ISLAMABAD: Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, collectively Strings, seated in the office of their studio are perhaps amongst the most engaging musicians of Pakistan with well-thought-out responses and incredible comprehension of the industry and its evolution over the years. Whilst one can hear the drums from the jam-space, they’re relaxed, playing off of each other’s vibe and keen to talk about keeping their sound alive, together.
The Express Tribune sat down with the two maestros as they look back at their illustrious career, the peaks and valleys and coming out of an arduous stretch at Coke Studio as producers to commemorate three decades of excellence this year with returning to touring after a ten-year hiatus as the hit act that they always have been and releasing eight originals to go with it; the first to come out being Sajni. Excerpts from our conversation follow:
ET: First and foremost, congratulations on your incredible benchmark. What inspires you and keeps you going?
Faisal Kapadia (FK): Thirty years, surely, a huge milestone. I think the band has taken very different directions in these three decades, especially the last four years when we were consumed with Coke Studio, and now we’ve come to realise that had that not happened, the enthusiasm in us, as a band, wouldn’t have been there. The different gaps in our lifespan, especially after our first two albums brought even more enthusiasm with it. I think to avoid a stagnant life, it was important. Now, Strings seems like a brand-new band with a lot of energy and eagerness to be on-stage and play for fans.
ET: What can you tell us about the eight-singles you plan on releasing to celebrate and what can one expect?
Bilal Maqsood (BM): Faisal and I were debating on whether we should release an album or singles. Faisal wanted a compiled body of work, something people could listen to from the very beginning to the end, but again, who has that kind of time now? You’d listen to one song or maybe two, the others you’d probably play if they pop up on your timeline. That’s how it is; you don’t click unless it’s on your newsfeed, which is why we decided to make singles; one to come out every month.
You work on them extensively, release videos and give it as much importance as an album put together. With albums, what’s always happened is that you give four or five songs your all, but then the rest of them end up as fillers instead and you’re not able to work on them. They’ll be Side-B, though that doesn’t exist anymore; with singles, you’re able to give each one of them due time. It’s a newer approach to an album, but it would only be complete by the end of the year. You’ll hear the last song in December and the album, with its official cover and artwork would be come out then.
FK: I think that’s the struggle that we’ve always had to face. In our last album, Koi Aanay Wala Hai (2008), there were a couple of songs which we personally felt were very interesting, Sonay Du and Keh Dia, but we weren’t able to shoot videos for them and they didn’t reach people the way they should have, which is entirely because it wasn’t known they existed. As Bilal said, the mechanics are such that each song of ours will get that kind of importance now.
ET: Before the conversation around women in popular culture hit mainstream, ‘Dhaani’ dealt with empowerment. How important is it for influential musicians like yourself to consciously include social commentaries in their artistic landscape?
BM: Social issues and causes are important as long as they come from within. There’s no point of doing something to remain relevant. Strings made songs only when we felt it was needed, like Main Bhi Dekhoon Ga. Dhaani wasn’t like that initially, but its video was conceptualised as such by Jami (Mehmood), but we agreed with him and wanted to take it in that direction. There’s synergy and a great working relationship with him. Like Strings and Anwar Maqsood are a team, so are Strings and Jami.
We bounce off of ideas from one another. This time as well, our second song, Urr Jaoon will touch upon a very pertinent cause of juvenile, child maids who we get to see everywhere, at restaurants with aunties or pushing prams at malls, so we’ve developed a video on what they go through. Again, that’s not what the song itself was about, but after Jami and we discussed it, it really moved us and we believed in his vision.
FK: It comes with time and maturity I believe. After our album, Duur (2000) came out, people would ask us about how all rock-bands are raising social issues, but we would always tell them how ours were very happy, love-songs. But then, we made Beirut and Ab Khud Kuch Kerna Paray Ga, and other tracks, which came out dramatically and during that timeframe, maybe we weren’t able to create those love-songs we once identified with alone. With age, one realises that apart from being just a singer or musician, you have a human responsibility to address certain subjects if you have power to.
ET: You were amongst the very first Pakistani musicians to work internationally, in Hollywood and across the border, bagging multiple accolades. How important do you deem the trade of talent?
FK: I think whenever somebody from any country or profession gains recognition or appreciation outside, around the world; it brings a lot to that country and people who look up to you. When we saw Nusrat Fateh Ali or Reshma doing a song for an Indian film, which was a completely alienated thought at the time, but when somebody does it, it definitely encourages you to follow suit in a way. So when we did all of that, I’m sure a lot of people saw a way and felt they could do it if we could. This collectively brings the morale of the entire nation up. Even if somebody from IT gets an international contract, others would work-hard.
ET: You lent your expertise to the entire soundtrack of Jami’s Moor in 2015. With the cinematic revival of sorts, do you think opportunities for musicians to experiment have increased?
BM: I think Pakistani cinema is stuck in one particular genre currently. It needs to break-out of that. Jami’s film was very experimental, which is why we got a lot of space to play with a lot of different styles of music. But now with every film that’s coming out, you can place the same song in another one and people wouldn’t find out; it’s all that similar. Cinema needs to explore different spaces and only then would it serve beneficial. It’s based on a formula for now and if that continues, nobody would notice it after sometime.
