Before the pandemic silenced the Singaporean underground, the band Marijannah were playing some of the loudest rock shows the country’s independent music scene had to offer. Lumbering riffs, blunt-force drumming and soaring solos are the key ingredients to their doomy brand of stoner rock, which they’ve fleshed out over two albums – 2018’s ‘Till Marijannah’ and 2019’s ‘Istanah’ – and a well-received tour of Southeast Asia. They were set to keep up the momentum in 2020 by touring Australia’s east coast, and possibly even make a stop at a Japanese festival.
The band’s prospective jaunt down under was the result of two years of loose planning – and it was all swiftly foiled by the pandemic, drummer Nicholas Wong and guitarist Rasyid Juraimi tell NME over beers in October. But after months of lockdown and semi-lockdown, Marijannah’s attitude to the whole thing can be summarised as c’est la vie. “All of us just kind of accepted it. We knew that there was nothing we can do,” Wong says. “And we weren’t the only ones who suffered from the lockdown. So there was no point trying to think of things that might or might not happen.”
In conversation, Rasyid and Wong – the public faces of Marijannah, and the band’s primary vocalists – are baldly pragmatic, their answers matter-of-fact, even stoic. Their music, though, has a mystical bent: Wong’s lyrics, populated by vampires, werewolves and the undead, are directly inspired by identifiable horror and fantasy films and shows (‘Till Marijannah’ has a song about Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets and ‘Istanah’ nods to David Lynch on the pulse-racing ‘Spiderwalk With Me’). Alien album artwork by Indonesian artist Riandy Karuniawan heightens the fantasy, evoking the otherworldly sci-fi universes Roger Dean crafted for records by Yes and Asia.
Upon releasing their debut ‘Till Marijannah’ in 2018, the band made ripples in the international metal blogosphere – for reasons that had little to do with fantastical world-building. For one, Marijannah didn’t come out of nowhere. All four members are known for their other bands: for bassist Muhammad Azri Azman, the crust band Abolition A.D.; for Wong and guitarist Nicholas “Skinny” Ng, the now-defunct, hard-touring emo punk group The Caulfield Cult; and for Rasyid, the grindcore trio and underground heroes Wormrot – who to date are the only Singaporean band to have played Glastonbury.
And western metalheads were also tickled by the notion of a stoner metal band called Marijannah hailing from squeaky-clean – and notoriously anti-drug – Singapore, an eminently clickable contradiction the band say they didn’t foresee.
“I didn’t even realise it was an issue,” Wong says, “until western sites would share our music and the comments would be like, ‘What the fuck, a stoner band from Singapore, you guys are gonna get killed’.” Rasyid adds, “It’s just their weird perception of Singapore and how we live here.” (The moniker isn’t just a 420 joke: as Wong has explained before, it also means ‘come to paradise’ in Malay.)
“Western sites would share our music and the comments would be like, ‘What the fuck, a stoner band from Singapore, you guys are gonna get killed’” – Nicholas Wong
A little over a year after ‘Till Marijannah’, the band released ‘Istanah’, which featured some songs that didn’t make it onto the first record, but also others that experimented with the formula: Rasyid took over more lead vocals from Wong, and they upped the pace on ‘Spiderwalk With Me’ and slowed to a crawl on the sludgy closer ‘Pluto’.
In August, once Singapore’s lockdown restrictions had eased, Marijannah got together to play ‘Istanah’ in full for a live album and concert film, both of which were released last month on Friday the 13th. With director Ryan Chang and his crew in tow, the band performed the record in its entirety at The Projector, an independent cinema and event space that has hosted shows by Texan psych trio Khruangbin and Japanese indie-folk artist Ichiko Aoba alike.
Chang is a Singapore-born and London-based photographer who has documented tours and recording sessions for the likes of Ghost and Bullet For My Valentine. He’s also an old friend of Wong’s, and tagged along with his old band Caulfield Cult on a 2015 tour. Due to the pandemic, Chang returned to Singapore for a brief period, and Marijannah seized the opportunity to work with him.
“I’m quite old-school: To promote your music you have to go out. You have to be on the road, and there is no road in Singapore” – Rasyid Juraimi
For ‘Istanah Live At The Projector’, Chang and his cameramen opted for the fly-on-the-wall approach, simply circling the band as they burned through the 40-minute album – three times. With no audience present, Wong says the recording felt less like a live show and more like a studio session. Nevertheless, the film is a great, no-frills taste of Marijannah’s dynamics: Azri holding it down with sturdy basslines, Skinny showboating just a little on his solos, and Wong trading vocals with Rasyid while powering through on the kit.
Whereas his bandmates warmed up over the course of the three playthroughs, Wong’s stamina depleted: “I definitely spent at least 70 per cent of my energy on the first take!” Asked if Marijannah are likely to continue writing new material where he does the very tiring thing of singing and drumming at the same time, Wong and Rasyid say they’re happy with the way vocal duties are split, which allows them to have some songs with fiddlier guitar parts and others with more intricate drum patterns. “There’s no one voice to the band, but there’s still a unique sound,” Wong says.
Cynics might say Marijannah lack exactly that: a unique sound, given how the band tread well-worn territory within the Venn diagram of stoner rock, sludge and doom metal. But it’s also a cheap criticism that would slide off Marijannah like water off a duck’s back, given how openly they acknowledge their forebears and favourites: they enthuse over Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, and Wong says he enjoys how he and Rasyid trade off vocals like Mastodon. It’s fine if listeners know the broad strokes of the Marijannah sound, Rasyid says: “Think of it like Boris: there is no specific direction, though you know the feel of it… It’s unpredictable, but you know it sounds like Boris.”
Besides, Marijannah formed in 2016 precisely because Wong and Rasyid weren’t hearing any prominent bands in Singapore making and playing stoner metal. They’d never call themselves local pioneers – or Marijannah the only such band in Singapore – but the group did see a void, and moved to fill it. “I like to explore playing music that isn’t saturated locally,” Wong says, pointing to his post-punk side project Blood Pact, which also started from the same logic. “If no one is making that kind of music here, then it’s definitely part of my curiosity to try and see where I can take it.”
Marijannah were aware that the lack of a local stoner metal precedent could also stack the odds against them; they never assumed fans of their other and former bands would follow them to their next endeavour. “It’s always especially tough if there isn’t an existing scene for your music,” Wong says. “If you’re a hardcore, punk or metal band – or even a shoegaze, dream pop band, there is a scene for you here to latch on to. There are existing shows happening, where the crowd might like your band.”
Not that Marijannah have ever seen the Singaporean scene as their sole arena. “I’m quite old-school: To promote your music you have to go out,” Rasyid says. “You have to be on the road, and there is no road in Singapore. And there is only so much that you can do in Southeast Asia or Asia. You go where the action is: the US, the EU… Online presence can only do much.” Plus, as he cannily points out, Asia loves an overseas success story: “If it works [abroad], Singapore will be interested and curious. ‘Why this band is working out there, and why we haven’t heard of them?’”
Though the globe is currently closed off to Marijannah, they aren’t worried: they’re due a break, anyway, having put out two albums in as many years. The band haven’t made serious headway on new music during lockdown, and are looking forward to a fallow period. (Rasyid is also aware he has to turn his attention back to Wormrot, who last released an album in 2016.) They’re happy to let listeners have some quality time with the ten songs they have released, which shouldn’t be too hard for fans to do: after all, as Wong quips, “metal fans can listen to songs that are decades old.”
Marijannah’s ‘Istanah Live At The Projector’ is out now