A quick browse on JUICE suggests that we have lots of love for alextbh, and there’s no running away from it. For a kid who’s only 21 years old, alextbh – born Alex Bong – has achieved something not a lot of people his age has, and unexpectedly at that. Initially an engineering student, heartbreak took Alex to a musical territory he didn’t know would help pay the bills. Read on to learn more about alextbh the musician, and Alex, the boy who’s still discovering who he is through synths, failed relationships, and songs we all hum to when we’re on the low.
“I don’t wanna make you put me in a box to do stuff. Other people enjoy that and I’ve tried it but no, that’s why I secretly skipped a lot of classes to do my music.”
Alex and I met on a cosy Tuesday evening at a quiet bar where I could ask and he could talk. A lanky and nervous person in nature, someone unaware of Alex’s singer persona can easily dismiss him as a young softspoken man fresh out of college. As far as first impressions go, the musician carries a smart, somewhat geeky charm – highly credited to his exigent time in engineering school back in Melaka. When asked about it, Alex replies with a nonchalant shrug, “I finished it, yeah, but hell no, not gonna study engineering all over again. It was so much pressure.” Indicating little to no interest in his major, he continues, “It’s such an Asian parents kinda thing, but like, it was not what I expected. Everything is by the book, everything is so technical and it’s so far from IT. I feel like I might enjoy IT a little bit? And I remember I like programming a lot but outside of that field it’s just mostly physical.” The predictability of a 9-to-5 job is also unappealing to the singer who didn’t enjoy the expected job prospect of that industry. “You’re probably gonna work at Philips, Samsung, or Toshiba. I don’t wanna make you put me in a box to do stuff. Other people enjoy that and I’ve tried it but no, that’s why I secretly skipped a lot of classes to do my music.”
His passion for computers and technology might not have landed him a job in the demanding but lucrative industrial business, but it did however ease the technical process in music making and helped him jump a step up from Logic Pro to Ableton. Before any of that fancy software, Alex’s baby steps in beatmaking began with an iPad, a birthday gift in his teens that allowed him to download GarageBand. “I’d go to my friend’s house and we’d like, play with it and he would like give me lyrics and I would like try to make melodies out of it. I would play this fake ass sounding string on GarageBand, all fun and innocent.”
“If you really thoroughly listen to my music, you would realise a lot of the arrangements are pretty simple.”
Pieces of the puzzle came together when Alex got his first MacBook, where Logic Pro was his choice. “It [Logic Pro] is like a step up version of GarageBand for professionals and that’s when I started going deep into learning synths, learning how to layer, and all these kinds of stuff.” With a limited background in piano that somehow sufficed, Alex ditched the analogue functions of Logic Pro and finally settled with Ableton for his moody tunes – a popular software choice for today’s hottest electronic musicians. Though he comfortably nestles in that category, the singer doesn’t claim to be a beatsmith by any means. “If you really thoroughly listen to my music, you would realise a lot of the arrangements are pretty simple. It’s not really complex, but it’s how I carry the music and how I change parts of it; most of the time the chord arrangements, the progressions are more or less repetitive or the same.”
See, not every artiste can confidently claim that they can carry their music the way Alex does. While there’s still a lot of apprehension that stems from Alex’s premature foray into adulthood and the music industry, one thing’s for sure is that his vocal chops are something we can all acknowledge, as evident in his rendition of folk-gospel song ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. Every piece of music that Alex has made contains a signature sound, and he isn’t afraid to explore the higher range of his voice; smoothly transitioning into falsetto while manipulating hums and whispers to create that yearning effect. That song, however, is not the reason why Alex is where he is right now, his breakthrough song ‘Stoop So Low’ is the one to thank. Released at the end of October 2016 – which then permeated local charts and found itself in some of Spotify’s obscure playlists – the single currently has over two million plays on the streaming app. But not many people know that the creation of the song happened as fast as its success. “I wrote that song in two days,” Alex elaborates, “I wrote, record, practised, sang, everything under like a barstool on top of this, like, fucking table and put my microphone over there and just sing to it.” Whether it’s the work of the gods or ancestors, ‘Stoop So Low’ gave Alex his huge WTF moment during Chinese New Year this January while he was back in his hometown of Sarawak.
