I interviewed Shahjehan Khan, Karna Ray, Hassan “Sunny” Malik, and Basim Usmani of the Kominas, when they played at Hindie Rock Fest 2016, a two-day festival of South Asian “rock, roll, and postcolonial soul” at the Cambridge YMCA. The Kominas have been experimenting with punk, psychedelic rock, and South Asian folk and pop music since 2005, and talked to me about their recent tours, new videos, and unabashed love of Korn.
Lydia: In the last, year what have you been up to? You went on tour, right?
Sunny: We went on a tour, about a month, 25 cities across the USA, Rock Therapy Tour, we played in some cities that we hadn’t played in before. It was our first extensive tour, doing that many shows in a row. We drove 10,000 miles, pretty much in the last year.
Shahjehan: We did Canada also, this summer, before. We’ve been gigging pretty regularly.
Karna: We put out an album, which we’re really happy about. It’s called Stereotype. A lot of the tour was built around bringing that out to people who hadn’t seen us before.
Who are you listening to right now?
S: On the ride here, we were listening to Angel Olsen…
K: Tuareg guitar stuff like Bombino. What we we listening to on tour?
Sh: Tour was basically nineties music, Bush, Linkin Park.
Sh: Listening to a lot of Incubus.
Karna: Linkin Park dude?
Sh: For some reason I woke up and the “One Step Closer” song was stuck in my head, so I put it on.
K: Lots of different stuff. We have a kind of epicenter where we all meet in our musical tastes, but we all have pretty distinctive tastes outside of that too.
S: I keep coming back to the West African Zamrock stuff, this band called Death, who I think are all dead now, Witch.
Sh: I finally listened to that new Solange album, A Seat at the Table. I’ve been listening also to our friends’ Heems and Riz new album called Cashmere.
Karna: I always dip back into kind of weirdo, loner-y composure-type musicians, and then try to filter that back into punk rock theory. [All laugh]
Sh: For Basim [hasn’t arrived yet], Bauhaus, Joy Division, Prince, Michael Jackson.
Sunny: What’s the band with the Poison song?
K: Angel Dust. And a fair amount of Korn that we listen to consistently. But only of late, because after all the years that we wrestled with having bad taste in music, even though you love the thing, right? Enough time has passed where you can listen to Korn with fresh ears again, and be like “Wow, they’re on to something. That band is fucking great!” I dunno what was going on in Bakersfield, it’s so weird, this brand of American coolness was just built out of bored suburban kids in California, and now all across the world you have these kids that wanna replicated this nineties skater, listening to Fred Durst just rip it up on the radio. And you see kids in Pakistan, kids in India, still stuck on this. It’s awesome. It’s kinda cool though. American suburban boredom is a musical and cultural force that’s made its way around the world.
S: Just use that part.
L: That’ll be the title, actually.
How was your experience in Hindiefest last year? What are your thoughts on the festival and where do you think it’s going in the future?
Sh: So this is the third year, and Subdrift the organization that puts it on, the people who put the festival on we consider friends. We played shows with some of the bands. And they’re super hardworking. It’s the kind of event that we’d like to play more than your average gig in a bar. It’s something that brings members of the community. My parents are gonna come tonight. Since we’re maybe one of the older bands, it feels like we’re the uncles. It’s the kind of thing that I would have wanted to see as a kid. At least for me, seriously pursuing music wasn’t really encouraged in my family.
K: We’re a dinosaur rock band!
Sh: We’re a dinosaur rock band. I think they’re trying to make it a bigger thing and bring it to different cities.
K: When we first got started, there was no such thing as a Desi rock scene at all, we’d kind of collect shows around. And the punk scene is generally white angry kids, right? So you just tour from city to city to city and get generally the same demographic of angry drunk white kids. And a lot of these bands have been around for a while, us included, we played with Omar Pitras Waqar, and a bunch of other cool bands. He’s Evil Art Form on the bill here. All these bands exist, all these bands are from different parts of the country, and it’s cool that there’s one two-day event where they can all play together. You wanna support DIY festivals like this as much as you can.
Can you talk about any solo projects or other collaborations you’re working on? Does it feed into your work with the Kominas or is it pretty separate?
S: I’ve been in several different projects before Kominas. Actually I met you guys when I was playing in another band with this guy Abudullah—Sunny Ali and the Kid. It was a country-psyche-rock thing. We were opening shows for Kominas, then some of their members quit, we drove them out, then we joined the band.
