The Indonesian Underground: From Its Political Roots to the Present Day

Indonesian Rock

The story of Indonesian underground music is the story of a political revolution—one that overthrew a decades-long dictatorship and ushered in a more democratic era. It’s the story of how university students became one of the country’s most formidable activist blocs. And it’s the story of bootleg cassette tapes.

In fact, even before the protests and the riots, there were the cassette tapes. As early as the 1970s, record labels began to distribute bootleg copies of foreign albums that were otherwise inaccessible to Indonesians, copied to tape and distributed in mall record stores and warung kaset, cassette stalls. This practice was not illegal—copyright laws at the time only covered Indonesian musicians—and the cassettes created a thriving economy.

The influx of rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple led to a hunger for more niche genres: prog-rock like King Crimson and Yes, and metal like Napalm Death, whose album Harmony Corruption quickly became one of the country’s most widely distributed bootlegs. These imports gave birth to several bands who imitated Western templates and sang in English, and metal quickly became the beating heart of Indonesia’s underground music scene. Indonesian metalheads pulled apart the component pieces of their global influences and reformed them into a kaleidoscope of sound that lent a fresh perspective to explicitly Indonesian social and political issues: the lyrics, tellingly, were often sung in colloquial Indonesian.

Metal was also the perfect vehicle for expressing the country’s growing political discontent. In the 1990s, bands like Superman Is Dead, Burgerkill, Puppen, and Slowdeath gave voice to anti-government sentiments in a way that Indonesian popular music never had, and created a visible center for the growing countercultural youth movement.

Students in Indonesia have a long history of contributing to pivotal political protests; anthropologist and heavy metal scholar Jeremy Wallach notes that it was pressure from student activists that led Indonesian leaders to declare independence from the Netherlands in 1945, and accelerated the deposing of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1965. By the 1990s, the overlap of student activism and underground music culture could be seen in the rise of outspoken metal bands, fueled by discontent with the authoritarian New Order government led by President Suharto—who was in his third decade in office. In May of 1998, after years of simmering anger about food shortages, unemployment, and the harsh suppression of dissenters, the president’s corruption finally boiled over. Students and protestors took to the streets; the resulting riots would last for weeks.

It isn’t accurate to say that these protests were caused by underground music, but it’s difficult to discount its influence. The culture of bootleg cassette swapping took on a life of its own—particularly at Indonesia’s universities, where students were also photocopying and circulating imported zines like Profane Existence; the fanzine Kontaminasi Propaganda began as a way to translate and republish articles from Profane Existence for Indonesian audiences. Ika Vantianti, an Indonesian zinester, describes the zines of the 1990s (notably Submissive Riot, which Bandung-based Riotic Records began producing 1996) as black and white, hand-stapled Xeroxed booklets that ran articles about music alongside political essays and anarchist ideology, circulated by punk bands at local concerts. In his article “Punk and the city: A history of punk in Bandung,” Frans Prasetyo details the overlap of Indonesian punk and anarchist politics in the 1990s, which can be seen most clearly in the rise of the FAF—Front Anti-Fasis—an anti-facist collective of punk musicians and activists.

Very few full scans of the zines circulated during that era exist, though 90s Choice #6 (1998), a Malaysian feminist punk zine, can be read here. The exchange of sounds and ideas between Indonesia’s youth and the surrounding world created a sense of unity, galvanizing the student protest movement.

Ache
Ache

Over 20 years later, Indonesian music is still characterized by this rich exchange. There are distinct regional trends: noise and experimental music in Yogyakarta, emo in Malang, and all manner of metal in Bandung. However, the assimilation and integration of far-flung influences makes it impossible to strictly define the sound of any one area. Remarkably, cassettes are still an essential component of the musical ecology. They’re cheap, easy to make, and for DIY record labels, they provide an accessible vehicle to fuel the spread of Indonesian music. While political metal and punk continue to flourish, there’s an increasing number of indie rock and pop-punk bands that tackle more universal themes with a distinctly Indonesian sound and attitude.

The best way to get a clear picture of this is to zoom in. These four DIY labels based in and around Jakarta are a snapshot of the way that the bands with global influences and local inspiration continue to proliferate in Indonesia’s flourishing underground music scenes.

Rizkan Records

When Rizkan Al Maududy founded Rizkan Records in 2015, he was not new to running his own label: for several years, he operated StoneAge Records, which was focused on punk and hardcore. Bands released through StoneAge maintained politically and socially conscious lyrics that characterized early waves of Indonesian punk and hardcore. Rizkan says, “Hellowar, Kontrasosial, Peace Or Annihilation, and other hardcore punk bands still continue to write anarcho/political-based lyrics.” However, a 2014 Lemuria show in Jakarta sparked Rizkan’s enthusiasm for pop-punk. Hardcore and metal had an established fanbase in Indonesia, but local bands like Saturday Night Karaoke, The Spikeweed, The Frankenstone, and Billy the Kilts were all playing styles of pop-punk that didn’t command the same kind of respect. Rizkan Records is not a label in the sense that they “sign” bands; Rizkan’s primary goal is to put out as many cassettes as possible for any pop-punk bands who share their DIY ethos, providing merch for bands to sell and helping to expand their reach.

