Timothy Leung – Grooving With Har Ik Zehr
Every once in a while, I am blessed to find something that is off the beaten path, musically, and that something fits into my life the right way at the right time! Such is the case, and that day, my friend Timothy Leung sent me the disc of Har Ik Zehr (www.harikzehr.com), the New York City –based band in which he is the bassist and backing vocalist. What a cool experience I had riding along with them through sing-song-y pop, driving rock, and spoken-word pieces. Each tune drips with a haunted deep consciousness with lyrics punctuated by Timothy’s dancing contrabass guitar!
BAJ: Timothy, my man! Thanks for sending the new materials to me! Great stuff! I also wanted to comment that you’re an incredible “band player”. Thanks for that, too! Tell our readers about your musical background, and what drives you to be the player you’ve become.
TL: You are very welcome! Thanks so much for taking the time to listen to my band’s music, and interviewing me. I started playing piano at around 8 years old, and then guitar at 12… with short stints with trumpet and violin. I played guitar through college, and, sort of, gave it up when I moved to NYC to work in the fashion industry about 10 years ago. Being a designer by profession, I had this bright idea to design and build a bass guitar! I had built an electric guitar in high school… so a bass couldn’t be that much more difficult! (Laughter) Never content with doing things the “normal” way, I designed myself a 6-string electric bass guitar. I had originally planned a 7 or 8-string instrument, and have been since kicking myself for not having also built one of those. So, after maybe 8 months of designing and correspondence with Matt Schmill of FBB Custom Bass Works, and another 8 months of waiting for it to get built, I had myself a 6-string instrument that I didn’t yet know how to play very well!
So from 2002-2005 I just played bass on and off at home, while also going to a few auditions for bands that didn’t really go anywhere. During the summer of 2008 Amish Dar contacted me on the social networking website Friendster.com and asks if I would be interested in jamming with him and his drummer Richard Orjuela – as they had lost their bassist and 2nd guitarist. After a few emails, I went out to Astoria, Queens to jam with them, and after 3 hours of playing, they took me back to the subway… and asked if I wanted to be in their music video! I responded, “Am I in the band yet?” The rest is history.
Switching to bass was the best musical career move that I could have made. Something just clicked with my personality! I have always been more comfortable in a supporting role rather than a lead role. So moving to bass guitar was very natural to me. I most enjoy working within the parameters of the song, playing tastefully, and filling up the sonic space between the guitar, vocals, and drums. My goal as a bassist, is to first listen to what the song needs, and then play what is necessary, and embellishing only when it makes the song better.
BAJ: Har Ik Zehr (which means “Every Single Poison” in Urdu) is a trio that features a Pakistan-born and raised guitarist, and a Columbian-American drummer, along with you, a Chinese-American. How does each cultural and racial heritage play a part in the band? Has your heritage played an important part in your musical development?
TL: We are a really weird band! It’s not often that you find a Pakistani, a Colombian-American, and a Chinese-American in the same band. It’s almost like the entire world outside of America in one band! (Laughter) You can hear the Eastern and South Asian influences in Muhammad Amish Darr’s song writing, singing, and guitar playing; and you can feel Richard Orjuela’s Latin sense of groove. I think my contribution would be more harmony-based, both in a musically and structurally – building a bridge between the vocals, guitar, and drums. I don’t know how to say it really, but some basis for “togetherness” factor. So to answer the question, our individual heritage does play a part… but the music becomes something different, and greater than just the combination of our cultural backgrounds or musical influences.
Also, we are sort of the “anti-sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll band”. You won’t find us passed out at the bar, or in the gutter or anything of the sort. Our music explores faith, the nature of God, the world, life, relationships, and the human. Each of us has our own point of view about these aspects, and while we don’t always agree, we respect each other’s point of view. It is too easy get caught-up about race and culture, and focus on all of the miniscule differences that seem to get blown out of proportion. When we are together, we cast away any stereotypes about how people of other cultures are, and we just learn about each other with open minds and hearts.
