29 January 2008
A blog for JK's poems
Oh yeah, I went and started yet another blog. Especially for my poems. It's here.

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"Song For The Service Industry"
For the post on what has become a trademark song of sorts, I'm reposting this post (how many posts can you put into a sentence?) that I posted on MySpace blog way back in September 2006. For the album, the song has been reworked a little bit from the version that appeared on the Voices From Next Door compilation. It's mixed a bit differently and we got rid of a lot of the backing vocals which, after tolerating their presence for hundreds of listens, were not missed at all. LOL. Oh... and it's the sixth song on the album tracklisting!

The image that I use below here was "appropriated" from a comely photograph I collected when I was doing my Photoshop treatments for a series of artworks for an exhibition I did with some friends at the now-closed Reka Art Space way back in 2005. Oh the memories... and notice how I positioned my name over the derriere...



















Sei Hon thinks this song's about prostitutes. Azmyl likes the "monkeys can learn" line. When my flatmate Hariati heard it for the first time, she thought my voice sounded sexy because she's never heard me sing so low. Another flastmate Pang thought it was mixed too bassy. Pete Teo didn't like the shakers. Maarten, a friend in Holland said it was nice, though he thought I tended to run out of breath. Kenny Jaworski, a pianist in USA who heard the track on myspace page thought it should be all over MTV. Daryl Goh prefers 'Excellent.' Piko thinks it has potential. LOL. I've had quite a bit of feedback from friends and friendly strangers about "Song For The Service Industry" that it's very surprising, especially considering it's rather haphazard beginnings.

In April/May this year, I knew I had to record a song for the Voices From Next Door compilation CD. But knowing my track record in the studio in the past, I haven't really had much luck with finishing my tracks the way I want them to sound. So I decided that I'm just going to go into the studio for this one song without any concrete plans. I was just going to give myself some jumping off points and build the song in the studio.

For this, I needed a collaborator. And he is Hardesh Singh. Here's a bit of background.

I first heard of Hardesh through filmmaker Amir Muhammad (who incidentally is the first person I ever met in KL when I came here in 2000). Hardesh had worked on Amir's The Big Durian documentary. During the recording sessions for the narration and score to Tokyo Magic Hour, Amir invited me to see Hardesh at work. This was sometime in 2004. Hardesh was then based at Fuse Studio, in PJ. (He would later strike out on his own.) So Hardesh and I started talking about collaborating. But we weren't ready for it yet then.

Then in late 2004, I was asked by Azharr Rudin to appear in his Amber Sexalogy as a little busker. For my part I had to sing a little song. Since the audio was messed up on location, I had to record the song in the studio. We did this at Hardesh's new home studio in Bukit Damansara. It was very quick. It was also the first time I recorded at Hardesh's place.

Then later in the year, Amir asked me to contribute a little something to his upcoming documentary Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, a documentary on the life of Chin Peng, leader of the now-defunct Malayan Communist Party. It would be my first real collaboration with Hardesh. Amir wanted a couple of short songs for his movie, written after the fashion of those Malaysian government TV (RTM, for those who don't live in Malaysia, is a state-controlled TV station) propaganda 2-minute song clips that tell you about the country's successes, or telling people to keep the country clean, that sort of thing. Hardesh wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics: about malaria, IC (identification card), weapons, history of communism, and the two commodities that were ultra important during the Malaya years (tin and rubber). They weren't terribly complicated to write, I have to say. Did them over the course of a week. It had to be catchy and funny more than anything. It worked quite well, I have to say, and I had a lot of fun teaching Zalila Lee the phrasing of the words. She appears in the movie singing the songs. Sadly however the movie got banned by the government so most people wouldn't really know songs within the film's context.

Hardesh and I worked again to write a song for the Cameronian Performing Arts Awards in May this year. It was called "Negara Lu". That was quite fun. Mia Palencia, Tony Eusoff, Bhavani and (oops forgot her name) sang the leads, with Hardesh on guitar, and Janet and (oops) on backing vox.

It was quite easy to work with Hardesh. And I knew he had quite a good recording setup at his place. Anyway, after that detour, we return to "Service Industry".

The first thing that came about were the shakers. A few weeks before recording this song, I had gone to Yogyakarta on a KLue trip to write about the place. While there, I visited Borobudur, ate some gudeg and bought some locally-made wooden shakers. There were more like maracas. Not very dense sounding but I liked them. LOL. I really wanted these shakers to be in the song. LOL. So I brought them along to the studio and they actually formed the foundation of the song. The song had to "shake." So it had to be a bit dance-y.

The day before the studio session, I forced myself to write the lyrics. I didn't want to write a love song. I'm no good at writing dippy stuff anyway. Just can't bring myself to it, I guess. So I was thinking, thinking, thinking. Looking at things. Thinking. I was riding the monorail when I saw this guy in his uniform walking in and stand opposite me. I was just thinking how bored he looked. Then I looked around, and I saw so many other bored faces. Not just bored. But furstrated too in a way. (I also wondered how I looked like in their eyes. Did I have the same bored expression?) The guy in the uniform I could tell worked for one of the many hotels along the monorail line. There was also a girl in a tudung (veil) who also had a uniform on. I think she was probably working for a restaurant or something. All this time, I wanted to write a social protest kind of song. But I didn't like the idea of protesting in a song, because it's too preachy. And anyway, society has become such an individualistic thing these days that a protest song would be a kind of nostalgic throwback. I didn't want that. I wanted to write about the frustration in a way that used a metaphor that could apply to everyone and in every situation. Much like the Foucauldian view of power structures. In a fundamental sense, I'm no different than a hotel worker or a prostitute. I write for a magazine. I proved a service. And the magazine is at the service of readers and advertisers. Housewives serve their husbands. The holy serve their gods. We spend our lives. There's always someone higher. It's this idea of "serving" that inspired the song. The words came in a flash on the monorail. I wrote it down quickly in my planner. Later that night, I typed it out and fixed it a bit. Then the next day, in the studio, I sang the lyrics for the first time.

