By Sonya Rehman
Nadeem Farooq Paracha, better known as ‘NFP’ is one of Pakistan’s most controversial yet well-reknown music journalists. From politics, to drugs and music – the brutally honest, humorous and often satirical NFP tells it like it is here in an exclusive interview for WeCite:
Q. As a journalist, what has your journey been like?
A pretty awkward roller-coaster ride. A lot of ups and downs, risings and falls, but recently, in the last couple of years; I feel a lot more grounded …that I am hoping is a good thing.
Q. How would you compare today’s music ‘industry’ with that of the yesteryears?
Today it is much bigger and easily noticeable. But I can’t say if it is any better. Because it still lacks any worthwhile vision, or a method behind its rather maddening acceleration. Are we producing better musicians than we did ten or fifteen years ago? Not really, because if we are to take acts like Nazia & Zoheb, Vital Signs, Junoon or even the Strings as quality bands, then none of the present lot come even close to them in proficiency, quality and thoughtfulness. Of course there are acts that do have the talent and the promise, but I think it’s still too early to conclude that people like Jal, Atif Aslam, Fuzon or Ali Zafar will turn out to be the next Signs or Junoon. Let’s see.
Q. Do you still consider yourself an anarchist? If you answer in the affirmative, don’t you think anarchism is fighting an already losing/lost battle
Funny thing is I’ve never called myself an anarchist! I’ve always been an old-fashioned Socialist ever since I first became politically conscious. And not just that, I have often been called a Communist as well. The truth is, politically, I am a proud and optimistic Socialist with great academic respect for people like Marx and Lenin, or for that matter, Fidel Castro and recently, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. To me Socialism still remains to represent and offer one of the noblest and most humanitarian social and economic ideals. Whether these are to be achieved through democracy or a benevolent dictatorship doesn’t bother me. I’ll settle for both, as long as Socialism is the end result. However, as far as my literary pursuits linked to my writings are concerned, I believe I can be called an anarchist. I’ve always expanded, stretched and liberally played around with conceptual and stylistic boundaries as a writer.
Q. In the 1980s you launched your own, much controversial newsletter (The Arousal) – which took jabs at the political parties of the time. Were there any consequences you had to face as a result?
The newsletter was lovingly called ‘The Arousal’. I started it with a couple of college friends of mine in, I think, 1987. Now that was anarchist, both conceptually and stylistically. It was just a couple of angry kids blasting everything in sight, from religion to capitalism, feudalism, etc.
But we did it with a lot of whacked out humor. A lot of parodying was also involved. To our surprise and horror, ‘The Arousal’ actually managed to bag a pretty healthy cult readership! We also got affiliations to a few infamous European anarchist groups like Britain’s Class War – the group that was behind 1988’s anti-Thatcher Poll Riots in London. We didn’t face any serious trouble from the authorities until early 1990 when we really went after a few influential religious parties and the MQM. That’s when the threatening phone calls and the stalking by shady men started. I presume they were agency people. Maybe we were just paranoid and those men were just common men strolling the road, who knows.
Q. Even though you do have a large fan-following, a few consider your pieces (especially reviews on bands/musicians) particularly harsh. What do you have to say about that?
They’re not harsh. They’re just honest. Maybe a tad too honest. Reviews are not supposed to be so-called objective pieces. They are highly subjective musings of a person who knows a bit or two about the art that is being reviewed. This is what I find lacking in many of today’s young critics. Their reviews are like dull running commentaries in which songs are treated as furniture to be described physically! ‘First song is this and it has a fast tempo, second song is that and it has a slow tempo’, blah, blah, blah.
Don’t they want to share what they thought these songs mean on an emotional, social and even political level? What the artiste means on these levels? I tell you I’ve seen so many very promising young critics turn into PR mouthpieces for the artistes. If they are scared to offend, then they should be working for the Classified sections! The whole thing about being objective is just an excuse. It’s chickening out using an ethical pretense. Objectivity, my ass!
Q. How do you deal with criticism as a writer?
I quite enjoy it, really. Especially when it comes from intelligent people. The way I am always trying to twist and turn certain conceptual and stylistic formulas, I expect criticism. But a lot of it is heartrendingly positive as well. However I usually ignore the idiotic side of it, of course. The real dumb f***s who, for I don’t know what mysterious existentialist reason, go through my articles, understanding not an iota of what the piece was about, but ending up making the loudest and most obnoxious comments. They amuse me for a while but then are quickly forgotten.