B: So Dead Kennedys is our side project. [all laugh] Can we have a Dead Kominas tshirt? But it was great fun when we joined forces. It was a moment in time when we weren’t sure what was going on. Also, two years ago, right before we recorded the fourth album, that was also joining forces again with Shahjehan and Karna.
Sh: The power of music just brought us together.
Karna: The band is like Captain Planet—the people change, but the rings stay the same.
L: That’s a really good metaphor.
Sh: Sunny just dropped a really cool video.
S: I do some electronic stuff on the side. Just a lot of bedroom recordings. This person I was living with at the time started this animation of me in my bedroom getting dressed for a song that I probably wouldn’t even have put out. I have a bunch of stuff, so it’s nice when your friends encourage you to release stuff. They finished this really cute animation. [https://www.thefader.com/2016/10/13/sunny-ali-kominas-ride-or-die-video]
K: I play drums in a bunch of different stuff. I’m in another band that’s kind of a post-punky goth thing in Brooklyn called Ghost Stations. I play cello for people when I want to. I’m also trying to write my own stuff and do some real bedroom recording.
B: I’ve got a project called Dead Butthos that is gonna put out three songs sometime. And I’ve got a thing called Islamic Burial at Sea, a gothic project, with a song coming out in October.
Sh: Oh congrats on the NBC thing.
Basim: Thanks! [http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/dead-bhuttos-bringing-punk-rock-pakistan-n663986]
Sh: I just checked out this virtual reality music video my friend Hot Sugar made. I got to check out this VR music video where you’re in the music video and you have to throw objects into this hurricane to unlock different songs. You have the goggles and the headset, and you’re just walking around the room, with two triggers in your hand.
B: I got that in Lahore. In a café, you put down 2,000 rupees and they have the whole setup.
K: And you drink virtual coffee!
B: And it’s scary as hell. There was one underwater one where you’re at the bottom of the sea and you just see all the different sea creatures. There’s this moment with this big whale…Looking around in another world, you really feel like you’re there.
Sh: I’m also an actor. I’ve been sober for six years and I’m in a group called Improbable Players—we do plays about addiction and recovery at schools.
In looking over the trajectory of your work I thought it was interesting that you have written songs both in Urdu, Punjab, and Hindi and also in English. Do you think that limits your music to different separate audiences or expands the appeal? People who can understand the lyrics vs. people who can’t but can still appreciate the musical element.
B: To be truthful, when we were growing up and listening to music in our parents cars—like qawali, or whatever, there’s lots of forms of music from South Asia—we didn’t necessarily understand every word. I’m not sure if my parents even in some cases understood. It’s music, so I don’t feel like you need to understand it. So many of my friends are listening to bands from other countries, especially for punk and electronic music, it doesn’t really matter if you can understand the vocal part. You can kind of get it from maybe the title of the video. There’s a lot of stuff to go by. You don’t just need to know the words. But it does feel a little bit odd to be singing a Punjabi song to a mostly white audience, but we have done it before.
K: Or inadvertently singing a song about white power. [All laugh]
L: …has that happened?
K: No, I was just thinking about Basim’s article in NBC. It said something along the lines of the lyrical content kind of matters secondarily to the feeling of it. Like hardcore bullshit.
B: You listen to music that’s a little bit more obscure or harder to get to, and you don’t care about the lyrics, sometimes you do like a band and then you read up on them and “Oh, whoa, I had no idea you were like that! I don’t like that anymore.” I can be writing in my language and I might want to distance myself from them after really liking their stuff in the beginning.
Over the last few years, you’ve been making more music videos. Could you talk about the process of deciding what song you decide to make into a video? Whether it’s more nonsensical, like “Banana,” or more plot-driven like “See Something, Say Something.” “See Something” has qualities of the sinister, suspect, and frightening, but also a humorous aspect from the animation and carefree music.
K: I feel like even in “See Something, Say Something,” there’s a giant squid monster. Even if it is narratively driven, we didn’t want it to be so rote and didactic that you think “yeah, suspicion is bad, Muslims really need a hand up in this country.” I think that most of our visual sense and our look on the world is kind of comedic in a way. When there are a lot of issues in the world, obviously, and having a lighthearted view of everything. “See Something, Say Something” came together because…
B: We were all sitting down and talking. About a year ago we started working on it. It did feel like people were really paranoid. Is it because I’m paranoid that people are paranoid, or are they really paranoid?
K: The lead lyric is stolen from the NYC subway system. That level of paranoia for me amounts to just seeing it written on a train and not thinking twice about it.
B: You see and hear it on the MBTA here as well. It’s weird because there’s so much fucked up stuff that happens because people report on it. I think that was a part of it.