Before we recorded the shakers, I explained what I wanted to do to Hardesh, who must've thought it was all quite novel. After telling him that a click track would trip me up, he wrote a very basic beat, usually a beat that he's really into at the moment. For this one, it was a bit of a old skool beat but it worked well with the shakers. We recorded about four to five minutes of shakers over the beat loop. Then listening back I came up with an ultra simple four-chord progression on the guitar. It sounded workable. We recorded that. Then after that, on went the vocals, which was done in three takes I think. I think I decided to sing lower than usual because I was trying to inject that bit of cool detachment into the song. That first session went really fast. We worked a bit on the arrangement of it. From a monotonous thing, a song was slowly taking shape. By the end of three hours, we had a basic song. Hardesh later added bass and synth sounds. I went home quite happy.

Over the next week, it was listen after listen after listen. I was obsessed with it, trying to see if it can be improved. I played it to several people and got different kinds of feedback. With that I asked Hardesh to mix two or three different versions. But in the end we decided that the first was the best. I went to the studio another time to record the chorus backing vocals and extra guitar parts. After that I think I went back for another session to decide on the final mix for the song because at the time the compilation was nearing its closing date for submissions.

Now, it's one of the few songs I've ever recorded that I'm happy with. And to think it was a "studio" baby. But because it's a simple song, it's kind of hard to play live. Requires extra sounds. Definitely a band song. LOL.

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Song For The Service Industry

I served you once
I serve you still
You may not remember
But circumstances will

Tables don't turn
But monkeys can learn
I'm just a waiter
And I'll wait
And I wait
For you

To leave dirty dishes
And rumours of gold
A forest of garbage
A baby in the bowl

For me, for me

To clear is what I do
Its clear what I must do
Whose best interests are
better served than whose

Thank you Sir
I'm sure you'll remember
I served you well
You taught me well

Tables don't turn
But monkeys can learn
I'm just a waiter
And I'll wait
And I wait
For you

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27 January 2008
"Flowers"
Continuing the series of posts on the album songs. The fifth song on the album is "Flowers".













In its earliest incarnation, circa 2001/2, "Flowers" was called "Almonds" because the word occurs in the second line of the song, and I thought it was a stronger title than "Flowers". (More on the name change later.) I wrote this song while still living in Setiawangsa. Come to think of it, that time was a rather productive period in my life... LOL... despite the fact that I was living in a really small room with nothing in it. Quite a few of the songs I wrote during that period have ended up on the album. Strange. Maybe I was less distracted in those days.

Anyway, I wrote the song as a midi arrangement first, on Cakewalk. Sounding rather medieval. I had wanted to write this stately song with lots of weepy strings. I performed it many times singing along to the midi arrangement. Then when I got requests (since people always missed me introducing the song as "Almonds", they referred to it as "Flowers" because of the chorus, and I thought yeah, I should change the title to make things easier) to play it on the guitar, I wrote the chords for it. It changed the song somewhat. I sing in a higher key when I play it on guitar. But I try to maintain the slow marching waltzing beat. I also sing it a capella sometimes, which I love to do too, because then it just takes a life of its own.

When I recorded it at Ariff Akhir's place last year, I wanted to try something new with it. The song had always been a favourite of mine to play live because I love the vocal melody and the words. In the studio, I wanted to sing it as sensually as possible. Really bring out the feminine side of the song. Ariff did a triphop-ish beat under it, made it swing and yep... I hope you like the new version. Meanwhile I've been practising a new guitar version for the next time I play it live... giving it a bit of a bossa swing... LOL... I hope to record the original midi arrangement one of these days. With a real string section... sigh...

Musically the song is inspired by two things: Watching Rhythm In Bronze/Gamelan Club for the first time and of course, one of my biggest musical influences, Bjork. It's more obvious if you hear the midi arrangement. The album version not so.

What the song is about is a bit of a mystery to me. For me, the song is about faith. Surrendering to a spiritual power. Or god. Or a force of creativity. Letting one's self be consumed by a symbolic fire. I think traditional artists can easily understand. The concept of semangat. Not in the patriotic nationalistic sense of the word, but spiritual and mystical. I heard all that in the gamelan concerts I saw in KL. And also in Bjork's album. Not saying that I ever had an episode of possession or truly understand what it's like to be channeling pure creativity. I don't think I'm all that uninhibited, nor am I disciplined enough to entirely trust the process entirely. This song I wrote as a kind of tribute to that feeling, that sound, that spirit of remaining wide-eyed and open-hearted. It's also a reminder to myself that there is much more to music. What I know now is only a thimble-full. "Let me taste in all directions/ Teach me the way". That's important. (I hope I don't sound too farty.)

Also, I think I mentioned this somewhere before, I wrote the song to break a lyrical writer's block I had for a few months. I don't know about other songwriters but until about a year ago I used to get freaked out by the dry spell. "Flowers" in a way was an offering. And a kind of humbling of the self. I am only a medium... la la la... let the words pass through me... la la la... sounds wanky I know, but it's true.

