BY TOM BECK Ever since Bhi Bhiman’s youth, he showed great potential. From age seven onwards, he would practice his craft constantly, usually playing for hours a day, perfecting his skills in effort to one day make it big time — except on a diamond rather than a stage. Bhiman was an elite baseball player at young age, before a freak hip injury took him out of the lineup and into the hospital. But it was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Bhiman’s time away from the baseball field allowed him to hone his guitar playing to freaky-good levels, and perfect his singing voice to the lusty and hearty, siren-like croon it is today. The next time you can hear the St. Louis-born Americana-rocker in greater Philadelphia metropolitan area is September 6, when he opens for Lake Street Dive at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square. But if that’s too far for you, or if you’re a xenophobic city dweller who doesn’t like going wherever SEPTA can’t bring you, you can see him a few weeks later at the Union Transfer on September 24 when he opens for The Suffers.
PHAWKER: I read that growing up, you were really interested in hard rock and grunge music. How’d you make the leap from that to soulful jangly folk-pop music?
BHI BHIMAN: Well, I’ve always liked different types of music. I was introduced to music through electric guitar and rock and roll music and that was kind of my springboard and that’s what got me into it and made me love playing guitar and playing music. But I’ve always liked lots of different types of music. Like, you know, country music, Bob Dylan, of course rock and roll, and folk music and stuff like that. Old blues. St. Louis is where I’m from — it’s a very storied blues town. A lot of people don’t realize that anymore, but lots of blues in the undercurrent there. But I’ve always liked all kinds of music and not really been negative against any types of music. I’ve always had the mindset that everything has something to offer. So how I arrived here is just by working on songwriting skill, and it led towards a more pop sort of sound, I guess.
PHAWKER: Not too many people make the leap from baseball to rock star. Can you take us through how that happened?
BHI BHIMAN: I used to play a lot of baseball growing up, pretty competitively until I was a teenager. And then what stopped me was when I had an accident — I had an injury and I was in the batter’s box and a pitch came and I swung at it and a ligament popped out of my hip, or I tore it from my swing, which is kind of a freak accident that really doesn’t happen. But it was incredibly painful and it was debilitating because I couldn’t really walk well. So, it took quite a while until that healed up, so I was kind of limping around, not really doing too much physically, so I really ramped up my guitar playing at that point and music became identified with a lot more I guess. And from there I started playing guitar several hours a day and it replaced my baseball schedule, which was pretty demanding at that time.
PHAWKER: Judging by your Instagram account, you seem to be an avid baseball fan in general. Do you keep up with what’s going on in the world of baseball while on tour?
Probably too much. It’s very very easy. It’s very easy to stay in touch through just ESPN or the MLB app. I have the MLB app, but that’s what I check out. Not just for baseball, but yeah it’s really easy on a smartphone. Very very easy. Unless you have no Wifi. But I definitely keep up pretty good.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I saw a picture on your Instagram account of you at a Cardinals-Phillies game. The photo had a caption that read “These Phans don’t seem like they’d boo Santa Claus.” I would like to personally thank you for that on behalf of the Philadelphia fan base, because we don’t get compliments often.
BHI BHIMAN: [laughs] No, you don’t! But, you get stereotyped pretty bad — across the board in all sports. It’s actually funny enough, Ryan Howard is actually from my small area — St. Louis — [and when playing minor league baseball in St. Louis] there was two age groups, like the 12 year olds and the 14 year olds — I’m not sure what it was, but there was two age groups going to the Dominican from St. Louis, and he was on the older team. So I knew about him, but I didn’t know him. But there was always this story growing up that some kid hit a home run — there was a baseball field — a complex of baseball fields, and then there was a Red Lobster 400-500 feet away from one of these fields. And there was a story that some kid hit a home run that landed on top of the Red Lobster, and then I just remembered that in the back of my head. And then I was watching Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel on HBO and they’re interviewing Ryan Howard. They were doing a profile on him, and they interviewed his mom. And his mom was talking about how he once hit a home run and it landed on top of the Red Lobster. But, yeah Ryan Howard used to play ball in the same league — more my brother’s age, but that’s my Philly connection.
