While the bombs were raining down on his countryside, Avishek KC was discovering Linkin Park for the first time. When he turned 13 in 2001, his sister had surprised him with a bootleg cassette tape of Hybrid Theory. It was the height of the Maoist-led invasion in Nepal, after the brutal massacre of King Birendra and his family effectively ended the centuries-old Nepalese monarchy. The country was in the height of civil war, and the Royal Nepalese Army had begun stalking the streets, clashing with the Maoist insurgants and protestors who aimed to topple the kingdom. Nepal's bloody revolution lasted for a decade until 2006, during which time 17,000 Nepali citizens were killed on both sides.
An entire generation of Nepali kids—KC included—found themselves caught in the middle.
"The Maoists used to make threats to schools and stuff. Like, 'if you open your doors we're gonna fucking blow it up.' And we got a shit ton of holidays. I think we got more than 60-70 days off a year. For the next 3-4 years of my teenage life. It was not as intense as the village, but you could definitely hear—a bomb went off here, a bomb went off there," KC, now 29, recalls.
He cuts a waifish figure, but heads one of Nepal's most innovative metal bands, Underside, who combine old-school thrash with retro rock. KC and his bandmates aren't afraid to rail against Nepali government corruption, and alongside contemporaries like Aakrosh and Dying out Flame, they've been helping to put Nepal on the global metal map. Their newest single, "Right to Hate," explores the roots of racism and intolerance in Nepal, a country where color, class, and caste still rule.
At 28 million people, most of whom live in villages, the landlocked Himalayan nation may have seemed like an unlikely choice for a burgeoning metal scene to arise (and an even unlikelier place to find rabid Linkin Park devotees). Yet Chester Bennington's lyrics found their way to the Kathmandu kids who grew up in the war-torn land of the Buddha, hearing the sounds of shellfire outside their homes and glimpsing dead bodies in the street.
While their schools were shut down, Kathmandu's rocker kids were busy sneaking off to scope out bootleg copies of Hybrid Theory and Meteora in hidden back alley shops. They learned to play Bennington's songs on second-hand guitars by ear. They sang his lyrics in English, even if was their second language. Though their insatiable appetites also led them to AC/DC, Metallica, Korn, and Slipknot, it was Bennington's raw confessions about pain, isolation, fear, and trauma that inspired a singular devotion to music and metal.
"We're post-generation 90s kids. After the civil war, the traumatic phase we went through. It's the lyrics; Nepalese youths going through so much trauma relate to the songs," says Milan Poudel, a Nepali metal fan and electronic producer who frequently attends the shows at Kathmandu's Thamel area.
Others agree that for them, Linkin Park was truly their gateway to the metal scene. Himalayan kids that started with Hybrid Theory soon found themselves listening to bootleg copies of Megadeth, Black Sabbath, and Cannibal Corpse. When they weren't scouring the black market for pirated cassettes from the Gulf states, they were secretly trading music with each other. As the demand for metal increased, they started to create their own but they never forgot the band's influence on their young lives.
"He was my idol. When I was a kid I used to dress up like him. I had his navy shirt and the baggy pants that he wore, [and] I even had a temporary tattoo made of permanent marker on my hand," recalls Navin Pokhrel, the intimidating lead singer of old school death metal band Aakrosh.
His hair, long and purple, is the trademark of the Nepali rock scene, worn as a symbol of resistance and protest. It's maybe one thing that unites the entire Nepali rock scene—long hair.
"I remember what the police would do if they caught you," KC grins. "They would put you in jail, and they would bring the barber. They would try to cut your hair. They didn't care if they beat you or hit you, if you had done anything wrong. For them it was wrong. You were wrong."
He's talking about the disconnect between the older people of Nepal and the younger—or the idea that Nepal's metalheads are promoting violence, and going against God. Nepal's authority figures looked at the rocker's long hair as a corrupting influence of the West, and regarded what they saw as satanic metal lyrics with frank horror.
But for the rocker kids of Kathmadu, metal was the Messiah, and Bennington their earliest prophet.
Arjun Shresta, the drummer for Amokkshan, grew up during the height of the war. He suffers from Reiter syndrome, a type of reactive arthritis, and has limited mobility. "I started playing the drums after first listening to Hybrid Theory," he says while telling me about the difficulty of navigating a mountainous country that the government had completely shut down.
Nepal is the home of the famed ghorka warriors and metalheads alike, a country still caught in transition. And like Bennington, many members of the bands there have struggled with drug addiction, and a relentless drive to pursue their music.
"Drugs and music went really parallel in my life… we are recovering addicts. When I stopped doing drugs, I was kind of scared, like, 'Fuck, how am I going to write and play guitar?' Because you don't have the same state of mind," recalls Bikrant Shrestha, Underside's guitarist and a weathered rocker who has seen far too much. He remembers the day of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, when he watched a foreigner hurl himself from a three-story window.
I first saw Underside play two years earlier on a Kathmandu Christmas, a day when I was surprised at the novelty of seeing a metal band belt out "Crawling." I wasn't there for the music—I was there to film a documentary about the earthquake. But Avishek had managed to capture Bennington's manic stage pacing, the way his voice went from a fervent whisper to a curdled scream. He held his arms outstretched as legions of young hands reached out to touch him, a conduit for the man they would never meet.
I met Avishek briefly before the venue broke out into a bloody brawl, making his acquaintance mere minutes before one of my friends was mercilessly plowed over the head with a crowbar. My friend Ben and I had been hatching a plan to send Linkin Park themselves footage of that show; maybe, we thought, they would come there, and maybe the Nepalese kids would finally see their idol.
Sadly, we never got the chance to send it. Earlier this month, Chester Bennington died at age 41 in my old hometown, in a small lush suburb in Los Angeles. He left behind six kids, a wife, and countless other fans who revered and loved him on the other side of the world.
"There's part of you that thinks, 'Was it worth it?" KC says morosely. "My idol is gone. He's just gone. If he was everything that I wanted to be, and he didn't make it… is there a point? Do I go on?"