20 years of Soundscape Records: How the label shaped post-rock and live music in Malaysia

Founder Mak Wai Hoo looks back on his journey from the Chinese-language underground to concert promoter for the (instrumental) rock stars

Twenty years is a long time to be doing anything, but 20 years spent heading a record label and concert promotion business in Malaysia is something else. Just ask Mak Wai Hoo.

From relatively humble beginnings in the Chinese independent scene, Mak, as he is better known, and his label Soundscape Records have become one of Malaysia’s most well-known label-promoters. Whether it’s organising shows for Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, and Mono (to name a few) or releasing albums by Dirgahayu, NAO and Liyana Fizi, Soundscape’s legacy is a lasting – if somewhat unappreciated – one.

Mak isn’t one to boast, but when asked to reflect on Soundscape’s 20-year involvement with the Malaysian scene, he concedes: “I’m not necessarily ‘proud’ of it, but I’m pleased that Soundscape’s helped to shape the community.”

The 50-year-old’s involvement in Malaysian music beyond just being a consumer started in the late 1990s when he joined a short-lived collective called Huang Huo dedicated to the Malaysian Chinese underground scene. Formed in 1998, Huang Huo organised concerts, published a newsletter, and released Chinese-language music, including alt-rock band Chong Yang’s ‘Forced March’ and 1999’s defining ‘The Declaration of Huang Huo’ compilation.

“When I joined Huang Huo in 1998, our country was going through the Reformasi (reformation) movement, and we believed change could also happen in the music scene,” he recalls. “We tried to overturn the mainstream Chinese scene by convincing the youth that they too could make a difference by getting involved in the movement.”

The group came to an acrimonious end in late 2000 after Chong Yang (whose members included Huang Huo founder Lim Kiam Keong) and Moxuan’s Beijing tour, as chronicled in Lam Li’s documentary Surviving Beijing. Disagreements about the group’s finances had been brewing even before the trip, but inter-personal conflicts exacerbated by setbacks such as poor response to the early Beijing shows would mark the end of Huang Huo.

“Touring is something that can make or break a band, but that’s how you know your shortcomings,” Mak observes. “So, I think it was bound to happen.” There’s perhaps a slight wistfulness to his voice when he looks back at Huang Huo’s brief existence. “If we’d been able to sustain ourselves for a longer period, things would have been totally different,” he says.

“It was very hard in the beginning because international bands weren’t used to touring in this region”

But the end of Huang Huo wasn’t the end of the group members’ involvement in the Malaysian music scene. In 2001, Chongyang members Boon and Tham Kar Mun and Moxuan guitarist Yandsen formed Monkey Records, which released two albums before reforming as Xing-Wu Records with a more specific focus on avant-garde and experimental music.

Mak, on the other hand, decided to continue the work of Huang Huo on his own. “It was a quick decision to form Soundscape,” Mak says. The label’s early years followed in the collective’s footsteps, focusing on Chinese-language music and attempting to continue the Huang Huo newsletter under the new Soundscape Records umbrella.

“I was trying to continue, to pick up the pieces,” Mak explains, but as a one-man operation, he was forced to limit Soundscape’s scope. So the newsletter fell by the wayside, and Soundscape began to focus on shows. These shows continued in Huang Huo’s DIY manner, but Mak would soon outgrow the underground’s confines.

In 2003, he organised the label’s first festival, the Street Roar Fest. Taking place on Jalan Panggong in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, the festival combined Chinese-language and non-Chinese acts – including PAO, Mumster, Love Me Butch and Damn Dirty Apes – into the label’s first big statement. “The response was quite encouraging,” Mak recalls, with the positive reception convincing sponsor Tiger Beer to contribute more funding for future Street Roar festivals.

This increased funding helped Mak take Street Roar to grander stages, with the 2004 and 2006 editions taking place at Berjaya Times Square and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre respectively. 2006 would also see a shift in focus. At that point, “it was very difficult to find good Chinese bands,” Mak recalls; this pushed him to make the “conscious decision” to start organising concerts for international acts.

Soundscape Records Malaysia Mak Wai Hoo interview 20 years post-rock
NAO performing at Street Roar in 2004. Credit: Bannai Pictures

It was far from an easy transition. “It was very hard in the beginning because international bands weren’t used to touring in this region. I made a lot of offers trying to bring bands in, but they always turned me down.” But Mak’s perseverance eventually bore fruit, and the Australian instrumental act Dirty Three graced the stage at Ruums (now KL Live) on October 31, 2006.

