“I don’t know much about the sensibility of the audience, we play to entertain each other,” with a tone somewhere between a casual lack of concern and a deliberate lack of modesty, Zain Ali presents the idea behind Red Blood Cat.
I am talking to them just before their second gig. Their genesis as a band goes back much further than their first show at Storm in a Teacup, Pakistan’s first ever indie music festival organised by Jamal Rahman. The festival extracted the band out of online obscurity, however, and plunged them onto the lips of a wide-eyed audience that struggled to come to terms with the fact that their impeccable headliners, The Poor Rich Boys, had been outshined by an early-afternoon performance. With a much shorter set, Red Blood Cat was left at the mercy of a ravenous mob, which forced them to reprise their last song as an encore. Their lack of preparation came across as effortless charm.
Since then, there has been a lot of speculation about Red Blood Cat but the band has evaded the rituals of definition: with Shahmeer on vocals, Zain and Daanish on guitars and synths, Parham on bass and the legendary Ibrahim on drums, their sound is a homage to Gentle Giant, but with the weight of King Crimson and the legerity of Herbie Hancock. They boast the dexterity of jazz musicians, but play like rock stars, beating out explosive drum and bass sections and launching ironic guitar duels, where Zain plays solos that sound like well-articulated critiques of guitar solos, and Daanish responds with sarcastic curtseys in the form of Polka music licks.
Never mind that this gig is their chance to professionally court an audience they casually flirted with previously. Also, never mind that this gig is sold-out at Jamal Rahman’s Trew Brew Records, a venue that offers a big sound in an intimate environment (a guitarist could chug the most explosive chord ever, and you could still hear the raw sound of the pick against the strings). The place has introduced and hosted some of the most fantastic and innovative live bands from Lahore’s burgeoning local scene, but the band tonight seems unperturbed by the pressures of vanity. If anything, they are excited by what vanity can achieve through music.
As soon as I ask about the motives behind the conception of the band, it becomes obvious that its members have never allocated any serious thought to such obvious questions. They seem annoyed that I should pressure them into a contrivance that their music so effortlessly rebels against.
And the need to entertain each other becomes an increasingly obvious driving force, as moments before going on stage, only Zain is worried about remembering the lyrics — perhaps, the least complicated aspect of the only cover they plan to perform: Peel the Paint by Gentle Giant.
The rest are busy, curating what can best be described as an orgy of silly jokes. They present themselves as different characters, they excitedly talk over each other, flaunt every accent in a bag of stereotypes, launch spontaneous competitions in which each member tries to distort innocent words into hilarious perversions. They are wildly curious, stabbing stones till they bleed. Even Zain fails to resist and discards the task in front of him to join the others.
The gig starts, and there are rootsy, blue moments, and futuristic, electronic elation too. The compositions, though sometimes odd and quirky to the point of paradoxical predictability, are infectiously exhilarating, operating on an emotional logic that challenges the linear thought process of conventional song writing. Red Blood Cat has managed to become a progressive rock band that refuses to be subtle, whilst remaining graceful.
I am also curious about “the sensibility of the audience”. I see familiar faces from the old metal days of the city, and I see members of today’s metal/rock bands, Tukatuk and Keeray Mokaray, head banging away in the audience.
If my memory serves me well, the cultural choices allocated to a teenager in those times were limited to your favourite metal band and somebody else’s favourite metal band. Nu-metal was looked down upon for being the import of emotional American nationals who missed their high schools. If you wanted to be slightly cerebral, then you had to listen to bands like Tool and Dream Theatre. Everything else was effeminate, and hence, lame.
There was a need to assert masculinity through the rhythmic angst of metal music. Now, I can’t help but see a calm merger of diverse musical tastes in the audience. Not only does the older generation seem to have matured, the younger generation seems to take itself less seriously. Female members of the audience seem far more welcomed, and bands seem less competitive and a lot more supportive of each other.
So, if our choice in music reflects our emotional range as human beings, then what does the uproarious applause for Red Blood Cat say about the sensibilities of the class and generation I come from? Are the newer generations opening themselves to emotional and aesthetic possibilities that the music culture had denied us in its primordial stages? Have we found new ways of expressing the boredom of our limited social experience?
After the gig, I take my questions to Jamal. He has worked as a musician, as an entrepreneur, a producer and an organiser for a long time now, and I am curious to hear how he interprets the changes he has seen in this fragile industry of ours.
He is of the opinion that unlike the old days, people no longer show up to a gig with a common, predefined purpose. According to him, “When a group of people like the same thing, for their own separate reasons, that is culture.” Perhaps, the self-absorption of decades before is giving way to something a bit more intimate. For what it’s worth, we have found new ways of entertaining each other.