Just last November, all sounded good with The Brandals. The Indonesian rock band seemed in the final stretches of finishing their first album in a decade – a record they’ve been working on in earnest since 2013. At the time, lead singer Eka Annash told NME he was “confident with the materials that have been assembled so far”, even as he admitted to the challenges of trying to get “five working-class dudes together in the studio between work and family responsibilities”.
But in December, guitarist Tony Dwi Setiaji announced his resignation through a Twitter post. Besides Eka, Tony had been the band’s last original member (original lead guitarist Bayu Indrasoewarman and bassist Dody Widyono departed not long after the band’s third album, 2007’s ‘Brandalisme’). The Brandals and their management immediately contacted Tony and tried to talk him out of it. But Tony had made up his mind, and the news had already spread. He hasn’t spoken to Eka since then.
For Eka, Tony’s resignation was yet another blow after a few years full of them. Since the release of The Brandals’ last record, 2011’s electro-infused ‘DGNR8’, he has suffered the death of his younger brother – Brandals drummer Rully Annash, who passed from a heart attack in 2015 at age 39 — and a divorce (though he has since happily remarried).
Eka also formed a high-profile side project called Zigi Zaga in 2015 with workmates. Though still going strong, that band was also filled with drama and high member turnover. The singer was also burned out from his demanding day job, having been a professional in the advertising industry for more than 15 years. Though he had “gotten as high [level] as you can in this industry”, he’d also become too trapped to quit.
But Eka, speaking to NME again in early March, is confident that The Brandals’ upcoming album – their fifth overall – will be a strong comeback, setbacks be damned. “It is both the representation and culmination of The Brandals’ long musical journey so far,” he declares.
Known for his lyrics about the plight of the working class and marginalised communities, Eka says that he’ll continue to focus on those themes for the record.
Listeners may find some rumination about the divorce and band struggles, but Eka won’t be singing about his brother Rully. It’s “too personal”, he says. Eka regrets not being close to Rully during his lifetime – they rarely hung out beyond band activities – not because of any bad blood but because “that wasn’t the kind of brothers we were”.
“I’m saving my feelings about Rully for my solo album,” Eka says. The record bears touches of old Motown, and features collaborations with musicians and producers like Jonathan Mono (Alexa, Neurotic) and Brandals lead guitarist PM Mulyadi. Eka has completed only one song so far, and ruefully remarks that he shouldn’t have brought it up to NME.
“I let the cat out of the bag too soon on that one,” he laughs.
“The Brandals has been a group effort from day one” – Eka Annash
Tony finished all his parts for The Brandals album before leaving, but his absence from future recordings and live shows (whenever those return) will be noticeable. The guitarist, after all, was the person that originally formed the band with Rully back in 2001 as The Motives, with original singer Edo Wallad, before the younger Annash brother brought in Eka in 2003 (the singer also renamed the band). Tony’s rhythm guitar parts may be technically straightforward, relying mostly on power chords and distorted textures, but they have a ramshackle punk rock roughness that few can replicate.
Tony and Eka disagreed over the sonic direction of The Brandals, Eka said, with the former wanting a return to their garage rock roots and the latter hoping to challenge the band with new elements. “On this new album, we use additional instruments that we’ve never used before to add flourishes to the songs,” Eka said, citing the triangle and maracas. That said, he’s still unsure of the 10 tracks the band are “80 to 90 percent” done with, because they remind him too much of their early albums.
Indeed, songs like ‘Preambule’ and ‘Kafir’ sound like classic Brandals, while ‘Back Pages’ and ‘Into Madness’ have hints of soul and funk. Next single ‘Belum Padam’ (‘The Fire Is Not Out’) – out March 21 – is filled with Brandals garage rock flourishes and is, Eka says, a big middle finger to the naysayers who feel that the band are past their prime.
Another cause of friction between Tony and Eka was something that The Brandals have dealt with for some time now: the issue of creative control. For his part, Eka insists that “The Brandals have always been a democratic unit when it comes to making music”, and that “no member has more control over songwriting than the others”. He said, “It has been a group effort from day one. We’ve always been a jamming band. That’s where all the songs come from.”
