we here at i’m waking up to just can’t get enough of the b-quartet, whose new album conformity has replaced consciousness has just been released. earlier this week, becky (b) and adrian (a) caught up with the band’s bani haykal (h) in a rather noisy cafe, while i (d) tagged along, never one to miss a great conversation. enjoy!
b: I was looking for Address in a CD store, scanning through pop/rock A-Z, and it was just shelves and shelves of Boyzone and Blue and Boyz II men and Bruce Springsteen…
h: Ah, he’s not too bad!
b: Yeah, but it just made me kinda sad to see so much music that I consider is somewhat soulless and mass produced. Just shelves and shelves of it that people are buying. So I think it’s quite appropriate that your upcoming album is called Conformity has Replaced Consciousness. In what way do you think your music is a critique of conformity?
h: One thing that was a conscious decision was to make sure that the stuff we’re doing is not a critique. It’s more of an expression of what has been explored in what Adorno wrote in that lecture of his. My introduction to Adorno started with this book of his called Philosophy of New Music where he was talking about a pure alternative. The freedom for a composer is when he is void of his audience, where he exists without his audience, where he’s free to write anything he wills to, which is what he refers to as the pure alternative, the absolute freedom that you get. But at the same time there’s this grey area because he also describes the fact that then, music would to some degree lose its social purpose, because at the end of the day music is meant for people to listen to. If it loses its social purpose then it becomes meaningless …
At the end of the day it was about exploring what he terms “barbarism”, this barbaric area where what is it then that makes the music, the new music, opposing popular music. He was doing this back in the 50s and at that point of time, jazz music or swing music was popular – that was degrading at that point of time. But now we look back and there’s nostalgic value; it’s a nice sound. About jazz, he says there are terms such as “hip”, what’s in and what’s out … All these terms he feels should not apply to music, because music transcends all of that …
With that in mind, it sort of took off from there. I got specifically interested in jazz music … In the beginning what I found out was that jazz music was American music, it was American culture, at least that’s what Duke Ellington brought out. He believed the only thing he’s writing is American music, not jazz, and that it is a direct reflection of what American culture is like. An example I would state is the song “Take the A Train”. It was written by a friend of his as he was going to Duke Ellington’s place, traveling from another country to his house. And on the notes which he wrote, he wrote directions on how to get to Ellington’s place and the first one was take the A train. You get this understanding of this journey that this guy took, that whole stretch he took to get from point A to point B as he took the A train … And you get this understanding of American culture a lot more through music alone without having any words describing, “the guy was wearing this coat” or anything remotely narrative about it – it was all based on music. And I’m thinking to myself, they did it with just music, and I’m thinking what do we have on our end? That culture that we live in. What is it that we that we could actually say that I was brought up in this environment, I took [the train] from Eunos to Bugis and this was the song that I heard in my head when I was on the commute. And that’s how I started exploring more about the culture we live in today, about identity, about self. At the end of the day, it’s about where we are, and how we’ve come to today.
There’s just so much noise around which steers you away from being that individual that you are. So many external influences, so much information. I mean we live in that age right now, [where] there’s so much information. I watched this interview by this film director: there was this talk with regards to 9-11 and they were talking about now that people are more knowledgeable about current affairs and stuff like that and he actually stopped to say, “do you actually mean informed or knowledgeable”, because there’s a big difference between being informed and being knowledgeable. It makes a lot of sense. We might be confused between what’s informative and what’s actually knowledge. We seem to feel like the more stuff we know, the more knowledgeable we are, which might actually blur the line between being trivial and actually being informative. All these things play a part in molding what Conformity has Replaced Consciousness is about. In a nutshell.
a: So, each of the different songs actually addresses one notion?
h: In some ways, yeah. Things like reflecting on self, escapism, where we are today and what might we do about it. Things like information, countless amount of information going on and how one might actually sieve through all of this. Every different song addresses to a certain extent, but as I said, it’s an expression as opposed to being a critique. I don’t want to come off as an academic.
a: So the new album is recorded at Leonard [Soosay]’s place?
