Go back to 2004 and KL was a very different place to the buzzing and hip metropolis it is today. Crowds would collect outside the Twin Towers, marvelling at the alien technology that built it. As for nightlife, it was dominated by clubs with names like Atmosphere and Nouvo, and tribal and deep house sounds banged its drums on dimly lit dancefloors while fur clad Neanderthals slowly paced round in the gloom, grabbing each other by the hair in some deeply unpleasant mating ritual.
Yeah, we’re exaggerating, but not by much. This was a time before Zouk opened its doors and when Bangsar was still the city’s hippest hang out, which today is pretty hard to believe. It was certainly the wrong time for a bunch of alt-music enthusiasts to turn their unlikely dream of an indie pop party into Twilight Actiongirl (TAG), one of the country’s longest running independent nights, now into its fifth year and celebrating it with a brand new tailor-made home at Zouk’s Barsonic.
‘Four guys who wanted to show off their CD collections’ is how Kelvin Oon aka TAG’s ChaseyLain describes their humble beginnings. In fact, the start of the night that still comprises Oon, Daryl Goh aka Ribut 10:59, Lim Kok Kean aka Bunga and the enigmatic Xu is buried deep in Bangsar’s past. Scoring a regular weekend gig at Delawi, the successor to the infamous Echo, ChaseyLain cut his teeth spinning slow rock, soul and funk at the bar’s Sunday Bazaar sessions along with Ribut.
“When we started at Delawi we weren’t allowed to play any indie or guitar tunes,” explains Ribut. “It had to be chilled, with the volume down. No loud music.” Quickly becoming bored with this rigid structure, the pair of selectors got the opportunity to rock when a friend celebrated his wedding at the venue, cracking out the party tunes and turning the volume all way the up to 11. “That was when we realized that we could pull this off,” admits ChaseyLain. “[Up till then], we were worried about whether we could play this sort of music – Suede, Pulp, Morrissey – and get people to dance,” counters Ribut.
Five years later, the 4 Actiongirls are still trying to share their CD collections with the world, and as their almost weekly stage diving demonstrations from the pulpit of their new home at Zouk’s BarSonic show, the world seems to be listening. More of a gang than a DJ crew, when JUICE caught up with them for dinner over baked cheese rice (which we hate, by the way) and chicken chops the conversation was a dizzying whirl of half spun sentences, with the boys leaping in to finish each other’s sentences.
If Delawi was something of a dry run, it was at the now infamous Bar Amber in KL’s then happening Desa Sri Hartamas that Twilight Actiongirl was really born. A chance meeting with the British owner convinced the pre-Ribut Daryl that this could be the place to launch their dreams of indie domination and they agreed to do the first night, a Sunday in the club calendar’s hottest month: January (yes, we’re being ironic). Despite the graveyard scheduling, the friends (for their first few weeks a trio without Xu) cruised their phonebooks and 100 or so freaks and fools (including the JUICE posse) to watch them try and beatmix rock tracks using two DVD players and a mixer that was more Fisher-Price than Pioneer.
“We did it like a band thing,” explains Ribut. “Linus [Teoh aka Blackstar] did the flyers for us. I used to get them photocopied and then I’d call the guys and we went out and gave them out ourselves. Put them on cars. Drop a bundle under The Lab door [influential Hartamas salon where Xu and style icon Ricco Cheng once cut their teeth and um, other people’s hair]. How else would people know? There was no Facebook then. No Myspace.” “It was TAG BG. Before Gmail,” adds a laughing Xu.
In some ways graphic designer Teoh was TAG’s fifth Beatle. “When they wanted to get a night together, we couldn’t really go with their names and look,” comments Teoh, who will probably be buying them a few pints after this is published. “DJs then were pretty cool and could mix. These guys kind of looked like nerds and were just pressing the play button. So we wanted something that was irreverent and went against that whole slick club visual approach. We had something that was one colour and photocopied.”
