DEATH AND THE CITY: A conversation with Babar Sheikh of Dusk about extreme music in Pakistan
Updated: Jun 3
It was via video link that I spoke to Babar Sheikh, band leader of the 27-year strong Pakistani death/doom metal band named Dusk. Speaking to me from a cramped Istanbul hotel room (a city he’d been sent to on a whim for work), Babar seemed unfazed by the lack of inspiration his setting provided. However, determination despite limitation is a familiar and symbolic ethos for Babar.
Being Pakistan’s pioneer of extreme music, Babar has always needed to look further afield for like-minded contributors. Serving as a blessing of sorts, the necessity of branching out has led to recognition throughout Asia and further afield in Europe. Such efforts effectively diminishing any chance of falling into the hometown hero trap.
Throughout the interview, we heavily featured Babar’s home city of Karachi, a place of great notoriety. Karachi’s standing as Pakistan’s economic epicentre is dwarfed by its reputation for corruption, organised crime, murder rates, assassinations, and the unenviable label as one of Asia’s most dangerous cities.
Beyond Karachi, we also discussed topics that ranged from discovering extreme music in Pakistan, his inclusion in a Vice documentary, upcoming music, the Extreme Nation documentary, and navigating his passion in a country where accusations of blasphemy remain a very real threat…
You’re on record stating that Dusk is the first extreme metal band from Pakistan. For anyone who's not familiar, how would how would you describe Dusk?
I don't like making empty claims, but the whole of Pakistan knew each other if you were a metalhead. So definitely I think it would be safe to say that we were the first ones to try this whole extreme sort of style.
Early dusk was a result of my influences that culminated over the years through the late 80s and early 90s, when I was still very young. My initiation to the craft or the art of heavy metal was through Black Sabbath, a life changing moment. I got into more extreme acts like Death from America and a lot of the new bands that were starting out from Europe, like Entombed and Mayhem and discovered black metal through them.
Back in 1994, before we started calling ourselves doom, we put out our first demo. It was pretty mid-tempo fast with some atmospheric moments that have been with Dusk since the beginning. I heard Human by Death, Beneath The Remains by Sepultura, and in 1991 an album by Pestilence, Testimony Of The Ancients.
All of these albums have something in common, they have they have these kinds of little passages of experimental sort of keyboard, sort of weird chords. And I think it was a trend back in the 90s to have these really heavy songs and then in the middle have this kind of very weird, twisted, almost like soundtrack type things.
A cousin who went to school in the UK brought back a tape of Pan.Thy.Monium, a side project of Dan Swanö. They were ballsy enough to play saxophone and lot’s of weird stuff… it's probably the weirdest band that could classify under the moniker of extreme metal and all those influences really helped me. After that it just made sense to play slower, and Sabbath is still my favourite band. It’s kind of like taking influences from a lot of death metal bands, but running it through the circuit of Sabbath.
What do you think the resulting legacy of Dusk is?
I'm not too sure about a legacy man, because honestly speaking, we got our share of initial interviews, and I think people were really blown away back in the back in the 90s when they would feature us in zines and fanzines. They would be like “oh my God, you're from Pakistan. That's crazy!” So there definitely is a legacy of being one of the first.
More than Pakistan, we have a big following in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and even parts in the far east like Thailand and Malaysia. We have to live with that moniker of being categorised as a cult band, sort of like more underground, and we've always stayed there. We haven't really tried to raise ourselves beyond that.
We've probably only played one tour in our entire career of over 20 years, you know. The band in Pakistan does still remain active because of friends of mine from abroad. Even the longest standing member, besides me, my drummer is based out of Singapore and he’s been with us since 2007, almost 14 years, even though he’s not. It’s challenging because you have to find like-minded musicians to make it happen.
Where was that tour?
Czech Republic. We were signed to Epidemie Records, a Prague-based label for our second release and they said “come to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.” We had some Label mates who were from there and I was also involved with some cultural activities in Germany. There was somebody organising it from Germany who wanted to bring us across the border to play one show in Germany.