The hunky image in the picture at the top of this post I stole from Gengoroh Tagame's erotic art site btw. Go explore, if you have the stomach to stomach some of his rather S&M-ish art. But don't tell him of my cybertheft.

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Flowers

His face drawn in five directions
In his hair the smell of almonds
A compass for the dreaming restless
To the prison in which he rustles

Coming down a distant cloud
Ripened bodies stand in line
To become a smooth receptor
For his love warrior-like

Flowers, burn me

Silken skin dressed in caresses
Lotuses drowned in every step
In his footsteps all converging
To forfeit now all control

Slipping through the mighty hands
Of all who claim to love
Let them enter unprepared
For the feast of all who wait

Flowers, burn me
Let me taste in all directions
Teach me the way

To give and give impulsively
To think that nothing else could exist
To be as vague as a verse
To describe that journey to him

Flowers, burn me
Let me taste in all directions
Teach me the way

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26 January 2008
Waargghh!
Reza Rosli sent me something he drew on his Facebook Graffiti wall based on a photo he took of Zedeck Siew and me at the last Wayang Kata at No Black Tie. Needless to say: I love it!












Erratum: Reza did not take the photo. I have no idea who did. I think it might be Reezal or Patriana from the British Council. The original photo can be found here at the Kakiseni blog. Thanks Reza for the clarification.

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"The Book of Sins" by Bernice Chauly























I was at Seksan's Gallery in Tempinis, Bangsar this afternoon for the readings which celebrated its third birthday today. Was also there to show some support for poet friend Bernice Chauly (who is not only a poet BTW; she's also writer, photographer, actor, more...) who launched her second book of poems called The Book Of Sins. I'm very happy for her. I've always liked Bernice's work, ever since I first saw her perform her poems about three years ago. Very disarming. Makes you think about how painful it is to be alive, and how satisfying it is to hear someone state it so convincingly in such lean verse that cuts straight to the core of it. The poems in her new book, some of which were written by Bernice about her mum who passed away this past year, are definitely representative of Bernice as a person and artist. Shahril Nizam who designed and layed out the book, mentioned that, when he read them, the poems made him feel as though like an intruder being afforded a very intense glimpse into the deepest part of another person's life. I don't know about you but you can't ask for a better reaction than that. One more time: Congratulations, Bernice!

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25 January 2008
Season of new CD releases
It's really a boon for Malaysian music this first quarter of 2008. And I reckon it'll be a real harvest year for wonderful music releases by first timers and veterans. Here's three albums of note to kick start the year.

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IAN CHOW & TRACY WONG - HE SAYS, SHE SAYS

Tommorrow, on 26 Jan, Ian Chow and Tracy Wong will launch their collabo-album He Says, She Says at KLPAC, playing their songs live, with guest performances from Sei Hon, Otam, Suk Yin, Tony Leo and Ariff Akhir. It's happening 8.30pm at KLPac's IndiCine (2nd floor). Admission RM10.

Here's a peek at the cover for the CD.


















Plus a little blurb from Ian: "Ease yourself into a summery blend of soulful melodies and breezy folk-pop/rock. Without pessimism and affectation, Ian and Tracy, two Malaysian singers-songwriters, simply show the full range of their eclectic influences over the 13 songs from their debut album." Tan Sei Hon mentioned to me the other day that it sounds great. I can't wait to hear it. Ever since hearing "It's OK" that he included on the Voices From Next Door compilation CD, I've been waiting for more stuff from the Ian (and now with Tracy!) vault of uplifting tunes.

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ESTRELLA - ESTRELLA

















Estrella, one of my favourite bands around, because they write delicate songs that are simply delightful to listen to, recently put out their debut album. And they'll be launching it at Centro@Sooka Sentral (next to KL Sentral) on 31 January, next Thursday, 8pm. I'm listening to the album now. Very nicely done. Nice and breezy. With Liyana's sweet voice. Perfect to listen on a lazy Sunday afternoon. :-)

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FLICA - WINDVANE & WINDOW











While I was at the Soundscape Labrador gig at KLPAC, I met Euseng Seto aka Flica at the merchandise booth hawking his latest CD called Windvane & Window. Wonderful ambient electropop stuff. I've been listening to it. Really quite beautiful mellow stuff. Nice. Definitely a CD that's going on my fave playlist. Click on the links to read more about the CD and where you can buy it.

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22 January 2008
"The Miracle"
Though I promised Adlin and Sarah that I'd blog about watching Cloverfield (which is a fun movie I must say - go watch it and try to figure what's the big fuss about the ending), I'm going to renege and continue instead this series of posts about the songs on the album... LOL...


















"The Miracle" is the fourth song on the album. I wrote it when I was living in Setiawangsa (circa 2000, I think). It's half based on a dream and half cobbled together from my fascination with the phenomenon of miracles. I don't remember much about the dream now. But I do remember being quite fascinated by miracles while growing up a Catholic in Kota Kinabalu. There was this book of illustrated stories from the Bible (I can't remember the title and it's probably disappeared now) that was left in the cabinet under the TV in my family home. And every now and then, while I was growing up, I would flip through it and read the stories about Job, Lazarus, Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, Noah and the Flood, Jesus' crucifixion and ascension, the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on. It was really fun to read about them because they seemed so unreal. It definitely made an impression on me.

