Arrington De Dionyso talks his Malaikat dan Singa project

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A chat over burritos in Olympia + photos from Calvin Johnson.

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Melissa Denice Saunders | April 24, 2013

Arrington De Dionyso, Malaikat dan Singa

Photo by Sarah Cass

There is always something exciting going on with Arrington De Dionyso. Whether it’s writing, recording and performing his harried, triumphant psychedelic trance punk in his bands or sharing his thoughts about a collective utopian super-consciousness; there’s just a certain flame that he seems to burn. The same can be said about his side band Malaikat dan Singa’s new album,a self-proclaimed “dance party in the realm of magic.” When sitting down for an interview Arrington is dignified and composed because he is a Capricorn but when one is a vessel for “songs of psychic fire”, it makes his impassioned live sets all the more spectacular. Inert Arrington emanates a warmness of spirit: an impervious zen that paradoxically twins the magnanimity of his onstage persona. While we're sitting at the table in my living room, he makes sure that I have my house keys that have fallen into his tangled scarf and picks a fleck of foil out of my burrito. This kindness and attentiveness translates to the way Arrington make his music, collaborating with confidence and working out the all the details to paint the big picture. Before embarking on a North American tour in support of Malaikat’s latest Open The Crown, out April 30 on the ever-prolific K Records, Arrington graciously chatted with IMPOSE about many things including his album, his art, his band, his inspirations and finding Nirvana in Indonesia.

I was doing laundry today and I was listening–because on my computer, I have the digital copy and listened to Open The Crown again. I listened to it the first time when you had the day you streamed it and well, I'm really excited about it.

Cool. Thank you.

When I was listening to it when you streamed it that day, I just kept going, “Fuck yeah!” I haven't had that feeling for a while unless I'm listening to [Patti Smith's] Horses or something.

[Arrington laughs]

I think you should be very proud of it.

Oh, thank you very much. I really am. It's a really important album for me. Really, the first…let's see…it's the first record I've ever done with a band. It's not a solo album. [The first album] in which I've had complete control over every single sound, in terms of the recording. I did everything myself. I didn't work with any other producers or engineers or anything. I did all the recording on my own. All the microphones…I set up all my own microphones and all that good stuff.

And it's recorded on a TASCAM 388, just in case you want to take note because some people sort of fetishize those machines. It's what Thee Oh Sees use to record their records and stuff.

Do you think that it picks up the dynamics of the 'psych rock sound'?

Well, I don't know about that. They're easy to use. It's like a portable 8-track or fairly portable 8-track but it has a lot of EQ..in board…the inboard EQ is a really dynamic EQ for a machine of that size so it's like a tape machine and mixing board combined into one unit. And it gives things a very particular sound. It gives you a lot of room to experiment with in an open way…it's just really exciting, for recording.

That sounds like the sort of audiophile stuff that Ben Hargett would be into.

Yeah. Totally. I'm not here to talk about technical stuff but I figured I'd get that out of the way.

Maybe they'll give you…like, give Malaikat a sponsorship–like how skate companies give skaterboarders sponsorships.

[Laughs] Probably not. It's a pretty outdated thing compared to what people are using these days, with computers and all that.

So I take it you're not making music on Garageband.

No, but I did use GarageBand to kind of create the sketches for some of the beats. On songs like…awkward to interview while chewing…songs like “Open The Crown” and “Jiwa Dari Jiawku”–the drum beats in those songs are sort of chopped up in their rhythmic cycle. They're not a regular four-count. They're more between a five or a nine-count. And that's because I started with some beats that we had created during band practice, actually. But I took the recordings and chopped them up in GarageBand to make them, like…I would extend one part and shorten another section to make these very arrhythmic phrases and they're repeated in rhythm and kinda creates this sort of hypnotic trance effect because the rhythms don't really complete themselves the way that you would expect them to. Like a regular 4/4 rock and roll beat and so I used GarageBand to do the composing for that, you might call it. But then I took that back to band practice and then I told Ben [Kapp] and Nehemiah [St. Danger] and those guys, “Now we've got to take what we were playing and add or subtract these extra beats and try to play it like this.”

