Friday, March 8, 2013

Tagging Along with Tools of the Trade

It was the beginning of 2013, and I was in a car with Tools of the Trade, on their way to a one-off show in Kuantan, Pahang. It was a three hour drive, and we were all finding ways to kill the time while singer/guitarist Tiong drove. I sat in the back with their new drummer Yuss (who was previously with "emoviolence" bands Kias Fansuri and Building of the Heartbreaker Pyramids). Bassist Emi was riding shotgun and acting as DJ on the car stereo. Eventually we landed on LA grind kings Phobia. Noticing that I was bobbing my head to the the music, Tiong turned from the driver's seat and asked, "Hey Adrian, have you ever seen Phobia?"

"Uh, yeah, twice. Once in 2011 and once in 2002 with Circle of Dead Children, at CBGBs."

"Wow." He paused. "Any proof?"

I laughed. It was the first time someone had asked me for proof that I'd seen an obscure grindcore band; frankly, it's the first time anyone's cared.

"Yeah, I've got pictures," I told him.

And so was created an unusual game of "stump the metal blogger," where Emi, Tiong and occasionally Yuss took turns asking if I'd seen a particular metal or hardcore band. Eyehategod? Yes. Tragedy? Yes. From Ashes Rise? Yes. Converge? Yes. Disrupt? No, but I did see Grief. And on and on it went. As the "ayes" stacked up and the number of shows I'd been to seemed to grow beyond belief, I wasn't sure whether to feel smug or embarrassed; I managed an uneasy mix of the two.

Of course, seeing obscure metal bands is kind of my thing, and the Tools guys knew that. This wasn't the first time I'd traveled out of KL to see them play; last year I'd trekked to Singapore to see them at that year's SG Deathfest. But this was the first time I rode with a band - any band - on their way to a show out of state.

This was the first Tools of the Trade show since September; the band had been on hold since then as Tiong just had a kid. I asked them how this one-off gig in Kuantan came about.

Tiong explained, "Actually they asked us to play two or three shows before, but we put it off so many times. This is the same guy who organized Siksakubur, the band from Indonesia that's coming in February."

I'd never seen a show in Malaysia outside KL, and was interested in seeing what the scene in the rest of the country would be like. Did they mosh? Put their arms around each other and headbang, like kids in NY have been doing the last couple years? Or would they stand with their arms crossed and wait to be impressed? I grilled the guys on their take of the Kuantan scene.

"Overall, I can say Pahang has a big scene," Emi began. "Big punk scene, especially. Big metal scene as well. Dirty Dogs are from Pahang, they're one of the punk bands. Aghast is from Pahang. Enslaved Chaos is an old band, and they're still playing shows sometimes. I can say Pahang has a good scene. A beautiful scene, wonderful scene, a lot of good bands, good people…and good food as well."

About an hour outside of Pahang, we pulled in to a gas station to fill up the tank. As Tiong and Yuss stepped out of the car to stretch their legs and smoke, I talked to Emi about my recent trip to Bangkok, where it took a little bit of work to find local music. When I stopped by the Triple Six Record shop, they didn't have any CDs from local Thai bands in stock; I had to settle for asking the store owner for a list of good Thai bands instead.

Emi: Actually that's a problem I noticed about the Thai scene; they worship international bands a lot; too much, I think. It's very hard to find Thai metal kids wearing Thai band's t-shirts. Unlike Malaysia, everyone is wearing local bands' t-shirts; but Thailand is different. Or maybe the metal scene itself [is different].

DoC: But even in Malaysia…I have other Malaysian metal friends, and they don't know anything about Rumah Api, or Tools of the Trade, or Atomicdeath, or any of the local bands. When I ask them about the local scene, they kind of shrug their shoulders.

Emi: It's just a totally different scene. Or maybe they haven't been exposed to the Rumah Api scene, the DIY culture scene. I have a few metal friends, that you just ask them all the info about bands, as long as it's not a Malaysian band, they can answer you. But if you ask them about Malaysian bands, they know nothing. Maybe it's lack of exposure.

DoC: Is that something you would change, if you could change it?

Emi: I wish I could change it.

DoC: Do want more exposure for Rumah Api?

