Batucada is the kind of music you might walk straight past in a record store without hesitation, relegated to the oft-neglected ‘World’ section – but that hasn’t stopped Singaporean band Wicked Aura from championing the style of samba for well over a decade. Don’t think for a second that their music resembles anything you might hear in a Zumba class; if you could imagine the sounds of 311 mingling with the brutality of Sepultura, you’d be closer to describing the band’s unique hybridisation of punk, metal, dub, reggae and samba.
On their latest full-length, Beginning The End, the band awakens a primal desire to move to the rhythm more than ever. From an inclination to softly sway to songs like the opening title track and “The Fall”, to eliciting animalistic urges to stomp your feet and exchange sweat with your neighbouring audience members on “My Aura Is Wicked” and the remastered “Fight”, the band is finally ready to lift the veil on an album that took six years to come to fruition, with a vinyl release show at The Esplanade on February 19.
However, Wicked Aura’s successes overseas (which include being shortlisted for the BBC’s ‘The Next Big Thing’ in 2007) and longevity within Singapore’s music scene doesn’t mean the journey has been an easy one – in fact, quite the contrary is true. Line-up changes, drug addictions, and two band members passing away far too young – percussionists Adam Yusof in 2015 and Jaffar Sariban AKA Sarong in 2016 – have weathered the band’s pursuit of musical passion. In spite of their tumultuous path travelled so far, it seems it’ll take more than death to stop them. We sit down with frontman Idham Budiman AKA Budi to discover that while the band prepares to celebrate the release of Beginning The End, the band has come to the end of the beginning – the arrival of a wickeder aura.
So, why did Beginning The End take six years to record?
[Laughs] We first recorded it in 2011, and flushed it down the toilet in 2012 because we hated the way it sounded. It wasn't recorded properly, technically. A lot of money was lost, and we were a bit lost. It took us a while to acquire some funds, and then we re-recorded it in 2014. We’re also not the kind of people that like to rush anything.
What does Beginning The End mean to you?
It’s not “the beginning of the end”, which has quite a negative connotation – it’s “beginning the end”. I’m racing to my death; death usually means new beginnings. It’s a means to an end, almost. It’s actually very hopeful, as opposed to being negative.
The first thing that jumped out at us was the album artwork. What’s the story behind this photograph?
The cover art is of this daredevil named Jammie Reynolds from 1917 in New York. I set out purposefully for the cover to not be design-based; I wanted it to be photography-based, like some of my favourite records. I sifted through a tonne of photos, went through friends taking photos, researching stock images and libraries. But the one of Reynolds stood out; there was something about it. There was something about the isolation, the danger, the thrill. It’s the pictorial version of everything I wrote for the album.
"I've always considered us as outsiders in the local music scene...we've always followed the beat of our own drum."
The album sounds a lot more focused in comparison to your debut, Louder Than Light, and the percussion is a lot less obvious.
That's a good point. The first album was a period of transition; you can tell that on Louder Than Light it was half pop songs, half strictly samba and Batucada. And then we had the song “Fight” – which was the one that the BBC took notice of. We were enjoying how the sound was evolving and where it was moving towards, and we decided that the next album would be vocal-based songs. But the songwriting process is a lot more complex than a typical rock band; it’s almost scientific in that you have to layer it really well, or it’s going to sound like a mess. To be able to skillfully take that paradigm of Afro-Brazilian drums and then throw in elements of dub, reggae and rock, takes years of evolution.
The title track of the new album starts off quite dark, and stands in contrast to the party vibe of some of your earlier songs. What was the reason for the shift?
I didn’t set out to write darker themes, but I was going through a pretty tumultuous period of my life. I wrote that song in 2010-2011, and “Beginning The End” was actually written as a swansong. There were a lot of deaths around me, of friends and family – but there’s positivity in the song. There’s a sense of helplessness, but not without a little bit of hope. It’s a song for strength; I’m very proud of that song.
Do you ever fear that your style of music is relegated as a ‘novelty’?
People in Singapore have always kind of pigeonholed us as a percussion band, “that band that plays drums”. It’s such a misnomer, it’s not correct. It did very much start out as a percussion band in 2003; we were street buskers at that time. But in actual fact, Wicked Aura is a rock ‘n’ roll band, a “song and dance” band. It’s always nice that we attract punks and metal-heads, but also samba and world music-loving types. I’ve always considered us as outsiders in the local music scene.
Why do you feel like outsiders?
I know it sounds really cheesy, but we’ve always followed the beat of our own drum. Maybe I’m disillusioned, but in the scene here, it’s either there are all these allusions to what’s fashionable or trendy, or people are very into cliques. No disrespect to the scene, we’re guilty of it too. But the scene can be pretty preoccupied with what’s hip, what’s the ‘now’. It’s very rare that I hear somebody write and play from the heart, without giving a toss. It doesn’t matter what you wear, who plays in your band, how many amazing chords you can put in – the question is, “Can you write a song with conviction or dignity?”.
"[Sarong] said, 'I want to go on stage with my brothers,' and he did. We miss him every day."
The band has certainly faced a lot of challenges, with the most obvious being the recent death of your band member, Sarong. What was going through the band’s collective mind at that time?
The death of our two brothers has been very tough. Sarong was fighting cancer for slightly over a year. He was very hopeful; he’d say, “don’t worry about it”. He was one of my best mates. We got permission from the hospital to take him out for a few hours, and he came up on stage in a wheelchair with us at Baybeats. That was the last. He said, “I want to go on stage with my brothers,” and he did. We miss him every day. He was a well-loved guy and a firestarter on stage. I’m sure a lot of people could say sh*t about me, but nobody could say a thing about Sarong. “Beginning The End” was actually his favourite song off the album – I don’t know what that means, but he was very positive in his last days. He was prepared to meet his maker, in his own words.
Given these challenges, what’s kept your ‘band of brothers’ together all these years?
We’re very good together. It’s always been a band of brothers. Brothers fight all the time, but we fight because we care. I consider the current line-up Wicked Aura, Mark III. There’s about six of us who are original, founding members. Some of the guys in the band actually grew up watching us in secondary school, which doesn't make me feel any younger [laughs].
Did not hitting your crowdfunding target demoralise you in your efforts regarding the physical release of the album?
No, of course it didn’t [laughs]! We’ve been through 14 years of hell. Drug addiction, people dying, touring all over the world…money won’t set us back. You’d have to be insane to think that things like money and your number of Facebook or Instagram followers are going to affect your morale. At most, it’ll affect how far the music may reach, but if you’re constantly doing live gigs, you don't have to worry.
Wicked Aura brings Beginning The End to the stage at Esplanade Annexe Studio on February 19 at 7:30pm. For tickets and more info, visit btelaunch.peatix.com.