Interview: The Kominas on being a Muslim punk band, Taqwacore, and bridging the gap of consciousness between cultures
The Boston-based group formed 10 years ago, and since then has managed to elicit crazed reactions from liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between. Their controversial politics caught the attention of the mass media, and their multi-faceted sound spans not just the length of this country, but transcends cultural nuances in as far-reaching places as Pakistan and Malaysia.
They would eat me alive, I was sure of it.
When I finally got to our appropriate, even ironic, meet up spot — out front of The Middle East, a music venue and restaurant in Cambridge — I was surprised to find these two punks (emphasis on the lower case “p”) raving about iced, mint green tea from the coffee shop next door: The Mariposa Bakery, which would eventually become the setting for this interview. It turns out bassist, Basim Usmani and guitarist, Shahjehan Khan are two pretty down to earth guys, who like most of us, feel just a little bit misunderstood. I sat down with Usmani and Khan (one half of the Kominas) to find out more about what it means to be a Muslim punk, what kind of a message the Kominas are actually trying to send out into the world, how it feels to be back after hiatus, and what’s up with their upcoming performance on Halloween night, when they’ll play as the Ramones at T.T. The Bear’s Place.
Madi Silvers: How did you guys meet?
Basim Usmani: At the Mosque right?
Shahjehan Khan: Yeah. I think we were taking a class maybe.
Usmani: He played guitar, I played bass. Our parents kept on being like “oh you guys should be friends.”
Khan: Yeah, they wanted us to be friends, so…
Usmani: We became friends about eight years, no four years later.
Khan: We might have taken one trip to Guitar Center before that time.
Silvers: Were the other two members involved in this?
Khan: No, just Basim and I. We were like 15.
Silvers: So you guys met first?
Khan: Yeah, and then we kind of re-met again at UMASS Lowell.
Silvers: Are you Pakistani as well?
Silvers: Do a lot of Pakistanis go to UMASS-Lowell, how does that conveniently just work out?
Usmani: That was, uh… fate.
Khan: It’s also not that tough of a school to get into, either, I don’t think. My high school grades were not that good.
Usmani: Yeah my GPA was pretty average.
Silvers: And then Sunny and Karna?
Khan: So Karna was the first real drummer in the Kominas. So we met him. I used to work for somebody whose friends with Karna and his other brother Argen, but it had been Basim and I for like a year.
Silvers: Okay, and what were you guys called then?
Usmani: Same. We were just looking for players. We started the band when we were like 19 or 20 at UMASS.
Silvers: So your parents thought it would be a good idea if you two were friends?
Usmani: They thought it would be a good fit. It wasn’t at the time, but it became one at UMASS Lowell. [laughs]
Silvers: Why wasn’t it a good fit?
Khan: I was not into the same music as he was.
Silvers: What kind of music were you into?
Khan: Rage Against The Machine and Green Day. He was straight goth.
Usmani: Like Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Siouxie and The Banshees, the Cure…
Silvers: Was the Cure considered goth?
Usmani: Yes, Definitely. Especially Seventeen Seconds, Pornography, Disintegration. They have a trio of albums.
Silvers: So, I was wondering about the record label, in general. Are you guys releasing your music independently?
Khan: We tried to start one once.
Usmani: We have tried not to bring paper into the band so far.
Silvers: Like signing contracts and stuff like that?
Usmani: Yeah, exactly.
Silvers: How has that worked out?
Usmani: Complicated. Because, I mean people can say that they are responsible for so much unless it’s laid out formally. But at the same time, you lay it out formally and it stops being fun. People always say work it out on paper while you’re still friends because you won’t be friends forever. It’s so cynical. I don’t know if I buy that, you know?
Khan: We all have other jobs and stuff so we aren’t able to make a living off of it. We’ve been lucky over the years to once in a while work out a show that pays really well and fly’s us out somewhere. But then we get to come back. He’s a journalist and I’m in school and stuff.
Silvers: Do you write for and contribute to Vice?
Silvers: How do you like that?
Usmani: It’s fun.
Silvers: How did that happen?
