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“We don’t need fairytales, we’d do it our way”: The story of Santamonica in their own words

Meet the whimsical duo from Jakarta who took a ten-year step back from the scene only to return with even more flair than before

  • Words: Amira Waworuntu | Images: Santamonica
  • 14 March 2023

Jakarta-based Santamonica is an electro-pop duo that has been on hiatus for a decade. For many, a break that long would equal career suicide. Nevertheless, their comeback showcase in late December last year proved otherwise. The duo was greeted by a packed, sold-out show of fans and friends at Ding Dong Disko who have long awaited their return.

First bursting into the scene in 2003, Joseph “Iyub” Saryuf and Anindita "Dita" Saryuf have delighted their listeners with their whimsical arrangements. Their breakthrough 2007 album ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ has been a fan favourite since its release, solidifying their expertise in boldly experimenting with the idea of crossover sounds. It’s an eclectic mixture of electro-pop, modern jazz with a touch of dream-like, floaty elements that’s received many positive reviews in local and international music magazines and online media. Japan and South Korea fell in love with Santamonica’s avant-garde musicality so much that they appointed the duo to release a special version of the album with five additional songs.

The prefix of this article's headline are lyrics from the duo's most-played track to date, 'Ribbons and Tie', which, in my opinion, perfectly encapsulates Santamonica. Dita's calming, melodic vocals along with the fairytalelike lines of the song are brought together by Iyub's fantastical composition of mellifluous synths and light percussions. It's a euphoric, rhythmical track suitable for nights out with friends or for solo dancing in front of a mirror in the comfort of your own room.

The immense success of their first LP was demanding to say the least — the duo felt the need to prove they can follow up with an even better release. Turns out time was exactly what they needed and now they return with the single ‘Aquarius’ that gives us a sneak peek into their highly-anticipated sophomore album, released by Sinjitos Collective that Iyub himself runs.

In 2021, Jakarta-based collective-slash-club-night, Gentle Tuesday, paid homage to yet another one of Santamonica's songs, 'Sought and Found', with a mesmerising remix that's now become a staple, fan-favourite track at their events. The rework has now echoed across many dancefloors, re-introducing Santamonica to a whole new generation of electronic music lovers.

Curiosity obviously didn’t kill the cat as the duo continue on their journey to provide listeners with their kaleidoscopic, experimental repertoire and lyrical storytelling.

I had the exclusive opportunity to chat with Iyub and Dita amid their photo shoot session to pick their brains on how Santamonica came to be in terms of style and sound — two artistic elements that lie at the core of their being as artists. Plus, of course, the story behind their coming together as a duo…and much more.

First of all, congratulations on your comeback, Santamonica! But, honestly, I have to ask; why the ten-year hiatus?

Dita: At the time, after our 2007 release, we actually have a lot of songs in our catalogue for our second album, but the problem is, ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ was a difficult album to make. It took us two years — within those two years was a transformation and sort of crossover from our more bossanova-sounding ‘189 EP’ to ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’; we went through a lot of transitions. So, as we were going to release our second album, we thought to ourselves “can we beat the hype of ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’?” — that was our mental burden, so to speak.

Secondly, Iyub and I were both busied by our careers. Me as a Fashion Director at a magazine really took up all my time. When recording ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’, I wasn’t working yet. At them time, I was focusing on my career and Iyub was developing his record label business, Sinjitos Collective, which also have targets to fulfil. Actually, it was thanks to the downtime we had during lockdown that we remembered “Hey, we still got material in our song bank!” The pandemic wasn’t ideal to do a release, so we decided to wait until things were back to normal, so here we are in 2023!

Iyub: Yeah, Dita’s right about the “mental burden”. Even until this morning I was remastering our tracks!

Dita: That’s also an issue; Santamonica are perfectionists!

Iyub: Maybe it’s an age thing as well, for me. Sometimes my hearing’s a bit off. I’d re-listen to a song after a few days and be, like, “How come this sounds different?”

What’s the story behind the name “Santamonica”?

Iyub: Honestly, there’s not much to tell about this. Me, personally, I’ve been making songs since high school. And the name Santamonica just popped in my head — it makes for a cool band name. That’s it! It just sounded right to me and encapsulates the music perfectly. At the time, all I was waiting for was the right vocalist…and Dita came along!

