If you’re observant enough, you can find different pieces on Dirgahayu written in previous issues of JUICE dating as far back as late last year. So you can trust that we’ve been following this local instrumental math rock four-piece since the day we saw them play. We were well taken aback by their prowess and musicianship, as well as their manic compositions that sound as heady as they are to write about. Having been in different bands beforehand though, they understood the value of appearance. The guys of Dirgahayu have always strived to form a well-rounded entity that embraces not only sound and performance, but also the value of attractive presentation, be it their music videos, the medium in which they release their oeuvre, and more. Dirgahayu is certainly the whole package. To commemorate (apologies!) their meteoric rise that had them touring the Land of the Rising Sun and the release of Commemorate!, JUICE spoke to drummer Seikan Sawaki and guitarist Zulhezan about the concept of their debut album, Malayan history, and their strenuous songwriting process.
The way you guys perform is not very conventional; oftentimes you guys have your backs towards the crowd. Is that due to shyness or is it a way to draw people in further to focus on the music?
Seikan Sawaki I don’t think it’s due to shyness.
Zulhezan (Laughs) I think it’s not shyness lah, definitely.
S Normally, the drummer is behind looking to the front and there are the three of them… the bassist would be in the middle looking at me. He just can’t stand straight, that’s why.
Z (Laughs) We always like playing in a circle. There’s a drummer here… the bassist always has a contact with the drummer. When you play on a normal stage, it usually won’t happen that way. But we still feel like we wanna play in that [manner], even though there are constraints.
S When we played our [C! Album Launch] at No Black Tie, we played in a circle, so the people on the second floor can see us, like the ‘Bahawasa-nya’ video.
Z Yeah, exactly. The upper deck can feel as what people saw in the video.
Is there a particular reason why you guys like to play in a circle?
S We feel better playing that way, I guess.
Z We feel more satisfied – feel… everything lah from the four of us. Some people are actually playing quite personally, it’s all about being in your own world, like not really caring about others. So, because of our arrangement—it’s back and forth, back and forth—we always like the idea of having eye contact and shouting and doing whatever we wanna do.
Do you guys synchronise your power moves on stage? From where we stand in the audience, we’re pretty sure you guys eye each other before you whip your respective instruments. In a piece from JUICE Singapore, the band was quoted saying “… Believe it or not, they’re planned steps.”
Z From previous experience, maybe some of us, if we don’t plan the steps, we’d always screw up… Stuff would fall down, accidentally pulling out the jack, whatever. We always overlook the stage area, whenever you wanna jump, you never touch the other guy, you never touch the stuff, it would ruin the set.
S Especially when the stage is small.
Z So, that’s the plan lah. It’s not like, “Okay, for the chorus, we jump!” No, not like that.
S It’s more a safety precaution.
Z I always switch off the main power, so there’s no sound and then I have to switch on, I have to set up everything while the songs are playing, so that’s when I have to be careful. Even when we wanna be chaotic, as long as it doesn’t kacau the essential parts of the set. When I was in Akta Angkasa, it was crazy. I always jumped or whatever, threw the amps (laughs), that was history but with this band, I wanna make it proper.
Each of you guys came from different bands before there was Dirgahayu. When this band was formed, did you guys want Dirgahayu to have such a strong concept?
S We just wanna try to create something totally different.
Z Maybe like a full package? Like visually, whatever that comes with the full package of the band – from songwriting to how we perform the song to how people perceive the sets to the cover of the album, the website, all the visuals we try to portray, it’s all there, it’s not just about the music. Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic artist, so I feel it’s really important to have both visual and audio sequenced. Of course, when you start a band, you wanna make music and they never really think what will happen next in the future. “We have three songs now, so what are we gonna do now? We’re gonna write more songs or shall we do an EP?”, “When we perform, do we need visuals?”, or whatever that will suit the concept of the whole band. What we’re trying to do now is to give 100% of what we can give and try to achieve as much as possible. So, the audience can feel from the live performance till the music videos, anything that connects to the band.
