By Phang Kuan Hoong
It was early 2003; the world news was taking an uneasy shift as President Dubya and his minions ejaculated on a daily basis the need to wage war on Iraq. Voices of distress and disgust could be heard from every corner of the world. Even in Malaysia, a “demand-for-peace” rally was taking place at Bukit Jalil Stadium, bringing the idea of a global crisis near enough to us.
It was at this time, that my band mates and I went to witness our first local Chinese-language independent gig at the The Actors Studio Box, Dataran Merdeka. The gig was an anti-war cry without celebrities or cameras. The place was tight, the air was stuffy and the music was a melancholic blend of sounds, from hard angry shouts to cold guitar riffs to smooth layback vocals. Among the more notable bands were KRMA, Nao, Rush, and Lang Mang, each with their own expression of peace. This was our first night with Soundscape, the sole local Chinese-language independent music society. A lousy demo to Mark (Soundscape’s main-man) and a few mamak sessions later, we became a part of it.
Soundscape has been around for four years now, but its history dates back to late 1997, with another local Chinese indie-music label, Huang Huo (‘Yellow Flame’). There was a time when Chinese “Rock” was associated only with Hong Kong band Beyond. A progressive band thought things could be different, and most definitely should be different. Lin Kian Keong, the bassist of Chong Yang, found that a lot of DIY bands already around were sharing similar thoughts. He started making contacts to every one of them slowly, and finally gathered enough of them. With the help of fellow musicians, the first ever local Chinese indie gig was held in Penang. This was the beginning of Huang Huo. Their “legacy” lasted two years.
The bands were hardly mainstream. Chong Yang played progressive rock with a distinctive combination of dreamy-tunes fused with a taste of mainland China rock; KRMA started-off hardcore with a funky, energetic twist; Mo Xuan, hardcore rap; Jiu Tian, a ghost-like version of Brit-pop; Da Gong Shi, a hint of the now alternative rock genre.
“Music is a platform of expression, a response to the environment you live in, the issues it holds, the thoughts it give you, the stuff you wanna change… and we wanted to bring that response, that expression to the masses… that was the mission.” Lin Yuet, former editor of Huang Huo’s newsletter, believes the power and spirit of indie-music is exactly what the Malaysian Chinese community need, whether they know it or not. As Huang Huo slowly grew, more mediums were utilised to propagate the music’s social and cultural awareness to the public. The monthly newsletter was published. A clubhouse was established in Cheras, allowing anyone to hang-out. Slowly, a scene with a moderate following was built.
At the height of Huang Huo’s growth, two of the group’s most influential bands thought it would be good for them to travel in search of inspiration and greater musical exposure. In 2000, Chong Yang and Mo Xuan traveled to a small music village in Beijing, China. It defied their expectations. And they lost their musical confidence. In the face of Mainland China’s culturally powerful indie-music scene, they found themselves stranded. Members of the bands started to realise the many problems of Huang Huo, kept hushed till now. A huge argument broke loose.
“There were ‘conflicts of interests’ between the organisation and the bands.” Mark, then drummer of KRMA, wears a jaded expressionless face almost every time when he talks about this; I could never decide whether it was because he had too many similar interviews asking the same questions or something else. The truth was, although Huang Huo had a grand mission statement, some of the bands did not. “Some people would say ‘I just wanna make music and have fun, you know, I don’t want anything to do with all these grand thoughts and shit… ‘ What could you say to that?”
Another dilemma that arose was the way the scene was promoted. Some bands believed that indie should just stay indie: do without the newspaper and magazine interviews, do without the posters and the sponsorship from corporations. Yet in a community where independent is likened to underground, and underground likened to dark, low-life states, could one expect positive attention and exposure without the usual make-over?
“The reality is… it’s impossible,” Mark continues. “You can’t just fuck everyone and everything mainstream, everything business-like, and expect people to actually give a damn about anything honest you’re doing.”
Mark had been handling the marketing stuff for the indie scene since the early days of Huang Huo, making contacts and pulling strings, while maintaining the bands’ freedom and creative control. With so many problems, however, Huang Huo had to draw its curtains.
But Mark wasn’t ready to give this up. “Something this valuable should not be ended.” Mark picked up the pieces of a nearly fallen legacy and pieced it together again. Resigning from his own band, KRMA, he brought in new indie bands and old, and started Soundscape.
One may say that the local Chinese-language indie-music scene is still a sub-culture on its own. With a line-up of about 9 bands, Soundscape not only represents the scene, it is the sole bulk of the scene. Thanks to the now defunct Wow FM and Tone Magazine, and the revived Pan Global, the local English-language indie-scene has a slot in the current music market. There is now more space and freedom for English-language indie-music expression. However, this space is still relatively non-existent for the Chinese-language indie-scene.
“The Chinese music scene or market has always been mainstream Hong Kong and Taiwan Canto-pop and really little else. With a market so saturated with that shit, you really can’t expect much of a response from an audience.” The mild frustration that Tat, lead guitar and vocals of Nao, expresses echoes the thoughts of nearly every member of Soundscape. Nao’s music is a fusion of heavy post-rock, grunge, and even elements of jazz. The themes of their music, among other things, are subtle responses to local racial politics and its unjust repercussions (for example, the closure of local Chinese-language schools, the Internal Security Act, etc).
“People here are so used to feeling safe, or having the illusion of safety, that when you hit facts right in front of their faces, they just can’t accept them.” Tat sees the mental obstacle of most Malaysians as the pimple they choose to ignore. But he maintains that if you keep knocking, someday, someone will definitely answer.
Together with Soundscape, we have organised many events throughout these 4 years, some of which are larger outdoor events held in crowded venues like Time Square. Although turnouts for successful smaller gigs are normally no more than 100 to 200 people, most of whom are friends, we remain hopeful that our music may one day find its place.
“We’re never looking to alter the mainstream market in any way; it’s just getting a slice of a very large cake. A music market so biased and one-sided to pure pop isn’t healthy to a society.” Mark’s vision of a place where all genres of music can co-exist and are available to everyone, is basically the goal of Soundscape. This goal may be getting a tiny bit closer to realisation with the recent release of Lang Mang’s debut album The Crow. The 3-man-band presents itself as a shape-shifter, with tracks ranging from alternative pop or unhealthy pop, to eco-friendly dreamy tunes, to spacey post-rocking guitar-riffs. The Crow is now available in all major record stalls, with at least 4 to 5 of the tracks sounding pretty radio-friendly: in an indie kinda way, of course.
“The indie-scene is needed to explore real ways of expressing ourselves as individuals and as a community. Are we really Canto-pop? Why can’t we be something else?” Hoi, guitarist of Furniture (formally known as Rush) agrees that the goal of indie-music is NOT to provide the answer to an elusive cultural identity, but to ask the necessary questions. Furniture’s progress from alternative Canto-rock to post rock to dream pop to god-knows-what-are-they-now is a testament to the fact that like music, culture is ever changing. But without the necessary revolutions once in a while, we may never grow.
A year and a half with Soundscape has brought great growth to our band, Meng ‘Shat, as well. Our musical diet, which used to consist of Coldplay and pop bands, now includes Sigur Ros and Pink Floyd. We have also learned to craft our music as a sonic environment where audiences are invited to come in and dream.
Soundscape has become a community, a fraternity. You know you are in the company of honest people sharing dreams similar to your own. At the end of it all, it doesn’t really matter if we’d ever see our dreams come true, one need not see his entire life before living it.
Phang Kuan Hoong is the keyboardist for Meng ‘Shat. He is presently bumming around until he returns to college for his degree in graphic design.
First Published: 16.12.2004 on Kakiseni