“I can’t deny, I make really good music when I’m sad. Not healthy, but yeah.”
With a stage moniker like alextbh and the minimalistic alternative r’n’b vibe he gives off (not to mention that aesthetic), Alex is without a doubt made for the millennial palate. Holding a paperback edition of This Modern Love by Will Darbyshire, Alex describes the author’s crowdsourced book of love letters, stories, and artwork a thing he resonates with. Look at his debut EP alive for instance, a record that wasn’t made in an emotional spur like ‘Stoop So Low’ yet contained a whole lot of unadulterated emotions produced within four to five months. Essentially, his songs are his love letters and we are his readers. His creative process is simply described as “fall in love and then get your heart broken,” though he also jokes about it being Taylor Swift-esque. As I get into the specifics of his songwriting, Alex unabashedly admits that 99% of the songs are inspired by heartbreak, “A lot of it is just a journey of me falling in and out of love and it kinda transcends to the music that I make. I can’t deny, I make really good music when I’m sad. Not healthy, but yeah. My latest song ‘Like That’ is a little bit of a departure from what I usually do, it’s more pop and in my head I just wanted to make a cute song that I guess can represent the LGBTQ community.”
Why the LGBTQ community? Because Alex is queer, and he doesn’t make a point to hide it either. “I’m very subtle and suggestive, it’s like I’m insinuating,” explains the singer. Standing alongside artistes like saintraja and Darren Luke who are just as loud and proud, Alex admits that he’s still in the learning process when it comes to gay rights organisations and such. In our homeland, the community’s often-complex issues can sometimes bring jeopardy to the average person, needless to say someone who is in the spotlight like Alex. “It’s not like I’m really suggestive or push it out cause I still understand that this might put me and the people around me in jeopardy. There’s always a risk.” A bold change from his aforementioned moody tunes, ‘Like That’ is a gay bop with LGBT-friendly lyrics delivered in classic pop rhythm and a cover art made by fellow queer Nadhir. We talk about coming out to family and friends as Alex recalls dancing to ‘Let’s Get Loud’ by Jennifer Lopez, a moment he thinks is a clear enough indication of his sexuality to his mother. Naturally, Alex brings up his childhood in Bintulu, a place he calls home that is now swamped with shopping malls and unnecessary businesses.
“I feel like the wage disparity is getting larger and larger – rich people are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”
“One thing about Sarawak… well, I think Malaysia in general, is the gentrification that’s going on,” says the visibly concerned Bintulu native. “I’m very disappointed and sad of how development is perceived in Sarawak because on the surface it seems like all they do is develop and there are more people coming in but who are going to these malls? I feel like the wage disparity is getting larger and larger – rich people are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” This, according to Alex, is just smoke and mirrors for the Sarawakians who take pride in this sort of development. The current state of his hometown also pales in comparison to his stunning childhood memories where times were simpler. “I remember all we do during weekends is to beg our parents to let us out and then if we do, we would go to T4, which is this one little amazing bubble tea place that has sadly closed down.” He goes on to say, “It was either that or it’s the beach and we would have satay or go hiking on the mountains. It’s pretty much the routine, or we would visit each other’s houses and I would know their mum, they would know my mum – life was cool and simple.”
The rise of shopping malls is an epidemic that has taken over most cities in the country. Sarawak, unfortunately, has felt the brunt of it when compared to Peninsular Malaysia, a place with a wider variety of leisure spots connected by the convenience of public transportations like the KTM, LRT, and most recently, MRT. Alex goes on to say that it isn’t too much of him or anyone to ask for a plaza or a spot in the city that focuses more on recreation than commerce. “It’s like there’s no thought put into development. I feel like I have to criticise which direction Sarawak is heading to. There’s very little emphasis on tourism although there’s so much potential to turn Sarawak into a tourism hub.”
