“Girls, gays and in-betweens to the front!” shouts Angeeta Sentana. The excited crowd at Gudskul, an arts space in south Jakarta, jostles to heed her call. Frontwoman Sentana and her band Grrrl Gang then launch into ‘Pop Princess’, an irresistible power pop single about a charismatic heartbreaker who should really ditch the guy who’s bringing her down. “He’s a jerk and a maniac, why waste your time on him?” Sentana asks. After the chorus, she leads a thrilling chant: “Be aggressive, be aggressive / Stop being passive!”
Wry humour, sticky-sweet guitar riffs and singalongs that leave you feeling exhilarated and empowered: this is the music of Indonesian indie trio Grrrl Gang. It’s fitting to hear Sentana put a 21st century spin on the clarion call that riot grrrls in Olympia, Washington sounded decades before: 11 days ago, Grrrl Gang’s debut album ‘Spunky!’ was released in the Americas by Kill Rock Stars, of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy fame – the riot grrrl label itself.
Released to glowing reviews from publications in Indonesia and beyond, ‘Spunky!’ is Grrrl Gang’s introduction to the world. For those who have followed them since their beginnings as a university group in Yogyakarta, it’s also their official coronation as one of Southeast Asia’s finest indie acts – and a stunning resurgence for a band that almost never made it out of the pandemic. “I honestly thought we were going to break up,” says Sentana. “The uncertainty was just so stressful to think about,” adds bassist Akbar Rumandung.
When Grrrl Gang formed in 2016, they were kids playing in a “sandbox”: Yogyakarta, a city in Central Java known for its vibrant arts culture and abundance of universities. “College students, musicians and many others come to Jogja to create something,” Rumandung says, using the city’s common nickname. “You can basically choose who you want to be in Jogja for that period of time – especially us college students.”
During this formative, experimental period, Grrrl Gang turned out releases that swiftly marked them as ones to watch. They debuted on Jakarta indie label Kolibri Rekords with the 2017 double-single ‘Stop This Madness’, which effectively went viral on the trio’s university campus. A year later they dropped the EP ‘Not Sad, Not Fulfilled’, which crystallised a signature sound for the band: sweet songs with a slight tang, bright indie pop ditties with an undercurrent of bleakness. They began to tour, gathering a nationwide fanbase and even turning heads around Southeast Asia through shows in Singapore and the Philippines.
These heady years culminated in ‘Here To Stay!’, a remastered compilation of their EPs on the UK label Damnably (that was praised by influential critic Robert Christgau), a booking for SXSW in 2020 and a spot in the NME 100 2022. When that edition of SXSW was cancelled, the band channelled their disappointment into a light-hearted music video for their 2021 single ‘Honey, Baby’ – one that cast them as superstars and their friends as scruffy members of Grrrl Gang on the road in ‘Texas’.
A cheery disposition and sense of humour have long been part of the Grrrl Gang package – from the laugh-out-loud opening lyric of debut single ‘Bathroom’ (“My baby is taking a shit in the bathroom”) to the zany chorus of 2023’s ‘Spunky!’: “I was born in the pit / I gave birth in the pit / I never shave my pits / Let me swallow your spit”. But the new record goes to dark places the band have only dipped their toes in previously.
‘Spunky!’ begins with a rush of energy that quickly reveals its origins in mania and anxiety – memorably captured in opener ‘Birthday Blues’ and the frenzied title track – and then spirals into doubt and self-loathing.
“I thought, ‘I’ve gone through so much shit in my life. If I overcame that, I can overcome anything’” – Angeeta Sentana
“The overall theme of this album is how reckless you can be when you’re younger, especially between the ages of 22 and 24,” explains Sentana, “and also the mental health issues that you might be facing during this time because it’s a huge transition within your life. Sometimes when you’re depressed and don’t know how to deal with it, you escape into substance abuse – and that’s unfortunately what happened to me.”
Much of the album reckons with an alcohol dependency that escalated while Sentana was in college and as Grrrl Gang was on the rise. “I started to be so dependent on alcohol every time before we performed. That was already bad,” she recalls. “After classes I would drink by myself, or go to a party on Friday, and then Saturday again.”
Sentana went cold turkey during the pandemic, which would turn out to be a trying period for the band as a whole. She had severe writer’s block, as did guitarist Edo Alventa, who descended into a period of heavy depression. “We didn’t know what was going to happen for the next six months in the pandemic,” says Rumandung. “There were no shows. The music industry was paralysed.” Grrrl Gang were, like many other bands worldwide, on the brink of dissolution.
