“People remember us as the band with the burning pants.” Malaysian indie rock band Jaggfuzzbeats are reminiscing about their last album ‘Rest Now’ and its eye-catching cover. In an homage to Pink Floyd’s iconic ‘Wish You Were Here’, the band set fire to a pair of trousers frontman/guitarist Azrul Zainal used to wear in his early gigging days. “Images like that are an investment, so that people remember us,” Azrul says.
But ‘Rest Now’ wasn’t memorable just for the flaming apparel on the cover. Their debut album, it dropped fully formed seemingly out of nowhere in 2017, and became one of Malaysia’s buzziest records that year, buoyed by a panache for catchy indie rock cuts and well, a band name that’s frankly quite difficult to forget.
In conversation with NME, it’s immediately obvious that the duo of Azrul and drummer Omar Aiman enjoy spending time together. There is seemingly no undercurrent of internal band tension and no emotional baggage. They finish each other’s thoughts a lot, a connection that can be traced back to the start of their friendship in primary school. In high school, they started a band called The Natterjacks (Arief Othman, who raps under the name Orang Malaya, was a former member). They had no plans of world domination – just a dream to play outside the school, “We had a whole bunch of songs properly recorded as well. The tapes are somewhere,” recalls Omar.
And now, the duo are readying a return as Jaggfuzzbeats: this Friday, their new six-song EP ‘Subtle Shift’ will be released on all digital platforms. The band spent most of 2020 putting the finishing touches on the EP – a process they let play out at its own pace. “The pandemic was such a blurred line, there was no telling how it would all pan out,” says Azrul. “It was really just a big pause for all of us, for our lives.”
Jaggfuzzbeats took their time because “they were going through a lot at the time” – compounded by the fact that, during the pandemic, music could no longer provide an escape for them. “I was so used to letting loose on weekends when we had shows and be myself after a whole week of hustling for work,” sighs Azrul. “Suddenly because of the pandemic, that was gone and all I had to think about was work. I really hated that.”
“People used to say that if your songs are good, you will make it. That’s no longer true anymore”
The songs on ‘Subtle Shift’s’ deal with themes of alienation and weathering the realities of life. But the struggles of 2020 had nothing to do with the EP’s darker tone and subject matter: most of its songs were written and recorded before the pandemic began. Instead, Jaggfuzzbeats attribute the EP’s bleakness to “growing up” and “facing life’s hardships” since the band’s 2017 breakthrough.
‘Rest Now’ was a “chilled-out, close to the heart kind-of project”, but things have changed. “The first record was us being kids, you know? Getting to know the world, fucking up and falling in love,” says Azrul. “This record is us facing the realities of life, it’s more like falling out of love. It’s definitely an angrier and heavier record.”
That said, the sound on ‘Subtle Shift’ remains true to the three constituents set forth in the name Jaggfuzzbeats: each track is built on the formula of fuzzy guitar licks of Azrul’s Fender Jaguar, playing off Omar’s driving backbeat. Opener ‘Stay’, built on a snappy guitar hook dancing around a soulful melody, starts things off in typical Jaggfuzzbeats fashion. But the band have also found some wiggle room to expand their sound a little: take the infectious country stomp of ‘In Time’ and the sparkling soulful balladry of closer ‘Farewell’, with everything tied neatly together by frontman Azrul’s distinctive nasal twang. “I think we consciously wanted a more upbeat record this time around,” shares Omar.
Surveying the lyrical content of the EP, it’s clear that the band are at a point in their existence where they are ready to ask themselves some difficult questions. On ‘Fade’, they make a sobering statement about financial burden: “Throw all your hopes away / I got these debts to pay / When I get out / I’ll have all the time / To do what I want and fade.” ‘Not My Fault’ deals with the pain of betrayal: “You never really had my back,” Azrul sings. Having embraced music as a survival mechanism, he turns out lyrics that are bitingly personal: “I’m not good with telling people how I feel in real life. When I go through difficult things, I reach for a pen and paper instead.”
Strong lyricism and songcraft, though, are no longer enough in this day and age. “People used to say that if your songs are good, you will make it”, says Omar, who also plays as a sessionist for LUST, Bill Musa and Pastel Lite. “That’s no longer true anymore.”
“I’m not good with telling people how I feel in real life. When I go through difficult things, I reach for a pen and paper instead”
So Jaggfuzzbeats also pay meticulous attention to their visuals, which is perhaps unexpected considering that at the heart of it, they are a guitar-swinging rock band: Azrul’s dad turned him on to music and the whole “guitar-shredding thing” through Santana, and when Jaggfuzzbeats started, they were united in an unwavering worship of Kings Of Leon’s Southern rock twang. But this is the band that put a pair of flaming pants on the cover of their first album. “From the get-go, we already knew what we wanted our aesthetic to be,” says Azrul. “And we just double-downed on that.”
That aesthetic combines retro-tinged colours and fashion with stabs of contemporary popular culture to create a teenage wasteland that looks like Ready Player One filtered through VSCO. It draws a nice parallel between the hazy aesthetics of the ’80s and a contemporary hipster fashion shoot (there is a Halloween-themed picture of Omar in a Napoleon Dynamite costume). Each single the band has released from ‘Subtle Shift’ so far has been accompanied by a well-produced video, the one for ‘Fade’ a clear standout for its homage to modern horror classic Midsommar.
Jaggfuzzbeats’ attention to aesthetics could be put down to Azrul’s day job as a designer, but it’s likely more the result of how he and Omar listen to music. “When we listen to a song, both me and Azrul always have the same thoughts visually,” Omar says. “The music comes through our ears and it translates into an image in our heads. That image is often the same for the both of us.”
Speaking to Jaggfuzzbeats, you begin to feel that they don’t just share a wavelength, but a weird cosmic destiny. “We would’ve been very different people” without the band, declares Azrul. “I would’ve stayed being this anxiety-driven guy. I would never go out of my house. Without Omar I don’t think I would be where I am today.” Omar adds, “Music is something we fall back to and it will always catch us even though we never had the right path to get here. It has come to that point and that is something we will always know. It’s more of the journey rather than the success at the end of it.”
Jaggfuzzbeats’ ‘Subtle Shift’ is out April 30