Bayangan talks about debut album ‘Bersendirian Berhad’, loneliness and making good use of your limitations
Bayangan is Fikri Fadzil’s stage name for his neo-folk project. His début album Bersendirian Berhad is the culmination of several months of seclusion in his home-cum-office, containing songs that are minimal, but loaded with messages of nostalgia, addiction, darkness and more. We had a deep conversation with him about a large variety of things, and as a man who has spent years being one of the most respected curators of Southeast Asian music with The Wknd Sessions, it’s a treasure trove of influence, stories and inspiration.
The conversation happened in the Wknd office’s backyard, with a lone tree in the middle and three of Fikri’s cats accompanying us. Fikri jokingly claimed that the cats were his band members (at least, we think he was joking) as he talked about his first venture into writing music and howthe inevitability of death.
It all officially started when Bayangan released the single, Kuala Lumpur (which was featured in a Vans documentary) and now with the album out, it’s all lead to this conversation in a double-storeyed house in TTDI.
From curator to creator
The Fikri that most people are familiar with is the Fikri of the Wknd Session so I’m interested to know, when did you start writing music? When did you become Bayangan?
I started writing music in high school, like a lot of people, probably when I was 14 or 15 years old. I started playing in a band when I was 12 with a couple of other guys. One of my bandmates is yang pelakon tu; Iedil Putra! He was my classmate *laughs*
What was your band’s name?
*laughs* I know. Our parents were musicians as well. Uncle Hasan and Aunty Markiza introduced us to the scene. Aunty is a chiropractor, so she suggested “Why not call it something weird like that?”, and we went with it. 12 tahun doh. *laughs* Xiphisterum is part of the sternum, in the chest.
I started writing songs when I was 15. We were in a band called Blister – not to be mistaken by this other Blister from Melaka – but then I just kinda stopped for a long time. When I came back after my studies I started The Wknd Sessions. I just wanted to get back into music, but I didn’t wanna play music, because I didn’t have time.
So I didn’t play music at all, besides the occasional fiddle here and there. Itu perkara biasalah
Behind the name and genre
What about the name Bayangan then? When did you take that up?
I had an opportunity to actually play music properly, so I took up that name; but I don’t know why. I don’t know,man. I don’t wanna sound pretentious, but it just kinda happened. One day, I just wrote a bunch of songs.
One of the first songs I wrote was Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t plan to do a whole album when I first wrote it. Kuala Lumpur was a single that came out first and then my brother, (Faiz Fadzil) – who is also the primary audio engineer for The Wknd Sessions – suggested I just record it. So I did, and some people liked it.
After that, I decided, “Alright, I’m going to make an album”.
A lot of artists adopt a moniker to separate their artistic and personal identity. Do you consider Bayangan an alter-ego? Or just a moniker?
It’s just a moniker. At first I thought it was an alter-ego, but as I was writing music, I fell more in love with the creative process of writing music more than the emotions. I fell in love with the writing. It’s not really an alter-ego. It’s just a shadow lah
You are known to be genre-agnostic when it comes to curating The Wknd Sessions, but Bersendirian Berhad is consistently neofolk. So why did you lean towards that genre?
When I was writing Kuala Lumpur, if you listened to the earlier demos it was very different. I spent a whole year trying to figure out what sound was most natural to me – meaning a sound that I could just sit down with a guitar and something could just come out.
I didn’t coin the term ‘neo-folk’ for my music but Mak Wai Hoo listened to it and said it was neo-folk so I just went along with it. At one point there were two types of songwriting that I was doing, until I reached a crossroad where I decided I’m going to go with neo-folk because it sounded the most natural and relaxed to me.
What was the path not taken?
I don’t wanna talk about it *laughs*
*laughs* That’s fine. How was the process of actually putting together the album? What’s the story behind Bersendirian Berhad?
In writing the album, I decided to isolate myself. Socially, I stopped going to all concerts as to kind of realign myself. It was a very challenging process because I didn’t realize it was very difficult to write music. As in, REALLY write music.
There are certain aspects of love that is very adolescent that you can also see even in old people
Is there an underlying concept to the album or is just a disparate collection of songs, representing your different emotions?
Since I was isolated most of the time, the theme of isolation and loneliness stood out. A lot of people are going towards that, like it’s a trend. A lot of people are leaning towards that because of how connected we are on Internet. Our connections are more digital than organic, so I explored that idea. That’s the underlying theme. But each song has its own story to tell as well.