Usmani: Vice is cool, and so maybe two years into the band I had this weird existential thing where I was like “Fuck, I’m going to move to Pakistan.” I was done with school and I wanted to write for papers and do stuff. I was doing music that I thought was really charged but, I wasn’t sure if people were really getting us.
Silvers: What were you worried they weren’t getting?
Usmani: Just the whole band I guess. It’s hard to say what it is. You know? I just felt like we were going over peoples’ heads. But I would also say that I, uh, pity white kids a lot, too. I mean I pity them because I ran with the punks. I ran with the goths. I ran with the wolves, so to speak. I just felt like they were trying so hard to be relevant. They were trying so hard to be important. A lot of what they learned is from books or movies, but not really first-hand experiences. For us, our politics were actually pretty radical before we even met musically. We were out at pro-Palestinian rallies and stuff like that. It was a lived experience of politics, and I felt that maybe we weren’t getting got, because we were just playing these punk shows and I felt that there was a disconnection.
Khan: It was also after the first album had come out, and obviously it was pretty radical. It’s not that we’re not still a political band, but now it’s more 50-50. This is going to be record four. It’s been 10 years and with the first album we were making more reactionary type stuff that the media picked up on very quickly. It kind of was a double-edged sword for us.
Usmani: They framed it like we were an alternative to conservative Muslims or something, which was kind of missing the point. it’s kind of being like oh, public enemy is so educated compared to these other people.
Khan: It’s kind of like the model minority type thing.
Usmani: I guess that I mean I sort of pity the punks, just because they weren’t really getting why we were the way we were, and the songs we wrote. It was going over their heads, you know? And the banter we would get from them would be just like the banter you would hear that would be racist. People all of a sudden because we have a song called “Sharia Law in The USA” would be like, or they would joke, “Oh they already crossed that boundary.” It’s kind of like “Are we allowed to use the “n” word now?” It’s like “We can joke about you guys being terrorists all the time.” Stuff like that, you know? It was a weird double-edged sword.
Khan: Yeah, it was weird. You kind of look for musical legitimacy, too. I mean, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the vast majority of people that have heard of us was through a news story. That’s cool for a certain amount of time, right? But then it’s like we were really looking for musical legitimacy. If you look at the production of the albums, especially with the new stuff that we are doing, it’s really like living that same kind of experience of expressly having to say certain lyrics, but also wanting it to come out in our music, if that makes any sense.
Silvers: Is that the reason why you are veering away from politics?
Khan: No, I don’t think we are. I think now it’s a 50-50 type deal, and it’s because it has been 10 years, we can do stuff and say stuff without necessarily being over the top about it.
Usmani: I mean people are looking for some other rationale of why we do what we do. No matter what we do, it’s always like there is more scrutiny on us.
Khan: We still get the same shit.
Silvers: What is “the same shit”?
Khan: Well, we get shit from conservative bloggers and stuff.
Usmani: All the time.
Khan: Ones that are just discovering the band for the first time. Like Republican bloggers.
Usmani: Like Republican bloggers for example, if I come out with a piece or something, there is often a site that is rebutting it in the most ignorant ways. It’s hilarious to me because I can be trolled. I can take people harassing me. I’m not a woman. I mean like a woman deal with threats, like in the tech world. Like there have been a lot of things that have come out in the media over the last few months about [woman’s] sexual threats, and threats in general that happen anonymously online. No one is threatening to rape me online. I mean someone is calling me a terrorist online, you know what I mean? But I can laugh it off, in general. So I wrote an editorial in The Boston Globe, and if you read the comments on it, it’s all some crazy Republican — well I don’t want to say crazy Republican — but it’s some crazy racist crap. It’s like “you don’t want to get handcuffed and questioned at the border for four hours, then maybe you should change your name to something like how about, Bill?” If you go through the comments on there…
Khan: That’s one part of our identity, right?
Usmani: I feel that the way we were reported on drove away a lot of young, liberal Muslims too. Because they were like wait, you guys are playing into this whole thing. When the media was writing about us, they were still throwing Muslims under the bus. The media was like “here’s some cool Americanized Muslims.” We tried so hard to be offensive and punk rock after that first record, that I don’t know where they got that whole idea: you know that we’re the Muslims that eat McDonalds and listen to Green Day. There is nothing wrong with that though, I mean, we do both.