Last month, Kuala Lumpur duo LUST dived into the darkness with their new EP, ‘Vantablack’. It’s named after a synthetic material that’s the blackest the world’s ever encountered, the closest thing to a black hole humans will see – a fitting artistic decision in a bleak year.
“I don’t want to wear out the word ‘depression’ because it’s such a big word,” member Azfar Bakar tells NME, “but a lot of the songwriting came around when lockdown began and that’s the headspace we were in: a swirling of doom and oppressiveness.”
Self-written, -recorded, -mixed, and finally -released on December 3, ‘Vantablack’ was conceived by Azfar and Faris Khairi in less than a year as they laid low at their families’ suburban homes from March 2020, when the conditional movement order was implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It sits alongside 2016’s ‘chingichanga’ and 2019’s ‘Tekesima’ as a masterclass in contemporary Malaysian indie, a tapestry of psych pop, post-punk, and rock, tumbling together and into one another.
It’s a humid afternoon in late December when NME meets the pair for a rare, socially distanced face-to-face over beers. In conversation, Azfar and Faris are in good spirits, riding the high of a shiny, well-received release. They’re already raring to move on to the next. If 2020 had gone as planned, they would’ve spent the year working on their next full-length to follow up ‘Tekesima’, Faris admits, but they soon realised they wanted to take their time with it. It was Azfar’s idea to put the LP on the shelf to work on “something small”, building on the two tracks they had already finished, ‘Hedonist’ and ‘Super Trial’.
The two conjure up the beginnings of ‘Vantablack’: “Everything hangs in the air – and then, there’s a moment when everything clicks,” Azfar says. For Faris, the most notable moment of the process was when Azfar suggested ‘Vantablack’ as a title: “Immediately, I was drawn to its ability to absorb up to 99.96 per cent of visible light.” He sees a parallel with people’s consumption of media: “You’re constantly absorbing shit on top of shit on top of shit, and that contributes to this cycle of dark, negative thoughts.”
“We don’t want to sound like a bunch of dudes with rock instruments making rock songs”
LUST flirt with a moodier, more sinister sound on ‘Vantablack’, if the name doesn’t already give it away. The six-track project combines ideas of an “anti-virus software for your mind”, pent-up informational paranoia, and emotional and spiritual void, refracting these themes through an experimental pop sensibility unique to LUST.
As Faris approached the EP, his touchstones were “soundscapes that were very grey, very black and white, very dirty, very gritty”, such as the textures of failing electronics and the Canadian post-punk act Preoccupations’ debut album ‘Viet Cong’. “Faris was super into beat-making at the time that we were working on ‘Vantablack’,” Azfar adds, “which I think influenced his leaning towards adding these very abstract sounds and textures.”
This is all in line with LUST’s aim to “break away” from the band mould. “We don’t want to sound like a bunch of dudes with rock instruments making rock songs,” says Azfar. And they’ve succeeded – in spite of its relatively short runtime of 19 minutes, LUST have created a universe all its own on ‘Vantablack’.
It’s cohesive and concise, while side-stepping stylistic leaps and short-circuits – as if defying any definitive interpretation. “We like the idea of including certain elements and sounds that’ll make the listeners think, ‘Is that a synth or a guitar, a sample?’ That mystery really appeals to us,” Azfar says.
And for all the musical mayhem on ‘Vantablack’, everything is richly melodic. The fact that a majority of its tracks were first takes does nothing to discount the EP’s many affecting moments. Faris confesses that LUST dislike prolonging the creative process, which he describes as efficient and instinctual: “We like getting it out while the fire’s still burning.” Azfar agrees: “I don’t like it when we brew too long or when we focus too much on a chorus, a song structure, something. That’s when it gets a bit artificial.”
The release of ‘Vantablack’ was accompanied by a contemporary dance video (with a viewer discretion warning for “bright, flashing lights”) performed by dancer-choreographer Eli Orkid, contracting and contorting, for the title track. It was directed by Krew Filem Sek Kito, with whom LUST are collaborating again on an upcoming short film feature commemorating the album. Meanwhile, ‘Vantablack’’s Y2K electronics cover art is credited to Najmi Arifin, with 3D art by the enigma known only as @404.boi on Instagram.
Azfar and Faris’ aesthetic visual ambitions for ‘Vantablack’ are clear. “If you don’t shiok sendiri [self-indulge] with your projects, no one will,” Azfar, who works full-time at a creative agency, jokes. He says LUST is a vessel for an outpouring of ideas, describing it as “creative diarrhoea”.
“We’ve always seen LUST as a vehicle for introducing new ideas,” Faris says, adding that post-‘Tekesima’, they’ve become “more comfortable giving creative control” to collaborators, experimenting with new ways to release music. They even toyed with uploading ‘Vantablack’ to a torrent site, in the spirit of the EP being “extracted from the cyberspace”.
“Everything is a numbers game these days. Spotify Wrapped is a big wanking session”
Asked then if money would be an issue, Azfar says, somberly: “Thankfully, we don’t depend on LUST to bring food to the table, to pay the bills.” Like many other independent bands, whatever money LUST make from past and current releases funds the next output. “I can’t imagine us being full-time musicians. I mean, that would be the dream,” Faris says.
The reality is, in majority Malay-speaking Malaysia, Azfar admits, “if you play our kind of music, and in English, it’s just like – no way, dude.” They’ve received comments like, “Hey, you should do a Malay song,” and “Whoa, this is a good album tapi kalaulah diorang nyanyi dalam Melayu, mesti lagi best.” [“But if only they’d sing in Malay, it’d be more [sic] best.”)
“I get it, and I’m pretty sure we’d get way more clicks too,” Azfar says, “and everything is a numbers game these days. Spotify Wrapped is a big wanking session.” He hopes he doesn’t come across too cynical, but asserts that at times, these considerations inevitably poison their process: “We’re thinking, how do we maximise clicks, plays, views – and that’s not our style, even though we know we have to break out of our shell a bit.” In the age of the internet, “too many people expect the lottery of social media, hoping they’ll be the next Boy Pablo or something,” he added.
“I don’t even know how LUST has had this chance that we’ve had,” Faris says. “I hope all budding musicians, all up-and-comers do it for themselves, for their passion. Don’t think about whether or not you’re going to make it, just get the music out.”
LUST’s ‘Vantablack’ is out now