Pride of pas­sion

A lit­tle bit coun­try and a lit­tle bit folk, The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes have great sto­ries to tell.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By N. rAMA lO­HAN en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my

TWo half brothers. one who grew up in ipoh, Perak, and the other in Shah alam, Se­lan­gor. They make up the band The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes, which has a vin­tage amer­i­cana flavour. Cue the dust Bowl, Route 66 and the Great de­pres­sion. Some­thing wrong with this script? on any other day, per­haps, but not to­day.

The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes, com­pris­ing Jo­hann and Shahrhyl Sultan, are min­ing a pool that’s per­haps rarely been mined on th­ese shores (not as un­abashedly, any­way), but not ev­ery artiste is hop­ing to have an al­bum or songs race up the charts for the sake of com­mer­cial gain. and Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes, the duo’s re­cent­lyre­leased de­but, rep­re­sents an artis­tic state­ment that goes against the grain of con­ven­tion.

Surely this is com­mer­cial sui­cide on ev­ery con­ceiv­able level? “i chose this di­rec­tion be­cause of my pas­sion for amer­i­can folk and his­tory. This al­bum is all about pride of pas­sion – it was never meant for the charts. it was just some­thing i needed to get out be­fore it be­came a re­gret,” said song­writer Jo­hann, at a re­cent in­ter­view in Pe­tal­ing Jaya, Se­lan­gor.

But surely there’s a line be­tween mu­sic purely be­ing a labour of love and seek­ing some de­gree of au­di­ence ac­cep­tance, at least for the sake of longevity?

Jo­hann may not be a fa­ther yet but he has pa­ter­nal in­stincts for his craft: “i’m not set­ting any ex­pec­ta­tions for this. i’m just go­ing to watch it grow like a child. it can be good or bad. it can fall or rise. Ul­ti­mately, what it achieves is be­yond our con­trol,” philosophised the 36-year-old se­nior art di­rec­tor.

His sin­gle-minded pur­suit isn’t with­out rea­son. in fact, he has had an ex­plicit in­ter­est in all things re­lated to the land of the free from a young age, hav­ing been ex­posed to its his­tory and cul­ture via the record col­lec­tion of his par­ents, un­cles and aunts. and the mu­si­cal in­ter­est took on a literary cu­rios­ity, af­ter which he bought books on the United States, de­vour­ing its his­tory and ar­riv­ing at the point where he was even putting brush to can­vas, de­pict­ing var­i­ous land­scape im­ages of that na­tion.

So, from the ground up, Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes was al­ways go­ing to vaunt an amer­i­can flavour, par­tic­u­larly that of the South.

“This al­bum ac­tu­ally grew from an un­fin­ished solo project in 2011, a one-man band with mu­sic very much in­spired by the sounds from mis­sis­sippi, new or­leans ... amer­i­can roots mu­sic from the 19th cen­tury, when slav­ery was com­mon­place,” re­vealed Jo­hann, who started his mu­sic jour­ney play­ing in punk/ska band Toxin 99% in ipoh be­tween 1994 and 2000.

Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes may have had a lengthy ges­ta­tion, but the al­bum it­self was writ­ten and recorded in three months at Jo­hann’s home stu­dio in Pe­tal­ing Jaya, where the brothers sur­rounded them­selves with a plethora of vin­tage mu­si­cal in­stru­ments and equip­ment to achieve its rus­tic sounds.

more than just mu­sic, this eight­track ex­cur­sion is an ex­pe­ri­ence in (deliberate) lo-fi son­ics, warm in­stru­men­ta­tion and earthy vo­cals, from lilt­ing opener Grass Be­neath The Petals to moody closer Tall Moon.

it wouldn’t be too dif­fi­cult to per­ceive Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes as a tad de­press­ing, but what it re­ally em­braces is me­lan­cho­lia, in­clud­ing the ace in the al­bum’s sleeve, Let­ter From Ten­nessee, the stand­out track with “sin­gle” po­ten­tial.

