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From Vital Signs to RockLite

Three members of the Islamabad-based group sit down with Instep in Karachi for an extensive interview about leaving the shadow of Vital Signs and what RockLite is about.

From Vital Signs to RockLite
(From left to right) RockLite consists of bassist Imran Hanan, guitarist Rizwan-ul-Haq, vocalist Bilal Ashraf and drummer Allan Smith.


Once more, with Feeling

Rizwan-ul-Haq (former Vital Signs guitarist), Allan Smith (a veteran drummer), and Bilal Ashraf (RockLite vocalist) – three of the four main RockLite members – with bassist Imran Hanan unable to make the trip – are presently sitting in my drawing room. Upon suggestion that coffee houses can be noisy, the band agreed and came on the designated time, in their whirlwind trip of Karachi.

Their first two singles – ‘Kon Hai Woh and ‘Gussay Vich’ – have released and they have several songs ready with music videos being made to back them up. Both singles are terrific and have equally good music videos.

For this interview and others, the three members took a train from Islamabad and along the way sang and entertained the passengers.

In several of their new songs, you may or may not see Saakin members – Varqa Faraid and Parham Faraid – in the music videos since they have contributed to the album that is releasing in the form of singles, the order of the day.

Our conversation, however, doesn’t begin with RockLite but with the Vital Signs. Rizwan-ul-Haq may be fully invested in RockLite but like all those fans who listened to the Vital Signs, I, too, am curious.

After being a part of the Signs on their second and third album and having starred in their music videos, what happened? Did he leave and if so, why? Or was he booted out.

Haq, however, is chilled about this question because it is almost as if he knows it is coming. The others let him speak.

“We were all based in Pindi. In 1994-1995, after Aitebar (the album), Rohail (Hyatt) and Shahi (Hasan) wanted to shift to Karachi,” he begins, “At that point I could not shift. The now-late Junaid Jamshed was already living in Karachi. It made more sense to move because Karachi is the hub of music. I was asked to shift and I had too many commitments to move.”

He continues: “They were there and I was in Pindi so we couldn’t communicate on a daily basis the way we used to and that was when we drifted.”

Rizwan-ul-Haq, for once and for all, clears the air and says, “There was no fight.”

And as he said in an earlier interview –he’s thrilled that other members of VS are doing their own thing and hopes they are happy that he is writing music and performing again with vigour and a mission to go beyond the Islamabad underground scene.

Going beyond the Vital Signs

Rizwan-ul-Haq with Vital Signs, once upon a time.

Rizwan-ul-Haq with Vital Signs, once upon a time.

It was in 1996, Haq recalls, that he did ‘Teri Gali’, which he maintains did very well but afterwards, came a period of complacency.

However, in 2004 when Allan Smith moved to Islamabad, RockLite was formed with a lesser known but veteran bass player Imran Hanan.

“It was a trio,” says Haq.

As the journey from underground to mainstream began years later – “we hung on to each other, irrespective of whether we were doing music or not.”

But about a year or so ago, as Bilal, the chief vocalist for RockLite and a cousin of Haq came back from Australia and things started falling into place.

“When Bilal jumped onto the bandwagon, we became serious, went into the studio and in three months we made about 8 or 9 songs and we are still recording,” says Haq.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Between the years of Vital Signs, playing around underground, scoring a chart-topping hit and now RockLite, times have changed.

“We will keep releasing singles because that is how it is done nowadays,” responds Haq. It is an album ultimately.

An album creates an identity, a narrative, I shoot back. “Sadly, it’s both true and difficult. Technology and the Internet weren’t this strong as it is now and it’s for us and how we adapt to it,” says Allan Smith, who is relaxed throughout this interview.

“For Bilal and all of us, you have to get into PR companies and for them to do that work but I think we need to push ourselves and bring back the ‘90s music scene,” Smith continues.

Haq teases Smith that he moved to Pindi, having fallen in love. Bilal, almost in reverence of the two, speaks less than the others but is happy to be in this band of brothers-almost.

Their new work speaks for itself with ‘Gussay Vich’ deserving an article of its own. The music video is directed by Ali Sattar, who is also behind ‘Saaki-E-Bawafa’ of Saakin.

“Music is changing so fast around us, but again old-school music is how we’d categorise ourselves,” says Allan Smith. “Look at Junoon, they’re doing it. Okay, so they got a big sponsor behind them [and bizarre history I think to myself], but that doesn’t mean we need to dishearten ourselves.”

The visit to Karachi, tells Haq while sipping some tea, is a proper three-day visit during which, apart from this interview, the band is appearing on a morning show, appearing on various channels, radio channels and plugging their music. Whether it reaches the kind of pinnacle Vital Signs had achieved is not the goal for Haq or RockLite. Haq has seen and played in the biggest of shows this country has known and played in a group that has helped in shaping Pakistan’s pop music industry alongside some illustrious names that came before them such as the late nightingale of the Subcontinent, Nazia Hassan. The purpose is to make music and enjoy while doing so.

Tomorrow Never Knows

I ask Bilal to say something as he continues to let the others talk, before adding simply, “I’m with them and I’m learning a lot. Rizwan (bhai) is a seasoned musician and Allan is an experienced musician as well so I am still learning.”

In between talking, they also sing out-loud one of their upcoming songs and explain what it means. It could spark controversy, I tell them.

“We’re going for it,” admits Smith and Haq.

I ask the band that is it true, for RockLite, that they fear being irrelevant or being surpassed by the young.

“We’re all 50 plus sans Bilal so it is natural for us to make such a song,” says a cheeky Haq before revealing that the lyrics have been penned by the iconic lyricist Sabir Zafar. Imitating him, Rizwan recalls what Zafar said, “You should’ve made me write this song ten years ago,” as they burst into laughter.

“We’re musicians, you may see us withering away but…” they will always be musicians, I finish the sentence. The song titled ‘Thurkee Buddha’ may generate controversy but as Allan notes, it’s just mature art. Retro-pop, short film within a video, more singles, more videos and an acknowledgment of how they have aged, RockLite are looking to make good music and having adapted to the times, they may just redefine pop-rock music but as a band where no one member is inconsequential. And that is the real key that holds them together.

Maheen Sabeeh

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