h: Yeah, the new place is very different from his previous one. The first one was all decorated and everything. This time round it’s all raw. At the old place, we got the sound that we wanted, but I think it’s only because Leonard was behind the console. I think if it was any other person the sound would have been different. You need to know the guy who knows his stuff …
Leonard and myself, we tried a few ways to work things round in the new studio, especially the drums. The drums – we had a pretty interesting approach to recording it. Sort of borrowed a few ideas from Steve Albini … we tried some of his techniques just to get certain desired effects for the drums. We managed to achieve it and Leonard somehow tweaked it even further. He had a lot of suggestions, and one of the biggest ones that he did was not recording drums with cymbals. We actually removed all our cymbals for all our takes. About 70% of the recording was done without cymbals, only the hat … So the process became a lot more creative that way. It was a really good angle for us to work around the new songs as well.
b: On your website, you credit Leonard Soosay with “carving a future for the band”.
h: Yeah, especially for the sound. We’ve not really explored a lot of studios. We’ve only been to two or three of them, but working with Leonard, one thing’s for sure, he’s extremely hardworking, really hardworking. I cannot emphasize that with enough passion. He sat down with us, and he really wanted to make sure that something was attained from all these thoughts and structures and stuff. The whole idea was to create something a lot more organic, a lot more raw, as opposed to something polished and manufactured. Sonically, he was recreating that.
I think to have the engineer working with the band on that level is really something that is quite unheard of around here … That’s how I feel he’s making headway. More room for people to come in; there’s more to explore when it comes to recording and the joys of being in the studio. We’re like bouncing off one another. It’s good to feed off this positive energy as opposed to just some guy behind the console. It’s different that way. It’s a joy working with Leonard.
a: I’ve often felt the same way about Leonard. He doesn’t just engineer; he produces also. He’s very proficient at what he does at a technical level which then frees him up to be a lot more creative with you.
h: That’s always a good thing, being creative. Someone said the problem with Hollywood is that they give you so much money that it actually limits creativity. The thing with creativity is you got to put yourself in one small corner and [it’s about] how you get yourself out of there. And you actually do by creativity, by thought.
b: On your new album there’s a song called “Researchers”. As a researcher myself, I’m quite interested in what that song means.
h: That song is quite abstract, in the sense whereby it describes this process of understanding more about yourself, where you are in the place you are at right now. It describes this environment that everyone is in, how lonely people are in this day and age. I feel we are all very naked; we need a lot of things just to cover ourselves up to make ourselves feel like we fit in with one another. “Researchers” was about that, this whole idea of where are we today and what is it that we try to be for ourselves in this environment of loneliness that we are all in.
b: I noticed you play this stripped down clarinet thing on a few of the songs.
h: The Xaphoon. I carry it because I walk home. I’m part of the neighborhood. It’s a good way to practice. I can’t practice at home ‘cos my grandma’s at home. It’s a handmade instrument by this guy from Hawaii …
d: This was the one you were playing on the Common People video!
h: Yup, this is the one.
a: Does it feature very heavily in the new album?
h: Only a few songs. What we did with the previous one – not that it was a mistake – we featured more digital and electronic stuff quite prominently. This time around I wanted to stay away from having any instrument being prominent. The idea was to keep the song as a song as opposed to “oh, this is a more guitar-oriented song” or “this is a more xaphoon-oriented song”. So every instrument as a medium as opposed to a song featuring a particular instrument. Of course as a band it’s very guitar heavy. For this one it’s guitar heavy as well.
b: Other than the xaphoon and the guitar, what else do you play?
h: The other instrument that I bought prior to this was the pianica. I’m cheap, I got it off Cash Converter for 5 bucks. It was a steal. I got that, then I got glocks, which was in C-Major. Quite limited, but then you can play a few notes here and there, depending on the song. The rest of it, I was just focusing on the notes, the choice of chords. I guess it’s unfortunate that none of us play the piano.
a: You play a bit though?
h: Yeah but that was only because that was as much as I knew about the piano, how you play the keys. Most of the stuff was written on the guitar anyway, and it was just about translating it on the piano and finding out how to play.
a: Would you say bass is your principal instrument?
h: Funny thing is that instruments are for me, as far as I remember it, just a means for me to write. I don’t really play a specific instrument; it’s something that I pick up just to write something. I’m not really very, very proficient at any one instrument.
b: Do you think you could give us a little insight into your songwriting process?
