Photos: Asfand Beyg
Photos: Asfand Beyg

Reflecting on his childhood, Talal Qureshi recalls his introduction to music production amidst the liveliness of his typically Pakistani household. The youngest of six siblings, he was just 11 at the time, and it began with experimenting with a PlayStation.

“It was a lot more practical for me, since I didn’t have any instruments. The software had these one-shot samples and, since I wasn’t familiar with looping, I would simply paste them in one-by-one to create a track. I didn’t have any vocalists to work with either, so I used to rely on sampling lots of vocals and melodies. In that sense it felt a lot like putting together a painting.”

Few could have imagined then that his ‘paintings’ would find their way to global audiences splashed across the billboards of Times Square, or keep pace with a roaring crowd at Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium.

Between the release of his first viral single, the socially conscious Jawab De (featuring Faris Shafi) in 2015 and his recent work behind the boards on Natasha Noorani’s Ronaq, Talal’s trajectory has been nothing short of captivating. It has befittingly earned him the mantle of one of the Pakistan music industry’s foremost producers.

It took music producer Talal Qureshi more than a decade to release his debut album. But now, with a host of projects due to release later this year, it’s evident that his sights are set firmly on the skies

In a conversation with Icon, Talal opens up about his background, his influences and the culmination of his industry experience with the release of his long-awaited debut album Turbo.

Early life

Q: How did your relationship with your siblings, especially your brother Yasir, affect your interest in music?

“My whole family has been extremely supportive of me pursuing music. When we were kids, my parents bought us a small Casio keyboard as a toy. Yasir eventually upgraded to a bigger Yamaha. While I was making music on the PlayStation, he was playing the keyboard. He didn’t know anything about keys or chords at the time.

I remember once he came home with a guitar he’d borrowed from one of his friends and started pointing out the chords to me: ‘Yeh C hoti hai, yeh D hoti hai...’, aur woh sab ghalat thien’ [This is C, this is D..., and all of them were wrong]. He pushed me to keep making music, especially in the initial stages, when my parents wanted me to go down a more traditional route. I would definitely say he’s my number one supporter.”

Q: What inspired you to delve into electronic and experimental music?

“I don’t think it was anything specific. I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music while growing up, because of my siblings — electronic, house, experimental, Pakistani — so I would usually end up listening to whatever they were listening to: George Michael, Michael Jackson, Abrarul Haq, Jawad Ahmad. I would sit there, as if I was Faraaz Anwar, holding a cricket bat and pretending to play the guitar. Those moments really stuck by me when I decided that I wanted to go into music.”

I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music while growing up, because of my siblings — electronic, house, experimental, Pakistani — so I would usually end up listening to whatever they were listening. I would sit there, as if I was Faraaz Anwar, holding a cricket bat and pretending to play the guitar. Those moments really stuck by me when I decided that I wanted to go into music.”

Wider audiences became acquainted with Talal following the release of Aag in 2018, a bold fusion of experimental hip-hop and Punjabi folk music, fronted by Naseebo Lal. Lal’s unique voice texture and rapping style, elevated by the kind of bombastic lyrics and braggadocio that are characteristic to hip-hop, are testament to her range as well as Talal’s foresight, finding creative ways to bridge together two ostensibly polar worlds.

The track’s inherently defiant nature would lead to its adoption by the nation’s Aurat March movement before making its MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) debut in 2022’s Ms Marvel.

Q: It must be incredible to see Aag have such a profound impact on the culture. How does it feel to see your music resonate on a global scale?

“I’m honestly just grateful to have had these opportunities. I’ve tried my hardest with the best intentions, and it’s taken me to places I never would have expected. It’s surreal to hear your own music out there, and I don’t think there’s enough words to describe the feeling. It’s truly humbling that people are connecting with my sound the way that they are.”

