The gap between traditional and electronic music is closing, and Gabber Modus Operandi know this more than most. When I connect with the Indonesian duo, they are in the midst of rehearsals for a performance with fellow countryman Wahono and Ugandan troupe Nakibembe Xylophone in Paris, halfway through a world tour after the enforced hiatus of the pandemic. I speak at length with Kasimyn, and Ican Harem appears intermittently on the call.
“Gabber Modus Operandi is a reflection of our reality,” explains Kas. “We can go to the club and listen to music like a European… we went clubbing last night, and now we’re going to end up at some wedding with traditional music. That’s reality. We live in these two music rituals and cultures, so we can’t decide to pick one or the other more.”
To Western audiences, the ‘Gabber’ in their name is often misconstrued to be a reference to the Dutch hard dance style that gained notoriety in the 90s. Given the intensity of their sound, it’s not an unreasonable assumption, but their music is certainly not an analog of gabber.
“Gabber Modus Operandi in our language Bahasa means when you’re blaring (revving) a motorbike,” explains Ican, “so in English it would be something like the blaring modus operandi, the noise. Gabber music didn’t exist in Indonesia at all. What we want to present is imaginary gabber, imaginary hardcore music, so the subculture itself is coming from our country. If we tried to link it to gabber from Europe, it would just be about romanticizing the gabber era in the 90s, which we don’t want to do.” “We have a lot of opinions from people in Europe saying, ‘what you’re doing is not gabber.’ It’s like, ‘Uh, yeah!’” laughs Kas.
Cultural misunderstandings aside, GMO have made a seismic impression on the global dance music scene thanks to the intensity and individuality of their sound. Making a point to not mimic the Western club sounds that dominate the scene in Jakarta and other large cities in Indonesia, Kas and Ican looked to their own roots and identity to make music relevant to their people.
“I grew up with a lot of UK scenes like dubstep and jungle,” explains Kas. “They feel like they own this stuff, Mala playing dubstep or DJ EZ playing garage, you can even feel the crowd owning it. I've been listening to jungle for 15 years, but to make it I would just end up synthesizing what they are already doing, so I rewrote all my tracks and started hanging out with a gamelan master. We said, ‘if we want to synthesize, let’s synthesize ourselves rather than somebody else.’”
“The important thing is that we have no romanticism about what’s happened in the past,” says Ican. “We’re romanticizing our stuff, in a way.” “But we also don’t know what the fuck is our stuff,” laughs Kas. “It’s kind of a blurred line.”
The sound of Gabber Modus Operandi is defined by its cultural situation, and although you will hear approaches similar to hardcore, trance and techno – bludgeoning kicks, hyped-up sawtooth leads – there’s a traditional foundation driving these sounds which informs the difference between Kas and Ican’s music compared to their Western counterparts. As someone deeply interested in the indigenous sound of gamelan, Kas has translated the principles of the music into the GMO production process, starting with the melodic scales.
“In gamelan we just use five or six notes – we just play alongside with a lot of people, multiply it,” he explains. “We don’t have the idea of chords, we don’t have the idea of snares. Ableton Live has a feature which is actually often overlooked by people, which is MIDI Clip Scales. There is this MIDI scale Pelog, which is already Indonesian, but no one was really using it as far as I know. I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to write everything in this scale.’”
Talking to his close friend, a local gamelan master, Kas understood that even within the limitation of a five-note scale, not all the notes are played at any one time. GMO apply this tuning and performance approach to their synths, resulting in blistering lead lines nudged outside Western tuning and falling in the same hypnotic patterns that inhabit traditional Indonesian music.
But as well as being rooted in tradition, Kas has discovered the appetite for experimentation within the gamelan community, from players deforming their metallophones for different resonant overtones to the unbridled sonic thrill of running instruments through distortion pedals. It’s an ethic which transfers into GMO’s digital production, where the sonic artifacts from extreme time-stretching on CDJs and in Live become an intentional part of the project’s musical identity.
“If you start feeding [Live] or CDJs traditional music and noise instead of only contemporary music, the results are really weird,” Kas explains. “It’s similar to how vaporwave worked with sounds from 70s and 80s commercials. A lot of techniques that I do, I’m doing time stretching, I chop samples and I start to play as close to the original sound as possible. Then I take the samples out and just play maybe three notes over and over, and run the original sample through a really heavy distortion to the point it’s not recognisable, but still has the tone.”
New technology has a significant impact on modern approaches to traditional music, and breakthroughs in tuning implementation are central to bringing electronic music production out of the Western-centric rules of pentatonic scales. Through a research project commissioned by Transmediale, Kas has been imagining a fake history of electronic music through the 80s to the present day by engaging a range of South East Asian producers with the tuning and rhythmic principles of the region’s traditional music.
