(Progressive Newsletter Nr.49 08/04)
excerpts from an interview with Iwan Hassan (Guitar)
I think I have too many influences. My musical life has been extremely diverse. I started at 5 playing classical piano, then classical guitar at 10, then I studied the cello. Meanwhile I taught myself playing blues based rock guitar. Carlos Santana was an early influence besides Johnny Winter and Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers. Then I discovered Emerson Lake and Palmer and was completely blown away! I played in rock bands, played cello in a student orchestra, played in vocal groups and did some arranging for choirs, played jazz, wrote music for musicals in my high school, sang in church choirs, etc. Then I studied classical guitar, contemporary classical composition and jazz improvisation in Willamette University in the USA. I played in the jazz big band, played in a small jazz combo with piano, upright bass and trumpet, did chamber music and of course played classical recitals. During University I was completely shut off from anything rock. I was completely into classical, "old school" jazz, and contemporary / modern / avant garde classical. My classical guitar professor, John Doan, was also pioneering the harp guitar and he is a recording artist and has solo harp guitar CD's. I think a few years ago one of them became a huge seller in the new age category. So I learned the harp guitar from him. So in terms of influences, I guess I have a lot. I am equally influenced by guitarists, composers, keyboardists, singers, and other instrumentalists and I still do play piano and keyboards until today besides guitar. Just to name some influences: Steve Morse, Claude Debussy, Chick Corea, Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Walsh - more for his keyboard soloing - , Bela Bartok, Carlos Santana, Steve Howe, John McLaughlin, John Coltrane, Jim Hall, Bill Evans, Frank Gambale, Allan Holdsworth, Rik Emmett, Mark Farner, John Doan, The New York Voices, Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Jarrett, The Manhattan Transfer, ethnic music, Dream Theater... it might seem that there's no logic to the combination of them, but those are influences.
How did you came up with this extreme and surprising mix of styles, ranging from traditional folk music, jazz, prog, classical music to metal parts, combining influences that usually no one would think that they would work together?
Just look at my list of influences above. But the main thing is, I like them all. That's really the very basic reason. I can really enjoy listening to a great performance of Olivier Messiaen's music, then I can listen to Avril Lavigne and enjoy that too. I can enjoy Dream Theater then Grand Funk Railroad then Chick Corea then J.S. Bach then Mariah Carey. Well, I'm not saying I enjoy every piece of music that's been written on the planet, but in all different styles there are stuff I like and stuff I don't like. There are great artists and pieces of music in every style. The fact that I like them all makes me wonder why there are these division among different types of music. And it is difficult for me to accept that in order to market yourself as a composer and musician you have to sort of "categorize" yourself. Are you an avant garde / contemporary classical composer or a pop songwriter? It seems you have to choose but I always think you can be both. Likewise why do jazz guys hate rock, rock guys hate jazz, classical guys look down to everything except classical, and now, even modern metal guys think old school hard rock is not "cool" enough. Why all that nonsense? I can't accept those borders. I just "feel" that the different styles can work together. I think all music just comes down to one basic element: SOUND. It's all sound. Sounds that create or express emotions or feelings or other needs such as rituals, but even rituals boils down to emotions and feelings. Once you look at it that way, then all the barriers go down. So the ultimate answer is simply I don't look at all these styles as being so different. I just see them as different consequences of their respective history and evolution. Because I enjoy all of these different types of music, it then becomes a challenge for me to make it all work together.
How do you keep the right musical balance, because every memeber of Discus has another musical background?
In the pieces that I wrote completely myself such as "System Manipulation" and "Music for 5 Players", They play everything I wrote. In "System Manipulation' I wrote everything except the improvised solos and the drums. I wrote everything else note for note. That is also true on "Fantasia Gamelantronique" and "Condissonance" from our 1st album. But in writing those pieces, I always keep in mind what their strengths are. I know the strengths of Anto, Eko, Fadhil, Krisna, Kiki, Hayunaji and Nonnie. So I try to expose their strengths. On other pieces, we write as a group. Usually the members bring in ideas which become part of a song. Then we jam on it. In jamming, someone might have an idea that's completely different from someone else's idea. But sometimes I see a way of combining them but we have to create something to connect them. Then we jam again and find something and when it sounds good to us, we keep it. Because Discus has members with different backgrounds it is difficult sometimes. When we first started we cannot jam! Anto is completely classical and jazz and Kiki is completely rock, Nonnie is R&B and pop, Fadhil is metal and neo progressive, Krisna is Top 40 and progressive rock, Eko is avant garde and country style fiddle, and I'm sort of in the middle trying to connect all of them. Hayunaji is kind of all-round because he had played with old jazz guys as well as Hawaiian music as well as Hip Metal as well as Top 40 pop. Usually jazz musicians jam together and it's easy. Blues musicians jam and it's easy. But in Discus it's not so easy because each member speaks a different musical language.
"Anne" on the current album, for example was inspired by Anne Frank. Which other inspirations and ideas are hiding behind the songs on the album?
"System Manipulation" is about people who use religion in the wrong way, or use religion to justify what they do to satisfy their own needs and benefits at the expense of others. It can be a politician, government people, even people around us we know, in the workplace, it can be anybody. A lot of people are gaining respect from society because they are known as religious people (especially here in Indonesia), but their actions are really terrible and cause other to suffer either directly or indirectly. But because they are known to their society as "religious" they get credibility. This can become severe if the person is a politician, but not only politicians do that. They either get credibility because they are known as "religious" or they take parts of the teachings of their religion that suits their needs and use that to justify (sometimes publicly) what they do and they can influence people that way. "Breathe" was written by Kiki and Anto. Kiki wrote the theme, lyrics and the song and Anto wrote the complicated instrumental sections. The song is about someone who imagines if he can survive without breathing. "Verso: Kartini (door duisternis tot licht)", the theme is written by Fadhil. It is about R.A. Kartini, a woman who is the Indonesian "feminist" hero. Not feminist in the modern sense because she lived in the 19th century. But she was a Javanese princess and she had the idea that women should have equal rights as men. And she is regarded as a national hero. She hated tradition especially those which implied that women had inferior status than men. "P.E.S.A.N." is a simple song about missing a friend. "Music for 5 Players" is basically me doing my contemporary classical composition within Discus. There is no literal idea or theme behind that one. It is an abstraction.
Were do you see the differences between your debut and "...tot licht", has Discus also developed more its own musical identity?
I think so. When we did "1st" we didn't really know what band we wanted to be. That's why there are some pop songs, some jazz, some progressive, some ambient, because that's just what we are, a combination of all of those. We didn't know what market we were in so we just wrote it and recorded it. And we didn't really think in terms of identities. We just wanted to be able to release our recording. Now that we know we are a progressive band, we try to package our album as a progressive album. So we still use the same influences but we compose in a different way. We now mix all those influences to form a progressive structure. Before, if we had a jazzy-pop idea we just did the whole song that way.
How did you recognize that there are people and a small scene out there, that might be interested in your music?
Actually we didn't! We just wanted to play and make our music, but we didn't know where to go. We didn't even know what kind of band we were when we started. But then Mellow Records of Italy was interested in our demo and they agreed to release our 1st album. Then we realized that the only market that would accept us was the progressive market. So then we started to conciously realize we are a progressive band. Then we got invited to ProgDay and Baja Prog and that established us as a progressive band.
You said, that at the beginning you weren't quite sure what kind of band you are. Are you now a little bit surer or do you keep this decisicon still open to the listener?
I guess the time where we weren't quite sure was when we started, the time when we were writing the 1st album. Now we are sure that Discis is a progressive band. The media has proclaimed us to be a progressive band. And a major national news magazine in Indonesia has declared Discus as the pioneer of progressive music in Indonesia. The local MTV-Trax Magazine has named us one of "25 most important / influental musicians in Indonesian music history" along with some very legendary figures. Because before Discus, nobody was playing progressive music. After Discus, a lot of new progressive bands started and some recorded and released albums. That does not mean that we can sell a lot of records in Indonesia as much as a pop artist could. It is still difficult to sell this music to the general public. But we have been "labeled" as the pioneer of Indonesian progressive rock. Even though the perception is that in Indonesia nobody played progressive music before Discus, that is not entirely true. In the 70's there were some progressive projects. Most significant was a project called "Guruh Gipsy" which was an album that combined ELP-style progressive rock with Balinese gamelan. They really used a whole gamelan orchestra. Then there were other rock projects that were progressive. One major rock band in the 70's, God Bless made an album that was progressive rock, but nobody called thema progressive rock band then. That album, entitled "Cermin", leans heavily toward the style of Kansas (without the violin). Our producer, Andy, was the drummer and songwriter of the semi-progressive rock band Makara which was famous in the early 1980's. And there has been other projects from time to time that were bordering between rock and progressive rock. But then since the mid 80s progressive in Indonesia was out of the picture and suddenly there was Discus and we were the only one which had an international market. We were the only Indonesian band to have been invited to the US and Mexico by Americans and Mexicans, respectively. There is a major pop band who were invited to the US but they were invited by the Indonesian students there because there were a huge community of Indonesian students in the US. Another went to Japan but also was invited by the Indonesians in Japan. But we were invited by Americans so we had an international market, and "going international" is kind of a big issue here. So I guess the fact that Discus was released by a European label and invited to perform internationally is what really drew the attention of the media here, which made us nominated in award polls, etc etc. Then, after Discus, came a new generation of Indonesian progressive rock bands. The media then saw them as being "followers" of Discus, even though I'm not sure that this 100% true. Maybe it's just that with the internet more Indonesians are aware of the progressive underground so young musicians form progressive bands. But the media thinks they were inspired by Discus. And Andy is now resurrecting Makara and they plan to make an album that is more progressive than what they did in the 80's. But then progressive is also a broad category. To people who are not progressive fans, progressive rock means Yes, Genesis, and ELP. For younger people, it means Dream Theater. But our music is quite different from all of them. So I guess it's still difficult. And within Discus, because we are open to many many influences from different styles, it's also hard to predict what the next album will sound like. So we are just a progressive band. Maybe we can't get anymore specific than that.
As I suppose no one involved with Discus can earn his living just from this band, what are the members of the band doing besides Discus?
Half are professional musicians. Anto teaches music and plays in orchestras, jazz big bands, and does sessions. He is one of the best clarinettists in Indonesia. He played as the soloist in Mozart concertos, etc. Eko plays sessions, has other musical projects, plays the violin for a famous local theater production. Krisna has another recording band, plays top 40 music in clubs, is a member of a world music band led by the famous drummer Gilang Ramadhan, and also teaches. Nonnie sings at hotels and restaurants. Hayunaji, the drummer, leads a double life. He is both a banker and a professional musician! He works at a major bank, but he also plays on many popular artists' recordings and albums. And he is the drummer of Melly Goeslaw, one of Indonesia's most famous female recording artists, both in recordings and tours / concerts. He used to have a hip metal band too, and used to play with the old jazz greats and plays Hawaiian music with some other old musicians. How he manages all that I have completely no idea, but he does! Kiki is working in the legal department of a big multinational company and owns his own law firm. But he also owns a small independent record label. Fadhil is a small business entrepreneur. I am working in my family business, but I also do various things in music, although usually not commercial music. I do experimental music, avant garde music, etc. I also used to perform classical recitals but not anymore. Sometimes I also do arranging work on pop albums. And I have conducted orchestras too but not regularly.
Like you've mentioned before, you also played on prestigious festival like Progday in the USA and Baja Prog in Mexico and additional concerts in the USA. What did you expect from this trips before and how was the reaction of the audience concerning your music?
The reaction was great! Actually that was what saved us! We formed in 1996, released our album in 1999, and had only played 2 gigs during that time because it was so difficult to find a gig! We just didn't fit! After we released the album we only played 2 gigs before we went to ProgDay! So our 5th gig in since we formed was at Menlo Park, California, at the Expose Concert Series by the US progressive magazine Expose, and two days later we played at ProgDay which was our 7th gig! Luckily we are all active musicians in other projects so we are all used to live performing, so playing such few gigs didn't make it difficult for us to perform with Discus. In all the gigs we played in Indonesia before we went to the US, the reaction was not that good. All of them were jazz gigs and the jazz audience did not really like our music. So the first time we had an audience that really liked our music was in ther US! After we went to the US, things began to change. We created quite big news by having played in the US. Suddenly we were offered more gigs locally and the audience really came to see us. Local music magazines wrote about us, and occasionally even national news magazines. Then we were even nominated for a national music Award for the "independent artist" category, which ultimately we didn't win, but I performed on the ceremony playing my harp guitar and the whole band was invited as nominees and that was covered on national television. Some local rock radio stations would play our music, and around that time the Indonesia Progressive Society started to form. And then came new progressive bands who wrote original music.
Talking about the Indonesia Progressive Society, can you tell a little bit more about their acitivies and maybe other bands worth checking out?
Yes. There is the Indonesia Progressive Society (IPS). That society did not exist when Discus formed. It didn't even exist when we released our 1st album. So it was very difficult that time. Now progressive has gained momentum here. The President, Andy Julias, is our producer. He produced "...tot licht!", and this explains why the production is so much better compared to our 1st. He is a professional producer and a progressive musician himself and has been in the music industry much longer than we have been. The IPS organizes local prog festivals and many new talents come to the surface. They now have produced 3 new progressive bands. Two of them, In Memoriam and Purgatory (the latter prog metal) are already released. Another one coming up soon is Imanissimo. And two other bands are planning to start recording. You can contact Andy at email@example.com for more information. Andy managed to form a joint label between the IPS and Sony Music Indonesia, called PRS, which is solely dedicated to Indonesian progressive rock. Andy has been in the industry a long time so he has the connections. That's really amazing that Andy can do that, because in order to do it, Sony Music Indonesia had to have international approval from their Hong Kong office. So hats off to Andy. Now Andy has demos from many new progressive bands. They keep sending him demos.
Can you tell a little bit more about the general music scene in Indonesia and how hard it is for you to get some attention over there?
It is hard but we have been lucky, as I have described above. But it is still hard to find gigs although it is easier now then in 1999. And although we have gained some attention from the national media, it is still difficult to sell our music. I think people see us more as a "news item" more than anything, more like they know some businessmen, politicians, educators, etc, and not celebrities or superstars. And although we are sometimes covered by major national media - news mags and national newspapers - it's never front page headline news such as the major political issues or major sports news so a lot of people don't read it. But it's till a lot better than it was 4 years ago. Most professional musicians and artists know us, the media know us, record company executives know us - even though they don't want to release us - so it's quite good. Still, it's difficult to sell our albums here because not a lot of people want to listen to progressive music, and those who do often are more attracted to either prog metal like Dream Theater or symphonic prog like Yes. I guess we're quite lucky to be able to get this far. It was almost like something impossible when we started.
Kristian Selm © Progressive Newsletter 2004