Naarm/Melbourne Swedish D-beat inspired band Lái (a Chinese Mandarin phrase meaning ‘to come/next’) play distorted, political hardcore punk with vocals ferociously and urgently delivered in both Bahasa Indonesian and English language. Their songs explore experiences with abortion, sex work, Southeast Asia and the diaspora, religion, queer rights and more, all given voice through vocalist Alda’s lyrics. Gimmie are looking forward to the release of Lái’s forthcoming LP Pontianak. We spoke to Alda about it and of her life growing up in Indonesia as well as her experience of immigrating here to Australia.
This interview will also appear in our editor’s soon to be released book, Conversations With Punx, along with in-depth chats with members from Crass, The Slits, Subhumans, X-Ray Spex, Black Flag and more from the worldwide punk community from its beginnings to today.
How did you first discover music?
ALDA: Before she went all extremely religious, my mom used to collect CDs like Queen, Backstreet Boys, Enya, Natalie Imbruglia, all time love songs, etc. That is the first time I discovered music, and English. Matter of fact those bands are how I start to learn English, from translating their lyrics as a 6-year-old having access to early internet in the net cafes, so I could sing-along at home and understand what it says.
You’re originally from Indonesia; can you please tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up there for you?
ALDA: Honesty it feels weird to be talking about myself right now, knowing that there’s so much more relevant matter…I can’t even fully put my mind to it, but I’ll give it a go.
I grew up in a Muslim household, and schooled in a Muslim-only school until I graduated Junior High school. After plenty of begging to my religious mom, she allowed me to have a public school experience at high school, with the condition that I have to wear a hijab, otherwise I’ll be kicked out of home. I hate being forced to look religious a lot. Even since I was at Muslim school, I always sneaked out with my trusted slutty closest friends to take it off, smoke and hook up somewhere. Turns out I strongly despise being forced to look religious in public school even more, because unlike my previous school, not everyone have to wear full hijab and I feel even more out of my element.
I went to Netherland for a scholarship for a year where I get to experience that double life again— but while free of my usual religious environment, so I get to think about what I wanted to do with my life without much peer coercion. When I’m back, I decided to take it off more and start being myself at school and in public. People suddenly called me a Satanist at school and made up surreal stories and rumours of my alleged “new behaviours” [laughs]. I pushed it more with talking about atheism and Indonesia’s communist background any time I got chances to, like in class presentations and stuff [laughs]. It was hilarious! I meant the things I said back then, but it was still funny to watch the impact.
Before that, I was one of the nerdy kids that got called to the front of school ceremony so I can give some short speech after winning some nerdy things like English debate competitions – I used to get into school competitions a lot because that was my excuse to get out of home. A lil’ bit of nerdy model student y’know [laughs]. But after I took off my hijab and stop giving a fuck about maintaining that “good image”, the teachers condemned me, most students tried to stay away from me like they can get infected with my godlessness, the school almost not letting me graduate because I didn’t graduate the religion class – it was mandatory to pass religion test for graduation – and I got kicked out of home. But it was probably one of the most important decisions I have made in my life so far, I’m so glad I stuck to that decision. I don’t wanna live this life any other way.
But yeah, I guess my feud with misogyny embedded in religions doesn’t really end there. As you might know, Indonesia is a religious country, so religion influences almost everything—starting from law making, social judgment, social punishment, etc etc.
What was it like for you when you first moved to Australia?
ALDA: Life here is way easier than what I’ve ever experienced before. Here you can do things like dumpster diving, squatting etc. with way less risk, and there’s more ways to find out how to survive/make money. On the other hand, the rules of immigration to Australia is one of the hardest to go through, I believe, globally other than America. Especially if you come from a “third world country” like me (in quote marks because that outdated term is now a myth based on bullshit), and not come here loaded with trust-fund.
In the beginning, it was a bit hard because I was on student visa, paying it with working on the weekend (and occasionally after school when weekend & graveyard shifts is not enough). I couldn’t miss out on too many school days otherwise I will get kicked out from school (and therefore the country). I couldn’t pay the school fee late, otherwise, the same consequence. International students have to pay very high fee, and they try to make it near impossible for us to work (because they just want to take our money, not for us to make money from being in Australia; we’re just ‘cashcows’ with no rights and support back from this place, who will get dished out once we’re no longer bring the ca$h in).
I was in the cheapest school that I can find and that is still me having to pay $3,100 every 4 months. On top of my daily necessities and visa requirements. Anyway immigration rule is very classist, probably to avoid poor people from poor countries to move here. So yeah, I didn’t get to have much social life… but at least I still get to run away from fucked up shit that I would have to live with back at my hometown, so that was fine. It’s impossible to notice that the immigration rule is basically — if you are a person of color coming from a poor country, you have to go through so much more loop to stay here. My POC friends coming from America or Europe or even a rich Asian country like Singapore got their Visa waaay faster than I do, even when they have about the same amount of money in their bank account with me.
