The star of slow burners talks crush, songwriter’s block, and being trapped in a lift.
We first met Alextbh collectively on a sunny Thursday morning at the lobby of Hotel Stripes Kuala Lumpur, where the day’s interview and shoot was going to be held. I’ve personally rubbed shoulders with him before, in some bar or a club and were introduced to each other by our mutual friends. He had always come across calm and collected, or too cool for our perpetual summer.
My first introduction to his music came through a good friend who recommended his version of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” featuring Nish Gilgamesh on Soundcloud a few years ago. Since then I’ve followed his music, a casual listener when the opportunity unfolded. It was also by chance that I caught him opening for Clean Bandit in May – my first time watching him perform live.
For the uninitiated, Alextbh is the nom de guerre – yes, the music industry is a warzone – of one Alex Bong from Bintulu, Sarawak. His compositions are au courant, a sound millennials adore for want of something different from those on airwaves. His tracks are as cool as his aura, smooth and laidback electronica laced over R&B and his sultry vocals. Most songs are about relationships and heartbreaks, while some very recent ones are about a certain ‘crush’ of his, who also took a central role in our conversation that day.
Alex had yst come from breakfast at a new joint in the area when we met him. He was with Hana, his bodyguard for the day who was there on behalf of the upcoming Good Vibes Festival – the main reason behind our meeting with the singer songwriter.
Once the greetings and introductions were out of the way, and Alex was in his first look of the day – a homage to his pink aesthetics – we went straight to the forefront of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, on the rooftop of Hotel Stripes, where the KL Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers seemed to be just a stone’s throw away.
“To be honest, the colour pink didn’t really mean anything! At first I just wanted to ironically jump on the millennial pink bandwagon but it kind of just stuck so I adopted the colour,” confesses Alex laughingly. Various shades of the colour pink are the unifying hues on the artists’ cover arts and feature predominantly on his social media as well.
Bidding adieu to the infinity pool and rooftop bar of the Autograph Collection hotel, we head to our Studio room where more shots needed to be taken and more serious questions about Alextbh and his music needed to be addressed.
But not before a quick stop by the bathtub where Alextbh revealed the origins for his stage name. “I was brainstorming some pseudonyms because I didn’t want to use my real name as an artist when Alextbh just came to me. Also, it fits me perfectly because I believe I am a very honest and frank person,” he reveals.
Another revelation Alex provided us with was his ordeal of being stuck in a lift recently. “I was about to head to the first floor in my apartment when it stopped at the fifth floor instead. I was wondering what happened when suddenly there was a huge jerk and I legit thought I was done for. Then I pressed the emergency button and they got me out within, like three minutes.”
I decided to keep it going.
“So, hypothetically if you were stuck in a lift with someone, who would you like it to be?”
“Uhm…. my crush, I guess. Just so that I can get some answers from this motherf****r.”
“Has he been leading you on?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘leading me on’ ‘cause I know-I know how to play the game. So…”
We take a break right after when Alex whips out his laptop to do some work on the bed. Five minutes later, we hear an announcement.
“Guys, I just released two new singles on Spotify.”
The whole room burst into claps and congratulations. We immediately streamed the song out loud to get a taste of what had just materialised right in front of our eyes. The singles were of course the newly-released “Mornings (See You Again)” and “Lead The Way.”
“It’s basically dedicated to my crush. Music is a way I express myself and I hope through these songs he understands how I really feel.”
Alex’s suave vocals carried by the silky R&B breezed through the room, his lyrics honest to his emotions, right down to the sighs in the track. It was evident the amount of talent Alex houses within himself is immeasurable – we’re only seeing a scratch of it.
Next up, we got the former Engineering student from MMU to cosy up in the couch for more queries of the ‘prim’ kind.
Let’s start with something very basic. How did you get started in the music scene?
I started making music when I was 14 or so when I first got my iPad that my mom bought for me. I downloaded Garage Band and I fiddled around with the software a little bit and I realised “Oh wow it’s really fun to make music.” It was amazing to know that it’s so accessible to people like me when I didn’t have any technical know-how in making music. But it wasn’t until when I got my Macbook that I tried to go in-depth on how to do sound designs and how to mix and master songs and stuff like that.
Can you walk us through your songwriting process?
