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How a Heavy Metal Guitarist became one of India's most sought-after Gaming Composers

R. R. Rozario
R. R. Rozario Features

I've spent the past couple of weeks chatting (on and off) with the industrious Shezan Shaikh and what a trip it has been. Just when you think the guy has too much on his plate, well, he goes and fills it up some more. 

For starters, he recently won the Dadasaheb Phalke award for a film composition. He's done the music for the Comic-Con Trailer. He's composed the All New VH1 rebranding promo. His music is all over the ad-film world, as we speak. And he's most known for being the lead guitarist of the India Heavy Metal band Providence - Winners of Rolling Stone Metal Awards in 2012.

But wait... he's also putting out his solo music under the artist name, RONINand just composed a collaboration track with Games the Shop for Cyberpunk 2077!

About Ronin: "It's a Synthwave project that I've put on the back burner for way too long. I'm happy to finally see it come to light! It's been quite a trip!" Shezan quips.

Rozario: So tell me a little bit about your journey in music, from metal guitarist to everything you do now.

Shezan: I started learning guitar when I heard Iron Maiden's Fear of the Dark on the radio and I was like, "WTF IS THIS SHIT!!!!!". I got introduced to Megadeth, Pantera, Sepultura and the likes very early on in life, I'd say at about 13/14 years old, and I've never looked back. I started playing guitar at 16 and all I wanted to do was to be a guitar player in a metal band. That's all I thought and dreamed about and I've been playing heavy metal ever since. Over the course of it, my band Providence went on to win Rolling Stone Metal Awards Best Band, Album, Vocalist and Art for the year 2012 and I was nominated for best guitar player... who would've thought?

I then started my commercial career in 2016 and have had the good fortune for composing music for some prolific brands like ADIDAS, SAMSUNG, ASIAN PAINTS, HUNGAMA, MAHINDRA, STAR MOVIES, FXHD and more. While working on ads, I got my first opportunity to compose for the Bollywood movie CARGO, which ended up getting me a Dada Saheb Phalke Award for best background score for a film. 

Cargo Teaser from Shezan Shaikh on Vimeo.

I got my first game trailer when I was working ads, and I signed my first full game as a music composer while working on Cargo. Post Cargo I've worked on about 3 films that are due for release and a few more in the pipeline. Everything else is hazy!

Rozario: I've had the good fortune to interview Arati Kadav (Director of Cargo) over five years ago when she made her superb sci-fi short Time Machine. But let's talk gaming. I, like everyone else out there, am really looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 ( aptly remarked that it has been delayed more times than an Air India flight! P.s It's just days away now) and to think that you composed the promo for the Indian sector. That's Friggin' A, Maestro! What has been your relationship/experience with gaming in your life?

Shezan: I got my first console at the age of 6, which was a Media Master and from then on gaming has been a part of my daily life.

Rozario: I think it was called the Media 'Little' Master! Haha. I remember it was the unofficial Desi Nintendo (The official Desi one being the Samurai)... and had the same games, Super Mario, Contra, Roadfighter etc. In fact the iconic theme for Super Mario by Koji Kondo is one of the most covered tunes even today and on every instrument, from the Piano and Trombone to full blown orchestras.

Shezan: One the reasons I'm even into soundtracks/scoring is because I'm a gamer. Growing up and playing I got exposed to amazing games with beautiful soundtracks, mainly built on two of my most favourite Japanese composers like Nobou Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono series). My iTunes library is filled with gaming scores of old and new games. I love the orchestration, the melodies, the build ups and the epicness of video game music. I've rarely come across a game with a bad soundtrack, to be honest. The gaming world is filled with amazing composers with killer composing/production chops! Though today Ramin Djawadi is known for Game of Thrones, to me he'll always be the guy who made one of the greatest soundtracks for Medal of Honor ten years ago.

Outside of gaming music, I'm an out and out Heavy Metal fan. I love heavy metal, man! It's the greatest genre ever, and has played an important part in my composing rituals. It really solidified the concept of groove for me. Before getting into film/game scoring, when I played with Providence, I was fortunate enough to be a support act to some of my absolute favourite bands like Megadeth, Fear Factory and bunch of others!

Rozario: Fuck yeah! That's brilliant!

So tell me something, top composers are rushing to gaming, in many cases even more than mainstream cinema jobs. Inon Zur, who composed Power Rangers Lost Galaxy almost passed on the job back in the 90s, until he was told that modern gaming requires orchestras and wasn't what most composers imagined it to be. Back in the day, one couldn't fathom that music for gaming would be so big, especially when no one saw the proliferation of mobile technology alongside personal computers and consoles. In the same way, is there any field of work that you think will be the next big thing and that musicians must keep an open mind to?

Shezan: Inon Zur in an absolute legend, man! I first came across his work on Dragon Age: Origins and I was so in awe with the overall epicness and "Rhythmic Darkness" of the overall soundtrack for DA: Origins and have been following his work ever since. Man, I'm so glad you mentioned him, I haven't come across to many people who are aware of Inon Zur... Waddaguy!

