbleweed, but some haven’t. They prefer what I did with The Axe.” As for Sarad himself, as appreciative as he is of his days with The Axe, he enjoys being on stage with his current outfit more. He’s not aware of what his former band members think of Tumbleweed, however. “I haven’t been in touch, so I have no idea,” he states.
(Upon inquiry, Shiva Mukhiya, bassist/vocalist of The Axe, claims to have been impressed after having heard Badlido Samaj and Parichaya.)
Though he may have moved on for the most part, the ghost of his drug-fueled past still haunts Sarad. At times, the fact that he once hit rock bottom is as crushing as the realization that the stigma of being a drug addict will always remain. But the guitarist strives to take it all in his stride. “I guess it comes with the territory of being a musician,” he says. “It’s a stereotype that hasn’t faded away.” He does however believe that his image as a drug user is fading since the time he played for a drug awareness program for the Richmond Fellowship rehabilitation center.
Sarad is now a full-time musician. He has started arranging music for a few young singers, and also scored the background music for an action sequence for a feature film called Bagmati. “We’ve been paid already, but I have no idea what’s in the film. We haven’t been in contact with the director for a few months now,” he says, laughing.
There’s something old school about Sarad Shrestha. He has the sort of presence that defines rockers of the 70s and 80s. But that’s not to say he’s dated. He is a respected figure in both the mainstream and underground music scenes, not an easy feat in a notoriously genre-segmented and fickle environment. Albatross is one band that has managed to transcend that scenario. Both of Sarad’s bands have managed to pull off similar feats. The Axe was the first mainstream band to find a place in the cover of the cult KtmROCKS magazine, during a time when rigid lines were drawn between the underground and the mainstream. But no one complained. Similar is the case with Tumbleweed Inc.
Sarad has visibly few pretensions, be it his personal or professional life. This was the guy who played a much-maligned Givson guitar (a cheap Indian imitation of the Gibson) for eight years, almost throughout his stint with The Axe, not caring even if it appeared on their popular music videos. He might play a classier Fender Stratocaster now, but the attitude remains the same.
Married and 40 years old, Sarad agrees that he hasn’t changed much since he was 20. But it’s apparent that he has matured. Surviving the loss of a band, and choosing to pull out of the drug-induced haze he’d been dwelling in for so long, to the point of being able to talk so openly about those bleak times, he’s certainly shown a great deal of strength and maturity; something his friend Bishal commends him for. As for the future, Sarad believes there’s still a lot left to explore. “I don’t have too many plans or ambitions, all I know is that I’ll keep on making music,” he declares.