h: With regards to songwriting, with the band what happens is that most of the time, I would come up with the main brief structure. Even if we don’t have the structure, “OK this is what the verse is like, this is the pre-chorus, chorus, the break” – that kind of stuff. And then with regards to the studio, we go into the studio and I lay out with my brother. He’s playing drums, so “let’s structure it this way” or “how about we do this instead”. So the structuring of the song happens inside the studio for this one. We never really got a fixed idea. So once we laid out all of that, then everyone comes in and starts to piece in everything with one another, [to] create layers. There have been moments where we just keep adding stuff and it just doesn’t seem to work, so we got to start taking stuff out, and we end up putting stuff in again.
For instance there’s one song which we recorded from the old Snakeweed [Studio], what happened was that when we went to the new studio with all the new stuff happening, that song just didn’t fit in and I was very adamant about wanting to take it out. But everyone was “no, we got to put it in”. It’s the only happy song in the whole thing. OK, fine. No one is holding any veto power; it’s all democracy that way. But with one exception: they have to rewrite the entire thing. [For] that song we went through three different versions of it before we finally agreed on one. So that one was the one we spent a lot of time working on. It was all about rewriting in the studio, but we had the brief things like the verse and the choruses. Everything after that was a byproduct. It’s a bit like improv that way [where] we work off whatever we have and we put it back together
a: Do you find yourself writing in sections?
h: At one point of time, yes, but then I thought I don’t want to sound like Dreamtheater, so we broke away from that. They’ve had really good albums, but after a while … stop lah. The idea was not to be that. I want to make sure that it’s still a song, not small bits that got together because they didn’t fit anywhere else. At one point of time it got a bit scary because “eh, I like this part, I like that part, let’s put them together… Eh! Dreamtheater!” Let’s stop that.
a: You brought up a really interesting point just now about the themes and notions you’re exploring in the songs. You write the lyrics and compose the songs. Do you find ways to sonically transmit that message?
h: Yeah, that’s why we wanted to retain the whole analog thing, just guitars and standard instruments, to work within confinements that we’re given. When you’re stuck in a rut, you’re thinking, how else can I do it? I’m taking just guitars, I’m taking just the drums, the bass, these instruments, the xaphoon, the pianica, just stuck in one corner. How can we push the compositions in a different environment? … So we don’t just play lines on the guitar, we’re sort of doing question/answer, a lot of different things, acrobatic movements on all these instruments, just to get a different effect. In a way, sonically, translating it in that regards, we limit ourselves to just a few instruments, the conventional ones … the kind of stuff that you hold on to like the guitar the bass, and exploring just as many different ways of expressing that … In a way I’m trying to keep things conscious, to keep things a lot more fresh with the instruments we already have, like taking the cymbals of the drums: that was one of the things that was a big start. You’re used to playing this and that, but somehow when you’re not given that, my brother was somehow forced to play something else. And when we put in the cymbals, we realized you don’t actually need so much cymbal work, just maybe a few highlights here and there. It’s all these small things that make a different sonic texture.
a: You’re a working poet, for the past few years
h: I’ve only had one published book so far. I mean I write, but I haven’t compiled it into a proper book yet. I haven’t really found the logic behind making a book just yet. I don’t want it to be incoherent with so many disjointed things; not that I want to make it conceptual at the same time, but I’ve not found the reasoning for doing it just yet. I don’t want to be doing something just because. I want to feel that it makes sense. So many books these days, just like there is so much music being published. I don’t want to be contributing to just a bunch of stuff – so much things out there.
d: You do poetry and you write songs. Do you consciously make the distinction between them?
h: I try not to, actually. I see each as a medium. For the new lyrics, I don’t have a conscious decision of how it goes rhythmically, so it’s quite free. I try to make sense of the rhythm as the song happens. Some of them might sound a bit awkward but it’s only because it was written in that way. The only reason I like doing that is because the text should remain as it is, and the rhythm should only affect the way you deliver it as opposed to how it’s actually written. I guess its just a personal preference. I guess some others would write according to the rhythm of the song so it sounds tight, but I’ve always liked the idea that you find the rhythm when you write everything down so it has a different texture to some degree … because I want the song to speak on its own, and I want the lyrics to speak on its own so people can listen to two things almost separately.