Emi: We don't want Rumah Api to be very mainstream. We try to maintain it as it is, where the people have to find it themselves...

DoC: So you don't want something like
Spades Magazine or TimeOut KL covering Rumah Api?

Emi: Yeah, actually I'd prefer it not to be that way…because Rumah Api is a free space where you can drink freely, you can do whatever you want. There are no restrictions when you are there. So if you have a lot of people with different backgrounds, it's hard for you to manage. Like recently before New Year's, Kai (the bassist of Setia Star Sept) lost her bag, where she had her passport, her money, and phone in the bag. If it was only the [regular] Rumah Api kids [at the gig], we can easily track who took it. But during New Year's there were a few outsiders, a few you've hardly seen before, so it's a problem for us to track the bag. That's an easy example, where you don't want it to be exposed too much.

Rumah Api is operated by the kids itself, we don't want it to be like you have a furniture company come and approach you: "I want to sponsor your sofas" or whatever. Or maybe the music shop sponsors the backline, that kind of thing. We don't want it to be that way. We had a case where Converse did a photography session at Rumah Api, and they only paid us RM150 while they're gaining I don't know how many millions from the shoes, from the product itself. So we don't want that kind of shit to happen to Rumah Api, where they're used by the system, by the corporate companies, by not-so-responsible people. We'd like to maintain Rumah Api as it is. No advertisements, no stupid bullshit media…

When you have people come to Rumah Api without doing any advertisements, just word spreads, you can tell that these people are genuine, sincere to watch the bands, to see how Rumah Api is, not just because "I saw your name in this magazine." It's not going to be a trend, it's not going to be a cool place to hang out. It's going to be for the sincere people who know about Rumah Api, who know about punk, about metal, about grindcore, whatever. That kind of thing."

[Tiong popped his head in to the car with an urgent question. "Have you watched Rotting Christ before? Please say no…"

I actually had to think about this one for a second, before sadly confirming that I had not, in fact, seen Rotting Christ. Tiong's response: "Okay, good…"]

DoC: Would you say the turn out is about where you want it to be? The number of people who come to shows?

Emi: The good thing is, these 30-40 people are sincere to come and watch the band. Not just for the cool trend's sake. But the bad thing is, you're not going to have big money for the touring bands, to pay the rent, that kind of thing. It's good to have a bigger crowd, but it's very hard to manage a bigger crowd, sometimes. I can say that I'm very satisfied with the number that comes to Rumah Api now, there are good thing to have this kind of number as well.

DoC: 30-40 people is very, very small. Is there a number bigger than that you'd be comfortable with? Or is 40 people the most amount of people you'd want to come to shows?

Emi: Basically how Rumah Api operates…like me, I organize shows, I have to pay the rent to Rumah Api. On week-ends they're charging me RM700, including the backline and everything. I'll see what bands are playing, and then I'll try to make the tickets as cheap as possible. And then usually if the crowd is just not enough to cover the rental, I have to use my own pocket money to cover it up. Or I just talk to Man [Beranak] the Rumah Api owner, and say "I'll have to pay you some other time," that kind of deal. And most of the time Man is okay with it, but there are times when he needs money to cover the whole rental of Rumah Api, the license and everything.

DoC: Also, Rumah Api has debts, right?

Emi: Right, exactly. I don't know exactly how much, but it's a big, big debt. So there is no minimum number that makes you satisfied with the crowd; as long as the crowd comes and supports, and pays, that's enough. Because we understand that people have their own things to do, their own priorities instead of only going to shows. So there are times when you have 200 people come, and there are times when only 5 people come to your show. So doing DIY shows is like a business as well, but you don't gain profit from that. If you have more crowd, you have more money to give to the bands, more money to give to the venue itself, and then when you have less crowd, you have to find your own way to sort it out. By bargaining with Man, maybe not to take money on the day itself; just working out a deal with Man, I'm sure he'd be more than happy to help.

DoC: It sounds like if we're talking about numbers, then 100 audience members is about where you have to be to break even. Does that sound fair?

