Medicine and music: Local doctors compose, record tunes in off hours

Music and medicine — both offer healing to mind and body. Two area men who practice both arts are releasing singles and hope to schedule concert dates this coming year.

Dr. Zafar Sheik, an ophthalmologist in Warren, and Dr. Asif I. Khan, an allergist with offices in Boardman and Youngstown, Sheik and Khan met three years ago at a school function for their children.

“One day, Zafar came over with his family,” said Khan, the former drummer for Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Johnny Hi-Fi. “There was a guitar sitting in the house and he picked it up and started singing. I was totally impressed and shocked. I had no idea he could sing.”

“I decided to build a music studio in my home,” Khan said. “Through YouTube videos, I learned a bit about audio engineering and used skills I learned in previous bands.

“Zafar came to me with an idea for a song in January of 2015, and we wrote the song ‘You Are Not Alone,'” Khan said.

Khan said that he and Sheik originally named their alternative / pop/ rock band Faith by Reason but decided they wanted a name that was more open interpretation. They settled on Spy Convention.

The band’s sound is reminiscent of British 1980s post-punk and New Romanticism.  Sheik performs vocals and keyboards and Khan plays drums and guitar.

“We started the project first as a diversion with no real expectations,” Khan said. “We still really don’t have any expectations. It’s fun and zero pressure. We have kids and lives that demand our attention, so music is purely an escape.

“Ideally, we’d love to play live in 2017 and we’ll see what happens. We aren’t looking for much, but all the attention is great. We are grateful that people like the songs and we’ll just keep writing as long as we can and have fun doing it,” he said.

Zafar Sheik said that both of his parents love music. His father is a big fan of classical Indian music and his mother loves Bollywood songs. His sister, Los Angeles attorney Shaheen Sheik, also is a songwriter, producer and recording artist with four albums of her own and is featured on six other projects, most with SoulAvenue.

“I had piano, guitar and drum lessons very early on,” Zafar Sheik said. “So our house was a musical family. I sang with the school choir all the way to senior year. My musical inspirations in the ’80s were initially new wave and Brit-pop. I listen to everything that moves me, from Sinatra to Jay-Z, to Broadway musicals, and classical music. Generally, I listen mostly to alternative and indie music.”

Shaheen Sheik said she cannot remember a day that went by that music wasn’t in their house. She said on Saturday mornings, her father blasted South Indian classical music from his Teac sound system and his reel-to-reel. “My mom was always singing Hindi film songs and my brother and I were always fighting about what radio station was on.

“Music was, and is, such a huge part of our lives,” Shaheen Sheik said.

“As far as music influences, Zafar always teases me that the music I like is basically today’s version of disco, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. People have a lot of fun listening to disco,” she said.

“I liked folks like Madonna and Sade growing up. He was always into bands like the Police and the Psychedelic Furs,” Shaheen Sheik said.

Shaheen Sheik said that Zafar influenced her so much musically.

“He is my big brother after all. He taught me about ‘cool’ music so that I didn’t only listen to boy bands and pop music growing up. He was always more studied in music than I was, but also a lot shyer. I always thought he could be a musician. I’m so glad he’s coming out of his shell and sharing his talent with the world,” Shaheen Sheik said.

She said that she thinks that she and Zafar are drawn to lyrics and what a song says. A great melody can be destroyed with a trite lyric and similarly, she and Zafar are drawn to melodies that feel accessible, she said.

For the Sheik family, music and creativity are one of the many aspects that keeps the family together.

“You have to understand that when my brother and I are together, we don’t see experts in each other despite knowing all the things each other has overcome and accomplished in life,” Shaheen Sheik said.

“I see my big brother and he sees his baby sister. When we get together, you’d think we were still kids living at home. He can’t not bug me and I can’t not roll my eyes at him. It’s how we say ‘I love you’ to each other without being goofy about it. I know he knows that I am here to support him in any way I can, and when he needs my help, all he has to do is say the word,” she said.

Zafar Sheik said his musical influences includeU2, The Police, The Cars, The National, Death Cab for Cutie and Radiohead.