The Dirty Three show started a string of defining Soundscape shows, including the Explosions in the Sky concert of 2008. It was a huge success; Mak recalls selling 900 tickets, but lax security meant that “more than 1,000” people crowded into Ruums that night. Mak considers it their “breakthrough” and the show that set the benchmark for the label’s future gigs.

Zulhezan, former member of Dirgahayu and Akta Angkasa, remembers the Explosions In The Sky show fondly. It’s the first show that comes to mind when NME asks him about his memorable Soundscape moments. “The Explosions show was a real explosion,” he says, laughing. “We were asking ourselves, ‘how could this show be sold out?’”

But it was, making for an inflection point in the label’s history: this concert, it seems, was when Soundscape became synonymous with post-rock.

Post-rock acts have enduring popularity here in Malaysia, with acts like Japan’s Mono consistently drawing large crowds whenever they stop by Kuala Lumpur (in the days before the pandemic, anyway). The genre itself seems to have never truly waned in popularity either, with a steady stream of local bands such as the dearly departed Glass and, more recently, Mim flying the flag for ethereal guitar instrumentals and dramatic song dynamics.

Mak ventures that the string of three consecutive post-rock shows Soundscape organised – Explosions in 2008, Mogwai in 2009, and Mono in 2010 – seems to have defined the label, and even the style, in the eyes of many. “I’ve noticed that there are a lot of young people that were influenced by those shows,” he says. “Maybe it’s because those few shows were so ‘overwhelming’ that people can’t break away from them.”

Soundscape Records Malaysia Mak Wai Hoo interview 20 years post-rock
Explosions In The Sky playing Ruums in 2008. Credit: Ricky Sow

Session musician Cheryl Lee Yesudas, who’s contributed bass to Malaysian psychedelic rock band Capt’n Trips and The Kid, among other bands, recalls that “it was a huge thing just to have a different sort of concert to go to” back then. Though not a huge fan of the genre itself, she says Soundscape’s post-rock shows allowed “a young scene to mature and take on multiple genres”.

Faeroz of post-metal act Dè Fusion echoes her perspective, revealing that Soundscape’s pg.lost show of 2012 was central to his band’s formation. “We never planned or expected to form a post-metal band but Soundscape was the catalyst in that decision,” he admits. Seeing a mixed audience at the pg.lost show was an “eye-opening experience” that “helped us realise that there are Malaysians who enjoy post-rock and post-metal music”.

“Even until now, people still talk about those few shows. But as you get older, you get used to it,” Mak says, smiling. But with age also comes a certain clarity of vision: despite how good post-rock has been to him and Soundscape, Mak has no desire to hold on to the genre for old times’ sake.

“Hopefully, the crowd can start to explore beyond post-rock because I think there are only a handful of post-rock bands out there that are worth listening to these days,” he tells NME. Over the past few years, Mak has branched out, organising shows for math rock bands such as Chon and more mainstream acts, including Warpaint and Tycho. Locally, he’s recently released a full-length from Kuala Lumpur band Skits, whose psychedelic-tinged alt-rock stylings are a far cry from the post-rock usually associated with Soundscape.

As for Malaysia’s seemingly endless stream of Explosions-inspired post-rock acts, Mak opines that “it’s easy to adopt that kind of style because they have someone to look up to.” Of the lot, “there are only a handful of bands that have stood out over the years,” he thinks: Dirgahayu, Deepset, Dè Fusion, and Mutesite. “Not that many, to be honest,” he concludes.

Soundscape Records Malaysia Mak Wai Hoo interview 20 years post-rock
Mono playing Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in 2019. Credit: Ricky Sow

Regardless of what Malaysians think of post-rock, most can agree that Mak’s work with Soundscape over the years has changed the country’s live music scene. From auditorium-scale shows to small-scale events for DIY touring acts, Soundscape has played a part in making Malaysia a viable touring destination for all sorts of acts. Mak’s “gambler mindset” and willingness to take a risk on concerts that, in his words, have a “50 or 60 per cent chance to break even”, means that Malaysians have had the chance to see bands that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Without him, we wouldn’t have experienced all these shows,” Zulhezan says. “We probably would have had to travel to Singapore, at least, to see most of these bands.” Mak’s gambles don’t always work out, and for every sold-out Mono show, there’s an under-attended Tortoise gig to muddy the financial waters. But his continued presence has helped maintain the existence of a Southeast Asian touring stop for bands – such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Place To Bury Strangers – that would otherwise be too big, too small or too weird for other organisers in Malaysia.

