The Commuters are:
Zeeshan Zaidi – Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Keyboards
Uri Djemal – Guitar, Keyboards
Ben Zwerin – Bass
Paul Amorese – Drums
Hope. It’s a very powerful word, and one that millions of people across the world rely on to get themselves through whatever hardships they may be facing, no matter how small. It’s also the word that can best describe the new EP from New York alt-rock quartet the Commuters, Before I Was Born. The group, led by Zeeshan Zaidi, has elevated their sound to a globally accessible level while still retaining their unique aura. Zaidi says this isn’t by accident.
“We are four guys who are now New Yorkers, but none of us are from New York City originally, and we all come from different musical places, too,” the frontman begins. “We’re not a hipster NYC indie band. We all like music that’s experimental, but our outlook has always been very global. For me, being global is less about being big and more about wanting to move as many people with these songs as possible.”
Zaidi’s songwriting on Before I Was Born reflects those desires, fusing together longtime influences such as David Bowie and Peter Gabriel with modern progressive artists such as the Killers and Bon Iver to create intriguing, engaging rock songs that are destined to connect with you on a visceral level. Take the EP’s title track, for example: Zaidi, a new father, was inspired to pen a song about his infant daughter’s instant connection with her mother.
“My daughter had this intimate relationship with my wife from day one where she recognized her voice and lots of other things about her right away,” he recalls. “Some cultures say that a child picks his or her mother before they are born. I’m not sure I buy into the belief, but creatively I loved the notion.”
As the EP delicately touches on birth, it also discusses the topic of terminal illness with grace and beauty, as heard on the closing track, “You’ll Stay Right Here.” The piano ballad was inspired by one of Zaidi’s loved ones going through a battle with cancer and carries a strong message of survival against all odds.
The stories on Before I Was Born come “100 percent from personal experience,” explains the singer/songwriter, and there’s no better example than “Pass It Along,” a Dan Wilson-esque indie-pop number with the impactful refrain of “The life that you’re building doesn’t have to be yours.” The song was inspired by Zaidi’s conversation with an immigrant cab driver who had given up a successful professional life in his homeland to bring his family to America and give his children opportunities he never had. Zaidi, an immigrant to the U.S. himself (having been born in Canada and raised in the Philippines), was moved by the man’s tale.
“I don’t want to overdramatize my own immigrant story; I didn’t struggle the way some have to,” he explains. “But it gave me a sensitivity to the immigrant experience and an awareness of how many first-generation immigrants devote and sacrifice their entire lives so their kids can have a better future. My dad did something similar. He was born in South Asia and was five when his own father died. He went to England for college after saving up for years just to get there. He worked many menial jobs to put himself through school and then focused on taking care of family—first his mother and after he got married, us.”
It’s clear the Commuters have an appreciation for different cultures around the world many other groups lack—guitarist Uri Djemal, whose father is Israeli, also grew up in the Philippines with Zaidi (they met as first graders) and bassist Ben Zwerin spent his youth in Paris—and that the quartet isn’t afraid to discuss the oppression people in other corners of the globe face as well, as heard in “The Better Of Me.”
“There are still millions of people all over the world who endure oppressive governments,” Zaidi says. “I lived part of my childhood under a dictatorship and members of my family grew up under dictatorships too, and that sort of experience is insane. But the song’s deeper message goes beyond that: everyone has their own strength and spirit inside that no one else can touch. Whether you’re in a tough situation at school or work or an abusive relationship or whatever it is, where someone has power over you, there is a flame inside of you that nobody else can put out.”
That’s really what the Commuters are all about: creating empowerment and unity through music. Their 2012 debut, Rescue, earned the band accolades and exposure from outlets as wide-reaching and influential as college radio, mtvU, PureVolume and Guitar World. But more importantly, it spoke to listeners in a direct, uncomplicated way that created a devoted worldwide audience thanks to the band’s songs being equal parts melody and honesty.
“We already have this connection with so many fans in different countries, sp we try to create art everyone can relate to,” Zaidi explains. “These songs are personal but general, so we want to be able to reach out everywhere they resonate.
“Our long-term ambition is just to keep putting out songs we like and hopefully reaching a broader audience,” the frontman concludes. “The point of doing this, for me, is the music itself and connecting with our fans. The more we do this, the more we’ll achieve that. That’s the plan.”