Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some disturbing Google searches that led to my blog

Everyday, my blog stats show what people googled to get to my blog. Most of them are pretty standard, some of them hilarious and every now and then you get some really disturbing ones. Here's a list of terms I came across JUST FOR TODAY

“aunties fucking”
Yup. Clearly there's a niche market who likes to see aunties getting it on.

“aunties fucking in lahore”
An even narrower niche market

“aunty sex”
These guys must be so dissappointed upon reaching here...."What!! What is this musician?? Where are aunty boobies??"

“story me and aunty together”
It promises to be a wonderful fairytale

“ali zafar naked”
The fans have spoken

“atif aslam naked”
Clearly they want variety

“atif aslam chootiya”
Such a fickle public....

And then of course my favourite...

“cock disco”


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Anatomy of a Recording

I thought it was time I filled you in on what ADP was doing, we've been pretty quiet for awhile, the live shows have taken a back seat to our recording efforts. Now as you recall, since we got dicked over by Mr. E (whose entire story I will reveal next post) and we were in a limbo. After much debating, we decided to go ahead and experiment with recording on our own.

(Forgive me if I get a bit too technical here, for the benefit of all the other musicians/techies out there I'll be listing names of the mics and techniques we're using.)

We set up camp at Rahails house, henceforth known as the Cathouse, simply because Rahail has three very large, very furry cats. (They shall henceforth be known as Fat Cat, Black Cat and White Cat. Will post pictures soon).
The biggest hurdle we were going to have to overcome was recording drums live. These days it is common practice to have a microphone set up on every part of the drum, i.e., one for each snare/tom and then two overheard condensor mics to catch the "room sound". With our soundcard and mixer, we were only able to use four microphones, so we recorded using the "Glyn Johns" method of drums. I was pretty pleased about this, since this was the way my drumming heroes John Bonham from Led Zep and Keith Moon from The Who had recorded. Basically we set up a Shure SM57 microphone on the snare, a Shure Beta52A on the kick drum and then we set up two condensor microphones as overheads. (One Audio Technica AT2020, and one Studio Project mic). The result was a drum sound that sounded very large and roomy, and very live, but probably not as precise as a modern recording.

Rahail and I spent a day figuring out the best positions of the microphones and then we had Giles come in and test it. We were pretty elated by the results, it also helped the Giles is a fantastic drummer who plays every part of the kit loud and consistent. Working things out on your own in a studio can be really frustrating but the rewards are sweet when an idea or experiment pays off and we wouldnt have had that kind of freedom or been able to afford that kind of time in a pro studio.

We all settled into our roles as producers in a couple of days, with Rahail manning the controls at the computer, myself figuring out the microphone positions and recording setups and Ali coming in with the overall inputs on sound.
The first song we attempted was "Hum Na Rahey" because it was one of the more straightforward beats. I first laid down a scratch vocal and scratch rhythm guitar along to a click track. Giles then played the drums along to these tracks and then we re-did all the guitars on top of him.

This is where the hard part of recording live drums comes in. Giles is a fantastic drummer, more pro than any of us, but even he had tiny ups and down in the rhythm, even though he was playing to a metronome. Now this is barely noticeable when we play live but when you have to record over a live track, you end up having to match those same dips in timing that the drums have played.

This made tracking the guitars a nerve racking experience. I think we all agreed that recording electric guitar is the hardest , and least fun part of the recording process. Electric guitars are by nature pretty noisy, or at least they're supposed to be in a good loud rock song. I went into the process thinking I could simply replicate what I play live in the studio, but as we discovered, that's simply not the case. One can get away with play a noisy distorted guitar live, but in the studio, you really have to be clear with your parts and make sure they are melodic and fit the song. You can't simply strum barre chords along with the rhythm, the rhythm playing has to be extremely precise and at the mercy of several decisions. Should I play open chords or barre chords? Do I play up-strokes or down strokes? And then of course there is tone.

The hardest thing is to translate the guitar tone that you are hearing in your head into what you are hearing in the recording. I spent hours trying to get the "tone" right. It doesn't help that with the electric you have such a wide variety of gadgets available to alter the sound, and everything makes a difference. You have to tweak the distortion level, the amp volume, the trebles, mids and bass and then decide if you want effects like delay and reverb or chorus and phaser. Then you have to tweak the individual settings of all the effects. Even then at the end of the day, you're still never completely sure of the tone. While I had an easier time setting my own guitar tone, it was harder for me to set it for Ali since I had to get what was in his head out onto the amp. This is where our nerves got shot and our patience tested as each band member has their own ideas on how to solve things. You get there eventually, but its a real test.