That was my next question! How did you meet and how was the musical connection made between the two of you?

Dita: We actually met in a chat room on mIRC! We met through our mutual friend, Christian Sugiono. From there we talked about music that we liked…

Iyub: Afterwards, when we moved on to talking on the phone, I instantly knew this was the “voice” I was looking for. I invited her to the studio and asked her to sing the vocals for a demo song I wrote.

Dita: I had never sang before! But, I do like to write. When the mic was placed in front of me, it’s as if the melody just organically popped up in my head. At that moment, I thought “Hey, I can write songs!” But to answer your question, the musical connection between us two was mostly based on our similar musical tastes. I also was amazed by his band named “Sugarstar”. Like, they sounded different from most bands in Indonesia at the time. I was a fan. So, basically, it all started out as both of us being fans of each other!

When was the moment you knew you had found your “signature sound” and can you describe it to our readers?

Dita: Definitely eclectic in the truest sense. We’re inspired by all kinds of music! I listen to bossanova, jazz, waltz, swing, techno, hip hop, and r&b. Iyub is the same. We both agree that genres are fluid and don’t need to be “put into its own box”. If they fuse well, they make a unique sound, and that’s what we strive to present to our listeners. So in a way, we’re experimental as well!

Iyub: The Indonesian word for it would be “ngulik” (roughly meaning “to diligently study or dive into something”).

Dita: Iyub’s hobby is to experiment with all sorts of instruments and vintage synths until he gets it just right. As a matter of fact, most of Iyub’s sonic inspiration comes from his dreams, right?

Iyub: I’m a very lucid dreamer.

Dita: Some translate their dreams into paintings, Iyub turns his into music. That’s why Santamonica’s songs are also very cinematic.

And Santamonica plans to continue going down this sonic path of the “eclectic, experimental, cinematic”?

Iyub: Most likely, yes, but we’re also definitely planning on exploring and experimenting with new elements.

Dita: For me, I see Iyub as someone who doesn’t dwell on the past. He always wants to move forward and loves to be challenged — what else is out there for us to explore?

Your music transcends generations and continents, with fanbases in Indonesia, Australia, the UK, Japan and Malaysia comprising all ages. When was the moment you know Santamonica had “made it” in terms of your music being accepted commercially?

Dita: For me, it’s always been about the people who listen to our music. A lot of them reach out to us and say “Your album ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ helped me during my tough, even depressive, times.” Some even say it helped them through their times of identity crisis. One of them also said that while they were having an episode because of their bipolarism, they turned to our album and found “the answers” to their problem. As an artist, to be able to inspire others and impact their lives in any way, that’s way more valuable than any financial achievement. At the end of the day, we want our art to be appreciated.

Iyub: I tend to reflect on myself when it comes to “success” instead of looking at how many people our songs have reached. The benchmark is myself. For me, it’s when I feel I’ve made a “creative masterpiece”; that’s a successful achievement. It mean’s I’ve “upgraded” the level of my creativeness. Whether others accept it or not, I leave that all up to them.

Any specific track or album that you feel is your ultimate masterpiece?

Iyub: ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’. That album is like a novel; there’s chaos in the middle and ends with something that’s very harmonious to bring about the notion of a happy ending. Basically listening to it is a journey of its own.

If you had to pick a favourite lyric, what would it be?

Iyub: “We don’t need fairytales, we’d do it our way” (from the song Ribbons and Tie).

Dita: Mine’s also from the same song but it’s “We’re running so fast in order to stay.” There’s so many ways to interpret it, but for me, it’s trying to say that in life change is inevitable and it makes you feel as if you’re constantly running in order to adapt. But why do you have to adapt? Well to survive, of course!

Iyub: What we’re trying to say is don’t be “mager” (an Indonesian abbreviation of the words “malas gerak”, meaning “too lazy to move or function”).

Iyub, how would you describe Dita as an artist?

Iyub: She really fills the creative voids in me. Here’s a simple example; previously I was writing a song for another artist and I just knew that Dita’s vocals was perfect to add onto it. She has her own quality and character that others don’t have. Like I said before; since the first time I heard her voice, I just knew! I found it!