I basically start by finding a place to sit down. Sometimes I like it noisy, just to have like, a little background ambient noise. Sometimes I like it quiet so that I can hear my own inner voice. But mostly I would write in my phone any word that has like a really huge significant impact to me. Like the other day, it’s the word…what was the word again? Yea ‘stay’. The word ‘stay’ stuck in my head a lot for a while, so I decided to pen it down and I wrote an entire song based around the word ‘stay’. So yeah, that’s how my songwriting process is usually.
When you’re writing, do you have any songwriter’s block?
Yeah absolutely, most of the time. I wouldn’t say- I’m not the kind of person that would just finish the entire song within the span of 10 minutes. The only time that I successfully did so was when I wrote “Stoop so Low.” I feel like the words just came out of my mind so naturally and everything just integrated with each other so well. But apart from that, I have never really gone to the point where I can write songs within 10 minutes, usually yeah, I would hit a writer’s block somewhere. Maybe it’s the verse, maybe it’s the chorus. Yeah. But usually, I think it’s the chorus that’s the hardest to come up with because that’s…for me, that’s where the zenith or the peak of the song is.
So when you experience one of these blocks, how do you overcome it?
I don’t do music. I just call my friends and hang out with them or I go to to Starbucks and have a drink or I watch movies. Basically anything that has nothing to do with music.
In terms of your inspirations or influences, are there any artists that you look up to?
Yeah, absolutely. I look up to James Blake a lot because I just love the way he produces music. Jamie xx as well from The xx and yeah, a lot of producers like Jack Antonoff from Bleachers. He’s responsible for a lot of really really good modern pop songs today and back then as well so…yeah, I look up to these people a lot because they know how to navigate around the industry and make really really good songs.
Okay cool. So let’s talk about Good Vibes Festival. How did you react when you got the call that you’re going to perform there?
Oh! I was, (exhales) my emotions went through the roof. I was really really excited but at the same time was like “Oh wow! This is actually happening. I’m playing for Good Vibes so (gasps) I haven’t even prepared anything, should I prepare or something, oh- let me just call my friends up and-“ It’s just a cluster fuck of emotions in my head when I got the news, but I was, if anything I was super super stoked to play for Good Vibes because that has been something that I have always wanted to do. And I’m lucky to be able to be on that stage on the very first year of my career, so that’s just yeah…really exciting for me.
What can fans expect to see or hear from you? Will you be playing some unreleased music?
A: Maybe. Maybe not. (laughs) But 30 minutes of just…if you are going to come and see me at Good Vibes, just for that 30 minutes, just let everything go, just chill out, you’re gonna have quite a lot of fun and I’m pretty sure I’ll have a lot of fun as well.
But before Good Vibes though, you are going on the Sweet Summer Sweat tour. Tell us more about that.
So I’m going to be touring around Asia, specifically China, Thailand, and Singapore with my friends, Airliftz and Zamaera. Both are really really talented hip hop artists. And I must say that this is one of those things where you just wake up and just like “Oh wow I’m touring. What the fuck.” I was studying last year, I was in my room studying for an exam and I never expected any of this to happen but yeah, same just like Good Vibes or any other festival, I’m just really grateful for the opportunity and really excited to play to new demographics and I can’t wait to see what their feedback is like.
So after Good Vibes, what can we expect from you?
Uhmmm…I guess just don’t, don’t expect things from me I guess. That’s the aesthetic of me, of my persona I guess. I just- right now I’m just doing things, anything that comes my way so if I feel like releasing music, I would release it, and if I don’t feel like it, I’d probably hold it back. So, yeah.
Okay. But promise you won’t disappear on us.
No, no, no! I won’t. I won’t (laughs).
With that promise we said our goodbyes to Alextbh, the musical prodigy who might just become the flagbearer of Malaysian music scene on the international stage in the near future.
Catch the one and only Alextbh at Good Vibes Festival on 12 August 2017.
Here’s his Soundcloud too, for nostalgia.
While we wait for his performance at Gohtong Jaya, here’s also his Spotify playlist to get us through.Photography: Ian Ng
Videography: Rai Shamsudin
Art direction and styling: Kayven Dave
Merchandise management: Esther Chin and Zephana Tara
Shot on location in Hotel Stripes Kuala Lumpur.
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