Emi: If you do shows on weekdays, the rental is only RM200 or RM300. So if you're charging RM10 for the entrance, you just need 30 kids to come down. Also, it depends on the deal as well. If you promise the band, to pay their flight tickets, to pay whatever tickets, their accommodation and whatnot, you may need more crowd to come, in order for you to cover the money that you're supposed to pay the band, pay the hotel, whatever. The DIY scene, usually the band doesn't care about accommodation, about transportation, so the more crowd that comes to the show, that's going to be a bonus for them, where they can have extra money after the rental, after the backline deducted. The band themselves have to play their part as well in promoting this kind of thing. It's not just Rumah Api and the organizer. In order to help the organizer, to help the venue to have more crowd, it's good to promote the shows as well [if you're] the band. Because nowadays, most of the bands have their Facebook profile, so they can just send out invites over Facebook.

DoC: How successful do you think using Facebook is in publicizing the shows?

Emi: Because the kids now own smart phones, where they have 24 hour access to Facebook, 90% find out [about] the shows from Facebook. And the [other] 10% is mouth-spread, invites from friends, that kind of thing. But I can say 90-95% were from Facebook. You may hate it, but you have to accept that we're living in the modern day, where Facebook is the most efficient communication way.

DoC: Facebook is the 21st Century town crier.

Emi: Like Tiong, I think he very rarely checks his e-mail, because all the time the correspondence, the invitations to play for shows, come through our Facebook page. It's very rare to see e-mails. We are considering shutting down our e-mail.

DoC: Do you think it's same for the other scenes in Malaysia? Do you think they're as reliant on Facebook invites and online promotion as the Rumah Api scene? 

Emi: You see the metal scene, besides Facebook, they have media coverage like ROTTW [Rock of the Third World], Karisma Magazine, who always publish all the events, the band progress, whatever shit. That's the reason why they have more crowd, more exposure compared to DIY punk.

DoC: Which bands are these? Because I've heard of ROTTW, but it seems like they mostly cover mainstream rock bands.

Emi: Exactly. If you know Karisma, basically ROTTW is a hardcore version of Karisma. Karisma covers a lot of metal most of the time, and ROTTW covers hardcore bands, metalcore bands, or "new age" bands, or maybe some trendy shits like melodic death metal, that kind of thing. Which we don't want to get involved with; we try our best to avoid them. And so far we did it! We did it very well! [laughter]

Our European tour shits would have been very, very big if it came out in that kind of magazine. And one of our friends is working with BFM radio station, and they wanted to invite us for an interview; but sadly we had to reject it. Due to a few consideration, we rejected it. We think that our music and BFM radio listeners doesn't go along [together], so we rejected it.

DoC: What kind of music do they play?

Emi: BFM stands for "Business FM." So it just doesn't make sense for us. We appreciated the invitation from our friend. But it's just not us, lah.

Tiong: We were really close to going to the interview.

Emi: We almost went to the interview, but at the last minute we said, "No...sorry about that, it just doesn't work for us."

DoC: Were there political reasons for not doing the interview with that station? Or was it just that your music and their platform doesn't go together?

Emi: BFM is a very cool radio station…

DoC: Is it kind of like NPR, where they have news, but they also cover some art stuff?

Emi: Yeah, they do. They also have interviews with political personnel. I'm talking about leftist political personnel. But they're still doing interviews with some corporate people every morning. And grindcore and punk is so common with not compromising with this kind of thing. That's one of the reasons why we had to turn down the offer. I think we might be pretty big now, if we went to the show [laughs]. I think our faces might come out in the Star newspaper, if we did go to the radio show.

DoC: Have you offered advice to the other bands who are trying to tour Europe?

Tiong: Patience. You have to be more focused and do extra work. And go from your comfort zone. And prepare for the money, time, family commitment, sacrifice, and be ready. If you're ready for that, then anyone can go and play anywhere they want, Europe, Brazil, or anywhere in South East Asia.

Emi: I have one advice: make sure you think again, because you are going to lose a lot. You might lose your job, your money of course. But you gain a lot of appreciation from the kids there. If you love taking photos, there were a million good scenery where you can take photos.

Tiong: I got to play with one of my dream bands, which is Wolf Brigade.