“I’m just gonna be upfront about this, it’s a shit industry. You will have people backstabbing you, you will have people taking advantage of you. The worst part is that you have to suck it up.”
As an artiste that gained exposure from the internet and smaller gigs around the Klang Valley, I understood his frustration all too well – artists need a designated place to showcase their art. While his initial gigs got the attention of only a few, the numbers grew tremendously with a little patience and experience. His biggest stage yet, was the one he shared with Clean Bandit before their show for this year’s Urbanscapes. Come 12 and 13 August, he will be sharing another stage at Good Vibes Festival alongside headliners Phoenix, The Kooks, G-Eazy, and more. It all sounds like a dream come true for an upcoming artiste like Alex, but behind the glitz and glam lies a universal struggle shared by many youngins in this hellhole we call the economy. “I always thought about getting a solid job cause I’m a musician, my source of income is like my royalties and my gigs, literally that’s it,” explains Alex. “I’m just gonna be upfront about this, it’s a shit industry. You will have people backstabbing you, you will have people taking advantage of you. The worst part is that you have to suck it up. That’s what Takahara Suiko (of Venopian Solitude) told me by the way, that you just have to suck it up. In the midst of you being stoic, you learn of persistence and you learn how to be resilient.”
Takahara Suiko wasn’t the only one who gave him solid advice to prep him for show biz, he received a few words of wisdom from Noh Salleh of Hujan, a veteran in the scene. “I’m undeniably and up-and-coming brand, so the potential of people taking advantage of me is always there. But they [the veterans] are really helpful and taught me a lot about managing myself, how to put myself out there and how to get booked for shows, how to make sure that you tell [event companies] you’re worth this much, and stuff like that,” says the singer. Execution is still tough as Alex is also his own manager, and despite the success as well as an Asian tour with Zamaera and Airliftz, negotiation is still difficult when you’re the new kid in the block and have yet to really prove your worth in the ever-growing entertainment business. In simpler words, Alex is often underpaid. “I feel like it’s better to have a stern manager,” shares Alex, who’s considering being signed to a music label. “If you get signed to a label you always need some sort of a compromise, but I’m not saying that signing to a label is not a good thing because the most powerful tool that they have is a catalogue and an access to myriads of [other] artistes.”
“Our narrative does not fit the Western ways of fighting for gay rights.”
Independent or tied to a label, the future is bright for Alex who is still very much cautious and protective of his work, attributes that have helped him survive to this day. He knows he’s young, and for a kid with so much to offer, the opportunities are indeed endless. “I don’t wanna fuck with my future just because of one little black and white contract that I just glossed over and sign,” exclaims Alex with dismay, it rings true to us that we are as young as we will ever be. There’s a lot of hype on alextbh as this creator of continuous bangers, nevertheless, there’s more to this young man than his artistic talents. The maturity and understanding of the world that Alex has is probably the result of his sensitivity, something he shares when given the chance. Vocal about what he truly feels musically and socially, Alex is woke about the right things in all the right ways. Aware of the slow progress of social justice in Malaysia, he still thinks that being true to yourself goes beyond the effort of starting protests, “Our narrative does not fit the Western ways of fighting for gay rights. It’s very different here; here it involves death threats, like things as serious as that.” He continues, “Our voices need to be heard, yes, but they need to be understood as well. We can’t just shout and expect them to understand what is going on, that’s not how resistance work.”
It’s not easy for anyone to be true to themselves under these circumstances, but Alex is that woke softboi who’s not here to preach to the choir. He admittedly has more to learn, and we are pretty damn lucky to have him move our hearts through his music and our minds through his words.
Good news to JUICE readers and fans, alextbh is part of Day 1 of Good Vibes Festival ’17 this year and will be up on the Red Stage at 5pm onwards. Follow the artiste on his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for all the deets.
Listen to alextbh on Spotify down below: