“‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ was supposed to be a fun album.”
Kareem Soenharjo is telling NME the original plan. The Indonesian musician better known as BAP. is talking over Zoom on a hot Monday afternoon from a cramped café in South Jakarta, kretek cigarettes and ice coffee close at hand.
He’s talking about ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’, the debut album from his new four-piece band BAPAK., released August 12. A year in the making, it’s a marked departure from his previous work; gone is the low-fidelity hip-hop of his 2018 BAP. release ‘monkshood’. In its place: seven-minute fuzzed-out jams and resolutely experimental prog-psych rock.
It isn’t the sort of path that your average hip-hop producer takes, but Kareem isn’t your average hip-hop producer. In fact, ‘monkshood’ owed as much to progressive rock and jazz fusion as it did to L.A. beat scene stalwarts like Gaslamp Killer and rappers such as MF Doom. “My dad used to listen to a lot of King Crimson,” he says, an influence that runs through his work in both BAP. and BAPAK.
Kareem wanted to model ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ after Boris’ ‘Akuma no Uta’ and ‘Heavy Rocks’, two albums that redefined “heavy” in the 2000s. Impressively, BAPAK. manage it, especially on lead single ‘Jon Devoight’, which would slot in perfectly on any of the Japanese veterans’ noughties records. But there’s also a palpable emotional heaviness to ‘Miasma’, so much so that even its lead architect finds it a challenge to revisit: “I can’t listen to it all at once, you know,” he admits.
‘Miasma’ takes a similarly frantic sonic trajectory, characterised by uneven, almost non-linear pacing. ‘Pity Me’, a downbeat abstract instrumental, slots in between ‘Jon Devoight’ and ‘Dogma Milenial Provinsi Yggdrasil’, the album’s two hardest-rocking songs. ‘Miasma’ almost resets after the latter, taking an acoustic detour on ‘Hijrah’ before a slow multi-song build-up to a cathartic and unexpectedly optimistic end. On first listen, the album feels haphazardly put together, like it’s getting pulled in different directions, arranged back to front. Kareem aware of this: listeners, he says, have criticised the album’s pacing, calling it “hard to swallow”.
But that disjointedness is the whole point. Like many of us, Kareem has found 2020 quite challenging. Reflecting on the past eight months, he tells NME that “it’d be accurate to say that my mental wellbeing has been a roller coaster”, adding that “I tried to portray my journey as accurately and as honestly as I could on the album”. The bumpy sequencing is intentional; as Kareem accurately observes, “there are no smooth roads”, especially not in 2020.
“You might not like it to begin with, but I want it to grow on you. Because it’s personal”
With this sort of conceptual concern for sequencing, it comes as no surprise that Kareem holds the concept of the album in high regard. “I want albums to present a chronological story,” he says. “I love making albums that you have to listen to as a whole, where you can’t just cherry-pick individual songs.” He names Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ as a stellar example of the idealised album, singling out how it improves with repeated listens. And, like ‘Blonde’, ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ was intended as a grower. The pacing makes sense in retrospect, and every little apparent fault or discomforting moment starts falling into place after the first listen. It’s an album that rewards a few spins, something worth celebrating in an age of instant gratification.
“You might not like it to begin with, but I want it to grow on you,” Kareem says of the album. “Because it’s personal, you know? It’s not something stupid I made over lunch; I’ve thought about it for a whole year.”
That “whole year” is how long the foursome of Kareem, Bagas, Kevin Silalahi and Alfath A. Nugraha spent bouncing ideas off of each other during weekly three-hour-long practice sessions, writing material for ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’. But for Kareem, this is an itch that he’s had for a decade, going back to high school. “All I listened to back then was off-the-wall music, because I was surrounded by it at home,” he recalls.
But, with like-minded bandmates few and far between, he turned to production instead. Kareem eventually discovered Ableton, a discovery that he credits with saving his life: “If I hadn’t found Ableton or some other way to make music by myself, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”
Kareem first started releasing music as yosugi, with ’Messages’ off his 2016 EP ‘Friends I Don’t Have Many Of Them’ becoming something of a hit in Jakarta. But, while he enjoyed the popularity, it also led to a small existential crisis. “Is this what you want to be remembered for?” he remembers asking himself. “This stupid trap song about getting messages from your local telemarketer?”
The answer was an emphatic “no”. He realised that he wanted to make something more substantial. In his own words, something that “came from the heart, blood, and soul”.
Enter BAP. 2017’s ‘belladonna’ was a promising start, a transitional work between the trap stylings of yosugi and the murkier realms he would explore later. He truly hit his stride with ‘monkshood’ the year after, crafting one of 2018’s most intriguing Southeast Asian hip-hop albums. He started playing live, eventually recruiting Bagas (who plays in the punk band taRRkam) to drum during ‘monkshood’ live sets.
The rapport Kareem established with Bagas motivated him to scratch the decade-long itch to start a band; Alfath (aka Flowr Pit) and Kevin (a beatmaker who goes by whoosah) were recruited soon after to play guitar and bass, respectively. Both are old friends of his, their friendships founded on sharing and discussing music. Kareem describes the formation of BAPAK. as “a positive cascade of events”.
While Kareem acknowledges that he’s the “leader of sorts”, the album was written as a group, their collective belief in the music shining through. ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ sounds vital and urgent, even during its quietest moments, and that’s not something you get with a band of hired guns. It took them seven or eight jam sessions to write ‘Jon Devoight’, which opened the floodgates for the rest of the material.
BAPAK.’s roots may go back to BAP. and ‘monkshood’, but it’s impossible to deny that ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ is a significant departure from that beloved 2018 album. When asked if he ever worried about losing fans, Kareem is unequivocal: “Music should be unapologetic, and it should be honest.” He quickly adds that he doesn’t care what genre he’s working in. “As long as it’s honest and it’s what I was feeling at the time, I don’t care if it doesn’t live up to other people’s expectations.” After a short pause, he reminds NME that “I’m trying to help me through my music.” One gets the feeling that anything else, including other people’s reactions to his music, is secondary.
“I’m trying to help me through my music”
Kareem reveals that he was somewhat “dependent” on making the album, hoping that it would “resolve the problems in [his] head.” But that’s not been the case, and a hint of sadness crosses his face when he looks back on its creation. “What kind of pain were you in when you were making this?” he admits asking himself. “Was it really worth it?” His mixed feelings are plain to see, his ambivalence disarmingly honest.
Regardless of his uncertainties, he’s still proud of ‘Miasma’, telling NME that he thinks it’s the best thing he’s released so far. Despite or because of that, he’s not in any rush to follow it up with new music. “I’ve done what I can musically,” he says, believing that it’s time to take a step back from ‘Miasma’ and let it develop a life of its own, outside of his control.
So, if he’s satisfied musically, what’s in the immediate future for Kareem Soenharjo, then? “Trying my best to have a decent day, every day,” he admits, somewhat contentedly. “I’m blood and bones, the same as you, the same as everyone else. I’m just trying to be ok with that.”
BAPAK.’s ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ is out now