This Pakistani Musician Is Bringing the ’90s Rockstar Aesthetic Back

Waleed Ahmed, aka Janoobi Khargosh, is using his synth-pop project to recreate nostalgic memories from the early days of independent music in Pakistan.
February 13, 2019, 8:45am
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Janoobi Khargosh's 'Capt Space' is a throwback to some of the most popular Pakistani bands such as Strings and Junoon. Credit: Waleed Ahmed.

Strings, Vital Signs, Junoon and many other iconic Pakistani bands laid down the foundations for not just the music industry in Pakistan but ours as well. Having emerged from the clampdown on cultural freedoms under the ultraconservative, authoritative regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, these bands were some of the first homegrown stars of the music video era, erring on just the right side of acceptable moral values that allowed to skirt past the hawkish eyes of desi parents on both sides of the border.

Waleed Ahmed, aka Janoobi Khargosh, is a student of those times. In his new project, 'Capt. Space', Ahmed successfully recreates his childhood memories of watching bands like Strings and Vital Signs, bringing a modern touch that borrows heavily from the current-day soundscapes of artists such as Toro y Moi and The Horrors. Along with his peers like Poor Rich Boy, Sikandar ka Mandar and former Janoobi Khargosh member Ibrahim Sheikh (Gentle Robot), Ahmed is spearheading the new generation of Pakistani musicians who, if he has his way, will retain the wholesome rebelliousness of their ’90s counterparts. We caught up with Ahmed to talk about his inspirations, touring in Pakistan and his future plans:

VICE: What was your early life like? Where did you grow up?
Waleed Ahmed: My childhood was quite nice, actually. My father was in the Army, so I grew up in many different places and went to a lot of different schools. As a consequence, I got to meet a great number of different people in a fairly short amount of time. I think getting to discover that people come in such a wide variety was a really valuable experience in my formative years. The best and most beautiful memories of my childhood are from the time when we lived in Gilgit. Gilgit, with all its mountains and greenery, has to be one of the most unspoiled, naturally beautiful places in Pakistan. Our home garden there had all sorts of fruit trees: cherries, apples, pears, grapes, you name it. And clear skies! Kids who grow up in big cities have no idea how spectacular the night sky truly is.

Were your parents supportive of your musical pursuits?
Full time! In fact, it was my parents who got me into music in the first place. My father introduced me to bands like Pink Floyd, Bon Jovi, The Eagles, Rush, Santana and many more. My mother had the eastern side covered with classics like Kishore Kumar, Mohd Rafi et cetera. To be honest, I never thought I would become a musician. Living in Gilgit, I remember being in love with music. We used to have a cassette player back then that had this odd feature that if you pressed the record button while a song was playing, the song would play twice. I’m not sure how that worked, but I used that feature endlessly, and I have a feeling it was just destroying the tapes in some way! But it wasn’t until later that I considered actually playing music myself.

How did it start?
I was 11 years old when I asked my father for a guitar as a birthday present. So he took me to this toyshop, and the salesman brought out this toy guitar, the sort that has a button that you can press and it plays some jingle. I looked at it and I told my father that it wasn’t a guitar, and he kept insisting that it was (as did the salesman). I think my father was just kidding around. Maybe he wanted to see if I was sensible enough to actually have a guitar of my own. Once we left the shop, he took me to a real guitar shop. The place was filled with all types of guitars. Real ones! And my father took one down and played the American classic ‘A Horse With No Name’. That’s when I knew he’d been pulling my leg all along. I didn’t even know he knew how to play! He bought me an acoustic guitar but didn’t stop there. He bought an electric guitar. And an amp—I still use that Roland amp! My father is still my biggest supporter. I remember he told me that he would arrange for a really amazing video if I wrote my first song. I was supposed to emerge from a helicopter like a real rockstar in the video!

