July Issue 2008
Stringing a Surprise
Ten o’clock in the morning on a balmy summer day is an unlikely time to meet your average pop star musician; they are usually expected to be nocturnal and lovers of life on the edge. So I was a little surprised to find myself in the beautiful driveway of the Maqsood residence, scheduled to meet the duo at this godly hour. Soon, Bilal Maqsood welcomed me warmly at the door. Friendly and engaging, he sat on a sofa across from me. Shortly afterwards, Faisal Kapadia arrived and greeted me quietly, but the huge baritone of his voice almost shook the room with resonance, leaving me in no doubt as to why he is a vocalist.
Time flew by as I talked to them; conversation flowed from one topic to the next as Bilal freely volunteered his responses to my questions, occasionally talking wistfully about his own ideas and philosophy. Faisal was more pensive but he often interjected with his own opinions and views. Soon I discovered that this pair was far from the stereotypical pop stars — simple, humble and down-to-earth, they were a pleasure to meet.
Q. Your latest album has such a distinct sound as compared to your previous ones. How come?
A: This album was actually a very big risk for us. We were very experimental and decided to change and refresh our whole sound. If you observe the icons of our time — Aerosmith, Madonna, U2 — they survive by reinventing themselves every time they come out with a new album. And those who repeat themselves die out. If we believe that this is it, this is the sound that works for Strings and we keep doing the same thing, then people won’t notice us for very long. It was great fun creating this new sound, and in the process we rediscovered ourselves. When you walk the same path for so many years you begin to ignore the sights, but when you change your path, suddenly the world around you comes to life.
A: Well, we didn’t have to wait for this trip to let India influence us. From the beginning we have heard and loved Indian music — especially the golden era of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar. Both of us grew up listening to their music and you can always hear their melodies somewhere in our songs. We couldn’t let go of that even if we tried.
Q. So tell me something about your new influences and how they came about?
A: We were greatly influenced by Brit rock; you must have noticed many elements of Coldplay and Keane, as well as some of our older, more core influences like Oasis and, most of all, the root of all these bands, i.e. The Beatles, who also happen to be our favourite band. You can hear The Beatles influence in songs like ‘Aik Do Teen,’ while ‘Hamsafar’ sounds very Coldplay-ish with the pianos and acoustic guitars and ‘Soney Do’ is very Keane-ish. And we don’t mind saying that either because after all that’s what art is — musicians listen to the music they love and create something new from all those influences that they pick up. Nothing in the world is totally fresh. This is how we grow; the next time around we’ll take this music to another level, and it’ll become our own.
We were also aware of the possibility that people won’t be ready for it, but we were okay with that because that’s what happened with ‘Duur.’ Pakistan hadn’t experienced music like that; the artists of the time were Shehzad Roy and Ali Haider, who were producing very traditional and local sounds. Eventually, however, people accepted it and started liking ‘Duur.’
Q. How would your compare your initial goals and expectations with what you have achieved today?
A: (Bilal) We didn’t have any expectations. We didn’t plan on pursuing music as a career at all. I always thought I would become a banker or a chartered accountant, and Faisal had his family business to take care of. I wanted to experiment and decided to enroll myself at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture to study communication design and pursue a more artistic line to better express myself. Music took a backseat until Faisal came back from the US in 1999. He talked to me and said that we needed to start playing again. I had one kid and another on the way at that point. My career was going well; I was making advertisements and music videos, while Faisal’s business was doing well too. But we felt such a strong second calling that we got into it very seriously and started working on the album. We came up with ‘Duur’ and ‘Anjaane’ and before we knew it, we were recording. Rohail Hayat was a great help to us and Shehzad Shahi mixed our songs for us. When the album came out it sounded much better than we had expected.
We then decided to contact major recording companies in India. We’d heard that ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’ would get played a lot at Indian clubs — and that turned out to be true. All the record companies wanted to know if we were the ones who came up with the song and wanted to sign us up. We were extremely happy and got on the next train to Mumbai where we signed up with Magna Sound — a company where all the big artists of the time would go. When we returned to Karachi, we quit our jobs, decided to burn our bridges and become full-time musicians. There’s always a time when you have to decide that you’re going to do it, and we knew we did.
