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Screaming feed-batik: how Yogyakarta became a capital of noise music

A new documentary looks at the rise of noisemakers in the Indonesian city; Adam Wright reports ahead of a screening & live gig in Hong Kong

  • Adam Wright
  • 4 March 2024

Yogyakarta is the cultural and spiritual capital of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. It’s an important centre for classical Javanese fine arts and culture, and the gateway to some of the nation’s most revered Hindu and Buddhist sites.

But scratch beneath the surface, and look beyond the gamelan ensembles and batik craftsmen, and you’ll find some of the most extreme music in all of Indonesia: brutal heavy metal, ferocious hardcore punk and, more recently, a thriving noise music scene.

This noise scene has generated a tight-knit group of artists, a bunch of indie labels and several festivals including the annual Jogja Noise Bombing Fest. And now, after coverage by international outlets such as Vice and The Wire, several main figures in the scene are telling the story of Yogyakarta noise themselves in the documentary 'Noise is Serious Shit!'.

In the leadup to May’s Jogja Noise Bombing Festival 2024, the scene’s biggest annual event, the documentary is on a tour of more than 30 cities in Asia and Europe. Hong Kong live music promoters Rice will be hosting a screening at Bound Kowloon on March 17 at an event also featuring live performances by some of the documentary’s standout noise artists including Indra Menus and Detroak.

Menus is one of the main figures in the Jogja Noise Bombing collective, which produced the documentary along with musician and music archivist Hilman Fathoni. Like many Yogyakarta noise artists, Menus started out in the local hardcore punk scene in the 1990s, as a member of the band To Die, but gradually started moving in a more noisy direction and now works in noise genres such as drone and harsh noise.

“Yogyakarta is different mostly because it’s a student city, and many young people have come here from other cities and countries, which has really helped the scene,” Menus tells Mixmag Asia. “There’s also an art institute here which means the kids aren’t afraid to create something different with their music and be more experimental. This is why the Yogyakarta scene is also called a ‘laboratory of music’ where people can experiment with whatever ideas they have.”

“A noise rock band called Seek Six Sick from the Indonesian art institute in Jogja had a big influence on the next generation of noise acts. American bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana were also a great influence on local noise artists, and of course Japanoise had a big impact on us. Japan became very important, because we formed direct connections with some of those artists like Otomo Yoshihide, who brought some of us to play at his Asian Meeting Festival in Japan.”

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The Jogja Noise Bombing collective formed around 2009-10 from the rosters of local labels Ear Alert Records and Pati Rasa Records, including noise acts such as To Die, Sodadosa, Palasick, Bangkai Angsa, Control Z, Harts Hertz and Akbar. Menus says: “The labels wanted to put on gigs where they were allowed to play noise, but this was really hard because event organisers and studio owners thought we would destroy their amps and PA systems. So we decided to do something ourselves.

“Inspired by graffiti bombing, we came up with the idea of doing illegal gigs in the street by stealing public electricity and bringing our own small amps. We called this ‘noise bombing’. It basically involves playing impromptu sets in the street, just like how graffiti bombers do their work, until we are stopped by security guards or some local tough guys. This concept is part-Occupy, part punk and part of DIY synth culture.”

Menus says that in the past 15-odd years, the Yogyakarta scene has expanded to include a wide range of noise artists working in subgenres including noisecore, power electronics and industrial noise. And, of course, elements of traditional Javanese culture have also worked their way in: Raja Kirik bring in influences from the Jathilan, a Javanese trance dance, while a synth created by local DIY hardware maker Kenali Rangkai Pakai utilises some basic patterns of gamelan music.

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While Eurorack modular synths are commonly used by many global noise artists, Menus says the cost of this hardware is prohibitive in Indonesia, so most Yogyakarta noise artists use homemade synths created by local outfits including Kenali Rangkai Pakai, Waveform, Lifepatch and Tectonic Waves, routed through guitar pedals made by the likes of BOSS or boutique companies.

First staged in 2015, the Jogja Noise Bombing Festival has evolved into Yogyakarta’s biggest annual noise music event, with Menus saying the festival “is intended to introduce the wider public to experimental noise music, distortion, tools, noise performance and the existence of noise makers in Yogyakarta and Indonesia in general”. This year’s festival, being held from May 4-5, will present 30 acts from 11 countries, including Switzerland, South Africa, Malaysia, Japan and New Zealand, apart from Indonesia.

Several artists involved in Jogja Noise Bombing were featured in the 2014 Indonesian noise documentary titled 'Bising', and Menus says that due to the spread of the genre in the intervening years, he and Hilman started thinking about making a follow-up film that documented the scene from their own perspective.

The result is 'Noise is Serious Shit!', which apart from Menus also features Yogyakarta noise artists Ari Wulu (from SKM), Soni (Seek Six Sick), Krisna (Sodadosa) and Rully Shabara (Senyawa), along with appearances by local hardware makers Ucok (from Lifepatch) and Lintang (Kenali Rangkai Pakai).

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Menus has been encouraged by the reaction to the documentary so far, and he’s excited about the rest of the screening tour — including the Hong Kong gig where he’ll also be performing.

“We just want people to connect with us, to engage in networking, to do something together. It feels great when we are welcomed wherever we go. We also hope [the documentary] encourages a new generation of artists to carry the torch, and that more women start playing noise.”

'Noise is Serious Shit!' documentary screening and live performances by Indra Menus, Detroak and Black Neutron will take place on March 17, 2024, at Bound Kowloon, starting 7:30pm.

Adam Wright from Omni Agency is a contributor to Mixmag Asia; follow Omni on Instagram here.

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