In fact, it’s very interesting. There’s a cultural project in Germany at the Bay Of Rostock called Stubnitz. It’s this old fishing vessel that some crazy people bought and converted it into an art and performance space. My best friend from Germany, who I know through my involvement in film and art and cultural stuff, is one of the owners of this ship and they were like, “oh, let's bring you guys to play on the ship.”
But, it’s very difficult to be from this part of the world. We need visas from for everything and sadly enough, the other longest standing Dusk member, who's a massive guitar legend in Asia, got his Visa card refused to Germany so we couldn't go and play on that ship. I think the Slovakian visa was crazy, too. Slovakia didn't even have a representation or consulate of Pakistan.
I first discovered Dusk when I saw the Vice Guide To Karachi around 2012. I was fascinated by your segment. How did Vice find you and what was it like showing them around Karachi?
Vice did a piece on Karachi, and compared to then, Karachi is very different from how it was back in the day. There was a lot of really uncool, not good stuff happening at that time. Everything from extortion to murder to like, you know, kidnappings to target killings - these were a big thing in Pakistan and Karachi at that time. Every day they would find a number of new people being murdered.
So, Vice were doing a piece about Karachi and I think they were trying to make sense of what the city had become. This was back in 2011 or 12 when Vice were nowhere near as big as they are now. But they contacted me because of my other bands which are projects that are not really metal, but more experimental. We were playing a lot and we played this small, underground Vice party.
I have a thing for old cars, I’m bit of a petrolhead, and Suroosh had the idea of just driving around. We kind of drove around Karachi and he's like, you know, we're just going to film you. I drove around in this half a century old car yeah, so that's how that sort of five or six minute piece came about, I don't think it was planned. I think it was just a result of us hanging out together.
Babar's segment chaperoning Vice through Karachi
I've read lots of evidence that that seems to suggest that metalheads tend to be quite well adjusted. Something I found really interesting about that whole documentary, including your segment, was that everybody seemed batshit crazy except for you. Bringing this to a question about the artistic community in Karachi, whether about metal bands or artistic communities more generally, would you say that these communities are perhaps more grounded, more pragmatic, and more rational than the rest of society in Pakistan?
That's a very interesting question that you just asked. I think you kind of answered the question, that was the answer right in the beginning. I think adjustment plays a big role in who you are, identity, relatability, sense of belonging. I think these are essentially all interconnected and kind of inform who you are as a personality, especially for artists.
If I turn back to when we had an era in Pakistan where we had army generals in power and martial law was happening. This is regarded by people with a more left sort of opinion as the worst time in Pakistan that gave rise to extremism to more intolerant thinking and ideals etc. But as artists, I think some of the best art was created during that time. So, what does that say? That says that artists adjust themselves to what they have, you know.
Vice was trying to pick up on this mad chaos of Karachi, but this mad chaos of Karachi is something I’ve lived with and something I’ve tried to find solace within. Karachi is a weird city where you can find everyone and everything that you’re looking for. I don't know if it's the geographic location, or the fact that it's the port city, but it's also a city where you have all nationalities of Pakistan who have come there to sort of make a living.
Karachi has been a part of Dusk since the beginning and when I went to art school, I kind of tried to join the dots between the artistic work that I was doing like design and painting etc and bring it back to metal. I think a sense of belonging and relatability are things that artists automatically resonate with.
In the Vice documentary you mentioned that you discovered Black Sabbath at the age of nine. How did you discover Black Sabbath at the age of nine in Pakistan?
That’s a crazy story. We had just moved to a new house, pretty much the centre of Karachi, and in this neighbourhood there were these people who were my elders, young men with kids. They had been fans of rock and hard rock in the 70s and one of them was so passionate, and I remember having conversations with them about it. I remember one conversation with one of these guys about it and he had these really heavy shopping bags that were like, digging into his fingers while just standing there for ten minutes. Still to date, he’s probably one of the most dedicated heavy metal fans I’ve met. My dad was never into Western music, so I would just listen to these other guys talk about it without having actually listened to it. So, I had that narrative and imagery in my imagination.
