Music and sugar for the soul: In conversation with Xarb


LAHORE: Pepsi Battle of the Bands (BoB) returned with its third season earlier this month as it showcased raw talent from across the country.

A platform that has been promoting the band culture and musicians has lived up to the expectations, this time around as well. Earlier, it gave us bands like Aaroh, EP, Kashmir and Badnaam. Similarly, this time the competition is tough as the participants’ battle their way to the top.

It is a platform that promotes bands and gives them a chance to explore their music but can be challenging for bands that do not have enough resources to get that exposure.

Pakistan Today caught up with Mobeen Zahid, vocalist and guitarist of Xarb, one of the Top 4 bands to get a little insight of their journey in the competition and their plans for the future.

The band has existed since 2009 when Saud, Mobeen and Qamar got together in university to bring their passion to life. They were part of the Dramatics society at UET Lahore, where they did plays, heavy with meaning, and often the themes revolved around revolution and reflecting back on society. It was a place where anything that was impossible could come true.

The boys regularly played together with Ahsan and Raheem (who later moved to Badnaam, last year’s runner-ups). In 2017, Shahzeb (drums) and Shayan (bass) came along who were formerly part of ‘Mothership’. According to Mobeen, these new members gave a new dimension to the band.

The name Xarb was suggested by their first drummer, Nasir; the X was just to add an extra oomph factor to it, so the name sticks with the audience.

Since they had always wanted to leave a mark with their music, participation in Pepsi BoB was a no-brainer. With strong vocals and great backing sound, the band got a chance to get mentored by Asad Ahmed, Imran Akhound and Shahi Hasan, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the band did not want to miss.

  • What is the image of the band you’d like to give to your audience through your music?

Broadly speaking we are a rock band with hints of classic rock n’ roll and heavy blues sounds. But our most recent compositions have modern indie rock/RnB rhythms to them, thanks to Shahzeb and Shayan.

Moreover, speaking from personal experience, I know artists that have helped me through the most difficult of times and we want to pass that on to the listeners.

We want our audiences to know that we have a lot to say through our music and contribute positively to the society as a whole.

  • What is your take on the music industry and the band culture in Pakistan?

The band culture on a global level has lost its appeal; mostly I think it has a lot to do with how the society has evolved through the social media boom.

Being in a band usually means getting out of your comfort zone and being part of something bigger than yourself and now, the focus is more on going solo.

Moreover, I think a lot of people mistakenly correlate band culture with rock culture, which isn’t necessarily true. Genre-restricting a community is a very narrow way of looking at things. You could be a DJ or an RnB artist and still be part of a ‘band’.

The music industry here is a difficult place to be. There is practically no infrastructure, no state initiatives to allow this industry to grow.

Pakistani music survives despite circumstances, not because of them, which is a huge compliment to all our artists no matter what form of art they practice. We always hope the powers-that-be realize the importance art has in a healthy society and actively pursue initiatives to support all our artists. No society can thrive without this. We need to be able to sustain as an industry without outside help. Unless that happens, only the lucky few will survive.

  • The judges and the audience seem to love the energy and music you execute on stage, what do you have to say about that?

There is nothing better than playing live on stage; although it was a hybrid experience since we were playing live for the judges and the cameras at the same time. Similarly, as an artist, there’s no better feeling than knowing people relate to what you are trying to say through your art.

It took us a while to get used to it; having said that there were times when we did play a little conservatively because we knew that there was no room for mistakes.

Having said that there is this very tangible energy that flows through all of us when we are playing together and we definitely feel that it has been passed on to viewers as well and it feels great.

  • Now that you are in the Top 4, talk us through your performances during the competition.

It was extreme! We started off with Qawwalis and we had a feeling that we might be type-cast as a Sufi-band, which we almost were.

We know that we aren’t one dimensional and the challenge for us was to get that fact through to judges and the audiences.

It was risky because we did not know how people would react to the change, but in the end, we’re glad that the change was well-received by everyone.

  • Tell us about the song you performed last week ‘Dewaar’?

Dewaar is from one of the first batches of songs we wrote as a band. It was penned down when we were all in university so it is pretty close to our hearts.

