On a scorching afternoon in Karachi, after an uneven temperature this winter, Ali Noor is sitting under the open sky at the Beach Luxury Hotel, working out the kinks for an Ali Noor show at the hotel later that night. The weather is not getting the worst of him. Water is all he needs.
A stage is being set-up adjacent to where Ali is sitting and there is a lot of noise but that isn’t a bother either. Thak Thak Thak. The hammering never stops. He’s surrounded by at least two Macbook Pro laptops, drum trigger module(s) that look very much like a synthesizer [to me], at least 3 mics labeled by numbers, a black extension cord and red tape, placed on wires with words like “snare” and so on.
Ali Noor is apologetic that he needs to get this pat down before sitting for the interview; he looks happy playing with the toys; exacerbated when it is not clicking together and relieved when it’s done; he needs to get this sonic landscape just right before he can take a minute out. Eventually he’s satisfied that things are somewhat set.
Because Ali Noor did not produce Coke Studio 10 or 11 while Ali Hamza was involved in both and with Noor performing solo with a different line-up independently, the immediate question is whether the band has broken up. “Not at all,” begins Ali Noor, as we sit down for the interview away from the noise. “But we both vowed that until we don’t release 20-25 songs of our own – independently of each other – Noori will not come back. Since my illness – [Ali Noor fell terribly ill and was on the verge of needing a liver transplant to survive but in the end recovered without one] - Hamza and I have become closer and now we feel that both of us really need to explore our musical journeys independently and do content that is representative of what is happening in our lives, something more personal. And the minute we’re done with that thing - of course, if life makes us do it before that’s something else - I think Hamza and I have a great deal of clarity between us that we must do this first.”
As Ali reiterates, the music Noori has been doing for almost two decades is them riding on the coattails of past Noori music. Even Noori, as Noor notes, needs to do new music, but it has to happen organically and getting their own music out of the way is the first step and then they can always come back to the group.
Though both brothers have been on a solo trajectory for some time, with Ali Noor having done the electro-pop dream, ‘Allah Yar Bol’ as well as given voice to the film, Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor as the villain, he also had a brush with a terrible illness that converted into a life-threatening one. Did it change Noor’s perception of things?
Noor pauses. “More than I bargained for. More than I ever imagined.”
He pauses some more. “Everything has changed. It is hard to put it into words but every f***ing thing and it will continue to change. I’ve never been afraid of death. Now even more so. I’m not afraid of punishment. If I f***ed up somewhere, I prefer to pay penance for it so that I can move on. That’s at least how my mind looks at it.”
According to Ali, after the illness, the makeup of his mind, his perception of things and doing things could be described as “unintellectual, unaware narcissism”.
But the “realization” came. “It made me rethink and reexamine.”
Everything, says Ali, has gone into handing-over mode, as we talk of BIY Music. He is no longer holding onto everything but letting others take control. “Everyone’s evolution, their journey they have to do themselves. I have no role in it; I’m just facilitating it. I want to be a serious facilitator,” he says, pointing to Aleena, who is setting the stage and equipment and has come far from managing Noori to directing a Noori music video to this stage. “When you come out of death, your ideas of possessions, ownership and the fact that you want something to be attributed to you, changes. The perspective changes.”
When Ali says unintellectual narcissism, he means that he thought he was the driving force. But the forthcoming Noor says now BIY Music will be run by others, such as Aleena and others like her, while Strepstils Stereo is done. His focus is on his own music, which he describes as exploratory and akin to the direction of ‘Aik Tha Badshah’, the brilliant, brilliant dubstep on top of guitars on top of sick beats single version (unlike the safer album version). That single, says Ali, is now his musical direction.
The songs are being written by Ali Noor and began as an exercise in exploring a new sound. The lyrical process came after the songs were written and whatever the state of mind Ali was in during a particular moment went into the lyrics. “The most spontaneous stuff comes out. It has songs like ‘Nahin Marna’, ‘Nasha’, ‘Ready for You’, ‘Teray Saath’ and ‘Jaaney De’ – among others.
“Written before my illness, they became applicable after my illness,” admits Noor. “And instead of being preachy,” he says, “this time, the songs are about emotions. ‘Teray Saath’ is about what would happen if I ever lost Mandana (Ali Noor’s wife and a spectacular director in her own right). ‘Jaaney De’ is what I call the suicide song. It’s like just let me go now. And I was definitely in that zone.”
