Interview: Indra Ameng

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Last September, we had the chance to sit down with an influential character in Jakarta’s current alternative art and music scene, Indra Ameng. Carrying the title as ruangrupa‘s program director, band manager of White Shoes and The Couple’s Company (WSATCC), concert organizer and photographer, Indra Ameng managed to shed light on the scene and how much has changed throughout the years.

Indra Ameng

As an alumnus of Institut Kesenian Jakarta (IKJ), the place somehow magnetized Indra Ameng to venture into the art world and make a living out of it. His active involvement with ruangrupa, (a non-profit organization that strives to support the progress of art ideas within the urban context) began when he was invited by friends in ruangrupa which he remained close contact with during university days, to join in one of their projects while still working in a production house. He had run various projects with the organization and as time progressed, he decided that’s where he belongs. He then offered himself to be the manager of WSATCC when he discovered the band’s attention to detail in capturing the essence of classic Indonesia style and their ability to create a distinctive sound that not many bands can pull off. Later on, he started organizing numerous of music events structured under the group ‘Secret Agents’ consisting of him and Keke Tumbuan whom he shared the passion and enthusiasm for photography and together, the two had also conceived of several great photography exhibitions over the time.

Despite the independent scene in Jakarta being plagued by a myriad of problems such as the hassle in showcasing new talents due to the dearth of go-to places for gigs and lack of solid infrastructure, Indra Ameng remains hopeful that the creative industry has the potential to grow considering the number of musical talents sprouting up in the country and inspiring activists who are passionate in their conviction that music and art can uplift based on proven success of his own allies in the field. Indra believes that a thriving art and indie music scene must be built from the ground up with earnest hard work and passion and later points out the concept of networking as one of the important components for the continued development and growth of the music and art industry there in Indonesia.

Read more of the in-depth interview we did with Indra Ameng here:

Ameng, how long have you managed and been with WSATCC? Did you work with them previously in IKJ before?
I’ve been with WSATCC since 2004 which is about 9 years. At that time, the vocalist, Sari had an exhibition in ruangrupa. We met there.

Did you know WSATCC before and how old are they now?
WSATCC is already 2 years old since 2002.

So it was 9 years ago. What’s the evolution like? How was WSATCC at that time? Were they still playing sentimental Indonesian songs or was it a different genre?
We’ve already started but at first the concept was more into acoustic. At that time there was no drummer so it sounded more like Chamber Pop but with a nostalgic feel to it – Indonesian’s nostalgia.

Did that attract you to join?

How was the starting point? How was your relationship with WSATCC? Were you and Sari close?
Oh yes, at that time I have offered myself to be their manager. We first met at TIM.

Yes, at Taman Ismail Marzuki, in Central Jakarta, IKJ.

So you were never with them in IKJ?
Never. I was a senior so it was quite a gap. I could see their potential so I started listening to them because normally the influence of these bands in the independent scene would come from indie rock or indie pop from the West but instead, WSATCC managed to capture the essence of the Indonesian style pop from years ago.

Was this the first band you were involved with?
The third band in fact.

What was the first band?
The first was Paper Light. That was in 1992. They were playing a cover song of The Cure. Then when I was still in an art school in Jakarta Arts Institute, my friends asked to manage their band, Rumahsakit. They’re more into Britpop.

Was that the second band?
Yes, the second.

Was that your starting point in contributing for the Jakarta’s music scene?
Yes, first time engaging with the scene.

So you were the one that started the gig with Rumahsakit?
Yes, with Rumahsakit.

How was your start with IKJ at that time? Who did you collaborate with?
Actually in IKJ, it’s like a turning point because I was there since 1993. It was kind of a turning point you may say, like from a rock metal era into alternative era. So it’s not just the influence that’s changing but also the style. But then in ‘93, grunge, alternative, Britpop etc., the style is different. Not every student has the typical art school style. Before, they would have long, messy hair. They would color their hair and form new bands. If before, all music gigs in the art school would always play metal, or let’s say, Rolling Stones, or some kind of blues or Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, then it switched to playing new music – punk hardcore.

Do you still remember your first gig that was different from the metal scene or maybe there was no metal band at first instead, maybe indie or alternative?
I think it was initiated by one of them. It was Andri Lemes, the singer of Rumahsakit. He and his friends organized it and invited bands from outside campus. Those bands played Oasis – hardcore stuff. Suddenly the virus spread. From there on, many students would want to play on stage and form a band.

So at first the band only played cover songs?

Were there any IKJ alumni with you? In your opinion, is there anyone who is still active in terms of building the modern culture in Jakarta currently?
The one from my batch is Irwan Ahmett or better known as Iwang, who remains a true artist. He is a graphic designer that produces inspiring artworks. And then there’s Tandun. Tandun is also influential as he always does artworks for bands. He normally creates a lot of cover designs for these bands even up to this day. He was involved with the last album cover for WSATCC, the album Vakansi and most recently, Seringai. He does a lot of covers. There’s also Platon and he’s a director that produces tons of music videos for his close acquaintances. There are also Anggun dan Batman. Angun’s a video artist. So you can say it’s a complete group in IKJ art school. You have a friend who’s a photographer, you have a friend that makes video. You have a designer friend. So we would work with each other to form a new image or style.

Indra Ameng

New movement as well?