Ben Kapp, he plays drums on the record and Jake Jones, he's going to play drums on tour—how was it, in both recording and rehearsals? Has it been easy? Your ideas…do feel like you communicate them well enough to everyone in the band to pick up on it? What has it been like?

Well, I'm very lucky to work with capable and dedicated musicians who, I think, are able to let themselves hear the music kind of in the way I'm trying to hear it myself. And they're very willing to work with me to create…it's not so much about trying to play anything “weird” or trying to make a rhythm that's just like, “Let's make a rhythm that's a really 'weird' off-kilter rhythm.” It's always to an effect. We want to help build this rhythm as a vehicle to allowing this ecstatic trance state to kind of take over our minds and bodies and to bring that to our audience and create a rhythmic cycle that will envelope anybody at a show or anybody listening to a record.

And from recording to actually performing the songs, sometimes the songs undergo a lot of evolution. We’ll find that one thing that works on a recording might not translate in the same way to a live show. It’s nice to be able to do concerts or even do entire tours with having a different drummer come in and giving them the opportunity to reinterpret that rhythm because we’ll find that the songs end up being more dynamic than we even think of them initially. They evolve quite a bit over the course of rehearsal. On this next tour we’re going to do, like, 60 concerts in a row so we might sound really different when we get back from the end of the tour because every night we’re going to try shaping things in slightly different ways.


[Photo by Calvin Johnson]

I want to talk a little bit—not a little bit, a lotta bit, about Open The Crown. In speaking about performing the songs and just gauging the feeling of it, how has it been to perform the songs so far? I heard Claire Wood say that [a past Malaikat show] was a “fuckfest”

[Arrington laughs]

But…I don’t think she meant sonically. How has it been?

Well, as you may be aware, the first Malaikat Dan Singa albums were entirely in Indonesian and on Open The Crown about half of the songs are in English. And it’s actually the first that I’ve written songs in English in over, say, probably about six years. I took kind of a hiatus from using the English language in a creative context. It wasn’t anything I put a whole lot of thought in to; I just wanted to branch out and go into a different territory and dedicated myself really wholeheartedly to learning the Indonesian language and learning how to use it in a poetic context.

With the first record I started out translating my favorite quotes from William Blake. And I moved on to translating some of the sections of the Zohar—this very ancient Jewish mystical text. Really, it started out purely as a labor of love. It was just an experiment I wanted to do. I wanted to see how the sounds came together and I wanted to see how they’d be perceived by people halfway around the world hearing their own language used in a really, really different way than what they were used to hearing; sort of transcendent rock and roll poetry. And going to back to the English language with Open The Crown it’s a continuation of that ecstatic process. I’ve done all this work in Indonesian and coming back to English, I have all these songs to draw upon for lyrical inspiration. Ideas that are still really new to me because I haven’t explored those concepts very much in English, which is the language that I grew up speaking.

To have all this wealth of imagery and thematic content to bring back into English was super exciting to just play around with. I feel like when I was writing the songs I was really recording as I was writing. I’d be in the studio twelve, thirteen…fifteen hours at time just listening to the tracks over and over again and playing around: “I want to have this one word in there and I know I want to say it this way. I want to have something come out really staccato in this part. I want the voice to really mesh with this clarinet part…”—all these kinds of ways that I wanted to shape the songs. When it got to actually recording the lyrics it was like channeling this poetry that could move through me. It was a very improvisational process; improvising with the studio as a means of facilitating that improvisation. And I find that to be very exciting way to work.

In the thematic elements and lyrics [of Open The Crown]. I found there to be very specific imagery. It seemed like it was: creation, manipulation, opening, beginnings. When I heard the rehearsals for [the song] “I Feel The Quickening”, that thud sounds like the kick of a baby inside. There’s deconstruction, rebuilding…even these sort of apocalyptic scenes. Were there things you were trying to do consciously in the lyrics and sonically, or did it just come out that way?