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Did you perform as part of any group before?
The first serious band that I was a part of was Dionysus, a death/black metal band. There was Sheraz, Umair, me, and a guy called Sam Morbid, who used to play the drums for us. To this day, I don’t know his real name. We were signed to a Swedish label and put out an album in 2012: ‘Hymn to the Dying’. Dionysus was relatively well-known in the underground music scene. We got to play a number of gigs and it was great till I had to shift with my family to Karachi. The rest of the band was in Lahore. It became harder to sustain the band then.

At this point, I started a solo project under the name, Lohi Karma. I released an EP with Moonstone Records called Dreaming Skies in 2013. At the same time, I sort of moved on from the metal scene and became more interested in progressive rock. That same year, I released a prog-rock album called ‘Waterfort’.

What was the first kind of music you started listening to?
Initially, I listened to whatever my parents introduced me to. I was more inclined towards the kind of music my father listened to. I didn’t have a personal collection of CDs so I asked my father to get me some.

Around this time, I became reacquainted with a childhood friend of mine, a boy named Rauhan, the only boy I knew who played an electric. He was a far superior player than I was. He taught me about palm muting and tapping and picking patterns and what not. Rauhan introduced me to the music of Lacrimas Profundere. Once I heard that I wanted more. Finally, Rauhan gave me a CD that had Agalloch, Anathema, Opeth, Katatonia, A Perfect Circle. An entire new world opened up before me.

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Who were your influences?
I think I have been influenced most heavily by progressive music. Bands like Camel, Yes, King Crimson, and so on. And there bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel. Some jazz prog, like George Duke. Some western pop music: James Brown, Michael Jackson. In terms of production, I’ve admired Quincy Jones and Alan Parsons and locally, Vital Signs was a band that has influenced me a lot. Nowadays, there’s Poor Rich Boy.

What inspired you to start writing your own lyrics and music?
I have always been coming up with melodies. Even when I was a kid, as far as I remember, my head was always full of ideas for music and lyrics which I would sing. Writing my own songs was just an extension of that by giving those ideas a more definite shape and making them more meaningful.

My father suggested that I go to a professional studio to learn how to record my own music. This turned out to be extremely fruitful in several important ways. For one, Hasil, the guy whose studio I went to, was extremely patient and encouraging, while at the same time he pushed me to practice a lot and improve my playing by learning to play with a metronome. At the same time, I learned that studios can be pretty heartless environments because of all the economic pressure that they are under. I realised I would have to become an independent producer if I wanted my music produced comfortably.

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Once my father saw I had gained in experience and proficiency, he took me to a shop and got me sound recording equipment. Recording my own music opened up space for a lot of possibilities. The moment you realise you can add layers to what you’re making, you become truly independent, and anything is possible.

How do you deal with the lack of a live touring circuit in Pakistan?
To be honest, I have to reject around 70% of all offers I get to play a show somewhere, simply because all my band members have their own bands or jobs and it’s difficult to find time to jam or practice. It’s not like there isn’t live music in Pakistan. It’s there. We’re just a bit picky because we want to play at places where we know we’ll get an audience that enjoys our music and we’ll all have fun. That’s the main thing.

How have platforms such as Patari helped the Pakistan music scene?
No. It’s the same corporate setup. Those who have money probably benefit from it. There’s nothing much to say.

You've got a really interesting visual aesthetic that borrows from the '80s/early '90s MTV videos. Who are your influences when it comes to conceptualising your videos?
Anything, really. Anything from the past. I do enjoy the kind of music videos that used to come out in Pakistan back in the ’90s. That whole aesthetic of the local rockstar, stylish but unassuming, a rebellious but always nevertheless this wholesome guy, really appeals to me. You’ll see what I mean if you check out Vital Signs’ Tum Mil Gaye or Strings’ Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar.

What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on releasing an album - Survivors. The first single from it is already out. I have another EP planned for this year. It’s going to be very different from anything I’ve made so far. I guess if I’m lucky, the future will have more albums, more videos. And then maybe it’s also time to get married! I think that’s an exciting possibility that I look forward to.

Follow Uday Kapur on Twitter.