But I was a lazy Catholic. Can you believe it? I failed Sunday School. Never received my first Holy Communion. After that it was all downhill. I kind of rebelled against God, so to speak... LOL... Still, I'm a big fan of the rituals of the Church, and all the fun blood, suffering and gore stuff. I'm not a voracious reader of the history of the Church, though I did read up on some stuff about the Inquisition and Torquemada. And no, I didn't read The DaVinci Code. I did read The Name Of The Rose though. That took a few months... phew... ha ha... I guess I'm not serious at all about the Church. But I can't deny that the Catholic Church is full of intrigue. And there are too many Catholics, active and/or lapsed, out there who still think of God in very reverent terms.

One interesting aspect about the Catholic faith, which the Vatican frowns upon (though in a strange way, it encourages) but Catholics the world over obsess about, is the phenomenon of the miracle. I think it's one thing that survived the Christianising of magic-based pagan beliefs with more vigour than one would initially suspect. Because the miracle is proof that God exists. So it's celebrated a lot in Catholic pop literature, from the Biblical stories to crying statues of Mary, to relics with healing powers to sightings of the Christ in woodgrain, bla bla, the list goes on.

But in the age of reason, non-believers like to think of miracles or visitations as evidence of a loopy mind. I'm no different. Foucault referred to this in Madness and Civilisation, though not in direct reference to those deluded by the miracle. Part of the Wikipedia summary below.

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Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, by Michel Foucault, is an examination of the ideas, practices, institutions, art and literature relating to madness in Western history. It is the abridged English edition of Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, originally published in 1961 under the title Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique. A full translation titled The History of Madness was published by Routledge in June 2006. This was Foucault's first major book, written while he was the Director of the Maison de France in Sweden.

Foucault begins his history in the Middle Ages, noting the social and physical exclusion of lepers. He argues that with the gradual disappearance of leprosy, madness came to occupy this excluded position. The ship of fools in the 15th century is a literary version of one such exclusionary practice, the practice of sending mad people away in ships. However, during the Renaissance, madness was regarded as an all-abundant phenomenon because humans could not come close to the Reason of God. As Cervantes' Don Quixote, all humans are weak to desires and dissimulation. Therefore, the insane, understood as those who had come too close to God's Reason, were accepted in the middle of society. It is not before the 17th century, in a movement which Foucault famously describes as the Great Confinement, that "unreasonable" members of the population
were systematically locked away and institutionalised. In the 18th century, madness came to be seen as the obverse of Reason, that is, as having lost what made them human and become animal-like and therefore treated as such. It is not before 19th century that madness was regarded as a mental illness that should be cured, e.g. Philippe Pinel, Freud. Other authors later argued that the large increase in confinement did not happen in 17th but in the 19th century, somewhat undermining Foucault's argument.

Foucault also argues that madness during the Renaissance had the power to signify the limits of social order and to point to a deeper truth. This was silenced by the Reason of the Enlightenment. He also examines the rise of modern scientific and "humanitarian" treatments of the insane, notably at the hands of Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke. He claims that these modern treatments were in fact no less controlling than previous methods. Tuke's country retreat for the mad consisted of punishing them until they gave up their commitment to madness. Similarly, Pinel's treatment of the mad amounted to an extended aversion therapy, including such treatments as freezing showers and the use of straitjackets. In Foucault's view, this treatment amounted to repeated brutality until the pattern of judgment and punishment was internalized by the patient.

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Though Foucault's writings have come under query since his death, I still like his ideas. The main gist of it is compelling, because of what it says about society's changed views on the idea of magic, the inexplicable, the miraculous. What was once a thing of wonder is now a compendium of mental illnesses.

"The Miracle" in a way is my own view of the phenomenon. The song is a little exotic, somewhat dramatic and kinda romantic narrative about a person who encounters his/her beloved who is in a state of possession, of being drawn to something mysterious. I don't really explain what the miracle is. ("Oh Jerome, you bastard.") In the song, the narrator is trying to understand. And as he/she does so, he/she becomes overcome by it too. Pete Teo heard this once and was sorta disappointed by the conclusion... LOL... because it didn't seem to lead anywhere but back into itself. I guess the point of a miracle is not for it to reveal itself. It's merely a symbol upon which one ponders. The miracle itself is not important. What is important is ultimately up to the ponderer to discover.

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The Miracle

I walked along the river to your house
There were lanterns everywhere like fireflies
I traced the path of coloured flags down to where you lay
Your body left a hollow as you stood to take my hand

You said, I could see the miracle
Come to me, unmistakable
You fell to the ground and pushed against the earth
You fixed your gaze to the dark and then there was a spark

I led you inside to your bed as it rained
The army of weather had returned to claim its men
By the glow of candles I kept vigil over you
Delirious with joy in the presence of something good

You said, I could see the miracle
Come to me, unmistakable
You dashed out the door with lightning at your feet
You were pulled by a force invisible, unseen

Who is the lover of this precious thing
Who is the keeper of this wonderful thing

I walked along the river looking for you everywhere
Strange omens came to me and went without a trace
Then in a clearing on the beach I fell into a spell
I dreamt that I could touch your face and hear you speak again

You said, I could see the miracle
Come to me, unmistakable
I took your hand in mine that was warm as it was cold
And kissed the mystery inside as before us it unfolds

Who is the lover of this precious thing
Who is the keeper of this wonderful thing

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21 January 2008
"Songs For A Shadow" - album update
On Saturday evening, I went over to Hardesh's studio in Bukit Damansara to work on the final mixes of the songs for the album. From about 5pm to 11:30am, we finetuned "Lightfalls", "Mother", "The Little Cat Song", "The Miracle", "Song For The Service Industry" and a bit on "A Shadow". (We had a little dinner break in between. There was also a storm threat, which prompted Hardesh to turn off his studio just in case of a power surge.) Hardesh did most of the work. I was a bit groggy from work and just said yes and no and maybe while listening to the songs on the studio monitors.

