Sound Check, vol. 9: Bilal Indrajaya

By: Patricia Kusumaningtyas |

Bilal Indrajaya is not your people-pleasing songwriter; the musician who hails from Tangerang Selatan writes music that is far from anthems or battle cries. Instead, he writes deeply personal songs that hits close to his listeners’ home. His strength lies in his musical landscape; he starts out his single “Biar” with reversed sounds of musical instruments, vocal layering, and rising synths—all before his voice takes center stage. His second single, “Ruang Kecil,” follows the musical motif of “Biar” with the guitar and vocal layering. Listening to these two songs, we can obviously sniff out Bilal’s influences and his own preference in music—we hear notes of late ’60s British rock bands and early ’00s Indonesian rock bands.

After two of his deeply original singles and a song with Vira Talisa, “He’s Got Me Singing Again,” Bilal released Purnama in 2019—a 6-track album touching on themes such as loss, home, and starting anew. The album starts out with “Merekah” that transitions seamlessly to “Gulana,” in which he references his two previous singles. In “Irma,” based on his mother, he builds an upbeat yet nostalgic musical base below his lyrics that tells a story about going back home. “Singgah” is a retrospective exploration of loss and things left unsaid, with an instrumentation building up into an emotional rollercoaster. “Purnama” is a quiet track representing the night, while “Lagu Cinta Untuk Dunia”—also a collaboration with Vira Talisa—is an upbeat track representing the morning after.

Bilal Indrajaya not only shines through his musicality, but we can hear from his work that he also respects the musicians that came before him and memorializes them in a way that is also uniquely himself. The Speed of Sound Mag team talked to Bilal about interpretation, collaboration, making genuine connections, and the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory.

(To follow through with our musical references, refer to this playlist as you read—populated with the music we talked about & beyond.)

Hello from Speed of Sound Magazine! Do you have any songs stuck in your head these past few days?

I have a lot—one of them is Mocca’s “The Object of My Affection.”

Speaking of influences, it is known that you are a big Beatles & Dewa 19 fan. When did you first admire them and how did they shape your life until now?

I discovered The Beatles when I was in junior high school or elementary school. There’s this urban legend called Paul is Dead, which I got introduced to by my friend Marsha who’s really into exploring a lot of things. He liked The Beatles first. One day, he asked me, “Do you know anything about Paul is Dead?” I answered, “No, what’s that?” He told me that it’s a conspiracy theory, that Paul McCartney of The Beatles actually died in the mid-60s and was replaced by an impostor. The first time he told me about it, I thought, it sounds like a movie. And so finally I browsed around for more information about it. They used to have a website on it, it’s called—I don’t think it exists anymore now. I believe this was 2008, around grade 7 or 8 of junior high school. I read on and I found the urban legend really interesting; they had a lot of clues, including their album covers, from Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, to Anthology. And then, one thing led to another, and I listened to The Beatles’ full discography, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, all the way to Anthology and their singles in Past Masters 1 & 2. Turns out I’m actually really into them. I realized that their music is incredibly rich and their style is very pioneering. I even learned the guitar and the bass because of them; before then, I only knew how to play the piano.

And for Dewa 19, my dad is really into them. So, I guess it runs in the family.

But do you believe in the conspiracy theory, though?

A little yes and a little no. When I was in junior high I was really obsessed by it; I even printed out the clues and memorized them. For example, in “She’s Leaving Home,” the supposedly fake Paul McCartney sings “Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock as the day begins,” stuff like that. And in “A Day in the Life” John Lennon sings “He blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” I was really into it. And then they said there are some songs that reveal messages when you play them backwards…

Is it Strawberry Fields Forever?

Yup! There’s a lot more than that, though.

These songs supposedly revealed Billy Campbell, right? The name of the McCartney impostor.

Yup, Billy Campbell. There’s a lot of songs. They said Revolution 9 has the secret message. And a lot more. The point being: I discovered the band from the urban legend first, not from their albums first.

There’s different characteristics to each Beatles member. There’s John who’s more pop compared to others. And then there’s George who’s more spiritual, and so on. Which Beatle influenced your music the most? Or is it just The Beatles as a whole?

I’d say The Beatles as a whole, but my favorite Beatle is Paul. I don’t know; I just really like him. Sometimes I like to imagine that he’s my own grandfather. He’s just really cool. And he’s left-handed, just like me. But musically, I’m most influenced by John; he likes to play with zany chord progressions, much like Ahmad Dhani from Dewa 19. For me, John Lennon is actually a very vulnerable artist; he hides his vulnerability by “act[ing] like a clown.” The song “I’m a Loser” is very John. “Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”

In general, each member has their own distinct character, and they show it really prominently. Ringo with his drumming, Paul with his voice, and so on.