Various Artists
Live at Lithe

The very first release from Rizkan Records, however, was not local pop-punk. Live at Lithe is a perfect example of the kind of international exchange that has always invigorated Indonesia’s music scene: the tape is a compilation of Singaporean bands designed to raise money for an independent music venue/rehearsal space called Lithe House. The seven bands on the tape range from metalcore to shoegaze to emo. The final song is, fittingly, from the screamo band Yumi: Anvea, the band’s guitarist, started Lithe House herself after seeing a need for DIY bands in Singapore to have somewhere to rehearse and perform.

Saturday Night Karaoke
Discography

Saturday Night Karaoke

You can’t talk about pop-punk in Indonesia without talking about Saturday Night Karaoke. This release compiles the band’s early and out-of-print releases, documenting their early years. Saturday Night Karaoke came together in the early 2000s over a shared love of snotty, speedy pop-punk like the Descendents and The Ergs! (both of whom the band cover on this retrospective). Songs like “Took 18 Minutes to Write This One” and “Fresh Man Year Sucks” showcase the band’s humor as well as their ability to write top-tier hooky singalongs, creating infectious pop-punk that stacks up against their heroes.

Various Artists
It’s Alive #2

It’s Alive #2 is a collaboration with Real Ghost Records, the U.K. label home to melodic hardcore/pop-punk bands like All Better and New Junk City. The name-your-own price digital release was designed to create connections and further the musical conversation between Indonesia and the U.K., and the album has a remarkably cohesive sound. The split is not divided by label: the bands are mixed together, as if discouraging comparison in favor or creating a shared space for like-minded bands, wherever they’re from.

Anoa Records

Anoa Records is another Jakarta label focused on indie rock, shoegaze, and pop-punk, but where Rizkan Records skews toward the kind of speedy, infectious skatepunk that U.S. listeners might associate with West Coast bands like NOFX and Blink-182, Anoa Records bands share a fuzzier, warmer sound. Sometime in 2012 or 2013, Peter Adrian Walandouw saw the music documentary Upside Down: The Creation Records Story and immediately called three friends: “I told the guys, ‘Let’s make a label!’ so here we are.”

Barefood
Sullen EP

The Barefood EP is a point of particular pride for Walandouw: it was the label’s first release from their first rostered band. The band take a breezy approach to noisy indie rock, which Walandouw describes as “Teenage Fanclub playing through J. Mascis’s amp.” Although most of the EP is tight, fuzzy pop-punk, the final song, “Droning” is a seven-and-a-half-minute burner, opening with a shoegaze-inflected groove that forecasts the band’s inclusion of even more shoegaze elements on their debut full-length, Milkbox.

Zzuf
Alright

Alright is pure power pop that recalls pre-Pinkerton Weezer: the album careens through sub-two-minute fuzzed-out pop-punk anthems, every part of the song vying for catchiest hook. It’s breathless, consistently rewarding pop-punk that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The cover featuring bantamweight boxer Angky Angkotta feels apt: this is a little album that packs a punch.

When asked what his goals for the future are, Walandouw says, “Stay sane and survive no matter what.” Alright sounds like this manifesto translated into music, relentlessly optimistic and dedicated to forward momentum.

Various Artists
Holy Noise: Indonesian Shoegazer Compilation

Shoegaze is having a good year everywhere: hardcore and indie rock bands in America have been supplementing their sound with oceans of reverb and detuned riffs, and Taiwan’s thriving dreampop scene is stripping lo-fi fuzz and moving towards spacious shoegaze. However, Indonesia’s shoegaze scene is currently as active and diverse as anywhere on Earth. Holy Noise is packed with huge guitars and gorgeous, droning grooves, but the bands are more adventurous than mere My Bloody Valentine worship. Damascus’s garage-rock production complements the jittery post-punk attitude of their ‘gaze, Sharesprings and Poptart blanket their cheery indie rock in a woozy wall of riffs, and Intenna and Jelly Belly both shape ethereal vocal melodies into swooning ballads.

DOOMBRINGER Records

In early 2009, Anugrah Esa was struggling to find a label for his band, Zudas Krust. At the time, most of the labels in the area were only interested in releasing music from established bands. Inspired by Profane Existence (Minneapolis-based anarcho-punk collective) and Movement Records (long-running Indonesian punk/oi! label), he studied zines for tips on starting his own label. DOOMBRINGER specializes in crust, D-beat, and hardcore punk, but Esa says, “The connection between me and the band, and our friendship, is way more important than just having cool music.”