In case you're wondering what Hardesh's studio looks like, I took a few snaps with my handphone camera. This is the all important desk...





















We tracked all the songs on that PC (except for the songs that Ariff Akhir produced; which were done at Ariff's home studio all the way in Bukit Antarabangsa! From one bukit to another!). Hardesh used to have a studio over at FUSE but that was about two years back. He moved to his home studio a few months before we started recording. This view of his desk is from the comfy sofa I was sitting on. Over the past year, I usually sat on the sofa waiting for Hardesh to prep the sessions. The room is acoustically treated (for the non-techies that means the room's got sponges on the wall that soak up any noise from outside (well, sometimes some sounds do come through - it is a home studio after all); and also it kills off any natural reverb in the room so that the sounds that go into the microphone are dry as possible - that's really important because extra little hums and noises can really crap up a recording.

So... if you can imagine it... I recorded guitar and vocals in the same room. But when I need to record vocals, I usually stand up because I can breathe easier that way. Cannot be too lazy all the time right? Anyway, here's an obligatory shot of the studio floor...






















ooh... cables...

So, yes, mixing is finally over... Hardesh worked his ass off for this... so if you guys and gals don't appreciate it, he's going to come after you and give you a piece of his mind... just kidding.

Here's a shot of the computer screen. The software that's opened is Nuendo. The window there is showing the progress of Nuendo "exporting audio" for "The Little Cat Song". It's basically rendering the file from lots of different files into one big ass .wav format file. 48kHz/24 bits is the resolution that's needed for the mastering process.
















It is important during rendering that no one touches anything. Just wait for the thing to do its work. This is what we have computers for, right? No pesky human kacau-ing...

On the subject of technology and music, I know that it's nice when it's real people who are playing the instruments and whatnot. But I can't stand it when people say that music made with the aid of computers or samplers or synths is soulless. I've heard and seen guitarists wank on and on just as I've seen and heard digital manipulators do the same. To me, every sound is legitimate, no matter how it's produced. Even a guitar or piano is a kind of technology. Just because an instrument is acoustic doesn't mean it's fantastic. A guitar is only a guitar. It's the person who's playing who gives it voice. Same with computers. But this is a bit of an old story. Most musicians I know don't give a rat's ass about whether it's analog or digital. As long as it comes out the other end without too much hassle, it's usable... :-)

And... after producing all that saliva... I present to you...

















... the CD loaded with the FINAL MIXES... Final as in Finito, no more tweaking, no more rearranging, no fussing about (in theory, anyway)... but it's final as far as I'm concerned... no more will Hardesh get little emails from me saying, "Hey, there's this little sharp tink-ing kind of beat that annoys me..." No sirree... no more of that crapping on... This here is the deal. Mixing is done!!!

I'm very happy, of course. And yes, as if it weren't enough that I've been listening to the songs for hundreds of times since we started recording, I've been listening to the final mixes too... I hope people will like it. It's my little audio baby.

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Hardesh informed me via SMS today that the mixes will be going to the mastering guru CL Toh on Thursday.

Mastering is a very mysterious art that I'll blog about one of these days.

Anyway, the mastered version should be in by next Monday, which is when I'll be popping by the mastering studio with Hardesh for a listen.

It's going fast now... dear... and I still have so many stories to write for KLue... deadline week at the office again... sigh

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In other news, it's confirmed that I shall be performing a little set at the Matahari Press triple book launch. I'm aiming to get the CD out for the event. But more updates on that and the gig in a coupla days.

Also, Shahril has finished the artwork and design for the CD cover! Yippee!

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20 January 2008
"This Excellent Love"



















Third track on the album "This Excellent Love" is one of those songs where the story becomes more interesting after I wrote it. When I was writing it (I was still living in Setiawangsa at the time, circa 2002), I was just trying out a happy-sounding chord progression I'd written, with sort of melancholic words that I banged out in a couple of minutes. I think at the time I wrote it I wanted to write a song that was kind of celebratory and not so minor key. To be honest, I wasn't totally happy with the end result. I thought the song was sappy in some parts, the chorus a bit cliche, and overall it just wasn't really there. I called it "Gypsy". But after making one or two changes, I decided to perform it live anyway, because it's one of my more upbeat songs, and I thought it'd be nice to play something different.

The crowd reception to it was a surprise.

People liked it. They liked the chorus. Because it was "sexcellent". LOL. I must admit it's also not as weirdass as some of my other songs. So I decided to play it more often. Over the years, because more people seemed to remember the chorus, I decided to change the title to "This Excellent Love".

