They were the rebellious voice of a generation that didn’t conform to rules set by the establishment. Junoon’s almost stubborn-like bearing was often the reason for its clashes with an archaic system that landed the Pakistani Sufi rock band on the wrong side of notoriety during its heyday.
Led by founder, guitarist and songwriter Salman Ahmad, vocalist Ali Azmat and American bassist Brian O’Connell, Junoon’s meteoric rise in the 90s saw a new sound experimented for mass consumption — blending Eastern folk instruments with classic rock percussions.
Yet, even as their fame and fortune grew with each album, so did stories of in-fighting and strife between the band members before its final split in 2005. Now, 13 years later, the band is burning up the comeback trail with its third concert in Dubai in the span of a year.
Ahead of the November 29 ‘Junoon Reloaded’ concert at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, organised by Oberoi Middle East Events, Gulf News tabloid! chats with Ali Azmat and Salman Ahmad about comebacks, courting controversies and more.
Has the Junoon comeback been everything you hoped for?
Ali Azmat: It’s much better than we hoped for; greater than anticipated. At the last concert in Dubai, the audience was crying, which made me cry. So much love [has been] exhibited by the fans. You can’t help but be taken over by it.
Salman Ahmad: We’ve discovered a whole new audience for Junoon over the last 12 months. From Pakistan to UAE, from the UK to USA, from Canada to Bangladesh, the WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube generation has joined the Junoon journey.
Was it easy to slip back into an easy rhythm with each other?
Azmat: It’s not like we stopped playing music. We have been looking at different outlets. I have been doing my solo thing. We weren’t under-confident. We’ve been in touch with each other for the last 13 years and Brian has also played in my solo outfit for a few shows in America. We’ve been around for 31 years and it’s always a pleasure to get back together with the old crew.
Ahmad: The creative tension is a mystical chemistry between all of us. We use it to add colour onstage. Each Junoon show is different because of the improvisational nature of our performance and the set list keeps changing depending on our mood and the audience and city we’re playing in.
So, who made the first move to get Junoon back together?
Azmat: The talks have been happening for a few years now. But I wasn’t really ready for it. Some reasons, but mostly our history and how things were when we broke up; mostly managerial issues. We were all about music and to music we return. The idea was to do it right. The timing had to be right. The money had to be right. Everything had to come to play, otherwise reunions are overrated.
There were other issues we needed to manage before we decided to do it again. We clarified all that and we are finally here. It was making up our mind about how things would be from now on and we are together, sounding tighter.
Ahmad: I think we all needed 15 years away from each other to discover our own individual potentials. I moved to New York, taught music at Queens college and jammed with great artists like Bono [U2 frontman], Peter Gabriel and Melissa Etheridge.
Simon & Schuster asked me to write an autobiography [‘Rock & Roll Jihad’] and my wife Dr Samina and I helped to build model villages in Pakistan for people who had lost their homes in the 2010 floods. I also composed the theme song to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s election campaign, Naya Pakistan, which featured my friend and legend Junaid Jamshed. It was the last song we recorded before he died in 2016.
Junoon’s underlying message was about breaking free from the establishment and embracing your own individuality, which even led to the ban on your music. Is that message relevant even today?
Azmat: It is even more relevant now. The world has spun out of control. There’s turmoil all across. The message resonates more so now. Look at what’s going on in Kashmir, in Venezuela — people are eating zoo animals. The world might collapse on itself. The idea is to see the world as a just place. The people who run it must think about the people who live in it and not just make money from people’s misery.
Ahmad: I’ve always wanted to help change society for the better. Social justice and peace are the key driving forces in all the work that I’ve done in music, film and social advocacy. That also informs Junoon’s music. ‘Ehtesaab’ is a song that I will always be proud of because it spoke truth to power. I wouldn’t change anything.
Azmat: The idea was to hold a mirror to yourself to see the lack of empathy in us. The last 15 years, Pakistan has been through turmoil. We’ve had bomb blasts, but we came through. We are stronger for it. In doing so, you resurrect the world around you. It gives you strength to take it head-on. The world is never going to change so you have to change yourself to live in it.
And music has an important role to play in this awakening?
Azmat: It always has. Only its effect has been killed by overly-produced music and bands. People produced original music earlier, not the kind created now by some producer or a record label. Now, it’s the corporate culture pushing the message, almost like musical clerks sitting at a desk, making five songs a day for an artist. Most songs and productions sound the same. There’s no different sound that you hear.
Money and mechanics have destroyed music over the last 15-20 years. Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band or Red Hot Chili Peppers, their individualistic sound, what they thrived on, has disappeared. Now all bands sound the same. And that’s a worrying sign. Music is not about having everything in tune. You must fine-tune it, but not so much that it becomes clinically boring. To err is human. When you put music through a machine to make it perfect, it loses its humanity.
Isn’t music itself undergoing a transition though — an almost call back to the sound from the 80s and 90s?
Ahmad: That which is fashionable appears pretty at first but gets ugly with age. That which is art, appears ugly at first but gets beautiful with age. People will always gravitate toward that which touches their hearts and makes them feel whole again.
Azmat: We detested the 90s as musicians but yes, there’s a lot of 80s and 90s sound in music today. A lot of synthesizers, with rock, acoustic pop, and a lot more genres. But at the end of the day, all you hear is the same. Musicians of the world are still trying to find a new sound. But it all lies with the record label, guys who want to sell the product. They know what sells so they make it all sound the same.
Aren’t platforms such as Coke Studio allowing individual sounds to flourish?
Ahmad: I think music programmes should provide a platform for true creativity. Original music is the key to the future, [and] not just covers of hit songs. Also, the artists who have given their lives to their music need to be adequately reimbursed by billion-dollar corporations.
Azmat: Corporations are hijacking the system. It’s all a part of a bigger control machine. Musicians are now finding other avenues to make money than just rely on bloody record labels.
Surely with credibility that a name such as Junoon commands, the change can come from within?
Azmat: [You] talk about that and get thrown off the platform. That’s how it works. Maybe when I get to the stage of Roger Waters then I can take the establishment head on …
The last time we spoke [nearly a year ago], Junoon was very open to creating new music. How far has this conversation reached?
Ahmad: Over the last 12 months Junoon has been working on new material which reflects who we are today. Over the next few months, we’ll be recording new songs ... let’s see what happens after that.
Azmat: We obviously change as people. Writing styles have changed. The things we want to say have changed. The other individual is sitting in New York and writing songs and is not in touch with the person sitting in Lahore [who is] facing load shedding, bomb blasts and air pollution.
We live in different worlds and singing songs of hope is easy when you are sitting in your comfortable New York house. I see life very differently. We can’t do this over the phone. Salman has sent me some music over the phone, but how much of that is music really? We need to sit down and have a musical conversation and we haven’t had the time. There are ideas exchanged and something will come of it in due time.
Did you know?
Salman Ahmad, who considers the U2 frontman a dear friend, has confirmed that he is working on bringing the band down to Pakistan. “Yes, Bono and I have been discussing U2 coming to Pakistan. That’s all I can share for now.”
Don’t miss it!
Junoon Reloaded, organised by Oberoi Middle East Events, will take place on November 29 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium. Tickets start at Dh131.25 and are available on dubai.platinumlist.net