My white friends coming from those places? LOL …basically it seems like they barely have to prove anything, they get their Visa in no time, whether they have savings or not. It felt pretty shit to watch that. Treatment for white people in rich countries are like some “exclusive rich kids club” in my eyes, and maybe in the eye of “people like me”; like we had to prove so hard that we are worthy to enter the gate of this privilege. Getting our English tested every two years as if we can get worse at it while still living here—and being told that our English is not good enough, and got laughed at when it is not perfect; as if that proves that our intelligence is lower, despite that we can talk in over 5 different languages. Pfft.
In short, when I first come here I realized I’m now living in an awkward spot of getting more privileged than my friends/family back home; but definitely damn underprivileged economically here. My life quality gets better just because it was bad before, because my country is still ravaged by richer countries such as Australia, for our gold, land, farming produce, cheap labour, cheap productions of their fast fashion brands etc.; and once people like me managed to come here in a hope for a better life, we gotta give our fortunes (if we have any) and/or slaved away for many years here and give our “excess wealth”. So that maybe, maybe we can eventually move here and be less poor. So that one day we can awkwardly laugh with our peers at some party when they cringe how the countries that we are coming from are so poor, the food that we eat are so dirty etc. etc. so they can laugh at the poverty that their people enforced on us. Shit!
You didn’t come here to hear me bitch about your racist & classist immigration system LOL but here we are.
How did you first come to performance?
ALDA: In Australia? Lái is my first one. I was very lucky that Tessa, Nissa & Timmy needed a new vocalist. Before Australia I only performed a small handful of times with a band I made with my closest friends, but at those times (about a decade ago) we were wasted together more than we try to actually perform LOL so yeah I wouldn’t count that as much performance experience.
You sing in a blend of both Bahasa Indonesian and English; why is this important to you?
ALDA: Of course it’s important for me. I’m an Indonesian. I only moved here 5 years ago, I mostly grew up there. My body is in this land but all the experience I had while growing up has formed me, and is forever relevant to me. I chose to use both languages because if I only use English – other than the looming discomfort of using the global colonial language – my vocabulary will also be more limited; I don’t know how to express things in the same layers of meaning like I would in Indonesian. Not to say that I’m excellent at it but it’s a language where I know a bit more about the culture, literacy, the guttural and poetic expression. In the end, I decided to use both. I mainly use English for messages that I’d like to say more globally, and Indonesian words for things I mainly wanna express for Indonesian/Malay speaking listeners.
The way you sing is quite brutal (which I love); are you ever afraid that the message will get lost? Or is part of the way it’s delivered help reinforce what you’re saying?
ALDA: I guess the actual reason for me is because that’s the only way I know [laughs]. Or at least that’s how I feel I can respond to the kind of songs that we have…it ends up being some sort of noise/scream therapy, a way that I can channel how I feel when talking about the subjects that I’ve written in the lyrics. I realized this means most likely people won’t be able to understand what I’m talking about, so therefore sometimes I talk a little bit about the song, so the message wouldn’t get entirely lost. And if anyone would like to know more about it, they can just read the full lyrics online in our bandcamp or somth.
How did you first find your voice? Is confidence something you have developed over time (or are still developing)?
ALDA: My first band called Negasi (2009) but I sing in a different way back then…the first time I sing like this is with Assusila (in 2011); a crust punk band from Bandung, a few years later when I felt more angry and would like the chance for “scream therapy” in a band. I can’t afford a therapist, so playing with Lái has been helpful for my mental health actually. In real life I’m one of those opinionated socially reclusive introvert, so going on stage has been a fuckin’ challenge from day one for me. I don’t naturally feel comfortable under a spotlight. I’ve spent some portions of my life trying to hide from the spotlight too, and was raised under a culture that holds high values on playing the subtlety game, so taking that spotlight feels naturally counter-intuitive. To be on stage in a country where I don’t even know many people… If you’ve been to any of our shows, especially in the first year, woof especially the first show (!!), you’ll notice how awkward I am [laughs]. I mean, I’m still pretty awkward on stage these days, but I guess I’m developing a lil’ more self-confidence..?
When do you feel most powerful?
ALDA: I feel the most powerful when I manage to put all my mind noises aside, and just do things that felt natural for me. When I get lucky, it felt cathartic, and when I’m really lucky, it also felt spiritual.
What inspired Lái to start?
ALDA: I wasn’t there from the beginning, but what I know is… Timmy had a dream where they’re in a band with Tessa, Nissa and Annelise (the first vocalist) and it was awesome; so they asked these talented babes to join them in a band, and they’re all keen, so they started. I was excited when I heard that too—I mean they’re an awesome team! I’d definitely come to their show. But Annelise is a very busy person already, hence it’s hard to find time for practice, so eventually she quit…and then Tessa messaged me if I’m interested, and I’m like hell yeah! I got to scream my lungs out and make fun projects with these amazing peeps! Stage fright aside, I was very keen.
