Great Expectations

March 15, 2020

Since winning Pepsi Battle of the Bands in 2017, Kashmir finally release their debut full length album, Khwaab, and sit down with Instep to discuss how life has changed for them in the music ecosystem.

"I wanted you to know, that I am ready to go, heartbeat, my heartbeat” The last time Kashmir sat down with Instep for an extensive, no holds barred conversation like this, was when they had won Pepsi Battle of the Bands in 2017 (PBOTB) and a few of their songs had appeared for downloading on the PBOTB website. But soon enough the songs disappeared. While the songs from their performances remained on the site, the massive album we, as fans, were expecting never came. But there has been a theory behind it, much like everything else Kashmir does now. The idea, as it emerges, was to make as many music videos as possible to make a dent. And they have.

The interview, originally scheduled to take place at Bilal Ali’s house at KDA in Karachi, which doubles as their studio, has been moved to director Umar Anwar’s house somewhere in DHA at the very last minute. Reason: the music video of ‘Dhoop’ has to be uploaded and though the band has seen it, to watch it get uploaded and see reactions coming from fans is something they cannot miss after two and a half year of sweat, tears and blood. We’ll get to that later.

For changing the venue at the last hour, Bilal Ali, who is coordinating the interview exchanges addresses and profusely apologises to a point that it comes off as a sweet request than a starry demand.

Soon enough, singer-songwriter Bilal Ali arrives followed by the parade of five young men. Combined, they form Kashmir and the introverted six are still the same who struggle to articulate themselves. Emotions run high as we watch the music video of ‘Dhoop’ again but they admit it’s harder to describe their sentiments in words.

During the launch concert of Kashmir’s debut album and the screening of the music video, the boys had been at the venue hours before and the night before trying to figure out the intricacies that go in a concert. From sound to visual ideas that’d run in the background to interacting with the audience by asking them to sing along the chorus of ‘Kaghaz Ka Jahaz’, this is a very different Kashmir than the one that appeared on Pepsi Battle of the Bands in 2017, in terms of stage performers and artists. They know it, too.

“I wanted you to know, whenever you are around, can’t speak, I can’t speak”

Our story begins with Bilal Ali, on whom the onus often falls to speak for the band even as all of them are trying to ease into the role of talking to the media a lot more.

Kashmir still continues with the same unit: Bilal Ali (singer-songwriter), Ali Raza (keyboards/synths), Vais Khan (lead guitarist), Shane Anthony (drums – not related to Jason Anthony), Usman Siddiqui (bass) and Zair Zaki (rhythm guitars).

Two prominent changes I do know: Bilal Ali and Ali Raza have gotten married between then and now. I turn to Ali Raza, who is also a doctor, about the changes that have followed.

“A lot has changed,” begins the soft-spoken Ali, “We became very different people while maintaining our roots. We evolved as musicians and as people. Two years ago, I was in my final year. I just graduated at the time of PBOTB. House-job followed. And right now I’m giving exams for my masters.”

Being a doctor is very hard, I pose to Ali.

“Yes, because in Pakistan, the work hours are very tough and the work environment is also very challenging. I did house job for a while but I have taken a break for now. After giving my exams, I will reconsider. I want to go in a field that is compatible with music. Maybe pathology.”

Who else got married, I tease the guys?

They all say in unity: “Bilal.”

Notes Ali: “That’s what I mean when I say a lot has changed.”

Now your debut album, Khwaab, has arrived. The weight of deliverance has lifted. How many songs does it contain in total?

Zair, Usman, Shane say in cohesion: “It has 11 songs, with 2 being bonus tracks.”

People are now willing to give new
music a chance thinking they might actually like something. All it takes is a click on a link to
discover new music and that is exactly how
I have discovered new music. – Shane Anthony, drummer, Kashmir

Adds Bilal: “Basically, ‘Asli Hai Junoon’ is a single we did with Zellbury and the second one is ‘Soch’ (the alternative version) which we did on Acoustic Station with Kashan Admani.”

From being the first band to win Pepsi since its resurrection to appearing as guest performers multiple times – what has that been like? How has that relationship evolved? Is it something they must do contractually?

“If you talk about the contestants, we’re very happy that a band culture IS coming back; we now have a huge community. You saw them and met them at the album launch,” says Bilal. “Half of them were musicians. That was the best thing about it. Now you have a community. All the bands are supporting each other. I recently did a cover of Taamasha’s ‘Faaslay’ as well.”

Adds Usman: “Going to each other’s shows, sitting backstage; at some shows we invite Taamasha onstage and we sing their song and they sing our song. Bands are coming up. Original music is coming up.”

Original music has been in existence for a long time. But perhaps it hasn’t been front and center like music from PBOTB. But to say there is no original music prior to PBOTB would be wrong, I tell them.

Notes Shane: “What I feel is that what used to happen before was that people were really accustomed to listening to music made in the past and now they’re willing to give new music a chance thinking they might actually like something. All it takes is a click on a link to discover new music and that is exactly how I have discovered new music.”