Dropped on windscreens around the city, the stark cartoon images that were modeled on NY punk-era flyers popularized by bands like The Ramones caused a buzz. “To start with people were wondering what we were because we put all the band names on the flyer, adds Ribut. “Some people thought they were playing” “Or it was some covers band,” chuckles ChaseyLain.
Those early nights at Bar Amber were chaotic, shambolic and have been carved in the memories of those who shared its dark upstairs room with the Twilighters. “It wasn’t like Zouk,” explains Ribut. “Which is a big club. This was a really small, independent club. No proper sound system. You couldn’t get the smoke out of your hair the whole weekend. We’re not sure if it had licenses, so there was the added danger of it all. There were no rules. Sometimes it finished at 6am.”
“If you look at the room every corner had personality. There was some bizarre person,” explains Ribut. “Geeky, librarian-type people, rock bands.” “The tattoo artists like Borneo Ink, that whole Hartamas community,” ChaseyLain butts in. But it couldn’t last. While the room was getting increasingly packed every week Bar Amber itself was having trouble surviving and it quickly became apparent that the rock vampires would need a new home.
But help was around the corner. One of their earliest and most vocal supporters Cheryl Lee had just joined the marketing team at the soon to open Zouk KL and she thought that the superclub had space for something that went against the prevailing dance music culture of the time. “I felt that TAG could inject freshness into the club, being the only DJs playing Pulp, Suede, Raptures, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol instead of Paul Van Dyk. Of course, I had confidence in the boys to spread their passion by simply playing good music!”
If the management ever had any reticence about their decision, it quickly disappeared once the night started to attract one of the most diverse crowds in the city. Over to TAG:
Bunga: When we started there were drag queens, office workers, punk rockers….
Ribut: The ska boys. The Harley Davidson gang from Hard Rock used to come….
Bunga: And I think it was more fun then. People just came to have fun and they didn’t care what kind of look you had.
ChaseyLain: It was like, ‘Wow, who are these people?’
Bunga: Now it’s a more normal, mainstream crowd: they look a certain way and they expect to hear a certain kind of music.
Zouk’s Head of Marketing and Communications Adam Mathews sums TAG up as night for people with ‘a primal need to party’ before adding. “We have been surprised at how well TAG and its faithful hedonistic crowd have embraced all sorts of music. It’s a phenomenon that just keeps going from strength to strength. Putting a finger to the reason why, that’s more difficult. TAG represents a level of release and hedonism that reminds me of the underground clubs of Shoreditch and Hoxton in London where the trendies mix with the musos and the students and even the stuffy bankers without divide.”
Ribut: Right now it’s the youngest crowd we’ve ever had. It started off with everyone around our age, late 20s…
ChaseyLain: Xu was 19 and still a virgin.
Xu: I’m still a virgin.
How has that affected the direction of the tracks you play? Five years is a long time to be playing Blue Monday…
Bunga: Sometimes you can get jaded but then you find something new and exciting.
ChaseyLain: Yeah. Sometimes you want to introduce something new and the crowd just shows you their handphones – The Killers, The Killers. You play something new and they leave the dancefloor.
Ribut: But out of every 10 people that don’t like the song, if you get one person who does, that makes the night and there’s always that thrill when you find an old track and play it and someone things it’s fresh.
ChaseyLain: There was one time we played KLF and Ah Xu came and asked, ‘Who’s this? Is it a new band?’ (Laughs)
So why keep at it?
Bunga: For the money….
ChaseyLain: And to get sponsorships….
Xu: Plus, on Friday nights there’s no football. (All of them fall around laughing)
Bunga: Seriously, I think if I didn’t have this to do on Friday night my social calendar would be pretty empty.
Ribut: The plan has always been to just throw a freaking good party every Friday night. Whatever you play – indie, electro, rock – you make sure that everyone is really smashed and happy.
ChaseyLain: It’s like creating a stadium atmosphere in a small venue.
Ribut: We used to get warnings for jumping off the decks. Now, [at Barsonic] I don’t dare to jump because it’s too high.