The song speaks about breaking barriers, both internal and external and embracing change. It talks about ending conflicts and spreading positivity. For us, it was a manifestation of our own free spirits at that time.

We hadn’t played this song live in years, but thanks to Pepsi BoB, the cobwebs were dusted off; it might sound clichéd but, in a way, our spirits that were dimmed through the years were set free again.

  • What sort of preparation goes into prepping for the next episode?

Each episode has a specific theme to it. Thus, coming up with the right song for each episode was always a challenging step because there was so much pressure.

Moreover, being in a ‘battle’ is not just about playing a song well, the technicalities and arrangement of the song play an important role when we are being judged.

The mentors helped us improve this over time through their feedback and suggestions. Most importantly, we found it was the hardest to satisfy ourselves.

  • You got a stand ovation for your rendition of ‘Dam Mast Qalandar’. Tell us about that and did you expect such a response from the judges so early on in the competition?

Dam Mast Qalandar is one of the songs that we have been playing for a very long and it has gone through a lot of improvisations. Since it is a Qawwali, it was challenging to cut down an 8-10 minute song to a 3-minute version.

We were a little apprehensive going on stage because we wanted to get the essence of our version through to the judges, but because of the time constraint, we were a little unsure if that would happen.

But after the performance, when Bilal Maqsood rose from his chair, we were all so relieved and it gave us a huge confidence-boost since it was confirmation for us that we were on the right track, musically.

As the comments kept coming in, we realised that the expectations were pretty high and then this lasted for five minutes because after that we knew that what lies ahead of us was a tougher competition.

  • Following your performances in the last few episodes, the expectations from you guys are high. This week Xarb was in the danger zone, what do you think went wrong?

Expectations are dangerous! But we have been dealing with them and will continue to do by focusing on our music and being true to ourselves.

During the Independence Day episode being in the danger zone definitely didn‘t feel very good and a little unrealistic because we felt that we gave it our all.

We had attempted to give the song a modern touch without compromising the original melody since we believed that Wattan ki Mitti is an iconic song and shouldn’t be tampered with. But, we have an opportunity to make up for it in the coming week!

  • How has your music changed/improved over the time? What have you learnt throughout this process?

Our music has changed as we have. We’ve always been experimenting with new sounds, new themes and new material. Moreover, our approach to songwriting and execution of ideas has been streamlined through this whole process. Collectively, as a band, we have helped each other grow and will continue to do so.

  • Who are your inspirations/influences when it comes to music?

We’ve been inspired by many artists through these years. All of us bring different influences to the table. For Saud and myself, it’s mostly bands from the 60’s to 90’s, Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, The Who, B.B. King, Soundgarden, Junoon to name a few. For Qamar, they range from eastern greats such as Mehdi Hasan, Ustad Nusrat Fateh, Abida Parveen to western artists.

Shahzeb and Shayan have more contemporary influences ranging from Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, Queen, Gentle Giant, Tame Impala, and King Crimson etc.

  • Who, according to you is your biggest competition among the other bands?

I don’t think any of the bands were looking at it from a competitor point-of-view. All of us are hoping to just be able to put out our music in front of people and trying to make an impact. We’ve had a good time with all the bands and they are all talented in their own way. It was more of a coming together of the community rather than a competition.

  • What challenges/struggles are you facing/have faced dedicating your time to this competition?

We were all working to support ourselves and Shayan had his family as well. Dedicating the time and effort for this show was definitely challenging for each one of us, but the gains far outweigh the losses. It’s not an easy thing to do, but credit to all of us for not giving up. I hope this continues until the end of our days.

Since we are heavily invested in our own style of music; our sound and identity are very precious to us and we did not let it go. Before we signed up for the competition we did feel that our style of music might be at stake, but since we had observed Badnaam’s journey last season very closely and heard first-hand experiences, we knew that this was the place for us to be.

  • What does the future hold if this works out or doesn’t work out for you guys?

We will try our best to ride this wave of support we’ve received to keep making better music because this is just the beginning and bigger, better things lie ahead.



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