A self-proclaimed scavenger, Zain Alam is always recording. He began composing music as a way to make sense of the vast auditory archives he collected while working as an oral historian in the Indian city of Lucknow, his ancestral hometown. As part of the 1947 Partition Archive, Zain documented the fractured histories of families like his own that were torn from their motherland when the country gained independence from Britain, and subsequently split across lines of faith to form Pakistan separate from India. Visas are rarely granted between the two countries, and with his parents being Pakistani citizens, Zain’s US passport made him the first person in his family to return to India in forty years.
His musical sensibility was informed by this reconciliation with his roots; between interviews with the local elders, Zain kept his field recorder running for hours to soak up the sounds of the rest of the city, from ceremonies taking place at dargahs to the lively clatter of merchants presumably hawking Frootis. Both the stories he captured and the snippets from the environment eventually made their way into songs he pieced together on the cheapest guitar he could find in his neighborhood. Upon his return to the US, his best friend Dylan Bostick insisted he turn those colorful collages into a proper album, one that recast previous generations of geographic dispersion as Zain’s own story of cultural displacement and subsequent rediscovery.
The child of South Asian immigrants, Zain’s family had landed from Lucknow to Kennosaw, Georgia, a conservative southern town infamous for successfully protesting against the construction of a planned mosque. His inhospitable surroundings instilled a lesson in not taking for granted having access to an outlet for your cultural heritage. Through Humeysha – the project he and Bostick formed from those original demos – Zain has since worked to trace back his second generation experience to the collected sounds of the diaspora. The band’s 2015 self-titled debut arrived like a reclamation of a sonic birthright. Zain reimagined an inherited musical language in the context of his own personal history by stringing together the ragi traditions of cavernous tablas and droning harmoniums alongside 808s, shoegaze guitars, and other adopted sounds of his North American upbringing.
He went on to expand his palette across two subsequent releases, 2018’s politically poignant Departures and last year’s more playful Nusrat On The Beach, which folded into the mix Four Tet-like electronic loops and whirring psych rock production. Along the way, he has further illuminated the contours of life as a native-born minority through documentary films, editorial accounts, and highly visual and improvisational live performances that put symbols from a shared past in conversation with an always evolving present. As the pandemic has relaxed into an unending fixture of daily life, those reference points help bring to desi listeners the phantom frequencies of the communities we remain isolated from.
Zain’s latest single “You Always” is a further refinement of this vision, acting as not only a call home, but a conduit; every dollar from the song’s Bandcamp Friday release went to Bed-Stuy Strong and India Against Corona, organizations that span the geographic distance between the musician’s dual identities. The song is built atop a steady piano that rings with the meditative chime of a pooja bell, his voice drawing out a multilingual prayer for the immaterial. Zain’s hope is to make explicit the forces that bind together music, justice, and the divine – a connection that reflects a wider transformation in our collective consciousness that’s taken place over this past year. As one does in these times, Zain and I connected over Zoom to talk about direct support as a new model for the music industry, sacred space in solitary times, and falling back on community when everything else is falling apart. – Pranav Trewn
You intertwine a lot of religious sounds into your work, from devotional Sufi poetry to most recently the azan. How has your faith informed your music?
Zain Alam: Islam is in its most primal sense a sonic religion. It is a religion in which the prophet was given the word of God through a recitation. This is a prophet who could not read, could not write, but was still able to be the vehicle for the message. If you have ever heard the message, you are aware that Muslims place a very high value on somebody who is able to recite it with a sonorous voice; you have to be able to sing it beautifully. It’s easy to remember because it has this really complex, really beautiful internal rhythm to how it works. That is something that shapes you as a listener, as somebody who is thinking, “What does it mean to have a connection with something divine through a text, when the text is not first and foremost written, but built into sound?”
When you originally came up with the concept for Humeysha, how did you end up incorporating these elements as a part of your sound?
Zain Alam: I think at the very beginning, that was not much of a conscious effort. When I was working on the first record, traveling through India and Pakistan, I was so excited and enraptured by this rich tapestry of sounds that we have in South Asia. As somebody who was encountering for the first time this world that I had only heard about from family and from the elders, I was just like, “Oh my God, I want to get my hands on all these sounds, and to simmer on them and think about them. How can I make these become musical content for me to play with?”