I still remember, it was monsoon. Monsoon is a big thing in Pakistan and India. And I went to his room where he had this sound system. He was an electrical engineer and he’d built these massive speakers with all these wires all soldered together. He played me three songs. The first was Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath. And of course, you’re listening to the rain outside, and then you were listening to the thunder and the rain and the bells and then that one note of guitar. I listened to that whole song and that was the defining moment. Then I listened to Speed King and Child In Time by Deep Purple. I listened to those three songs at very high volume and it was such a massive sound. I think I was captivated for days after that. It was like, man, what was that?
Nothing short of that, yeah.
So, Dusk started in 1994. You mentioned you were influenced by Mayhem, Death, black metal, death metal. But how were you acquiring all this music throughout the 90s in Pakistan?
Back in the 80s and 90s I was buying music from these shops that would make music copies for you. Remember the TDK and Sony tapes? If you said you wanted, say, Headless Cross by Black Sabbath, they’d make a copy for you on tape. You could listen before and they’d print out the song list. Many kids would sit there and make selections, or mixtapes as they’re now called.
It was actually how I discovered Death. A friend from school told me “if you really like extreme music, go to this shop, they have a band called Death”. I was shocked, like “woah, they’re called Death?!” and he was like, “either the band is called Human and the album’s called Death, or the band is called Death and the album’s called Human.” In my heart I was like “I so badly want this band to be called Death!”
A lot of it was the result of people bringing back tapes and CDs from abroad. In the early 90s, I went to the UK to visit some of my family with my parents and I got a lot of LPs. I gave my LPs to these guys who kept them for 10 days and did the same. They made copies on Master Chrome tapes and then gave them back. So it was like, sharing your wealth, sharing what you have.
Another thing that really helped was knowledge. It wasn’t just listening to extreme metal but reading about extreme metal that made me so passionate. We’d go to the old paper market and go into piles and piles of magazines to find something that could be really extreme. Everything was there. Sometimes you’d find Karrang, but the real thing was Metal Maniacs from the US.
Metal Maniacs was edited by a person called Catherine Ludwig, may she rest in peace. She was battling an illness up until a few years ago. But this was my go-to magazine. I would go through piles of magazines about fashion, music, film, country music, rock, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking primarily for metal maniacs and for what metal maniacs had. Even if you go to Google Images and you write Metal Maniacs, you would see that it was very small fine print and it was really helter skelter inside, so it had that vibe of a fanzine, but it was not. It was on cheap paper, wasn’t coloured, it had some coloured pages but it was primarily black and white. And yeah, there was something very special about getting to know metal like this. Not just listening, but also reading about it.
How do you think that stuff was making its way into Karachi?
All these old paper markets would import all of this stuff. It was all essentially excess stock that became wastepaper that was then sent to South Asia for food. You know, even if you buy a sweet potato from this guy selling them on the road, he would put it in a page from an old magazine or an old directory with some masala and give it to you.
So you would go through piles and then a guy would give you a price for it. The tactic was to look really disinterested in them as at the time I had hardly any money. So you really had to pray to be able to pay the price that the guy would give you. If I bought some Metal Maniacs, it was a huge victory. I would spend hours and hours every night just in bed reading those.
Fascinating to hear about you rummaging through big masses of paper just to find some clippings from metal magazines.
Thanks man. That’s just how I’ve grown up.
That’s the kind of stuff people in the West could never fathom having to do at such a young age.
Exactly, because you could just go to a newsagent. I mean, I was lucky enough to travel a lot when I was younger, so I had opportunities to buy something off the shelf, too. I was super young at the time, and come to think of it, you don’t see kids at it nowadays. I don’t think anybody would let their kids travel on a bus or on public transport so far out on their own. I had an older cousin who would bring me there. He wasn’t into metal, but music more generally. He would just buy one or two magazines, but he would help me. It was an amazing experience.