“Obviously, I could mention the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and many others, but these are probably the most influential,” Sheik said.

Khan said that as a drummer, he doesn’t have as many influences so he focused on acts who have had the most popular drummers at the time who had a signature style. These included acts such as The Who, with the iconic Keith Moon; Led Zeppelin with John Bonham; and Neil Peart of Rush.

“Over the years, I’ve totally appreciated many influential British and American bands from the ’70s to today,” Khan said.

Khan said his parents stressed academics, so it was a battle begging for that first drum set but his parents finally gave in.

“I never took lessons and cut my teeth playing along with the Beatles, ’80s radio music at the time and mostly Rush. Then it all stopped when I went away to college, all the way until the end of medical school, 10 years or so. I didn’t listen to much new music during that time.

“Slowly, I got back into playing, joined some bands in Philadelphia, and New York City. At that point, my musical career blossomed into something I really enjoyed,” he said.

After he attended college and medical school, Khan joined the shoegaze band Overlord during his internal medicine residency in Philadelphia. After Overlord, Khan joined Johnny Hi-Fi, which has gotten exposure on MTV, Billboard Magazine, Performer Magazine and MyxTV

“We played for probably five, six years and got to do some great stuff, radio, tours, MTV and such,” Khan said. “We got to open for some big acts in China and Japan. It was definitely a learning experience.”

Eric Hsu, founder and vocalist and guitarist of Johnny Hi- Fi, said that Khan played in Johnny Hi-Fi from 2002 until 2006, which is when Hsu moved from New York to California. Khan played drums on the Johnny Hi-Fi releases “Don’t Set Yourself Up” EP (2003), “30” (2004), “Scam Artist” (2004), “Sad Stories” (2005) and “Phase III” (2006).

Hsu said that Khan brought the discipline that the band needed at the time.

“It’s the kind of ‘whatever-the-band-needs’ attitude that really helped. He was not shy about asking the band members, the booking agents, the managers and everybody that comes into contact with the band for things that the band needs. In a big way, that’s how the band kept moving upward.

“I think the most memorable time with Asif Khan on tour was when we opened for Placebo and Supergrass in China, at the Beijing Rock Fest in 2006,” Hsu said.

“Spy Convention’s tunes are catchy. He’s definitely got the ear for it,” Hsu said. “What I like about the music is that it really pays homage to the ’80s and ’90s. That what I grew up listening to and Spy Convention’s sound puts a modern touch on what already sounds nostalgic.”

Andy Gerard, former guitarist of Johnny Hi-Fi, said, “Spy Convention is a modern throwback. They wear their influences proudly on their sleeves and create fresh original music authentic to its 1980s roots.”

While both ended up being doctors, Sheik started on a different career path. Sheik said that he swore to his parents that he would never go to medical school. He went to Cornell University to study electrical engineering.

“After three semesters at Cornell University, I thought that at the time I would connect with people more directly as a physician than as an engineer. So I made the switch to ophthalmology, because of its precision and technology. It allows me to apply my analytical and engineering skills to my daily routine. Also, I think the surgery is really elegant and cool,” Sheik said.

Khan said his mother really wanted another doctor in the family, and he was pushed that direction.

“I chose allergy and immunology because of its focus on a system in the body that is quite dynamic and fairly challenging,” Khan said.

Khan said that that music keeps himself and Sheik efficient with their time. He said that with their schedules, they only have a few hours a week to write and record. It keeps the writing and recording process simple and clean.

“Also, we decided to ditch our egos at the door. We agreed to be completely honest about the songs, and that includes harsh criticism if needed,” Khan said. “We also don’t mind who plays or writes what, meaning that for any band to survive, you have to serve the song. It is the end point. This means we allow total freedom and access to any part of the songwriting process.”

Khan said that it is quite satisfying and rewarding to be able to find the time in their lives to pursue a career where they are making a difference, while at the same time, writing music that moves them.

“It’s a challenge to maintain a balance between these pursuits, but we feel fortunate to be able to do so. Zafar even sings along with music while he is operating. Talk about mixing work and play,” Khan said.