It’s a multi-cultural musical and social experiment. It just proves that people of different cultural backgrounds can come together, create, and inspire each other positively. I am so blessed to be a part of this band with such talented musicians and great people. We push each other to be better musicians and better versions of ourselves…
BAJ: What kind of reception is the band getting from the East Coast?
TL: I am not sure how we are really being received here in NYC. There are thousands of bands here trying to “make it”, and we try our best to get people to come out and see us play. That being said, we do have a core group of people that come out regularly, and it seems to be growing with each show we play. I know that we are one of the few bands that perform original Urdu and English rock music here, and we always put on a great show…
When I played in standard tuning, I found myself lost in the mix between the bass drum, and the guitar’s lower register. The “sub-bass” tuning allows me to play both in normal electric bass range, and 1 full octave below, which is completely out of the sonic range of the other instruments, so there is no overlap. Also what’s cool is that all the drop tunings are available without having to re-tune!
The tuning has an E = 20.6 hz as the lowest string, and is tuned in 4ths up to the highest string, which is an F. It’s basically 1 octave below standard electric bass guitar tuning. I am using a Warwick .175 string for the low-E string. The rest of the strings are Ken Smith Stainless Steels. I just changed the pickups to Nordstrand Big Singles as I wanted something more organic sounding. Before, it had Bartolini soap bar pickups and a 3-band active onboard preamp. Because I have such a low tuning, the preamp started to cut out when I played the lower notes really hard, and it couldn’t recover. As I didn’t fuss with the tone controls in the first place, it made sense to change the pickups and go passive. I also have a 4 string Peavey Zodiac bass that I just got that will be kept in standard tuning. It’s just for taking to lessons, and goofing around at the moment.
My bass rig is consists of a Tech 21 RPM preamp, a QSC PLX1804 power amp, and a Dr. Bass 1580 3-way speaker cabinet. It was the first ones they built with a Beyma G40 15″ woofer. I don’t really use effects… but I have a Korg DT-10 pedal tuner and a BBE Sound Opto-Stomp compression pedal. This is by far the best rig that I have owned! It’s very simple, loud, and handles my low tuning without breaking a sweat! When we play out, we usually use the backline equipment provided by the club. It’s not ideal, but it beats moving equipment around in yellow cabs.
BAJ: Will Har Ik Zehr touring at this time? What kind of gigs are you most finding yourselves playing at this writing?
TL: My band-mates and I have quite different life situations right now that prevent us from playing outside of the Tri-State area. Our singer is finishing up his Degree in Economics at Queens College. Our drummer Richard is raising a family, and working as a junior high school teacher. I also work full-time in the fashion industry as a patternmaker/technical designer. So it’s pretty tough to balance our work/home life with our band. That being said, we still manage to rehearse and play shows in and around NYC. We usually play at rock clubs like Arlene’s Grocery, The Knitting Factory, and we played CBGB’s… before they closed! Lately we have been playing “South Asian” cultural events at NYU, and charity/benefit events.
BAJ: You also play guitar and piano! Do you use these tools to write, mostly? Or, when can we expect a Timothy Leung solo release?
TL: Since my move to NYC (from California), the other instruments have taken a back seat. I am planning on getting a digital piano so I can get back into playing keyboards! I play guitar pretty much for my own amusement, or to come up with different musical ideas. I think it helps to get myself away from the main instrument where I can get stuck in rut.
As for a solo release… maybe, in the distant future… I would like to do some solo bass compositions… or do a country album. Right now Har Ik Zehr is keeping me pretty busy.
BAJ: Have you given thought to designing more instruments for yourself?
TL: I am currently working on my 2nd custom bass guitar which will also be built by Matt Schmill of FBB Custom Bass Works. The design process has gone on for about 2 years now. The hardware was made by ETS and Basslab, and the pickup is being custom made by Clint Searcy of Searcy String Works. I am trying to keep this project under wraps until I put down my deposit to start the build sometime in September or October of this year… Clint just posted a blog that he has started working on the pickup as we speak. You can check it out at: http://searcystringworks.blogspot.com.
BAJ: What other musical activities are you involved in at this writing?