So, I believe Dusk has a new album coming out. What can you tell us about that?
This album has taken its toll on me, really. This album has existed in my head for, I think close to five years now. I randomly record the riffs from my guitar on here [computer], but if I don't have a guitar, I will sing the riff onto this [phone]. I think most people do it like this nowadays.
After I record it I send it to Halim, who's my drummer in Singapore. I put a structure together and he plays drums on it. But then the pandemic happened and all of a sudden I had all the time in the world. So I took the luxury of time and spent most of 2020 tracking on my own with very little help from anyone. I was thinking that a few of my friends from other projects could help me with overdubs because I’m not really a guitar player. I play rhythm guitar and bass. I hear stuff in my head, explain it to Farraz, and ask, “why can’t we have something like that?”
I was playing all of the guitar, so when it came to the bass I was so done. I needed a hand, someone’s contribution. A friend of mine, Mike Bloodcurse, plays for Ilemauzar, a black metal band and one of Singapore’s oldest. We’ve known each other since the 90s and he never says no to anything. He said “I don’t mind playing bass.” The gentleman who's actually mixing and co-producing the album with me is also playing all the guitar leads, and he's a big personality in the world of progressive metal called Santiago Dobles from Aghora. Thanks to the Internet, I’m in touch with most of my heroes from the 90s. You know, I'm in touch with Paul Masvidal from Cynic. In Touch with Patrick Mimili from Testament. Scott from The Obsessed. These guys are super nice.
A lot of my influences now have made their way to Dusk on the new album. I play a lot of parts where it's just very sort of droning, repetitive chords. And a lot of that blame doesn't come from me listening to any drone music, but a lot of those influences come from listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, a lot of folk stuff from the Asian subcontinent, a lot of early blues like Skip James and Muddy Waters. I have a lot of influences. I love Kate Bush. I’m heavily into Killing Joke, I’m heavily into Einstürzende Neubauten. My German friends always make me say that twice so they can laugh at me.
Don’t worry, I can’t say Einstürzende Neubauten either. I’m glad you mentioned those 70s and 80s post-punk and new wave influences. It was such a creatively potent era and I’ve picked up that you are into lots of that stuff. But I’m curious because I know you made an album called Contrary Beliefs that was an ambient atmospheric record that channelled those bands. How did that come about?
Contrary Beliefs was a transitional album. When myself and Faraz parted ways, I wanted to go back to playing a prototypical doom/death sound. But then, a friend of mine who was really into Mayhem and Burzum got into a lot of dub and electronic music while studying in the UK. When he got back to Pakistan, he had a basic version of Logic on his laptop and he said “let’s put together a new project” and I thought he was mad. I said “Fuck no. I want to call it Dusk and it can just be an album.” Like, how extreme would it be to have an album with no guitars, you know?
Now, in hindsight I look at it and it probably was a mistake. Well, nothing is a mistake, just now people think Dusk isn’t confirmed to one style. It had a lot of different influences from myself Ismail who was playing with me. Indirectly, it was really influenced by stuff like Joy Division, Depeche Mode and, you know, a lot of Kraftwerk for sure, and a lot of other obscure Austrian German sort of influences that he was bringing to the table. Also this band called Ozric Tentacles from the UK that he was friends with.
I used to work in the theatre and I got my theatrical friends and some of my folk musician friends to sing stuff. Then we’d take it to the computer and mess with it, with their voices and make it sound like something else. I remember the record label, Epidemie Records, listened to it and said “I thought this was going to be a Dusk album? This is not what we were expecting.” But they put it out in a small quantity with a really lovely and beautiful album sleeve. I’m thankful to them for believing in the album. But this is how Contrary Beliefs happened, a really weird, off the bat kind of album.
