In Chennai for The Hindu May International Music Festival, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia talk about Strings’ musical journey that began at a college farewell party many moons ago. Shonali Muthalaly stays tuned…

I anticipate an entourage, wrapped in Ray Bans, Armani and attitude. I groan inwardly, expecting to be kept waiting for an hour in a lobby before being whisked into a glittering suite. I even half-expect them to appear in a cloud of smoke. So I’m taken aback when Bilal walks up to me in the Hyatt Regency lobby, dressed in a crisp blue linen shirt, waving hello. I’m even more startled when he apologises for not having a visiting card to give me. And I’m positively speechless when Faisal appears minutes later and they quickly pull their chairs together, so I “don’t have to keep looking from side to side”. Lined up and ready, the two good looking rock stars smile at me expectantly. I open my mouth. And not a word comes out.

The comeback song

Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia started Strings with two friends in 1988, riding on a wave of Pakistani pop. The band fell apart four years later. Then in 2000, the duo collaborated on a song, ‘Duur’, which proved to be their comeback. Suddenly, the Pakistani musicians were playing on radio stations all over the world. By 2003, they had been approached to sing for the soundtrack of Hollywood movie Spiderman 2. Five years later, they created singles ‘Zinda’ and ‘Aakhri Alvida’ for Bollywood movies Zinda and Shootout At Lokhandwala. So far, they’ve sold more than 25 million copies of their albums worldwide. These guys are big, yes. But what’s startling is, they’re also nice.

Once we finally get chatting, Bilal talks of their connection with Chennai. “Our first ever proper gig was here in 2003. At IIT with Euphoria. We played here again in 2008. Unfortunately, after 26 / 11 (the Mumbai attacks), all our shows were cancelled. But things have got better over the last two years.”

“People don’t always identify us as a Pakistani band first… When we were contacted for Spiderman 2, the company said they wanted an Indian band! We told them, ‘But, we’re Pakistani’. Then they said, ‘It’s ok. We want Strings’.” Faisal adds, “Being Pakistani is our advantage. We have a wider reach than our origin. And this is our identity. We have never thought for a minute to hide it.”

Creative instinct

When Bilal and Faisal met, they were studying at the Government College of Commerce and Economics in Karachi.

“I wanted to go into banking then. My family is full of bankers. Then I realised I was more creative, so I decided to get into advertising. Faisal’s plan was to join his father’s business. They’re into oil and transport,” says Bilal, adding “The music just happened. We’re self-taught musicians. I never took any guitar classes, for instance. And this was before the days of YouTube. An advantage I had was my father used to work for EMI records in Pakistan… So we always had musicians at our house.”

Strings was born by accident. “We were asked to play at a farewell party for some seniors,” says Faisal.

As legend goes, they came up with the name only when the compere pushed them, since he had to introduce them to the crowd. Bilal continues, “This was around the time Benazir Bhutto came to power and the political climate was a lot more liberal. Bands were popping up all over Pakistan. PTV — the Pakistani equivalent of Doordarshan — started playing pop music.”

He says their influences were global. “We used to get VHS tapes from the video rental shops and watch the newest music from MTV and Top Of The Pops… The base of our music is Madonna, U2 etc…What we do is take Indian melodies and Pakistani melodies, and then package them in a Western way.”

Faisal says, “Today, thanks to the Internet, our music reaches more people… Yes, it also means more piracy. But that’s fine. That’s the reality. It’s part of the entertainment business. On the bright side, there’s still no better way to reach out to people. And, I believe it’s just a question of time before people find a way to legalise it. There are already companies finding ways to pay the artiste, and distribute music free of cost. Fifteen years ago, it was MTV. You could get famous with one song if MTV picked it up. ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’ (A single in their second album 2) came out when MTV Asia started. We sent them our album, and they played it like crazy. It changed everything. Unfortunately, this was around the time we disbanded…”

When Strings fell apart in 1992, it was because they wanted to get back to ‘real life’: work and studying. “Both of us were in love. We wanted to get married. And at that time, music wasn’t a career. It was a hobby,” says Bilal. “I knew I had to work harder to achieve something before I could get married.” Faisal adds, “For seven years, we didn’t play any music.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Actually, Bilal and I did meet in 1995 and compose a song. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t inspire us to get back into music.”

And then, they created ‘Duur’. “And even as we sang it, we got that feeling. We knew this one was special.” In 2000, Bilal and Faisal came back as Strings with ‘Duur’. “At that point we had nothing to lose,” says Bilal.

Faisal adds, “We were cautious. We didn’t quit our jobs; just took three months leave. We came to India to release it with Magnasound. When we saw the response, we made our decision. Bilal smiles, “At that point we said, ‘Let’s burn all our boats, and do what we want to do’.” From there, there was no looking back.