PHAWKER: That’s crazy, I did know Ryan Howard was from St. Louis — I didn’t really make that connection until now. But switching gears back to music — where did you get the idea to sing from the point of view of characters you create?
BHI BHIMAN: Well the person that opened my mind up to creative songwriting was Bob Dylan just because what he was able to say and the way he conveyed it. He made an impact on me in a powerful way — social change through simple words or whatever that means. So Dylan definitely changed my mind about a few things, but Randy Newman really took that to another level, and to a lesser extent Warren Zevon. I don’t know, he’s not a hot name to throw around right now, but I’ve always loved Warren Zevon, and him and Randy Newman were very subversive and Randy Newman is just incredibly satirical and whatnot. I’m sure there’s plenty of adjectives you could throw at him, but he took characters and went to these really extreme viewpoints basically to get his feelings across or view of what’s going on in the world across and that stuck with me probably more than anything in terms of those characters.
PHAWKER: In the interview with Jessie Thorn on Bullseye you said that “” I have a couple of things going against me. I’m South Asian looking, I’m playing acoustic guitar and singing and as a general rule people just don’t want to see that. But I have to work up hill against that.” You also mention that you have to “figure an audience out before they figure you out.” What did you mean by that, and what’s that like for you?
BHI BHIMAN: Well it’s a blessing and a curse or whatever where I’ve had to be adaptable because I don’t really fit into anything, in a sense. So I’ve opened shows and worked with other artists who are country artists, hip hop artists, R&B singers, rock and roll, and a few more in between, but those are pretty different things and I’ve had to be kind of fluent in that to survive a little bit — not to be too dramatic. But I’ve had to be adaptable and that’s been great. I’ve learned quite a bit from a lot people I’ve worked with. But at the same time, I was talking to a friend and an immigrant from Latvia or something could come here and have a son, and their son, who is white, could start playing acoustic guitar and sort of Americana music or whatever, and that’s natural to them. It’s sort of a either your white or your black sort of thing if you’re going to play American music — and I get that — I’m not blind to that. But I’m as American as that kid is, but there is a visual thing in my experience. Definitely, like, poisons people’s minds. I’m not — I’m not railing against society or anything, but it’s a fact, you know?
PHAWKER: So are you saying that even in the liberal/progressive world of indie rock audiences that even they have cultural biases?
BHI BHIMAN: I would say that’s true. But I think everybody has a cultural bias against something and it’s kind of like, just what they see, but at the same time I’m 32 years old and I have some cousins that are younger than me, and they just don’t see things in the way I see them. So everything is changing. The younger kids don’t see race as much as I do, and the way I grew up I guess. But, I mean, it’s a thing. I would even say that even morso than the way I look is my name. It’s like somewhat unpronounceable looking to people on a piece of paper. And maybe that plays a bigger part of it.
PHAWKER: That’s all the questions I had. Is there anything you wanted to throw in?
BHI BHIMAN: I guess I could talk about the album, Rhythm & Reason is sort of an immigrant’s story. It’s sort of a personal story. There’s some politics in there, but it’s all sort of told from a personal vantage. Yeah, I mean immigration is a hot topic right now. I come from an immigrant family, so it’s something that I wanted to shine a little light on — just from my persective, everybody’s is different. But it’s a big part of America.
PHAWKER: Do you have any personal opinions you’d like to share on maybe Donald Trump or what’s going on in the current immigration debate?
BHI BHIMAN: I’d like to see what’s inside his hair. Like, a robin’s nest or something. But, I mean, he said something about the border fence, which I don’t even want to touch that, but he was talking about — he was attacking the Facebook guy, Zuckerberg? Is that right?
PHAWKER: Yeah. Mark Zuckerberg.
BHI BHIMAN: Right. And he actually — and I’m as far from a Republican as can be, but he said something where you should hire or train people who are living around your company instead of bringing in skilled people from India or elsewhere on those visas. And I was like, well, that’s actually a decent point because America has famously gotten dumber and dumber and why outsource the intelligence and ignore the homegrown people. So that particular thing I agreed with. But almost everything else seems like ridiculous pompousness. It’s sort of like Back to the Future 2 when Biff becomes rich and famous. I just imagine it like that — Donald Trump being president. The whole world would just turn into that.