He goes on: “Before we were stuck in a loop where we just wanted to listen to music we were familiar with and I still have friends like that who sit in the car and refuse to listen to something new. But, people are slowly getting out of that loop, which gives new artists a chance.”

Having played close to 100 shows, what are some of the things Kashmir has learned?

Bilal Ali: “It’s been great, we learned a lot.”

Zair Zaki: “We learned so much.”

Ali Raza elaborates further: “In all these shows, we learned something or the other. In two years, prior to all this, we’d play a show and we never did sound-check; we realized sound-check is something very important.”

Usman: “It is as important as our performance.”

It seems like Kashmir has understood that aesthetics and showmanship, along with musicianship, separates one band from the next.

Ali Raza, the doctor and synth/piano boy says: “To enhance our performance, to make it theatrical, to have a coordinated look” - no wonder all of them were changing their footwear to black boots backstage prior to the album launch concert and were dressed in variations of all black. “We learnt all these little performance factors matter. A lot has been picked up. Gears were upgraded. We were using digital processors that were low-end and we’ve upgraded.”

Usman adds: “Before, we’d go onstage, play the songs and get off. Now as you saw the other day, Bilal will tell the crowd to sing the chorus along with us. The way we initially performed was okay for that time but with the passage of time we realized live experiences exist and we have to build our shows into a live experience.”

The usually quiet and the most reserved yet respectful Vais Khan or the axe man as I’d like to call him, admits, “If the audience expects it, I’ll do the guitar solos but Kashmir is not a one-man or two man band and so whether it is the album or a show, the performance is built in a way that everyone shines, not just me and my guitar.”

It’s this reason why the interview includes all six, no matter how much or how little they speak. I expect introversion and sincerity from them by now. And it’s 2 out of 2 so far.

At the concert, Vais tells me, as I check out the multiple guitars onstage, that it’s rhythm guitarist (the quietest of them all) Zair Zaki who is the better guitarist.

This friendship connects them even as they’ve become nationwide stars.

The married two admit that their relationships existed before they became famous and the marriages are creative ones, not conventional ones. “Where are you? When will you come home, etc., are not questions that hound us,” says Ali.

Vais, coming back to the topic of what they’ve picked up while evolving as musicians, notes how global bands such as Muse travel with their own sound, tech and lights trucks, for instance. “We have the best gear in Pakistan and often there is no understanding of how to use it.”

Once, one of them was playing an instrument while also being responsible for pressing a pedal that would put light on a certain part, which he missed and remembered minutes later but the part had gone and it made him realize much like everybody else that they can’t be handling lighting while being onstage.

Ali notes what they need is a team so that there is no fallout because the band can’t be performing and pressing light buttons, or visual cues and the audience will not understand if the sound goes awry or (as Bilal jokes teletubbies appear in the background). Ali continues that the audience might blame the band and the audience can’t be blamed either. 100 shows later, they know they need a team that includes taking care of aesthetics, audio-visual elements, sound, not just top notch gear, and they are working on it. What they need, they agree collectively, is the whole enchilada.

The Mighty Heart

As the interview unfortunately comes to a close, I do wonder how Kashmir - made up of six different guys - relate to Bilal Ali’s melancholic lyrics so much that he is the lyricist on the record. While a review of the album will follow in the coming weeks, the answer was made clear by the rest of the band members.

“I ask Bilal what a song is about and he’ll tell me it’s about the fact that he can’t sleep. It is about insomnia. I go from there,” says Vais, as an example.

Zair Zaki notes: “If you look at the songs, they’re very relatable. That was our first approach that our songs have to be relatable.”

“The songs start from personal problems and become and an escape,” interjects Bilal. “It’s not written about me. They’re written about other people as a vent, as an escape so I can get out of that phase. It has never happened that I have made an entire song and brought it to the guys. I bring bits and pieces of the song. In lyrics, they often make me angry because no matter what I tell them, they’re like ‘Bohat Acha Hai (It’s very good)’ and I’m like, no. I remember with ‘Khwaab,’ until the last moment I wasn’t sure and these guys kept saying it’s very good but when Xulfi bhai (who produced the song) said it’s very good, we just went with it.”

Bilal carries on (as some of them laugh): ‘I’m just trying to get a feeling out and that’s how they’re written and that’s why I can’t talk about it.”

As for the melancholia within the song, “If we talk about happiness all the time, it doesn’t stay forever,” says Bilal. “The problem with our society is we don’t talk about things. Let me give you examples via songs. I’m afraid of the dark so I wrote ‘Buddha Baba’. If I tell even a friend, they’d laugh. Insomnia, the concept of insomnia is not addressed; like take a Xanax, you’re stressed and go to bed. Because no one talks about it. These small problems feed off you and they culminate into a bigger issue. I try to get it out and I feel vulnerable speaking about my songs even though you’ve interviewed me a lot. I know all their issues (pointing to the rest of the band) and those things come out in songs.”

In the end, Bilal Ali says, with determination for the outfit that is Kashmir: “If we’re doing it, we’re going to give it our all. It’s not that halfway through we’re going to start working. Music is our sole earning and that’s how we take it.”

Great Expectations: Kashmir finally release their debut full length album, Khwaab