No Good: “We’re not traditional people, so why do we have to be traditional punks?”

The Kuala Lumpur-based Kelantanese trio talk their debut album ‘Punk Gong’, political punk music in Malaysia and more

It’s difficult to think of another Malaysian band in recent memory that’s had as meteoric a rise as No Good. With their stripped-down punk anthems and unapologetically Kelantanese bent, it’s taken only a couple of years for the trio – vocalist/guitarist (and bandleader) Smek Almohdzar, bassist Mat Yie (also known as Wan Azry) and drummer Ali Johan – to cross over beyond the boundaries of the Malaysian punk underground.

“It has a lot to do with the Kelantanese diaspora,” Ali observes over a plate of fried rice. NME’s sitting down with the band a few days before the launch of their debut album ‘Punk Gong’ – what feels like a good time to take stock of the band’s journey thus far.

“A lot of Kelantanese really feel Smek’s lyrics,” Ali says, pointing out that most of the band’s current audience would likely think of them as just another unrelatable “noisy punk band” had they decided to sing in “KL Malay”.

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But singing in Kelantanese about the “preaching for politics” of the “semutar-wearing red beards” who “go back and forth clutching the Qur’an” (‘Yak Boktey’ from 2020 EP ‘Demo Kawe’) or the joys of finding 10 ringgit worth of marijuana behind the couch (‘Kayaba’) hits different, as they say.

No Good have grounded their music in the lived experience of their Kelantanese audience. They’re not afraid to face the “unsavoury” aspects of life in the East Coast state, which mainstream Malaysian culture overlooks in favour of the celebratory (and comic) perspective seen in the work of actor/director Sabri Yunus or comedian Zizan Razak.

In their music, No Good have broached topics such as religious hypocrisy and Malaysians’ distorted relationship with their royalty (‘Koya Biso’), which “are in many people’s minds, especially those coming from a oppressed state like Kelantan – politically and socially, at least,” Ali muses.

“When SS Decontrol sang about the White House, you decided to sing your own versions of that. But that sort of thing doesn’t translate because the problems aren’t the same”

No Good’s strong grounding in Malaysian realities is surprisingly refreshing. The country has never been short of punk bands, but many prefer nebulous exhortations and clichéd sloganeering to targeting issues specific to the Malaysian experience. In this landscape, something as basic as directly addressing former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s policies feels more vital than it really should.

This is something Smek has spent a lot of time thinking about, and when NME puts it to the band, he doesn’t mince his words. “You follow trends; you hate politics because your hardcore heroes hate politics,” he says pointedly. “You’re not looking inwards; you’re looking outwards. When SS Decontrol sang about the White House, you decided to sing your own versions of that. But that sort of thing doesn’t translate because the problems aren’t the same. You’re angry, but your anger itself is trendy. So are you really angry?”

Smek’s frustration is palpable and, unsurprisingly, not a recent development. “It’s been a problem since the ’90s,” he says, recalling his problems with how the scene, even back then, focused on big-picture issues that “[didn’t] concern us and [didn’t] concern the community.”

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No Good Kelantan Malaysia album Punk Gong interview
Credit: Firdaus Malek

This frustration is a perfect segue into the band’s debut album, ‘Punk Gong’, and more specifically, the multi-layered meanings of its deceptively simple title. For one, it’s a punk-informed play on the Malay word for ‘stage’ (panggung). But it can also be read as ‘stupid punks’, as gong is a term for ‘stupid’ in the Kelantanese dialect.

“We love wordplay,” Yie says with a smile, bringing up a third literal interpretation: punk music, but with a gong. But Smek chimes in to say that “ultimately, it is ‘stupid punks.’” Despite his feelings about the scene, the title isn’t entirely as accusatory as it sounds: “We see ourselves as ‘stupid punks’, too. We’re just downplaying ourselves with the title.”

The “stage” interpretation is also equally valid, Smek acknowledges, as the overwhelmingly positive response to No Good has made the band feel as if they’re constantly on stage. “Even when I go thrifting, I get people coming up to me asking about the new album,” he says.

It’s the sort of crossover popularity that none of the members’ other bands – post-hardcore outfit Killeur Calculateur and math rock trio Dirgahayu – has managed to achieve. Meeting people through those bands always entails an exchange of band and music scene talk, Ali says, but it’s different with No Good.

“All [the fans] want to say is ‘yo, your music is great’,” he says, observing that most of these fans are faces he’s never seen at shows before. It’s an unexpected place for a band that Smek formed in 2019 simply to “empower” himself when he “wasn’t in a very good place”.

“We just accept it,” Yie says of their popularity, though it’s led to some curious situations: “A PAS member bought our CD once,” he recalls. Given the band’s blatant dislike of the political party (also known as the Malaysian Islamic Party), Smek admits asking himself, “oh shit, are we going to get in trouble?”

But the encounter could have a positive outcome, he realised: “You know how we feel about your party, so you, as a part of the younger generation, can do something about it.” Something of a pipe dream, perhaps, but Smek sees it as a start, “for better or worse”.

“As much as we want to say that we make music for ourselves, the reality is that people work shitty jobs for little pay just to buy our releases”

On ‘Punk Gong’, No Good dip into a more expansive musical palette. It’s tempting to see ‘Kayaba’’s dangdut-reggae stylings and the traditional instruments on ‘Kito Yak Dulu Lagi’ as a band attempting to free themselves from the sonic confines of punk rock, but No Good have mixed opinions on that take.

“From my point of view,” Yie begins, “it’s more about the fact that we love homages and references.” And it’s not hard to spot them. ‘Kelate Belongs to Me (KB2Me)’ is an overt tribute to Cock Sparrer’s anthem ‘England Belongs to Me’, right down to the riffing and vocal patterns. And there’s closer ‘Toksey Gocoh Toksey Baloh’ (‘Let’s Not Fight, Let’s Not Argue‘), which is as close as you’ll get to Green Day without actually listening to them.

But it’s the slower moments on the album, like the aforementioned ‘Kayaba’ and almost-saccharine love song ‘Suay’ (‘Beautiful’), that are the biggest departures from No Good have done before.

“We’re not traditional people, so why do we have to be traditional punks?” Smek asks rhetorically. “I listened to a lot of great bands when I was growing up,” he says, citing The Clash and their varied but sonically coherent albums. “I tried to recreate what these bands did, and I feel like ‘Punk Gong’ is a direct translation of what I experienced back then.”

Ali reveals that the three of them spent a lot of time discussing how to arrange the songs on ‘Punk Gong’. “It’s not really about telling a story, but more of identifying when and where to change things up,” he continues. “For example, ‘Kayaba’ is a good break after four hard songs; that’s how we go about it.”

The variety of sounds on ‘Punk Gong’ makes it a much more dynamic and engaging listen than the bare-bones ‘Demo Kawe’, but No Good are conscious that the new material may fall flat for some listeners. Nevertheless, Smek hopes they will still appreciate that the band “thought [about] how the album was arranged and [its] dynamics.”

“As much as we want to say that we make music for ourselves, the reality is that people work shitty jobs for little pay just to buy our releases. And some of them go through a tonne of shit [to do that],” Smek says, humility creeping into his voice.

“I know you work shitty jobs to listen to our shitty songs, so we want to give you the best ‘shitty’ version of it. So ‘Punk Gong’ is a thank you note.”

No Good’s ‘Punk Gong’ is out now

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