Sort of yes and yes. It came out the way it did because…when I think of “Open The Crown”, in a lot of my paintings I draw these figures with branches of trees reaching out into the cosmos and it’s this idea—I mean, they’re not literally intended to be trees. More like, imagining consciousness as this growing kind of fire that shoots out of the skull up into heaven. It’s consciousness as this thing that connects us all to the cosmos and all of the universe. Maybe we have the potential to develop some kind of a super-consciousness. We could establish communication with other planets or alternate universes merely through the power of the imagination. Which is sort of a big theme that William Blake touches upon in a lot of his poetry. These quantum theories of, “We’re not just living in one singular universe. There could actually be a multitude of infinitely parallel multidimensional multiverses; all existing on top of each other, all at the same time.” In a way, even though that’s sort of just a theory, it is possible and very real because we have the power to imagine it. And because we have the power to imagine that, it’s almost as though we’re making it so. Because if it weren’t real, how could we possibly imagine it? And I know that’s psychedelic mumbo jumbo but as an idea it’s fun to play around with it.

Maybe the crown was opened subconsciously.

The crown…it’s funny because we were talking about “I Feel The Quickening” and the crowning is actually is another birth metaphor at the same time and I think in this context it’s intended more as a rebirth. Like a rebirthing experience and arriving at this new of transcendent consciousness. All these songs, in one way or another, I can contextualize in relationship to some experience I’ve had with ayahuasca ceremonies. They’re reflective of a psychedelic super-consciousness, or at least the beginnings of a relationship with that level of awareness of utopic space.

I hear you talking about the ideas that Blake had, lyrically and sonically, in the way the instruments are arranged; the parts are arranged. It’s frenzied, it’s erratic but it also…

Absolute clarity, in the songwriting and the music. It’s crystal clear; clarity of vision and intent. It may be the muddled confusion of the listener to mistake that. I believe in music having the power to provide a certain kind of disorientation. Hopefully, if you get into listening to the album and a live show you can get that sensation that the walls are moving and the floor might be caving out underneath you. It might invoke this sense of disorientation in a listener but it comes from a place of absolute clarity of intention and purpose, I think. It’s a risk I have to take that it would be misunderstood. I’m not going to change my artistic vision just because some people don’t get it. That’s how it is.


[Photo by Calvin Johnson]

There are terms that “classify” your music and specifically the music of Open The Crown as “experimental” and it’s obvious: “psych”, “trance punk”, and all these things. This may have not been a conscious choice, just maybe the way it moved—there’s a real accessibility to the music of Open The Crown. I imagine people in the clubs—it’s an album you move to [and] dance to; you groove to. Listening back to it, do you think there’s a sonic or lyrical accessibility more than previous stuff?

I think in many ways more than any album I’ve done there’s more of a reflection of contemporary pop tropes sneaking their way into the music. When I started Old Time Relijun I was much in a much more, I don’t know, rebellious phase? I really wanted to do everything I could to just completely deconstruct everything that I thought was cliché or boring or outmoded in all of rock and roll history. I wanted to just completely do away with any conventional approach to song structure or accessibility. All of our songs were in weird tunings. I don’t think there’s any Old Time Relijun song where there’s a chord being played. [They’re] all based on riffs and [playing] one note at a time. I’m still kind of in that…

It’s like that lyric, “Fix the system with the broken down rhythm”…

I want to get people dancing to something that’s unfamiliar but not completely unfamiliar. There are going to be bass lines that hold things together or that “dance-party-in-the-realm-of-magic” kind of vibe. It’s going to be communicated on some energetic kind of level. For all the sort of criticism that gets out there on the Internet, or whatever. I personally feel like there’s very little “weird for the sake of being weird” stuff actually in the music itself. I don’t think the music is all that weird. It’s synthesizing a number of very familiar musical ideas but in ways that have been synthesized in quite that way before, maybe. But I don’t feel like anything about it is particularly weird.

It doesn’t seem like, “What are these fucking weirdoes doing?” I don’t think it’s as polarizing as people would believe.

Seeing as how we’re in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a very entrenched physical shyness that’s endemic around these parts. People in the music culture and the Seattle scene or the Olympia scene and Portland a little bit, too—there’s a lot of inhibitions towards physicality and the expression of physicality in the relationship to music. With Old Time Relijun we always wanted to pit against that entrenched inhibition. And I can honestly say in the twenty years I’ve seen so many things ebb and flow. I would say nowadays you see a lot more groups in the contemporary music scene that do attract a danceable following. When I moved to Olympia in 1992 you never saw people dancing at shows. It just never happened. I think that’s really changed quite a bit, especially here in Olympia. Olympia actually has some of the wildest house parties that I’ve ever been to in my life. We do have a lot of wild, unhinged energy in this town. It just sometimes need the right kind of focus.

