By Anand Holla
— Naser Mestarihi, rock-star
For Jordanian-Pakistani rock-star Naser Mestarihi, sending his fingers into a haze of blistering solos comes as naturally as hammering out a bunch of mean riffs on his guitar.
Born and raised in Qatar, Mestarihi has many achievements to his credits; the chief of which perhaps is being the first rock musician ever to officially release a rock album out of Qatar — the Naser Mestarihi EP.
With the singer-songwriter having come out with his new pulsating hard rock album Praed Street, Community catches up with Qatar’s rock hero.
What are your earliest memories of music?
I was four years old and we lived in Fereej Bin Mahmoud. There was an acoustic guitar in my room which my mom had brought from Pakistan and I used to wet myself in sleep every night out of fear of that guitar (laughs). I would have nightmares about the guitar until my dad locked it up in my trunk. The first time I really got a taste of music was when I was six or seven and my dad gave me a cassette of The Beatles.
Both my parents were very cool; they had an amazing collection of cassettes and CDs, and I, too, would later have a fantastic vinyl collection of everything you can imagine. I remember I was seven when I first listened to Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses’ path-breaking debut album). My uncle, who works with Maersk Oil, had once brought a Danish guy’s car. In it, I found this cassette, recorded it and it blew my mind. I would listen to Appetite… on loop while rollerblading or sitting on the Corniche grass and drifting off into my own little California.
Were there any stores in Doha then to discover or buy music?
In Doha of the mid-’90s, I had begun buying records of a range of bands, from Iron Maiden to Slayer. I became obsessed with music. There were lots of music shops in Qatar then; one was on top of Chili’s in Al Sadd, another was in Landmark. But the really massive one was Kraze in Al Sadd. Kraze had everything. That’s where I bought most of my metal music collection from — Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, you name it.
How did you get into playing music?
When I was 12, my mom told me I should take guitar lessons. I wanted to learn to play Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen but my guitar teacher wanted to teach me Paco de Lucia, Bach and flamenco. So I stopped taking lessons after a month (smiles). At 16, I was playing and writing my own music. At 17, I had my own band Asgard Legionnaires. We played original material and Scandinavian metal covers. We were a passionate bunch and were one of the first bands to start playing original metal music in Qatar. People loved it. I started off as a lead guitarist and later took over vocals as well.
How did you turn into a more individualistic rock musician?
That happened when I moved to Dubai for university and my band mates moved with me. Our band had a superb sound. A lot of bands in the Middle East that were becoming established in Dubai respected what we, kids from Doha, were doing. But soon, our band broke up over creative differences. That was mainly because deep down, what I really wanted to write and play was traditional heavy metal with powerful riffs, and not the melodic death metal or neo-classcial metal that our band played. I wanted to be somewhat like a modern-day Iron Maiden.
Was it tough to get back into the scene, stronger, surer?
Around the summer that I quit, I went to London. At a music shop in Piccadilly, I saw the The Cult’s Sonic Temple CD. I hadn’t heard it since I was a kid. It’s classic hard rock and that album changed my life because it took me back to what I really loved. Soon, I started getting back to all my childhood music like The Beatles, The Who, and even Duran Duran, and Eastern music like Ananda Shankar. I would write non-stop riffs and compose several songs on a trot. I put a new band together and we played in Dubai. I was grateful for I had come full circle — I was unapologetically embracing my love for metal and hard rock again. Soon, I began playing solo, and it took me years to find like-minded musicians who could play guitar leads and harmonies with me.
So your four-piece band was now called Naser Mestarihi?
Yes. That’s because I wrote and recorded all my music. Also, after what had happened before, I didn’t want to be pushed to the sides again. I wanted to make sure I had creative control. We began playing in 2012 and it has been a great journey. My first eponymous album came out in 2010, followed by the release of the album 1987 in 2013. I returned to Doha by the end of 2012. I continue to live here while my band remains in Dubai. Even to rehearse, I have to travel about twice a month. Each time, I sit with my band for four days and we go over all the songs to nail the nuances. For me, it’s like being a music conductor.
What about the financial part? You are obviously not doing this for the money?
If I was doing this for money, I would be doing the worst thing ever because I have lost so much money to make this music (smiles). To make my new album Praed Street — recording, producing, collaborating with YouTube drumming sensation Cobus Potgieter — has cost me roughly about QR50,000. I had to scrape up so much money to make it that I went broke. But it’s not about the money. For me, I do this for exposure, so that I can eventually travel the world, visit different countries, play to different audiences and share with lots of people what I want to say with my music. Also, most of my music deals with real issues — from politics to poverty to animal rights. I don’t make wishy-washy music.
What made you splurge on availing the finest musicians and production and running such a hefty expense to make Praed Street rather than settling for less?
Aside from the fact that I am pretty much a perfectionist, I try to set a high standard for my music to be up to par with musicians internationally, whether those in the US or Europe. I am here to prove that you can be from the Middle East or the GCC and have music that is just as good, in terms of song-writing and production as that of bands in the West. Settling for less, at this stage, is not an option anymore. Therefore, I must extend my utmost gratitude to my co-producer Bader al-Sada, Cobus and the Wieslawski Brothers for helping me put together this amazing album.
What does being up on stage, playing to an audience, mean to you?
There’s nothing like it. As much as a cliché it might sound like but pretty much all musicians describe performing on stage as the ultimate high. There’s nothing like stepping onto a stage and playing a lick you once wrote jamming at home and having people clap to or sing with it. Nothing compares to that feeling as it is at that moment when you realise all the struggles are worth it.
Having played across the region, what’s your favourite on-stage experience?
Every gig we play has its own beautiful moments but if I were to choose one, it would be our comeback show last year. We had not played live for a while due to several line-up changes. We had just put together a new band and stepped on stage after only four rehearsals and the audience’s response was incredible. They were singing the songs, chanting, throwing their fists in the air — it was like they really missed seeing us play live. They even refused to even let us off the stage! That was one of the most heart-warming and moving experiences I have ever had in music. I am really grateful to my musician brothers Vivian, Ziad and Irfan for coming into this band and bringing it back to life.
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