Ferns finally released new music in August, years late and still right on time. ‘Navalgazing’ is a comeback of sorts for the Malaysian indie pop act, an offering after almost a decade of idleness, served up with neither fanfare nor pretence. The world is upside down, but that’s exactly where the four-track EP finds footing.
We get a glimpse of what man is in search for: the futile desire to find fulfilment through travel therapy; a first daybreak of meaning in the long night out at sea. For most of us, there’s a coronavirus-sized pause button on cross-border travels. That’s what makes ‘Navalgaving’ especially poignant.
To listen to this record in our current reality – of deserted airports and cruise ships stranded at sea – is to contemplate the ways in which, pre-COVID, wanderlust was a beast we had to keep feeding. Although restrictions have eased in Malaysia and people are allowed to gather (albeit in small groups), it feels poignant, almost bizarre even, to be sat down via Zoom with two-fifths of Ferns, having a conversation about the faraway places that inspired ‘Navalgazing’.
Nevertheless, Warren Chan (vocalist, guitarist) and Adrian Yap (bassist) are at ease. Ferns have always approached art on their own terms, at their own leisure: “I don’t think, to begin with, that we take ourselves very seriously. We trust the process, and we’re not too concerned about what people might say or think about it. First and foremost, we have to be happy about what we put out, and I think we are,” Yap says. Chan adds, “We can only say we’ve done our best.” [Editor’s Note: Adrian Yap is a contributor to NME Asia.]
The band formed in 2004. Chan and Yap have been friends since they were in college in the mid-’90s, the former a fan of a metalcore band that the latter had played in, called Necromanicide. “I met Adrian maybe in ’97 or ’98. I didn’t know anything about anything, but eventually we started playing in bands together,” Warren recalls.
“We trust the process, and we’re not too concerned about what people might say or think about it” – Adrian Yap
One of these bands was the short-lived emo group This Body Broken. By the time Chan joined the ranks of This Body Broken as the backup guitarist, they all but disbanded overnight – and to hear Chan tell it, Ferns sprang forth: “I’d count the genesis of Ferns as coming from This Body Broken – when everybody, every single person left This Body Broken, that left me and a few other new guys to start the first version of Ferns.
“At the end of the This Body Broken experience, ’cos we were doing the guitar swinging, the synchronised jumping, the loud music, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough of that, I’m going to write pop music now. We’re paying for all that now in our 40s. Bad knees.”
At some point in their decades-long friendship, Chan, Yap, and Abigail De Vries (keyboardist, vocalist) worked together at the now-defunct music publication TONE Magazine. After the critically acclaimed release of ‘On Botany’ in 2007 – and a lineup change to welcome Adrian, Rudolph Frank (drummer) and Johan Tan (guitarist, on hiatus) – they followed up with 2011’s ‘Fairweather Friends’. In their own words, ‘Fairweather Friends’ represents “a small sidestep from the dream pop mists of ‘On Botany’ into the unaffected terra firma of pop-rock ’n’ roll”.
Ferns reserve the right to stick to one sound. Over the years, through the starts and stops, there’s been no need to deviate too far from where they started and where they’re strongest. This isn’t to say that Ferns aren’t ambitious or adventurous; rather than break new musical ground, they seem to be striving for pop excellence within their own sound –and it’s very effective.
‘Navalgazing’ conjures up 16 minutes of glistening, genuinely lifting pop; the clean, deft interplay of their vocals, grooves, and instruments allow the seemingly simplistic arrangements room to shine.
At their best, Ferns embody an earnestness that separates them from algorithmic indie pop – a call to embrace your art, not perform it. With ‘Navalgazing’, they turn the narrative lens on themselves: an exercise of navel-gazing, looking inwards to create a disarmingly honest collection of chiming not-valentines, like short stories of a lost seafarer’s experiences with love, longing and self-fulfilment.
Chan contemplates travel – or “overtourism”, in his notes – frequently in the four-track release. He sings of sailing through endless open skies in opening track and lead single ‘Auf Wiedersehen’, and paying good money for the (dis)pleasure cruise on the third track. But he’s interested in the particulars of neither the journey nor the destination but in post-vacation blues – the forlorn lows after the buoyant highs.
The line “I’ll be alone when I go home” in the chorus of ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ is familiar to all of us in the morning-afters, deep in the bowels of travel hangover, shaking sand out of our suitcases and stuffing ski jackets back into the closet. “You feel a sense of longing, of loss, so to speak, because it’s like you’ve returned from a place that’s idealised in your mind, and you can’t go back, never,” Warren says. “It’s a goodbye of sorts to that experience and that place.”
The Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia, a partial lockdown implemented in March, might even have sped up the release of ‘Navalgazing’, which coincided with Record Store Day. “We might’ve sat on it a little longer due to our day jobs or work or whatever, if we didn’t have the time that [the order] afforded us,” Chan says.
There was time to think about “how to present the album, the so-called promotional campaign to go along with it”, time to design posters on whatever software he could find, and even time to make an official music video for ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ (“something me and my wife Abigail did,” Chan says, “basically just a bunch of free clips we put together with effects, transitions, whatnot”).
“We’ve had to rethink the way we do music, or bring music to people,” Yap adds, “and I think [the MCO] forces musicians to approach music in a more introverted way, in more isolation.”
In some ways, it feels comfortable to Yap, who identifies as an introvert – and maybe for the band, too. “We’ve never been the kind of band that was at the [centre] of the scene. We’ve always been slightly removed from the core of it.”
“Sometimes you get lazy, you don’t want to perform or jam anymore. When the itch comes, you start again” – Warren Chan
If anyone was wondering, the secret to their longevity seems to be: A) having no expectations, and B) their friendship. “If we ever had any rockstar dreams, they would’ve died by now,” Yap says.
Chan adds, laughing: “I don’t think the stakes are that high, you know. It’s never planned, too; sometimes you get lazy, you don’t want to perform or jam anymore. When the itch comes, you start again.”
It’s clear Ferns are not in any rush. After all, ‘Navalgazing’ is the product of a band who has a strong identity and history, with a sound to match. “The future isn’t set,” Chan says. “Our modus operandi is that we release something, maybe we do a launch and then we disappear, sail off into the sunset.”
Ferns’ ‘Navalgazing’ is out now