Social Animal

Ali Azmat has a cruel mouth. It sneers in moments of disdain, it curls up when its amused. It's the kind of mouth women like to feel on theirs, and it's a mouth that's been around more than a dozen lips that have lived to tell the tale. It's also a big mouth, which occasionally seems to have a foot in it. Not that Ali cares much what people think of what he says or does. This is his life and all those who don't like it can find another sandbox to play in.

But don't be deceived. The mouth is only a piece of the puzzle. The eyes give Ali Azmat away. He usually hides them behind the comforting darkness of shades or intensifies the gaze with startling effect for photographs. But away from the glare of media storms, Ali has eyes that reflect subterranean moods and uneasy emotions. His mouth speaks with conviction, but his eyes betray an ongoing soul-searching. The one thing that Ali Azmat has learnt about life after his rise from rags to riches is that it goes on. And he is quick to tell you that it has after his on again off again relationship with model Vaneeza Ahmed has supposedly ended for the last time.

He's looking sharp these days. Kind of mean, smooth and clean-shaven and ready to launch his solo debut with "Social Circus." I recall his early days as a bratty, energetic twenty something ingenue who suddenly catapulted into the spotlight with Jupiters and "Dosti." Ali was cocky even then; he just wasn't hip. That combination emerged about five years down the line with Junoon. Sufi pop, state disapproval during the Sharif ascendancy and a bohemian lifestyle made Ali Azmat iconic for a whole generation looking for rebellious role models. The wanderer from downtown Lahore was suddenly selling cd's faster than you could say Bulley Shah; not just in Pakistan but across the border, where the celebrity stakes were even higher. It was the 1990's and Ali Azmat and Junoon had arrived - with ethnic kurtas, defiantly long hair and a monster hit called "Sayonee."

But fortunes are bound to fluctuate in a fickle market; the world is no longer Junoon's oyster. Trouble appears to be brewing in the band with Brian O'Connell's departure and dwindling sales for the last few albums. Yet Junoon remains a cornerstone of Pakistani pop; everyone wants them to recover and rejuvenate their act again. But Salman Ahmed and Ali Azmat's forays into solo territory just add fuel to the fire. Is this the end of Junoon as we know it?

Widen the picture. Junoon and Ali Azmat may well be able to live side by side. Certainly, Ali's new album, "Social Circus" is not trespassing into Junoon territory. The sound is uncompromisingly new, the production radically dissimilar and the spirit looks like it belongs to a different body altogether. The first solo album from Junoon's devil-may-care lead vocalist is steeped in what he calls "bittersweet" self-dialogue. The mood is reflective; the tone is dark. This is not a young album; it is laden with experience and layered with disillusionment. Has Ali Azmat, renowned Lothario, original wild-child and Pakistani pop's proverbial enfant terrible finally come of age?

"Social Circus" is original, depressing, challenging. Some may attack it as too much of a good thing or just too much to handle in one listen, but Ali is convinced that the "switching channels" approach is productively edgy. It is above all a courageous album, venturing into areas most pop songs rarely explore. But can an audience fed on pop-corn bear the emotional burdens of "Social Circus"? Has the Pakistani listener, like Ali Azmat, finally gone beyond the momentary lapses of teenage heartache? Or has Ali Azmat left them far behind in his quest for musical ingenuity? The future of Pakistani rock-pop, even at the best of times is unpredictable but if any album is worth a serious listen it is this one. It has the potential to rattle preconceived notions and make you shift uncomfortably in your seat. I for one find that wildly exciting.

So here I am sitting in Ali Azmat's fab pad listening to the orchestral manoeuvres of "Deewana," the first single from the album. And apparently Jami is in the editing studio giving the video its final shape. Ali's slip-sliding vocals and the glamorous, sonorous arrangement seem to fit like yin and yang. It is a heady, intermittently raucous but strangely undulating mix. In other numbers, such as the eerie "Teri Parchaiyan" (produced by the reclusive Rohail Hyatt). Ali's vocals plunge suddenly into undiscovered octaves and mess with your mind as he snarls his way through rejection and ruination. "Na Ray Na" asks questions you may not want to answer, but it is both soulful and stirring - for now it is the song I want to listen to repeatedly despite the fact that it drags me down each time I do. "Dil Ki Sera" takes an unexpected jazzy twist with a saxophone refrain that is tempting, seductive. The album in total explodes with overwhelming inner energies. None of this is clear on a first listen; "Social Circus" will grow on you; it reveals new facets even when you feel you've finally figured it out.