Q. What made you enter the field of advertising?
Maybe writing is the only decent thing I can do for a living. Because my fame or infamy thrived when I was a working journalist, but hadn’t it been for my grandfather’s money, I think I would have starved to death. But I guess my father also being a journalist and an ad man had as well had a lot to do with me ending up being one too. Writing is my forte, my first love, not journalism or advertising. I just get paid a lot better for it now.
Q. Has advertising progressed (in any way) in Pakistan? Or is it still at a fledgling stage?
It is starting to do the exercises and thinking that progress in this field requires. There is still a long way to go if we are to even reach the status advertising in India has reached… and I don’t only mean the creative sides of this field. The strategic side is far more important, requiring a lot of debate, thinking and clever moves. The agency I am part of these days (Adcom), does have what it takes to make these moves.
Q. There seems to be a very thin line between advertising and the music industry in Pakistan. What do you think?
I hardly see a line at all. Most of our musicians would make excellent advertising executives!
Q. What in your opinion is the definition of a ‘good’ band and/or musician?
A good musician is the one who is aware of his or her talent and uses his music to further discover and strengthen this talent. He should also be aware of the audience … not only about their aesthetic tastes but about their social and political backgrounds and realities as well. He should not only offer them pop operas or a hundred-&-one reasons to do the bhangra at a wedding, he should comment about what it feels to love, hate, live or die in the social and political surroundings they live in. It can be done directly like The Clash, it can be done conceptually like Pink Floyd, it can be done indirectly like James Blunt and so many others. It can also be done like the early Junoon, or the ways Sajid & Zeeshan are doing. Even Fasi Zaka with On The Fringe! I think him and Zeeshan have been the most wonderful thing that has happened to the pop scene in Pakistan!
You can do it with anger, with sarcasm, with wit, with serious poetry…
Q. Any aspirations of publishing your own book since you write short stories for Chowk (www.chowk.com)?
I’d love too. But you must remember my stories are not exactly yuppie wet-dreams, ala Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke. I find much of what is being glorified as ‘good fiction’ in India and Pakistan rather boring. But then what do I know. I read Batman comics and prefer to go through all sorts of encyclopedias with my popcorn!
Q. Could you tell your readers a little bit about your band ‘Atish Raj’?
Not much to tell, other than it was a band made up of three desperate young men who smoked a lot and tried to replicate various forms of clinical psychosis with a guitar, a bass, a drum-machine, a synthesizer and lots and lots of sound-effects! And I’m not saying this metaphorically. This really was the whole idea of the project, even though I did try to give it a more conceptual touch. Atish Raj began in 1994, recorded two albums and folded in 1996 when one of the guys first went mad and then died, (God bless him). Mind you, by the time we started work on the second album; we’d all gone mad and could have died as well. But I had the good fortune of having my editor at The News, Imran Aslam, yet again, in his usual quiet but determined manner; pull me back from the brink. But I shouldn’t be sounding all that glorious about it, really. Atish Raj was a selfish act on my part to escape the tyranny of all these empty, fleeting affairs that was all have in our days. Don’t know, but the fact is Atish Raj was no groovy party. It was like a botched suicide attempt with an artistic ring to it. However, I must say, the first album, ‘Hard Tar & Black Bile’ was pretty good. Those who heard it were actually impressed. The album was just vast bits of sounds strung together with all sorts of effects. Interestingly, a psychiatrist friend of mine who was interning at the Jinnah Hospital’s Psychiatry Ward once played the album in his ward and was surprised by the curious but appreciative ways all the schizoid patients reacted to it. That blew my mind!
Q. Do you consider yourself an ‘eccentric’?
Perhaps. That’s what I’ve been called many times and for very good reasons, I’m sure.
