FXS: Tracing The Evolution of Pakistan’s Electronica Collective

FXS promotion on the streets of Karachi

As disembodied sounds start coming through the speakers, the start of my interview with founders of Pakistani electronica collective Forever South, was about matching the voices to the reputations.

Did the reedy voice belong to the loquacious Haamid Rahim, aka Dynoman, conductor of this orchestra, waving his baton to directions south?

Was the decidedly dudish voice that of sound engineer and musician Bilal Nasir Khan, aka Rudoh?

Well for the technologically challenged, the flashing icons were the answer, but it took the image of a fortune cookie declaring, ‘Hey, this is Bilal’ to resolve the issue.

Running up the colours of electronica, Dynoman, Rudoh and the coterie of electronica artists from Pakistan have helped to establish it as a port of call for the genre, dispelling a continuing funk that has given this ‘bombs and beards’ country instant playability.

While certainly a duo, Hamid and Bilal don’t readily fit the clichéd dynamics; they’re not the odd couple, they’re not Twins and there’s definitely no spirit of the Tao here. What they are though and what qualifies them for their ‘roles’ is their shared history; with one another but then most importantly with the Karachi electronica scene.

Having interviewed Haamid in the past, he is perhaps the best source on the history of the movement, being its de facto chronicler, both witness and participant. Narrating the lore, Dynoman steers through the years of indie rock bands peppering the Karachi soundscape (Mole and cohorts) to emerge onto a clearing where these acts paused and reflected, eventually giving way to individual pursuits, all more or less electronic in their outlook. Like a sleeper cell, their emergence onto the scene was predated by years of ‘bedroom producing’ and as these artists began to mushroom, it got Bilal Nasir Khan thinking – why not bring them together?

Rudoh performing the FXS event, Hi-TeaRudoh

If FXS today stands as the Pakistani electronica collective and the only one for that matter, it does so upon the foundations of another, earlier vessel, that is Karachi Detour Rampage or KDR.

“It was the hottest thing from the Karachi summer (of 2010)” reflected Dynoman.

Joining hands with a fellow Mole member, Rudoh began KDR as a collective for the then nascent scene that was emerging in Karachi and while its modus operandi was certainly about bringing musicians together it was also about bringing in an audience.

KDR’s first outing, one that breaks Rudoh’s monotone, eliciting nostalgia for a “dope ass show” was quite a success, drawing in a crowd of some 300 people. But while KDR’s star was bright, letting Karachi and possibly the rest of Pakistan know that something special was happening, it was a flash in the pan, “fizzling out in a month or two” according to Bilal, personal issues getting in the way.

But the smouldering hulk that was KDR was not to be relegated to some cultural landfill. Its premise, its thesis was one that appealed to Dynoman, who getting in touch with Rudoh proposed a second life for KDR, and a new beginning.

But how was FXS going to be different? Would it have years where KDR had precious few months?

Haamid takes us back a couple of years, to some months spent in New York, producing his first album, a break between college and prospective employment that was just “eat, sleep and the album.”

The FXS crew at the event, HypeForever South Crew

Doing the New York routine as a musician can certainly addle the senses, fata morganas of fame and fortune appearing within ones grasp. Ducking in and out of sessions with fellow musicians and meeting with the occasional producer or two, the artist in Dynoman slowly fomented to the surface, eschewing the idea of being a producer on the side. But with a job offer almost in hand, how was he going to convince his parents that a career in music, in Pakistan no less, was what he wanted to do? Similarly Bilal, fresh from the UK with an engineering degree and a documented music career was also at a crossroads, a 9 to 5 in his future.

Making a career out of music anywhere in the world is difficult but doing it in Pakistan is downright Sisyphean. FXS was an ambitious idea, attempting electronica even more so.

Back to the present. If the sound quality of the Skype interview was questionable, the boys’ conviction and their intent was not. They were going to make this work. And that meant making FXS work as well. If not, as Dynoman admits, “his father was going to kill him.”

Their approach was going to be “focused” as Haamid puts it, turning FXS into a stable of artists who could put together shows, collaborate, produce and if lucky, turn a quick buck. Of course, this meant avoiding what KDR hadn’t been – being exclusive.

Haamid explains: “We went in ultra-serious. This wasn’t going to be one giant party that everybody had to be a part of. KDR was open to everyone and everything and it was amazing but what I wanted to do with Forever South was have that element of course, but give it a little more direction. I wanted to create a sub-culture music scene with a label where people had a similar sound, and I told Bilal, we can’t take everybody and anybody. Cause if we’re trying to become a collective first, label next, which is who we are and always will be, we needed likeminded people, making likeminded tracks.”

FXS’ decision to reserve this right of admission may have caused some grief initially, with Haamid admitting that they got a lot of “stick” for it but it was a decision that was ultimately sound, creating a “crew” in Bilal’s words that have gone on to be exemplars of Pakistani electronica.

Dynoman peforming at the FXS event, Hi-TeaDynoman

Boasting quite the roster, FXS is home to acts like Toll Crane, TMPST, Alien Panda Jury, Smax, Slowspin etc, claiming most of the scene. Together, Haamid says, one can’t readily “generalise the cats” of FXS but they have a lot of “character” and with such talent on hand, it’s hard not to bring them together on a compilation which is exactly what FXS did with ‘Collections Vol. 1’.

Released in 2013, ‘Collections’ had tracks from FXS mainstays and irregulars, stacked back to back and clocking in at more than an hour. It was exactly the kind of immersion that would help give a so far cautious public a real introduction to the crew.

Lapped up by the international press, with reviews and mentions on sites like No Fear of Pop, Dummymag etc. the impact of Vol. 1, according to the boys, was “good”, and while fame or even airplay still eluded the crew within Pakistan, it most definitely put the country on the global electronica map.

We return to the present again. In an interview that has gone on well past the 3 hour mark, having discussed sundry things such as the perils of Karachi, Islamabad’s airs, Rudoh’s relationship with his cushion and Dynoman’s impending postgrad studies, the boys have occasional moments to reminisce. After all, it’s 2015. ‘FXS Collections Vol.3’ has just been released, FXS members Smax and Toll Crane are now Red Bull Music Academy alumni, Rudoh is newly returned from a tour of the States (with the Dosti Music Project) and Haamid et al are busy with SoundCamp, a residency with international artists in Karachi. Of course this is an edited resume with only the highlights of 3 years’ worth of achievements being mentioned.

FXS finds itself, like its founders years ago, at a crossroads with the aforementioned departure of Haamid to the US for higher studies. Will that affect FXS?

A resounding “no”. Collaboration, as Bilal tells us, has never been easier than now. And it is at the heart of FXS. As the resident sound meister, Rudoh is responsible for mastering most of the crew’s work and having overseen this over the years he knows that these efforts, individual or collective, are possible because of the crew and be they on the far side of the world that is how they will continue. The FXS that exists now is mature and adept and ‘Collections’ is a good allegory for that. Where Vol. 1 may have been a scatter shot, trying to showcase as much as possible, Vol.2 and then Vol.3 were honed, compiled like one single record, introductions, conversations, farewells, the flow of an even record by musicians who had come into their own.

It’s well past the witching hour and interviewer and subjects are tired. Having most recently digressed as to why FXS has never performed in the capital city, Islamabad despite getting the most plays from it, we decide to revisit this for some other day. It’s time to bid our farewells but there is one last question, the perfect bookend to a story like this. Did they ever think they’d get this far?

“Not at all man, helllll no,” the otherwise reticent Bilal intones.

written by Rahim Khan

NEWS - 19. October 2015   CITY - Karachi ARTIST - Forever South

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