And shows aren’t Soundscape’s only stock-in-trade. Despite a conscious decision to focus on shows, Mak has also released albums from local acts such as NAO, Liyana Fizi and Dirgahayu. The label has also licensed albums from Mono and Tricot for the Malaysian market, which undoubtedly played a part in maintaining Malaysians’ interest in Japanese post- and math-rock.

Zulhezan has nothing but praise and respect for Mak. “If you think about it, what other ‘proper’ record labels are there in Malaysia aside from Soundscape?” he asks rhetorically. “One that’s really committed, that really gives their all.” (The feeling is mutual: When NME asks Mak about some of the defining moments of Soundscape’s 20-year existence, he names Dirgahayu’s debut album ‘Commemorate!’ as a milestone release.)

Echoing Zulhezan’s sentiments is Fikri Fadzil, co-founder of Kuala Lumpur-based Southeast Asian music portal and events organiser The Wknd. His respect for Mak is palpable during our short conversation. “He rarely complains, which is very inspiring,” he says with a laugh. “Someone who keeps doing it consistently for a long time sets an example: ‘if Mak can do it, so can we,’ and that’s important.”

Fans know Mak as the guy who makes shows happen, but Fikri brings up something the average concertgoer doesn’t see: “Over the years, Mak has been going out to festivals and conferences, bringing bands with him and promoting them.” The man’s behind-the-scenes legwork has helped many Malaysian bands find audiences beyond the usual Southeast Asian confines, from NAO and Citizens of Ice-Cream playing Rock in Taichung in 2009 to Capt’n Trips and The Kid, The Filters, and Golden Mammoth appearing at online festival Music Lane Okinawa this year. “To see him keep bringing bands with him to be showcased outside of Malaysia is great,” Fikri says.

He also can’t resist taking a jab at Malaysian government policy: “There are government agencies that are paid to do that,” Fikri points out. “But Mak’s doing it independently and out of passion, without expecting much return financially.” With a hint of awe in his voice, he concludes, “that’s what I’ll remember about Soundscape.”

“I think there are only a handful of post-rock bands out there that are worth listening to these days”

Beyond his work with Soundscape, Mak is also a member of the team that runs independent concert venue Live Fact. Founded in 2015 by long-time members of the Malaysian Chinese-language indie scene (including Shane Tan, the current head of Chinese-language independent label DongTaiDu), Live Fact has played host to a significant number of local and international acts over the years. Australian post-punk trio My Disco have graced the Live Fact stage in 2015 and 2017, Japanese psych-rock heavyweights Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O in 2018, and idiosyncratic American noise-pop quartet Deerhoof in 2019.

But, after the 18 months we’ve had, with shows and concerts falling by the wayside, how have Soundscape and Live Fact held up?

During his first conversation with NME in February, Mak admitted that “the real problem” for Live Fact would come around mid-2021 once its funding ran out. Then, Mak was quite pessimistic about how quickly things would return to the “old normal”, projecting that it would take until the middle or end of 2022 for the live music ecosystem to get back on its feet. “At the end of the day, if you have to pull the plug, you have to,” he says, with no pleasure in his voice.

Then came a surprising glimmer of hope a few weeks later, when the Malaysian government made the surprising decision to allow concerts (albeit with reduced audience capacity and social distancing measures). But it proved only a short-lived reprieve as a worsening COVID-19 situation put an end to even socially-distanced live shows soon after.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. While Mak says it’s “weird” to have to do things that they “don’t normally do” such as live-streamed shows and applying for funding, they have adapted during the downtime. While Live Fact’s aim was always to be a “fiercely independent” venue, the pandemic opened the team’s eyes to other options such as grants and financial support, and the venue is currently staying afloat thanks to additional funding from Malaysia’s Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA).

The seemingly never-ending pandemic means that the future of Live Fact is largely out of Mak’s hands. But there’s at least some comfort to be had in the fact that he has no intention of letting the pandemic get in the way of his little celebration of Soundscape’s 20 years.

It’s an anniversary that he never imagined he’d be celebrating, admitting that the decision to start Soundscape wasn’t “well thought out”, even if Mak says he knew he’d be doing this for “a long time”. He initially wanted to organise a big anniversary show, complete with some international acts that the label has worked with before, but that has proven out of the question given the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions. So, instead of a show, the label plans to release a commemorative compilation involving Soundscape artists and associates.

Mak also has plans for a short documentary covering the past 20 years, although he admits that it likely won’t come out in time to celebrate the anniversary. “Huang Huo had Surviving Beijing, and that’s the label’s legacy, in a way,” he says. And, with an obvious hint of satisfaction, Mak adds: “I want to leave something behind for Soundscape as well, even though we’re not done yet.”

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