oleh Taufiq Rahman, kolumnis harian The Jakarta Post

Efek Rumah Kaca does not fit the mold of today’s mainstream-minded bands. M. Taufiqurrahman finds out why the indie band plays to its very different beat but is still winning fans with its clear-headed viewpoint.

The members of Efek Rumah Kaca never take anything for granted.

While most of their peers are content to sing in the minor keys about romance and heartbreak, the trio of Cholil Mahmud, Adrian Yunan Faisal and Akbar Bagus Sudibyo go against the grain by writing songs that diss just that.

“Cinta Melulu” (Love Incessantly), from the group’s self-titled debut album, is one such disparaging comment on the state of the pop music industry and its unhealthy fixation with love songs.

Lagu cinta melulu (Just incessant love songs)
Kita memang benar-benar melayu (We really are Malay)
Suka mendayu-mendayu (Only fond of sad love songs)

When even mediocre rock bands (think Ungu, Letto and Peterpan) are trying so hard to leave their mark on the local music scene, and overrated bands like Dewa 19, Slank and Gigi are busy working to build a legacy, Efek Rumah Kaca — hailed by some as one of the country’s most talented bands and earning comparisons with avant-garde Brit rockers Radiohead — doesn’t bother contemplating life beyond a third record.

Lead singer Cholil says he will be more than happy to call it a day if his band can no longer write good music.

“We’re not going to write the same tunes twice. If we don’t improve sonically after three albums, we’d better quit,” he says.

While many young men take guitar lessons in the hopes of getting rich quick and getting hitched to a sultry starlet, Efek Rumah Kaca is taking the road less traveled by marrying its art and politics.

Similar politically conscious bands such as Sore and Zeke & the Popo have dipped their toes in psychedelic art and nostalgia, deliberately concealing their angst in a private language that only they understand. In contrast, Efek Rumah Kaca is overt in expressing its socially and politically conscious message.

“Belanja Sampai Mati” (Shop Till You Die) is an indictment of crass materialism, while “Di Udara” (In the Air) is an homage to the late Munir Said Thalib, the outspoken human rights activist who died of arsenic poisoning while on an intercontinental flight.

“Di Udara” is a rare protest song whose merit rests solely on the power of its arguments. The message in the song hinges on a specific rhetorical style, through speaking only in generalities, which serves to augment its sense of urgency.

Aku bisa di racun di udara (I can be poisoned in the air)
Aku bisa terbunuh di trotoar (I can be killed on the sidewalk)
Tapi aku tak pernah mati (But I will never die)
Tak pernah berhenti (Never stop)

While other bands embrace the mainstream to the detriment of their art, Efek Rumah Kaca is confident its art alone can make enough of an impression.

This is in keeping with a mission statement of empowering civil society in a new democracy — or in the words of Cholil, encouraging critical thinking through art.

Soon after its debut album was released in 2007, Efek Rumah Kaca’s music became the talk of the blogosphere echo chamber. The hype was right. Strip the album of its political message and its emotional payload, and there is still a cutting-edge album with only a few slightly lesser moments.

Cholil’s vocals, a cross between Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley at his less acrobatic, are able to carry the weighty subjects that he tries to deliver. His guitar chops may not have the histrionics of guitar heroes, but that is more than made up for in his pop sensibilities. Cholil’s guitar delivers hooks and melodic phrases that make the album an easy sell.

The album’s closing track, “Hujan di Bulan Desember” (December Rain), is The Bends-derived melancholia at its most gorgeous.

The band’s sophomore record, Kamar Gelap (Dark Room), proved it was no flash in the pan.

If anything, on this album the band expanded its sonic palette beyond that of Radiohead. A pure pop gem, Kamar Gelap is a mash-up of all the musical influences – the Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M. and the Smiths – that inspired the trio to play music in the first place.

Lyric-wise, Efek Rumah Kaca grew more mature and tackled weightier subjects. “Menjadi Indonesia” (Becoming Indonesia) is a poetic introspection on the inertia that plagues this country. “Kenakalan Remaja di Era Informatika” (Teenage Delinquency in the Information Age) is a dig at rampant Internet pornography.