Q. What’s your favourite contemporary Pakistani band?
Q. But Noori isn’t playing as a band anymore, so who else?
A: (Faisal) Actually we really liked Faraz Anwar’s more recent stuff, since he’s mellowed it down.
(Bilal) I like how he’s traded some of his heavy riffs for more pop-ish sounds and nice melodies. I think that’s the way to go about it.
Q. Do you fight? What’s the worst fight you’ve ever had?
A: (Faisal) We often reach decisions when we disagree about something. Usually we consider our differences to be our strength because it contributes to our music from both of our personalities and, of course, like in any partnership we have differences of opinion. But we’ve learnt to sort them out and hear each other out. Sometimes, when neither is willing to give in, we let it go and come back to it later. That usually works. The longest such incident I remember is when we were releasing ‘Dhaani’: Bilal wanted to release ‘Chae Chae’ first, and I disagreed and wanted ‘Dhaani’ to be the first release. We debated this for four to six days. Finally I gave in and decided to release ‘Chae Chae’ — for whatever reasons we had at that time. But one important thing is that once the decision has been made, we support each other a 100%.
Q. What’s the worst thing about our industry?
A: A lot of people here develop a little talent, and suddenly they have big egos and attitude problems. They think they’ve become stars even though they’ve just started out.
Q. Have you ever been in a crazy/dangerous fan situation?
A: No, we don’t really let it get to that point; I think maybe because we don’t project the sort of image that triggers crazy or dangerous behaviour from people.
(Faisal) We love our fans and we know they love us. Whenever they come to us, we know it’s out of love for us and our music, so we don’t feel like we have to fear anything. Sometimes someone will be there behaving in what we feel is a funny or strange way, or even intrusive, but that’s how they are expressing themselves. Like I said, we don’t really let it get out of hand because we treat them with respect and we know where to draw the line, whether it’s a boy or a girl.
(Bilal) Also, in this lifestyle you’ll usually see that singers perform at concerts and gigs for the sake of after-parties and to enjoy the crazy lifestyle, but we don’t do any of that.
Q. How has the Coke Studio experience been?
A: (Faisal) It was the first time we met Ustad H.B. Gullo or even watched him perform, and it was great. Also, it was great to work with a complete studio that let us play live and record fully. Most of the time we have to lip sync or compromise on music because the place where we’re playing doesn’t have the equipment or set-up to let you perform live. So it’s been a wonderful experience because, as musicians, we were able to do just the opposite here. The set-up at the studio is excellent and very professional.
Q. Since Anwar Maqsood writes your lyrics, how do you bring your own influences and inspiration into the songs?
A: (Bilal) When we’re making the song, we know what the melody is about, and it dictates its own concept. So we communicate this to him and then work closely with him as he writes the lyrics. We define if it’s a sad or a happy song, or an inspirational one. For instance, when we were making ‘Jago Utho,’ we gave him these words and explained what the song was about. He then wrote the lyrics for us.
Q. It’s a big challenge to write songs in Urdu. Where would you be without him?
A: Still stuck in the ’90s, writing lyrics like ‘Jab say tum ko mein ne dekha hai mujhe pyar ka matlab aa gaya!’ We couldn’t have done it without him because we can’t really write great Urdu poetry.
Q. What was is it like to be the first Pakistanis ever to get a Gibson endorsement?
A: Yes, it’s still hard to believe! Gibson called us one day and told us they wanted to endorse us. Now we go to their website, select a guitar and tell them we want a particular guitar. The next morning a guy comes to our hotel with not just that guitar, but four other guitars in cases, and asks us to take whichever we would like. We select them, use them for videos and performances, and then two or three months later we get some more. It’s like a dream come true.
Q. There are many young amateur musicians today in Pakistan — any advice for them?
A: The first thing is that you have to ask yourself what you want to do. Do you want to just ape the image of western musicians? Are you living in denial, trying to be exactly like Metallica’s or Megadeath’s guitarist, wanting to look, dress and sound just like them? Or do you want to inspire people with your music, as a form of art that you feel comes from within. Most guys in bands that we see today don’t know how to hold a guitar or sing properly. But they already have such inflated egos and rock star attitudes. The big question is, do you feel the need to be a rock star or a musician? Ask yourself: how much of a role does my ego have in this? If you find that it’s not about chasing an image or about your ego, but about your spirit and creativity and the need to be a musician, then it’s the right line for you.