Later in the year once all the Coronavirus uncertainty has settled down Lái will be releasing LP Pontianak (it’s also the name of the first track from the album), from what I understand the Pontianak is a female vampiric ghost in Indonesian and Malay mythology/folklore; what was the significance to you of her appearance in your creation?
ALDA: I feel a lot of connection with Pontianak. When I grew up, one of the main scary folklore figure is Pontianak. Older people told me, if a women did an abortion/child birth and died—she will turn into Pontianak. She will haunt the neighborhood, trying to kidnap babies, because she has lost her baby, and that will be “the only thing that she wanted”. Other adults told me, Pontianak is also those women hangin’ outside past sunset, sometimes they hang around frangipani trees – the tree is associated with death, because in Java it is mostly planted in cemeteries for its nice fragrance – and they will try to lure men into their embrace. The men fallen prey to Pontianak will be killed after they hookup. Some adults also added that these men will be skinned alive, but I think they might confuse it with the myth of Gerwani (one of the propaganda spread in the military regime time, when they wanted to justify the massacre of communists but that’s another story!). Other adults also told me, “Pontianak (also called Kuntilanak in Indonesia) can be turned into an attractive women, very suitable to be married. But you will have to stake a nail on top of her head, and keep it there. As long as the nail remains there, she will turn into a beautiful, obedient women, and she will be a good wife.”
As I turn older, and survived some horribly dodgy illegal abortion practices in Indonesia, met other women who are going to do their abortion in those shady, overpriced, hidden abortion clinic;
I realized fully how fucked those stories are! Why does Pontianak become a demon after she failed giving birth? And, why the hell do they think having a baby would be the only thing she cares about? Hangin’ outside at night time, is that just a way to give shit to women that are still going out having a night life, and a way to scare people off them? Also WTF?? Lobotomizing her so she can become “a good, obedient wife”?? Fuck that! Fuck those stories! Her story needs to be retold. Reclaimed, by all other women who don’t think that these hateful stories does her justice. I draw Pontianak here and there before the album artworks too, just because, of course.
In 2015, Yee I-Lann from Malaysia also made a video art called “Imagining Pontianak” where she interviewed a bunch of girls covered with long black hair (as Pontianak usually is depicted), and I lived in Kuala Lumpur at the time so one of them is me. The topic of our talk was about sex, abortion, and generally about being a women, the types of women that “Pontianak would be”. I thought her project was important and inspiring, as these topics needed to be brought up more often. We all have versions of ourselves, and therefore our own versions of Pontianak. But what she shouldn’t be anymore, is a feared folklore figure with a story told by misogynist men and women. I loved the fact that she made a cool art project out of our folklore (and I think you should check it out if you can), as I think it is very important for women living and growing in misogynistic cultures to take these shitty narratives back, to reclaim their own stories and destroy the toxic ones (or at least acknowledging how the toxic narratives affects people).
I really love the art work you did for the album too; how did you decide to draw her like that?
ALDA: Traditionally, Pontianak is depicted with long black hair… but I had a dream once where I got dragged down to a river, where the water was bottomless, and a particular Pontianak slowly swimming towards me, with all her white hair flowing gently around her face contrasting with the dark waters, and I get to watch in vivid details on how her entire looks were. Her dried up eyeballs, hollowed eye sockets, and enticing stare. Pontianak that I drew is based on her just because it feels more personal to me, although I did draw her in a way more comical version…hmm I don’t think my drawing style can do her justice to be honest, but I’m pretty happy with it.
Feminism and queer rights in South East Asia are themes that you explore in your lyrics; what has helped shape the importance of these themes to you?
ALDA: My main issue with everything surrounding my life in Indonesia since my forced-religious childhood until the demystifying moments of rape culture and sexism in the punk scene that I grew up in, can be concluded to mainly about the misogyny and rampant queerphobia. Although I’m trying to not make it define me in my current life, a bunch of traumas related to the subject have undoubtedly shaped me.
What’s your favourite moment on the record?
ALDA: Screaming (and punishing the ears of my lovely bandmates while they were having lunch LOL) without the music even playing loud at the recording, it felt funny.. There was also an attempt of recording group cackles with our mates that was hilarious and fun to do, even though we end up not using it [laughs].
Religion is another theme explored in your songs; are you a spiritual person at all?
ALDA: I’m somewhat spiritual, but definitely not religious… I think my resentment comes from being forced to practice religion that I don’t believe in, definitely put me off from being one.
Lastly, can you please share with us a really life changing moment you’ve had?
ALDA: I guess that moment in high school that I mentioned before was the main life changing thing. When I decided that being liked for what I’m not is not a good enough motivation to survive….you know, if I’m gonna try to stay alive, I might as well just do me, might actually try to make it worth the survival efforts. Even when it looks mundane, so what, right? Otherwise, what is really the point…? Self-discovery/exploration has been my constant reliable source of joy & sense of meaning. I think 2020 only makes this belief grow stronger for me [laughs].