Together with Keke, you guys are known as Secret Agents. Tell us about the events you have organized as ‘Secret Agents’. What do you plan to achieve through these events?
First, we love to see new bands, new exciting bands. And in this moment, maybe in 5 years time, it’d be hard to discover new bands because it’s sporadic. The movement is sporadic and also because Jakarta is a big country, and you have to know a lot because sometimes the concept or the gig is kind of exclusive, thus the information is not well-spread. So we want to make our own gig so we could invite these new interesting bands and we can team up as buddies. Simple as that. We really want to showcase the bands and make it a routine – to be a monthly gig.

The Indonesian scene is kept alive with various projects. In your opinion, based from what you just told us, what encourages them to start this kind of activity?
Personally I think it’s because being in a band is cool. That might be the first reason. It’s really cool to have a band! Maybe at first it was that. Everyone has to develop their own characters and through forming a band, you can.

They’re really motivated to start.  What do you think could be the main factor as to why they’re desperate in chasing their own identity?
I think it’s because they’re still young. They’re more passionate to do something and as cliché as it sounds, “express themselves”. This is because music is one of the exciting forms to do so. Music is like your life. Every day you would listen to music and that encourages people to make their own music, own identity.

Did the independent project that you managed to catch before help inspire and move you, besides music?
It might not only be in the country. There are a lot of influences that derive simply from watching an international event, video and even reading. At that time, the influence came from IKJ as there’s always an event going on in the art school. Every batch has its own event, event that’s even better than before. And that would urge people to create even more events like that, to form a movement. For example, before there was an event in IKJ called ‘Bakar-Bakaran’. It’s like a tradition, so every year new students have to make their own event. Each generation would want to make it their best.

But Ameng, you were already active since IKJ. You were so determined to contribute to modern culture and your spirit was so strong. Since 4 days ago when we first got here, you haven’t gotten enough sleep and it’s obvious that regardless where, the fight for art is challenging. You’ve chosen the reality of this “art world” from the start, and have you ever reached ends meet because you got stuck with the reality in finding money?
I did for sure. But my turning point was when I joined ruangrupa. Because before I was there, I was working in a production house. I’ve also worked in an agency. And it was boring and chaotic. There’s ruangrupa and you can gather there. And speaking of money, it can never be enough. The problem of insufficient money has always been there. And talk about being poor, it’s common. So there’s nothing to lose actually. Maybe as long as we’re satisfied, satisfied if we managed to actually achieve something, then that is something else. Meaning, from start you have to have a bunch of friends and network always helps in finding new projects. So it’s a never ending cycle.

Yes. So currently you’re working full-time?

From all these projects, you have managed to come out with ruangrupa, WSATCC, The Secret Agents, your own events such as SUPERBAD!. Personally, I am so impressed by ruangrupa. What is the main ideology behind it?
Actually we’re trying to create kind of a playground for artists. Because here in ruangrupa, everyone works together as a team and we would always create projects that focus on the subject of the town – (urban). That’s a subject that relates close to us every day. And art works as a medium, a language. Basically, we’re discussing about shared-opinions. The ideology is for a social mission.

To conclude everything, with WSATCC you managed to grow from Southeast Asia to outside Southeast Asia. What do you most proud of the activists in Southeast Asia’s independent scene?Mostly all of them would discuss about the happenings in Indonesia. In Indonesia, the rule to work in this field requires a lot of hard work, because in terms of financial there’s no guarantee. But this people remain passionate and would always come out with new projects, something new every time. And from where I see it, there’s always a high demand from public in terms of new art. There are tons of ways and opportunities here, thus there are still a lot of things that haven’t been explored and I see it as something dynamic. But the problem is here, we have worst infrastructure. Which is why I think, it’s time to work on improving better infrastructure. Musically, I’m really interested with the idea of ‘The Wknd’ as here in Indonesia, we lack the infrastructure for music, touring and also distribution although in terms of networking we’re pretty close to the States and Europe. But building the network itself is a crucial effort. Everyone is busy with their own project. But maybe in the near future, that would no longer be a problem as I think the true priority should be based on building a network.

These chances can only be seen by a few thus it’s hard to penetrate.
Instead, we see bands from the States and Europe; they managed to go on a Southeast Asia tour. Even bands within Southeast Asia failed to do so.

They lack infrastructure and people. Throughout your experience, who are the activists that you can mention in this interview within Southeast Asia (such as in Thailand, there’s Pok etc.) Who other music and culture activists that you’ve met, appreciate and think highly of? Maybe you can also share a little bit about artists that you respect in Indonesia and within Southeast Asia to sum it all up.
In Indonesia, I have respect for the metal scene that manages to build solid infrastructure and creates stronger networks. One of them is Burgerkill. The punk scene seems to evolve pretty well here, they’re still growing. In Indonesia itself, the chains of islands (archipelago) could cause a problem as it is very complicated for any scene to grow outside of the Java Island because normally that’s where the center of everything is. Maybe in Southeast Asia, there are these guys I know based in Bangkok –  DJ Non and Pok as they’re always involved with events. In Kuala Lumpur, I know Arif, Ili and someone who’s constantly evolving, Aidil Couple. However in Singapore, I have not yet developed a solid network there.

Maybe in the near future. Thank you Ameng.
Thank you.

Indra Ameng

Interviewed by Azam Hisham
Written by Izyan Liyana