Do you agree that in creating music, looking back to the past is as important as looking to the future? Are there a lot more to explore in our past, or is it more beneficial to focus on the future?

Both are equally important. I believe that ideas and references can come from places we don’t expect. Maybe I know more old releases than new ones, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to new releases. There’s a lot of equally fascinating new releases. I tend to explore more old ones because it’s been proven that they’ve influenced a lot of musicians in the present. So, for example, I’m really into Liam Gallagher. I would listen to the musician who influenced the musician I’m really into, so I would check out John Lennon’s works, who influenced Liam Gallagher. Or for example, Ahmad Dhani is heavily influenced by Queen. So, I would check out Queen. Looking to the past and to the future is equally as important; it’s not one or the other. The richer in knowledge you are, the better.

Now, moving on to Purnama; what’s your motivation in creating Purnama and what message do you want to convey to your listeners?

Purnama is a recollection of events that I’ve gone through. This is a medium for me to tell my story. If you ask me, “Do you create songs for other people or for yourself?” I make songs primarily for myself. I never make songs that specifically cater to whatever the public is enjoying at that time. I make songs purely based on what I think is enjoyable, what I think is interesting. And when it’s released, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the listeners. Depends on whether they like it or not; I have no way of knowing if most listeners do. Purnama is multiple stories compiled into one collection. Why EP? I honestly don’t know why it’s an EP—even though duration-wise, it’s very short, less than 20 minutes. Musically, Purnama represents a collection of sounds that I like, melodically and lyrically. If we’re talking about lyrics, Purnama is not too metaphor-heavy, not too critical. I’m not a complicated lyricist, nor do I talk about pressing social justice issues. It’s just what I was feeling at that moment. Maybe you’d be led to think that my life has so much drama, but it’s true. It’s been a rollercoaster, for sure.

But, definitely, there are some songs you made that deeply relate to your listeners. For example, “Singgah” hits too close to home for me. Do you ever feel the need for your music to relate to your listeners?

Well, if you relate to the songs, you are definitely open to enjoy it. My purpose is not to make my songs as anthems people would sing or listen to every time. I’m a pretty shy person, so I don’t really look up how people think about my songs.

So, you believe that interpretation lies in the hands of the listeners themselves? Since you mentioned that once you release your songs, it’s owned by the listeners by then.

I believe that my role as a songwriter is to direct how each song feels like. I believe that people can never understand their feelings with respect to a certain song without emotional clues from the songwriter. For example, the last song in my album—”Lagu Cinta Untuk Dunia” (“Love Song for the World”). People would automatically think that the song is positive, that it’s a love song for everyone, everyone can enjoy the song. I’m leading on their emotions indirectly; it’s not just the emotional role of the listener, I also have an emotional role to direct. It’s not just letting the listeners go. Or maybe the titular song—”Purnama”—it’s a quiet sad song that guides people to feel a little bit more retrospective. I also direct them through album artworks as well. But then, it’s up to the listeners to decide whether they like the songs or not. If they do, then, incidentally, we have a similar taste in music.

In “Gulana” you put in pieces of lyrics from your previous singles, “Biar” and “Ruang Kecil.” Do you value continuity as a musician? And do you see yourself doing this kind of continuity in the future?

I don’t recognize myself as an expert or a music prodigy, so I try to put in some character on purpose that sounds very me—elements that sounds like, “Oh, this is very Bilal.” One of these elements is referencing my previous songs in my new songs. FYI, I drew my inspiration for this from The Beatles and Pink Floyd. In The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” in the last moments of the song, Paul sung a few lyrics from “She Loves You.” And then in Pink Floyd’s “Time,” David Gilmour slips in a few lyrics from “Breathe.” In my work, I initially put some “Biar” lyrics in “Ruang Kecil” unintentionally, just to try it out. And when I listen to the take again, I thought, “Wow, this is actually really cute.” So, when I recorded “Gulana,” I put some lyrics in “Biar” and “Ruang Kecil” on purpose. I also have a new song I’m recording that has a few lyrics from “Gulana” in it.

Are you interested in making something more conceptually rich, like a concept album?

I’m not really a concept-heavy person; an album’s concept comes last for me. I would write the songs individually first, and when I finish them, I figure out which concept will unite the songs. I focus more track-by-track, so having a heavy concept is not really my thing.

“Irma” tells a story about nostalgia and a longing to go back home. What do you think home is to you?

I believe that home could be a person, could be a place. For me, home is where the family is. Family is home to me.

What I like from Purnama is that you don’t leave your listeners without resolution to the feelings you led them to; you end the album with the satisfying “Lagu Cinta Untuk Dunia.” Is the process harder or easier compared to your other songs that are more emotionally taxing?

