NYC alternative group The Commuters just released their EP, Before I Was Born, last week August 12. This week, lead vocalist and songwriter Zeeshan Zaidi sat and talked with Music Unlabeled about Before I Was Born, what inspired the new EP, and his experiences in the music industry.
Music Unlabeled: This is my fan-favorite question to ask, and a nice way to break the ice. If you had to explain The Commuters sound to someone who’s never heard you guys before, what would you say?
Zeeshan Zaidi: I would call us melodic alternative rock. We’re alternative band, but I wouldn’t call us like super aggressive. We always have a big appreciation for melodies. Fans who listen to us compare us to bands like Killers, Muse, bands like those and those are bands that do cool stuff, and really focus on their melodies, so yeah.
How would you say your sound on Before I Was Born changed from your initial release Rescue?
Part of it is evolution. This is the next album, so it’s evolved and we’ve been working on our sound a lot more. It helped that there were fewer songs on Before I Was Born, because we had more time to focus on fewer songs. Going into this, I also had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted these songs to sound like. Rescue was a lot more experimentation, learn as we were going along. With Before You Were Born, I went in saying “You know what, this is the direction I want to take, this is what I want it to sound like.” When you have that clear direction, you can really dial it in and get more in-depth with the songs.
Before I Was Born is an extremely intimate and personal record. It’s almost like each song has its own story. Can you share what inspired the songs?
Well, I don’t know if I would call the record personal. I know that I’m definitely personally attached and connected to these songs though. The leading track, “Before I was Born” was about the relationship between my wife and daughter before my daughter was born. When my daughter was born, I was just meeting this kid for the first time, but the kid and my wife are already so connected. They already know each other, and that really struck me. Some people believe that the kid chooses their parents before they’re born. I don’t know if the kid really chooses the parent, but the idea and that obvious connection that my daughter and wife had by the time she was born was definitely inspiring.
“The Better of Me” was inspired – I grew up under a dictatorship in the Philippines, in my childhood. This song is about people in those situations, dealing with other people that have not good intentions. And that’s why the song sounds like it was from the view of a political prisoner. So if someone is in that position where they feel like they’re a prisoner in any kind of relationship or situation – an abusive relationship, dealing with a bully, a bad work situation, anything that makes them feel like a prisoner – this song is to remind them that there’s something inside of you – a spirit if you will – that they can’t touch.
The third song, it requires going back a little bit. I’m an immigrant, my father’s an immigrant, and I have a strong sensitivity to what immigrants go through. What an immigrants story is about is sacrificing their life for their next generation, or at least 99.9% of the time an immigrant moved and is struggling to build a better future for their next generation. That kind of sacrifice is something that I’m very inspired by. And I was in central LA talking to an Uber driver who told me back where he was from, he didn’t see a future for his kids. So he decided to come here to America, and even though he was working so hard, his family was happier for it and he knew his kids would be better off. It really made me think about my own parents immigrating here with me, about my own upbringing, and it inspired “Pass It Along.”
“You’ll stay right here” was written when I found out someone really close to me was diagnosed with cancer – Leukemia, to be specific. So the song can really be taken in two ways. In one way, it’s a message of support to someone going through that, saying “You’re going to fight this and you’re going to make it.” And it’s also a song that’s a reflection of the person watching this loved one suffer, and when you’re in that position there’s a limit to what you can actually do. It’s heartbreaking. We partnered with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, and donating proceeds from the song to that organization. The music video was also heavily inspired by the disease, telling the story of a person and their dog. Very heartwarming.
Did the current political environment have any influence over the new record?
I’m someone who follows politics and current affairs very closely. I think at some level it might, but not directly. The EP is not a direct commentary of the political environment we are in now. But especially with “Pass It Along,” we touch on it. I think, as an immigrant, immigrants bring a lot to this country. Everyone in this country aside from Native Americans are descended from immigrants. But depending on how the political environment goes, we might have to write more direct songs though! But yeah, I have a lot of hope and concerns and we just have to hope it turns out the way that we all want it to.
Outside of the Commuters, you’ve been heavily involved in the music business for the past twenty years. You served as Chief Operating Officer of Limewire, several executive positions at major record labels, and you’re currently employed by Live Nation Entertainment. How would you say that these positions have influenced your own work with The Commuters?
More than anything, it gives me an understanding of the way the business works. I see, managers at work, agents at work, I learn how they approach their band’s careers and I learn from that. That’s the best thing I get from it. And being in a band helps me in my day job, because I understand where musicians are coming from and it helps me work with them. I also have a better idea of how to market and promote my own music with the Commuters. But it doesn’t directly effect, no, cause at the end of the day we just have to put out music that people want to listen to and outlets like Music Unlabeled want to cover.
Obviously you all are very busy people, and the Commuters is not your primary job at this point. But is there any talk about the band maybe going on tour in the future?
We have touring ambitions and plans, and a few gigs lined up in New York and along the East Coast. We’ve been getting a lot of love and support from the Midwest, a lot of college radio play and goo reviews from there. We’re all involved in other projects, but I don’t know that we’re going to spend two years on tour. Just a week or two here and there, but if it builds and builds and builds, who knows? This is our dream job right here, we’re all musicians, so maybe one day.
I know that your EP just came out, but are you already working on new stuff and thinking about that next project?
Musicians are always thinking about the next one. But Before I Was Born just came out, and I kind of have to force myself to get the word out about this one, stay focused on this EP. But yes, I’m already thinking about the next one, the next song. After the last one we took a little time off, but the goal this time is to not take too much time off and have it just cycle into the next release.