I doubt people thought that gaming would be as big as it is today! As far as I'm concerned gaming is the biggest form of entertainment and I'm very content that I've made some form of inroads in this world. It's not always about money, sometimes you do things to keep your soul happy, and that for me is what it is when it comes to making music for games. It's just too much fun and too much freedom! It's a great time to be a music composer for gaming! With games available in your pocket in the form of cell phones or tablets there's more mediums to it, instead of just consoles or PC. I mean look at COD Mobile. FPS multiplayer with your bois... on the go! Who would've thought!

I really can't say what'll be the next big thing, that's for the analysts to figure. As a musician, I guess the only thing you can do is keep an open mind for opportunities that come your way and try to capitalise as much as possible. 

All work and no play. Shezan takes time off to entertain a 'tough crowd'.

Rozario: Composing music for games is a lucrative business, albeit less common in India. Do you think this has to do with exposure to genres, tastes and sensibilities? Or is it because the gaming world hasn't discovered or given opportunities to Indians yet/ or are we simply learning/ or a combination of both?

Shezan: A lot of musicians from India largely want to pursue Bollywood music. I don't think it's about discovery, since we're in 2020 and a showreel can easily shared with someone across the planet. It's probably about playing it safe, I guess. It's easier to network in your circle instead of moving out and going in blind. Indian gaming will eventually come to light, until then we'll have to wait and watch, I suppose. While we are on the topic you should check out "RAJI" a complete homegrown game creating waves in the gaming community!

Rozario: I definitely will. By the way, how do you switch between different formats, each requiring a different zone, mental preparation and understanding. Does your work ever overlap? If so, how do you handle the simultaneous switches between one and the other?

Shezan: Haha, yes! YOLO, man! I started off with a metal band, then moved to advertising, films and eventually gaming. I think I've found my comfort in films and gaming and I'm very happy there. I do advertising jingles based on the scope of the music or if it holds something for me artistically. I worked on this killer Asian Paints project for Supari Films. It was one of the best ads I've worked on, the brief was amazing! 

I'm a freelancer so work does overlap sometimes, but I don't mind it, like I said. YOLO. I've built my routines around being able to handle multiple projects, I mean, I've got nothing else to do but make music, so might as well, right? That being said, I'm selective about what I do, because I like my freedom as a composer and avoid projects that don't generally let me add my artistic value to it. Money can be made over and over again, but it's important to take the right calls about projects based on individual value-add instead of the paycheque. Not going to undermine what a fat paycheque can do, but the longevity of one's career is equally important. I don't see a point in exhausting a sound or style for few years and then be out and wondering what to do next. I'm a music composer and I'd like to remain so for the remainder of my life. And as long as there's content, everyone needs music, right?

Rozario: Absolutely! It sounds like it's going swimmingly. But there's got to be challenges, right? What were some of the challenges you've faced?

Shezan: As a music composer I think one of the challenges is to carve your niche and I think it's really about the time and effort (sometimes money) you can devote towards that niche. There's so much music out there, good and bad, but largely good, so it's challenging to breakout when there are already established artists dominating the circuit. It can be particularly daunting for the first few years, but I think if you can weather the storm during your initial years, you just become used to a few things... Like for me personally, I faced rejection in the early days for coming from a heavy metal background. I think a lot of people think that metalheads can't cut it commercially. Eventually the universe played it's cards and I came across the right set of creative people who not only accepted the musical background but gave me room to incorporate it in my scores for their projects.... at the end of the day it all worked out. 

"I faced rejection in the early days for coming from a heavy metal background. I think a lot of people think that metalheads can't cut it commercially."

Rozario: What's next in Shezan Shaikh's journey? Any interesting projects coming up?

Shezan: Fuck knows man! For the longest I've been trying to plot what's next and that shit gives me massive anxiety! I've been working on this video game called METEORA and the game devs have been kind enough to publish Meteora's soundtrack under my new artist name Ronin. I've got two films in the pipeline and I just recently wrapped up a Marathi film. Also, I've just started work on what I think is a killer project called DAUD. It's a kick ass Live/Cartoon film and I'm totally enjoying working on that at the moment!

Rozario: Yeah, fuck the anxiety of the future... let me end this with the mother-of-all-clichés. What advice would you give to up-and-coming composers wanting to enter this field of work? Any words of wisdom?

Shezan: Haha, man, I'm like the last person to approach for this. My career itself is built on a lot of trial and error. Being a musician is hard man, People don't value music like they used to, and there's always someone else who will do it for cheap. I can suggest that you carve out your own niche and be secure about it. Have a positive attitude towards it. It'll be a hard grind for sure, but hang in there and it's okay if you make mistakes. It's a long life to achieve certain goals as a musician and an individual!


That's all folks. Follow Shezan here.