S In terms of sound, I think each of us has a basic idea of how it should sound. Every time we come up with something, everyone is totally different, so when we mix everything up, I think that makes up Dirgahayu. To me, that’s the concept of the band. Maybe I wanna play this kind of beat, like a totally different riff or something.
Is it easy to meld all these individual ideas and sounds?
S It’s not really easy. It’s very interesting, challenging. Every song was so challenging.
Z We tried to do totally different things with each song. Let’s say we write a part and we’d say, “I think we’ve already written this, are we gonna repeat this?”, even though it’s a completely different chord. If we feel it’s the same thing, we would normally reject it. So we always challenge ourselves.
S [We] continuously try to make it interesting.
Z Musically, [it should] make sense. There are some European bands that are so technical, playing some weird thing, we can’t connect to the songs. They are too obsessed with technicalities or songwriting until the audience cannot connect.
S I mean, as musicians we respect that, but musically… [I] cannot listen [to it for] more than five minutes.
Z When you hear a song or watch a video, you would only watch one time, that’s it.
Can we talk about the hidden track in ‘Volumetric’? Why did you guys decide to put that on the album?
S Actually, it’s a teaser of something we had in mind for the next project in the future. It’s just for fun.
Z My initial plan when we were recording was that we must have a hidden track or a bonus track.
S We did a really simple recording, it’s rough. It’s like one day we just jammed that song.
Z It’s just a jam actually, we didn’t even record. [Seikan] did mix the audio (laughs).
S Not that good though.
Z In the ‘90s, bands always liked to put hidden tracks, but nowadays, they don’t do it anymore. When I was a kid, I was listening to punk rock bands or whatever, they always had a hidden track. Maybe it was sloppy, but it was really fun! Like if I’m not mistaken, NOFX had a hidden track on their album which was [a sample] of a radio presenter saying, “This is not rock and roll! This is shit!” or whatever, so they put it in the album! (Laughs)
We don’t know if this was meant to be a joke or not, but you guys wrote ‘Kyu/ Ju Roku 九_十六’ as a way of welcoming Seikan into the band; we’ve read in a few other interviews that you guys seemed to be really grateful for his presence. Is this a correct assumption? Why is that?
S Like how grateful? You should be damn grateful, bro!
Z When we were looking for a drummer, a friend suggested we go to Seikan’s studio and just jam with him. It wasn’t really an audition. When we tried it out, [Seikan] got it on the first riff. He played very spontaneously, we were so surprised! The previous guy we tried was…
S He had a hard time counting every beat.
Z It was not that hard (laughs), it was just a simple one.
S But if [he] can get the catch of it, then can already.
Z [Seikan] caught it and we were so surprised, so we asked him to play in this band lah. When you were confirmed, it was April ?
S You know why [I joined the band] actually? I asked Afi during the tricot show… I was like, “Shit man! I really wanna play in a band again.” So [when] these guys asked me to join, I was like, “Okay, (smiles).” Before that, I really didn’t give a fuck, [Zul] sent me a damn long text, like karangan like that, and he gave me a YouTube link to ‘Bahawasa-nya”. I didn’t even bother to watch.
So that day, they just gave you the score sheet and you just played?
Z No, no, no such thing.
S I don’t even read so fluently… If you catch like, (imitates the beat from ‘Bahawasa-nya’), then you’d know.
Z ‘Cos [most] drummers, they would feel awkward because it’s totally out of tempo because it’s not the four/four thing. It sounds so simple, but when they try to play… then, they’ll start sweating, like, “Oh my god! This is not happening, man! I’m totally inexperienced, I can’t play this!”
S And you’d get so frustrated like, “Shit, I’m the worst drummer ever.”
Where did you guys get the Japanese sample from?
S It’s actually a broadcast from when the Japanese invaded Malaya.
Oh! So the sample was from the Japanese Occupation! We’d thought it’d be offensive to ask… Seikan, being half-Japanese, how did you feel about the inclusion of the sample?
S I actually feel really sorry for what had happened. I was teased at school… I mean, what can I do, right? It’s the past. Nothing much to do with me.
Z Beyond your era.
