Far from the madding crowd, zigzagging street lights and the general hustle bustle of the city, Rohail Hyatt has made a home for himself up in the hills, somewhere. He doesn’t precisely tell me where but it is a place where internet signals are dicey and electricity is infrequent.

It is hardly the home that most people would associate with a hotshot music producer, renowned for his creative vision and his many successes and only having just helmed the second season of a vivacious, youthful platform for pop music.

It is, however, the sort of home I would associate with Rohail.

For as long as I have known him, Rohail has avoided crowds while simultaneously having an innate knack for knowing precisely what would appeal to them. Hidden away in the darkness of a recording studio, he would whisk together different genres and come up with exciting hybrids and, then, watch as the songs would become sensations.

Known as somewhat of a recluse, the celebrated music producer has always shied away from the limelight and let his brand of music do the talking for him. Does he regret not being the centre of attention? And how does it feel to move from the folk-fusion of Coke Studio to the frenetic pop of Velo Sound Station?

I think that it would be fair to say that there have been many times when a song has been the one that everyone has been listening to and, yet, not many have been aware of Rohail having played a major role in its inception.

This has been a constant in his life: from the Vital Signs heydays, when all eyes would inevitably veer towards front-man Junaid Jamshed, to the Coke Studio (CS) era, where Rohail’s genius was applauded but the toast of the season would, of course, be the singer, to the present day, where he is quietly puppeteering the Velo Sound Station (VSS) platform while ensconced away in his home.

Photo Kohi Marri
Photo Kohi Marri

VSS was launched brilliantly by Bilal Maqsood about three odd years ago and, now, under Rohail’s watchful eyes, the second season has explored more exciting territory. Some of the songs have quickly become all-out hits, others have been lauded as ‘experimental’, but the conversation has primarily revolved around the performing artists with barely a nod of acknowledgement directed towards Rohail. I mention this to him. He says he doesn’t mind.

“Beyond the glamour and the hype, my job is that of an enabler,” he says. “It actually makes me very happy when a song gets popular and an artist succeeds because, ultimately, that’s what I’m there for!

“For instance, Atif Aslam or some other artist’s picture needs to be in the spotlight in a show and not mine. For artists to want to work with me and to trust me, they need to believe that I am not in competition with them.”    

The corporate-creative balancing act

The VSS modus operandi, he tells me, is very different from the way he used to curate the music for CS back in the day.

“You could think of me as the cook in CS. I was cooking the handi, adding all the ingredients, letting it simmer and then, serving it and waiting to hear if everyone liked the food. In VSS’ case, I am in charge of the kitchen but the cooking is being done by someone else. The younger producers and teams are a significant part of the creative process. I still want to know if people will like the food, but my involvement in preparing it is relatively limited.”

He elaborates upon this: “VSS’ ethos is one that has encouraged artists to take ownership of their songs. They were provided with blank canvases where they could suggest different songs and, then, the final ones were selected. The songs were reflective of the artist’s vision and all the platform did was highlight it.”

I comment that it all sounds quite hunky-dory although corporate shows don’t usually tend to be that way, with the client wanting the artists to sing to their tune. He agrees with me.

“You have to understand the artists’ and the clients’ different perspectives, and come up with a win-win situation.” Rohail, of course, with his years of experience in dealing with the corporate world, has a certain way of mastering this balancing act. “The client can’t dictate the songs sung by the artists because the show’s format is based on the songs created by the artists themselves. You can remind them of this should complaints arise in the corporate boardroom.

“Also, the sponsor will ultimately want to sell a product. The corporate world has something to offer that the creative world could benefit from and vice versa. My role is to be the facilitator, the matchmaker between the two.” He continues: “For instance, artists are contractually bound to post about their songs on social media at the right time and to put up certain captions. Sometimes, they will do so and, at other times, they won’t, and the client will come to me, complaining.

Photo Mobeen Ansari
Photo Mobeen Ansari

“Now, I could start off long arguments with the artists or I could simply make sure that my show becomes so covetable that anyone involved in it is eager to post about it on social media. That’s how it was in the case of CS. Artists would tell me that they didn’t want to be paid for performing, they just wanted to have the CS stamp upon them.

“It’s such a simple solution to an argument that could just go on and on,” he smiles.

‘Pop’-ular

I comment that while VSS may be the raison d’etre that led to this particular interview, the references to CS are only inevitable. Did he ever worry that his new stint with VSS will be compared to the many milestones that he has set with CS?

“No, because in my mind, the CS of my time and VSS are completely different. The former was like a live cricket match where a live recording inside a studio was filmed and it was essential to capture a certain expression, in a single take. The latter is like a drama, shot and cut into videos that reflect the song’s energy.”

There is also the fact that while CS’ footprint has mostly been entrenched in the folk-fusion domain, VSS has set its eyes entirely on pop. “My roots are in pop too,” Rohail refers to his Vital Signs’ days, “but what is pop, really? It’s whatever is ‘pop’-ular, it could be a sound, an artist or subject matter that people liked so much that it became mainstream. Perhaps a song about aliens landing on Earth won’t be ‘pop’ but songs about love and heartbreak always will be.”

His career history is marked by countless Goliathan achievements — was he afraid that he might undermine the glory of the past by failing in VSS’ new territory?

“The fear of failing is always there,” he confesses. “We’re all swimming in shark-infested waters, but we can’t let our minds be ruled by our fears. It’s very important to rise above it all and to keep your feet on the ground. The higher you perceive yourself to be, the harder you’ll fall.”

It’s a modest approach but, still, doesn’t he sometimes throw his weight around, cashing in on being ‘the’ Rohail Hyatt and making things easier for himself, perhaps while managing warring corporate and artist concerns?

“I could, but I don’t,” he says. “An individual’s relevance can end overnight. Consider this: I was once running CS but now someone else is on board who I recommended, but nevertheless, he’s the one in charge. Who am I now? Just the show’s creator. It’s important to stay focused on realities.”

Speaking of keeping things real, if the online statistics are anything to go by, many of VSS’ releases are hits. But I ask him if they are, really? Corporate-sponsored music platforms — VSS and CS come to mind — now invest heavily in advertising. The songs keep popping up on YouTube as ‘ads’, even when you are watching something entirely different. The number of views inexorably end up multiplying. What is his particular way of deciphering when a song is a hit?

“You know, I really get sick of all this,” he says. “I have always believed in songs gaining popularity organically. However, this is how things work nowadays. Every song will be pushed by sponsors for a certain time span, after which its popularity will grow organically. And over the course of time, you can tell which songs are a hit because there is a ratio between views, comments and likes that can’t be made up.”

I point out to him that there are also bots that can be programmed to post praises in the comments section. “That’s just really unfortunate,” he says.

Vital Signs!

We veer back into a time when music existed without the aid of YouTube advertising, and music cassette sales were the litmus test for an album or a song becoming a hit. Rohail was an integral part of the path-breaking, colossally popular band Vital Signs, although all eyes tended to focus on Junaid Jamshed, the band’s lead singer and Pakistan’s favourite heartthrob. “Every band has a dynamic and Junaid was the star of the band. People loved him. I was very comfortable with that.”

He recalls: “I remember that whenever a concert ended, the crowds would make a beeline for Junaid. After him, they would go to Shahi [Hassan], perhaps because they found him good-looking. And yes, there was a time when I would feel this natural confusion that I wasn’t getting the attention that I deserved for all the work that I was putting in. But I addressed those feelings and realised that there was no point to them.

“I would, however, put my foot down when we were not treated equally by organisers. There was this one time when we were performing in the US and the organiser arranged a large room for Junaid and regular-sized ones for us. I was not comfortable with that disbalance.”

Was that why Vital Signs eventually broke up? “There are always many reasons,” he muses. “I took a stand when we were asked to perform at wedding functions. It just made me very uncomfortable. People would be there at a wedding, waiting to eat and we would be playing on stage simply because we were being paid to do so.

“Excuse my language, but it made me feel like a tart. Ultimately, I decided that I would only perform at events where people were paying to listen to the music. It led to me founding my own production company, Pyramid Productions.”

He adds, “I did stay in touch with Junaid even once the band ended.”

Even when Junaid had a change of heart and turned towards religion? “Yes, even then,” he says. “Junaid may have had completely transitioned later, but he was always very religious. Before the release of every song, every album, every concert, the band would gather and Junaid would lead the collective du’a [prayer]. He would start with an Arabic recitation and then turn to Urdu. It was only natural — prayers lead to blessings.”

He laughs. “We were once going to perform at a concert in Dubai and we decided to do du’a in the car that had been sent to pick us up. The driver was completely taken aback. On the way back from the venue, he told us that he was very impressed by us. It didn’t matter whether we were religious in our personal lives. In his eyes, we were suddenly transformed from ‘bad’ to ‘good’.”

I comment that I find it hard to imagine him now living in a remote locale, having lived a life where he has always been at the centre of things, travelling the world, surrounded by excited crowds. “Even back in the Vital Signs’ days, I could dream of living like this,” Rohail tells me. “I grew to be very comfortable in Karachi but nature has always attracted me. Living far away from the noise and clamour can actually facilitate the creative process — you can hear yourself think. Also, when you live in isolation, you realise that, while you always blamed the city for being noisy, there is also an inner turmoil that can restrict you.”

Doesn’t he need to be living in a more central location, especially while helming a show rooted in popular music preferences? “One of the main prerequisites that I laid out when coming on board VSS was that I would be working remotely throughout,” he says. “I didn’t have to leave my home at all. Actually, Covid-19 has really helped us in becoming more comfortable with working from a distance. It is no longer absolutely necessary to fly out for a meeting.

“Also, there is a universal truth to music. Fads and fashions may change the surface but the ground realities remain the same. A good song needs to communicate something that connects with the listener. There are, of course, changing preferences. Songs are shorter now — anything beyond three minutes generally tends to be too long. Music is a quick mood elevator and people want a quick-fix dose through it. Lengthen the song and they will get bored very, very quickly. I don’t need to be living in any one particular place in order to know all this.”

Finally, I address the elephant in the room: how does he feel about working in collaboration with a product containing nicotine? Of course, earlier he has worked extensively with a product loaded with sugar — a choice that diabetics may have an issue with. Rohail ponders, “Every sponsorship comes with its pros and cons and everyone makes choices based on their own moral compass. I am in the business of making music and supporting the music industry. Marketing is not my domain.”

The business of making music is, though. VSS is only the latest chapter in Rohail Hyatt’s stellar line-up of hits.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 9th, 2023

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