The front-man/chief lyricist/songwriter of the indie music super-group, Sikandar Ka Mandar (SKM), Nadir Shahzad Khan, is taller than I remember. As I arrive for our meeting on a searing summer afternoon, I’m greeted by a gloomy staircase enveloped by loadshedding. Khan leads me up the stairs and we settle down for the interview in Mohammad Ali Suhail’s bedroom, who, like Khan, has been a part of SKM since it started off in 2010.
As individual artists, Ali Suhail has released several terrific solo albums with 2017’s Pursuit of Irrelevance being his fifth studio release. In addition, he plays with the likes of Umair Jaswal, Natasha Humera Ejaz and also produced Shajie Hassan’s compelling 2017 gem, ‘Motorcycle’.
Khan, on the other hand, is responsible for most of SKM’s part-thoughtful, part-fantasy music videos and this year played first assistant director/music supervisor to Umer Adil’s feature length film, Chalay Thay Saath.
Though accomplished as solo artists, it’s their collective collaboration as SKM that is the purpose of this story. At a time when we are constantly reminded, through productions like Pepsi Battle of the Bands, whose reason for return is to keep band culture from going extinct, SKM is the antidote to that particular viewpoint and remains a strong example of the DIY spirit that has made the music scene in Pakistan tolerable despite the corporatization of not just music, but ideas. This is a band that puts up its own live shows without the backing of corporates and is willing to cut a full-length album at a time when many artists have dismissed the idea for one reason or another.
While bands bite the dust all the time, SKM’s existence and consistency over the years not only gives us some hope but is worth celebrating. After all, the most original ideas in music are presently coming from the indie music community and artists like SKM, Slowspin, Nawksh, Poor Rich Boy, Janoobi Khargosh, Wooly and the Uke, Keeray Makoray, Ali Suhail, Nawksh, Dynoman, Smax, Sonic Nocturnal Kinetic Movement (SKNM), Forever South, Rudoh and The D/A Method.
The rest of the flavour is coming from alternative artists like Zohaib Kazi, Sounds of Kolachi, Khumariyaan, The Sketches, Mekaal Hasan Band and Chand Tara Orchestra.
Coming back to SKM, those looking for songs that provoke and make you think only have to look to the material they have released thus far to be genuinely surprised and inevitably satisfied.
The original line-up, heard on their spectacular (and critically acclaimed) self-titled debut album (2013) has evolved, but Khan and Suhail represent the foundation of the band and have been with it from the start. With their upcoming second album, 36, slated to release this November, the band has added members such as Zahra Paracha, Raheel Paul and Nasir Siddiqui to the group, leading to a much more layered sound.
The recent releases like ‘Gehri Neend’as well as predecessors like ‘Baaghi’ and ‘Shehri’ – all point to a sound that is much more refined.
“We try to reinvent ourselves with the songwriting,” begins Suhail as I ask him to expand on the SKM process, particularly in the context of the new album.
“Nadir has a couple of ideas that he brings to me and then we start working on that and then I have a couple of ideas, Zahra has some ideas. As far as production is concerned, I don’t think of it as ‘oh this song needs this thing’. I don’t need the context of what the band is as long as the song is true to what the band is; the song will dictate what the production process should be, ideally.”
Adds Nadir: “In the first album, mostly the ideas were coming from Ali and me but this time, with the second album, everybody has a role. Zahra’s a really good guitar player and also on synth; she’s decent with production work and has added this very new-age influence to the record. I write the words and I also make a basic structure on guitar or piano. Ali sees whether the idea needs to grow a little more; he’ll suggest things we can do. He’ll add certain parts to the song or a bridge and makes changes to make the chords sound juicier or interesting. Even though Ali Suhail is the lead guitarist of the band, the songs are riff-based so he’ll have a rift and Zahra will add a rift on top of that to make a very juicy concoction. If you need a metaphor for it, it is akin to A Perfect Circle. She brings that and Nasir has added a lot of very interesting sound effects to the songs. He’s added a new dimension of synth. Raheel Paul is a very punchy drummer.”
“I think with the first record we were still testing the waters to some degree,” confesses Suhail. “We had ideas but I feel like now we’re a lot more developed as musicians. There’s some maturity to it, hopefully.”
According to Khan, the work on the second album began a long time ago but the band started working on the album properly from this year. “I was also doing Chalay Thay Saath and I had no time to do anything else. When I got done with CTS, I was adamant that I need to do this album and get it off my chest. We’re in a good place to do it as well.”
Revealing what is perhaps the lesser known story of the SKM debut album, Suhail recalls: “With the first album, Nadir and I recorded the demos on my PC. After that we got together at Adam Gangat’s basement and we recorded the whole record and it was a very collaborative process. Khizer Jhumra, Danial Hyatt, Faizan Riedinger – they were all there. Nobody got to hear that record because it was in a hard drive that I was producing out of and that hard drive crashed. The only thing we salvaged out of that was a second draft of ‘Jo Bhi’ and the first draft of ‘Mein Idhar Khara Hoon’.”
I ask Nadir about how there are hints of social consciousness to the SKM music and whether it happens consciously.
“When I was studying at Indus (Valley School of Art and Architecture) and asked my teachers what it means to be a good artist, they always said that a good artist is someone who talks about things that are relevant,” says Nadir. “When someone has no one to speak for them, you speak for them and this view always resonated with me.
I’m saying it in a weird way but I just think if there is a problem you need to talk about it and as artists it’s our responsibility to talk about stuff that’s bad. Someone has to say it.”
Discussing the purpose of art, Suhail says, “There is a difference between purpose of creation of art and the consumption of art. If we’re creating something, it is for the evolution of art, it is for the evolution of us as people, it is about higher concepts like when someone will hear a song and not feel weird for thinking things that the song is saying because it’s like ‘I can relate to this’ and that’s one purpose.
I think it’s good to hold on to moral points as far as the creation of art is concerned. You should not sell yourself short; at least have some faith in yourself and maybe you can do something that is bigger than you.”
As we reach the close of this interview, Nadir tells me on a parting note, “We have a lot of things to back up what we’re saying.”
Having seen hints of it in their most recent release, ‘Gehri Neend’, I’m fairly confident that the band will give us a lot more than we expected in the coming weeks and that remains a thing of beauty.