In 2006, I recorded it for the album, and also for inclusion on a DiGi-sponsored compilation CD featuring music by assorted local acts including Ferns, Furniture, Azmyl Yunor, Tan Sei Hon, Qings & Kueens, Superbar, et al, who played for the KLue Chillout series. It sounds different from the version I play live. A bit more subdued, because I didn't strum the guitar like a madman on the recorded version. I remember it took me and Hardesh just a little over a week to get the song done. We went through three different beats for it. (I think Hardesh got a bit miffed at me for pushing it so much - LOL. Sorry, Hardesh!) Also featured on the recorded version are drummer Jeremy Liew on snare (for a very short section) and Adlin Rosli who contributed the trippy guitar effects you can hear in the second chorus and outro. (It's the only song on the album which features guest players. I must try harder next time. :-P)

Paul Augusta aka Elias Rose, a musician/filmmaker friend from Indonesia, liked it so much that he shot a homemade video clip for it. I'm very touched by the gesture and I love the very simple video. It's very touching (literally!). LOL. And you can see it by following the tags to an older post. In a write-up he did about my upcoming album in The Jakarta Post, Paul described the song as a "cynic's return to love". I never thought about it that way before. Or actually even pondered about what it could mean. (Read the lyrics and tell me what it means to you.) It's one of those songs that I think really belong to the listeners. I don't mind performing it but it really was just a songwriting exercise for me that really connected.

In a way, I guess it is kind of a return to love.

*

This Excellent Love

If patience could give you the gypsy of my hands
To a house where your smile quietly stands
What it’s like to discover the truth with eyes closed
Go deeper and find your heart shaped like a rose

This town is curling like words on a burning page
Each promise in longhand conceals invisible rage
I wake up with nothing but the fragments of a dream
That I opened an empty box and heard you loudly scream

This excellent, excellent, excellent love

This book’s too thin to last beyond this lazy morning
This song’s too short to really grow any kind of meaning
I’m made like surrendering everything forever
I’m made like uncovering thunders forever

This excellent, excellent, excellent love

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18 January 2008
"Tomas"

















The second song on the album is called "Tomas". I've told the story about how I wrote it a few times at gigs and stuff but I'll recount it here for the blog's sake.

In Julian Schnabel's film Before Night Falls (2000), based on the memoirs of the late Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, theres a minor character named Tomas Diego (played by Chilean actor Santiago Magill). Tomas was one of Arenas's lovers. In the film, he was forced to work in a labour camp, we assume, for being gay. (Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Cuba in 1979. During the 1960s and 70s, there was a history of persecution against gay individuals under Fidel Castro's regime.) About halfway through the film, as the character of Arenas (played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem) himself was on the run from the authorities, we find out from a scene that Tomas had died while trying to escape from the camp. This is juxtaposed with a scene of Tomas, his face illuminated by the flames rising from a burning sugar cane field, his sweaty bespectacled face flecked with soot and dirt, on the run with other detainees from the wardens.

That one image haunted me.

That one could be persecuted for one's sexuality is something that's so hard to comprehend. That the state could have that kind of power over someone's life, passion, love. It boggles the mind.

Though most countries and societies have come to tolerate gay culture and lifestyles in recent decades, there are still a few regimes around that are severely intolerant. The public execution of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in 2005 was a heartbreaking missive from that part of the world where the tyranny of dogma has overtaken reason and humanity.

I wrote "Tomas" in memory of the real life Tomas Diego, and also for anyone who has ever suffered any form of persecution for his or her sexuality.

*

Tomas

Tomas, Tomas
Your glasses are covered by flies
Plentiful earth mother
She lights up your eyes

Can the tongue recall
What the heart does not fear
All those nights in Havana
Finally disappear

Tomas, Tomas
Your glasses are covered by flies
Plentiful earth mother
She lights up your eyes

Does the mind turn away
What the soul cannot see
When the hand harvests
Neither death nor sugar for free

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"Indie" Trap
A few days ago my artist page and songs were taken down from Nokia’s Independent Artist Club (IAC) website. (I ain't linking IAC.) Because I asked them to. I decided to do it because there were two things I found unacceptable with the site.

1. Bad vibes
Unlike many other sites that host music for free, the IAC site just gave me bad vibes. After putting up my music and leaving it there for about two or three months (it only started operating sometime last October or November), one day I decided to surf the site and check out the other acts who were on it. Bad idea. It was good that I did though. Otherwise I’d never find out just how unimaginative IAC was with the whole “indie” thing. God, sometimes I think that the whole “indie” marketing thing is a sham. For me, “indie” will always stand for doing whatever you want to do independently of a controlling agent or creativity-crushing commercial interest (or just simply independently funded) (but then again, is anything really independently funded?) just as “punk” stands for rebelling against the fascism of good taste (or should anyway). The IAC site is such a bad example of how sponsors with truckloads of money get suckered in by marketing agencies who (after doing their little surveys on yoof kulcha) tell their sugar daddies that “indie” is what kids are into nowadays. And then slowly but surely "indie" gets whored up for the job. Yet another attempt at lassoing potential consumers into some kind of consumer-based community. “Yay, let’s buy and download in the name of indie!” is empowering if it were initiated by the kids themselves, grassroots-style, but IAC’s approach is just so crass. Artists are pigeonholed, labeled, graded, rated, whatever, hogtied to the bandwagon. The only "indie" thing is that they ask artistes beforehand if they're signed or published. Being "indie" is a choice. Just because you're not signed to a recording deal doesn't mean you're "indie". Maybe I'm being too harsh. But "indie" for me has become a dirty word, like "democracy" (especially when it's uttered by goats in batik - but isn't that me? Damn.).

