More Accurately Surfpontianak
Vocals, Guitar // Adrian
Bass // Daniel
Guitar // Niyaz
Drums // Akram
The Blood Sucking Banshee
It’s one of the hottest days in summer and you’re on a beach when you see Dracula in a pink flowery swimming trunk. He has a huge smile that reveals his fangs as he carries a gigantic surfboard into the ocean. Eh, yeah, that isn’t my favorite image either so luckily you’ve imagined wrong. Instead, what you are supposed to imagine is probably a lot more violent.
There’s no gleaming shiny Edward Cullen; she’ll float behind you at night with her long black hair, wearing a white dress stained with blood. She’ll watch and wait for the right time to attack. Don’t turn around at night if you hear any high pitch crying because if you do, her red eyes will be right in front of your face.
“In Malay, we call vampires Pontianaks,” Adrian explained. “You know how Western vampires go for the neck? These vampires go for the penis. I don’t know; it’s very mental, man. Seriously, they hate men for some reason.” He was the only member of the band that could join us for the interview but he was not shy in sharing as we learned a lot from him.
Surfvampires’ name comes from one of the many nights the band spent at Daniel’s Jamming Space; a place their bass player owns that they jam in. They were fans of a band called Beach Fossils and really liked their name, but wanted to relate that more to Brunei. “We were all eating instant noodles and we talked about this vampire ghost until 5 AM,” Adrian recalled. “I don’t know, we had a weird day. The vampires were no longer floating around but are surfing around. It’s just a funny thing. Vampires, on a beach, what the hell?” Not all Bruneians find Pontianaks as fascinating as Surfvampires does but the band has always had a perfect understanding of what to pinpoint in Bruneian culture to romanticize.
Daniel's Jamming Space
Besides being the birthplace for Surfvampires’ name; Daniel’s Jamming Space is where the band grew up. While the band members were friends since high school, they didn’t really get into indie music until they graduated. Their new music taste created a gradual social fissure with their peers.“All of sudden, everyone [the four members of Surfvampires] was talking about indie rock and everything,” Adrian said. “It was quite a coincidence because everyone was listening to the same thing. All of us listened to The Strokes, all of us listened to the Arctic Monkeys and all of that. Not meaning to sound hipster but in Brunei, no one listens to indie rock. It became part of our teenage identity and because of that we became the weird kids of Brunei.”
This is when Daniel’s Jamming Space was discovered. The space was located near Daniel’s house. It was empty because Daniel’s parents wanted to open a family restaurant but it never worked out. While Daniel’s Jamming Space grammatically should not be capitalized and italicized; this place has such a strong impact towards Surfvampires’ growth. It reminds me of the secret bases and tree forts I built as a child; Surfvampire’s were shielded from being judged for being different. It was a safe haven for them to enjoy and immerse themselves in music that they loved. Daniel’s Jamming Space was Surfvampires’, even before they knew themselves as Surfvampires. The band would hang out in this space and play covers of anything they could think of. They would hear a song by The Strokes and be inspired to see if he could also play it. It was in this room the seeds of Surfvampires were planted. The band no longer hangs out or practices at Daniel’s Jamming Space anymore. Daniel’s mom was hoping to use the space as a shop and out of respect Surfvampires stopped hanging out there.
Adrian seems to write most of the band’s music and has a lot of voice in the direction of the band. He has always been obsessive about music. The first time he got an interface he almost stopped going out for three months. “I was cramming in my room for hours and hours recording this one riff,” Adrian said. “When I think about it, it's very cute, because it [the riff] was just 3 notes like ding ding ding.” He spent three months mastering sound editing. Adrian spent most of his time producing French house, vaporware or chill wave. When he started to record proto-Surfvampires music; it was under a different name. You can hear this obsession in their Surfvampires’ first EP Lush. Many of those songs have a simple riff repeated over and over again and they serve as a strong foundation to the sleepy vocals that soar on top of them. The repetition of these riffs signal a complete devotion towards perfection.
Their music only became what it is today after Adrian decided to reach out to his friends at Daniel’s Jamming Space..Adrian started to wonder what his music would sound if played live instead of in a studio but he needed other musicians. Luckily for him; he was best friends with some. “I called them up and said guys do you want to do something different instead of playing covers and they were like sure!” Adrian laughed.
