Trew Brew Records “make music and videos sprinkled with fairy dust” – offering extensive services including audio recording, mixing, mastering, production, composition, a concert venue and rehearsal space.
Hanniah Tariq: I have known you since we were both studying in the UK and returned at the same time. You didn’t waste any time setting up True Brew Records. How long had you known that this is what you want to do?
Jamal Rahman: When I was coming out of art school, I had a decision to make: pursue fine art or a career in music. Those were the only two options that I had ever considered. So around 2008 I decided to go home and set up a studio and a record label in Lahore to contribute to the sound of Pakistan and explore the diversification of genres. Music here was doing really well in the 2000s before it, unfortunately, started declining in 2008. The studio, of course, took a while to build, establish and come up with a brand name but it was gestating since the middle of 2009. Since then we have just been at it.
HT: What were the obstacles facing the studio and the Pakistani music scene post-2008?
JR: Unfortunately the security situation worsened around then. Gigs stopped happening. The few music channels we had started packing up. There was one local record label ‘Fire Records’ that also started packing up, so things were taking a turn for the worse for music in Pakistan. There was a closing down of concerts and television media, and music had very little representation. TV got swamped with talk shows and news channels, and that’s what has been happening for the last decade.
Also, people were unsure how to navigate the new internet landscape because they had generally only stuck to traditional media like television. So it was an interesting time in that things were moving towards online spaces but then in 2012, we had the YouTube ban which hindered the growth of video content in Pakistan. Now the YouTube ban is lifted, Facebook video has launched, new media like Instagram has arrived, and Facebook and YouTube are offering live videos. That has really changed the way that music is consumed and how artists are communicating with their fans.
HT: And how have you been navigating the new distribution landscape of music?
JR: We try to continuously evolve but I don’t have a degree in the music business. I’ve always been more in the creative field and have had to learn a lot about administration, legal issues, taxes, marketing and now also video production. When things started packing up around 2010 my initial record label model was not feasible, so instead, I focused on setting up and establishing the studio. One of the first projects I produced was Zeb and Haniya‘s second album, an EP with five songs which we began work on in 2011.
Along the way, although I initially I just wanted to produce music I realized that there was a need for many other things. For example, we have no dedicated venues in Pakistan for music, so I set up a small performance space at the studio. That was never part of the initial plan and started in 2012.
Back in 2011, I had an idea to set up an online video channel called True Brew TV but the YouTube ban put a damper on the project. Once the ban was lifted, I quickly went back to the idea and sought to establish the channel. So far we have been running two programs ‘Live at True Brew’ which is live material from our gigs, and ‘Singles’ which is the format where we invite artists to do small acoustic sessions live.
“Unfortunately the security situation worsened around then (2008). Gigs stopped happening. The few music channels we had started packing up”
HT: Since joining in 2010, your YouTube page True Brew TV has racked up almost 2,000 subscribers and 200,000 views. What is the central philosophy and objective of the channel?
JR: I think a lot of mainstream Pakistani music has been saturated with rock-pop for many years. I have nothing against the genre, of course, but feel we need other genres to also come up. The idea is to establish True Brew TV as a platform which represents a more diverse portion of Pakistani music. There are many other genres and we want to give them a space to flourish.
HT: There is the feeling that many new Pakistani musicians now have more access than ever before to the international music scene. How do you think that is influencing contemporary music in Pakistan?
JR: Now that everything is so accessible via the internet everything bleeds into everything else and there is a lot of cross-cultural collaboration as a result of exposure. Most of it is unwitting but all the new kids have access to more diverse music on the internet than we ever did, having always been limited to what was available on cassettes and CDs in the market. Thus when creating something they come up with a fused version of whatever their experiences have been locally and what they are listening to online. As I said before, there are a lot of genres that still need to be explored in Pakistan. Even in terms of modernizing our traditional and indigenous music, there is a lot to be done as we have barely scratched the surface. So the entire push for True Brew TV is to invite new artists, give them creative space and allow new kinds of music to flourish.
HT: What genre, in particular, would you most like to see flourish through True Brew TV?