Fast forward a few years, tell me a bit about what inspired the most recent piece you performed live for Eid, “We Are Sitting in a Sacred Space,” which heavily revolved around the Muslim call to prayer?
Zain Alam: I feel like that piece has actually been in the back of my brain since I was an undergrad. I took a class on experimental music with the one and only Alvin Lucier. His most famous piece is one in which he is sitting in a room, and in a very meta way, is talking about sitting in the room. And his statement repeats and repeats and repeats, and he continuously is recording the sound of his statement echoing in this space until it eventually just blurs into its tonal contents, where you can barely even hear the words. As somebody who’s been enraptured by the melodic journey recitation to the Quran takes, I was interested in taking Lucia’s experimental form and applying it to this thing that we have grown up hearing over and over again. One thing I really liked about the way Lucier talked about his music is that he wasn’t really doing anything to the piece in terms of creating or removing from it. He was just letting it take on a life of its own in a particular space. And I think that’s what I wanted to do with this performance. There’s no better time than in lockdown to sit in a room and let this thing play out, and let’s see what it eventually sounds like at the other end.
How do you feel like your relationship to your art has changed since the pandemic began?
Zain Alam: The piece that you heard, it was driven by a desire, almost kind of like an itch, to think about how I could still make and share sounds – which is the way that I exist and live in the world – while trapped by these circumstances? And can I formally make it a piece that is somewhat responsive to the constraints that are placed upon us in this time?
You’re incorporating a sound that many followers of the faith aren’t hearing as much in their day to day lives and out in the world. How has the limited access to physical spaces – which is such a big part of both music and religion – affected those relationships for you?
Zain Alam: We’re not on the flip side of this. But I do know that at the very least, this has given us an immense appreciation for how we think about and value space. I’ve been thinking about the experience of being in the protests with so many people out on the streets: What is it to make and give intention to a space? What is it to designate a space and time that is coming to life based on the people who occupied that space at the moment, who are participating in it for a specific reason? I think even though we have been deprived of music in the sense of being in a music venue, and have been deprived of getting to go to a Friday or Eid prayer, I have felt that same sensations captured when we’ve all been lined up in the city streets. If you’re ever in a mosque right before the Friday prayer starts, there’s going to be an old uncle who comes by and taps everybody on the shoulder like, “straighten your line, straighten your line, shoulder to shoulder, shoulder to shoulder.” We’re in that same formation as we move down these streets and are all chanting in unison, and then we take a knee and bow down.
How is it now participating in something like Eid virtually?
Zain Alam: We’ve now had two Eids that have been virtual. Me and my parents have been doing the ones with the Islamic Center of NYU. It’s strange, but I think there’s still a lot of value in those experiences, and in experiences like my performance for “We’re Sitting in a Sacred Space.” Because at the end of it, it is still a moment in time that is shared by a group of people. This is a very different topic, but even what you see on those Verzuz things, when people are commenting in real time and having reactions, there is still something to that sense of being there participating. I feel like there is a lot in the virtual area that we still haven’t pushed on.
I’m curious how you see music changing as a result of all these new customs we’ve taken on: Livestreams, Patreons, Bandcamp Friday. Do you see the mechanisms of the industry shifting?
Zain Alam: A lot of what has kept musicians going during the pandemic has been still having some form of human exchange with other musicians and with listeners who really engage with you. I’m only speaking for myself, but my thinking is that a lot of the reason you have seen people do more surprises, dropping on alternate channels, or start discord servers is that there’s long been problems with the way the traditional music institutions have been set up. There’s new platforms and new ways that people are able to build and maintain connection, to sustain links with their family, fans, and community. We are kind of jumping on it not totally knowing where it goes and whether or not it’s going to be profitable, but thinking of it as being a better way of sustaining ourselves spirituality, financially, socially – as well as giving more to the community that takes something from our work. So you’ve seen me do it for Bandcamp Friday now. I think you’re going to see me continue doing it. It is a little bit of a wild West we’re working in now. What does it mean to put out music? What does it mean to have a release? I, for one, am somewhat excited by the freedom, and the feeling of “let’s see where it goes.”
I think it’s interesting that fans have come to see their relationship with music during this time as less of a product and more of a habitual practice. It reminds me of giving alms to support your temple. Bandcamp Friday comes around and people are enthusiastic not just to buy the music that they listen to, but to directly support the artists. I think that motivation is new to this pandemic.
