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“America owed me nothing, gave me everything”

Published Dec 12, 2012 11:59am

Zeeshan Zaidi performs with his band "The Commuters". – Photo courtesy Sadef Kully
Zeeshan Zaidi performs with his band "The Commuters". – Photos and video by Dhruv Kumar

If there is one thing that cannot be doubted about Zeeshan Zaidi, lead singer for New York-based indie rock band “The Commuters,” it is his ambition.

Stereotypically, Zaidi is not so much the typical rock star – there is no story of a long struggle with drugs, rock and roll, or even a notorious reputation with women. He lives on the opposite end of the spectrum, and quite happily.

“One day I will die – that is a fact. When the time comes for me to die, I don’t want to look back and say why did you not do this? Why didn’t you even try?” explains Zaidi. “I went college then law school then business school.  I know it isn’t the typical rock musician path but it was always my dream. I always felt like I had to do this before I died.”

Zaidi, of Pakistani origins, comes from an international background; was born in Canada, raised in Manila, and educated in the US while exhibiting extraordinary signs of the ordinary teenage boy fantasy of becoming a rock star.

“My parents recognised early on that I had so much motivation and ambition that they didn’t need to give me that,” says Zaidi who grew up as the eldest of four siblings with an engineer father and stay-at-home mom. “I play the trombone, saxophone, guitar, drums, and a bit of the piano. I learned the trombone as part of the school band and the rest was self-taught. I always had done musical stuff but never worked on anything.”

And he was not kidding around about the motivation and ambition part; Zaidi graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, then graduated cum laude from law school, and then graduated top 10 per cent of his class from business school – all from Harvard University.

“I was just a kid that worked hard and proved himself. So I got into the best schools this country has – I was accepted. There was no obligation to take in anyone. I got all these opportunities both professionally, and academically, just because of what I was capable of doing,” says Zaidi.

“I spent a lot of time in the academic world. I spent a lot of time since then working with contacts in professions where you have to be street smart and people smart, even if you don’t know how to be a shark – you have to know how to deal with sharks – I think that is essentially what street smarts boils down to,” explains Zaidi, who describes himself as someone who is driven, purposeful, goal-oriented, and also trying to have fun along the way.

Zaidi was, and in no particular order, a vice president for two different music labels, a senior marketing director, chief operating officer for two different companies including Limewire, the free file sharing program which shut down in 2010.

“Along the way, I had all these authorities that came from different backgrounds from Jewish to Hindu and they knew who was and what I was. That I was Muslim and that I was a religious Muslim and nothing was ever an issue,” Zaidi tells Dawn.com.

“I got all these chances just because people saw I was competent. That is so much of what America is about. And there is no society that is perfect – especially post 9/11 – there is this whole dynamic of blaming Muslims. There is ignorance, there is targeting, and I could spend ages talking about that. But at the same time, this is still a society where anyone could do anything.”

In 2011, Zaidi joined the Council of Foreign Relations, and most recently co-founded Host Committee, a company that brings social media and real-world social life together in a world where everyone request friends – not make friends.

“I have always been a huge, politics, policy, and international relations junkie. This is a think tank and yeah it’s a power club but they let me in. Not because I am the son of this person or that person but based on knowing exactly who I am,” says Zaidi. “Whenever you think of Pakistanis and Americans there is always a disconnect and it’s mostly on a political level. What gives me hope is that if you take away the politics and the news that cloud the way Americans see Pakistanis and how Pakistanis see Americans, then people will connect with one another – generally once that happens people get along with each other.”

“There is that side to America: an America that embraces everyone. This a society where people like me, a Pakistani American Muslim, can accomplish a lot. To me America is the country that owed me nothing and gave me everything.”

And yet even after accomplishing many of his goals, there still was that driven teenage boy that wanted to turn his rock and roll fantasy into a reality. And so he did.

“I spend a lot of time working towards goals and objectives whether it’s the companies I am working on or music but at the same time I like to have fun and not take things or life too seriously. You can’t take yourself too seriously and I have a lot of respect for people who don’t.  I like people who can be focused, dedicated, and motivated when they need to be but also know how to have fun.”

Zaidi came up with the idea to put music to the songs he had been writing, so he connected with his childhood friend from Manila, Uri Djemal, who owned a music production company in New York, and is also the guitarist for the Commuters.

“I got in touch with Uri and said let’s do this,” said Zaidi. “We started working together and it went great. For me it was liberating to work with someone who could handle a bunch of stuff. I could just play and he would handle the rest. Frankly, he is better at it then I am because he is a trained engineer. And it was good to know someone my whole life that I had an incredible comfort level with.”

Influenced by musical all-stars; U2, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. Zaidi had been writing songs for as long as he can remember and each song came from different sources of inspiration.

“[Culture] shapes who I am – it sort of shapes who I am and how I see things. I don’t know if it directly affects the songs that I write – it might but if it does then it does indirectly. What I write about tends to be about how I connect with things,” said Zaidi. “There is no one way a song will come to me; sometimes it will start with a melody, or sometimes I will have a thought, an inspiration, or an idea that would be cool as a song. And sometimes I have woken up and the music and song is there in its entirety. I am definitely inspired by people, events, relationships, and moments.”

The Commuters first album “Rescue” was released in April and included songs like “Bombs Away,” “Fallen from Grace,” and “As I Make My Way.”

““Bombs Away” was about the first gulf war – the first televised war. People were glued to their televisions. It wasn’t really a protest song. I wouldn’t call it political as much as looking at world events,” explained Zaidi. ““Fallen from Grace” is interesting. [Many] people really liked that song which I didn’t expect. It was one of the last songs I wrote. It’s not about me or one person – it’s about several people I know. They had bad experiences when they were young kids which led them to act, behave, indulge in certain things later – almost to cope. And for me it was like looking at them and asking; if what they are doing is a reaction to the situation they had no control over, is it really their fault? Was it a choice or was it fate that they ended up that way?”

Zaidi had the songs and had brought a band together; with Uri Djemal on the guitar, Ben Zwerin on bass, and Paul Amorese on the drums. Although there is a completed album but the Commuters never signed to a record label even with all the strong connections each band member had made along the way in their professional musical careers. Instead Zaidi decided to create his own label, Communal Records.

“When I started with The Commuters I said I was going to do this at my own pace. And I don’t want to sign with a label or a manager, yet; I will be the manager, I’ll be the booker, I’ll be the lawyer, and the label. So that I don’t make a commitment to someone that I don’t think I can keep,” explained Zaidi. “When you commit to a label you are basically saying you will do everything to become bigger and the same goes with a manager. And I didn’t want to do that.”

“I made a conscious decision to not give up everything to just do that. It’s my passion – in some ways I feel like I was put on this planet to do this but I have so much going on that I also love and don’t want to give up. I have this other career that I built up and I wasn’t going to give that up because I love it too much. Being a part of the media and technology world gets me so excited.”

The Commuters are planning an east coast tour in the US but future plans include a cross country tour in the US and eventually a world-wide tour with a growing fan-base in Pakistan and the UK.

“The Commuters just started. It’s only been a few months since out album came out.  A lot of these songs I started writing ten years ago. This isn’t anywhere near the best of what I can do. So this is just the first album. I want to take this as far as we can on our own.”

The author is a former Dawn.com staff member, now based in New York.