Q. What made you resort to drugs? And what saved you from the downward spiral to self-destruction?
I started very early. Back in school during my O Levels. But for many years things never went beyond hashish and alcohol and some LSD, which some friends used to smuggle in from the US. Things started to change when I started getting recognition as a writer in the early ‘90s. I was writing like a demon … four to five pieces a week! And the sort of feedback and recognition I was getting was rather unprecedented for a journalist in Pakistan. I became a rock star with a pen instead of a guitar. And then as I mentioned certain very sticky and senseless affairs with certain very sticky and senseless ladies … bottom-line is I was on a high which, I felt, could only be matched with stronger highs brought on by certain not-so-mind-and-body-friendly-drugs. By the late ‘90s I was a total goner. Had been reduced to a 110 pound skeleton, locked up and now running away from the monster that was called ‘NFP’.
I didn’t write a word for years, just vanished. But then a miracle: a woman. A woman who is now my wife. I mean even Imran Aslam had no answers or will left to pull me back this time. But she did. Till even today, some seven years later, it surprises me that I didn’t conk out. Maybe there was something in me that wanted to go on, stay alive. It wasn’t ‘NFP’. As far as I was concerned he died sometime in 1998. And it is only in the last couple of years I have again started to respond to ‘NFP’. Because after all, this name was part of some really productive and creative times as well.
Q. Any plans of reviving of ‘Atish Raj’?
Not as the original band, as such. One of us is dead; the other resides in Canada and wants to have nothing to do with me. This just leaves me. And anyway, Atish Raj was a project rather than a conventional band. Recently I composed and recorded a piece called ‘War in Heaven’ as Atish Raj. It’s based on one of my short stories, ‘The Aftergod’. It’s with Zeeshan Pervez who’ll add his bit. And hopefully we’ll release it as Atish Raj. Let’s see how it goes. But my plan is that I’ll also involve Fasi Zaka and the three of us can record an album as Atish Raj? In fact I have a string of music and television related projects lined up with Fasi and Zeeshan. We might even pull in Faisal Qureshi as well. Let’s see.
Q. Any favorite writers that inspire or have inspired you?
Of course. Many. I love sci-fi. Especially Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke. But the writers who’ve inspired and influenced me the most are those oddballs beat writers and poets. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kessy…I love the whole Beat movement and what it stood for in art and politics. But then so many have said that I remind them of late American music journalist, Lester Bangs. The truth is, ironically, I only started reading Bangs’ stuff off the net about two years ago. He was introduced to me by former Bandbaja Editor, Omer Tariq. I knew absolutely nothing about the guy.
On the Urdu side Iqbal fascinates me … even though much of him is usually explained by a pretty component Urdu poet friend of mine. However I simply love reading Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. He’s hilarious. Shaukat Siddiqi is another favorite.
Q. Do you think our current music journalists know what they’re writing about? Does one have to have a technical know-how of music (certain terms etc)?
I’ve partly answered this question somewhere in this interview, but do they have to have a technical know-how of the music? No, at least not the way people like Aamir Zaki and Mekaal Hasan would propagate. They’re the musicians; they should have the bloody know-how. I mean, how much technical know-how do the musicians have about journalism? Zilch! So all these musicians who go whining and bitching about this technical know-how crap, should think a lot before they utter something like this. But this much is true; there are still loads of critics out there that have to learn a lot as to what music journalism really amounts to. And I’m glad to notice some of them have made great efforts in this respect.
Q. Any experiences that made a deep impact on you in your journey as a journalist?
Well, certainly that psychiatry ward event I related earlier was pretty out there. Then it was interesting the way I got involved with some very fine musicians, being present while an album was being planned and then recorded. I remember it was an exciting time when I saw first-hand the recording of Vital Signs second (VS: 2) and fourth album (Hum Tum); also witnessing the writing and recording of Junoon’s ‘Talaash’ and ‘Inquilaab’; being invited by Faisal Qureshi and the Dr. Aur Billa guys at the first few recordings of what would become ‘Vee Jay’; being present when Hadiqa Kiyani was recording her second album and so on. Also traveling with Junoon across Pakistan when very few people knew what or who they were.
There’s so much to say, I can actually write a whole book on it. It can be hell of a book, really. But only if someone finances it.
Q. How would you like to retire?
I maybe the shy, non-social type who mostly stays home, writing, reading and gardening, but retire I never will. I might fade away though, and which I have done once. But no such plans for the future.
Q. Any long-term dreams and aspirations?
Many. Still so much to do!