When they started, the band didn’t really understand the indie scene in Brunei. They didn’t know how to promote their music but stumbled upon a few grassroots concerts and people seemed to really like them. “There’s a funny story when we released our first EP,” Adrian described their naivety. “We sent our EP to our local radio and they didn’t like it. At that time we really wanted to get approved by our local radio.” They didn’t realize their music would not become mainstream in Brunei and this foreshadowed their gradual feeling of distance with other Bruneians,
Brunei is a small conservative Muslim country and comprises of 4 districts. One of the tiny districts is the city district. Except Adrian, all the members come from there. The city does not have bustling people though; the vibe feels like a town. “It's not really a city kind of environment it's more a rural outskirt. It's very suburban; very chilled out and everything.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this quiet country sees Surfvampire’s music in a bad light. There has been incidents where concerts have been broken up and the members of bands playing were arrested. “Bands like Surfvampires are like Satan worshipers or something,” Adrian told us. He admits that they sometimes are scared of doing shows. They can not let the authorities know about their shows so the shows must be kept very secret. One memorable private gig called “Where’s the gig?” had a hidden address that no one could access. The host left clues on their Instagram story. You either had to have a friend who knew the band already or be the Bruneian Sherlock Holmes.
While the indie scene in Brunei do like Surfvampires’ music, it was hard to create a culture around it. Most people who show up to their gigs are Surfvampires’ friends and “these art kids from some art school in Brunei.” They do have Bruneian fans but it seems they have not grown since the band started. “The mentality of Bruneians is they don’t really spread it around,” said Adrian. “They don’t talk about us on their blogs or anything. They perceive our band as just another garage band. They don’t really care what we are playing; it’s kind of sad.”
While my project to turn Daniel’s Jamming Space into a protected historic landmark is rather nonexistent, Surfvampires has learned some of the nooks and crannies of the Brunei music scene and they have a new home. That new home is the other dream pop and shoegaze bands in Brunei. There’s really only three shoegazing bands in Brunei right now - Surfvampires, Tropical Hornbills and Mirror Trash who used to go by Bipolaroidz. They might even be the first shoegaze bands in Brunei history. They all practice, hang out and play live shows in one place. Since that place is always filled with lush noises and singing guitars; the place came to be known as the Noisecabin. The three bands today are all very good friends because they know the struggles of making shoegazing dream pop music in Brunei. They know the other bands in the indie scene too, but they aren’t as close to them.
A lack of recognition within the country has made Surfvampires rely on indie scenes outside of Brunei. This helps them keep their excitement for the band. “It's really touching to see how no one in Brunei listens to our music or buys our merchandise but people in Toronto, Great Britain and Brooklyn are like buying our albums and everything.” With different countries opening their arms to Surfvampires, their alienation increases.
They have been able to feel support from all around East Asia too. “When we released our first EP Lush,” Adrian recalled. “It was like after 3 weeks and this Japanese blog picked it up and I was like what the hell! Dude, these Japanese kids are talking about it while people in Brunei don't really care about what we are doing. That’s the start of when I think Surfvampires could really go somewhere but we couldn't really rely on the local scene.” Nowadays, Adrian thinks they share a lot of things in common with the other Southeast Asian bands in the scene. The majority of Asians aren’t willing to give shoegaze a chance because they don’t think shoegaze represents Asian culture. Since every band is experiencing this push away, this experience transcends any language barrier.
The Details Others Miss
However, make no mistake, Surfvampires fully embraces being from Brunei. They just find their Bruneian colors in details that a lot of their generation thinks are small things and overlook. These details make Surfvampires different and who they are, I mean, to spot a Pontianak must mean a careful attention to one’s surrounding. To romanticize one does imply a little crazy; but also the unique beautiful insight the band has to their environment. Yes, with their raspy voices and jangling noise walls, Surfvampires’ music shares a lot of the same dream like traits shoegaze fans are accustomed too. “I don’t know, we add Asian flavor?” Adrian laughed. “But it's really subtle, we don’t say hey this is an Asian version. We meld in a way that fits where we come from. We’re more or less the same. We’re just Asian.”
Dream pop was always the genre for Surfvampires; it fits Brunei. Through treasuring parts of Brunei that are not normally loved, they realize that Brunei’s culture is full of juxtapositions and they embrace it. “Yeah it's a really weird decision [playing dream pop] but I think it's the right decision,” said Adrian. “We come from a very small town and very quiet place but we’re playing all these crazy sounds in front of ten people. It creates some psychological effect. People think we are quiet and reserved people; we don’t want to say things here and there. Then suddenly like this wave, this wall of noise is coming at you.”
Many cultures have different identities that coexist with one another, but in Brunei the popular music scene is very exclusive. “Dance and electronic music is very popular. I remember one time driving back from the jamming studio around 3am and they were blasting techno music and I was like, ‘What the heck! Who listens to the radio at 3 am?’ I don’t mean to be mean to techno music or anything. It’s just the people in Brunei who listen to it are obnoxious. They think they are better than you.” They have an idea of what Brunei is and if you do not abide by it; the scene tries to exclude you.
Adrian believe this message is conveyed in their music video for No Replies. He explained that while chilling on the beach is very rewarding, Bruneians don’t always appreciate it. “These guys are weird man, they don’t want to got the beach.” Adrian said. “They don’t want to see the ‘boring’ aspects of Brunei.They just want clubs here and there.They want the booming music.”
Adrian - The Transcendentalist
Digging deeper, Adrian’s idea of Brunei is even different from all of the other band members. As the only member who did not come from the city district, Adrian draws a lot of his writing influences from nature. He grew up next to a forest and his family did not own many of the common electronic accessories. The ones they did have were “broken and they just collected dust.” Since he hated staying inside, when his mom wanted to collect wood he would join her all the time. He just grew up learning to appreciate nature.
Nowadays, Adrian still likes to go on nature walks alone. There’s a trail path that he really likes to walk whenever he gets writer’s block; it helps him clear his mind. There’s also a river where he likes to go fishing. “I have a favourite path. It’s usually that gravel road with tall trees here and there. That kind of path” We asked if he liked taking a beer along his adventures and he could not resist showing his excitement. “That’s the best thing ever. It’s very therapeutic; it calms the mind for me”
Nature fuels Adrian’s creative brain. “I think it's just a personal thing for me,” said Adrian.“You look into an open field and there’s a horizon there and you feel like you are just going to go to horizon continuously and you’ll never stop. In comparison to looking at all these buildings and everything; you feel like there’s something stopping you there. It stops your vision. When it comes to places like the rural countryside it encourages my imagination to write more music. There’s a serene quality to it; it's like a drug.”
Adrian has a knack for translating things he interacts with into this sublime beauty. A lyricist he looks up to is a band called Hujan which means rain in Malay. He told us we’d really only understand if we could speak Malay but he made it clear that Hujan’s lyrics were emotional and beautiful. His other influences come from his daily life. “Some songs are personal, some of them are from books,” Adrian said. “I mix it up with personal stories and everything to make it like relatable.” Recently, Adrian has written a song that’s still a demo. Apparently, it’s based off one of Murakami’s books. He also told us that their song Helena from Lush is based of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Adrian is fascinated with contrasts and juxtapositions.His lyrics are only kind of melancholic when paired up with the music. As Surfvampires’ sing about heartbreaks; their voices seem to dance on their simple and sweet melodies. Their songs sound like an invitation to close your eyes and find inner peace but their lyrics try to break your heart. “I try to craft my lyrics in a way where i match up bittersweet melancholic lyrics to very happy music,” Adrian said. “Its something like what The Smiths do. We have a song about unrequited love. The mood is getting seriously fucked up because something happened with a girl but the instrumentation sounds like you are going to a beach.”
Surfvampires’ playful dance with contrasts will never stop. In fact, even though the band loves beaches; Adrian does not surf. “I don’t surf. What’s even more ironic is I’m scared of water I’m scared of oceans,” he laughed. There’s really not a better way to conclude the contrasts that fill Surfvampires. They embrace it fully and it seeps into their music. As they continue to discover who they are as a Bruneian indie band, their sound matures and grows.They rely on not fitting in with typical Brunei culture to feel supported, but they also rely on that Brunei culture to create their music.
Last Updated December 26, 2018