“There is no sad vibe; the songs are happy and relatable to people because that’s my nature but I’m not pandering to anyone; f*** that shit man, not doing it.”
“We are lucky to be in a position to make new songs; we’re sitting in heaven. Whatever we do and however we do it, people listen to it, and the ones who don’t want it, they will never and it’s about the times. There was a time when books were famous and calligraphy was popular and maybe today, Instagram is more popular than music. So, whatever is popular, we’re playing in that field.”
Fame, limelight is not the motivation. “You have to pick up your kid from school; you have to pick up a cable. Do I care about being in the limelight? No. Do I care if I’m recognized? Not at all. There is a time for it. After a while, everyone’s heart is done with it. Like for me, I prefer the word friends to fans. For me, I will consider you a fan if you remember the lyrics, the tunes and can recall the fourth line from a certain song. That’s a fan. The ones who make an effort, so there are some fans and friends who support and help.”
Where did this new material, that is tentatively planned to be released as Ali Noor’s solo album in 2020, emerge from?
“I was very lost; I was lost and in pain. I would get high,” confesses Noor. “I met Ahsan Pervaiz; he was a gift to me. Like when Gumby left, we found a gift in Kami Paul. Similarly, Ahsan took the burden of production off my hands. I’ve always been the producer. It’s against my nature to give up control. It’s changing slowly. I don’t think anyone who comes in can match the level of intensity with which I go about doing things but by and large they found a way to co-exist with me and that’s a huge step for me. It’s a massive work-in-process, it’s intangible. Every day is a f***ing new challenge. Aleena is a gift. I’m a grateful motherf***** whether it’s Mandana or Aleena.”
Why do you feel this way?
“I’m so caught up in my own shit all the time. I live in this world of f****** technology, ideas and innovation in my head which you get to see of me – like I’m like ‘woh doh’ and if you don’t know me well enough – everything is woh for me – so imagine if a person who can understand woh doh, how much credit goes to them. I should respect this. This is the one ungratefulness I feel. But, the love I have received from everyone, my hope and effort is to give back twice as much.”
Transparent as ever in interviews, I ask Ali Noor for the first time a question about his fatherhood skills.
Ali Noor, who is probably the most energetic human being in the music industry I’ve had the privilege of knowing, says without a pause, “Ass****. I’m not an involved father. In fact, I’m a completely uninvolved father. I meet them very little. But, I’m starting to spend more time with them and I’ve changed my stance, I feel, but, you see I’m so attached to my own parents that it doesn’t dawn on me; the concept of being a father will hit once they’re not around. I’m just a child. I’m waiting for my children to grow up so I can attach myself to them – just like Hamza, Mandana, my parents. That’s just the way I’m wired, man.”
In music though, Ali Noor has found a balance between eastern and western. “Whether it was Ali Azmat who fixed my accent – you know I’ve been a burger bacha from inside, Ali Hamza is not – and I’ve always associated and still associate with western music. Hamza had eastern sensibilities. And that’s how Noori always worked. Hamza was supposed to be Noori’s original singer. I was supposed to be the music-maker but he ran away so I started singing. And then we both found our voices. ‘Paar Channa’ is the best example. In the years I learned, I couldn’t understand because the mind was blocked like there is no awareness. Like some people read a book but don’t care about the punctuation. Until you realize its importance. Similarly, I have started learning about the importance of the intricacies.”
Ali concedes that his wish is that before he dies he would like to open a university of music or something to that effect. But it has nothing to do with legacy. It doesn’t come close. “Worrying about your legacy is like feeding your f***ing ego. Do you think I care? Naiki Kar Dariya Mein Dal.”
He continues: “Talk about passing on the torch, about evolution, belief. What the hell is legacy? Understand the world. You’re just a f***ing fleck in the whole damn thing.”
As the interview comes to a close and Ali continues to fend off calls about soundcheck and various gig-related matters, he admits that his wife, Mandana Zaidi, is the great love of his life and they share the same values. Ali Hamza, who now resides in Karachi, is also something he considers a blessing. Instead of indulging in debauchery in the city of lights, he has a home and people of his own and a perspective that has shifted from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to understanding and living moment to moment while being grateful for being given a second chance.
He’s toying with some “crazy” names for his solo album and he just might do it but gratitude is the one thing Ali has taken from the entire experience that has been his life and a near, almost sudden death.