For Bilal Maqsood, one half of music group Strings, the songwriting process, a task he excels at, neither begins with the lyrics or the melody. As he reveals to Instep, it begins with a feeling and to him is a practice in self-discovery.
“You get a feeling inside, a sense of direction that ‘okay this is where I want to go’ and at that point you don’t know the melody, you don’t know the words but you feel something. More than an idea, it’s a feeling and you try and follow it. Making a song is a beautiful process of self-discovery.”
Sitting for this interview with Instep to discuss the landmark of 30 years of Strings, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, the men who form the band, remain candid and elated. They are genuinely happy that they are still here, making (new) music, playing shows and doing it all with a renewed sense of hope and joy.
“It feels like the band has just been made, and we are back with the kind of enthusiasm that existed within us when we first started out,” admits Faisal Kapadia.
Of course, Strings’s landmark of 30 years is an accomplishment. During the course of this period, they’ve released five full-length albums, a number of soundtracks (Spider-Man 2, Shootout at Lokhandwala, Zinda, Moor), and some of the most memorable music videos in pop music history. They’ve played countless live shows, at home and abroad and produced four seasons of Coke Studio. All in all, a staggering achievement but one they never saw coming.
“If you had asked us after Duur, which came in 2000, did we ever imagine that we’d still be here, so excited about doing new original music, no, we didn’t,” reminisces Faisal. “But things continued to happen that automatically took us through different phases. And had these phases not happened, perhaps we wouldn’t have survived.”How did you survive, I ask.
“I think, in an artist’s life, many traps emerge that force you to make the wrong decision,” responds Bilal. “For instance, if you don’t have enough work, you may go into the wrong direction. If I’m going in the wrong direction, Faisal reins me in and tells me that things will improve. For example, a film song offer comes our way. It’s an Indian film and we really don’t understand much of it; they want a song from our album but we don’t know anything about the cast or the director. We don’t know if it’ll fail or succeed and we say no but it can be tempting. And maybe that is the key to our success. Good times eventually happen. If there is a dip, you will eventually climb up but the trick is to recognize that dip when it comes, and try to avoid the traps.”
Another fact that keeps Bilal and Faisal together as a band is that their focus is just Strings. There are no acting gigs or solo projects happening here.
“We’re very lucky to be honest and it’s not easy,” says Faisal. “Our focus has always been Strings and we try to create opportunities because this is our bread and butter and it allows us to run our households. The day Bilal’s source of income and my source of income separate, that’s the end. Because if, suppose we don’t get shows, he won’t be worried. I’ll be worried about survival so we both have only Strings. How long it will exist, you can’t define or predict it, but 30 years, we feel, we’ve done it, we’ve cracked it.”
“The thing that ends bands, I think, is egos,” adds Bilal. “It’s ‘I am right, or why am I not projected in this video or why am I not in this press conference?’ In our case, we both have this thing where we both push each other forward. We also want to push the band forward so the four guys (Aahad Nayani, Haider Ali, Bradley D Souza and Adeel Ali) who play with us, you see them in ‘Sajni’ and you will in other videos, in our posters and we have made sure that they are projected and come forward.”
Adds Faisal: “And this is important for a band to survive. In 2012, I remember there was this strange dip and Bilal got an offer to play a role in a huge Geo TV drama. We were discussing it and as a counterpart I can’t say ‘no don’t do that’ but he realizes it himself. There are so many times people say do a voiceover and we say no, we don’t want to go into that area. It’s not that there’s something wrong with it but it’s simply another profession.
In our career, the important thing has been our ability to say no. Offers come along but you have to have the ability to say no and sometimes it can be painful because it is financially viable. But the thing is we don’t want to be in a place where we look back four years from now and regret why we did a certain project or said yes to a particular offer. You have to know when to let it go. The thing, whatever we do, it has to excite us.”