It must have been complicated for you because you were feeling this guilt but on the other hand, you were happy they wrote this welcoming song for you right?
S Yeah. It’s very mixed up. I felt like I couldn’t be in the band…
Z (Laughs) No lah.
S I was just like, “Wow, you guys named the song in Japanese.” That’s it. It’s only until we had an interview at BFM that he said, “This song is a welcome song for Seikan.” I was like, “Har?!”
Z The [original] title of the song was ‘9 16’, a normal one. So when he came, I talked to the rest of the band, I said, “Let’s name it for him [since] he’s joining the band.” So we just titled it in Japanese.
S And then they asked me to find a sample. I found so many related videos and then I found it.
Z When he came to me, like, “Does this relate to the Malaya history?” I was like, “Whoa! This is gold!” I don’t think Malaysia even has this [broadcast] in its archive, because this report totally went to the Japanese.
S I tried very hard to find any history between Japan and Malaysia.
Z If you read the history textbooks from Form 4 [or so], I can say it’s vague lah, it’s totally not detailed. When the Japanese came, we know it’s on 8 December 1942. So we found this very concrete evidence like what time they actually invaded, which you can’t find in the textbook. We have the date, maybe because the older people had the report. Yeah, so [the Japanese] were very efficient, that’s how they planned the war, right? The people here are so ignorant, we don’t know anything. Nobody really know anything about the war, it’s a very short war, ’42 to ’45.
Did that sample and the want to present the accuracy of historical facts shape the album or did it all just added to it?
S Maybe we just focus this album in that time of history, maybe the next album we’ll focus on another time.
Did it start the whole album or did you guys already have in mind to focus on this period of history?
Z Oh, we already had it in mind. So that’s why we had to find a very good sample that can [portray] this whole picture. We actually sat down to try to find it, there were some but they just didn’t have the impact we wanted.
Do you guys think people didn’t pay much attention to the Japanese Occupation?
Z They mostly focused on the British side, not so much on the Japanese side. When the Japanese came, they halau the British too, right? They were very strong, but because of what happened when America bombed Hiroshima, they retreated. So those three years [when the Japanese] were here, it really changed how local people saw Japanese people and their technology, everything reflects on who we are now. Yeah, when you look at the British, there were the good and the bad, but none more controversial and exciting as how the Japanese were ruling the country. It was crazy lah. It was the most intense three years as compared to the 80 years or so when the British ruled.
You were teased the worst by the Chinese kids at school right, Seikan?
S Yeah, they bullied me like my grandma got her parents killed, or something like that. “They got tortured!” Like, how am I supposed to know?
Z Yeah, because the Japanese really hated the communists. They were really scared.
S My school [Confucian High School] used to be an execution centre, so we always saw ghosts…
Could you tell us why the singles ‘Istinggar’ and ‘Bahawasa-nya’ were released on cassettes? What was the message or objective that you guys wanted to portray by releasing them in that medium? We also know that Akta Angkasa used to do that.
S We just don’t want to forget about cassettes, I think? And, it’s cool.
Z (Laughs) It’s cheap. It’s a bit of a rare medium because we don’t really listen to tape anymore unless they are like hardcore tape listeners lah. People still listen to cassettes, so yeah, we pressed very low quantities for these people to enjoy.
From the music videos, hand-sprayed cassettes, and printed sleeves to the limited edition debut album that’s made with Japanese army wear fabric — why do you guys put so effort in presenting such a nice—as Zul said—package or product as a band?
Z Yeah, exactly.
S If you come out with a CD with a plastic case, it’s like, “Ugh.”
Z So ugly. I told myself I wouldn’t release that (laughs).
S To me, how do you want people to care about you, when you don’t even care about your shit?
Z Maybe the local bands, they care too much about the music until they’re neglecting [this part] which you must also focus on, like the visuals, design, the packaging, the concept of the album. You must be a part of the team who’s doing it lah. Like [the design team] would listen the music and interpret it, and the band would be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” They don’t really care how the end product will look like on the market. They never really take part in that.
What do you think about people who are like, “You’re musicians, you should focus on the music, and not about all this.”