Revival of Pakistani Music

In the years that followed Aag, it became increasingly evident that the industry was in a state of flux. Marking a distinct departure from the pop and rock sound that had dominated the early 2010s, a burgeoning generation of artists began using rap and electronic music to bring a fresh perspective to scores of younger audiences.

And who better to provide the soundtrack to their thrills, their melancholy, their angst and their anxieties but none other than Talal himself. Bolstered by TQ’s signature beats, a wave of singles would find their way to cult status in only a matter of time.

Photo: Subhan Noor @VaderSnaps
Photo: Subhan Noor @VaderSnaps

Q: The industry has seen a distinct revival over the last few years. In what way do you think you’ve contributed to that resurgence of interest?

“I think things really changed for me back in 2020, when Covid-19 hit. I was on the verge of quitting music. I knew that if I wanted to continue with music I would have to come out with something that would really raise the bar. It was around then that me and Hasan [Raheem] came out with Paisa, which definitely gave the both of us a boost.

“A handful of upcoming artists — Maanu, Rozeo, Young Stunners — were also coming out with really good music and many of us began working with each other at the time, with the sole focus of growing the industry.

“I’ve never seen that kind of unity from a community before. For all of us, getting those numbers really reassured us that people were listening and that they were interested in what we had to say.”

Turbo

With more than a handful of hits under his belt, a devoted following and a contribution to Coke Studio’s Season 14 that amassed over 22 million views on YouTube, Talal had now firmly established himself as a staple of the contemporary scene.

Humbly acceding to the role thrust upon him, Talal forged ahead but the one glaring omission amongst his achievements was a solo project. This would be soon resolved by the release of Turbo in September of 2023, an Urdu/Punjabi tinged electro-pop synthesis that celebrates artists from both sides of the Wagah border; yet another pronouncement of his pre-eminent unpredictability.

Q: Coming now to the album, I’m sure our readers will be curious to know what took so long. You’ve been producing music for upwards of a decade, why release your debut now?

“I think I was trying to figure out where I stand with my music. I’ve been trying to make an album such as Turbo for six-seven years. I have about 3,500 tracks on my current laptop, and 9,000 on the old one. So, for a while, my practice became about figuring out what my sound is. I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before. I think Turbo is my stamp on what I set out to do with music and I think I’ve achieved it.”

Q: How do you approach the fusion of traditional Pakistani music with contemporary electronic sounds?

“I think my exposure to a lot of different kinds of music growing up really helped with that. I don’t go by any specific code. If it feels good, it feels good. I’m used to experimenting with lots of different sounds and my approach in blending Eastern and Western styles together has always been one where I’ve noticed that things that don’t necessarily belong together work better. It’s always those kinds of combinations that bring something new to the table.”

On the Future

Q: How do you envision the evolution of the Pakistani industry? What would you like to see that you feel is lacking and what role do you see yourself playing in shaping its future?

“Judging by the industry’s current trajectory, I don’t think it’s lacking anything. South Asian music is at a great place right now. I’m just trying my best to do what I can to take the industry to the next level. There’s no reason we can’t take over the international market. My aim is to do that while supporting the artists around me and making music that I love.”

Q: What advice would you give to young artists starting out in their music careers?

“Whatever you’re doing in life, you have to put time into it. It takes a lot of time to gain that experience and be at the place that you want to be at. It’s not going to happen overnight. To sustain a lifestyle where you’re consistent with your work is the actual art.

“The advice I would give is to take your time, do things that you actually like doing and keep making music. Sometimes it’s going to be good, sometimes it’s going to suck. But it’s the music that sucks that becomes your practice.”

The deluxe version of Turbo was released earlier this month with an additional three tracks. Regarding the album’s title, Talal explains its significance as a reference to retro videogame franchise Crash Bandicoot: “It means going full throttle, ke buss ab karna hi hai [that it just has to be done].”

With a host of projects due to release later this year, it’s evident that Talal, flying higher than ever, shows no signs of slowing down.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 25th, 2024

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