Dita, how would you describe Iyub as an artist?

Dita: Where to start?! I’m a fan! He’s a genius; he’s great at creating genre crossovers but can also put aside his idealism for more commercial needs. Not all artists are able to do that! He’s also great at conceptualising something and scouting talents. Everything that he touches turns to musical gold but also has an elevated uniqueness that makes them stand out from others. I’m amazed at how willing he is to learn about anything and everything, not just music. Photography, directing, editing… I love seeing people with a vision towards the future. It’s so inspiring.

Both of you as Santamonica have a certain whimsical look that also hints at a bit of darkness. How important is the element of style towards how you portray yourself as a duo?

Dita: It’s always been about identity in the sense that I can still stay true to my identity from years ago even though there have been slight changes to my style. As an indie musician, the ability to shape our own identity and brand ourselves as we’d like is so much fun and one of the most genuine ways of doing that, for me, is through my style. It’s really not so different from how I dress daily! And same goes for Iyub; what we wear is a reflection of our identity.

When related to what we create as musicians, I always see that music and style go hand in hand. If you’re forced to portray yourself in a certain way that’s not “you”, it’ll affect the music you make. It makes you not genuine; it makes your music not genuine as well.

Iyub: Yeah, it’s all about identity. As a creative person, you have your own taste that only you can put a certain value on, not others. So your style is a reflection of your own personal taste and knowledge that’s shaped you as an individual.

Dita: There’s always going to be some level of transformation, but we always portray a look that make people say “Oh, that’s so Santamonica!” We get that reaction a lot, be it from our style or music; means that our branding strategy is a success, haha!

Read this next: All about the optics: reflections and recollections from visionary mavericks in Jakarta

What are your instruments of choice?

Iyub: The synthesizer, of course! There’s no limit to it! You can create anything from it. Recently I filled in a guitar sound for another band using my synth — they couldn’t tell the difference and even until now they don’t know that I didn’t use a real guitar. Unlimited exploration, that’s what synthesizers give me.

And your favourite model is…?

Iyub: The Korg MS-20! I love it to death!

Dita, what’s your instrument of choice?

The mic and my vocal cords! I don’t play musical instruments — when I’m on stage, I memorise which buttons and keys to push. The only instrument that I can call my own is my voice. Also, the type of mic that you use as a singer definitely helps elevate your craft. You need to find one that’s able to emphasise the character of your voice. I’m not someone with powerful vocals.

Tell us, what model do you use?

Dita: Shure Beta 58A or 57A… forgot which one, because I lost it!

Iyub: It’s true what she said about the right choice of microphone. Dita’s voice is quite “sharp” and can’t be captured by just any type of microphone. The Shure Beta 58A or 57A is the perfect fit for her since it captures low to mid frequencies better. I had to research on a bunch of mics and we went through a series of trial and errors til we found the right one.

Dita: The frequency of my voice is actually more like ASMR, hahaha!

Iyub: That’s true! And I needed a mic that’s able to capture that frequency!

I was lucky enough to attend your packed Wanderlust showcase last year in commemoration of your comeback; can you share with us some personal highlights of the event?

Iyub: For me, it brought back feelings of nostalgia. I was damn nervous before I went on stage, because, honestly, I was going through a phase where I didn’t want to perform at all. I was comfortable being behind the scenes. Everyone was telling me to drink and loosen up. At one point, it felt like I was forcing myself to get up on that stage… but once I did, all the memories of past times performing came flooding back and, damn, did it feel good!

Dita: It’s because Iyub is a natural performer! He always has been, since he was a kid, but that’s a story for another time, hahaha! I myself am more of a conceptualiser; I feel more comfortable and in my element when directing others.

Iyub: I’ve been performing since junior high; my band at the time covered songs from Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure…

Dita: I remember one time his band Sugarstar performed at a school festival and they covered Nine Inch Nails. It was back in ’99. There were no laptops, so they brought a PC on stage.

Iyub: We also played songs from Rammstein, but the finale song was Nine Inch Nails ‘Heresy’. So during that song, turns out the sound of the sequencer I was playing wasn’t coming out of the speakers…only my guitar and vocals. The others realised…and slowly started walking, leaving me alone on stage with the vocalist! What the hell!?