Jakarta has a diverse punk scene, with pockets of fans centered around a specific genre. “From the crust punk scene to the old-school hardcore scene, to the punk rock scene to the oi! punk scene, they are really active and attracting audiences at their own shows,” says Esa. Despite the proliferation of genre-specific scenes, local shows are often huge undertakings featuring a wide range of sounds. Show bills frequently feature 10 to 20 bands, and turn into what Esa calls “neverending parties.” He says that the shared DIY mentality creates a sense of unity, even at mixed bill shows: “Basically, we are on the same underground route.”

Bulletproof/Zudas Krust/Psychotic Sufferance
Dystopian Nightmare: 3-Way Split

The label’s first release was a three-way split with Zudas Krust, fellow Jakarta crust punks Bulletproof, and Malaysian noise/grindcore band Psychotic Sufferance. Zudas Krust’s song “CUKUP ADALAH CUKUP” (“Enough Is Enough”) exemplifies the political frustrations that still inform Indonesia’s hardcore scene: “Enough is enough / Slavery campaign / Five more years of destruction / Enough is enough.” It’s an exhilarating and punishing 18 tracks that exemplifies both the diversity of Jakarta’s scene and the unity with bands on the same underground route in other countries.

The Bristles/Firstblood
Split Tape

DOOMBRINGER’s most recent cassette release demonstrates how committed the label remains to making connections between Indonesian bands and international punk music. The Bristles are a Swedish punk band that had a brief, fiery existence from 1982-1985. They reunited in 2008, and have been raising hell for over a decade now. Firstblood, one of Jakarta’s preeminent D-beat bands, straddle the line between muscular punk and harsh noise, and songs like “Religion Brainwash” and “Politik Agama” (“The Politics of Religion”) take aim at the corrupt political influence of religion masquerading as moral authority.

Part of what motivates Esa is his belief that Indonesian punk currently isn’t afforded the same respect as punk music from other countries: “You can’t compare Indonesian music to the more established punk scene in the countries like the U.S. or Europe or Japan, because [those places] have more resources,” he says. “Just because we can’t afford to play in the U.S. or Europe or Japan doesn’t mean we are not good enough, and just because we lack good equipment and our sound is primitive compared to the established one, doesn’t mean we are not good enough.” For Esa, each release has been equally exciting for him because they all have their own stories: each one represents a huge amount of effort that is helping spread Indonesian sounds to new audiences, and he’s proud of his contribution.

Roaches Records

Roaches Records is based in Tangerang, a city just to the west of Jakarta, but one with its own distinct musical scene. Even in a country with several pockets of underground groups, there’s a special scrappiness to the way Tangerang’s DIY bands are establishing their identity. Prohibitive costs prevent bands from booking the area’s dedicated concert venues, so bands in Tangerang have had to find other places to convert into impromptu venues, like recording studios and cafes.

Roaches Records was founded by Bayu Samudro and Gerry Lainil Fauzi from the band Dirty Ass. They began their label modeled after Rizkan Records—who Samudro calls “Our inspiration!”—to release cassettes of their friends’ music so that they would have something to sell at shows. Roaches Records only releases albums or splits that feature bands from Tangerang (which Bayu often refers to proudly as “our city”), choosing the solidarity of their local scene over a specific genre. Roaches Records releases range from power pop and twee to grunge and noise, but just like everywhere in Indonesia, there’s no shortage of punk and hardcore.

Pandemonium
S/T

The first Roaches Records cassette is also their heaviest release; Tangerang has its fair share of D-beat, but Pandemonium’s blackened thrash pushes the genre toward more extreme metal. “Agnostik Munafik” opens with a slow, doom-and-gloom riff that dissolves into chaos before bursting into galloping thrash. The longest song on the album, the final track, is a nod to Indonesia’s thriving noise scene. “Suara Dari Neraka,” which roughly translates to “the voice from hell,” is two minutes of harsh feedback that speaks to the band’s wide range of influences and the way heavy music in Tangerang blends a broad spectrum of sounds into something distinctly Indonesian, and more than that: something distinctly Tangerang.

Tabrak Lari
Satanis Takut Hantu

tabrak lari

There are obstacles for a label as homegrown as Roaches: Samudro references the difficulty of finding wider distribution for their releases and reaching audiences beyond Indonesia. One way they have found to spread the sounds of Indonesia abroad is trading releases with other DIY labels: Ink Records from the Netherlands and Waterslide Records from Japan. Just like in the ‘90s, Indonesia’s international music exchange is still happening via cassette, made by small labels doing it themselves and swapped via distros all over the world.

Tabrak Lari is the kind of band that Roaches Records exists to highlight: a small, local band churning out high-powered tunes exactly like the bigger market bands. The punk outfit blend frantic D-beat hardcore with surly riffs that feel at times inspired by Motörhead, and at others, Integrity, while songs like “Tebak-Tebakan Garing” capture the snotty spirit of the Descendents. Nothing on the album breaks the two-minute mark; every frantic second is a joy.

-Keegan Bradford

2 Comments

  1. Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Great Indonesian Punk Rock Movement

  2. Posted August 22, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Check also Voice of Baceprot

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