By this point, all three of them were no longer naive undergrads in Jogja but adults with 9-to-5s in the big city of Jakarta. As pandemic restrictions eased, the trio emerged from isolation and reconnected, opening up about their struggles in lockdown and having serious conversations about the band’s future. Together again in Indonesia’s sprawling, hectic capital, Grrrl Gang found themselves at a crossroads. “We realised: if we don’t create something together while we’re all here, it might be better for us to just disappear,” Sentana says.
“There’s a saying: bands from Jogja that move to Jakarta or other cities when they finish college will disband,” says Rumandung. Grrrl Gang decided they would break the curse. Sentana pushed through her creative block by writing the first song for the record, ‘A Fight Breaks Out At A Karaoke Bar’, and then keeping at it until it felt “effortless” again. Instead of working with a producer they already knew, Grrrl Gang picked someone from outside their circles: Lafa Pratomo. Over a month-long recording process, the band had free rein of Pratomo’s studio, Alventa’s experiments with guitars and pedals manifesting in the noisy, grungy moments of ‘Spunky!’ – textures never before heard in Grrrl Gang’s discography.
The band describe Pratomo as a producer who needs to “deep-dive” with his collaborators. “Talking to Lafa before recording really helped me access those old moments [in the lyrics],” says Sentana. “I told him everything that happened in college, from shitty exes to sexual assault experiences and sexual harassment on stages. I harboured all these feelings that had always been stored in my body but never vocally expressed.”
Despite its intense subject matter, the album ends on a high note. After hitting “the lowest point of rock bottom” with her alcohol abuse, Sentana realised that something had to give. “It got to a point where I was just really alone and I thought to myself, ‘well, I can’t continue doing this. Either I kill myself, or I change for the better’.
“And for some reason I thought, ‘I’ve gone through so much shit before in my life, and if I overcame those past events, I can overcome anything’. I want to give that hopeful message to everyone who listens: that it’s not going to be like this forever.”
“I hope I inspire young women to pick up any musical instrument and write their own songs” – Angeeta Sentana
And so the record gets Grrrl Gang to a place of hope and resolve – ‘Blue-Stained Lips’ capturing the heart-bursting joy of a loving relationship and ‘The Star’ confidently surveying a future ripe with possibility. It’s a buoyant closing track that echoes the band’s exciting trajectory right now, which sees them building their listenership beyond Asia – they’ll perform at the inaugural SXSW Sydney this month, and are planning more shows abroad – and having their album released on Kill Rock Stars.
For Sentana, who listened to Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney while making ‘Spunky!’, a co-sign from Kill Rock Stars was the stuff of dreams (the spelling of ‘grrrl’ in the band’s name is no coincidence). In a Zoom meeting with the label, she recalls, “I was sitting quietly, smiling, but my hands were shaking under the table.”
Grrrl Gang were, from the beginning, a statement against machismo in Indonesia’s music scene – specifically the othering and objectification of female musicians. That was one of the reasons the band named themselves Grrrl Gang: to anticipate and defang that misogynistic framing, says Sentana. I know you’re going to see me as a woman in a band – so I’ll own it. That was the logic.
Nevertheless, Grrrl Gang still came face to face with these ugly perceptions. “No one really saw me as a songwriter,” Sentana says of her experiences fronting the group, especially early on. “They would just focus on me being a woman in a band: the mouthpiece, the trophy for this group. They only focused on how pretty I looked, and never on the qualities of the songs we make.”
And with Grrrl Gang, it’s all about the songs. “We always thought that this band had to have a female perspective for all lyrics and narration,” Rumandung says. “We never had that before, especially in Indonesia where the industry and community are too masculine sometimes. We need to balance it. And there are lots of stories that Angee needs to tell.”
As a storyteller and a musician, Sentana hopes she can be a positive influence: “I just hope I inspire young women to pick up a guitar or any musical instrument and write their own songs.” That hope manifests in their music video for ‘Spunky!’, which follows an introvert at a rowdy Grrrl Gang show. As she gazes at Sentana, resplendent before the crowd, her discomfort morphs into open-mouthed awe – and before long she’s imagining herself holding a guitar, standing on stage singing ‘Spunky!’.
As the song winds down, she turns tail and walks out of the audience, wearing a curious expression on her face. It’s deliberately ambiguous, but Sentana confirms it: it’s a look of determination.
Grrrl Gang’s ‘Spunky!’ is out now via Green Island Music (ROW)/Kill Rock Stars (Americas)/Trapped Animal (UK)/Big Romantic (Japan, Taiwan).
Listen to Grrrl Gang’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Writer: Karen Gwee
Photography: Hafiyyan Faza
Styling: Grrrl Gang
Makeup: Chika Putri
Label: Green Island Music
Location: Antasari Studio