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Exclusive: The life and times of Rohail Hyatt
By Madeeha Syed
“I can’t, even for a split second, deny the fact that when fame first hit us (the Vital Signs) at a level that we couldn’t possibly imagine, it felt good,” said Rohail Hyatt. “But I think I soon realised that it’s not my cup of tea. And you know there is no undo button in something like that.”
Although he talked about eluding fame (referring to the moment when the VS released their debut album), it’s been anything but that for Rohail Hyatt for a major part of his career in music. A founding member and one of the creative minds behind Pakistan’s first boy band; as a producer and one of the judges of the popular show Battle of the Bands (2002) which introduced some of the major mainstream acts in music that we know today, to producing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s debut album Charkha as well as the soundtrack of the film Khuda Kay Liye and lately Coke Studio — if it’s fame that Rohail is trying to escape then unfortunately it’s something he’ll have to live with for it almost trails him like a shadow.
In his studio at his home, he was sitting where he always does — in front of the entire sound recording system. The first thing I noticed was the hair. It fell in waves of light brown, framing his face like a mane; but add to that the brown beard, the sturdy built and it all screamed a bohemian lifestyle.
“We call him Babs. If you didn’t know that, then you don’t know anything about him at all,” a member of the Vital Signs (not named here) said to me once about him. But then again, that is the purpose of this visit: to uncover what it means to be Rohail Hyatt.
Rohail’s story begins as a 14-year-old and a member of the Under-19 Rawalpindi cricket team. Back then, it seemed to him that his future was in the sport until he came across Rizwan-ul-Haq (who would later become the second official guitarist of the Vital Signs) at school playing the song A Horse with no Name with a guy called Aamir Salahuddin. Rohail immediately traded his brand-new training sneakers for Rizwan’s guitar. Six months later, his aunt, on a visit from the UK, bought him his first Nylon-stringed guitar and a copy of the Pink Floyd album, The Wall. The year was 1980 and Pink Floyd, coupled with certain ‘influences’ that Rohail had begun to indulge in, changed him completely.
“The year 1982 was when Shahi came into the picture. I met him perhaps the same day that I also met my wife (Umber): at a convent meena bazaar,” he says about Shahzad Hasan, the bassist of the VS. “Shahi was a very close friend. I hung out with him every day; we used to be either at my place or his. His older brother was a mentor for us and we used to do a lot of camping, a lot of outdoor activities such as fishing. Great memories are associated with that time.”
Prior to the Vital Signs or meeting Junaid, Rohail was a member of two underground bands — Progressions and Crude X. Nusrat Hussain, who he cites as a major influence in learning and on his outlook on music along with the global acts of that era, was a member of Progressions whereas Shahi was in Crude X.
“I met Junaid for the first time in 1983. He was not an engineering student yet and had come down from Peshawar, I think, and was performing at a girls’ college in F-6, Islamabad. He was singing Careless Whisper. I managed to get into the hall towards the end,” he remembered. Both Rohail and Shahi were in need of a vocalist for their band and Junaid seemed to be the answer to their prayers. Unfortunately, it was bitterly cold, they had arrived on motorcycles, and they had to go back to Rawalpindi before dark. They did not get the opportunity to speak to Junaid that day.
“I again saw Junaid perform at Flashman’s Hotel in Rawalpindi as the vocalist of a band called Nuts and Bolts, which was the engineering university’s band.” Nusrat had tipped him off with a ‘that kid’s coming back; the guy you liked’ and that ‘perhaps we should go and see him’. See him they did and Junaid joined their (yet unnamed) band.
Several performances later, and after having secured a place in the underground music industry in Islamabad and Lahore, they were approached by Rana Kanwal, a student of the PTV Academy, through Rohail’s brother. She was given an assignment in which she wanted to make a music video and she wanted to make one of a music band. “The song we created for her was Chehra. It was the first song we wrote as an entity and it was also a part of our first album,” said Rohail. The band then caught the attention of Shoaib Mansoor who, back then, taught at the PTV Academy as well.
“In 1987, Shoaib Mansoor took notice and decided that we should do Dil Dil Pakistan. We laughed ourselves silly at the words dil dil Pakistan, we were like ‘Oh God, we’re never going to be able to show our faces, this is embarrassing’. Vital Signs thora sa burger syndrome se suffer karte thaye,” he laughed. “There was a much deeper meaning to the song, and obviously it eluded us at the time.”