“For those of us who are Asian, we found familiarity through this arrangement of frequencies,” he explains. “It’s not like we know those tunings already, because most of us were disconnected from the tradition for so long. But now in [Live] it’s easy. Before, you needed to tune in the frequencies one by one, but now you have the Microtuner device. First I was using MTS-ESP, which is a tuning tool, and this helped me implement and share 164 different tunings from Indonesia. Now a lot of kids from South East Asia are using them on their instruments, and the conversation is always the same – ‘wow, this melody feels familiar.’ And I think it's beautiful.”
MTS-ESP was developed by ODDSound to provide a master tuning table that can be synced to multiple hardware and software instruments, making custom tuning and re-tuning an immediate process that can be tweaked in real time. Now, Microtuner offers similar flexibility within Live, allowing the import of scale files and the means to morph between tunings on the fly. In terms of the work Kas and Ican do, the result is similar whichever method they use, but anything is preferable compared to entering individual frequencies across any device you wish to play in a specific non-Western tuning, and that’s after you’ve worked out the frequencies of the original instruments in the first place. Kas makes a salient point – gamelan itself is a technology; from the person making the metallophonic plates to the tuning intervals and the systemic structure of how it’s played.
“What I love about the difference between East and West technology is that the East doesn't give a shit about making the schematic,” Kas jokes. “Tradition is also technology that somehow now involves software like Ableton Live or MPE [MIDI Polyphonic Expression]. I now have three MPE MIDI controllers – it's insane man. You can do whatever with the tunings, but to play the glide notes to really replicate traditional 200-year-old flutes from anywhere in the world is crazy. I explained this to my gamelan master and he's amazed seeing how you can move the expression MIDI stuff, and then you can transpose the scene, you can merge or morph it into different scales.”
The fundamental thing to understand about Gabber Modus Operandi is their creative focus is on a music that’s relevant to their culture – one that resonates with the gamelan master as much as the young Indonesian music maker exploring electronic music for the first time. Their traditional slant on hardcore club music is intentionally made with their homeland in mind.
“I’ve never been to the UK,” says Kas, “I grew up with UK music, and I asked my friend, ‘how is it to listen to Burial in London, in the rain?’ and he said, ‘it just makes sense.’ For us as producers it's important that if you hear Gabber Modus Operandi in Bali, it makes sense.”
In Jakarta and Bali there are thriving, tourist-oriented club scenes, and Kas and Ican are well established on the worldwide club and festival circuit – their two albums to date came out on prominent Shanghai-based label SVBKVLT and Aïsha Devi’s Danse Noire / Yes No Wave. But beyond these more established international structures, it’s the ghetto parties in villages far away from centralized scenes which are intrinsic to Gabber Modus Operandi.
“If you go to watch Bali gamelan where I live in the tourist area it’s really nice and clean,” says Kas, “whereas if you go to the village and see them play gamelan at a death ritual, it’s really harsh and the harmonic overtones become this really weird distortion.”
If you follow GMO on social media, you’ll most likely get a window into the world they’re talking about. They run their Instagram page as an even split between Indonesian memes and music, giving you an honest, street level view of where they come from. On stage they employ the kind of dance moves you might see on one of their posts – moves so common Kas talks about his dad doing them, that mean something entirely different to the Balinese crowd compared to audiences elsewhere. The scene in Bali is changing, and Indonesian experimental music is gaining recognition – something Kas fully credits to thunderous Indonesian band Senyawa but can also be spotted with Uwalmassa, a group fusing live gamelan playing with experimental electronics. Even if many of their local gigs are smaller affairs, GMO have witnessed the resonance their locally-minded music has for its home crowd.
“Somehow it works,” says Kas. “When I play our track ‘Sankakala II’, which replicates this traditional trumpet, the kids start doing this Jathilan, like horse dancing. One time we were playing in Jakarta, we were joking that maybe it would be nice if someone got possessed in the club. This crowd never heard stuff like us, they were more into Berlin techno, but our friends were sending us video of three people who got possessed and became tigers.”
Kas and Ican consider themselves in a position of privilege, and they’re working to create outlets for the rising tide of demos they’re receiving from music makers across Indonesia and beyond. As well as running Ableton Live workshops, Kas is developing a label, and Ican is organizing the Ravepasar festival to represent local Balinese and Indonesian experimental music and art. Kas himself draws parallels with Nyege Nyege in Uganda amongst other scenes around the world defining their own sound in the time-honored tradition of music as an exercise in community.
Kas is keen to point out GMO is not a ‘world music’ novelty to be fetishized by Western audiences and media. Their sound taps into the rawest dimension of Indonesian music and metabolizes it with years spent immersed in electronic music of all stripes online. They’re certainly not toning their music down to make it more palatable for wider audiences. In fact, their modus operandi from the outset of their project was quite the opposite.
“In the beginning, me and Ican were like, ‘just make it fucking loud’,” says Kas. “Because, being from South East Asia, it's just being judged as a really cute yoga place, nice gamelan. So in the beginning, we already knew to just make it as loud as possible. It's stupid, but it kind of works.”
Text and interview: Oli Warwick