ChaseyLain: He broke his elbow jumping off the decks….
Ribut: That was at a friend’s house, lah.
Xu: (cheering) Rock n roll!!
Ribut: (sarcastically) I’m the Malaysian Iggy Pop….
When JUICE asks them for their favourite memories from The Loft era, Xu, Ribut, Bunga and ChaseyLain start arguing and bickering amongst themselves, pausing only to single out the importance of Central Market’s Music Magic and its manager Andrew X to TAG’s early years, providing them with a place to buy the punk funk and electro tracks that were becoming the foursome’s trademark sound, and berating him for the “bossa nova” tracks he now sells. Throwing the insult straight back at them, Andrew tells JUICE he misses the ‘private, just for friends’ feel the night had back then.
“The first year and half was like a crazy rock n roll party every Friday night,” admits Bunga. But it’s Ribut who comes up with the most touching example of what the night means to the DJs and their fans.
Ribut: One night, after playing during our first few months at The Loft, I was walking home and there was this bunch of guys and I asked them what they were doing. They said they had just been to watch us play. I asked how they were going back. They said, ‘we’re waiting for the 6 o clock bus’. They went to the mamak to wait for three hours to wait for the bus home. These guys don’t want to take taxis because it’s expensive and they spent all their money having fun watching us. That kind of thing really hits you – it kicks ass!
Bunga: I think The Loft holds even more special memories for some people. At our last night there were people actually crying.
ChaseyLain: People met and fell in love at The Loft.
Bunga: And broke up…. (laughs)
ChaseyLain: Still, there were no dead bodies.
Far from discovering corpses the TAGgers were quickly finding out they were not alone in their quest to turn people on to indie, electro and rock, making contact with JB based KBnL (Kool Balls & Longan), as well as Singapore’s Poptarts and Bangkok’s massive Dudesweet. “The first people we got to know was Pop Tart because they were nearest,” says Bunga. “And then me and Ah Xu went to Bangkok to play for some indie gig and we saw there was this magazine called Supersweet and we found out that there’s the Dudesweet night which had just started around that time.”
Those contacts led to regular collaborations and occasional one offs with live acts and guests like Estrella and Killeur Calculateur playing at TAG. It’s a direction that Ribut in particular wants to push for their current Barsonic future, which recently saw They Will Kills Us All launch their album Secret Episodes at the night and the foursome helm an episode of Heineken Music’s Impulse programme (both in February 09).
Ribut: What we want to do is go forward with the band and DJ thing. The last one we did, They Will Kill Us All, worked really well. We want to try and gel those two crowds, the live act crowd and the dance crowd. That seems to be the hardest thing to do. And what we saw from that night was that it can work. Sometimes, like when Deserters played, when we started DJing their fans went home. But with They Will Kill Us All I think we got the people who go out clubbing and watch bands. That’s where I see us heading.Bunga: We’ve got plans for a website. We’re going to post events – not just our own – and build a place where you can find out everything that’s happening, with TAG and more. Just stuff we like.
ChaseyLain: And we want the next generation to come through. We want to hear their set lists. People like KBnL, our friends in JB. There are a lot of similarities but there’s a lot of music they listen to that we have no idea about. Then there’s people like Broken Hearts Club, who are regulars at TAG and have their own night at Palate Palette.
Of course, you’ve been around long enough to be the grandfathers of the scene. Do you think Twilight Actiongirl has directly influenced alt-newcomers like Broken Hearts Club, LapSap, Vice Modern Disco, Faster Pussycat and more?
Bunga: (Laughing) Go ask them, lah. I think we showed everybody there’s a way forward. You just have to go out and do it. We’ve never been concerned with making money, glamour, or fame. It would be nice but it’s not why we do it.
Ribut: And we’ve kept it a small room experience as well. That’s our strength.
It’s a debt that Blink, Xu’s moonlit partner in LapSap, is happy to acknowledge. “I think TAG has done a lot for the music scene especially bringing indie and rock kids and their whole vibe into a club. They started the whole indie thing as an independent group, helping to make it ‘commercial’. Plus, with their witty copywriting skills and the art direction for their flyers, they created a benchmark for many of the people now in the scene.”
