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Ali Suhail: The story (so far)

The celebrated indie musician talks to Instep about writing bad pop songs, his early days as a metal-head and why the indie music community gives him hope

Ali Suhail: The story (so far)

Instep profile

Mohammad Ali Suhail, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter who currently counts Karachi as home, is the perfect embodiment of the DIY spirit that is the driving force behind Pakistan’s burgeoning independent music scene.

A self-taught musician who is associated with several celebrated indie acts like Jumbo Jutt, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Natasha Humera Ejaz and Shajie Hassan as well as with mainstream’s music’s rock child, Umair Jaswal, Suhail’s personal journey and artistic growth can be heard across multiple albums with Pursuit of Irrelevance simply being the most recent release.

Like most musicians who make up the vibrant indie music scene, Suhail creates obscure and moving musical structures in his bedroom which doubles as his studio. The process lends the music a kind of intimacy and is indicative of the inner world that encapsulates Suhail.

But ask Suhail about whether personal studios have eclipsed professional ones, he thoughtfully says that listeners can probably tell the difference between the sounds that are the result of professional studios versus the ones that are born in personal, DIY home studios.

“There’s a clarity to professional studios,” says Suhail before adding that the minimal home-studio setup is something that works for him and also makes financial sense in a scene where it can cost anywhere between 50,000 to 70,000 rupees to get your song up in shape when employing the services of a professional studio.

“People are learning that they can do it for themselves, which is a good thing because it keeps it from becoming what is the industry standard. Now production is a lot more creative in at least the under the surface scene we have. It gives you creative freedom and is conducive to the creation of art.”

Not one to knock down professional studios though, Suhail maintains that for him making music at home is an enjoyable process and also means that he does not have to adhere to rules that have been set by someone else.

Origin story: From Lahore to Karachi

In person, Suhail, the singer-songwriter behind eclectic EPs like Desolve, Defragment, Words From Boxes, Journal Entries and Pursuit of Irrelevance is kind, down-to-earth and someone who lets his music articulate feelings and perspectives that can’t be explained or articulated properly. The inner anxiety, loneliness and inherent sadness that is eroding us all is used as fuel by Suhail, which has led to the birth of songs that are complex, enticing and ultimately make you wonder about the incredible possibilities of music and how it can convert the strangest of emotions into languid sonic fields.

For many of us who count the city by the sea as home, Suhail has grown to become an integral member of the indie music community in Karachi. But his origin story reveals that he is actually from Lahore and moved here in the noughties.

In some ways, music was always a part of Suhail’s early life as his grandparents and parents remain fans of music while his two older sisters listened to pop melodies from the likes of Toni Braxton and Backstreet Boys.

After being introduced to Metallica’s The Black Album by a friend in sixth grade, life as Suhail knew it changed forever (and for the better it seems).

“I saw their music videos and it made me think, ‘I need to do this’” recalls Suhail. It prompted him to ask his father to buy him a guitar. This went on for a year and a half or so until his father finally succumbed and bought Suhail his first acoustic guitar. The idea, he says, was not necessarily to start a band; at the heart of it, Suhail just wanted to make his own songs.

If the guitar arrived somewhere in 2002, Suhail moved to Karachi in 2003. And though it was a move that he hated at that particular moment in time, it turned out to be the best thing that happened to him since it allowed him, in the absence of friends in a new city, time to invest in learning how to play the guitar. “For a good six months to eight months, I didn’t have any friends or any plans so I would just play the guitar for the whole day.”

Having run into musicians who would play at a venue close to home, Suhail ended up joining a band called Barzakh. “It was a shit band,” laughs Suhail, “I named it. Its limbo right?”. By 2004, Suhail had started writing songs for this group, songs that he describes as “bad pop”.

Eventually though, Suhail left the bad pop ways of Barzakh behind for something much more substantial.

“I started listening to Mauj and I realized that if Mauj can exist, why not Jumbo Jutt? I can still be commercially viable while pushing the envelope,” thought Suhail about the band that put him on the musical map.

