The band's debut album, Axis Mundi, is a lean collection of polished indie rock.
Photo courtesy of the band.
Polka Wars are an Indonesian hipster's wet dream: four mid-twenties guys at the peak of their coolness—playing melodic rock with indie edginess and global-winking references that include postpunk, modern folk, afro-pop, to jagged electro. On their winning debut album Axis Mundi the Jakarta-based act offer 8 tracks that, perhaps unfairly, will fleetingly remind listeners of a slew of American-British indie mainstays, namely Interpol, Fleet Foxes, Yeasayer, and Wildbeasts.
But far from simply mimicking their influences—who and whatever they may be—the quartet of Karaeng Adjie (vocals, guitars), Billy Aulia Saleh (guitars), Xandega Tahajuansya (bass), and drummer Giovanni Rahmadeva manage to encapsulate familiar sounds into something that feels entirely their own.
Perhaps it's Adjie's pensive semi-baritone, the shimmering twilight guitar interplay, or Rahmadeva's emotive percussion play, but none of Axis Mundi's 8 songs feel like a wasted opportunity. Every element seems to both summon and complement each other, without any ever needing to stand out. Like the best bands, the record builds its strength by capturing the interplay of four buddies bouncing musicality of each other.
While their live sets—enhanced with electric piano and brass sections, sometimes rely a little too much of extravagant baroque-ness, Axis Mundi never disengages from feeling minimalist and intimate even when it's at its most abrasive. Songs like opener "Mokele" and "Moths & Flies" sweep along with fluid guitar and bass lines, evoking dynamics through actual interplay instead of tired tricks. Crescendoes feel natural, while verses and choruses exists without feeling like formula. It doesn't hurt that the vocal lines are melodic but subtle enough that each spin feels like a discovery (Ah! Here's the chorus!).
For what they are, the band's past was far from cool.
"We are basically a 'supergroup' of the worst, three hardcore/ metal bands at our Islamic high-school," explains Tahanjuansya with a knowing chuckle."Our long friendship is one of the main reasons we have stuck together all these years; knowing that we could stick through many more."
With all their songs being sung in (above average) English, and a lyricism that utilizes plenty of poetic twists instead of literal lines, the band certainly stands out. Their growing popularity—TV appearances are no rarity, as are shows at major festivals—may mean, however, that the band will eventually write in Indonesian. Yet, if they do, it won't be for those reasons, explained Adjie and Rahmadeva, the band's chief songwriters and lyricists.
"This first album—every song was in English," Rahmadeva said. "For our next release, there will be some sung in Indonesian. We are comfortable with both. If the first melodies sung find their mate in Indonesian, then we'll use Indonesian. It's just a coincidence that on Axis Mundi all the chosen songs were not in Indonesian."
He continued, "There were a lot of personal [topics] that we consciously obscured the meaning of the lyrics and made them vague. Maybe it would embarrass us too much if they were too obvious. After all, it's us sharing our hearts and what embodies us. What is actually, personal we turn into something (that sounds) fictional. We are shy people".
The band's songwriting also continues to progress. With everything including smartphone voice-notes, studio jams, rehearsal room arrangements, and laptop demos acting as drafts before the whole band works it out together ("Billy and I add up the icing, the textures and cherry on top", said Tahajuansya on his and Aulia Saleh's role as the two non-songwriters in the band).
Last year the band won a competition sponsored by the Converse sneakers line, earning them a recording session at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn, New York. The band recorded three songs in four days and plans on releasing by the end of this year as an EP.
The entire trip was something of a blur, said Tahanjuansya.
"All I remember is that in the apartment where we stayed at, there was a dog who kept peeing on the floor" he said.
Both the Rubber Tracks and Axis Mundi sessions made the band realize that they still had a lot to learn.
"We felt like 'Oh, the way we write and record are pretty stupid, eh?'" said Rahmadeva. "It just felt like luck that the album ended up on some 'Best Of' lists last year. Going forward, we hope to be better, more 'as we are,' more honest, and of course, more lively."