The song aired on PTV and later, with the help of sponsorship, spread farther than the band had initially anticipated, becoming one of the premier patriotic anthems of the country. Vital Signs was on the brink of mass popularity but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
Tragedy struck and before they could record their first album, Nusrat left the band. Rohail had heard of a medical student, Salman Ahmed, at the King Edward College in Lahore, who was rumoured to play guitar leads by The Scorpions, Led Zepplin, etc. According to Rohail, it was enough to convince him of Salman’s eligibility for the VS. Salman flew down to Rawalpindi, met the boys and joined the band. His inclusion in the band would change things for them — the tempestuous guitarist had a knack for PR and marketing and with his family, managed to secure a concert for them in Karachi. They met the chief executive of EMI records, Manzoor Bukhari, at Salman’s place and got their first ever record deal.
“We started recording our first album in 1989. The songs were almost all done. Shoaib (Mansoor) Sahib was involved with the lyrics and Arshad (Mehmud) Sahib was involved with the recording process. Everything was hunky dory. I remember going back to Islamabad, the day it was released. We went to Jinnah Market and we heard Gori playing in three four cars… and we couldn’t believe it!” said Rohail.
But somewhere between the first and second albums, Salman Ahmed left the band. In almost every article ever published in the print media, Rohail was squarely blamed for having “issues” with every VS guitarist there ever was. He has never gone on-record to clarify his position either. When questioned, he responded that as a band, Vital Signs has always been a democracy. Every single major decision — including the expulsion or admission of a band member — was done with the consent of the majority.
“Perhaps Salman wanted a direction for the band that was more raw. According to Junaid it was noisier; he didn’t want distortion or too much rock attitude in it,” said Rohail, concluding that “what Salman wanted for Vital Signs, you can see in Junoon.”
The dispute occurred over the metal-heavy guitar solo Salman had done on the song Bichar Ke Jane Wale Logoon which Junaid wasn’t comfortable with. Salman insisted that the solo go, and Junaid insist otherwise. Both were adamant that they be supported in their stance and neither was willing to budge. “Both of them were packed off and sent and I played a lead on the keyboard instead,” said Rohail. “The decision may have tilted in favour of Junaid, but at that stage I had to take care of the situation. I was 20-22 years old and I had my own energies working for me.”
With Salman parting ways with the band, Rizwan-ul-Haq was recruited. Eventually, as the band moved to Karachi, this would prove to be strategically difficult since it was expensive to call Rizwan all the way from Islamabad at every rehearsal. Ultimately, after the second album, the band would part ways with Rizwan too for that very same reason. It would make more sense to them to hire a guitarist from Karachi — which turned out to be Aamir Zaki.
Before that, however, “In the summer of 1990, we shifted to Karachi. We all stacked up in Junaid’s apartment: a newly-married Junaid and his wife, myself, Rizwan, Shahi; sleeping on the drawing room floor and making the second album. But these were the worst times as there was no money. I had to go the EMI office in Site every day. After three months into the album recording, Shoaib (Mansoor) walked out saying the album was useless, crap, and that we (VS) had lost it.”
Junaid took on a full-time job and considered leaving music. At the same time Shahi’s father fell ill and he had to go back to Rawalpindi. Rohail was left to salvage what little was left in an environment of utter uncertainty, “The magic had died. It’s the second-album phenomenon where the belief in it is over. My role in the Vital Signs was in those six months. In hindsight, I believe everything has a purpose. There was a reason I had zero rupees in my pocket. I just couldn’t go back to Pindi as I didn’t have the money. Otherwise mein bhi gaya tha! So you see how Divine will actually sets you up?”
Arshad Mehmud would help Rohail out by picking him up every morning, taking him to Site and sitting there while Rohail finished work on the album. It was rumoured that Rohail shut himself up in the studio for three months. “Besides myself there was Asif Saheb who was the engineer and the unsung hero.” The latter would boost Rohail’s morale by encouraging him to continue believing in the Vital Signs.
“People now say it was our best album; but that phase was perhaps the toughest time,” said Rohail gravely. “I can’t even tell you what sort of darkness you experience… after you’ve tasted that high.” The ‘high’ was of the mass popularity the band gained after the commercial release of Dil Dil Pakistan.
Aamir Zaki, the third guitarist, was asked to leave in 1994. A ‘personal biography’ published online on the Signs stated that the predominant reason was because Aamir had criticised David Gilmour’s guitar-playing while the band was touring the UK and attending a Pink Floyd concert. “That’s ridiculous! That’s one person’s (Aamir’s) opinion. You don’t fight or drop out of bands because of that.”