Coke Studio: the highs and the lows
The elephant in the room is Coke Studio, Pakistan’s most watched and most contested music property. A music series, watched, listened, commented and debated about, not just in Pakistan but around the world particularly Europe and India, it was first started by Rohail Hyatt in 2008.
Helmed by Strings for four seasons after which they amicably parted ways from the production last October, under their run, the numbers of the show quadrupled and the number of featured artists doubled as well but it also put them under a microscope and alongside positive reviews, for the first time in their careers, it netted them criticism as well.
“We learnt a lot from Coke Studio musically as well otherwise. Lessons about life and 100 things that I couldn’t have anticipated going in,” begins Bilal, looking back at Coke Studio. “Success came very easily to Strings. Everything we created, from day one, did well. With Coke Studio, we learnt to face criticism also and it was something we never had to face before. The first time we saw negative comments related to Strings, it was a major blow. Never had we anticipated that people would criticize us and where were the fans who’d defend us? That was a life lesson: negativity can come into your life. And for four years, as we tackled it (along with the positive response), we became stronger as people.”
The years at Coke Studio, the process of sitting down and working with modern musicians as well as legends like Abida Parveen, has left lasting positive influences on the band, they add.
“Strings have their own style of working and we were in our domain but in Coke Studio, we saw how other artists work,” confesses Bilal. “We were absorbing things and although the process that dictates how we as Strings make songs hasn’t changed, the filtering process of what should not be done has become stronger. We’ve heard so much of music and been around so much that what we do has to be better. The styles that are far too visible and have been heard for four years, we must do something different than that. The feel of Strings must exist because we owe that to our fans but I suppose the amount of effort and dedication, if anything, has become higher. Our own standards have gotten higher.”
“In 2012, we were beginning to get tired and we knew that we needed the energy and enthusiasm,” relates Faisal. “Then came Moor and it was something different. Coke Studio also came to us at just the right time. We had been doing the same thing and as musicians you need to go in a different direction to learn and come back. And those four years of Coke Studio we didn’t do anything as Strings. As that ride ended, we, as Strings, are back but with greater sense of direction, enthusiasm. We are so happy that it can’t be contained.”
That happiness Strings speak of (and is palpable during our interaction in this interview) can also be seen in their newest video, ‘Sajni’ where alongside the colorful sets and playful melody, lies the awareness that this is their return to what they do best.
It also reflects in their decision to release a new album, aptly titled 30. The method of delivery has evolved as Strings admit they need to adapt. And the songs, eight in total, will be released as singles every month, and each single will be accompanied by its own music video, beginning with the recent release ‘Sajni’. It’s a great undertaking at a time when music channels don’t exist and no one plays music videos on TV.
“We were discussing it and I was of the view that we should release an album while Bilal thought it would be best to release singles,” responds Faisal. “Album is a body of work and if you’re celebrating 30 years, the album has enormous value to any band. But if you look at the times we live in, Bilal suggested that we should release songs as singles. Whether it will work or not, we don’t know. In this day and age, things need to happen back to back. You release a record, people have eight new songs but they don’t have the time to listen to those songs together and so they will move on. So, we thought we should release one song at a time. And to treat each single as the album. Release it with a music video, a theme and concept artwork. It will also keep our fans interested.”
Adds Bilal: “There’s another creative aspect to it. With an album, when you make songs, towards the end you may end up with fillers and you may put one or two songs that are additional. With singles, you work on ten songs in a year. Every month you release a song and that means you spend one month per song and you can work at ease and it means there will be no filler. Creatively, it gives you a lot of space, to work and to be inspired.”
After the years of Coke Studio as the band continues to work on its upcoming singles that make up 30, they’ve also grown more confident in their own ability to do music. For instance, Bilal Maqsood, is playing keys and guitars on the upcoming eight singles and for the first time is also arranging all the songs himself.
“30 years is a long time and it makes you happy when you look back at how you started,” says Bilal as the interview comes to close. Rejuvenated and feeling lighter than air, its upwards and onwards for Strings.