Interview with Usman Riaz

22 Jun

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Usman Riaz is a Pakistani multi-instrumentalist and composer who also happens to play a pretty mean acoustic guitar. He just released his first full-length album Circus in the Sky, a seemingly ambitious record which I’m anxiously waiting to listen to.

First could you tell us about your musical background and your early influences?

I am fortunate to have come from a family inclined towards the creative arts. My great-grandfather was an eastern music scholar as well as a multi instrumentalist: he specialized in instruments like the harmonium, sarangi and the violin. His daughter, my grandmother was also an eastern classical musician as well as a stage performer. Her brother is one of the last remaining orators (professional storytellers) in Pakistan; his son is also a professional musician/percussionist. My father and uncle were keen music students as well as a lot of my cousins. So I was lucky to grow up in such a creative atmosphere.

My grandmother had a big impact on my creative endeavors. Her work ethic when it came to her classical music always fascinated me and later on inspired me. I used to get up every morning and go to her room when I was young and she would be awake practicing her singing into a small metal glass to trap the sound.

At the age of 6 my parents had me begin my classical music training in the piano. It is here where my love for classical music began. I feel one can never stop learning and will always regard myself as a student of music, I don’t think I can comfortably call myself a ‘musician’.

 

When did you start playing guitar and what led you to play solo acoustic guitar?

I actually never would have picked up the guitar at the age of 16 if it weren’t for one of my closest friends (who unfortunately is not the most musically blessed person I have come across).

Like every other teenager around me he wanted to impress the girls and perform at our schools annual rock concert, having only played piano since my childhood and only dabbled with a few other instruments (including the guitar) as I got older I wasn’t too comfortable with learning a song on an instrument I wasn’t overly familiar with in the short time span he had given me.

And yet, I found myself learning those 5 barre chords for him, It wasn’t difficult. It was only 5 chords so I was pretty relieved.

With guitar I got a sense of freedom, which was new and exciting.

I found that the guitar was very different from the classical piano I had been playing since I was 6. It was a fun and slightly strange experience initially. Classical music is beautiful but also very restricted, you cannot take liberty with the piece and you must play it properly. With guitar I got a sense of freedom, which was new and exciting.

The ‘performance’ though is something I have been longing to forget. During rehearsals the guitar and drums were so loud I could barely hear the voice that was emanating from my friend.

After getting onto stage and handing him a mic I realized that I was about to experience something profound in every sense of the word. He sounded as if a dinosaur was being strangled whilst gargling on sulphuric acid. It was the day I truly understood the expression ‘making someone’s ears bleed’.

But that dreadful performance only fueled my ambition to prove myself and next year I made sure my solo performance went a lot better with weeks of rehearsal and preparation.

I moved on to to solo acoustic guitar and percussion after that and incorporated that into my guitar playing. Playing the piano helped substantially when learning the guitar. I started listening to a lot of Preston Reed and Kaki King along with Michael Hedges, Erik Mongrain and Don Ross.

Although he made me aware of many new levels of sonic frequencies, I still am indebted to my friend, he introduced me to the idea of playing guitar, I had never really thought about it before.

 

What can we expect from your new album, Circus in the Sky?

‘Circus in the Sky’ is the follow-up to the EP ‘Flashes and Sparks’. It is a full representation of my approach to music and storytelling.

I would lean towards calling it a concept album; ‘Circus in the Sky’ is the story of the Lost Boy and his journey through life. It’s about the innocence and playfulness of youth, the joys and sorrows of life as one gets older, spiritual awakening and finally death.

Although I had this theme in mind, the album’s story is open to interpretation. That is what excites me:

I am not just a guitarist, I try to do everything I can, Circus in the Sky contains orchestral pieces, percussive guitar pieces, piano movements, I want it to be a representation of what I can do as an artist.

The album is mainly an instrumental album with orchestral and solo pieces. I have done vocals in a few pieces but the voices are used as an instrument rather than being prominently featured in the foreground.

I have composed and played all the pieces. James Vaughn’s Strings Orchestra in London performed the String parts that I wrote that were played on the album: that would be specifically the first violin, second violin parts along with the violas, cellos and double bass melodies.

My aim was to create interesting soundscapes and textures rather than a typical album.

The artwork as well gives a glimpse into the feel of the album. I know the world is now completely shifting towards digital releases. I am all for it. But I wanted to make the experience extra special for someone who went out to buy or received the album.

 

What’s the story behind Ruckus, the short film you’re releasing along with the album?

Ruckus is a piece I wrote that is part of the album Circus in the Sky. It is a piece played entirely with garbage and the body. I wanted to take that concept even further in the film that I wrote and directed by making it an integral part of the story.

I don’t want to give too much away but the film revolves around a street thief called Raccoon and his partner as they steal from an unsuspecting rich lady while she makes her way out of an abandoned train station.

What ensues is nothing short of chaotic as the ‘ruckus’ caused by these 2 thieves begins to affect everyone around them.

You’re signed to a major label, pretty rare for an instrumental guitarist nowadays. How did that come about and how has the experience been?

It has been wonderful; they give me complete creative freedom so I can do anything I want.

I am not just a guitarist, I try to do everything I can, Circus in the Sky contains orchestral pieces, percussive guitar pieces, piano movements, I want it to be a representation of what I can do as an artist.

People in Pakistan are afraid to divert from the tried and tested path, I can understand the musicians who depend on it for a living to be afraid since it is their bread and butter but the established artists seem to only care about commercial success and not making a statement.

Commercial success and fame are fine they can strive for that but the reason I make what I do is because I absolutely love to make something that I personally would enjoy listening to.

I love making music and I am very grateful I have been given the rare opportunity to make what I want to make as opposed to allowing myself to be dictated by someone else’s point of view.

 

I know that what a lot of us call “Indian” Classical Music is actually a big part of Pakistani culture. I was curious if you have studied that music at all and/or if it has influenced your music in any way.

It would be wrong of me to say that eastern classical music has not inspired me in some form or another. I grew up around it and watched hundreds of performances by my grandmother and her musician friends, my family and many other people.

I have not studied it though. My musical base has been in  western classical music.

I think the world is a very different place now. People can be influenced by anything and any form of music thanks to all the amazing innovations in technology and the Internet.

I think my generation is one of the luckiest generations of people because up until the Internet became such an integral part of our lives (for me it was around 7 or 8 ) I had seen how the world functioned without the Internet, which just made me appreciate it even more and not take it for granted.

We have so much knowledge available to us at our fingertips. I try to use it to the best of my ability. I want to get better everyday. You can never stop learning.

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  1. Usman Riaz and Attitude of Self-Directed Learning - July 22, 2012

    [...] In an interview, Usman Riaz says (emphasis added), I think my generation is one of the luckiest generations of people because up until the Internet became such an integral part of our lives (for me it was around 7 or 8 ) I had seen how the world functioned without the Internet, which just made me appreciate it even more and not take it for granted. [...]

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