To record the guitar, we went through a Line 6 POD X3 console and then went into a Marshall AVT100 amplifier. I had to fight Ali and Rahail on this, they were briefly in favor of simply recording directly from the POD. I feel that a loud amplifier just sounds more natural and aggressive. You can't just capture the signal coming from the guitar, you have to capture the "air" and that just makes the guitar sound warm and alive. Eventually we ended up using the amp, and I think everyone was happier for it. We recorded using two microphones, a Shure SM57 right up against the amp grille and the AT2020 condensor about 3 feet away to capture the ambient sound.

Within a couple of weeks we had laid down the tracks for "Hum Na Rahey", "Likhta Nahin Mein" and a new version of "Sultanat". The other two tracks went by fairly quickly compared to "Hum Na Rahey", I guess we got better at recording more efficiently. But the entire process is an emotional rollercoaster. Here are the stages I went through pretty much with every song.

1) Record drums. Feel pretty good about song.
2) Listen to drums next day. Conclude drums are shitty. Hate song.
3) Come back to fix drums. Feel pretty good. Like song.
4) Record guitars. Spend hours on figuring out guitar tone. Hate song.
5) Record more guitars. Think song is becoming shittier. Despise song.
6) Rahail sends render of all work on song so far. Think song is not so bad.
7) Rahail records bass on his own. Song begins to sound pretty good.
8) Record vocals. Song sounds amazing.
9) Listen to recording for week. Song sounds increasingly better for first 3 days. Then starts to suck.
10) You start hearing tiny mistakes and glitches in the song that make you want to stab yourself. Hate song again.

They say most bands break-up over money or recording. I don't think we ever came close to breaking up but we've definitely had some tense moments. Recording can be especially soul crushing. You consider yourself a decent musician, and you've played these songs a thousand times before. Yet when that little red light goes on, you find yourself trying to play a simple guitar part over and over again just to get it right. After a while, your ears fatigue and you cant tell whether anything is good or bad anymore. You simply have to go on the word of your band members and your own faith. Opinions clash, people get frustrated and it become a matter of trying to keep everyone's spirits up and making sure everyone keeps their eye on the prize. But for the most part, Rahail, Ali and I were on the same page, and I had new respect for the other guys. Both of them came up with some pretty smart solutions and inspired musical ideas. Once we started trusting each other and were able to put our egos aside things started happening much more efficiently. The best bits would be when we tried something out, like a new guitar part or an effect and it worked in the song. These rare moments were truly rewarding, and kept us going.

Having said that, I think we've done a fairly good job so far. We're definitely getting better at it. I can't say when we'll have these tracks out, I don't think it will be any time soon, but I'd like to give myself till before June as a personal deadline. Till then stay tuned guys, I'm really excited about this work,  I hope it'll be worth the wait for everyone.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Imran and I

I wrote the first part of this a couple of days after Imran's passing. I wrote the next part a few days ago.  Writing about Imran has been the most difficult thing I have had to do. But I felt I couldn't move on to anything else until I did.

In the days since his death, I have been searching for the words, looking for a place to start. Every time I formulate something in my mind, or I try to clear the mist, it seems woefully inadequate. There seems to be nothing in the spaces except grief, heartbreak and shock. I cannot think of him without the tears. Even though the time Imran and I spent together were some of the best moments of my life, it is hard to remember them in the face of the hurt, and the deafening finality of his departure from this world.

I keep replaying the day in my head. The phone call on the way to work from Yasir telling me Imran had taken his own life. The complete shock and incomprehension. The deluge of phone calls and messages of people wanting to know what happened, why it happened. The sickness and the nausea of telling everyone again and again and having to confirm something I still hadn't come to terms with myself. I didn't have the answers then and I don't have the answers now.

Yasir and me left work and spent the day together. We needed each other. We needed OK too, but he was far away in the US, on his own. We needed to have the original four together, to talk our way through, to make sense of what had happened. When you lose someone, sometimes it doesn't hit you immediately. It's almost like an out of body experience, like it's happening to someone else. Then slowly it begins to grip you, little by little, like cracks in a dam. It only takes one memory , one word or one image to set off the flood. When Imran's brother embraced me and told me how much Imran loved us. I couldn't hold back any longer. I cried and cried, shaking with the violent, overwhelming force of my own grief. The waves of pain, hurt and heartbreak crashed against me until I was choking on my own tears.

We loved Imran too. More than he or anybody else would ever know.

I had always known of Imran Lodhi. Back when I was in high school I had a band called Caesars Dog. It was my very first band, and we fancied ourselves as being pretty good, we used to call ourselves the best band in Karachi Grammar School. But people would come up to us and say, "You guys haven't heard of this band called "Undertow", they have this awesome lead singer/guitarist, Imran Lodhi, you should check them out!". (Undertow included such future talent as Kashan Admani, who later became Mizmaars guitarist and Adnan Hussain, the drummer for Aaroh.). Naturally I hated them without hearing them play a note. My competitive nature wouldn't allow me to publicly acknowledge the talent of any other lead singer/guitarist. But secretly I hoped to attend one of their shows one day just to see who these chaps were and were they really as good at covering Led Zeppelin as I heard they were?

Six years passed, I went to college abroad, graduated, worked for a year and then I came back to Pakistan. I was looking to form a band. OK and I had already met and done a couple of shows together with different people. It was at one of these performances where I finally met the guys who would be my future bandmates. OK and I were performing at an Open-Mic Night at this dingy little cafe called Caffeine. I don't remember it being a particularly great show. But nevertheless, we were approached afterwards by a tall burly looking chap who talked a lot, a small quiet guy who I thought couldn't have been more than 16 years old, and a tall lanky fellow who was always smiling.

 I had met Khawar, Yasir and Imran.

 They told me they had formed an independent record label called Infinite Arts where they were looking to release, record and organize concerts for underground artists. I was pretty excited about meeting them and we promised to meet up later. One thing led to another and they ended up coming over to my place to jam. That's how it started.

It all began by me blowing up Lodhi's amplifier. In my over-eagerness I had taken his 15W Fender amp and plugged it into a 220V socket without its 110V convertor. It promptly blew a fuse. I was mortified, what a horrible way to start a relationship. To his credit, Lodhi was forgiving and immediately I had it repaired.

Imran and I hit it off almost immediately. Of course anyone who knew us will tell you that we were polar opposites as personalities. Imran was a musicians musician, technically proficient, but with an uncanny knack of playing with real feeling and emotion. He was incredible as a guitarist, he could switch between playing orthodox scales to fusing eastern and western melodies with ease. When he played me his songs, I was instantly jealous and in awe. His melodies were so complex, and his arrangements so well crafted. I felt like a rank amateur in front of him. Yet I was giddy with excitement. The first song we jammed together was “Is Tanhai Ko”. We figured out the chords and I picked up the bass. I remember the room instantly exploding, with OK counting in the beat and all of us coming together to form that pounding yet delicate rhythm. It was incredible. When we stopped there were goofy smiles all around. We knew we had something. I knew I had been looking for Imran, and now I had found him, I knew it was going to be special.

Imran and I would spend hours together working on the songs. Before jam sessions, he would arrive early and him and I would sit across each other and construct the songs. So many songs came together like that, Imran would bring in the bare bones of the melody and lyrics and I would arrange the rhythm, tempos and breaks. We learned how to communicate without words, learning how to anticipate what the other wanted. It was one of the most creatively rewarding times of my life. Within a week we had come up with songs like “Such”, “Shehar kay Aansoo”, “Vaadey” and “Dhoop”. Sometimes I would have the bulk of the song and Imran would come up with a middle section, and sometimes I would have a cool bridge or intro and Imran would figure a way to put it in his song. Before we knew it we had an albums worth of songs. I couldn't believe how naturally and organically it came about. We were so confident, even then that we knew we had to go into a studio and record them all, even though it strategically didn't make sense for a new band.

He taught me so much musically. Before Imran, I had never known how to do a vocal harmony. I still find it difficult to do. Imran was a natural at it, he would effortlessly harmonize a vocal line to whatever I was singing while I looked on in awe. I was heavily influenced by his lyrics. But most of all Imran taught me to believe in my work, to believe in performing my originals.