2. No customisation features
Unlike MySpace where you can fuck around with the layout and make it look as good or as bad as you want (though admittedly there are better platforms than MySpace for doing that), the IAC site offers nothing for artistes in terms of customising how one's page looks. Maybe if I knew a bit more about programming, I could’ve. Anyway, the worst worst thing was that when I decided that yep I didn’t want to have anything to do with the site anymore, I couldn’t find any button or thingamajig that I could press to self-destruct. I searched the site for an hour until it was obvious they hadn’t thought of putting the "close my account" feature in - at which point I decided that the site was truly fucked up. So I decided to write to the webmaster requesting for my page to be taken down. If IAC was really supportive of “indie” music, it would’ve given artistes on the site the choice to delete their presence without having to ask for permission. Anyway, they replied after about two or three days, asking me why quite sincerely. I replied “You suck!” No, I didn’t. I explained the two points to them (slightly different than the two points here) in a very stern tone I must say. LOL. After that I got another email replying to my two points, saying that they appreciated my two cents’ worth, and informing me that my artiste page (formerly http://web-iac.nokia-asia.com/malaysia?frame=/malaysia/artists/jkugan) had already been taken down. A Google entry for it still exists, but it leads to a “Cannot find the action you requested” page on IAC.

Such was my fruitless dalliance with IAC.

Next time I sign up for something, I must be more careful. Don’t fall into the “indie” trap!

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17 January 2008
A show to look forward to
Since I won't be able to afford to go see neither Suzanne Vega (whom I've been listening to since 1987) in Singapore nor Bjork (since 1994) in Jakarta, because I need to save my money to pay for the CD mastering and printing, I'll be all geared up to go see the Soundscape Records Labrador show at KL Performing Arts Centre on 25 January.























Not that it's any lesser than the two abovementioned women. In fact, I think it'll be quite fun. In addition to the two Swedish acts Club 8 and Pelle whose music reminds me of Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, there's Ferns (whose debut album last year was one of my favourites of 2007) and Couple (who never fail to put a smile on my face when I see them perform). So, yep, four fun indie pop rock acts for a very reasonable admission price. I'll definitely be there! :-) And I hope anyone reading this will come too!

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"I Like"


















Since I'm bored, I'll be posting the lyrics to the songs that appear on the album, one by one, for your perusal... :-) with a few brief notes on what inspired the song and events that were happening in my life when I wrote them... bla bla blam... so on and so-so...

The first one is "I Like". Which is the first song I ever wrote on the guitar. Back in 2000. It was in Canberra, Australia. I had just picked up the guitar after years of resisting its pull. The catalyst for the then-newfound love for the instrument was a book by the late Japanese American musician Philip Toshio Sudo called Zen Guitar (my friend Sue Cunningham lent it to me in the hope that it would help me get over my guitarophobia), which was a "learn how to play guitar" kinda book with a difference. For one, it didn't have any talk in it about tuning up, chord tabs, scales, bean sprouts, mayhem or murder. It was more of a mental preparation kind of a book for people who wanted to play the guitar but were intimidated by it because of what crazy axe dudes like Jimi Hendrix and Django or superb guitar-based singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon have achieved with the instrument. I was definitely intimidated by it cause I've always imagined that when I picked up the guitar, beautiful peals of fluttery notes would spill from my fingers as though I were counting out the petals from a blazing sunflower. Instead, in the past, I've only ever banged out terrible kerrangs and sqruawks.

But Toshio Sudo wrote about embracing these sounds. To find one's own voice within the instrument, limitations and all. Forget everything that one has ever come to expect from the guitar and just accept the sounds. He also wrote about finding one's own chord. Which is a bit hippie-ish, I must admit. But it worked. I got over the mental block. He also wrote about some other ways to prepare oneself for the guitar, like always picking it up with a purpose. If you want to noodle, then noodle. If you want to perform something, do it. If you want to write a song, focus. No hedging about. Be clear what you want from the guitar. And since I wanted to write songs with it, I did it. No looking back since then.

Even though I'm still a rather limited guitarist, I reckon I've pulled it off. LOL. Thanks to a book, of all things.

Written around a progression of six very simple chords, the lyrics to "I Like" were inspired by a visit to a river (my first river experience ever, I think) near Canberra about two years before I wrote the song. I went there with some friends I knew at the time who were kinda hippie-ish punks (don't ask!). It was rather shallow at the time because it was during the height of a really hot summer. I wish I could remember the name of it now. Yarralumla? Anyway, I had a wonderful time that afternoon just dipping in the water (I don't really know how to swim). I remember my friends took everything off and swam in the skinny, breasts and cock exposed to the elements and all that. I wasn't so uninhibited then. I still had my Asian modesty so I kept my shorts on... ha ha ha... but it was a very nice experience nevertheless. It was a wonderful moment in my life. I had been a rather isolated character growing up, and I think I really opened up while I was Down Under, like an extended vacation away from bad childhood memories and a depressing adolescence. I think I re-learnt how to feel the pleasure of the simple things again.

About three years back, I had a chance to tag along with some KL friends and acquaintances to the river at Janda Baik and it all came back... Rivers are really special things, full of magic, full of wonder. Different from being at the beach. I think anyone who's ever been to a nice cool river would understand. It's a shame the two rivers that run through KL are muddy storm drains channeling trash and who knows what kind of filth. It must bring a lot of bad energy into the city. One of these days I must go to Antares's place in Kuala Kubu Baru. Can you believe it? Seven years in KL and not once to MagickRiver? Ish ish ish...

I chose to open the album with this song, done very simply, just me singing over the very simple chords. Because of what it represents: the simple thing, the beginning, the unspoiled joy of immersing (or re-immersing) oneself into a very real, natural pleasure.