Ali and I talk. And then we talk some more. And then some more. In between Ali packs a suitcase for a trip to promote the album in Mumbai. Finally, we end up at Boat Basin at 3 a.m. in the morning sharing chops and paratha and still talking. I've known Ali for about 15 years now through life's highs and lows. He hasn't lost some of his innocence; he hasn't lost some of his arrogance. He has gained a few insights into himself and he doesn't seem to feel the pressure to be as brazen and outrageous as he was in the old days. His swanky home reflects the new mood. "This is more furniture than I've ever had in my life!" he laughs. There is contemporary art on the walls; an infinite array of comfortable statement furniture and his man Friday can even whip up a decent coffee. The days of Ali Azmat living like a gypsy with a mattress on the floor it seems are over. "Hey, it's a low Japanese style bed," points out Ali. "It's still the same concept you know." That's what I like about Ali Azmat. Wherever his head may be at, his feet will never be too far from the ground.

Q. Are you a really bad boy?

A. Can I disappoint you and say not really? My friends in the media from day one advertised me as a bad boy and the stigma remains. If you go by what people like to think of me I'm a very, very bad boy. If it works for you then believe it - I'm not going to shatter the image.

Q. Brian is out, Salman Ahmed and you are both doing solo projects. Is Junoon alive and well or dead and buried?

A. All I can say at this point is that I am alive - and as long as I am alive Salman Ahmad will make sure that Junoon is alive. I might stray but he keeps me focused. Right now I'm tired of touring. It's a complete emotional disruption in my life to always be traveling from city to city. It's emotionally dysfunctional; you're in two different airports every single day. I'm at that stage where I need to feel alive about my own music. But my base is playing live music and Junoon feeds that thirst. I like singing my heart out to people. I'd like to keep Junoon alive as long as I can, but in the end it all depends on creative juices. You have to feel alive when you're playing the music. And yeah I still feel that so I guess Junoon is still alive.

Q. How much of Junoon's success has been due to you?

A. As much as it was due to anyone else at that time. That's the politically correct answer.

Q. What are you hoping to achieve with your solo album? How different is it from Junoon?

A. I want to change the sound of the music people are listening to. We did it with "Sayonee" and I want that to happen again. I've put my heart and soul into this album. Nothing on it sounds like Junoon. The music is fuller and more mature.

Q. "Social Circus" is a very dark, angst ridden album - where is it coming from?

A. "Social Circus" is an album of bittersweet symphonies. It is full of double meanings and contradictions. It comes from a time in my life when I was giving up and living in denial. It was a tumultuous, changing time in my life. There was a lot happening in my relationship with my band members, my friends, my girl friend. I thought that everything around me was changing and that I couldn't keep up but it was I who was evolving. It was a big maturity shift; I realized my needs had changed but they were no longer being met. All the emotions of the 32 years that I have lived came to the fore in one go. And these upheavals put everything in perspective. I had hundreds of questions to ask of life and "Social Circus" has all these questions and some answers; it's a dialogue with myself.

Q. Do you think that people will be able to absorb such an intensely personal dialogue?

A. "Social Circus" has emerged out of a deep, hidden place inside me that people don't know about. I've used music and words to elaborate on it and understand it for myself. I've just shared the upper crust of what there is. People don't need to understand me to understand the music. It will touch different people in different ways and maybe become part of their own dialogue with themselves.

Q. They say you have had more girlfriends than any single guy in Pakistan. So what's the total so far?

A. (Smiles) I'm a lover not a mathematician.

Q. Does love mean anything to you?

A. Love is everything. It's what the universe revolves around. Our miserable conception of life hinges on love. It is the opium of the masses. We need to create these supports in our life. But it's just another excuse to further ourselves for someone else's cause. Love is an eventuality but an unpredictable one. We all find it in some way or the other but not necessarily in the way we thought. As for meaning - we might never know the meaning of it.

Q. So have you loved and lost?

A. Many, many times. At least you come up with albums like this when you have loved and lost. So it's not an entirely bad thing.