Imran was responsible for much of ADP's vision. It was Imran who forced us to play our original songs in concert. It was Imran who forced us to record quickly and put the songs out. Without him, we never would have had the confidence or the self belief to play our originals for a public who had never heard of us before. We would have been playing covers, like most underground bands. But it was Imran's thinking that set us apart. All he wanted to do was put out music, all the time, as quickly as possible.

That's where him and I started to disagree. I wanted to be deliberate, pace the release of our songs, work on them till perfection, but this frustrated Imrans vision of what an artist should be. While we butted heads many times over the external issues of being in a band, we never argued musically, and when we took the stage together, the four of us began to create fantastic chemistry that set our live shows apart from the other bands.

Playing with Imran back in those days was one of the best periods of my life. Sure we were this little underground band that nobody heard of. Sure our album was raw and under produced. But it was us against the world. Imran and I, being the two vocalists copped the brunt of the criticism, and it brought us even closer together. It was us against the rest of them. For us, ADP was almost like a gang rather than a band. The four of us were inseparable. We were ready to take on anybody, and we played live wherever we got the chance, whether it was opening for major acts, or small undergound shows, from hostile crowds in cafes to weddings in peoples houses.

That's when I really got to know Imran. Him and I would often pair up, driving to and from gigs. We'd have long, crazy conversations about life, love and music. He was a sensitive gentle guy, someone who wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was passionate about music, and I mean really passionate, not like how most musicians claim to be. He loved music for all the right reasons. It moved him. It made him giddy with happiness. He was completely at ease moving to a beat or breaking into a song when something came in his head. He spoke lovingly about the albums that influenced him and the musicians he wanted to emulate. I never tired of talking to him about music. He was also a hopeless romantic, more so than I was. I loved that about him. I loved that he could be so vulnerable in his songs. He used to be really shy about singing “Gaata Mein Chaloon” because it was an unabashed love song. But to me, it was his best song, and I kept pushing him to perform it.

Imran was an inspiration to countless underground musicians. He always had time for the kids who would work up the nerve to talk to us after a concert. They loved talking to Imran, he was the friendliest and most approachable guy in the band. He represented them. He was the living embodiment of a guy who could write commercial music and still have “underground' credibility. They wanted to be him. Imran went to great lengths to promote his underground buddies. Every Thursday he set up jam sessions at the Basement Cafe, where we hung out. The scene started off great, with musicians from all over Karachi meeting up and jamming together. It began to irritate me after awhile, I just wanted to make music with my own band and not jam with people I considered sub-standard musicians. But Imran had time for everyone. He never berated or put down anyone. He had the wonderful, albeit naive quality of always finding the best in people. He was a wonderful, encouraging, nurturing force and many underground musicians today owe Imran for getting them a start.

Things changed over the years with ADP, Imran and I were drifting apart over a series of disagreements over the direction of the band. The sad part is most of is was outside, irrelevant stuff now that I look back on it. All of it was trivial when it came to the music. Imran and I were always able to put aside our differences when it came to the songs. He had matured as a songwriter, and the new material he was writing for ADP was exciting for all of us.

We all knew Imran would be leaving for Canada to finish his degree. It wasn't confirmed, but there was a possibility that it could happen. When Imran confirmed the news, we knew it was going to be the end of ADP as it had been. It was a sad end, but we had all mentally prepared ourselves. We performed our last show together at the Ultralounge, in front of some close friends and fans. That night, I said goodbye to Imran, bid him a safe trip, confident that I'd be jamming again with him again one day. He pulled me in for a long, emotional embrace. Imran wasn't self conscious when it came to hugs.

That night, would be the last time I saw him.

If only I had known that would be the last time. But it was.

The other night, we paid tribute to Imran and his songs at the Second Floor. His family and all his close friends were there. We laughed, we cried but most of all we celebrated the wonderful songs Imran had given us and all the joy we shared with him. It helped, in some small way for all of us who had been grieving. I know he would have enjoyed it. Heck I think he was there. I could have sworn I heard him attempting a vocal harmony, as I sang “Gaata Mein Chaloon”. I know he would have got it right in the first go.

Goodbye my brother. I'm going to miss you.