*

I Like

Water rushing through and I find
Cold and warm at the same time
Rising under a cloud of white
Flow forever, can’t stop it now

With a kiss from a sun god
New things I sacrifice
My body sings and I forget
What it feels like to understand

I like the way it makes me feel

Can’t hear anymore the sound of cars
Bubbles dress me in morning stars
River, take me into your mouth
Swallow deeper, no more doubts

Naked, hidden by the sun
Secretive like a flower bud
Touch the core and the base
Find again what I left behind

I like the way it makes me feel

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Transient Vortex "Shadow" remix and Album cover art
I got a message from Samlaleo Singh of Transient Vortex saying he's halfway through with his drum n' bass remix of "A Shadow". I'm very excited. All youse Malaysian drum n' bass fans should check out TV's recently released album Timelines Between Separation. TV's also got a few other remixes coming out soon featuring a very diverse group of Malaysian artistes including Melissa Indot, One Buck Short, Pop Shuvit, The Fabulous Cats and Jaclyn Victor, etc. Good stuff, indeed.

*

In other news, Shahril Nizam who's illustrating and designing the cover of the album sent me a pdf file yesterday, revealing what he's been up to in his home studio.














That's just a tiny bit of it. The whole thing is gorgeous. But everyone will just have to wait until it's properly done up and stuff... which shouldn't be too long now. :-)

Meanwhile, I shall be hobnobbing at China White's official opening tonight as a journo! (The things we do for rezeki.)

On Saturday, it's back to Hardesh's studio for a final finetuning of the tracks before taking it to the mastering dude.

And a little shout out to a friend who got admitted into hospital yesterday: I hope you get better T. Here's every pixel of harmonious vibe going out your way! XOXO

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13 January 2008
Songs For A Shadow - album update
It is still in the process, yes. Still listening, mixing, contemplating. But aiming for February soft release now, in time for the Matahari book launch at Central Market Annexe on 16 Feb. But that's still an if.

I burnt a few copies of the unmastered mixes for a few ears to have a listen to. So far it's on Azmyl Yunor's high rotation. LOL.

And though it might not mean all that much for anyone who hasn't heard the songs, this is the final tracklisting for the album:

01. I Like
02. Tomas
03. This Excellent Love
04. The Miracle
05. Flowers
06. Song For The Service Industry
07. Lightfalls
08. Mother
09. A Shadow
10. The Magic Word
11. The Little Cat Song

Muna Noor of KL's Juice mag asked me if "The Little Cat Song" has a tragic ending. I can happily state here that the cat does not meet a grisly fate. :-)

On another note, Shahril Nizam, who's been helping me putting together the new Poetika (which is stalled for now because of funding issues), will be doing the cover art for the CD. Which makes me very happy. Because I love his illustrations.

More updates in the foreskinable future.

And for those who are into plant porn, I shall soon be posting sexy pics of my faux IKEA bonsai, whom I have christened Melvil (after French actor Melvil Poupaud who starred in Francois Ozon's Time To Leave Le Temps Qui Reste). Watch out!

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11 January 2008
Crush
I recently met someone who inspired me to write this. Fictitious, of course. Enjoy.





















Crush by Jerome Kugan

Ever since I resigned myself to living the life of an immoral snob, I thought I would be immune from developing annoying crushes on strangers, especially those beautiful strange boys who seem to appear out of nowhere. Beautiful boys whose arrogance mark the air like skunk piss, who stings the space in between with their silence or their smirk or their total ignorance of you. Because what is a crush compared to the sordid world of clandestine groping in dark corners in an abandoned film theatre or the decadent nooks of new year’s eve parties where the revellers are breathlessly waiting to be invited to a kiss upon cabernet-stained lips? Crushes are nothing. Crushes are what Chihuahuas have for breakfast. Crushes are for adolescent girls and boys fantasising about pinup celebrities. Crushes are for janitors fingering the fragrant scarf of a preteen who has long graduated. There are whole libraries dedicated to the literature of the crush—and the crushing and the crushed. What business have I to show up at the window through which Thomas Mann secretly pined for angels in white denim? There is no space. It is crammed with longing, poetry, ballads, odes, novels, blogs, et cetera.

And yet.

And yet, I discovered, agitating parts of my being I thought long buried under layers and layers of cynical huffing at what I judged to be the pretentiousness of others… that my cactus of desire had indeed developed a new thorn.

A boy of 24. A total stranger. Bespectacled. An impish Chinese face with a head of short-shorn hair. With strong arms set on a lean muscular torso built upon a tapered waist held up with powerful looking legs. Who smiles with a full set of teeth showing (when he thinks no one is noticing). Whose eyes are dimmed with a kind of romantic sadness (when un-spectacled). Who refused to speak to me (even when twice I asked him what he thought of his new pair of shoes). Not out of arrogance or condescension. But shyness. A boy who lives inside his head, with his own dressed-up fantasies, youthful yearnings to escape the real world. Teasing the bubbling water in a pool because he’s sitting apart from the crowd. Perhaps he’s still in Melbourne, walking down Chapel Street to meet his friends waiting to greet him in an over-decorated cafe. Who writes in his blog about how people should take his car away from him or he’ll run over some poor bastard, who posts pictures of designer clothes with exclamations of fashion wanderlust, cooing over JV Marc or some other, but claims he is straight when asked “Are you gay?”

So I am not the first admirer. I understand. Surely no object of lust appears out of nowhere. And certainly not this boy, whose history I imagine to be peppered with its own share of mysteries.

But who am I to linger here? Like a dog sniffing a sock. A janitor cleaning up a stain.

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