My intent of putting “Lagu Cinta Untuk Dunia” after “Purnama” is that “Purnama” evokes the uneasy night, and “Lagu Cinta” evokes the morning after. So, during the night when you feel kind of uneasy and sullen, “Lagu Cinta” shows that the sorrow is over, it’s just temporary. The morning is the time where we start anew. It’s cliché’d, I know, but it’s true. I imagine “Lagu Cinta” like one of those happy songs we hear at amusement parks like Dufan or Disneyland.

In your creative process, which is more challenging for you: writing lyrics or composing melodies? Or are both equally challenging?

I find it more challenging to write lyrics. I tend to delay the process of composing lyrics and focus on melodies first. I’m not really a proficient lyricist, but I definitely put some thought into it. However, I found myself in creative blocks more often while writing lyrics.

Do you have a certain literary reference while writing lyrics?

I’m not really big on literature; my lyrics flow to my conscience in the creative process. I believe that there are two types of lyricists: those who are metaphor-heavy and those who are not. I feel like metaphor-heavy lyricists have a more robust vocabulary. You can see songwriters like Cholil Mahmud or Ade Paloh, who write in very robust vocabularies, which could stem from a large literary influence. I don’t have a vocabulary as far-reaching as them, so I just let my lyrics flow. My style is more direct than metaphor-heavy.

2019 is a big year for you—besides the release of Purnama, you performed with big names like Sore and Mocca. How does it feel to work with your idols?

It’s very surreal. These are two seasoned bands; I first knew Mocca from the film Catatan Akhir Sekolah, when I was in grade 5 or 6 of elementary school. I knew one of their songs, “I Remember,” from that film. And after that, I looked them up. I thought they were a really foreign, western band, but turns out they are very local. I remembered how their CD looked like—very fancy. And Sore! Where do I begin? I’ve only cried twice in concerts. The first one is Liam Gallagher—I definitely remember that experience, Ancol in the rain, and I caught a cold the next day. I lost my voice and I cried so hard my eyes were swollen, which is pretty absurd since his songs are very rock and roll. The second time is Sore. I really enjoy Sore; they’re a band with a really high emotional value. They’re one of the reasons why I started making my own music. If someone were to ask me the top three bands that has influenced me, it will be The Beatles, Dewa 19, and Sore.

And what about Oasis?

Oasis comes after Sore for me; it’s in my top four. Anyway, back to Sore: I have a little story that’s very emotional and exciting for me. I first knew about Sore from G-pluck, a Beatles tribute band. Awan Garnida, one of the members of Sore, is also a member of G-pluck. I would go to G-pluck performances a whole lot when I was in junior high school—around 2008 and 2009—so much that I added Awan on Facebook. We talked on Facebook and he invited me to his house. “Come visit and I’ll show you all the Beatles gear I have,” he said. I was thrilled. When I arrived to his house, I saw his amazing gear collection and he took me to his computer room. He asked me, “Have you ever heard of Sore?” I told him that I haven’t heard of them, and I asked him why. “Oh, never mind, it’s nothing,” he said. Even though he said it was nothing, I kept thinking about it on my way home. I googled the band and it all made sense when I realized that this guy from G-pluck is also in Sore. Then, I started finding out more. And what’s funny is that when I got invited to perform in their Oye Adelante showcase, I was asked to perform the first Sore song I’ve ever heard—”Senyum dari Selatan.” Musically, Sore is a groundbreaking band and they have influenced me in all aspects of my songwriting—lyrics, music, and so on. I felt proud of myself to be involved in these two concerts.

How did you feel when you were performing “Senyum dari Selatan,” a song that is indeed very special for you? Do you feel like you have to represent it in some way?

It’s really surreal. I’ve performed with Sore before, actually, but Oye Adelante feels different since this is their own showcase. It feels more special.

How important do you think is collaboration between musicians, especially local musicians?

It’s important in keeping the spirit of solidarity. It’s like merging two worlds together.

Is it influential to your own creative process?

Oh, it’s definitely influential. A collaboration that I really like is David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” It’s insane! Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, the wet dream of rock fans at that time. It’s like, two big giants collaborating in one work. It’s really cool. It’s like joining two worlds. But if you really think about it, both Mercury and Bowie’s auras were really similar. You have Ziggy Stardust on one hand, and you have Freddie Mercury’s diva persona on the other hand. Even though they might seem similar, they were two really big personalities, like, damn, it’s two giants of music collaborating together in a groundbreaking song. It’s important for me. It’s the birthing of ideas no one has ever thought of before. Or we can also see Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s “Say Say Say.” It’s really cool when you have big names collaborating in one project. There’s a lot of local musicians doing this as well. There’s Sore and Vira Talisa’s “Rubber Song.” I’m a big fan of both Vira and Sore, and they happen to be collaborating. It’s a really exciting thing to witness. Or maybe Ungu and Chrisye. It’s exciting for me; it’s not only about getting acquainted with each other, it’s also about ideas no one has ever thought of before. What other big collaborations we have seen in the past?