But Eka is also, in his own words, a “control freak” – something that Tony tells NME, in a separate interview, had bothered him for a long while. “But I chose to keep quiet.” Tony specifically took issue with how the band’s songs are credited, calling Eka’s decision to credit every song to “The Brandals” problematic.
Though each song is arranged together, Tony feels it is still important for band members to have solo credits on particular songs if the initial idea (a guitar or bass riff, or a rhythm) came from them. This belief was informed by Tony’s work composing scores for films and other entertainment projects, which allowed him to learn more about how composing credits are given professionally.
“It’s not about royalties,” Tony, 41, says. “But it’s important that band members – like the current ones – feel that they are acknowledged as songwriters. It gives them a sense of ownership of the band.”
The process of recording this fifth album was the last straw for Tony, especially since the basic idea for ‘The Truth is Coming Out’, he says, came from him but was ultimately credited to the whole band. (Tony came up with the basic guitar chords, bassist Radhit Syaharzam says.)
When presented with Tony’s explanation, Eka acknowledges his former bandmate’s concerns – but also claims that individual song credits won’t be that easy to determine. While The Brandals’ songs, he says, do often come from “a guitar, bass, or drum parts – or even vocal hook – there has never been a case where someone brings in a song full-formed. So how would we begin to formulate a crediting process?” He makes it clear, though, that this is something he’s open to discussing with the band and their management.
Eka’s controlling tendencies have defined the dynamics of The Brandals for some time now. The band grappled with this in a candid meeting that took place before Rully died and after a year-long hiatus for the band. In that meeting, Eka asked his bandmates – Radhit, guitarists Tony and PM and drummer Rully – to tell him all that was wrong with the way he led The Brandals.
“I told them to be as blunt as possible, and to not hold back,” Eka says. “I told them that I would simply listen and change, and not argue against anything they said at all.”
“It’s important that band members feel that they are acknowledged as songwriters. It gives them a sense of ownership of the band” – Tony Dwi Setiaji
Original guitarist Bayu Indrasoewarman says that Eka didn’t change immediately. He had played with the band in 2016, filling in for Tony, and said that the rehearsals for those shows were still controlled by Eka. In the early days, Bayu says, the other Brandals acquiesced to Eka’s leadership as they lacked his experience in the music industry – the singer had been a member in the ska/dance/punk band Waiting Room, one of Indonesia’s first indie bands. But as “we became more capable as musicians, and when money became involved”, Bayu felt that Eka should have given them more breathing space.
Radhit says that Eka has done so, and has since that meeting in 2016 consciously held back from controlling things such as designs related to merchandise and products. The Brandals vote on everything, even when deciding what dinner to buy while recording. Radhit also points to a taped interview with the Indonesian TV channel MetroTV where Eka barely said anything and let Tony do the talking.
“I’ve been there since 2009, when the band was still under Eka’s strong hold, and I’ve seen tangible change in how he lets us express ourselves more,” Radhit says.
Tony’s departure from The Brandals felt to Radhit like “losing one soul [of the band]”. “That bastard is irreplaceable!” he joked.
And his resignation was cause for sadness for Indonesia’s independent music scene, as well. The Brandals rose to prominence in the early 2000s, and along with bands like Seringai and The Upstairs, led a movement centred around Jakarta’s BB’s Blues Bar. They went from playing small clubs to being crowned MTV’s Artist of the Month. But, more so than those other bands, the original Brandals felt like a gang. You would see the five members at gigs and parties, looking like the coolest guys in the room.
As the only original member left, Eka sympathises with the sentiment – but sees The Brandals’ current members – PM, Raditya and drummer Firman Zaenudin – every bit as “real” as the original line-up. He says that The Brandals will definitely find a new guitar player, as the band always felt like a gang of five.
One unexpected outcome of Tony’s resignation is that the guitar player has reformed The Motives (now simply named “Motives”) with all the other original ex-members of The Brandals. These include Bayu, who says the band is a tribute to their late friend Rully. They’ve recorded some songs and will announce them soon.
It’s a move that Eka supports. “If Rully was alive today,” he says, “he might even join them while also still playing with The Brandals.”
The Brandals’ new single ‘Belum Padam’ is out March 21