Emi: We managed to play with Wolf Brigade, Poison Idea. We chatted with them, we hugged them…did we kiss them? We had dinner with them, which was the best experience. I myself, I saw Weedeater, I don't know if anyone else has had this kind of chance. Except you, Adrian.

DoC: I was lucky though. [I saw Weedeater back in 2000 at CBGBs with Spirit Caravan. Not bragging...]

Emi: You were as lucky as me! Poison Idea, Discharge. Nasum, of course. And then, making new friends. And then we played at Køpi, a very famous punk squat in Berlin. There's a legendary story that Rage Against The Machine wanted to play there, but they rejected RATM. They didn't want RATM to play there because they were too established, too mainstream for [the venue]. It's an honor to play at that kind of venue, where RATM has no chance to play but we got to play there. You're going to lose a lot, but you're going to gain a lot of unforgettable memories memories there, unforgettable experience. But you've got to think a lot before you go. Because it's not a playground. If you're touring there, it's not a playground. They're going to fuck you in the face if they don't like your band. You've got make yourself fully ready before you go there.

DoC: You mentioned if the crowd doesn't like your band, they "fuck you in the face..."

Emi: It's not really "Fuck you" like showing their middle finger right in your face, but they tend to leave the space empty. It's like saying indirectly they don't like your band.

DoC: Did that happen to you guys?

Emi: No, we managed to pull the crowd in to the pit.

DoC: Everyone loves Tools of the Trade in Europe…

Emi: Maybe they were just too biased…they tend to [think] "You're Asian, I must support you," that kind of thing. In a good way; I'm not saying that they're trying to look down on Asians, or [are] trying to be racist. It's like when you have people from far, or people from nowhere that you have no idea where they've come from, that come to play at your town, the appreciation is more. So you tend to watch them, to mosh to them.

Tiong: One of the examples was when we were playing Slovenia, we played with a mixture of bands, like post-rock, reggae bands. We didn't expect the crowd to turn out, because we played late. But then the turnout was very crazy.

Emi: That was the second show. Because it's too normal for them to have American bands touring Europe; but when they have people from Malaysia, or South East Asia, they will give some special treatment. They ask you how Malaysia looks like, they ask you about the political things. They want to know more about South East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines.

DoC: I think for a lot of those kids, you're the first band they've seen from this part of the world.

Emi: [laughs] Maybe. But Malaysian bands like Appäratus, Mass Separation, SMG are pretty well known there as well.

DoC: I do have a few friends in NY who are fascinated by the scene here. I can't honestly tell you why. But every time I talk about somebody like Atomicdeath or Sarjan Hassan, they're very interested in the scene here.

Emi: I think it's normal... When you read in magazines, read on zines, read on blogs, you find that, "Oh this place has a scene, this place has good bands." So you tend to [get] excited to [learn a lot about them]. But of course Sarjan Hassan and Atomicdeath are good bands, so I'm not surprised about that.

DoC: Yeah, I remember the first time I heard about "Swedish death metal," it was such a strange concept to me. Not just "death metal", but that there was a special kind from Sweden. And I basically spent the next 10 years trying to find every death metal band from Sweden that I could. There's something about music coming from an exotic location, or a seemingly exotic location that makes it even more tantalizing. Do you think "Malaysian Grindcore" is going to become a thing? Like "Swedish death metal" or "Norwegian black metal"? Are Tools of the Trade "True Malaysian Grindcore?"

Emi: We're never proud to be Malaysian. [laughter] Malaysians are never proud to be Malaysian. Too bad we were born here, we've been living here, so we have no choice. We have to use the word "Malaysian". Whatever you want to call it; "Malaysian grindcore." But there's a lot of work you need to do to make Malaysian grindcore as a big thing; as big as Swedish death metal.

Tiong: For me, it's not [important] to become as big as Swedish metal, I think at least if we can push the progress of this band as far as we can, that will be enough for me. I don't see any point to become bigger, I want this band to progress, at least [if every] year got two or three releases, play some gigs, at least a local tour, [if we can] exist forever.

Emi: We'll try to exist as long as we can. Of course, Tiong and me, we love grindcore, we love this music. We love hanging out with the kids. We'll try to make Tools of the Trade exist for a long time, at least 15, 20 years from now.