Q. Is the album dedicated to Vinny (model Vaneeza Ahmed)?

A. (Laughs) No way, I've had a lot more heartbreaks in my life after that. The greatest gift is letting go. You always have to leave. Once you let go life becomes more bearable. That's what the album is about; these crisscrossing moments that you live through. Life is too vast - nothing is about one person.

Q. Has life left any visible scars on you?

A. Girtey hain shehsawaar hi maidaan-e-jang may (Only soldiers die on the battle field). I don't have deep scars. Most of my life has been a constant struggle. People think the struggle must have stopped because Ali Azmat has made it. But it never stops. The only time it stops is when you die - and I don't plan to die anytime soon. If God has other plans that's different.

Q. Your friends used to kid you about being the Pakistani Jim Morrison, but you're still alive and rocking at 34?

A. I'm definitely not Jim Morrison. I'm my own person. I've set a pace for myself in life. When people are young they do certain things and you can't judge them on the basis of that for the rest of their lives. Having said that, I'm still the same wild child - or should I say wild budha (old man) I once was. I'm not going to wait till I'm 52 to enjoy life. I'm going to work and party my ass off.

Q. What's your dream woman in 3 words?

A. Intelligent, funny and pleasant looking. And I mean pleasant not beautiful. Beauty doesn't thrill me. She should be the kind of woman you look at first thing in the morning and don't want to run away from. So you say okay darling I'll stay a little while longer, maybe even a few years and have a few babies along the way...

Q. So why are you still single?

A. 'Cause I'm still ready to mingle!

Q. Somehow it's difficult to imagine Ali Azmat as a dad. But you say you want to have kids?

A. Oh yeah definitely. I've always loved kids. They're like an extension of oneself. You understand life more when you see it through the eyes of your child.

Q. What kind of relationship do you have with your parents?

A. Very cool. There is absolutely no emotional pressure. We share everything. They are possibly the best parents any guy could wish for.

Q. What gives you happiness?

A. Playing music. Anything I do for others and not just for myself gives me happiness.

Q. From curly mop to clean-shave, it's always been an extreme hair statement for Ali Azmat. Which one is more you?

A. Both are me at different ages and times of my life. If I looked the same today as I did in "Music '89" I'd be worried. Having hair was not interesting to me anymore so I cut it off. Going to a hairdresser just didn't fit into my schedule. So I thought better shave it all off before it decides to go on its own.

Q. You grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Lahore and now you're on top of rich kids' guest lists. How does that feel?

A. It doesn't feel special or anything. Once you get onto the rich kids' guest lists you realize that they have nothing to show or say for themselves. The guys from the wrong side of the tracks at least have their scars. Actually, all the poor kids I used to hang out with have done amazingly well for themselves. They are engineers and car dealers now. They had the hunger; they wanted to be somebody and they did it. I haven't forgotten those guys. I'm still in touch with them.

Q. Do you think you're arrogant?

A. Anything but. If I were arrogant I would never have come this far.

Q. How much attitude do you have?

A. When it's needed, lots of it. Listen, you can't cater to millions of people one on one. I've seen huge stars that are pretty normal when you meet them informally and then when the camera and lights are on they put on a performance. Your attitude changes with the situation. Everyone wants a piece of you and you can't always just behave normally in an abnormal situation.

Q. If you ran for office what would be your political manifesto?

A. If I were there for five years, I would have co-education as a first on my list. We need more interaction between men and women. I think the lack of fraternizing between the sexes is a great hindrance to any kind of development. We don't like women thinking for themselves; it's a great disease in our society. Next, I would want to change the police. There's no real law and order for the common person and I believe that every man and woman has to have that right. You can't call yourself a civilized country without it. I think [President] Musharraf has shown that there is a way forward already; that it is possible to open up and not be so narrow-minded.

Q. When you want to look sexy what do you wear?

A. Nothing!

Q. What warms you up in winter and what cools you down in summer?

A. Somebody's genuine laughter will always warm me up in the coldest winter. And the same goes for cooling me down in summer. When I see a genuine emotion it makes me truly happy. I'm a very happy person inside.

Q. What's your most lethal seduction weapon?

A. My sense of humour.

Q. What is your favourite chill-out spot?

A. Home. It's where my heart is.

Q. How would your ex-girlfriends describe you?

A. As an asshole.

Q. What's the one item of clothing you couldn't live without?

A. Underwear.

Fifi Haroon
February, 2005
The News International, Pakistan