Zain Alam: It reminds me of that meme where the kids at the school table are just throwing water bottles at each other. Even if the money is just kind of switching hands and it’s all going in a circle, there is a sense that through this energy, through this motion, we’re sustaining one another. And in that we’re hopefully hashing out a little bit of the future of what this society might look like when institutions are all kind of surrendering responsibility in a moment when they’re really, really needed to step up.
I know you also just started a Patreon. How do you feel about this new model of direct support?
Zain Alam: I think that it is a really wonderful way for people to move forward. Do I think it’s entirely sustainable for you to give $3 a month to a hundred of your favorite bands? Probably not. But do I think that there’s something there that we can try and hash out where you are supporting your favorite bands with a coffee a month? Let’s try this conceptually. Your four favorite artists all have a Patreon, and you even just make a commitment to yourself that you are going to subscribe to everybody at the $3 or $5 per month model. If you’re somebody who has a thousand Spotify listeners, there’s probably like 300-400 people who love your music enough – who probably live in New York, San Francisco, and have a great tech job – who would be more than willing to give their top four artists a couple bucks. That will pay your rent in New York City. Your rent is paid, and you then all of a sudden have so much less to worry about and so much more of your mental and general energy and time to dedicate to actually making music. Trying to get a hundred people to onboard as a musician is such an achievable number. When you put it in those terms, that is actually a path to some sense of security for your artistic career that is all of a sudden truly self sustaining.
There’s something really powerful about the fan side of that relationship, where you think intentionally about who and how you are going to support an artists’ work.
Zain Alam: I think that’s a really, really beautiful thing. Streaming platforms have done good for us too, but a tip jar isn’t really going to help anybody. There is a little bit more of a model with something like Patreon, where if somebody really supports the work that you’re doing beyond just being an average listener, they’re probably also interested a little bit in the journey, a little bit of the background, maybe even some of the demos and some of the rough edges around your material. There’s so many recordings that I haven’t used. There’s so many archival recordings that maybe will find use one day in Humeysha, but otherwise for the past three or four years have just been sitting on my hard drive. And I do think that there is a community that would love to, instead of scrolling through their timeline one day, perhaps just dig through some of these weird artifacts that have been collected along the Humeysha journey.
There is a whole community just following Playboi Cardi leaks, listening to unfinished, unreleased demos. Then when the song actually does come out, there is even more anticipation or excitement. I think people love listening to odds and ends, and get even more excited when they see those odds and ends resurface in the music. I like that aspect of music as a journey, and Bandcamp Friday and Patreon have shifted perspectives towards supporting music as a practice, rather than simply a product you buy.
Zain Alam: I think that is exactly right. Maybe if we were able to move to a place where people understood music as a practice that is part of a healthy and loving society, we would all of a sudden then realize that the recordings are actually like byproducts of that process and not the ends themselves. That reversal of priorities is one that I think most artists, regardless of their medium, would be extremely happy to see in the world. Thinking of the relationship between artists and listeners as a process of co-creation, where those who are able to can contribute financially to the realization of this music on a more regular rhythm, whether it is through a Bandcamp Friday every month or through a Patreon model. That increased intimacy between artist and listener, I think that’s actually the only way that musicians are going to survive. If I’m being very frank, I don’t see labels coming out to save us at any point. I mean, they probably will need saving at some point.
Let’s talk about the single you most recently released for Bandcamp Friday, “You Always.” It’s the first traditional song you have put out in about a year. Do you see it as a continuation of the music you released in the last few years, or as a new chapter?
Zain Alam: In some ways, it is totally the older sibling to my last EP, Nusrat on the Beach. I held some of the same impulses I was feeling when I was working on that one, of just having a certain looseness in the rhythm and the groove and the tempo that perhaps wasn’t as much present in the very first record and in the follow-up. It felt really good, and opened up a lot of space for the other sounds that are being brought in. I think I dug even deeper into that with “You Always.” Where “You Always” is a bit of a break from the previous music is that it’s the only track up until now that has been exclusively written on and for piano. It came about in my last year of grad school, when I had access to just so many amazing old grand pianos that were never being used. The whole song exists on demo form on piano, and because of it being structured and laid out that minimally, when I brought it to my co-producer on this one Miles Avery, we were able to really just push it quite far. The song was spacious enough in a way that there’s a lot of different interests and impulses, which are all able to live in distinct sections of the song while still being united by a very specific mood. Like most things I’ve made, I do think it marks a bit of another little right turn on the journey.