a: But when you’re writing your poetry, do you follow a rhythm?
h: Not exactly. Usually, I’d base it on a theme. Let’s say I want to write something a bit more moody or dark: I wouldn’t have a rhythm; I’d just have something a bit more monotonous. The rest of the sentences make up the feel. And it’s the delivery. Iambic pentameter … [these] are just things that you know to guide you as you craft things together. I wouldn’t be too rigid [or] adhere too closely to that. It’s good to know, also important to know, but how you apply it is up to you.
b: You guys formed in 1999. It’s been 11 years. What do you think you’ve learnt in the last 11 years?
h: A lot of stuff actually. Studio work, that’s one of the best lessons I guess. There’s just so [many] things that you learn every time you go into the studio, things you can do and certain things that you shouldn’t be doing, what do you want to achieve. As you go along you learn a lot of things. I don’t want to be reading too much, getting so much theory that you have this strong reliance, that if you follow this formula 1+1 you will get this desired effect. So there’s a bit of experimentation along with understanding what technical details are involved. That step-by-step process is very interesting. I feel that whatever I learn, unless it’s applied, it’s quite useless.
Aside from things in the studio, playing-wise: I’m sort of picking up every instrument bit by bit. All of us are going through this process where we move from one type of playing style to another. Back in 2000, my cousins were shredding but I guess, I’m not saying that we mature in any way, but developing other methods of playing that instrument so that you understand it better: developing and understanding your place and purpose with what you have. I think that’s one of the more important things, understanding what you do and what you can. That’s always been a good lesson for us.
b: The band is you, your brother, two other cousins and two other guys.
h: Yeah, friends of mine.
b: Do your parents or relatives go for your gigs?
h: Yeah, they do, from time to time. They come by to support us … they’re also the most critical: “Seriously, does that really work?” That kind of thing. We have this learning process with them as well. They have been very supportive; it’s a good thing. My brother, ironically, being the drummer of the band, I think he has more guitars than anyone else in the band. He loves guitars, he prefers playing guitar to the drums. He’s a big Dave Grohl fan. He’s been trying to collect, according to him, I quote “every guitar shape available” just so that it looks nice in his collection.
d: Let’s talk about Mux. I’m a huge fan of your video on common people.
h: Mux was a conscious effort to do everything that B-Quartet doesn’t do. Period, right there. Because if I wanted to start another band that does exactly the same thing, I might as well do it for Quartet right? The only reason we got into that, Siraaj, Luqman, myself, was because we wanted to find alternatives to narratives. We wanted to void ourselves from traditional songs, [and] try to keep it a lot more loose with regards to storytelling. It’s like how you would imagine a screenplay, without any preconceived understanding about what the visual would be like but just the text. So you sort of have a screenplay in front of you and you’re reading. The idea is to translate that into a performance using purely sound and text, and by sound we mean everything from – if it has to take a musical form, or it’s a sound design piece, or it’s just purely ambience, even if it’s silence. The idea is to bring a screenplay sonically.
We have experimented with visuals because it’s interesting to see that chemistry between visuals and what’s going on down here. It’s like you’re watching a movie in fragments: you take parts out and you’re in the middle watching these three things going on at the same time. It sort of revolves around how an audience would actually want to choose what to see next: do you want to focus on the text, do you want to focus on the music or do you want to focus on the visuals? The idea is that all three are interconnected. They would eventually spell out different experiences, but you’re still getting one main craft at the same time. It’s still in an experimental form; it’s what I call lateral storytelling because everything is coming from all sides; it’s not coming from the center where everything is transfixed in the middle. So you’re getting this atmosphere where you’re within this sphere. We’re giving you a bracket and we’re throwing out all the pieces to you and it’s up to you to decide how to experience this whole thing.
d: So staying away from the linear narrative…
h: We try to deviate away from that, to see how else we can throw up an atmosphere and how people absorb it. So that’s Mux, unlike B-Quartet.
a: Are you doing more performances?
h: Yup, we’re with the Substation, and they’ve got a new artistic director, Effendi. He’s got some new plans about associate artists and we’ve got a few shows lined up this year. We’re still developing some ideas. One of the projects we’re most excited about, we’ve been on for quite a bit, but just haven’t found the right people to work with and after a show that we did at post museum (i-AM) we got in touch with this artist. His name is Andreas. He’s a lecturer from LaSalle, and he’s a computer programmer. We got in touch with him and we like what he does, and he happens to like what we do as well. We’re looking forward to a collaboration.
We’re going to create a room. Imagine a library, a few light sources, throw in a few bean bag chairs, and outside we’re going to have a scanner. We’re gonna store every ISBN in the world, every book in a database, and anyone can come into this room and scan their book in. Every book will be categorized according to genre, and every time someone scans a book, depending on the book, based on an algorithm, there’s a computer system that’s computing the percentage of genre that’s inside that room. Let’s say you have 60% sci-fi and 20% thriller or romance or stuff like that, the entire mood of the room will change accordingly, sonically. We’re trying to create a reading room environment, specifically for people who would want to go in there and absorb a book in its entirety, with not just silence. It’s a lot of stuff, [but] we’re trying to work this out. We just fell in love with what he did. It was just, yeah man, perfect. We’ve been looking for someone to do programming so we really hope this will come through. In terms of research we got to understand sonically what you could associate thriller or science fiction with. The subtle difference in sound could differentiate romance and comedy, so we’re trying to find that line. Everything will come into play so that when you’re inside, everyone gets this one environment that’s going on [and] sort of fluctuates in between.
a: It would be fantastic if that was a permanent fixture. Space and communal space would be an issue, but we had a perfect utopia, we could have an entire complex with individual spaces where anyone could go in and be in that space and finish a book.
h: We’re thinking if we could get a small space in every library where people could actually experience this, it would be a nice thing. We’ll try to reach out to the community as well. Music for books, that’s what it is. Not by Brian Eno.
d: Do you listen to music when you read?
h: Sometimes, but I’m not that much of a reader, truth be told. Not that I’m quite selective or anything. It’s a bad habit but I just don’t finish book sometimes.
b: What is the last album you bought?
h: The last one prior to all of this was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. I still cannot get into it just as yet. I’m not going to say that’s yeah, that’s the bomb. There are still a lot of things I still don’t understand about that record. I really think he’s way ahead; I really don’t understand a lot of stuff, but some of the compositions on there are really, really unique pieces. Maybe I got to process them in very small pieces, but I’m still getting acquainted with all this mad stuff that’s going on there.
Other than that, the last one that I was listening to, not that I bought it, I got it from my girlfriend: TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain. It’s a very, very good album, I love that album. Personal favorite of mine was “Province”, the one with David Bowie in the background. They’re really poetic in that regard. They’ve got really beautiful lyrics. The lyrics to “Province” goes, “hold these hearts courageously as we walk into this dark place, stand steadfast beside me and see that love is the province of the brave”. I love that chorus; it was a very beautiful set of words. Aside from being all guitar, the lyrics are solid stuff.
A: What else is on your heavy rotation?
H: Funnily enough, I have not been listening to much these last few months; sort of a music detox kinda thing. I wanted to stay away from a lot of external influences when we were writing. Those two were the last records I was listening to early last year, ever since the studio I’ve been just focusing on writing.
a: When you don’t do that do you find that the things around you have a way of inserting themselves into what you write?
h: In a way, somehow you just can’t seem to escape influences, they keep coming back in again. It is that inevitable, unavoidable thing. But I’m trying hard to stay away from all that but the one thing that I’ve been listening to quite often, from the very beginning, is a personal favorite band. I think they are one of the best songwriters out there – Steely Dan. They are amazing songwriters, and they are hilarious, the lyrics, some of them are just obscure. What’s that about again? It’s just really beautiful stuff. Brilliant song writing and top-notch musicianship. Everyone they’ve brought on board is a master at what they do. I’m a big fan.
d: Where does Jeff Buckley stand in all of this because I definitely hear that in your music.