TL: I am currently taking bass lessons from John Carey here in NYC. He’s helping me with music theory, and technique. Other than that, I am just too busy with Har Ik Zehr, and my day job. As the default manager of the band, I have to keep everything in order, schedule rehearsals, shows, prepare press materials, and update our websites. I am also the “historian” of the band. I have most of our rehearsals recorded going back to late 2005. It’s amazing to look back at where we started, and where we are now! I’m sure this material will come in handy…
One of my favorite guitarists of all time is Vito Bratta of White Lion. He played such beautiful, almost violin-like solos on the electric guitar. I also liked bands like Then later on, I got into Cream, Eric Clapton, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Police, and Rush. And, even later, I got into Techno, Trance, and European Death Metal…
With respect to bass guitar, I’d say that some of my influences are Sting during his Police days, Geddy Lee, John Myung, Doug Pinnick of King’s X, Tony Kanal of No Doubt, Carlos D of Interpol, and Jimmy Haslip. I also like Baroque music, especially J.S. Bach. One day I’d like to sit down and learn his Cello Suites on bass, and maybe even on cello.
These days, when I’m not listening to Har Ik Zehr rehearsal or show recordings, I listen to anything that sounds good to me, even country. Los Lonely Boys, Cream, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Brand New Heavies, Mike Patton and the Metropole Orchestra, Fiction Plane, Ney Conceição of the Nossa Trio, Yves Carbonne, John Coltrane… Fiction Plane is an interesting band. I saw them open up for The Police at Madison Square Gardens on Halloween 2007. I thought they were The Police in costume. I later found out that the singer is Sting’s son Joe Sumner. They sounded great, sort of like a modern take on The Police mixed with some bits of U2 and Coldplay! I am particularly fond of power trios like The Police, Rush, Cream, and my band Har Ik Zehr. It requires that all of the musicians be at the top of their game, and gives them time to lock in with each other, and to shine on their own. Also, I’m trying to get back into Motown music because there are some really great bass playing on those recordings.
BAJ: I particularly appreciated the documentary DVD you sent along with the CD! When can our readers expect a performance DVD of Har Ik Zehr? Also, how has the response been to your release at MySpace (www.myspace.com/harikzejhr), CDBaby (www.cdbaby.com/harikzehr), and Kiva (http://kiva.org/lender/harikzehr)?
TL: The documentary DVD has a pretty funny story. We thought that it would be a good idea to do this sort of thing so that people could find out more about us. Around the time we made the DVD, they were accepting submissions for the show “The Next Great American Band”… So we decided to submit the long 19 minute version. Nothing ever became of it, but looking back, it was find… We learned so much making the DVD from being in front of a camera, interviewing, that nothing is ever guaranteed. Then, it was actually played on a show called “The Beat” on Bridges TV in Buffalo, NY in December of 2007.
We would love to record a CD, and film a performance DVD. We have about 20 songs that we can readily prepare for shows, and even recording, along with another 10 songs that just need finishing. The only thing preventing us right now is that we don’t have enough money to do either. We are hoping that in the near future this will change. We are actually planning a music video for a song entitled “5:09” that we already have recorded. We are working with a director right now to try to figure out the storyline and how best to shoot it.
Shortly after we released our Demo/EP at the end of 2006 on CD Baby, it was played on PBS 106.7FM in Melbourne, Australia, Harris Radio in Brooklyn, NY, and the BBC’s Asian Network in the UK. It has also been played Radio 1, FM 91 in Karachi, Pakistan, along with a 20 minute interview that we did with them.
So far, the response has been positive, but it seems to have been a tough sell due to the changing climate of the music industry and the acceptance of non-English music here in America. That being said, we have been selling a few paid downloads each month on Apple iTunes. I feel that there is a buzz going around about Har Ik Zehr here in New York among the “Desi/South Asian” community, as more of them seem to be coming out to see us at our shows. We have had requests to play out in Boston, and San Francisco, but we have been unable to get out there. I think quite a few people around the world know about us, but they are just waiting for us to release a properly recorded album and music video…
Also, sometime in late August of this year, the MTV World website and channel is scheduled to re-launch. They came out to film us along with the band Zerobridge and Catjaw at a benefit concert for the Arshad Public School in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan that was destroyed in the 2005 earthquake over there. The turnout for this show was really great, and the charity organization Develop Pakistan actually made their donation target amount.
