Professor by Day, Entertainer by Night
By Luke Schultheis, Layout and Sports Editor
Rishi Bahl sits in an office chair next to a stack of marketing paperwork on his desk; when he’s not there, he’s fronting a pop-punk band.
Bahl, clad in a dark grey jacket and khakis, is the lead singer of Eternal Boy, a “nostalgic, heartfelt trio from Pittsburgh,” per their Spotify page. The tall, glasses-sporting professor writes lyrics about heartache, place and soul-searching.
The band released an album, titled “Bad Days Are Over,” earlier this year, alongside multiple music videos. Bahl shreds the strings of his Fender Strat in “Thirty Something’s” video — a story showcasing life from boyhood to adulthood.
When Bahl isn’t teaching classes or strategizing in fantasy football, he’s writing about past events and trials. He uses nostalgia and the signature pop-punk sound to bring his words to life.
The lead-vocalist and guitar player answered questions about how nostalgia influences his musical decisions and songwriting. He also discussed how that strategy clicks with a younger audience.
Q: Nostalgia is a very subjective term. What is nostalgia for you?
A: Nostalgia, for me, is about place. Not only a physical place, but a particular moment or time. To me, that’s how all art or music functions. It takes you from that immediate moment and brings you somewhere else. Music for me, nostalgia’s at the core of all of it —particularly the genres that I love, like punk rock, pop punk and ska. Nostalgia is about placement — where it places you and how it gets you there.
Q: In regard to those bands that you love—what stuck out about names like Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, or acts from the Drive-Thru Records Era?
A: For bands like Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182 — those bands changed my whole perspective on the world. It’s because they wrote these very simple songs that were almost like nursery rhymes on steroids. The simplicity of those bands made it very easy to digest. And ultimately, it became lyrically driven. What makes those bands so good is that they can take basic, simple chords and put them together in a way that feels very conducive to nostalgia.
Q: Do you think lyrically, that’s the biggest part of it [Nostalgia]?
A: I think melody is the most important part of it. There’s a particular chord structure and particular scales that allow pop music to be pop. To me, it’s that in combination with the lyrics. If those two that are easily digestible, relatable, and easy to discern, that combination is lethal. That is like the Big Mac of music writing that does it for me.
Q: Are there certain chords you gravitate towards when you write your songs?
A: Yeah. When my friends and I were younger, we called it the “four chords.” On a guitar, it’s a T-riff and it’s one of the most used intervals, maybe ever. This T-riff is what many pop songs use—or a variation of that—which is why pop gets a bad rep. People are like, “Oh you just recycled the same four chords.” And it’s true, but everyone’s been doing it since the inception of pop music, all the way from the Beatles up to Lady Gaga. There’s a structural component to it that people can’t deny. It’s like candy.
Q: The name Eternal Boy. That hints at nostalgia. When and how did you come up with the name?
A: People say I have “Peter Pan complex,” meaning I can’t grow up—in good ways and bad ways. I think Eternal Boy is this ode to when we were young. And I don’t mean I want to stay young forever, but when you’re doing things for the first time, there’s no better feeling. Your first kiss, the first time behind the wheel without your parents—these firsts become less and less as you get older, and that’s what we always talk about with nostalgia. If you constantly try new things, it’s almost like you never grow up.
Q: Since you mentioned the past, do you think nostalgia’s more about reminiscing on those simpler times or not being able to move forward?
A: I think it’s about the yearn and desire for having the feeling. I always say I wrote two and a half albums about the same girl. I don’t miss that person anymore, but I miss the feelings of that for the first time. Or when I saw Blink-182 for my first concert. I can’t describe it, like I’m never going to get that again. Having your first child. What comes after that? It’s almost like you die by the time you’re 40. For music, it allows us to keep having that feeling.
Q. Most of your listeners are younger. One of the songs on your newest record is called “Thirty Something.” How do you take your current life and relate it to those listeners?
A: “Thirty Something’s” about feeling like you never got the opportunities that others got. The chorus says, “I’ve waited for things to go my way,” and it never seems to happen. Now you’re in your 30’s and you’re just a number. Now that I think about it, everything we do is nostalgia. And once again, “Thirty Something” is pushing back at all that and saying, “It’s just a number.” You’re always growing. Whether you’re 90 years old, you’re still growing in some way.
Q: Do you think a song labeled as power pop or pop punk can be in that genre if it doesn’t feel nostalgic?
A: I don’t think it’s only the content of pop punk or punk rock, but it’s certainly a huge premise of it. It’s a huge part of other music too, though, like country and hip-hop. Pop-punk generally is a lot about nostalgia. The bands that don’t write about nostalgia and write more about feelings—that became emo. Emo was essentially born out of pop-punk. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite, but it certainly has its foundation in nostalgia.
Q: One thing you mentioned earlier was your songwriting. Are the “he’s, she’s, and you’s” in your songs real people or characters?
A: It depends. Older songs are almost always about a personal situation. As I get older, it’s more about witnessing situations. I made stupid mistakes when I was younger. Nowadays, it’s more about observing it and talking about it. I think as I get older, it’s much more narrative-based.
Q: Do you feel like you’ll always be a kid at heart?
A: Yeah, I do. I think that it’s a feeling. But I do find myself feeling older. I never partied or went to the South Side when I was younger. Now, when I drive through those areas, I feel completely out of place. I feel young at heart—and this is something my grandma always said. At 98, she looked in the mirror and said, “I don’t feel like a 98-year-old.” She had a pep to her, and that’s something I’ll always have. When I lose that pep, it’ll be time for me to go.
Q: Real-life subject matter from your youth eventually expires. How does that affect you as a songwriter?
A: I think about this all the time. Does it have an expiration date? I think it does, but the effect is still there. I could see myself looking at 21-year-old Rishi and being like, “Yo dude, you should’ve done it this way.” But those scars don’t go away. Just because you’ve moved on in some degree, doesn’t mean they disappeared—and that all ties back into nostalgia. I do still feel there is some creativity you can foster out of that.
Q: So, you feel you can take these things from the past and still get some art out of them?
A: Yeah, I do. I find myself finding weird things to squeeze art out of now. I saw an animated short of WALL-E and knew I could squeeze something out of it—solitude, but also strength. You find things out of weird situations. I got an “In Sympathy” email about a former professor and I googled her, and there was this glowing obituary about her on the “Post-Gazette.” I didn’t know her at all but felt like I did after that. I found myself feeling very inspired by it. It’s weird what you can be inspired by—but most of the time, you have to experience it.
Q: If you had to describe Eternal Boy’s music in one word, what would it be?
A: I would say, “insecure.” Every song you write, it’s about a vulnerable situation where maybe you were not you. Eternal Boy, in terms of songwriting, is about embracing insecurity. And that’s punk. That’s the punkiest thing you can do.