Interview: Ion Ray

Though you probably haven’t heard of him, you’ve most likely seen his work at events like Heineken Thirst and Urbanscape. From the explosive promo video for Rockaway to weird ‘water’ instruments to Oscar-nominated documentaries, Ion Ray is a man of many hats (he also happens to make his own hats, literally). On the brink of releasing his debut album as a solo artist, JUICE meets up with this manic New Yorker who seems to have found a new home KL.

Images Darren Loke

Hello, Mr Ray! Our first question is pretty obvious, why leave the Big Apple for Malaysia?
Well I went to New York University and while there I met some amazing artists, mostly actors and musicians, and we collectively decided to make something that wasn’t just music, it was a performance art band. We called it Force Theory. We had an actress in the band, everyone did dance moves, there was an intermission when weird things happened, no set structure. We were really pushing the band forward for a while and then we did a few movie soundtracks and that took off. I quit my job and did movie soundtracks for about two and a half years straight with my co-producer (Kent Rockafeller) there. We had our own studio and it was a creative time all around.

… what happened then?
We did the score for this great film called Jesus Camp about little Christian kids at a summer camp and it got nominated for an Oscar! That was a big deal for your careers and our confidence. We had  just started this company and now we have this happen! That sparked tons of job offers so composing became a more than a full-time job.

What happened to the band? Also, um, you forgot to tell us how you came to live here.
We didn’t have a lot of time because we were doing a movies and production all the time. Also being in the band was just hard. Bands are really hard to do, especially when we have five or six people get together and do this one idea. It was an amazing time but I think in the end we all got burnt out. I’ve lived in New York all my life and eventually I was like, “it’s time to go”. I was looking to leave. Maybe going to California, or somewhere else in the U.S. Then randomly my lady came back from overseas and said, “I got offered a job in Malaysia”, and I was like, “Wow! What?” She was just expecting me to not even consider it seriously. It took me about two hours to decide to go. I looked at it online and I was like, I could live there!

And in those two hours, what was the most attractive thing you discovered about Malaysia over the internet?
First of all the basics. That people spoke English very well here, so I could communicate right away. Next I saw some KL artists, videos from Urbanscapes, hip hop culture, food culture, Palate Palette, urban life evolving. … I was, like, “these were places that looked cool and I could totally spend my time. I also wanted something totally new for me… a challenge. I tell people here all the time that I love living in KL and they say, “Oh, that’s cause you’re not from here”. I would say the same thing about New York now. I absolutely love going back, but I don’t think I want to live there anymore. Being around new streets, new faces, new interactions, your brain just gets turned on in a different way.

So being here over the past year or so, did you find that KL has actually lived up to those expectations of a new place with new possibilities and stuff like that?
I think something special is happening here. People can’t really see it because I think they’re looking from the inside. I definitely think things are not going as well as people want to for the arts, but I see a lot of super talented people. There’s just not a lot of outlets for their talent and they get frustrated. I’ve done three or four movies from here and I’ve used almost all Malaysian musicians on the movies… People have been responding really well and ask me, “Who played on this?” And I go, “Oh it’s all musicians from Malaysia…” so that’s great. The other thing about being here is that, I have time to think. At home you have your family, you have friends, everyone calls you and you see everyone you know. Here, it could be a weekend and no one calls me, I just have time to think, make that and make this and write an album. Just having time away… that distance is huge!

Do you think you would have been equally as active if you remained in New York?
Yeah, I think I’d be active in a different way. I’d probably score more movies because once you’re successful in something, it’s harder to turn down a job. People sometimes offer me great things but I think I wouldn’t be doing what I wanted, like spending three months just working on my own record, which is unheard of in New York, partly because it’s very expensive, hard to do that.

So cost of living was a factor?
Yeah, it allows me just enough free time and breath, just enough to not worry everyday about my rent, which I did in New York, even though I was successful it was just hard. You don’t save a lot of money there.

What have you learnt from Malaysia after being here for a year?
Malaysia’s so different. One of the reasons why it’s like New York is the mix of people, such a different mix of people and everyone’s so strongly themselves. What have I learnt? I think I learnt to relax a lot, to slow down and think more. I think New York is so hectic and crazy and everyone loves that about it. But living there for so long, I was just manic, my head was crazy, ADD… everyone there has some form of ADD.

Everyone in New York has ADD?
They do, they do. New York is obsessed with crunching the most work in the least amount of time. The life is slower here, people are slower with what they do. Everyone here is like 15-20 minutes late all the time, so that fits right into my way of life right now. It helped me a lot to just calm down and be happier in general. Even if I might be more “successful” in New York, I’m happier here. I’m about to release a lot of work this year, like my record coming out and playing it everywhere I can. Even then, I still want to come back here because I love just the energy and the feel.

Tell us how your ‘water’ instruments came about?
I originally started with my friend, Isaac in Singapore, who’s from New York as well. He moved to Singapore before I moved here a long time ago. I made a thing called the Human Piano, where I could put sound into people and could play them like a piano. That’s on Youtube somewhere… That slowly started to evolve into using water. I would drink water and there would be a sound and I was like, maybe we could use only water. So I told Isaac, and he said there’s a children’s museum that’s doing something there, do you want to submit this? So we did a proposal and they accepted it… The reason why I do art in general, the reason why I love making things is because of people’s reaction. It’s like a little kid when they see their first firework… they’re just in awe of how it works. I want to make art that’s only interactive because I hate just looking at art, I always want to touch it and play.

It seems that everything you do has to be out of the box, how do you come out with all these ideas? Is it all ADD?
I don’t know. I think everybody has great ideas and inventions. One thing is that I write down every single thing. Every idea I think is good, I write down and it became a practice. It’s sort of obsessive but also, if you write down you’ll never forget it. Once I started writing stuff down, I started to hone that thing of more and more ideas started coming because I opened the floodgates. That was about ten years ago. I’ve always been sort of like this but now, it’s just even more honed. It’s like when I hear a song or when I see something visually, my brain makes it into something else. I don’t just see it, I see what it could be. I write it down and that evolves in my head into something else. I just practice doing things that I like.

Do you think the creative people get beaten more than the jocks?
Sure, when I was in high school I played basketball so I sort of had a free pass because I was like “default popular” because I was into sports. I was so lucky for that, I never really got picked on. I also wasn’t afraid of it, like if I got punched in the face, I’ll be like so what. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt but yeah, it’s still a big problem. It’s usually people who are different, doesn’t matter how different, whether they’re gay or poor, small or different race. Being different makes you a target.

Do you think you’ll go back to the States soon?
Well, I go back all the time for work but to live there… not for a long time I think. Something special is going on here in the next 5 years. I’m excited and I want to be a part of that if I can.

We know that feedback has been positive so far with everything you do here because it’s so new and different, but do you ever feel like it might be a little intrusive if you start your own sort of freak scene here?
No I don’t think so. I’m just trying to make art that reduces everyone to kids. When you’re a kid and you see something new, it makes you smile and you don’t say “how is this made” and you don’t say “this thing is not as cool as the thing I saw before”. You’re just like wow! I like the idea of being in Malaysia and making things that have never been made before in the world. There are a lot of people here that have huge ideas that have never been made also and helping them to get their stuff out too would be great. I am still, once again, blown away by KLites, the potential of people here is crazy.

Ion Michael Furjanic aka Ion Ray is based in Kuala Lumpur. Checkout his studio and projects at or on Facebook.