The likes of Shajie, Slowspin, Janoobi Khargosh, The Tamaashbeens and the Forever South collective have emerged across the border to create a vivid new sonic landscape that’s throwing up fresh, exciting new sounds redefining what a Pakistani artist can sound like. One of the artists who is an integral part of this new generation is Gentle Robot, an experimental alt-pop project of Lahore-based musician Ibrahim Imdad Sheikh. Since releasing his first EP, titled Feel, in 2017, Sheikh has built an engaging catalogue that promises to cement Gentle Robot as one of the mainstays of Pakistan’s independent music scenes if he continues down this trajectory.
Borrowing from the alt-pop, psychedelic stylings of artists such as Broken Bells, Glass Animals and Grizzly Bear, Sheikh brings his love for complex time-signatures, cultivated by his love for progressive acts such as Tool, Steve Wilson and Animals As Leaders, to polished, dynamic productions that can vary from concisely layered (“Maladaptive” feat. Natasha Noorani) to hazy, atmospheric (“Breathe”) soundscapes. We caught up with the Lahore resident to talk about his music and what he hopes to achieve with his next record.
VICE: What was your early life like? Where did you grow up?
IBRAHIM IMDAD SHEIKH: I grew up in Lahore in 1989 and my early life was pretty much escapist in the form of Sega games or Disney movies or me huddling around the cassette player with my sisters just listening to Now That's What You Call Music compilation tapes and my mom’s Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Bonnie M, and ABBA tapes before we started investing in our own cassettes—mainly Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls and Boyzone before we discovered Linkin Park. Good simple times.
Were your parents supportive of your musical pursuits?
Not at the start. I remember I had to hide from my parents that I was performing at gigs. They looked down on it and kept trying to shelve it like it was just a hobby and it should stay just that. In a way, I am grateful that I didn't pursue music as a career because I have come to realise that making money is really nice.
Did you perform as part of any group before?
I started out performing as a band with my college group called Ruin. It was a death metal band and we only released one song called “Brutale Rachen” (don't ask) on Youtube. But it was the first song I ever wrote and I am hella proud of it. I later joined Takatak as their lead guitarist and Keeray Makoray as their bassist, and we released an EP each together. I played with various other bands as well like Janoobi Khargosh, Sikandar Ka Mandar and Ali Sohail.
What was the first kind of music you started listening to?
I heard whatever were the hits at the time I was growing up. MTV and Channel V were where bands were made, and that’s how I consumed 100% of my music. It wasn’t until the internet became a thing and we got Napster and Kazaa and LimeWire that I was introduced to a whole other world of music through sweet, sweet piracy. I remember I had a whole nu-metal phase in which I worshipped Papa Roach and then a whole punk rock phase where I’d just listen to Sum 41 and Blink 182. I guess my preferences in music just got heavier and heavier till Djent just killed it all and I turned to indie.
Who were your influences?
When I started composing for Gentle Robot, I was listening to a whole lot of My Morning Jacket, Youth Lagoon, Hiatus Kaiyote, Mac DeMarco, Real Estate, Father John Misty, Animals as Leaders, Tool, Steven Wilson (and all his associated works), Neutral Milk Hotel and a whole bunch of other indie/prog stuff. I started going on Pitchfork daily and discover all kinds of new indie bands. It became an obsession and I think all the influences show in my first EP Feel.
What inspired you to start writing your own lyrics and music?
Depression, my dude. Art is just honest self-expression and I had stuff I needed to get off my chest and just put out there. All the songs are really personal in that sense as well. I write most of my music when I am depressed and it just became a healthy way for me to channel it all out and move on.
You’ve got a really interesting visual aesthetic—who are your influences when it comes to conceptualising your videos?
Well for the music video for “Maladaptive”, I gave the team, Misbah and Altamash (from Keeray Makoray) and Mariam Ilahi, full creative control, so all credit and praise go to them for making the best music video I could ask for (I think they were influenced by Grizzly Bear’s “Ready, Able” music video). For “Mind Control”, I just took a DSLR with me everywhere I went and compiled it together with a bunch of things that were relevant to the concept of the song. For “Slow” I wanted to make an animated music video with my own hands. Thankfully my untalented ass got help from Zainab Zulfiqar and she helped me finish it. Again it was just a few clips of things relevant to the song. No real focus or idea. Just a collection of thoughts.
The Pakistan electronic music community exploded with the arrival of the likes of Forever South / Talal Qureshi etc. Has their success changed anything for upcoming artists?
There are new, young, talented artists popping up everywhere, and it’s amazing to see them all produce such quality music just sitting at home on their laptops. Kids like Abdullah Siddique just show up out of nowhere and blow our minds. It is amazing and seems like it’s only just getting started.
How do you deal with the lack of a live touring circuit in Pakistan?
Honestly I don’t mind at all. Performing live is an anxiety attack, my dudes. I haven’t performed once as Gentle Robot because it is terrifying. Singing live? In front of people? I mean it’s different when I am playing an instrument for some other band, but singing and communicating with the audience between songs is not something I am looking forward too. Gonna keep my robot mask on at all times whenever the time does come. Lahore Muusic Meet, True Brew Records and Music Mela are doing a fantastic job in providing a platform for local indie acts though.
How have platforms such as Patari helped the Pakistan music scene?
More than anything, they’ve helped themselves. I only added my first EP on their platform and regretted it. Not gonna put any more music on a platform that doesn’t pay the artists. Don’t get me wrong, they do an incredible job at promoting music, just as long as it promotes their brand and platform as well.
What are your future plans?
Complete this bitch of an EP Breathe, make another animated music video, move to the next album, it’s gonna be an LP this time hopefully, and it’s gonna be called Sleep. I want to explore depression in a comprehensive and really in-depth manner, hopefully making it an overwhelming record for people.
Follow Uday Kapur on Twitter.