The Vital Signs did, however, go on a US tour with Aamir Zaki sans Rohail because he disagreed with the manner in which the tour was being managed. “I had an issue with the way contracts were being negotiated with the organisers. It was done in bhai-chara mode. I wanted contracts, advance money in the accounts before we left, and everything to be in black and white.” Rohail then also went on to start a music magazine called Vibes.
The band members reconciled with Rohail on their return from the US but the immediate issue they faced was that in Rohail’s absence, Aamir Zaki had been given the impression that he was going to benefit as a full-time member of the band, and not as a sessions player as he was originally hired for. Finances seemingly played a major role in Aamir’s eviction from the band in 1994. With a major sponsorship deal just around the corner, his position in the band had to be made clear. “He could get a cut out of a concert, there were no issues there. But not from sponsorships,” said Rohail.
With Aamir Zaki out of the picture, in came Assad Ahmed who is also featured in the fourth Vital Signs album, Hum Tum. Said Rohail, “The fourth album was recorded in 14 days. I personally think it’s the best Signs’ album. It was the most ‘my baby’ album.
“Junaid, I remember very clearly, disliked it and the media sort of agreed with him. Perhaps what was happening was that there was a Vital Signs’ overdose by that time. I was very disappointed because I personally thought that this particular line and direction would be welcomed; that finally the Signs were now going somewhere. And mind you, there was another phenomenon happening: it was called Junoon.”
He mentioned how he felt the media constantly compared the Vital Signs to Junoon, as if it was an either/or situation. Why couldn’t both or more bands co-exist? According to him, “I have probably 300-500 different artistes in my music collection. I don’t say move over Police, Duran Duran is here; or move over Oasis, Radiohead’s taken you over. Everything has got its own mood.”
After Hum Tum didn’t do as well as expected, things didn’t look like they were working out to Rohail. “It’s better to leave it on a high end and I couldn’t afford not to. So the second tour I didn’t go on with the Signs came in December 1996, to South Africa. I was setting up the production house here and that was a clear change.
“I think this was a move for the better. At that point, Junaid continued making music. A lot of people think that Junaid maulana ban gaya tha to Vital Signs khatam hua. Nothing of the sort happened. Junaid took out three solo albums after that,” he stated.
With his production house, Pyramid, Rohail took out some memorable shows including Top of the Pops and Battle of the Bands (BOB) that was aired in 2002. The jury included not only Rohail but Shahi and Junaid as well, among others. BOB was important because back then it introduced bands that were previously underground and that are now prominent names in the mainstream media. “It sort of allowed for a whole new generation of artistes to surface and allowed me to take more of the backstage, producer role,” said Rohail. Some of these bands include Mekaal Hasan Band, Mizmaar, Shahzad Hameed, Entity Paradigm and Aaroh.
Rohail wrapped up the production house sometime in 2002. In 2004, the Indian film Paap was released for which Rohail produced the song, Mann Ki Lagan by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, eventually producing Rahat’s entire solo debut album, Charkha (2008). He also worked on the soundtrack of the Pakistani film, Khuda Kay Liye (2007).
There seem to be little gaps in his body of work between 2004 and 2007. How did he… “survive, eh?” Rohail finished the question for me. I nodded. “I’d come down to nothing. Right down to the last thousand rupees in life. We experienced poverty like we had only experienced in the beginning of my career. What happened in 1990 happened again in 2005.”
However, there were opportunities. Rohail was approached by several media networks asking him to head their entertainment/news channels in return for some very attractive packages. “I had this offer and it’s rosy: its ghar, gari, kapra, makan, paisa, sab kuch on the one side. On the other there was only blind faith.” But having previously worked under an organisation before, Rohail was adamant that he was going to be his own master essentially, and that he wouldn’t work on something he didn’t fully believe in. “I remember sitting in this room with Umber and I said: ‘Umber, tough one. Because if this doesn’t work out, do you realise we’re probably moving into a very small place with a very small car. Life’s different, totally different’. She was like, ‘I’m totally for that. I prefer that life to this any day. As long as you don’t become miserable the way you were’. We took that decision that day, said no to the people who had made the generous offer — good of them. I felt very light after taking that decision.”
As fate would have it, the next morning Rohail got a call from a representative of a cola company. They wanted him to do a show and Rohail, keeping in mind that he wanted to represent the classical/folk artistes on the same platform as the pop artistes, decided to work on a music fusion show, also known as C-Studio. The second season of that show is currently doing the rounds on the airwaves and much is being said about it.
Thinking about how he started off, have there ever been plans of the Vital Signs reuniting? Slightly amused, he responds: “No, there is no such plan. And if it’s a plan, it’s actually a scheme.”