In 1997, not much was happening in the local Chinese music scene. During this post-Canto rock era, you could even say that the scene was dead until an indie band from Penang called Chong Yang decided to shake things up. Forming their own label-cum-organisation called Hwang Huo, they began setting up shows around the island. Their 1st gig saw a 1,000 strong crowd – an indie feat almost impossible without big sponsors even by today’s standards.
Realising the demand for an alternative to cheesy Canto pop, Hwang Huo released 2 compilations and Chong Yang’s debut album Forced March. They also distributed albums by Beijing rockers The Fly, No and Lure.
In 2000, with ambitions running high, the members of Chong Yang and experimental noise band Moxuan traveled to Beijing with the Hwang Huo crew for a so-called “cultural exchange” and to showcase their music. However, the musical odyssey quickly turned into a pointless vacation and conflicts arose between members of both bands. The exploits of this trip were chronicled in the larger-than-life documentary Surviving Beijing.
Upon returning to Malaysia, both bands as well as Hwang Huo dissolved. The main issue was that some members were purely into creating music while others had more left field ideologies. And the Chinese scene would have died there if not for one man.
Mak Wai Hoo, who was in the band Karma and also a member of Hwang Huo, started Soundscape Records in 2001 because he felt responsible to the followers of the scene. With the help of his bandmates, Soundscape organised their first gig at Colours at Damansara Uptown and introduced prog and post-rock bands RUSH and Lang Mang as well as the politically-charged punk outfit Nao.
Mak began tying up with corporate sponsors and started the Street Roar music festival series in 2003. The 1st installment on the eve of Independence Day featured non-Chinese local bands like Love Me Butch and Damn Dirty Apes. This tradition continued for another 3 years with bands like Sargeant Weiner’s Arms, Furniture and This Body Broken, cultivating unity between theÂ 2 scenes. For the final Street Roar at KLPAC, foreign bands made an appearance. Amongst them were The Subs (China), Ladybug (Taiwan) and Observatory (Singapore).
In 2004, Soundscapes organised Transregional Sounds, a large outdoor music festival at Petaling Street which featured Hong Kong hardcore heavyweights King Lychee and Beijing’s The Fly. A year later, crasscore band Deng Deng Etc won the Tiger Powerhitz band competition and were signed by Soundscape.
Moving on to bigger things, Soundscape brought down a string of notable foreign acts including Toe, Mono, Explosions In The Sky, Club 8 & Pelle Carlberg, Caroline Lufkin, My Disco, and more recently Mogwai, Battles and Envy.
Despite this, Soundscape has been accused of being a “racist” label. Although no one has confronted Mak directly with these accusations, some non-Chinese bands have allegedly stopped supporting the label because they felt that Soundscape was only pushing Mandarin-language bands.
One of the core “hidden agendas” carried on from the days of Huang Huo by Soundscape was to empower the Chinese youth and the use of their mother tongue. Ever since the controversial Ops Lalang crackdown in 1987, Chinese schools have been slowly dwindling in numbers due to the lack of support from the government. Thus, Chinese youths are increasingly losing their ability to communicate in their mother tongue of Mandarin. Huang Huo and Soundscape were trying to counter this cultural loss by using rock music’s accessibility. “In hindsight,” Mak relates, “maybe we over did it. We should have translated some of the lyrics, especially by controversial bands like Nao, into English. It would have helped people in general to understand our situation.”
Today, there is no confusion over Soundscape’s intentions for the whole local music scene. While the label’s international network has grown tremendously, Mak has not neglected the local scene; thanks to constant promotion, Nao and Citizens of Ice Cream are headed to Taiwan to play at the Music Terminals Festival 2009.
JUICE has even heard 1st hand that the proud indie label may be bringing in their biggest international act so far in 2010 – and it’s not Sigur Ros, although Soundscape will be working on having that band play here as well. A true Malaysian independent label of international standards, Mak says that he is currently looking for a new Malay/English act to produce to diversify Soundscape’s already impressive portfolio.