Dita: I think that was around the same time we started falling in love with the sound of techno and became ravers…

Iyub: I’m enamoured by techno…so much!

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How would you describe the sound of techno and why do you think you became so amazed by it?

Iyub: It’s just so different to me — bold, standalone…yet elegant.

If I may be so bold to say so, your sonic identity has always had an element of crossover to it, right?

Dita: We’ve never pinpointed the music we create to one specific genre.

Iyub: We’re very crossover, actually, because we incorporate a lot of different elements; jazz, bossa nova, pop, shoegaze and, of course, all sorts of electronic music. That’s why we describe ourselves as eclectic.

Dita: We also try to incorporate our music to the club scene. Iyub likes to make club edits for our songs to be danced along to. We name the remixes differently so it seems like different people are reworking the songs, when in fact its mostly just Iyub, hahaha! But the reason we do this is because, well…Iyub and I were total ravers back in the day. We also wrote a song from a while ago titled ‘Survivor of the Disco’.

Tell us about that!

Iyub: Yeah, so I have a group of “ex-raver” friends who really knew how to party, if you know what I mean. We’d always go to techno parties because we love them so much. Even now when most of us are married and have kids…we “survive” in terms of staying true to our love for techno. We even have a “leader” of some sorts — though he’s already divorced with a kid, he still makes time to party every single weekend.

Read this next: In pictures: Asia KolektifA marks the rise of collective-based festivals in Jakarta

Every record tells a story, what record tells yours?

Iyub: 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space' by Spiritualized. Oh, and My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless'.

Dita: I feel that there was a moment I was very influenced by Cocteau Twins and Elizabeth Fraser’s songwriting. Also how she uses her voice as her tool for singing but also as an instrument that fuses with all the other instruments in the band. Mine would have to be Cocteau Twins’ ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ album. But I also love Air’s ‘Talkie Walkie’. When I listened to that, I realised that my voice was quite similar, even though it was male vocals. But then I also found out that his vocals were modified to sound like that, whereas I didn’t need to alter my voice in any way. It gave me confidence in the sense that “my voice is unique” and made me feel “relatable” to it, in a way.

As with any dynamic entity, the electronic music scene is said to have evolved throughout the years. What’s your take on this as musicians who have endured the changing times?

Iyub: Honestly, for me, I’d say it hasn’t changed. However, when talking about the skill of the artists and musicians nowadays, they’ve totally levelled up. But when talking about the music itself, it hasn’t really changed in the sense that it’s always been consistent. And that’s a good thing!

Dita: The overall vibe of the scene hasn’t changed for me at all. Especially in the techno scene or circles; it feels like you’re among family…and has always been that way. Also, as a woman, I’ve always felt safe; never objectified or harassed in any way. Even when I come alone, it’s always welcoming. I love seeing how the many DJs, collectives and producers have upped their game and have spread their wings by going international. Most of them even without people here in Indonesia knowing about it! Like Jonathan Kusuma and Ecilo who have performed and released in many other countries; also Dita who’s performed at Boiler Room.

The only sad thing is that the media exposure here in Indonesia towards their achievements here is still quite minimal, when in fact most of our homegrown talents are already on the same level as international ones!

Another unfortunate thing is that there’s still a stigma surrounding “clubbing” or “partying”, which is seen in a negative light. Whereas in my opinion, it’s about networking and getting inspired by all the creativity and hard work that’s put into an event. Asia KolektifA, Dekadenz… it takes a lot of effort to make those sort of parties happen, and they all contribute to the development of the underground scene. Without an underground scene, we’d be dead as a metropolis — it adds to the city’s culture and inspires a whole new generation of creatives.

And finally; what can we expect from Santamonica in the near future? Hopefully not another ten-year hiatus!

Iyub: Our album! We plan on releasing two tracks at a time, with a total of eight to ten songs. All the songs have been prepped and are ready to roll out! Also, we’re planning to take over an art gallery for an exhibition of all things Santamonica, so stay tuned for that!

‘Aquarius’ by Santamonica is out now on all streaming platforms; check out the official music video below.

Amira Waworuntu is Mixmag Asia’s Managing Editor, follow her on Instagram.

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