And like any good rock stars, fame has brought them the opportunity for international tours. Yet they still remain reassuringly loyal to their home crowd, even in they bemoan its addiction to The Killers.
Bunga: On home ground it’s easier because they already know we’re not tied to a certain type of sound. When I first went to Jakarta, I played electro and nobody layan me. Nowadays it’s okay, but when I went in May last year, even when I played Justice people were still not sure what it’s about.
ChaseyLain: It’s not like KL. Here you could drop some Atomic Kitten into your set and people will still go crazy.
Bunga: We’re not trying to boast but when Poptart or Dudesweet come over they say our crowd is the most open-minded.
Ribut: I think it’s because we really shift between gears. We start off with rock and soul and then some new tracks and then Bunga and ChaseyLain hit it up and Xu goes electro and then we come back to indie. If you look at the guys and girls in the crowd, they’re there from 11 o’clock until 3….
While they work their magic at night, the Twilight Actiongirls exist in daylight too. The DJ names were originally a mask, so that they could keep their night time foraging separate from their normal lives as daywalkers. Ribut is an editor and music correspondent for an English-language newspaper, Bunga is a former music producer and recording industry exec who has now embraced the ad industry, ChaseyLain is a respected photographer and Xu runs one of the city’s leading off-fashion boutiques.
So boys, really, what’s with the names? We know that Ribut comes from the Sweet Charity song but what about the rest?
ChaseyLain: Originally part of the idea was to change our names every few gigs to keep ourselves anonymous because we had day jobs. So I used a porn star’s name [Chasey Lain] and thought that maybe next week I’d use another porn star’s name. But it just stuck.
And what about Bunga?
ChaseyLain: I suspect it’s from Cowabunga.
Bunga: Actually, I stole it from a friend. He was KJ [Karaoke Jockey] Bunga and I was DJ Bunga.
And why did Xu never get a wacky name?
Xu: I don’t know. For a while there was DJ Darkness – the lead singer Justin Hawkins, because of the hair.
As JUICE leaves the table, Xu is tucking into his second main course, getting envious looks from the rest of us who have to sweat off half a beer in the gym, let alone indulge in a second round of dinner. The bickering and laughter continues as they fade into the distance, contemplating a photo shoot in Andrew’s music store and mocking Daryl for the changes of t-shirt in his bag.
Zouk’s Adam Mathews sums it up perfectly. “The TAG DJs are the biggest bunch of misfits I have ever come across. A PR guy, a photographer, a journalist and an ex-hairdresser who somehow just know what’s the perfect tune to put on next. They kind of remind of me of those 80s icons and guns for hire, the A-Team. So salah and yet so right.”
Top TAG Tunes
JUICE catalogues the DJs’ all time TAG dance floor rockers
Franz Ferdinand ‘Take Me Out’ (Daft Punk Remix)
The Rapture ‘Echoes’
Daft Punk ‘Around The World’ (Kid Dub Remix)
The Strokes ‘Last Night’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Maps’
Busy P ‘To Protect and Entertain’ (Crookers Remix)
DJ Mujava ‘Township Funk’
AC Slater ‘Jack Got Jacked’
Don Rimini ‘Hools’ (DJ Barletta Remix)
Afro-jacker ‘Machine Don’t Cry’
The Beatles ‘I Feel Fine’
Shinichi Osawa ‘Star Guitar’
The Ramones ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’
Kings of Leon ‘Sex on Fire’
Friendly Fires ‘Paris’
Gloria Jones ‘Tainted Love’
Saloma ‘Bila Larut Malam’
Kassim Selamat & The Swallows ‘La-O-Be’
Mohammed Rafi ‘Jaan Penechaan Ho’
The Stooges ‘Down On The Street’
Text Matt Armitage
Flyers Blackstar for Twilight Actiongirl