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New York-Based Music Director Atif Afzal Talks Metal Roots, Making It in the Composing Space

The Mumbai native has so far contributed music to ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ as well as a recent relaunch of ‘The Twilight Zone’

Anurag Tagat Oct 12, 2020

New York-based music director and multi-instrumentalist Atif Afzal.

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If there’s a more familiar kind of career arc that you can come across in Indian musicians now, the likes of  Mumbai-bred, New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Atif Afzal stand testament to resilience. Originally in metal band Nemesis as a guitarist, he moved into a safer corporate job but by 2013, he had helmed music for one of his first film projects, a Hindi thriller called Prague. He says over the phone from New York. “The moment I stepped into this [music composing] in 2009 or so… obviously it makes no sense to step into something if you cannot dream, or dream big.”

After several visits to network and reach out to the film music world in the U.S. via festivals and events, Afzal moved to New York in early 2018, on the back of interviewing for heavyweight composer Hans Zimmer. The opportunity to assist Zimmer on a score was a near-miss for the Indian composer due to work permit issues, but he does count it as a boost to strive harder and get his foot in the door. With about eight years of working in composing, Afzal’s credits include 2013 Bollywood film Monsoon Shootout, a German film called The Gift (2019) and in 2020 alone, pieces for long-running action T.V. show NCIS: Los Angeles and the web series iteration of sci-fi show The Twilight Zone. “It just feels… it’s a very surreal feeling, man,” Afzal says about his ongoing projects.

In an interview with Rolling Stone India, the composer talks about whether his rock and metal roots inform his tastes as a composer, the current situation in the composing world and World Music Hub, an artificial intelligence-based website that will help music supervisors. Excerpts:

When did you shift to New York?

I think February of 2018 but the whole process started way earlier. It started off in 2013-14 where I would come to the U.S. to explore markets, I interviewed with Hans Zimmer to assist him, that happened, but then I lost out on some stuff because of a work permit. It’s very difficult here, you cannot work without a permit. You need to be legally allowed to work here.

How hard has the pandemic hit the film industry as well as the music industry? What is it like right now to be a composer in New York?

It’s [laughs].. that’s a good question because in general, it is of course, testing times for everyone. A lot of production had stopped, especially a lot of commercials have stopped. But luckily for me, believe it or not, this happened right at the brink of the pandemic – The NCIS: Los Angeles [project] happened just between the pandemic, and then once that happened, The Twilight Zone happened right after that, so me personally, I think I just got lucky during the pandemic. Although, yeah, overall things are slightly difficult and challenging, but yeah, TV series don’t stop and stuff is going on throughout.

What is it like getting your foot in the door when it comes to being noticed in a very crowded music industry that they have in the U.S.?

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It just feels really cool. I don’t know if you know about my background, but I was with a heavy metal band called Nemesis, 15 years back. Back then, you’re like, ‘Wow this is amazing!’ but then will you ever be able to make a life out of it. The moment I stepped into this [film music composing] in 2009-2010, I really didn’t know the journey it would lead to, out here [in New York] and stuff. I was pretty happy doing all my Bollywood films and whatever projects in India. But to come to your question, yeah it’s surreal. Being recognized by America’s top network like CBS and then getting another project after that was even more rewarding because they really loved your work, so it’s just amazing.

You were part of Nemesis and also a previous band called Deus Ex Machina. How did this perhaps shape what you do with scores?

A few people knew about Nemesis. Nemesis was a big band back then, but no one knew about other bands, so I really appreciate you asking about it.

It’s like a journey, right? To… where you evolve as a musician. Like today, I play instruments like the saaz, oud, African drums, djembe, what not, but it all starts somewhere. I started off with the mouth organ and some country-style playing as well as just exploring that and a lot of guitars. When I got to playing guitar, back then, rock was really big.

That time we didn’t have any dubstep or glitch-hop, etc. So rock was something really popular in college. I got into bands, played for several bands. Nemesis was one notable band out of all of them, I was on lead guitars, as well as vocals.

But yeah, there was no conscious effort that I want to get into rock music when I’m doing film, because I’ve done a lot of thrillers, lot of action, so I had to be prepared to be doing any kind of composing, so that is the kind of challenge. Rock does play a big part in my career because that’s where I started off, but yes, I had to evolve, learn more stuff, not because it was required but I love music, I love experimenting.

Listen to “Din Kabhi” from the Hindi movie ‘Prague’ below.

What was your gateway to American music space? Did you take on any music courses in the U.S.?

I never studied music in America. Before coming to America, I’d done a ton of studies. I’m not talking about my Indian music. I have studied classical piano, orchestration, arranging quartets and quintets, etc, opera, Western voice modulation from Royal College of Music [London]. A lot of this has gone on before I came here. After I came here, it was not much of doing any course because you don’t have.. you’re just like between a lot of work. But I can keep studying. No Conservatory or Berklee or anything of here as such. I think Hans Zimmer’s interview was my biggest course I would say, because that’s what’s led me here eventually.

When was that?

Well, it’s been going on because it started off in 2014, when I just went to [Zimmer’s film score company] Remote Control Productions and I said, ‘I’ve come from India.’ They were like, ‘Hey, it’s not the way it works here in the U.S.. You have to set up an appointment.’ But I didn’t care.

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I was in Santa Monica, I would save money, come here, meet people, producers, composers, etc. And then he interviewed again in mid-2018 or around then and it wasn’t going to be just for an assistantship. That was the motivating factor for me because I’m like, ‘Man, I’m losing an assistant gig with Hans Zimmer!’ I think that time he was working on Interstellar or what I don’t remember. I had to figure it out. That’s what led to me working this whole thing out.

You mentioned Santa Monica. Were you already in the U.S. at that point for your day job?

Oh no. That time I did not have a work permit. So I would make two trips in a year to the U.S. and attend the AFI Festival or during the Golden Globes screening, then I got to meet certain key people, programming people from Golden Globes. It led somewhere, I met some important producers who introduced me to other people. It would be a three week trip, one week in New York, two weeks in L.A., because these are the two places where work’s happening. I kept building a network and yeah, that’s how… When CBS happened, I didn’t reach out to CBS. One of the music supervisors knew that I do this kinda music, and they reached to me and connected me to CBS, and then CBS hired me. That’s a big part of the game, you have to keep meeting, you have to keep showcasing your talent.

As someone working on an AI-based project like World Music Hub, I wanted to get your thoughts on what you think about algorithms and AI doing some of the work that musicians do. Do you feel like it’s replacing some human aspect of this?

[Laughs] That’s a scare a lot of people have, but that’s never going to happen, according to me. It can happen on some small level. You will never ever see a score for a film ever being composed by AI. That’s my opinion.

Now so.. this is called World Music Hub, it’s an AI-based neumorphism styled website and it basically helps music supervisors to get the exact kind of track that they need, but not only the track, it also kind of stitches everything. The music library is created by me.

It just really gives them a different perspective where they are seeing ready-made scores for their film. It also tosses other options based on their inputs that they have entered, the parameters.

I think everything keeps evolving. 10 years back, we didn’t have smartphones, we couldn’t record this way, etc. If I have studied engineering, and I’m an electronics engineer, then I’m a musician. So if I can combine both my expertise into a thing that can evolve or take this whole thing to the next level, I’m really excited.

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