K: Or even being suspicious of your neighbors is a just a bland idiom now. Nobody thinks twice about “See Something, Say Something” written on a subway.
B: The monster is a really good metaphor for how people’s ugliness comes from inside them. There’s a saying: “Thieves are just going to see thieves everywhere.” It’s a Pakastani idiom but I’m sure it works in English, you’ve heard a version of that. It’s just how people are. The negativity in them is what’s coming out and hypocritically being aimed at other people.
S: In that one we had Hugo Massa and Tim Ballard. They both directed and shot it. They played a huge role. We also had a very limited amount of time and things happened on the spot.
Sh: The budget too. None of our videos had a large budget. And this is because we have very nice friends. We’re not making huge productions.
S: “Banana” and “Four White Guys,” our friend Eddy Austin from Philly helped. He loves shooting on VHS, we like that style, it works with certain silly songs like that.
B: We love to make videos. So many years went by and we never even did it. And now, in the past few years, we’ve put out maybe four.
L: I really liked the juxtaposition of that video in particular, the sinister and the suspect, with the animation.
K: That’s Tim Ballard, he’s awesome. Arty Mallet, the white guy in that, he’s not as bad as he is in that video.
Sunny: It’s his first time acting. So charismatic.
K: He’s got the eyes!
Sh: He’s got the hair too.
How (if at all) do you feel like the punk scene (or indie or DIY scene, if you consider yourself a part of those scenes) has changed over the time you’ve been a part of it? What would you like to see change, or to change yourselves?
Sh: We’re interested in playing with other musicians of color. That’s our primary focus of who we try to play with. I don’t know if it’s getting better. Or if those scenes are existing on their own.
S: We’re not part of any scene—we’re slowly creating a scene or our own. In the last year or so, the majority of our audience is brown or people of color. That’s felt really good. It doesn’t necessarily mean we share the same politics. Maybe that’s the next step, where to lead this thing. I wouldn’t say that we’re really tied into any scene or circuit. This whole tour we just did on our own and created these spaces. Luckily the acts we played with were a lot of great acts. So I was happy about that. Yeah, we’re making these spaces on our own. The tour was Rock Therapy. We’d play Boulder, Colorado, so it was primarily white folks. There would be like four or five brown kids that lived there and had never met each other. So they’d come to the show and think “oh, I thought I was the only brown kid here,” so they would make these connections at our shows.
B: It seems like a perpetual thing for me, since the first album: it always seems like our following is our following, it belongs to us, and I feel kind of possessive towards that. Versus a lot of other bands I’ve seen where their fan base leaves them or they get disinterested or where their fanbase was generally into the thing, and that’s cool too. I’m one of those fans for a lot of types of music.
K: In the Brooklyn music scene, there are venues that definitely understand why promoters will want to keep it PoC only, if not heavily, billed. They’re more and more ready to have them on. Places like the Silent Barn. They’re getting better and better about a lot of that stuff. And a lot of them are unfortunately getting shut down within four or five months of opening. Market Hotel recently closed down. So bands were billed to play there but had to find another place.
S: Also labels and blogs are signing more PoC acts. They’re writing about them more and more. But the label or blog is still run by someone white.
B: It’s changed but it’s still the same. People are like “you played here before,” and I’m like “really?” and they say “yeah, it used to be called something else.” “Oh crap, that was just two years ago.” It’s the same thing.
K: One criticism that shows slow progress is that the visuals have changed. Visible members of organizations, I’m thinking specifically the news media, they’re trying to get more PoC people, not white people, on their staff. They’ll be very prominently displayed on the website, but their work is siphoned over to the “Identity” section. Or if you look at the organizational or management structure of the company, you’ll see that the board itself is still all white, the managerial staff is still all white. And in the editorial process, a lot of the effort that’s made toward readjusting things towards how reality looks is pushed back in the other direction.
L: Yeah, I mean I’m at a university and most of the staff and faculty are white.
The Kominas: You should book us!
Karna: Book us for professorships.
B: The media has been a little bit better at throwing these things a bone. I wrote a piece in the New York Times last month, and I asked to use the term “People of Color” in the article, and they said “sorry, it sounds ridiculous, but ‘People of Color’ is not New York Times style.’” I don’t wanna say “non-white” because I feel like that’s defining me by negation and I don’t wanna say “minority” because that also seems weird. People are catching up to using these words. They’re good at the reporting, they’re at least decent and put effort into this stuff. But for some reason, let’s say in their ‘style guide,’ regarding the words they use, randomly some dingbat says “that’s not part of our official words.” [https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/opinion/sunday/because-punk-still-rocks.html]
Do you feel like the current socio-political atmosphere (pre-election!) in the US has given any different value to your music or affected your work in any way?