It started out being melancholic, but then halfway through you can start feeling that it’s about embracing sadness. About how it’s okay to be sad. A lot of people prioritize happiness. Like we HAVE to be happy, especially when it comes to mainstream stuff, while ignoring all of the negative things that are essential to life. A lot of people are starting to believe that this is the only way to live
I’m just coming to terms with that feeling.
Other people might tell you not to be such a downer, but bro, it’s part of life, man. It’s quite dangerous to just think about the uppers. It’s like a graph, you know: there are a few things that will make you happy but life will figure out a way to balance things out. It could be a broken relationship, it could be a death.
It shows in the album. A good example of that isolation, in my opinion, would be the song www. But what’s Cagaran Mimpi about? It’s my favourite song from the record but is it about putting your dreams on mortgage?
*laughs* I don’t want to impose anything, it’s up to anyone to interpret it however they want. But I see trends of people putting their dreams on hold. It’s not meant to be literal, it’s purposely vague.
www is about this whole dopamine feedback loop where you don’t really want to do something but because you’re addicted to it, either Twitter or drugs, whatever lah. Benda buruk or baik you get addicted to it.
Isolation and rebirth
Did you always want to write an album that is filled with poetry? A lot of sastera Melayu vibe comes out off these tracks.
It was all natural. I am not well-versed in sastera, I only know bits and pieces, but I forced myself to keep it natural. I might as well just say this because I’ve said it before, but half of the songs I wrote was just me picking up the guitar and songs came out. The verse. The chorus. And then words. After that I just piece it together until it makes sense. That’s my songwriting process. It’s more intuition-based.
It’s a refreshing thing for me, because I overthink a lot of things, so I’m trying a different route.
Did this isolation happen in any specific place?
Here lah *shows The Wknd office which also doubles as his house* . I’ve been living here for the past 8 months.
I tried a few other places. I did a studio exchange with this new media artist, Fairuz Sulaiman. I stayed at his place for about 3 or 4 weeks. I mean, I cannot write loud songs in this neighbourhood because I segan with the neighbours. I can’t really put on a fuzz pedal and go wild *laughs*, so that’s why my songs are very mellow and laidback.
I know you isolated yourself from concerts, but were there influences that became your point of reference in writing Bersendirian Berhad?
Yeah, I did have a point of reference. The only music I was listening to was on Klasik Nasional. There are some points where they play keroncong and other really cool old stuff. I wasn’t paying attention to anything because I wanted my subconscious to work as well. But musically I was listening to a lot of acoustic stuff.
Like I said, benda ni bukan something yang aku sedar. It’s usually me listening to something, I love it and then it inadvertently comes out in the music. I was listening to Daniel Rossen. There was this South American singer, Natalia Lafourcade. A lot of Rodrigo Amarante. His solo stuff. Not Little Joy or Los Hermanos.
Yeah, Rodrigo’s sad stuff.
Yeah! I wasn’t listening to his entire album so I was kind of picking and choosing. A lot of those singer-songwriter songs.
It’s metaphorical, mum!
Do you place any visual importance for Bayangan? Is there a music video in the works?
Yes, I’m working on it. Tapi music video mahal doh. But I hope it works out. The album cover art is something I really care about.
The original photo is taken by my childhood friend when he was in Bali. He followed this family to a ngaben – a cremation service – and then gifted the photo to me. So I was thinking about the album art for a long time, but then the photo was just sitting then. Everytime I entered or exited the house I would see it, until eventually I realized, “This is it!”. After that, I gave it to this really cool visual artist, Blankmalaysia, who beautified it. He didn’t have to do much to the photo though, it was already really beautiful.
So it was just a random family?
Yeah, a random, but real Balinese family. Ngaben is filled with the idea of rebirth. My mum pointed it out and asked, “Eh Fikri, why is the album so dark? Kenapa ada orang mati?”. I told her, “It’s metaphorical, mum! We go through it, everyone goes through it. You go from childhood to adulthood and then you die”.
On being poyo and Malaysian
Is there a song in Bersendirian Berhad that you’re particularly attached to?
Mekar and Remaja. I remember writing those songs and the melody just came to me and I was thinking Apa ni sial. It resonated with me a lot because I didn’t know I could write like that. I didn’t even know I could sing like that.
Was Remaja written straight from your youth? Like your very own nostalgia?
To a certain extent, yeah. It’s also a commentary. There are certain aspects of love that is very adolescent that you can also see even in old people. You know there are some old couples that still pegang tangan and gurau-gurau. That’s a part of teenage love I think is very beautiful.
But the drawback to that is also the teenage emotional turmoil that you can’t control. It’s also a commentary on that.
It all came from a personal experience of a relationship though.