Also, we just played 2 really great shows, one on July 19th at Washington Square Park in NYC for an organization called Heal the Rift. This is a non-profit organization started by 4 students at Middlebury College in Vermont that fosters positive and constructive dialog between the West and Islam. Then, the other show called “Rock for a Cause” which was a benefit for the Rotaract Metropolitan’s Rozgaar Project in Karachi, Pakistan. The Rozgaar Fund provides the under privileged with a means for providing for themselves, by helping them set up, and run businesses on their own. The turnout and response from both of these events have been very positive.
Since my joining of the band, our singer has gone through a rebirth of sorts. He is studying finance at Queens College here in New York. He wanted to use music to bring people together and inspire positive change, and in particular help the poor. Our drummer Richard mentioned something about micro-finance and micro-lending at one of our rehearsals. Until then, we wanted to do something that would inspire positive social change, but we weren’t sure how. Since there are only 3 of us, we didn’t know of any other options other than donating to a charity organization. So when I came across an article on CNN.com about Kiva.org, something clicked. After much discussion, we decided that our mission as a band is to figure out a way to “Erase Poverty”. We decided that we would lend a portion of our earnings from playing shows, and collect donations from guests to further fund our lending account on Kiva.org. Also, what people usually don’t consider is that one of the causes of terrorism is poverty, and more specifically the lack of opportunity to help themselves.
Kiva.org is a very cool website/organization. It allows people like us to loan money, interest-free to entrepreneurs in a developing country to start, or grow their own business and become self sufficient. It is a very down to earth, grassroots, and personal way to combat poverty. It debunks the perception that “the poor” are a faceless mass of people who either don’t want to work, or cannot work. This is also very different than giving to charity because the charity treats the poor as people who cannot help themselves. What’s cool is that we know who we are lending money to, where they are, what type of business they are running. What we have noticed that everyone we have lent money to through Kiva.org has made the loan payments on time, or ahead of schedule. Also, what’s interesting is that we have a number of loans in Pakistan, which according to the world media is a pretty screwed up country. The loans there are actually being repaid on time with no problems. We have had loans in Tajikistan, and Cambodia that were repaid months ahead of schedule. When we when the entire loan is paid back, what money we loaned gets credited back to our account so we can lend it again. There are no fees in dealing with Kiva.org. What you loan out, you will get back in full at the end of the loan term.
We have this coffee can that we take to our shows that we have affectionately named “Dorothy the Kiva Pot”, where we collect donations to fund our lending account. Most of the time she makes more money than we do from the door money. We have been on Kiva.org since January of this year, and have made over 100 micro-loans of $25.00 each to entrepreneurs all over the world. Please check out our Kiva profile at: http://kiva.org/lender/harikzehr to see the progress of our loans.
BAJ: Thank you for taking time with us, Timothy! What would you like to say to our readers in closing?
TL: It was my pleasure. Thank you again for this interview and for taking the time with me.
Here’s my shameless plug for Har Ik Zehr. If you are looking for some great music that’s “off the beaten path”, please check us out at http://www.harikzehr.com. We are also on myspace, and facebook. If you like what you hear, and are feeling generous, please download our music on Apple iTunes, Amazon.com, or CD Baby. If you are in happen to be in the NYC area, please check out our website for show dates… Or you can check out my personal myspace at: http://myspace.com/thslbass.
More important, if you have the opportunity to interact with people of cultures that are different than your own, by all means do it with an open mind and heart. You have as much to learn about others as you do yourself. Playing music has blessed me with this opportunity.
Kiva.org is a very simple way of helping people out. If you know of another way, by all means do so. Also, I’d like to recommend a book called “Three Cups of Tea” by former mountain climber Greg Mortenson. It is truly a beautiful book about self discovery, and a better way to end poverty and terrorism by providing education and opportunities.