Playing at the Heartstrings – an exclusive interview with Pakistan’s no.1 music band

I remember four years ago when I first met Strings for an interview shortly after they’d landed a coup by singing Na Janay Kiun for the soundtrack of Columbia Tri-Star’s Spiderman. It was the first time a Pakistani music band’s name was being taken alongside a Hollywood blockbuster’s and their remarkable feat did all and sundry proud, including me, because that interview incidentally happened to be the first of many that came later and surged me into the fanatical world of freelance journalism.
Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood too have come a long way since then, instigating warranted oohs and aahs every chance they get; “comfortable and happy” with their massive celebrity and big feathery hats, the guys are definitely in The Zone and loving every minute of it.
Strings have always been a big deal for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the Pakistani music scene, let alone the global music industry. With Koi Aanay Wala Hai they have literally redefined themselves and their music, proving yet again that there’s no such thing as having done it all. “We’ve worked very hard and learned a lot. Every day, every concert, every interaction with fans has been a lesson,” says Kapadia, humbled, “and we’ve applied all that to this album.”
“We’ve been living with these songs day and night for two and a half years and they’ve become a part of our lives!” adds Bilal, “And hopefully they’ll become a part of your life too!”
Can it be said then? Can I dub the duo a couple of diamonds in an industry laden with zirconias?
I think I very much can, for a seventh studio album added to an already brilliant song collection is hardly a laughing matter. Their track record is immaculate and their rapport with each other exemplary; their ambition unfaltering and fan following surreal—Strings are definitely the number one band in South Asia today.

How does it feel? Having achieved as much as you both have?
FK: I think with time one thing we’ve realized is that we’re getting better and better with communication and interacting with fans. We have grown as team members and evolved as musicians. One thing I’m sure about is that we never aimed for any particular status or thing. Our only criterion was making good music. We never aimed for commercial success, but yes, God has been very kind and things have been going smoothly. We have realized that with every album comes a responsibility. We have to make sure that any message we send out should be very positive. Over the last few years we have been traveling to India a lot and it’s a big responsibility because every step you take and every concert you perform there, you’re actually representing Pakistan. You’re a band from Pakistan and not just Strings. With everyone’s support, things are going well. We’re very thankful for the love and support of our fans. We’re happy.
Any particular reasons for the four year break between Dhani and Koi Aanay Wala Hai?
FK: There’s no particular reason. We didn’t have a time line or anything to work by. I think we got in the mode of the new album around two and a half years ago. With us, when we release an album we really enjoy that album. Even with Dhani, we toured a lot and did Dhani concerts all over the world. Then in between we did a couple of Bollywood films and Beirut along with a lot of other things, and then when we felt we were ready for a new album, we started working on it
BM: We believe in making videos of our songs, which also takes up a lot of our time and energy.
How’s Koi Aanay Wala Hai different from your previous albums?
BM: As musicians we grow every day. We learn new techniques and emotionally rediscover ourselves every day. Contextually, there is a difference, yes, but musically, I think there’s a major difference if you compare Koi Aanay Wala Hai with Dhani. Dhani was all acoustic guitars, flutes and violins, but this one’s very Pop-Rockish. We were listening to a lot of contemporary British rock music these past 2-3 years. People who are familiar with the music of Keane, Coldplay and even Beatles (who are obviously our all time favorites) will definitely realize the inspiration. The British influence in the harmonic structures and the chord progressions is very much there.
We combined that influence with the trademark melodies of Strings. It’s a very exciting combination and something totally new for the Pakistani music industry. I think Koi Aanay Wala Hai will take the Pakistani music scene to a different height altogether.
And the songs are all written by Anwar Maqsood?
BM: There are two people who are very important to Strings. First is my father Anwar Maqsood without whose lyrics my music would mean nothing, and second is Rohail Hayat, who helped us with his hands on support when we desperately needed a recording space and didn’t even have the funds to shoot a video. Rohail being the CEO of Pyramid Productions gave us all the facilities we needed, and that’s how we shot Duur.
FK: This is their 3rd album with Anwar Uncle and its great working with him.
The first video is also expected to make waves. Tell me about that.
FK: The video of Koi Aanay Wala Hai is directed by Ravi Udyawa and it’s his first project in 7 years! When we got in touch with him he told us that he’d been waiting for 7 years to do an interesting music video. He got really excited when we spoke to him and told us later on that he had been hoping to work with Strings for a long time.
We’re also working on the second and third videos both of which are directed by Jami and are shot in Karachi and Moscow.
BM: Ravi made us stand on the 24th floor and it was very windy. We didn’t have anything to support us if we fell. We found that out once we were up there ready to shoot, otherwise we might have backed out! We were also quite anxious about was showing the video to Bajia. She’s always appreciated our videos for not being too female oriented. In Koi Aanay Wala Hai John is an angel who falls in love with a girl so the story pretty much revolves around her!
What’s with the angel bit? Why John Abraham particularly?
BM: We knew that we wanted to work with John because when we did Zinda, we got along really well with him and became very close friends. We had been planning to work on a project together ever since, but nothing really came up until now. When John heard the album while we were still working on it, he said that he wanted to be a part of it. The idea of him playing an angel in the title song’s video is interesting and it worked for all us so that was that.
A lot of people vilify how India’s practically become your second home now, accusing you of spending more time there than in Pakistan. How do you cope with and respond to all the criticism?
BM: I guess people were very sensitive about India initially, but over the last few years there has been a lot of interaction in different modes so they’re not that uptight anymore. There was the Pakistan-India friendship series, a lot of Indian people came to Lahore, and a lot of Pakistani people have been going there as well. Things are obviously not the same anymore and we experience that when we go there. The love we get from Indian fans is immense. Performing in India is extremely enjoyable for us.
I think that people who criticize bands going to India and people from India coming here have a very shallow approach. They aren’t seeing beyond a certain point. I know that in the next 20-30 years when people will look back, they’ll see that this part of the history of Pakistan and India played a major role in getting the two countries together. And musicians name will come up too. People will realize what an important role we’re playing here.
Any other Bollywood projects in the pipeline?
FK: The album is our only priority right now. When we started working on the album, we were getting a lot of projects. After Shootout at Lokhandwala we decided not to do any films because you deviate and get lost. If we had decided to take up other projects there we would have lost out here, and we really wanted to concentrate on the album. Now that the album is finally out, I think we’ll concentrate on it alone for some time, and then maybe get in the mode and work on something else. There are a few projects that we haven’t committed to yet, but will be working on once we’re done with Koi Aanay Wala Hai.
Bilal, you told me in your last interview that you had gotten a movie offer as well (You were being paired against Tabu if I remember correctly!). Whatever happened to that? Any more offers since?
BM: I did get offers, but obviously the band comes first. There are no side projects for myself and Faisal—we’re just Strings. Our answer is the same whatever comes our way: we say no.
What’s your all time favorite place to perform?
BM: In Pakistan we have majorly performed in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore and the people from all three cities are equally responsive and fun to perform for. In India we’ve done concerts in about 22 cities and the one city that’s been very consistent response wise and number of audience wise is Bangalore.
BM: I think they’re more into rock music and the kind of music Strings makes. The percentage of young people in Bangalore is also apparently higher than any other city in India so we always have a great time there.
For some reason I’ve always felt that you, Faisal, are more energetic and more out there than Bilal, who’s always come off as a bit too mellow and held back. How true is that? How does it affect your respective positions in the band?
FK: We’ve been together for 20 years so we obviously understand each other very well now. I know when I have to back off to let Bilal take over and Bilal knows when he should back off so I can take over. There’s nothing like too mellow or too much energy between us. I think our rapport is so strong that we can trust each other with our eyes closed.
BM: I think one of the best qualities of our band is that neither of us is fighting for attention. If Faisal is being energetic and taking the front stage, I know he’s doing it for the band, and I’m getting the benefit of it also. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well now and we’re very comfortable together.
How important a role do you think label companies like Fire Records play in today’s music industry?
FK: Fire Records are doing a very good job with promoting Pakistani music. The one thing our industry lacked was proper label companies and Fire Records has changed that. Their support is very important whether you’re an established artiste or a novice.

