"Your own songs should give you goosebumps. If they don't, you've got work to do."
As the fourth season of Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands wrapped up last night, Images had a chat with Nasir Zaka of winning band Auj to get to know him and the band beyond the music, stage and lights.
Read on to find out what really makes the fan favourites from Karachi tick, where they draw inspiration for their smooth, haunting riffs and melodies and their plans after the glittering confetti settles.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The band started around 2008-9 and the founding members at that time were me, Hasnain and two other guys, and the band had a different name. The first name was Shabi — which means parchaayi. It later became Crackdown, which we were better known by on the underground scene in Karachi.
We started as a cover band doing typical Western music — Black Sabbath, Metallica and so on. We created an original song back then, ‘Lafz’ [Episode 1], which is now more well-known.
After a while, our singer left the band and the remaining three of us [Syed Hasnain Ali on bass and drummer Muhammad Kashif] continued the band — just jamming. Many singers came and left; no one really gelled with us.
Then, a few years ago, I met Abdur Rehman [Sajid].
My role in the band is that, apart from being a founding member, I also have a major say on composition and other decisions, and so I was always on the lookout for a singer.
A friend of mine was on the judging panel of a singing competition in IBA and asked me to tag along. Abdul Rehman was a contestant.
I had met him once before at an event we both performed at. We had spoken briefly: he talked about his singing; I liked his form and advised him to practise.
Abdul Rehman didn’t win that competition in IBA. But afterwards, I asked him whether he was in a band and when he said no, I asked him to come to my house for a jam session right away.
For a week or so, I worked alone with Abdul Rehman before introducing him to the band. After that, we became Auj.
I had introduced many singers to the band before and it didn’t quite work out. Someone would casually mention that they sing, I'd bring them over directly to a jam session with the whole band, only to be disappointed by the singer’s lack of range or readiness.
When it came to Abdul Rehman, I told the rest of the band that I’d found someone with outstanding tone, someone who knows gayaki. They wanted to meet him.
When he and I picked up the guitars and mic in those first jam sessions to see what he could do, I knew he could go with us. I introduced him to the band and the rest is history.
We weren’t ready as a band, initially. Later, I’d been trying to convince the others for a while to try out, but when Tamasha’s ‘Roshni’ aired in Season 3, they came around and we all started to prepare seriously to compete.
Deep, emotional, aggressive, sweet and attitude.
Personally, I’m very influenced by Western music; until recently, I didn’t listen to much desi music. Metallica is the reason I started playing guitar.
In general, Metallica, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple — and Black Sabbath — are our classic rock and hard metal influences. For a while, those were my only references.
After coming onto the local scene, I began to explore Pakistani music. Junoon has been a mainstay since our childhoods — my mother likes to remind me that when 'Sayonee' came out, I would headbang during the guitar solo.
As a band, we all have varied tastes; I think that’s what makes our sound unique. Abdul Rehman is into ghazal and qawwali (he’s mainly a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mehdi Hasan fan). Hasnain initially started with desi music and has since moved towards Western influences. Kashif is into psychedelic and dark, classic rock. He’s also a big Karavan and Junoon fan.
Every song has seen a different process. Let’s take ‘Raat’, for example.
When he had recently joined the band, I asked Abdur Rehman whether he had written any songs of his own. He sang a melody, and a riff just came to me right there. Somehow, it worked so well that we have kept the whole song the same to this day.
Maybe. I believe that when people are together and reach the same frequency, it creates a harmony and things seem to automatically start turning out well.
With ‘O Jaana’, the guitar bits came first, then Abdul Rehman’s vocals. Sometimes the vocals come first and the music comes later, other times, we start off with an intro or some picking [on the guitar].
Abdul Rehman writes the lyrics, compositions are my domain. After creating a demo, I present it to everyone for feedback and critique and then we finalise it together.
When we’re jamming — even for BoB — we all have preferences for how to do things. Creating the demo track is a guideline and also a platform to discuss and incorporate changes and preferences. For example, Kashif knows drums better than I do.
We do get into debates and arguments, but those are a positive and necessary part [of the process] and in the end we all work together to collaborate.
We’ve always created keeping the vocalist’s range in mind. You cannot create very complex music with someone who cannot sing. Consequently, our sound was quite limited before Abdul Rehman joined us, since so much depends on the vocalist’s abilities.
The great thing about him is that he can sing Western, Eastern — anything. Hum dil khol ke music bananay lagay. His range is great and with him we really started experimenting to extend ours as a band.
We’re trying to stay true to our roots. We’re recording a few songs at the moment and while not “typically Auj”, they’re infused with the Auj flavour. That’s something we can’t let go of.
We usually used to play on weekends. Now, we sit down and play together several times a week, whether we have to perform or not, because it’s important to do that as a band. Even when we didn’t have a vocalist and didn’t play any shows, we still jammed together.
If Auj has a distinct sound, the only reason behind it is hard work, practise and soul.
When you form a band, the most important element is keeping everyone together. When we were starting out, there were many people who came and went because we couldn’t stay together.
Since Abdul Rehman arrived, we’ve had a natural harmony and agreement about things like punctuality, discipline, practise… our motivation multiplied by like, 400 times, and we seemed to overcome those challenges automatically. Especially after joining Pepsi, since they teach you those things too and they become a part of your life.
We’re human, but even when the schedules are tough, it’s not a concern — our aim is to make music and we’re grateful for the chance to focus on it full-time. That’s greater than anything.
We do have lives; Abdul Rehman is doing his BBA right now, I'm working as a product development manager at a bank, Hasnain is a mechanical engineer and Kashif is working as a supply chain manager. These are our careers, but we’ve always had music in our lives, even when it wasn’t taking us anywhere.
Music and our day jobs have always been side-by-side, and we’re hoping to transition towards music after Pepsi.
We’re working on our album right now. We’ll be releasing a song right after BoB ends. All I can reveal is that it will be about receiving energy from the universe.
We all like to read. When we’re not playing, we’re attending local underground gigs.
Lately, I’ve been watching The Night Of [starring Riz Ahmed]. The main character is a young man named Nasir — like me — who gets stuck in a situation where he is helpless. Those feelings of emptiness, of not being able to do anything yet still finding support around you — you’ll see that in some of our upcoming work soon.
Right now, I’m listening to Audioslave, Soundgarden and Chris Cornell’s other work. Exploring grunge at the moment.
‘Like A Stone’ and ‘Show Me How To Live’. It’s our favourite song as a band.
An Auj song begins, pumps up to crescendo and then returns to the same root of the song; that is the Auj element. We give extra power to a specific part of the song; put extra fire to it just to burn and get it well-done.
Can I pick two?
I’ve known E Sharp for a decade and we’ve played together at the same gigs from the start, they are good. Aur Black Hour ka to main fan hoon. I only found out about them through the competition, but when I explored [their work] — they are good. Both are powerhouses, for all of us.
It’s an old habit of ours that we always go up to everyone on the set, including the crew and guards, and say a few words before and after our performance, no matter how it goes. No one knew us before performing ‘Lafz’, not even the crew.
When we came out afterwards… that feeling is indescribable. The way everyone came up to us, that was the best — the moment our lives changed.
Going from the Top 4 to the Top 2 was also very emotional; all four of us are emotional people and Hasnain started crying outright.
We make our songs from our heart and soul, and we don’t make the same song twice. For musicians — your own songs should give you goosebumps. If they don't, you've got work to do.
The Aarish boys are our friends, and getting to the final has been a win-win situation for all of us. From here, we have to go forward and do music full-time. Climb up the stairway you have been presented with and don't quit music.