It has been an incredibly strange year: one part mournful and the other, as always, rejoiceful of inexplicable pleasures. Despite this being a time when musicians are routinely threatened, forced to take their content offline and/or murdered in various parts of the country, the music scene – much like everything else – is marching on. Music may not save you from an unforeseeable catastrophe, but it can certainly lift your spirits and there is no bigger or better topic than the country’s biggest music show, Coke Studio.
In this first interview since taking over the ambitious music project (after a six-year term with Rohail Hyatt), Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia come clean on the show, the rumours and why the wait for the show will be worth it…
Instep: Let’s dive into it: what’s your take on Coke Studio’s entry into the music scene when it first started in 2008?
Bilal Maqsood: In 2008, after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, everything was at a standstill. There was no music happening in India or Pakistan. Coke Studio single-handedly saved the music scene.
Faisal Kapadia: For the next four or five years, Coke Studio shifted the conversation. It was all anyone talked about on both sides of the border because the show was producing nearly 25 to 30 singles per year.
Instep: But what about albums, that stopped releasing?
BM: There is a sizable difference between an underground/independent band releasing an album and a big band releasing a full-length studio album. Whether it’s Ali Azmat or Strings or Ali Zafar, a major artist makes a massive investment in a record and the cost is always higher. One, you can’t produce a substandard music video because you have to make sure that your videos break the clutter and stand apart from everything else; they should be visible. Two, the production cost is higher because when you’re a big act, you’re charged double or triple from someone who may play on a smaller record for free. So, the cost of investment versus returns is enormous unless you have a sponsor.
Instep: What happens if you don’t have a sponsor?
BM: Your only hope rests with live music and that’s a problem because of security issues. A month will go by and not a single live show will take place…
FK: Apart from monetary issues, it’s also about the circumstances. After the Musharraf regime fell, all the focus was on news channels. Fire Records had signed up a lot of artists and royalties became a major issue because people, somehow, just don’t want to pay for music. Other channels were probably threatened and an influx of foreign content, particularly Indian music, became a norm on channels across Pakistan.
Instep: Our fascination with media went into overdrive…
FK: Yes, and pushing music channels way down to the 70th or 80th channel on your cable didn’t help either. The focus was on news and no one was watching anything else. It becomes disheartening to invest so much of yourself… but, again, established musicians can make do with live shows abroad, or corporate shows. Things are certainly much more difficult for younger, newer acts.
Instep: Are albums becoming obsolete and is digital the only way forward? What’s your view of this growing shift in distribution/sharing of music?
FK: If you own your publishing rights, you get paid, whether it’s Spotify or any other digital service. The amount, however, is minimal. The issue in Pakistan is that either through torrents or music websites, the songs are often uploaded without permission. There is no control over it, or will be now. Musicians here understand that piracy will be a part of the music business here. So, now it’s about how you attract maximum number of people and convert it into road shows, tours. Music channels should play local music.
BM: You know, MTV India has launched a new channel, which will focus on pop music.
Instep: You guys had the industry buzzing about the soundtrack of Moor before Coke Studio fell into place. You’ve had a long association with Jami but how’s this particular journey been for you? Working on a film soundtrack versus a pop album?
BM: It’s been an incredibly special journey for us with Moor. We actually worked with different artists as producers. Jami spoke to us about this film project nearly two years ago. Our wavelength with Jami is just so perfect that the songs we made then perfectly fit into the film. Without looking at the film, we just made the songs. When Jami was shooting, for a about a year, he was underground and we had no idea what was happening with the film. The film was shot and completed, and it was edited, and we placed the songs into the sphere, and it was as if we’d seen the whole thing before creating any of the songs – that’s just our chemistry with Jami.
Instep: Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with for this film soundtrack?
BM: Javed Bashir has done two songs, Meesha Shafi, Rahim Shah, Rahma Ali (she’s Iman Ali’s younger sister, she’s relatively new and also an actor) plus Strings have done two songs.
FM: It’s a special year for us; we’re celebrating 25 years as a band, and the timing of this project couldn’t be better. When you’re in a band, you can, at times, sound stagnant to yourself, and you need something that will push you out of your comfort zone and really challenge you. That’s what Moor and Coke Studio has been like. This film and Coke Studio has been liberating. It gave us a chance to explore and that’s always a good learning experience.
Instep: Coke Studio has become a benchmark for artists. A.R. Rahman knew Zeb and Haniya’s work because he watched the show. Everyone wants to be on this show, those who make it and those who don’t – the critic in all of us loves to dissect it. Expectations are unrealistically high but let’s face it, no one can make it work except for you two and you are producing the new season of the country’s most controversial and popular show. What’s the experience been like?
FM: We’re a pop band but our influences in music have always extended beyond pop. From early years till now, we listen to everything from folk to classical to qawwali, rock music. It’s true that when you’re in a band, you imagine certain scenarios. We thought maybe we’ll do a Strings World Tour or perhaps a record but when Coke Studio fell into our lap, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to contribute and give back whatever we have learned.
Instep: In the past, not all singles that are recorded on the show make the final cut. As a result, there’s been backlash from artists who feel disheartened, angry and emotional. How do you go about producing such a mammoth show with so much baggage?