What other celebrities had to say about the their music and the new video:

Writing for the kind of music Bilal makes is almost as tricky as PML-N and PPP’s friendship with each other!
The boys have worked really hard on this album. I don’t think even a single day went by over the last two years that they didn’t work towards making Koi Aanay Wala Hai possible. They’ve given it their everything and the result of their hard work is obvious. They have made a path to walk on and they’re staying on it, which I think is commendable.
I think Koi Aanay Wala Hai would make a wonderful companion if you’re planning to travel!

What I appreciate the most about their songs is that they are always very decent. They have set a standard of civility and they conform to that. I think that’s very important.

I think this album is a very important step in their personal career. A seventh album is not a joke for a band. They’ve come long way. I’ve heard the album and think the direction they’ve taken with this and their musical maturity is just mind boggling because they seem to have it right every time. Very few bands can hold it up for five albums. I’m very proud of Strings. I think they represent Pakistan like Pakistan needs to be represented. They’re very good ambassadors and I wish them all the best.

They’re wonderful people and I’ve been their fan a very long time. You could say that I practically grew up listening to them! I was just starting out when Faisal and Bilal were with Pyramid Productions and working on Duur. Nobody had the slightest idea what an amazing comeback that would turn out to be! Now they fulfill your every expectation and I’m sure this album will be a big hit too. They’re basically classy people doing classy stuff!

I think just like always they’ve done their best. Nothing is ever lacking from their work, and the video of Koi Aanay Wala Hai is just mesmerizing. They’ve done it again with Anwar Sahab’s beautiful lyrics. The concept is so neat and clean that I won’t be surprised if they end up at the MTV Awards by the end of the year. The sound is also very melodic like always—the song is stuck in my head already!

Essentially we’re very proud of the fact that we have an association with Strings, because the special attire now seems to be complete now that they’ve joined us. Our main objective is to promote new bands and I think these guys are great role models. Everybody would like to try and become like them. They’ve taken one step further and the video shows that they’ve gone to another level as well.

I’ve only heard about two songs so far so it won’t be fair of me to judge the whole album as yet, but the two songs I did listen to are excellent. Strings cater to everyone. Anyone who’s in love or depression or anywhere in life, really. It’s not pop, it’s not rock—it’s good music.

I just heard the song Koi Aanay Wala Hai for the first time and already it’s playing in my head. I’m sure the whole album is just as wonderful.