We Talk to Melancholic Bitch About Happiness and New Order Propaganda

The legendary Jogja band talks with us about family planning, growing up under Gen. Suharto, and why it took them eight years to release their new album.
Photo courtesy of Ugoran Prasad. 

After eight years of laying low, Yogyakarta's Melancholic Bitch released their third studio album, NKKBS Bagian Pertama, earlier this month. Their previous record, Balada Joni dan Susi, is such a great piece of art that it still has me floored today. Excuse my lack of objectivity here, but Melancholic Bitch are one of few bands I listen to among the sea of mediocrity that currently makes up the Indonesian indie scene.


What makes each new Melancholic Bitch release exciting is not just the music, but the story behind it as well. NKKBS Bagian Pertama is filled with the band's typical restlessness, this time focused on the government's control on the most private area of society—the family—and the mental terror felt by Melancholic Bitch's not-so-young members during Gen. Suharto's repressive New Order regime. The album's title refers to the New Order's forced family planning program NKKBS that used state control to ensure that family sizes remained small.

I spoke with Ugoran Prasad, the band's vocalist and word-magician-cum-writer, to talk about the meaning behind their latest album—the concept of small, happy families, anti-contraception laws, and how Melancholic Bitch doesn't give a shit about critics' reviews.

VICE: The new album is only the first part, will this be a trilogy or tetralogy? And why did it take you eight years to record?
Ugoran Prasad: We don't know yet how many other parts there will be. This first part was a process with many collaborators. On the next album we have this idea of inviting our friends to work together, to hang out, and to exchange ideas. We had other projects to finish, but Melancholic Bitch's NKKBS Bagian Pertama was the most pressing matter at the time. The album has been in the making for some time now. We finished our demos a while ago and the collaborators worked very quickly, so our experiment just kept on going.


Suharto's government, through a series of public service ads called 'The Happy and Prosperous Small Family Norms' (NKKBS), claimed that happiness is all but guaranteed happiness as long as they stick to the state-sanctioned norms of raising a small nuclear family. How did this program influence the album?
For us, the problem isn't with the concept of NKKBS nor whether it is 'right' or not. What's problematic is the presentation of the concept when you think about the country's political landscape back then compared to how it is now. NKKBS has now become a collective memory for those who lived through the New Order era. I also want to have a small family. But today the government is still trying to implement moral, political and social control, not to mention ideological and political bias in its citizens.

Can you measure happiness? What's a happy family like?
The notion of happiness is the problem. Everyone has dreams of being happy. Now, the government is acting as if they can ensure family happiness by establishing family norms. They're trying to turn families into agents of change. When the government stabilizes the role of families and uses all its bureaucratic infrastructure all the way down to the smallest unit like posyandu (local health services post) and babinkamtibmas (security and public order advisors), there appears to be state-sanctioned social ideas on what is taboo and what is not. Back then, the government used military force and the state's strength to realize this, but in this reformation era, it's even more worrying. How does the government implicitly run their operations in schools and the family level?


So the old saying 'banyak anak banyak rezeki' ('more children, more prosperity') is no longer relevant?
Personally, I think this saying is problematic. Ecologically, it's impossible to pull off, considering the natural resources available. Human breeding can get out of hand if it's not controlled. But that's a personal choice. People can do whatever they want, as they must have their own reasons.

Some factions in the government are currently working to revise the Criminal Code to make it illegal to promote condom use. Isn't this in opposition to the government's family planning campaign?
I'm more concerned about the logic behind this kind of control. It's the same kind of mentality that ended with France's burqa ban. So to ban anyone from promoting condom use is a form of oppression. It's like the government is a parent treating its citizens like they're dumb children.

On the song 'Bioskop, Pisau Lipat,' the lyrics roughly translate to 'Don't leave wild women alone / Wild mothers shouldn't be given a folding knife.' Is that line just word play, or does it have a deeper meaning?
Initially, I was worried about the impression that line might give. But after talking to Intan Paramaditha (a female novelist), I decided to keep it in. It's about how, in Indonesia, people often demonize female-led movements. It's like in the [anti-communist propaganda movie] G30SPKI where women were portrayed as monsters. In the movie, there's a literal scene of women dancing wildly. It's an image that stick with me for all these years.


What about the line that means 'I was forced to go to the cinema at nine'?
That's part of my memory as a child being forced to watch G30SPKI in third or fourth grade. I remember the female students crying. The very first scene was already frightening: a group of people attacking a mosque or a church. We were traumatized by the government. We didn't know how bad it would affect us. The government needs to be held accountable for this.

Is New Order propaganda still a thing? Is it still relevant?
I don't know. I don't want to be too romantic. I do want to talk about family. Talking about relevance is always just speculation. The history that we know is only part of the story, we only see the fragments of it. If someone says they can see the entire history of Indonesia, then they're lying. We wanted to talk about this issue since many people are still debating it. I don't need to be original, i just want to take part in the conversation.

A lot of your fans are complaining that you're only doing a show in Yogyakarta.
It's because we have limited time. Doing a tour is easy, we'll just let things happen. If we ever need to tour, then we'll hit the road. I happen to live in Sydney at the moment, but I can easily go back to Indonesia whenever it's required.

I often make fun of bands and write negative reviews of their record. How would you feel if I wrote a review of Melancholic Bitch's latest album?
It's not a problem. The polarity of good and bad is not important. Some people might like something out of guilt. There are always undefinable aspects of why we like or dislike something. I like it better when an art encourages discourse, not competition. Bands these days are more concerned about being competitive like they're on Indonesian Idol or something. It's all just politics in arts. It doesn't enrich meaning, it impoverishes it. If you like something, that's cool. If you don't, then that's fine.

This interview has been translated and edited for clarity and content.