Olympia is obviously a lot different from Indonesia. What was it like when you took a trip there?

While I was there I played with traditional musicians who were opening up their musical system to try to improvise with a foreigner. I was playing bass clarinet with these gamalan groups and these different trance music groups. And I also played with very modern, contemporary Indonesian musicians who are fully immersed in electronic music and experimental music; and really heavily invested in creating contemporary avant garde versions of music that might use traditional sources, but is updated for the twentieth-first century. And again and again—I would say almost everywhere I went in Indonesia—I played Malaikat Dan Singa albums [with] musicians I hired to learn my songs. Everywhere I went there were kids who were in their teens and 20s; kind of the younger generation of “hip” kids. They’ve all got Twitter. They’ve all got Facebook. They’ve all got cell phones and they’re, like, obsessed with being a part of contemporary reality. Everywhere I went people were asking me, “Did you know that this week is the twentieth anniversary release of Nevermind by Nirvana?” What the hell? That’s in Indonesia. People are asking me, “Oh, did you know Kurt Cobain? You’re from Washington State. We love Nirvana.” People had Nirvana tee shirts, Megadeth tee shirts…weird Charles Manson tee shirts and all that kind of shit.

And the thing is, to a lot of these kids Nirvana is much more important to them than any kind of traditional Indonesian folk music and for a Western, white, politically correct academic person to say, “Well, you shouldn’t be appropriating the traditional music from people in Indonesia” or whatever the conversation is—things being what they are in the world, these kids over there are more interested in Nirvana than the music of that their, like, grandpa used to listen to and this brings up a vast multitude of issues that we could bring up. There’s many ways that we could take that or interpret that or what have you. But some things that I kind of come away with are…well, one thing that I heard many people say was…people thanked me for coming to Indonesia to perform my music that was using the Indonesian language because it made them feel more proud of their traditional music. And this happened many times. Kids would admit to me, “Yeah, you know when I hear gamelan or kudu lumping music, I just think it’s really old-fashioned and it’s what my grandpa listens to. I don’t really like that music very much. I’m more interested in Western [hemisphere] bands but when I hear you sing in Indonesian, it makes me really think about how all these different things are connected. It makes me feel really proud. It makes me wish more people in Indonesia were doing this kind of music.” I mean, to me, right there kind of shoots the whole thing out of the water. Because we don’t have any one-way relationships. There’s no “stealing” happening. It’s an exchange. It’s a relationship. We all live on one planet. We are all human beings. There’s no music that only comes from one culture in complete and total isolation. I play human music and I listen to human music.

Are there specific hopes and ambitions or even apprehensions with Open The Crown and touring with it? Would you hope to get new fans?

Oh, yeah. Of course. I mean, I hope. Many years ago, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi said, “If you want to make popular music, make music that lots of people like.” It’s not that any music that I do is ever going to be considered mainstream. If people like it, they’ll respond to it and that’s all anyone can hope for with making music in the age of the Internet: “someone out there’s going to be really into it.” Hopefully we’ll get enough of a response to sustain ourselves and our own enthusiasm for making music while we’re out on the road. But of course my ambition in releasing this album and doing this tour is: I want people to feel like this music is a part of their experience of life and being alive. [In] embracing the consciousness of ecstatic reality. I can only hope for the best. I like to think of Malaikat dan Singa as pop music for five hundred years from now. The music of Malaikat Dan Singa doesn’t come from or necessarily reflect our notion of present-day reality. It’s music that exists in a sort of surreality. It might be world music in a sense but it’s world music of this utopian nether region that doesn’t yet exist on a physical plane and might not ever exist really but could be just right around the corner, too. I have no way of knowing yet. It’s very utopian music. It’s music that, I think, dares to dream that’s…I don’t know…much more connected on an equal playing field.


[Photo by Calvin Johnson]

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