Like an extended IRL furloughing of his own existence, Adam Kasturi – for as long as he’s been communicating with JUICE – prefers the digital space modern man has been afforded with over the physical space nature (and other men) had fashioned for us. The more expansive the urban sprawl that he calls home is, the more enthralling the internet is to be cartographed, charted, and lain comfortable as something of an existential bedrock. After all, the antiquated life and death disclaimer, “HERE BE DRAGONS,” has only ever been the warning sign of old-timey maps – dragons being socialisation and the internet being the escape from social anxiety, that is.
2015, however, isn’t very near to what the All-father of Cyberpunk, William Gibson, initially predicted in Neuromancer. Adam did not relay his consciousness into the 0s and 1s of the ether and use his leather-clad avatar in a virtual world lined with neon green streaks as a revelatory conduit to the queries posed to him for the purposes of this story. Second Life and World of Warcraft are all the real life cyberpunk of 2015 deserves, realms seen from the cold, detachment of the computer monitor. So instead, it was via colder impersonal methods – email exchanges and Facebook Messenger – that he communicated, both of which less a channel for his thoughts and more an exemplar of the digital ennui.
“The way we communicate with each other, there is this gap, a loneliness [that is hard for me to] describe, [something like] Her (the Spike Jonze movie) maybe,” he wrote to us over Messenger. It’s admittedly difficult to surmise tone of voice purely from text, thankfully Adam offered some emotional context with a succinct “lol.” That prototypal internet acronym was really just suggesting self-deprecation rather than humour, as the sentiment was evidently the central thesis of new album Amok – a massive 27-track cyberpunk tome that doesn’t deal with future dystopia, but instead posits this rejoinder; Kuala Lumpur is already a future dystopia, and what a remote experience it is.
“[Cyberpunk] has already become a reality in some countries,” Adam declared, “and because of the internet, everybody seems to be sharing the same definition and perception of what modernity/cool is and this too, affects the way they lead their lives.” This frustration is palpable on Amok, tracks can move at a high beat rate only to later slow down considerably, sometimes within the same track to offer listeners what can best be described as religious fervour mixed with the awe of modern wonder – echoing the rapid state of urban development. “We are so saturated with hyper-reality bullshit and faux-futuristic buildings, malls, and concepts that only serve the rich and privileged. These days everything is moving and rendered so quickly, and some of us who couldn't cope or don't totally agree with the development and transition are pushed to the edge…”
“Amok strongly mirrors that environment, that backdrop, the disorientation, the duality of the fortunate and the outsiders,” offered Adam. In that respect, the album is the sort of low profile sci-fi in the vein of Dennis Kelly’s idiosyncratic Channel 4 series Utopia (which featured similarly masterful electronica score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer) and more recently, USA’s Mr. Robot, whose protagonist Elliot Alderson would probably be fast friends with Adam Kasturi considering their shared pessimism that’s marked by the desire for progress – “We really need to redefine our concept of modernity and success before shit gets even worse.”
Elliot or Adam? Regardless, that quote, a call for change, would quickly be thwarted by the humdrum of the working life and mental afflictions for either of them. Adam might not share Elliot’s delusions, but both are cogs to The Great Big Machine that want to break free, or stir shit at the very least. The latter does so by hacking the system (as informed by the Anon gen) while the former makes music as a bedroom producer (as informed by net culture itself). Both are also incredibly alienated from the outside world – close friends call Adam Burial as something of a backhanded compliment – due to their intimate proximity with technology, be it DAWs, Linux hacking tools, or their shared love-hate affair with the internet.
“The cyberspace is such a strange and lonely place to be [in] sometimes,” Adam answered in a follow-up email regarding the nature of his relationship with the internet. He elaborated, “It’s easy to feel isolated sometimes, especially when you spend most of your time on the computer doing work, writing music, checking Facebook, browsing obscure news [or] articles, Wiki-ing random info on things, checking Twitter and Instagram, browsing YouTube, videos, etcetera.” The routine of scouring social media feeds especially – the desire to explore what others are up to without having to interact with them – is a habit that he found to be soul-crushing. To borrow his words, it “can evoke a deep sense of melancholia, discomfort, and sometimes, shame.” Worse, it’s unintentional social conditioning by the omnipresent authority figure central to most Dystopias – fictional, imaginary, or otherwise. “Oftentimes you’d feel like Big Brother sans the salary; small time Big Brother.”
Likening modern man’s internet escapism as a “Sisyphean” task – “Our modern odyssey,” – Adam put forward this conjecture; social media is a mirage. “You can literally be anybody you want,” he lamented, though conceding that the malleable nature of identity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a somewhat anonymous musician who exists only on the web, ‘Adam Kasturi’ benefitted a lot from exactly that after all. “Everything is exaggerated, distorted, amplified over there (the internet),” and in the period it takes to mould one’s Super Ego on the internet, you’d lose touch with reality, time, and responsibility. “Sit back and analyse it,” Adam decreed before dropping the abstract to his thesis, “Cyberspace is almost like this giant digital installation art in itself – a lonely ass giant.”