“Once Barzakh was done, I met this other dude – who I don’t want to name – over Orkut. He was like ‘let’s make a band’ and we just ended up covering Metallica and Pantera songs but through him I met Saad Shams and through Saad I met Adeel (Hussain) and Jumbo Jutt was born.”

Playing with his band on the inaugural edition of Uth Records, which counted Gumby, Omran Shafique and Zeeshan Parwez as its creators/producers, proved to be a surreal experience for the young artist. “All of my heroes were in one room,” and that process propelled the band to bigger heights and also pushed Suhail to pursue music with even more dedication.

Uth Records led to publicity and overnight Jumbo Jutt went from certain obscurity straight into national consciousness. People suddenly became aware of their existence and overnight thousands joined their Facebook page. But even as the numbers rose, Suhail spent nearly two to three years in production wilderness as he taught himself the intricate, complex process of recording and mixing songs and making them presentable without the help of professional studio setups.

In the meantime, around the time of Uth Records glory, Suhail ended up meeting Nadir Shehzad Khan, who fronts Sikandar Ka Mandar and with whom he would go onto forge a friendship that has lasted through the years and more significantly with whom he has created wonderful, complex musical gems as SKM.

“I met Khizar Jhumra and Nadir and they asked me to join SKM; I heard their music and it was really interesting and full of things that I would not have thought of and that helped me grow a lot as a musician.”

This musical alliance also resulted in an indie music show called Lussun TV that went onto feature some of the most terrific names in indie/alternative music scene such as Mole, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Orangenoise, Mooroo’s Music, Basheer and the Pied Pipers, Khumariyaan and many more. With the show resurging once more, I ask Suhail about how Lussun TV was the one show that should’ve found corporate backing because it was so creative, original and honest.

“After the second season, Lussun TV became sporadic. In season two we waited on an answer on backing for six to eight months but after not hearing back, we put it up. It’s not a seasonal thing anymore. I still feel like it has a lot of potential but I don’t know, let’s see.”

Modern-day musical superhero

In a weird way, Suhail has not one or two but several musical identities now. One of those roles includes playing in the live and studio line up of current heartthrob of a new generation, the very mainstream Umair Jaswal.

“Its either Qayaas songs or Umair Jaswal songs or Coke Studio songs that we play and we have a good time. All of us are very tight in the band. The dynamic is changing because we’re writing new songs, album material for him.”

I ask Suhail what he makes of Coke Studio’s evolution over the years. And he takes a minute before responding: “Coke Studio’s first three seasons were amazing. They did revive the music scene in Pakistan, they injected life blood into music and just the propagation of it but season four onwards, it was the same thing but with fluff added to it. Oh look, ‘we changed an instrument this season’ or ‘we changed the ethnicity of the instrument players this season’. It’s like who cares where they are from, just give me better music, give me something new, give me something different. Initially they were experimenting a lot and I’m assuming that’s when Rohail had a say and season four onwards, maybe the sponsors just wanted to continue with what was working.”

Reflecting on how the show has changed since Rohail’s departure, Suhail honestly states: “I don’t understand it anymore.”

Suhail doesn’t play it safe when talking about the music scene. He calls Nescafe Basement “the metal Coke Studio”, a view I wholeheartedly concur with. It is a strange mystery why Uth Records, which produced original music and had the honour of being a one-of-a-kind music TV show, didn’t survive after just two seasons. “Its really strange, because the show produced original content.”

Though Suhail plays many roles, from producer to guitarist to songwriter, he admits that for him playing in any band can only happen if there is some degree of social consciousness attached to it. “My role with Jaswal is completely different as compared to the other acts. With him, I play guitars but that is also changing now that we’re writing songs. With SKM and Shajie Hassan, my role is more invasive. I’m a part of the core songwriting team or I am the producer or I make the songs presentable.”

All this progress can be heard on Suhail’s new album that hovers in spaces that feel sacred and is a universe that picks up on the fear inside and outside and condenses it into something extraordinary. And in the end, that’s what matters the most, the ability to move people with music. Luckily for us, as this conversation comes to a close, it is clear that Suhail is only too aware of this reality and will continue to rise to the occasion every single time.

– Photo courtesy: Lahore Music Meet

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