JR: In the last ten years I have produced several different kinds of genres like ghazals, rock, ballads, qawwali, electronic music, soul and hip hop with various artists. I have also done a large amount of commercial and film work. With commissioned work you have to be flexible and depending on the brief of the project, you have to produce a particular kind of music which has educated me in different genres.
So, I am interested in music as a whole. I see it as an idea which drifts beyond genre and you can have elements running back and forth between genres. There is no one particular genre that I would like to limit myself to and its always challenging and fun to explore new ideas and new ways to produce and arrange a song. At the same time, I also want True Brew TV to be inclusive of other producers so that it can represent a larger community of musicians doing fantastic work that is highlighted through the channel.
HT: What are some of the more rewarding live performances that you arranged?
JR: We do many shows here and each has its own vibe as every band has its own energy. They attract their own fans so we get a different selection of people every time. It is magical to see fans interacting up-close with the bands that they appreciate.
We have also held two festivals outside of True Brew called ‘Storm in a Teacup.’ It was a phenomenal experience putting up an entire show with a line up of nine bands, organizing logistics, sound, stage setup, lights, and the venue; a whole other ballgame from doing studio shows where everything is already set up and bands can plug in and play. That experience was educational and a highlight in my career. It also encapsulated a large number of bands and genres that I represent, and it was great to have them in one space.
HT: Have you recently collaborated with any new artists whose work you found exciting?
JR: I just did a song with Abdullah Siddiqui for Nescafe Basement that I have co-produced and arranged with Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan (Xulfi). Abdullah is a talented young musician, really a genius, who had written an electronic song called ‘Resistance’. Xulfi really liked it and recruited me to produce it for this season of Nescafe Basement. We had to translate an electronic song, done entirely on a laptop, to something that can be played live. That meant taking all the instruments out of the laptop and making them playable. A lot of the sounds Abdullah used had to be redesigned from scratch and then put on to drum pads, keyboards and various electronic instruments. That was a challenge but also a lot of fun. We recorded it in January it was recently released to much critical and commercial acclaim. I’ve been inundated with calls and messages about the song. The track is currently available on YouTube.
HT: You are also a guitarist in addition to all the hats you are alternating between. Have you been able to give that some love recently?
JR: I am primarily a guitar player but for the last several years I have gotten into electronic music and have been playing the keyboard, synthesizers and other electronic instruments. In the Nescafe Basement track, I’m playing no guitar and only playing synthesizers which is first for me. I think it’s essential as a creative to be continually looking for new territories, learning new things, moving forward and never repeating oneself. That is a vital part of my creative outlook, and I am very conscious of trying new things, understanding techniques and discovering innovative sounds and scales. For example, the way that I play guitar is very different from how I play the keyboard or synthesizer and that informs the music that I compose and produce. It’s been a constantly challenging and dynamic experience so far.
HT: How did your enduring interest in music develop? Does your childhood contribute to your work and inform you as an artist?
JR: You know it’s quite funny because neither of my parents are musicians. They are music enthusiasts just like anyone else from that generation. I remember when we were children we always had music playing in the house. We had this vast cassette collection, and when I was about eight years old, we got a ‘Bose Sound System’ which at the time was considered really high tech. There was always music playing in the house from the minute I returned home from school. There would be all kinds of stuff playing from Desi, Western, Qawalli, rock and classical. My parents also used to be patrons to local musicians like Pathanay Khan. They would regularly invite musicians to perform in our drawing room to a crowd of enthusiastic friends.
My mother trained in art and has a keen eye for aesthetics (she’s also a furniture designer and manufacturer) and that meant my childhood was steeped in art and music and has since been a strong part of me. So it was a natural progression to go into music professionally from there. A lot of my cousins are musicians as well from both my parents’ sides so they must have some latent musical ability that they have passed on to this generation.
HT: What is the future for True Brew?
JR: My focus is to establish True Brew TV as a platform which aims to empower our music community in Pakistan. I want to work with bringing new music ideas to the fore while continuing to move forward creatively. We’re working on some exciting new video and music projects and hope to collaborate more with mainstream artists as well.