Opinion

Of cults and breakthroughs

MARCH 10 — Proper gigs are few and far between these days. The lack of easily accessible and affordable venues in the centre of Kuala Lumpur nowadays means that if you want to experience a proper gig that’s held in a hall, or in something bigger than the usual clubs or pubs in and around Kuala Lumpur, then you’d have to go a wee bit out of state for it.

Two weeks back, my band played a gig in Malacca, which was held at a hall called Dewan Hang Tuah. The last time we played in Malacca was quite a surreal experience, as we were privileged enough to share the stage with Malaysia’s Papa Rock, Ramli Sarip. Then again, that wasn’t really a gig, as it was more of a student event held at Malacca’s version of Dataran Merdeka which was Dataran Pahlawan, with guest artistes who were more on the mainstream side of things.

This latest gig we played was a full-on old-school type of gig, like the ones I fondly remember playing in smaller cities and towns like Ipoh, Banting, Johor Baru, Penang and Kota Baru. It’s not just the hot and humid hall setting that reminds me of these gigs, but also the generously mixed line-up of acts that range from the poppiest of acts to the heaviest of metal bands.

You rarely find gig line-ups like these in KL anymore, as the scene’s more or less been segregated along genre lines for quite some time now. So it’s truly refreshing to see that old “underground scene” spirit of unity still alive and well in Malacca.

As far back as 2002, or maybe even 2001, an esteemed music writer wrote in the now-defunct TONE magazine, in a feature about local acts then making noise in the scene, that my band Couple did not have a high chance of making a mainstream breakthrough due to the kind of music that we play, but are destined to have a sizeable cult following. I was mighty pleased with myself when I read that because all my musical heroes (except for The Beatles and The Beach Boys, of course) were at most cult heroes who sometimes even had to wait decades after their band’s demise to get due recognition.

Of course all this was before the unthinkable happened, which was when the Malaysian independent music scene started stealing a march on the mainstream when some bands actually conquered the local airwaves and music awards shows. Being around in the scene before all this happened and during it meant that from time to time we also got to brush shoulders with the mainstream by playing big events and even appearing on TV!

But all through this we’ve remained more or less what the aforementioned writer had prophesised about us — a band with a decent enough cult following. I wouldn’t mind getting a mainstream breakthrough though, as that would mean that I would be able to make a living out of music full time, but I doubt anything like that could happen with the kind of musical direction we choose to take, which is always never in sync with what the mainstream might want.

The reason I’m babbling about all this cult following thing is this — sometimes I forget how lucky we are to be in this position. But playing that gig in Malacca instantly reminded me, especially when witnessing another band with a sizable cult following whom I highly respect, Plague Of Happiness from Johor Baru.

Playing an incredibly infectious brand of ska punk, I first met them at the screening of the independent movie “Gedebe”, which was directed by Namron. Prior to that I’ve only heard a cassette EP by them, and heard and read stories in photocopied fanzines about how they truly started from scratch, especially their horns section who were all friends who they sent to music school to learn how to play their respective instruments using the money they got from playing gigs and selling demo tapes. Really inspiring stuff, don’t you think?

The movie used both our bands’ songs, so naturally we were invited to attend a special screening and became friends from then on. I remember meeting the late Yasmin Ahmad for the first time as well during that screening, which was probably in 2002.

We’ve shared the stage many times throughout the years, and I always find it heartwarming to see kids of all ages singing along to their songs at all the shows, even if you hardly hear any of them ever played on the radio. Watching them in action in Malacca, with the rambunctious crowd thoroughly enjoying themselves and egging the band on, again I was reminded how special this cult bond is.

Musical trends may come and go, and the casual fair-weather fans may have long left once a trend dies (as one can clearly see from so many “big” bands with seemingly huge following who people no longer care for once the band’s fever dies out), but the ones with that special bond in their hearts will always be there. It’s nice to be huge for 15 minutes, but it’s probably nicer to still be loved even after 10 to 20 years. I wish my band will get there as well some day. Greetings and salutations, Plague Of Happiness!

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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