I'm wondering if you've seen this recent documentary on the South Asian metal scene called Extreme Nation. If you've seen it, what did you think of it?
I was contacted by them to be a part of the film, but for some reason or another I couldn’t be a part of it. I did see the film. I think it's got an interesting perspective. I think the narrative is trying to inform the viewers what it’s like to be part of the South Asian metal scene. But you’ve been talking to me for one hour now, and you can see that my version of the narrative of being an extreme metal band in South Asia is very different from whatever narratives you're experiencing from that film.
I feel one of the primary powers of metal is honesty. Metal is not contrived. If it is, or if it’s pretentious, it’s not going to stay with you. There’s a lot of beauty in the honest narrative of those bands and trying to see beyond that is not necessary. It’s great for me to see all this because a lot of these people I know personally, and it’s really good to see them collectively being a part of this film.
I guess you are pretty familiar with the bands in the film then. There was a Pakistani band from Lahore called Multinational Corporations. Are You friends with the vocalist, Hassan Amin? And have you ever seen them perform before?
I have never seen them perform, but I have met Hassan before. He came to Karachi once and it was a lovely meeting. He showed up at one of my workplaces, we hung out, had a cup of tea, and exchanged some seven-inch vinyl. It was a lovely meeting, but that was the only exchange I’ve had with him aside from email and Facebook and stuff. It’s good to see a band with punk and grindcore influences given the political situation of Pakistan. The fact that someone is being the flag bearer for that movement is really cool.
There was a point in that film where Hassan started to have some reservations about the things he said. And he was trying to talk to the director, Roy Dipankar, about essentially withdrawing some of the comments he'd made from the film. It seemed like he was scared of some kind of political reprisal. Do you think this is a real concern for artists in Pakistan? Like, if you speak out against the government in a very public way, they will target you as a result.
I’m aware of that whole episode, but I don’t really know what the content was so I’m not really able to comment clearly. There was a time in the 70s and 80s during the martial law where you would be arrested for voicing your opinions and thoughts. If there was a fear, I’m sure the fear was valid. Or maybe you say something and then later think about the repercussions. And you were right. I mean, a lot of people in the West probably can't make sense of what it would actually entail for him.
Speaking of knowledge and power, you have the former Pakistani cricket captain, Imran Khan, in power right now. What is the cultural climate like under Khan? Have things kind of opened up, or is there more censorship, corruption, blasphemy trials and things of that nature?
Well, the cultural climate is pretty much the same. I think societies, not only Pakistan but across the world, are becoming much less tolerant of each other as human beings. Everyone’s so riled up and so wired and so frustrated that it’s just being translated as intolerance.
Imran Khan came into the picture with a clear agenda to stop corruption. The common belief is that nobody really thinks he isn’t corrupt himself. He’s had a great impact on the economy and as a result unemployment and inflation are nuts. Just as a disclaimer, I’m the last person you should be speaking to about politics. But as a national of Pakistan, I can tell you that the inflation has really broken the back of the common man. It’s not easy to survive on minimum wages and salaries.
There have been positive things like the exports have increased a lot. People are using local products because imports have been cancelled out. I definitely think we in Pakistan suffer from a kind of inferiority complex where we want to buy foreign products. It’s only good if it has a foreign label. So that is changing.
Dusk’s music is really hard to find online. What do you recommend for anyone who's interested in the band? What's the best way to find Dusk’s music?
My advice would be, hold your horses. I’m already in talks with a record label from Pakistan, and they’re more than a record label, they’re a service that helps you put your music online. I’m going to close the deal with them by the end of the month, so hopefully within two months, we’ll have everything online. Most of my stuff will be on Spotify and Apple Music. But I’m actively engaging now because it’s tough to do yourself. I could spend two days in a room and manage to get everything online, but it’s difficult to put yourself in that organisational mental state to put everything up. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, so soon we will have an online footprint.
So Dusk is coming to Spotify then?
Dusk is coming to Spotify, it’s definitely happening.