Did you finish it in COVID or was it already done prior to the pandemic?
Zain Alam: It was mixed prior to the pandemic and mastered in the early part of the pandemic. There was a moment in early March where I was actually hoping to shoot a video for it, with a friend who I haven’t collaborated with before but was really excited to make a video with. When it looked like it was going to take a really long time, I wrestled with the question of whether to wait another year to get a video made for this and put it out when things are back to normal. But there’s so much material I’ve accumulated in this point that I’m really excited about, and that feels very present and current and true to me. It just felt more honest to put the song out in a new, different way for new, different times. To feel like it is one part of the process that I am along rather than this static entity that has to come out in the very static way that we think about music releases.
How has the pandemic affected your anticipated releases? You mentioned this backlog of music. When might we hear some of that?
Zain Alam: I’m just really interested in seeing what kind of weird explosions happen between artists right now. People are really hungry, especially in New York, to work on things. I have been talking to some folks who are shooting music videos upstate, and fortunately we’re at a place in New York now where I took a Covid test yesterday and it came back in four hours. I think people will start making videos again, and I am excited to get back to work with the folks I was supposed to work with in March. I feel like the people that I have grown closer to somehow, even though we were in the pandemic, have actually ended up being in New York. My friend Warren Hildebrand, who also records in Foxes In Fiction, me and him have done remixes for each other. Through him, I have met a lot of other musicians in New York. There is this feeling that we should all just connect, because it’s a moment that everybody’s guard is down and is feeling so vulnerable with one another. And I don’t think it’s necessarily people who work in the same world as me. Whether they are rappers, or people who make more of dream pop, shoegaze music, there’s been a community of people who feel like they were in New York together through this and we’ve seen each other on the streets through a lot of the protests. We clearly share some kind of sensibility through that, so let’s link up. I haven’t thought about that until you asked me, but it has actually felt like I’ve become closer to the people I know here then beforehand. And that might just be because everything else is falling apart.
We think of protests as disruptive to the status quo, but it’s also nice to think about them as generative in fostering community.
Zain Alam: What has struck me the most about the protests is just hearing so many voices in unison. That is really one of the most powerful things you can hear. There’s a quote by Brian Eno that’s like, if you want to feel like you belong to a community and something greater than yourself, just join your local choir. I think he was totally right about that, and I think so many people felt that when they were at the protests. They weren’t really singing, but they were chanting as a way of bearing witness to who was lost, and why they shouldn’t be forgotten. I think that idea of giving voice to something in a rhythmic way, there is something really elemental and fundamental about that, like the primordial human sense of, “What does it mean to see? To be seen? To hear? To be heard?” This is a practice that makes people feel both physically and spiritually connected. Just thinking about how spaces conduct and transmit and echo sound – when silence was horrifying in New York for a moment, and then what it meant to hear people chant for hours on end in the streets. It’s something that’ll make me not take New York for granted.
A protest is you putting yourself in service of something greater, much the way you would at a temple for your religious community. Clearly there’s a lot happening in the world. How do you conceptualize your work in conversation to the broader moment?
Zain Alam: I started grad school for a PhD program in Islamic Studies. After the election, I was like “What am I doing learning Persian and classical Arabic right now? What is the point of that when the Muslim ban is about to come into effect? What is the point of me studying Islamic art in moghul India when people are getting deported and detained?” I still have a similar reaction to that question when I think about the present moment. We obviously are on very different degrees from then on what should be prioritized and what shouldn’t be prioritized. But I actually think it’s incredibly important for people like us to be staking some claim to space, whether it’s virtual or physical. I am setting an intention and a declaration that this kind of sound is really important, and deserves to be heard, and specifically in the context of you listening to its beauty. Not looking at it as something that’s routine, or an annoyance in the neighborhood. You should listen to it with the context of beauty, and I’m taking up space to demand that I have a platform for people to do that. I think with the instruments I use and what I cite in Urdu poetry for my songs, those are all from a reading of history that deserves space. I have a real love for digging into the archives and finding this fragment that I believe deserves a continued life in some way or another. When people are asking us to smooth things over until it’s easier for their understanding, there is something deeply political in saying, no, I’m not going to do that. This is my experience. This is my language. This is what feels true to me, and I believe that deserves to take up space in the world.