DoC: How long have you guys been around?

Emi: The band was formed in 2004, but I joined in 2008.

DoC: You've only got another 16 years left to go…


Tiong: I think the first 5 years, the band didn't really exist. You can say the band really started in 2010. The last two years, this band progressed really well. So we still have, how many years? 13 years? [laughs]

Emi: In 13 years, I'll be at Joe Kidd's age. To be honest, I really respect him, because he is still as young as he was before. We want to stay young forever. Young till we die.

Tiong: Young and dangerous...

Emi: By young, I mean still going to shows, still playing shows, still hanging out with the kids, despite your work, your family. For us, Tiong has two kids, I'm going to have kids as well. Some people quit the scene, left the scene because of family commitments, which for us is totally bullshit, because we do have kids as well, we do have families as well, jobs as well. There are no reasons for you not to stay punk; stay hardcore, stay in the scene. All you need is the passion and the spirit to stay in this life.

Tiong: You also need to have skill, to be clever, to skillfully manage your time. To be a punk, you need to be more clever. Not just listen to CDs and LPs, to learn from experience. So in order to cope with everything, to enable you to go further.

By the time this chat was over, we had reached Kuantan. We were waiting for directions to the venue when Tiong turned around in the driver's seat. "One question for you, Adrian." He looked at me seriously. "Have you watched Slayer before?"

I grinned and held up four fingers. "Fuck!" Tiong laughed. "Four times?!?"

Okay, I'll admit. That was a little smug.


Mitra, the bar that hosted the night's heshfest, was a pretty sweet spot. With a full backline and even stage monitors, the sound far exceeded what I was expecting. The surrounding area was pretty sketchy, though; I took an ill-thought out walk around the neighbourhood between sets, and discovered lots of "massage parlours" and "karaoke" bars. And as the night got later, the number of "working girls" staking out the back alleys grew. A few of them even wandered in to the gig to see what was going on; their thoughts on the local scene, sadly, go unrecorded. Most of the night I sat by the bar with Yuss, who studiously practiced his set on a stool and table, eyes fixed on some point that only he could see.
The show was a mixed bag. Besides starting late, there were way too many acts slotted to play; why two cover bands were stuck on such a stacked bill, I'll never understand. Triumph ov Fire, a black metal band from Malacca played in corpse paint and leather, prompting a flurry of photo taking from the audience. I took my share, for sure, but I found myself wishing they spent as much time on their music as they did on their image.

That aside, a few bands really stood out: Negation were an old school Malaysian grindcore band that the Tools guys prompted me to pay attention to. There's no shortage of grindcore bands in Malaysia (and thus my comment about "True Malaysian Grindcore"), but Negation's confidence and veteran status definitely put them near the top of the list. Local guys Imperial did a pretty good take on 90's black metal a la Emperor or Borknagar; and Anguish were one of the best death metal bands I've seen in Malaysia, playing a stripped down version of Immolation and Suffocation.

It was well past 1:00 AM when Tools of the Trade finally went on, but they still tore into their set with gusto. Unfortunately, most of the audience had bailed at that point. Ring rust and breaking in a new member notwithstanding, their live shows always have moments when they seem like they're going to careen out of control. It's one of the things that separate them from most of the Malaysian scene, where most bands play competently, but few make it seem like they're really passionate about their music. I thought they did great; but after their set, the band didn't seem happy. Yuss in paricular seemed to be beating himself up over his performance. I tried to tell him that he did a good job, first time jitters and all; but he just shook his head.

We grabbed a late dinner with a few of the locals, and rather than staying the night in Pahang, drove straight back to KL. I was a little relieved; closing in on 34 years old, my days of crashing on stranger's couches are close to finished. It was already daylight out when the Tools guys dropped me home. Since our little trip to Kuantan, they've released their long-awaited split 7" with Compulsion to Kill and been hitting locals shows regularly again. And if in a few years kids ask me if I've ever seen Tools of the Trade live, I can smugly hold up six fingers and talk about the time I went on tour with them.

Dreams of Consciousness tries not to be smug about all the live shows it has been to. See for yourself.