‘I want to mess with whoever’s listening’: in pursuit of Karachi musician Ali Suhail

The Pakistani musician entwines subtle lyricism with epic soundscapes on his new album. We chat to him about making music in a country that often doesn’t take it seriously.

Ali Suhail at the #MpowerFest 2014 in Karachi, Pakistan. Suhail first came to prominence on a 2010 TV show to find new talent. Courtesy Ebtesam Ahmed.
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I remember the first time I saw Karachi musician Ali Suhail. It was on a Pakistani TV programme from 2010 that was meant to unearth talented musicians from the underground scene. Ali’s band, Jumbo Jutt was featured on the first episode. When I heard him speak, I remember being struck by the angst and urgency he displayed when talking about his music.

When asked on the show what the band’s song was about, he said “a lot of things... from the top of my head, social norms that we have just accepted without thinking about it. Things like izzat (honour) and tehzeeb (tradition) and... the whole ‘you can’t do this’ just because you’re from a certain family.” It was a rambling manifesto, at once hinting at Ali’s intelligence as well as his struggle to articulate it.

In many ways, I never saw that version of Suhail again. Our paths started crossing regularly several years later and I always found him to be very relaxed and pleasant in person and carrying an understated swagger onstage. He became extremely prolific and diverse in his output, releasing solo works, collaborating with many artists and becoming a renowned producer in the indie scene.

In 2013, he released his debut solo album Words from Boxes, and followed that with Journal Entries in 2014, and then two EPs – Desolve and Defragment – in 2015.

I spoke to him about his new album, Pursuit of Irrelevance, after its release last month and which currently can only be streamed online at Patari (Full disclosure, I am chief operating officer for Patari).

One of the things I asked was what would the Ali Suhail of 2010 feel like if he met himself now? He chuckled at the premise before saying that “the biggest goal back in 2010 was to get people to stop telling me that [making music is] a bad idea. But [that time was also] important because I met a bunch of people who took music as a serious thing and not as a mating call.

“Since then, I’ve gotten nominated for a national award for making songs on my computer to battle my boredom; I’ve toured the country with a bunch of people, including notable mainstream acts; I’ve headlined a festival; and I’ve helped make a whole bunch of music. I think 2010 Ali would [be beside] himself with joy.”

There is little doubt that as a musician, Ali’s sound has improved immeasurably since he started. While Jumbo Jutt was heavy-hitting and forthright, his solo work has become more subtle and complex, and retains an ability to jump from sparse lyricism to giant, crunching guitar-led soundscapes without jarring.

Although Words from Boxes was almost an antithesis to his Jumbo Jutt sound, the journey since then has felt like a coming together of the disparate strands he has pursued.

What perhaps ties them all together is an investigative approach to emotions that informs his music.

As Ali puts it, “the general idea is to find something weird that I’ve felt, that I probably wouldn’t be too comfortable sharing with a group of people in a room and then shining a big light on it so eventually others [who feel similarly can relate to it too].”

Pursuit of Irrelevance, though, brings a return to the anxiety and urgency of those years ago. The vocals are more textured and layered in a way where they seem to express more emotions than the lyrics. The compositions remain flexible and unwedded to any genre, able to flit between different sounds but retaining an undercurrent of restlessness.

Ali describes the album’s sound as “maintaining an urge to just mess with whoever’s listening” but I feel it also expresses a desire to get the listener to stay with the songs and not accept them at face value. There is a constant interplay between wanting to challenge versus comforting the listener.

What is most interesting is that on the album, the many layers of his musical persona seem to collapse together. There is a little bit from each of his previous works in here, and yet the sum is greater than the myriad parts.

Perhaps being a musician in Pakistan these days is indeed irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean its pursuit is futile.

Ahmer Naqvi is a writer on culture, music and sport. He is based in Lahore.