Z Unfortunately, we’re not that kind of musicians. We really care about the A to Z. You can say [we’re] fussy, but when people buy our album, our releases, they’d feel more than satisfied… always expecting what we’ll do next.
S From there, we’d get the drive, motivation. People are expecting something.
Z When we did the ‘Bahawasa-nya’ video, people are expecting another video, like, “Would it be any better?” or “What kind of direction we’re going to do it?” I won’t say it’s stressful but it’s really motivating.
S Yeah, whatever we do, we enjoy the process.
Z When people see it in the future; it’ll have a sentimental value. We want people to keep it forever, like wanna pinjam also cannot (laughs).
S Like the CDs in my car, it’s everywhere. I don’t want people to treat our CDs like that.
The songs are always so intricate; it’s often described as “contained chaos.” How do you guys try to balance wanting to compose better songs but still not overdo it with the riffs and sudden rhythmic changes?
S (Points to Zul) This guy is the overdoing guy. My ex-band member Kit told me, “Zul is this super perfectionist guy who just wants to cramp all his ideas into everything, but thank God you’re (Seikan) in the band, so you make things catchy and not too technical.” Yeah, so I try to make things simple but the guy from JUICE Singapore (Kevin Ho) was like, “It’s not simple, it’s so technical!”
Z Normally people write based on melodies, they never really care about the time signature. There are so many things you can play with.
S Yeah, it really opened up my mind. You’re playing a lot of numbers and stuff.
Z Yeah, numbers, tempo, like how you switch from this tempo to another… signatures… It’s really sakit like Parkinson’s (laughs). I mean, it’s really exciting, [no matter what] this is us. From the pedals to the songwriting, I wanna play in a band like this. Everything is crazy.
Do you guys find writing this sort of highly charged, technical songs to be creatively draining?
S Three hours equal to 20 seconds.
Z Some parts [of a song] take a few days for a few seconds only. We have the few seconds that we’re satisfied with, and so what’s the part to join this particular part we spent days on? So, another days of pain for us and we continue to do that.
S It depends on how many riffs we have in stock first. Once we have like 10, 20, then we’ll think to make a song, let’s puzzle this thing together.
Z To bridge every part lah. Like try to combine ever part, A with B, try C, if C is not nice, try D, whatever. A lot of puzzling lah. I don’t think bands in Malaysia do this (laughs). It’s only verse-chorus-verse.
S I think this is the way we find it easiest to write a song. Or maybe we started that way, so we’re used to that way.
Z If we wanna do verse-chorus-verse, I don’t think we can.
S Cannot, man!
Do you guys think the technicalities of the songs could overshadow the concept of the album? Would it be too much for people to digest?
S We actually never thought of that. We have these songs we want people to listen, and then the Japanese part is like a free history lesson. It’s a whole package. Is that a good answer?
Z Yeah, I think so. The song titles are related to what we’re doing now.
Zul, we hope Akta Angkasa is not a touchy subject for you, but if you put Dirgahayu and Akta Angkasa side by side, they both have the same nationalist visual identity. So when Akta Angkasa disbanded, was Dirgahayu a continuation of that? Hence its meaning ‘long live’?
Z It’s not a continuation at all! I just wanted a new band with a new idea. I was being myself then and I am the same person in Dirgahayu now, so maybe that’s why people can relate the visuals [between the two] or how I conduct the Malay language – the Malay provocation, I guess. That part maybe has a continuation, I didn’t purposely wanna do that. It’s my personal stuff, like music is art right? Music is part of the art that I’m doing. I’m just sharing my part, if they are cool with it, then it’s cool with me. In Akta, I did everything—not the sound—but the visual part, even in this band, I’m doing most of the visuals, that’s why there’s a connection. It’s not a continuation, it’s just Zul. Even in Akta Angkasa, I played with history, but more on the controversial stuff in an indirect way. Now, we’re doing in a direct way, like this is about the Japanese occupation. Before with Akta, if we talked about Independence Day, I would twist it to have a different expression.
Commemorate! is out now via Soundscape Records.