In songwriting do you ever think about the audience? Or is it just a matter of self-expression?
I guess I was curious about how people would react. I want to know how people would feel about it. What they take away from it emotionally. As opposed to people telling me best ke tak; I don’t really think about it that much.
I remember when I was playing in Taiwan. In the concert in Taiwan they spoke mostly Mandarin, most of them who came to see me don’t even understand English. Very rare. So I was there with Mak Wai Hoo and then after I performed Mak told me, “Wei diorang actually layan doh”. I was surprised because I was singing Bahasa Melayu. They could catch the emotion even without understanding what I was singing. That was very interesting to me.
We are just reissues of our ancestors.
Some people have the perception that acoustic or folk have a very small space in the scene, because it’s very soft-spoken and subtle, especially when it comes to a live performance. Do you think that perception is justified?
Considering the context of the world today, I feel that they can perceive it that way. But personally I feel there is a kind of loudness to a minimal set-up. I’m not sure about my live shows, but some musicians really pull it off. Kau boleh tangkap. It’s very simple. No elaboration required.
Okay, this is going to sound a bit poyo…
You can be poyo all you want.
You know minimalist architecture? I love that. Simple things that are witty or intelligent. I prefer it that way.
I’m not that good of a guitarist, so I use my limitations. That’s what the Berhad in Bersendirian Berhad stands for. My limitations.
Bersendirian Berhad also refers to a public company, so it’s a remark about feeling “lonely in public”.
This is not me putting down your skill, but it is very obvious that the chords in Bersendirian Berhad are very simple, but the sound itself is very complex.
Yeah! I have this growing relationship with Soundscape Records because somehow they’ve always supported me. Again, Mak Wai Hoo from Soundscape Records once told me, “Actually your songs are damn simple”. And I wholeheartedly agree.
I mean, not everyone can play like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or Rodrigo Amarante.
Neither can I *laughs*
But you know people listen to Bayangan and they can think “Oh, I can do this!”. That’s very punk rock.
Yeah people come to me after listening to me and say “I wanna pick up the guitar now”, so that’s really cool.
Now that you’ve finished the album and out of musical isolation, what are you currently listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop producers like Knxwledge and Mndsgn. A lot of electronic stuff too like Four Tet. I love the way Four Tet talks about music. I love that kind of passion even though I can’t really play what they play. I just love knowing the process. Best doh. I don’t know why I stopped playing and writing music for a long time.
Do you think it’s important for Malaysian artists to incorporate a Malaysian identity into their music? Do they have a duty?
We’re Malaysians so just be Malaysians lah. But what that sound is exactly is another complicated question we’ve been trying to answer at The Wknd Sessions. What is the Malaysian sound? Whatever it is, it’s more important to be Malaysian first. Like M. Nasir. He also has a very natural process in music. That guy’s crazy. In the best way.
I’m a bit of touch from the scene right now because of the isolation, but a recent band I was really hooked to at first listen is Milo Dinosaur. Emo rock like that in Malay is really cool.
What do you think of bands that sound ‘Western’ or have no originality?
I don’t look down on them at all. The beauty of music is that it can be whatever the f*** you want. If you resonate with The Smiths then go ahead, you know.
But would you go to those bands’ concerts?
If I was curious, I would. I wouldn’t mind. I mean originality is a really tough question. After writing the music, I realize that maybe this melody came from somewhere, and I’ve just forgotten where it came from. Nothing is original.
We are just reissues of our ancestors.
I’ll share with you this story. Last Raya I went to visit my grand-uncle. My grand-uncle was a musician back in the day. A bangsawan violinist. We borak-borak lah with a few other relatives. He told me that last time when he was playing in a band, they would always bring down musicians from Thailand and Indonesia, and he would entertain them. I thought to myself “That sounds familiar. Kinda like The Wknd Sessions”.
After that, I asked him, “What was your band called?”.
Then he said, “My band was called Bayangan Sukma”.
What are the freaking odds. That’s trippy.
Yeah! Aku pun tak tahu benda tu. I knew he was a musician, but I didn’t know about the name.
After Bersendirian Berhad, do you have that itch to make another album now? How does the future sound like?
*laughs* Yeah. I shouldn’t say much but I feel like I should stay on this path and see where it leads. I’m REALLY itching to write more stuff but this process is teaching me to be patient. Teaching me to take it easy, don’t have to rush things.
The mainstream world is very fast. You have to buy a house at this age, bla bla bla. I’m thinking to myself, “Who is saying this? Why should we listen to them?”. I don’t mean it in a sombong way. If everyone else wants to live that way, then fine. But I’m trying to find my own path.