BM: We had no idea how Rohail worked. Our interaction with the show, in the first two seasons, was restricted to our performances. During the first season, we weren’t comfortable with the arrangement and requested Rohail if we would play with our own band and it was just such a generous reaction on Rohail’s part to let us play with our band. Because now that we’ve worked with this CS7 house band for months, if someone comes in and wants to bring in their own band, we may not agree. Rohail said yes, but apart from that we didn’t know what else he did or how he ran the show. We made our own system…
FK: People work in different ways. In music, some people pen the lyrics, others make the melody first so we just went about things the way we always do. We have not worked on any extra or additional singles this year. We haven’t recorded a single song that will not make it to air unless there’s some issue. We’ve worked hard on every song and no song is getting the axe.
BM: I can understand though, with earlier seasons why that can happen. Rohail took a year to produce the show; we’ve taken three months. When you’re working on it for a full year, you can produce even 40 songs and at the same time, you don’t want to compromise on everything and you want it to be the best show there is. With live performance, you’re never sure of the end product. You can jam and rehearse multiple times but when you’re on the stage, it’s a different energy altogether.
Instep: What has production been like…
BM: You work on a song, rehearse. It’s played for the final recording and when you hear the song, you don’t hear the same song. It’s either good or you have to take a stand as a producer if it needs to be improved. It’s fair if Rohail held onto songs and worked on them because, in the end, it was about making the final product better.
Instep: Who is on the show? I know Usman Riaz is on it. Who else?
Bilal: What names do you have, I’ll confirm them for you (laughs)…
Instep: Meesha Shafi and some younger acts. Usman’s this prodigal kid, isn’t he incredible?
FK: We’re excited about everybody but especially this younger lot because they’re so good and they’re not as visible because of whatever reasons. So there’s Asrar, Jimmy Khan, Naseer and Shahab and Usman Riaz.
BM: Rehma Ali from Moor is also a part of the lineup.
Instep: What’s your process for selecting an artist? Obviously, this is your first run as producers so that process may evolve but just as a whole, what were you looking for?
FK: To make the list, it had to be anyone who was deserving and may not have been a part of the show in previous years. We shortlisted the names of everyone who didn’t make the show and being a part of the music scene, we had some idea that these were quality acts. That was one criterion. They are the future of music.
As with established artists or those who have appeared on the show before, it was about one fact: they were the best person to perform a particular song. We’re doing this for the first time so even with repeated artists, the idea was to work together and create something powerful.
BM: You can divide this into two processes: we selected songs, artists, and we looked at certain portfolios and then shortlisted songs and by virtue, the artists.
Instep: You two are well established and liked in music circles. You’ve been interacting with the music community for years and working with so many artists in such close proximity. What was that like, especially given the names? (hint: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan)
BM: The last four months have been one giant party, a dream come true. It was as if every thing that we wanted could and did happen. It was a lifelong dream to work with Ustad Raees Khan sahib, we always thought of a jugalbandi between Abida Parveen and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. These are things you can imagine but to have it happen in front of you, it’s incredible. These are like fairytale stories that you never think are possible, so we’re just blown away and humbled.
Instep: Last year, Strings performed at the Rashtrapati Bahavan for the President of India, what an honour that must have been?
FK: Yes, to be the first band to play at the President’s home…
BK: …and stay there…
FK: God has been so kind to us. You’re playing at the Rashtrapati and you’ve barely digested that and the next thing you know, you’re sitting with Abida Parveen, mesmerized by that whole environment. We are so blessed to have been given this opportunity – Coke Studio. Pakistan has a lot to offer in terms of talent. We take it seriously and think of it as our responsibility to take with us as many musicians as possible.
Instep: Back to CS7, how did you shortlist your house band?
BM: For us, it was not about our comfort level with anyone or lack of it. Talent, capability and diversity: these were the skills we were looking for and found. We’ve kept the band to a minimal, because we wanted to invite guest musicians for every song so the feel and flavour behind every song is different. This way, we feel, the sound behind every song will be enhanced. The house band will make the foundation, while guest musicians will come on and the sound will be diverse.
Instep: Out of the box ideas work, for instance, Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi. Coke Studio helped rejuvenate our love for rich tradition: Farid Ayaz with ‘Kangna’, Tina Sani’s return to the studio after more than a decade, the majestic Saeen Zahoor. There were some truly fantastic music moments on this show. How do you follow that?
BM: You don’t. We felt that we should not make too many changes to the essence and spirit of the show. The essence is collaborations, our traditional music and mixing popular music, that’s what the show’s been about. As fans of the show, that’s what we enjoyed the most. Why would we change it? Having said that, you have to keep reinventing. When you hire Strings, we came with our flavor, albeit a different one, but keeping the same philosophy in mind.
Instep: Let’s go back to the artist lineup, was classical music particularly challenging?
BM: Faisal and my upbringing is merged with classical music. Aba’s collection as well as our taste – it’s embedded in our souls. Folk, classical – all that is there, but we’ve added some thing else, film music.
Instep: Are we talking old-school film music?
BM: Pakistan has wonderful film music, something we always felt that was missing from the show. The songs of Noor Jehan… there are so many musicians from the film music world who believe that it’s the end for them. We want to tell them that it’s not the end.
Instep: Are there film songs on the new season?
BM: Yes, we wanted the whole industry to come together and celebrate – that was the theme of this season, to celebrate music, to celebrate talent and go all out for it.
Instep: Coke Studio has led to many spin-offs, in India and the Middle East, but the thing that stands out is that India’s taking the show on tour. Coke Studio Pakistan needs to travel too, don’t you think?
BM: It is on the cards.