All of this amount to the dreamlike narrative of Amok – the Sisyphean modern odyssey of modern man contended in the paragraph before is presented here as the protagonist’s “Kafkaesque life in Kolumpo; his struggle of balancing out the duality of himself, his own demons, and the good, the past and present, his so-called exploration through the terra incognita of the mind and his dystopian city.” In that regard, the hypothetical movie – or TV series – envisioned by Adam isn’t epic sci-fi – it’s not even the grimy noir of Blade Runner – instead, Amok is the isolated experience of modern life in the urban sprawl; the digital ennui riddims of 9-to-5ers.
Questioned about the literary allusions fitting of the album though, Adam’s choices are not of the prose variety. In fact, cyberpunk wasn’t even a genre he remotely considered. Instead, he preferred to equate Amok with poetry that’s personal in nature. “The Book of Disquiet by this Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa. A poem called The Prose of the Trans-Siberian by Blaise Cendrars. This book called Poems Sacred and Profane by a local legend, Salleh Ben Joned,” he listed, “Oh yeah, also if Tao Lin does sci-fi.” This wasn’t too surprising, Adam is a poet himself with one book of poems published under his name called Protopunk (Rabak Lit, 2013).
A fan of surrealist and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (a genre named after the magazine of its namesake), Adam’s debut album Jaguar already hinted at his preference for poetry over prose (“The genesis of my book Protopunk,” he said) via its absurd song title naming convention – if you hadn’t heard of the record, well, one track is named ‘Selamat Tinggal Kingdom Ayam’, suffice it to say, Adam has the same sense of humour as his poetry heroes. Then, there were also the identity/body disorienting lyrics to the album that had shades of Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another and The Box Man. Meanwhile, sophomore Mitos was “simply metaphysics –” the corollary of having read up on books on the origins of life that had him “compressing history and the present day together.” Amok then, is the confluence of absurdist existential angst and the hard science of existence. No wonder the obsession with the digital experience.
Album highlight ‘CCTV’, with vocals autotuned to an unintelligible level, encapsulates the idea of a ‘digital saudade’ stemming from the nigh extracorporeal nature of cyberspace. To be blunt about the metaphor, the computer monitor acts as a close-circuit television analogue to the lives of others, thus the track title. While Adam had described the internet in the totemic sense – a hypothetical installation art – this doesn’t belie the fact that the internet isn’t 100% unreal. “It can be fun and also vicious just like in real life, [but] it’s just more awkward and sometimes really uncomfortable, I feel,” he revealed, “… talking to strangers is always awkward anyway. The thing is, I fucking hate texting or chatting with people. Webcamming is not my thing [either], I'm more like a traditional phone call kind of guy.” Despite that, Adam met most of his collaborators via the net, crediting the law of attraction and attributing finding kindred spirits online as the greatest thing about the net.
Lead single ‘Trofi’ is a Gilgamesh epic that transposes listeners to a transcendental state – like the religious fervour one might gain through ritualistic meditation. Ever the literary aficionado, Adam compared the feeling to ascending the steps of the Tower of Victory in Chitor with Á Bao A Qu – and like the mythical creature, the album will bring listeners down after every apotheosis with harsher soundscapes (i.e. the track after, ‘Phantasmagoria’). “When I named the album Amok, I was associating it with hope, one's struggle to achieve enlightenment in modern times,” he told us, “It's the perfect word to describe the essence and the tone of the album as I was trying to push the envelope a bit more and deviate from the sonics of my previous album.” More than that though, Amok is his way of rebelling against the status quo set by the local music industry too – “A big fuck you [to them,]” he exclaimed in a rare moment of antagonism.
Don’t misconstrue that brief moment of resentment for lasting bitterness though, Adam felt relief to have finished Amok. “It feels good to release all the old and negative energy and still be able to translate [them] into art,” said the man, and at 27 tracks long, that negative energy might not be so bad at all. Still though, he took preemptive measures before the inevitable comments suggesting that the album is overwrought due to its feature film length. “It just feels right… I had loads of songs, sketches, some almost complete, in total maybe somewhere around the thousands lying around.” From there, Adam chose whichever resonated with the direction and concept of the album the most and tweaked them to represent the emotional place that he was in during the development of Amok. “It’s kind of a punk thing to do,” he said, “so sick of musicians playing by their stupid ass rules, if they find it irritating, then I’m cool with that – that’s usually the purpose anyway.”
“Time to deconstruct, folks.”