h: The funny thing about Jeff Buckley was that I never heard Jeff Buckley until two or three years ago. A guy I knew introduced me to Jeff Buckley. You should check this guy out; you might like his stuff. The first song I heard from Jeff Buckley was “Grace”, so when I heard that I was like, wow, this guy has got stuff; the song writing and everything was amazing. I heard most of the songs on that album. I’m not trying to prove anything, but Jeff Buckley wasn’t one of the biggest influences on me, even now. They remain as beautiful songs, good singer, amazing stuff. But the impact, me being highly influenced by him, somehow never really caught on. That’s the truth. Everyone knows him for “Hallelujah”, the Leonard Cohen song. Somehow every time I hear that story I’m reminded of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” which was covered by Johnny Cash, and when Johnny cash brought that song, Trent Reznor said that the song no longer belonged to him. He felt like Johnny Cash owned that song; it’s now his. He doesn’t feel like he wrote it anymore because it’s just come to that level where it’s Johnny Cash’s song, you know. It’s just his.
a: Do you think Buckley did that to Cohen?
h: I’m not so sure about that, because Leonard Cohen is a master, he’s a marvelous, marvelous songwriter. I do remember reading an interview, I think it was in Rolling Stone, Leonard Cohen said, “please stop covering ‘Hallelujah’ because that song has been played way to many times and too many people have been covering it”. The funny thing was when he released that album with “Hallelujah” on it that album was actually not distributed widely or accepted by the label because of the content and the fear that it might not be mainstream enough for people to accept it.
I think if anything else, one of the more recent influences, especially the one main influence which got me away from electronic stuff, is actually Tom Waits. He’s such a character. He stays away from everything else, the story about trees and such. He’s been sticking to conventional instruments but he applies it in a different manner. His earlier stuff was really experimental; his later stuff, he goes more singer-songwriter but he still retains that Tom Waits-esque thing about him. I have a lot of respect that he believes that when you pick up an instrument you should not have prior knowledge about it. You gotta explore it on your own. Because of that I got interested in learning more instruments, trying to get to know more stuff, who knows how you might actually get to apply it. I think Tom Waits was quite an influence on moving in this direction, away from digital stuff.
a: What do you think of Scarlet Johansen’s covers?
h: I guess it has caused quite a bit of mixed reactions. I’m not sure if I’m biased, not of Scarlet Johansen, but because the guy behind the whole thing was Dave Sitek who was the guy behind TV on the Radio, the guy who was producing the sound and the environment. Maybe because I’m quite a fan of what he does? What he did with the Tom Waits stuff, he retained certain character of the Tom Waits songs so the nature is still there, but he puts it in a Scarlet Johansen world where the dreamscape is a bit different, a bit more… I won’t say modern, but I would say a different feel.
I think I should also mention that one of the personal biggest inspirations comes from The Observatory. Their latest album (Dark Folke) is amazing. I’m very, very happy and glad that The Observatory exists within our contemporary circuit because I think that they are pushing a lot of channels especially in music and they’ve got their own stuff going on and you just got to respect it.
a: You’re with Aging Youth [Records]. Will they be organizing a tour in conjunction with the album launch?
h: Singapore, tour also a bit weird. We’ve got a few shows lined up, here and there. Other than that we’re hoping for a few shows maybe in KL also. We’re hoping to get in touch. We’re looking at a few collaborations with some bands also.
a: Do you find KL receptive?
h: We actually enjoy playing in KL. We did that twice actually. It’s been really fun. Aside from the fact that everyone’s really friendly, you just don’t have to be uptight about anything. You just play, have fun, and everyone’s there to just enjoy themselves. There’s a lot of other bands playing. You’re just there absorbing everything.
a: Outside of that I’m sure your music will be very accepted in the region as well. Have you thought of regional or international distribution?
h: We would like to, actually. We would like to send our stuff to a few of the smaller independent labels out there. All the distribution has been guerrilla so far, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s tricky because everyone is quite busy.
b: Finally, being a poet and all, do you think you could describe your music for us, in a haiku?
abandoned science lab
between passageways on ri
verrafts by mountains.
mp3: b-quartet – shoebox (from their first album, tomorrow is our permanent address)
mp3: b-quartet – catwalks (from the music for good! compilation of singaporean music)
many thanks again to haykal for the interview! b-quartet’s new album, conformity has replaced consciousness, is released on aging youth records and may be ordered here. don’t miss their album launch this sunday, 11 April, 9.30pm at the esplanade recital studio. tickets available from sistic are selling fast!