The Filters: the Malaysian ‘fractional math rock’ band taking apart the human condition

The BandLab NME Awards 2022 nominees talk their debut album ‘Exhaler’ and why they’re the “artificial sweetener of math rock”

Most bands wouldn’t readily compare themselves to sugar substitutes, but The Filters are not most bands. The Malaysian four-piece say they play ‘fractional math rock’, and when NME asks them why, they explain that they started out a garage rock outfit but “it became very quickly apparent that we were yearning to delve into something a little more complex”. Enter the unfamiliar genre of math rock.

“We, as a band, not knowing much about math rock, aspired to [play it]. We’re like math rock lite: the artificial sweetener or aspartame of math rock,” vocalist and guitarist Ian Francis Khoo self-deprecatingly quips.

“So, we figured fractions are the easiest form of math. We aimed to make math rock a little more accessible to the average listener, and we’d like to think that we’re failing spectacularly.”

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The Filters
Credit: Press

Indeed, The Filters are failing with flying colours. After rereleasing their breakout song ‘John Pine’ last June, the band have gone on a tear, becoming only the second act from Malaysia to play a set for the international live music series Audiotree. They saw out 2021 by releasing the physical version of their debut album ‘Exhaler’ and bagging a Best New Artist From Asia nomination at the 2022 BandLab NME Awards.

And on May 27, they finally gave ‘Exhaler’ a digital release. The eclectic record wraps elements of math rock, synth pop, jazz, indie and garage rock in eminently catchy polyrhythms and some of the darkest lyrical material to be found in Malaysia’s underground music scene. “We aimed to write a record that thematically explores the human experience,” the band explain, “only to find that it’s not a very pleasant stay.”

“We’re like math rock lite: the artificial sweetener or aspartame of math rock”

The Filters reel off the big concepts they explore on ‘Exhaler’: “Themes of hedonism, excess, loss, struggling with self-identity, coming to terms with your identity and your place within existence, indignation”. On ‘Cervidae’, Khoo sings about the difficulty of being true to oneself in a social hierarchy through grim, metaphorical imagery. “Not dead but you’re not who you are / You run like a deer in the dark / So afraid of what’ll rip you apart,” he croons amid a storm of delayed guitar riffs, before coming to a canny conclusion: “You fear the outcome of pain.”

The rest of ‘Exhaler’ is littered with similarly fatalistic observations. On ‘Planet Platonic’, the world-weary band declare “I’ve lost my way” before a tonal mood shift into complex jazz shapes; on ‘Leave Me Alone’, the plaintive “You will come back / You won’t love me again / You will change your mind” leads into an emotive solo that may well be the musical high point of the album. There is a profound sense that the members of The Filters are bidding a bitter goodbye to the worst experiences they have been through.

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The band have been ruminating on these themes for a few years now. It has been nine years since they first wrote the surf-rock-meets-disco-polyrhythms tune ‘John Pine’. Then, The Filters were Khoo, drummer Aiman Shakirin and bassist Reuben Ravi; guitarist Iain Chan would officially join the band in 2017 after helping the trio produce a cover of Hujan’s ‘Pagi Yang Gelap’.

In 2013, Khoo, Aiman and Ravi were three friends playing together in their high school brass band. Reminded of that fact, the band break out in laughter. “It feels so weird to have that said back to us, because we don’t think about it,” Khoo says, “So when you say it out loud, it’s like ‘Fuck, that was so long ago!’

“We aimed to write a record that thematically explores the human experience only to find that it’s not a very pleasant stay”

“We do have a lot of material stored up, and that’s why we’re so eager to get back to recording. We’ve been playing a lot of new things at the shows, bringing out new tracks that are probably going to be on the next album.”

Building up a bank of songs doesn’t mean The Filters are simply dusting off and polishing old demos. They diligently apply a “quality control process” to the material, Khoo often the one doing the tweaking.

“I think what goes into reworking a lot of those old tracks is just taking out things that we find disinteresting,” he explains. “Also, contextualising all of the new things that we have gathered and grown into as a band to breathe new life into these old songs. And it’s still evolving because we play these songs live and we’re adding new things to them all the time.”

The Filters
Credit: Press

“It’s a work in progress.”

And nearly 10 years into their existence as a band, The Filters are turning a new corner. “As we were making ‘Exhaler’ we were learning how to make a record as well. There were a lot of things for us to learn,” Khoo says. They’re eager to apply themselves to a new album, supported by TongTong Asia, a label and management company who also work with some of the biggest names in Malaysian indie: Lunadira and Reddi Rocket, Shelhiel and LUST, to name a few. Leaving distribution and some marketing work in the hands of TongTong Asia, whom The Filters signed with in March, will let them concentrate on their new music while not worrying about “all the other stuff”, as Khoo puts it.

The Filters have wind in their sails again after a tragedy in late 2021 threatened to kill their momentum. On Christmas Eve, Shakirin was knocked off his motorcycle and sustained injuries to his legs and hands. Ravi recalls trying to reassure the drummer that the band would wait to play shows with him, only to become the one reassured with the laid-back reply “Sekejap je”: “It’ll be fine in no time.”

“There were gigs lined up and I was disappointed I couldn’t play with these guys,” Shakirin adds, explaining, “I felt like it was my fault, so I started practising alone at home so I could get used to playing with just one hand. I’d practise, then work. Practise, then work.”

On February 29, his hard work paid off. Shakirin made a triumphant return to the live stage at the Atas by Bijan FX gig venue in Kelana Jaya, playing the band’s whole set with just one working hand.

And last Friday, The Filters returned to The Bee Publika, the Kuala Lumpur venue where they played their first ever show in 2014, for an ‘Exhaler’ launch gig. They have good news for Filters fans in more far-flung places. “There were talks of a small tour,” Khoo says somewhat shiftily, before reverting to his normal confident tone of voice, “but nothing is set in stone! But yeah, we were thinking maybe four locations, just to get back out there since the last time we played outside of KL was 2019 in Ipoh.

“Do we have any further plans to support ‘Exhaler’? Other than that, no. We’re trying to move on to the next thing as quickly as possible.”

The Filters’ ‘Exhaler’ is out now

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