This perfectly segued to the troika of subverted city pop on Amok; the aforementioned ‘CCTV’, ‘Reparasi Psiki’, and ‘Iris’. As a genre, city pop is characterised by, well, city life – a genre born in the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo. It is also characterised by a carefree lifestyle – long car drives, palm trees, breezy shores – which is in direct contrast with the album’s cityscape that’s nearer to Akira’s Neo Tokyo. Adam revealed otherwise though, “Consciously, I wasn’t trying to subvert it, the influence is probably there – a little sprinkle here and there – but my intent was to make it less obvious and to create something different from its pristine version; something domestic and something more my style.” Having been a fan of pop music from the ‘80s till the early ‘90s, that saudade mood translates to this aspect of his music taste as well. “When you hear these summer jams from people like Kiyotaka Sugiyama and Omega Tribe, his successor Carlos Toshiki and 1986 Omega Tribe, Anri, and Mariya Takeuchi to name a few, you can't help but to think, ‘Were people really that cool back then?’” asked Adam hypothetically before actually answering it himself; “It's like from another era, and now it has evolved. That's the thing I don't like about evolution, sometimes things mutate into monsters.”
With Boiler Room aspirations steadily growing, most bedroom producers have become increasingly more gear-oriented, but Adam remains steadfast in his choice of arsenal – usually to the surprise of many. After all, he remains faithful to utilising just FL Studio and nothing else, like the punks who used beat up guitars and drums and the hip hop DJs who appropriated dusty turntables into a whole subculture, music doesn’t need expensive hardware to be 'good'. With net culture growing, appreciation for anachronistic desktop aesthetic booming, and Adam’s affinity for both, this approach seems truer. However, his insistence on it wasn’t completely out of choice, it was just the more economical route for him. Given the opportunity, it would be a dream come true for him to have a full orchestra play Amok in its entirety and improve upon the record with live instrumentations, though at the same time, he doesn’t find it necessary for producers to get too attached to gear. “Of course it’s okay to get all these fancy [tech], I get it, you want to look ‘legit’, but at the end of the day, it’s all about what you do with it,” shared Adam, continuing that the length it takes to learn, set up, and incorporate the equipment into your sound would take its toll on the writing process and productivity. “And some artistes get discouraged and gave up easily because of this – too much time spent on shit, thinking how to do shit.”
“I'm not a very technical person. I hate technical conversation.”
Considering how intricate and clean Adam’s chord progressions are, the reveal above is quite the shocker. But nothing is more startling to those who don’t know the man personally than the fact that he doesn’t actually perform live. Malaysia is so used to the idea that the DJ’s role is only as a song-selector, that when an electronic act makes music, they are expected to ‘perform’ their music. With Adam, if given the chance, he would rather direct in a conductor capacity than play his own music – “You know, just being in the background.” As expected of him by now, he likened his albums to books – once a novelist has completed a literary piece, it’s out there and it’s done, he is not expected to ‘perform’ the book.
Perhaps there was a bit of a false analogy here, musicians are expected to perform after all. Anyone who has ever been to a book reading would understand why you couldn’t apply that logic to the literary world. So does Adam owe his fanbase a ‘performance’ of sort? Can’t his music exist only as how it was recorded without the need for it to be ‘live’? All very possible. “If [an artist] wanna [perform], then it's cool, and if they choose not to do it, then it’s cool too,” he plainly said of others. “For me though, I don't feel like I'm obliged to do it and I don't think musicians owe listeners anything, just like the world doesn't owe you shit. Same mechanism.”
It’s hard to blame Adam Kasturi for his pessimistic streak. Having covered the fringe electronic scene here for some five years now, JUICE can attest to the fact that there simply isn’t a crowd here despite the talent pool. He acquiesced as much, “You can't escape feeling like a madman sometimes, it makes you question yourself, especially when you've been doing it for more than 10 years.” Despite accepting the fact that he might never have listeners that amount more to than just the hundreds, it’s not all doom and gloom. Music now, for Adam, is for his own self-entertainment, ego, personal spiritual nourishment, and growth. “And like life itself, you know one day we're all gonna die and the sun is gonna explode, but you're not gonna sob all day, innit? You keep going.”
Yes, Adam doesn’t spit in the face of optimism. In fact, while he admitted as much that it’s too early to judge, there’s been palpable growth in local electronic music. “It’s increasingly becoming more popular these days, especially among the kids, because it's pretty 'easy' to make music now compare to when I first started – there are so many amazing references for them too,” he theorised, making it more declarative with the following, “It's the new punk! These kids have so much potential and they are open to new ideas, which is really important. They don't play by the rules, so fucking raw.”
“Keep doing your thing, fuck em' all.”
This is strangely paralleled with his dissertation on how the internet, in itself, has become its own subculture. “Like everything else, it always evolves. I'm from a generation that grew up witnessing the earliest form of these [digital] inventions; computers, cellphones, 3D animations, video games, humanoid robots, etcetera, and [their] evolution,” he said, adding that “the continuing advancement of technology also plays a major role in shaping how we perceive art. Thanks to post-modern art, digital art is becoming more accessible nowadays and increasingly popular among many artists.”
“I'm excited to see what it would be like in the next couple of years.”
Adam Kasturi’s own Kafkaesque journey is similar to the protagonist of Amok. Album closer ‘Planemo’ doesn’t exactly end on a positive note, but like a conversation with Adam, it concludes with something that can be best described as an understanding.
"Permainan kau aku senang baca/ Aku takkan kembali ke spektrum itu."
(“Your intent is clear to me/ I will never return to that spectrum again.”)