Them Crooked Vultures, too. Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones.

Yes! There’s a ton. And it’s really exciting to witness—it creates new worlds.

Bowie and Mick Jagger, “Dancing in the Street” as well. Now, what do you think about collaborations between newcomers and seasoned musicians?

It’s a really charitable thing to do for the more experienced musicians. Maybe for them, it’s a “no big deal” kind of thing, but imagine how the newcomer feels. And who would’ve guessed that this seasoned musician would want to collaborate with newer ones, opening a gate of opportunities for them, getting better exposure, and getting booked more often because of that. The positive thing about this is that there’s a spirit of solidarity in play here, and it doesn’t just stop there. Newcomers will bring their friends with them, they will get to know these senior musicians, and so it goes.

In the 600th Aksi Kamisan, you contributed in a choir with other musicians. How was the process and how was your experience?

I was invited to join the Aksi Kamisan choir by my friend Tamara; I believe she was one of the PICs of the event. It was the 600th strike, and they wanted to make a collaboration of a lot of musicians, therefore the idea of a choir was born. We sang songs by Efek Rumah Kaca and .Feast. I think it’s a positive thing to do; why not?

As a musician, what’s the importance of being aware of and giving commentary to the injustices happening in the world right now?

Having a voice and voicing it to the world is a valid thing to do. I personally have never had experience in that field, human rights and social justice. I can’t really comment a lot on that, but voicing your thoughts and creating art that comments on current events is definitely valid. As long as it’s positive, why not?

if we look back to history, we’ve seen social movements driven by music, like the anti-war protests during the late 60s. Do you see this happening in the Indonesian music scene?

It’s definitely possible. If we look back to the past, and we see works from people like John Lennon—he wrote “Imagine.” Well, it was the 70s, but before then he wrote songs like “Give Peace a Chance” before that, and it’s valid. He’s just voicing what’s in his mind. And with the presence of bands like Efek Rumah Kaca and .Feast, it enriches the Indonesian music scene. It shows that Indonesian musicians are not only capable of sappy love songs, but they are also capable of commentary on human rights and social justice. It’s proof that local musicians are capable of so many things.

Regarding the visuals of your own work—the most noticeable thing from your visuals is the title screen of your music videos, which looks a lot like old films. Do you feel like uniting your visual identity as a musician?

The title screen looks like the title screen of old films because I’m positioning each and every one of my music videos as a movie. It’s a personal preference from me. I’m a big fan of Warkop, and the title screen is an indirect influence from Warkop. I don’t really know how it will go in the future; I’ve had three of my music videos taking on that style, so I think I will continue doing that in the future.

Do you have a specific preference in choosing your director, production house, etc?

Honestly, it’s because I really want to work with those people. I worked with my first production house because I really wanted to work with them. I’m not really proficient in film editing or directing, so as a reference, I look at the portfolio of the people I work with. For example, Stella (director of the music video for Irma) worked with Pamungkas and directed his music video. I was really impressed by her work, and we made it happen. I myself put my focus on the music itself; my task is to explain what the narrative is behind the songs, and I trust all the technical stuff to my production house.

And, lastly—what’s your favorite thing about the Indonesian music scene?

The best thing is that I can get to know the musicians I listen to growing up, and that I can learn from them. I’ve never thought of that in the past. The simple examples are Mocca and Sore; I’m such a big fan of them, and I got the chance to get to know them once I’ve dipped my feet into the Indonesian music scene. I have no desire to elevate my own social status or whatever; I’m legitimately happy that I’ve had the chance to get to know them in person. I learned how people like Ade Paloh, Riko, and Toma are in real life, and there’s a ton of things that I can learn from them—on music, on life, and a bunch of other things. Getting to know them. Not making temporary connections! Actual, real life connections.

And definitely not networking.

Definitely not. Making deep, profound connections—it’s the best treasure we can find. It’s a form of wealth of its own. Here’s how I put it—I believe that to be able to know and learn from people we idolize is the greatest gift that money can’t buy. Like what you and I are doing right now, getting to know each other, learning from each other. It’s not something we can quantify with money. Or when you get to know new people from your local scene in a gig. It’s a really exciting thing. Once again, not networking. It’s solidarity.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity and translated from Indonesian. Claudia Siregar, Ralka Skjerseth, and Syahzanan H. F. contributed to some of the questions.

Listen to Purnama here:

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