ET: Your four-season run as producers of Coke Studio met with as much acclaim as criticism, where musicians spoke of the lack of inclusion and there were accusations of nepotism. What was your own experience like?
FK: The bigger the platform, the more responsibility you have, which only increases the criticism. We never realised before actually being a part of it that people loved the program so much and owned it in a way that they become very vocal about whatever they feel. With Coke Studio, we learnt that not everybody will like everything, people would have different opinions. Coca Cola wanted Strings to be the producers for the show, so we trusted our judgment and did whatever we thought was right. Yes, we heard about nepotism. We heard about Ali Sethi and Zaw Ali, but honestly, Ali is brilliant and we don’t get to see singers like him very often.
Zaw, we very clearly remember that when Sajjad Ali agreed to be a part of the season, he believed there must be a female singer in it as well and he told us that there was a newcomer who he’d like us to hear, but he never mentioned she was his daughter. We thought Zaw’s voice perfectly matched the song and it was actually much later, when she arrived at the rehearsals that we found out that Sajjad Ali was her father. There’s a lot that can be said, but it’s actually very different behind the scenes.
ET: In a rather thriving music industry, how important do you think corporate involvement is for musicians; is it financially viable to produce music without being backed by a brand?
FK: It’s very important; especially what Coke Studio’s done over the past decade. If there would have been no Coke Studio from 2008 to 2018, there would have been no music at all. We wouldn’t have had musicians like Ali Sethi or Nabeel Shauqat Ali and so many new musicians, or even the veterans who weren’t getting the kind of space they deserved. Corporate(s) need to sensitively invest because they must keep the creative department away from themselves and let artists flourish. Wherever there would be creative interference, the industry would see a downfall again.
But in today’s time as age, where TV is no longer a medium for music and there’s no radio support for pop music, the corporate sector makes it possible for such music to be heard. It might be relatively easier for a seasoned musician [to produce music without their backing] because they have an established fan-base, but it’s very difficult for newer musicians. There are musicians with a very strong digital presence also, like Asim Azhar or Uzair Jaswal, but that doesn’t guarantee your reach. It’s a very tricky and challenging situation that we all have to deal with.
ET: In comparison to when you started-off and were coming-of-age to how the industry functions now, how do you compare your progression with the current music scene and what’s your take on the future of pop-rock music’s forecast in Pakistan?
BM: Music has changed, but more in the global market, not so much in Pakistan. But the platforms have changed. Thirty years ago, there were cassettes, and then came CDs and then the whole scene was completely dominated by TV after Indus Music began airing. But in the digital age, physical presence has completely been demolished and even on the web, the span is so short that if you haven’t clicked on something, it probably won’t show up again.
And even if they do click, they’re going to go away if you’re not able to make them for stay for over half a minute. I think musicians must be conscious about that and with distribution; you must be very active on all these platforms around you. It’s become a very difficult task. Now, one has to be a marketer, a distributor, but first and foremost, a musician has to be a musician, so it’s only getting tougher by the day.
ET: Strings’, after releasing its second album disbanded and only the two of you reunited that too after a sabbatical of eight years. Now that you look back, do you have any regrets at all and how do you view the episode of your discord?
BM: Absolutely no regrets at all. Our ride has been fairly smooth, strangely (laughs). The only bumpy areas were the four-years at Coke Studio, where we realised that Strings can also get negative feedback and that really got to us because we weren’t used to that at all. But after hearing everything that was said, it only made us stronger and we came out as better human beings on the other side of these four-years. And we truly respect that negative feedback; yes, some people are a bit too vocal, some aren’t, but it’s important for you to listen. If the people you’re making music for are discarding it, there’s always a reason behind it.
The twenty six-years before that went by very calmly. [Former band-mates] Rafiq and Kareem also came back and in fact, we jammed for a day as well, but at that point we had decided that if we wanted it to work this time, we would have to burn our boats and leave everything else. But they were both so heavily involved in their family businesses that they couldn’t commit to it.
ET: More often than not, bands’ parting of ways is deemed inevitable, what made you join forces again in 2000 and how have you been able to respect each other’s opinions, yet continue churning out music, collectively?
FK: We’re lucky to be together, and there’s no formula. I think we realised this very early on in our lives that our main focus was Strings. If you don’t have personal agendas, then your collective focus remains on the band. I think that’s why other bands or internationally also, we see how even the slightest of focus diverted on a solo-career or project stems what ultimately makes the band breakup.
We had our families at that time [when we reunited], but it was a responsibility we had taken up and we decided to not give up if a few shows of ours didn’t work. With time, we’ve started to understand each other also, which makes it easier. There are a lot of conflicts, which will continue happening, but we’ve learnt how and when to deal with it so it doesn’t become a disease.
ET: Where do you see the band-culture today, and what do you think is the secret behind rising above insecurities and staying true to one’s passion?
BM: I think for any successful band, you just have to kill your ego. You have to know each and everyone is equally important, and that’s something that Strings has always done. I know that Faisal pushes me forward and I push him. Our members now, Aahad Nayani (drums), Haider Ali (keyboards), Bradley D’Souza and Adeel Ali (lead guitar) will be in our videos and posters because it’s important for them to own the band as well. They believed they were session plays till now, but they’re a part of Strings and their presence is as important. Their fans should know they’re a part of Strings too. Thankfully, we’ve never had those insecurities of not having been seen too much or anything.
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