Among the schmaltz and pap constantly being churned out by the major labels, the tunes from Kamar Gelap stood out and the band was acclaimed in many quarters. One publication went slightly overboard by hailing it as the “savior” of Indonesian music.

Others offered more befitting praise, such as Rolling Stone Indonesia selecting Efek Rumah Kaca its “Rookie of the Year” in 2008. It also won the award for best cutting-edge band in 2008 at the Anugerah Musik Indonesia, the local equivalent of the Grammys.

On the commercial side, Kamar Gelap sold more than 3,000 copies in the first two weeks of its release, a remarkable feat for an indie band. The band’s mainstream appeal won the seal of approval from the establishment when the country’s newspaper of record, Kompas, hired it to write a regular political column starting January 2009.

Like any true iconoclasts, the members of Efek Rumah Kaca are unfazed by all the adulation.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about what we’re doing,” says percussionist Akbar. “We just write about what we read in the papers, and it’s not anything weighty.”

The band also refuses to take itself too seriously.

Cholil insists there is nothing cutting-edge about Efek Rumah Kaca’s music.

“What we’re doing with our music is what every band is supposed to be doing,” he says.

Their method of songwriting also differs little from the usual method.

“To be frank, music fans don’t really care about the lyrics. So we work hard to come up with catchy melodies first, because regardless of the lyrical content, what matters most is whether or not your songs stick in the listener’s head,” Akbar says.

This is the only compromise made to get the message across, he adds.

But Efek Rumah Kaca has also significantly cut back on the amount of time spent writing love songs.

The trio agrees there’s nothing inherently wrong about love songs; their beef is with the dross being served up today.

“Love songs from the past, from the ‘50s through to the ‘80s, have more interesting things to say,” Akbar points out.

“I could cry listening to love songs from that period. But something’s wrong when 90 percent of songs on an album talk about romance.”

Cholil says things took a turn for the worse in the early 1990s, citing how the success of Dewa 19 and Padi gave less-talented upstarts the promise of easy stardom through love songs.

“It’s not entirely their fault, though. We let ourselves be the victims of the music industry,” he adds.

The preoccupation with love songs is not the only musical crime that Efek Rumah Kaca is campaigning against. The trio also uses proper Indonesian in their songs, a revolt against the penchant for English or colloquial Indonesian among local musicians.

Not a single sentence in the two dozen songs on their last two albums is in English.

“We use Indonesian simply because this is the one language that people understand. We don’t try to ape others who pledge to go global by singing in English. I don’t believe in that. In spite of your English, no one will listen to you if your music sucks,” Cholil says.

“On the other hand, if your music is good, regardless of what language you sing in, people will buy your records, just like the guys from Sigur Rós,” he adds, referring to the Icelandic band whose vocalist, Jónsi Birgisson, wows listeners in a language most don’t understand.

“And if we don’t make a dent in the foreign market, we have to accept the fact that maybe we’re not as good as Sigur Rós.”

Clear Cut

• The current lineup is vocalist-guitarist Cholil Mahmud, an accountant by training, drummer Akbar Bagus Sudibyo, a former session man, and bassist Adrian Yunan Faisal, who holds an engineering degree. All three men are 33 years of age. 

• The band toiled in obscurity with a revolving door of personnel changes under the monikers of Hush and Superego, before settling with Efek Rumah Kaca, named after one of their songs. Their big break came in 2007 with the release of their self-titled, critically acclaimed CD. The eponymous debut was released by independent label Paviliun Records.

• Recording, touring and being on the road proved a handful, with Akbar and Adrian quitting their regular work, leaving Cholil as the only band member with a day job. “Having a job and interacting with people helps me survive and gives me inspiration to write songs. I don’t think I could come up with ideas for new songs if I only sit for hours in the studio,” Cholil says.

• Sonically, the band may have drawn inspiration from foreign bands and musicians the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and Bjork, but lyrically their greatest influence comes from Iwan Fals and poet Sitor Situmorang.

 

*) Naskah ini dimuat juga di Harian The Jakarta Post. Foto oleh Berto Wedhatama

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