B: It’s taken up a lot of space in people’s minds, especially young minorities and immigrants, Black kids, LGBTQ, everybody has been a little bit preoccupied with this. Even for our tour, the Rock Therapy Tour, we didn’t necessarily want to say the guy’s name. We didn’t really want to make it about him, as so much had already been made about him. Even then when we were on the road, I was constantly checking my phone to see the latest thing about the election and being stressed out by what was happening around the world.
K: He has a Voldemort quality to him. You can kind of collectively will him into the background, but he’s there. And you don’t speak the name because you don’t want to accept that it’s the reality that we live in. We definitely feel it. It’s very, very pertinent. The thing is, when you’re dealing with a cartoon villain like that, it kind of makes all of the other bad stuff, like what our government’s supporting in Yemen, and horrible pictures that we see of kids dying in Syria, stuff we hear about less. It’s like the machine that’s headed by someone who’s a lot more photogenic who I like a lot more. Barack Obama is still doing horrible things around the world. I don’t wanna substitute the cartoon bad guy for everything else around him. It’s too easy of a duality, right, where you have visuals of Hillary Clinton which make you assume that she’s gonna be this savior figure for whatever we’re falling into.
B: It’s the horrible white men who support him also. They’re the ones that have been like “If we’re gonna have a woman president, let’s have the most toxic male figure you could have.”
Sh: I think about the safety element on a daily basis. All four of us know—we could probably name five people each—that have been affected personally or have one degree of separation in terms of being the victim of a hate crime. Maybe we’re desensitized to it… My dad is the president of a mosque in Wayland and just yesterday three guys were arrested for trying to blow up one in Kansas. At least they’re finally calling them terrorists.
B: Slowly those things are entering the national conversation, but a little too little, too late. Two years ago when the Summer Olympics were happening, and the Islamic center in Joplin was burned down, and then X, Y, and Z happened. And I thought, “Wait, nobody but my cousins and close friends even know.” And seeing two years of that go by, everything from people being shot at to horrible vandalism to death threats to you name it is happening with frightening frequency, even with the Kansas plot, it’s not in the news enough. But finally at least NBC has written something. But for the longest time, they would be the last to even care. And I think that has led to this crude perception of “this bad thing doesn’t exist because I haven’t heard of it myself.”
K: I hear people say that it’s good that Trump is such a prominent figure in the current election cycle because it’s a cathartic moment for people to separate themselves from what they see as really malignant politics. But that’s really only protective for white people since everybody else has been aware of all this shit by necessity for all this time. Like, for the Obama administration, what’s going on in Yemen, the fact that he deported 2.5 million people out of this country, more than any other president has done. Guantanamo’s still open. Yeah, it might be a cathartic moment for you waking yourself up to the fact that someone might further a lot of the malignant policies that we’ve had around the world, but it honestly wouldn’t be that big of a change from what’s been going on in the current administration, and what’s been American foreign policy for a century.
B: “I can’t believe he proposed a database of all Middle Eastern people.”
L: It’s already there.
B: Yeah, where were you the past ten years, holy crap. Whether we’re talking about gender, race, ethnicity, you name it, there’s a lot of people that are willfully ignorant. I’m starting to doubt whether or not even having it in the news would have changed anything.
Sh: There was that Wall Street Journal piece about the liberal and conservative feeds, it doesn’t even matter anymore, because we exist in different realities. [http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/]
K: VR man…
Sh: We gotta convert to VR. Then we’ll all be in Sunny’s video. That’s the only therapy.
Ok, I’ll just ask one more question, after that really intense one.
K: What are our favorite colors?
Me: Yeah, what are your favorite colors?
K: White? [All laugh]
Sunny: Dark white.
Sh: Boston cream.
And what are your future plans? You’re about to go play in Europe.
K: What do you expect to see in Norway? I wanna know because you’ve never been there before.
Sh: A lot of really beautiful white people. [All laugh]
Sh: We’re doing a few new songs here in Boston. We have that show with Sammus. I hired some college interns with some projects, setting up tours. Trying to make our DIY thing a little bit more manageable. And maybe try to set up a college tour for us next year.
Sunny: By the way, are we flying from Bergen to Oslo?
Sh: We’re taking this gorgeous train.
K: We’re going to Scandanavia to become a black metal band. They’ll be like “we’ve never had any minorities here.”
B: Sunny’s gonna go live in a cabin, I’m gonna become a Baptist. And everyone’s gonna live a happy life!