Jo­hann reck­ons that th­ese brood­ing tunes con­trib­ute to the heal­ing process for the ail­ing, even if com­mon knowl­edge sug­gests that the hu­man spirit is up­lifted by up­beat mu­sic.

“i’ve re­ceived funny feed­back where peo­ple have told me that the mu­sic will surely get the at­ten­tion of the trou­bled – those who are heart­bro­ken, di­vorced, de­pressed and have fi­nan­cial is­sues,” Jo­hann con­ceded with a hearty laugh.

in the end, his trou­bled friends con­curred with the feed­back, judg­ing by the mes­sages they left on the band’s FB page. But this is purely by ac­ci­dent and not by de­sign, he in­ti­mated: “i meant to give peo­ple hope. i’ve al­ways felt this mu­sic can cush­ion the soul. While up­beat mu­sic can get you up, my mu­sic puts you at peace.” But mis­ery ob­vi­ously still sells in the arts.

Jo­hann’s lis­ten­ing diet dur­ing the mak­ing of the al­bum in­cluded the likes of Fleet Foxes (he even got engi­neer ed Woods to mas­ter Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes), Leonard Co­hen, The Beach Boys, Van dyke Parks and Son House, and it’s this rich re­source that’s con­trib­uted to the lyrics and themes on The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes’ de­but.

But how does one syn­the­sise the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a for­eign land and in a dif­fer­ent time even? “i’ve looked at many old pic­tures of the amer­i­can south, and i try to plant my­self there and imag­ine the sur­round­ings. i also write poetry, so i al­ways have a sketch pad of ideas and i pool ev­ery­thing to­gether when i write,” he ex­plained, shar­ing that his lyri­cal themes are gen­er­ated from snap­shots of his dreams.

Cur­rently, he’s slipped into a mas­sive Bea­tles phase, so who knows where the next al­bum – which is al­ready in the works – could head. His love for rock’s clas­sic era is never far away, though, hav­ing been weaned on records by Led Zep­pelin, Jimi Hen­drix and the like.

The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes is helmed by Jo­hann, but his brother Shahryl is his lynch­pin, with­out doubt. Some of the nifty gui­tar work on the al­bum can eas­ily be traced to the 28-year-old sib­ling, hav­ing come from a back­ground of play­ing some­what more tech­ni­cal mu­sic, funkrock in­spired by the likes of Red Hot Chili Pep­pers. “He used to play in a band called Locust day­dream. af­ter not hav­ing seen him for years (the boys share a com­mon par­ent), we fi­nally hooked up again, and when i learned he was play­ing mu­sic too, i knew there was po­ten­tial for us to work to­gether.” and when the dots were con­nected, The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes was born.

Jo­hann’s keen eye for de­tail is sprawled across the al­bum’s in­lay and art­work, too. arty black and white pho­tos adorn the Cd pack­age and ru­mour has it, the house in which the photo shoot was con­ducted is haunted, but that’s a story for another day.

at the mo­ment though, it’s all about the “bleak folk hymnody” on Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes, which Jo­hann suc­cinctly de­scribes as “folk songs”. But it’s a brand of the genre that con­tains el­e­ments of the darker side of life: “i like in­ject­ing mo­rose and mor­bid sub­jects into the songs. i love con­tra­dic­tion, too, like find­ing hope in a dark sit­u­a­tion.” There couldn’t be a more ac­cu­rate sales pitch for The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes’ out­landish de­but.

Danc­ing Hymns And Bro­ken Rhymes is avail­able from Merdekarya, and http://the­cot­ton­field­scare­crowes. band­camp.com.

Brothers in arms: Sib­lings Jo­hann (left) and Shahryl Sultan have put to­gether a uniquely amer­i­cana-flavoured al­bum that de­fines The Cot­ton Field Scare­crowes’ sin­gu­lar path in the home­grown mu­sic scene.

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