Benny Soebardja is surely one of the musicians who introduced progressive rock in Indonesia. He started to play music with a beat band called “The Peels”. During the 70s he released many progressive albums, first with Shark Move, then as soloist and with Giant Step (one of the most famous Indonesian prog bands). Nowadays he is an accomplished agronomist but in his spare time he still plays progressive rock. He’s been very kind and, exclusively for Arlequins, he used this interview to reveal some untold stories about his career.
Good Evening Mr Soebardja. Let’s start from the very beginning. Can you tell us something about the times when you started to play music with The Peels in Singapore?
I started to play music seriously at high school in Bandung, my home town, with The Peels. At that time it was the end of a confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia and The Peels were invited by Singapore to perform there at Panggong Negara to celebrate the good relationships between the two countries and we made two recordings. The second album of The Peels, “Selamat Tinggal Singapore” is a very important album for me, it was my first album which contains a song of my own.
What kind of music were you listening to in those days? How did you begin to play music?
Of course The Beatles and Rolling Stones, but also Cream and Jimi Hendrix. I can tell you that most of the musicians here hadn't any special study in music so we can say we were all self-taught.
Why did you quit The Peels to form Shark Move?
Soman (The Peels keyboardist, n.d.r.) and I had a quarrel with Boetje Garna and Deddy Garna, the other members of The Peels: we had different ideas about the future of the band. I wanted to focus on our own songs while they preferred to play foreign songs (covers), that's why Soman and I quit The Peels and formed Shark Move.
Can you describe for us the Indonesian scene at that time?
Indonesian scene, at that time of course, was dominated by love and mellow songs. Prog bands were very few and also they never released an album, they played only live concerts.
Were there also any Indonesian bands that were a source of inspiration for you?
Frankly speaking, the local band which inspired me at that moment was Koes Bersaudara, I really admired them.
I was wondering how much Ghede Chokra's (Shark Move first album) was abreast of its times. It was released on January 2, 1970. Which progressive albums was available in Indonesia in that period? I think almost none, so I am surprised how innovative and original it was.
Rock music records were expensive and not widely available in Indonesia. Shark Move’s album was recorded in 1972, all done by feeling, it was a difficult time to get any kind of inspiration from foreign music.
On the Shadoks reissue you wrote that the album was recorded on January2, 1970, in the same year Loebis died and for the same reason you decided to disband Shark Move, but you just said that Ghede Chokra's was released in 1972 and then I heard that Loebis left Shark Move for God Bless. What’s the truth?
Yes, I wrote a wrong data in the Shadoks label info, the album was released in 1972. After that God Bless took Soman Loebis out from SM so I decided to end SM and focus on my study in faculty of Agriculture in Bandung, but a day before Soman's accident I met him at Riau Road and we had a very long discussion (this untold story), Soman apologized for having left Shark Move (we were very close since we were together in The Peels band) and we decided to rebuild the band, but first we wanted to have a farewell talk with Achmad Albar (God Bless leader n.d.r.) telling him that Soman wanted to quit God Bless. So the following day Soman planned to go to Jakarta, but unfortunately God had a different plan and he died with the drummer of GB, called Fuad, in an accident. It made me frustrated and I did not want to play music anymore until one day I met Yockie, the former keyboardist of God Bless, who moved to Bandung, Deddy Stanza, the best bassist around and ex The Rollies, and Sammy, my Shark Move drummer, and we formed Giant Step. But I couldn’t keep this line-up long because some of the boys in the band played with drugs and I did not like it, so the story continued until I found the brilliant keyboardists Erwin Badudu and Triawan Munaf and Giant Step kept on continuing...
Why did you write wrong data on Shadoks reissue's notes?
It is my fault and I forgot to correct.
Was it Deddy Stanzah who left for drugs problems? And why did Yockie leave Giant Step soon after Deddy?
Yes, I asked both Yockie and Deddy to quit Giant Step because of drugs problems. I do not like it. Anyway I hope Deddy will rest in peace.
I am writing an article about the prog music in Indonesia from 1966 till 1973 and I found out that all the earliest Indonesian prog bands (Shark Move, Freedom Of Rhapsody, Harri Roesli, Rollies, CBlues) came from Bandung, your home town. So we can say that Bandung was the birth town of Indonesian progressive music. Can you tell me something about that period, and why do you think in Bandung there were so many innovative bands?
Bandung was a real cool city with a nice environment. We were very close each other and we were able to exchange our ideas. At that time I was a student of Agriculture Faculty, we went to campus and between the lecturing, during the breaks, I usually went to Dago tea house. It was a very high point from which it was possible to see Bandung and there I composed songs, because we always carried our guitars to campus. I love mountaineering, it always inspired me a lot.
Continuing on the subject of Bandung, Giant Steps collected all the best musicians from Bandung: Deddy Stanzah (Rollies), Deddy Dores (Freedom Of Rhapsodia), Albert Warnerin (Philosophy Gang). How did the collaboration work with these musicians?
Deddy Dores was a member of Giant Step but he also produced the album “Mark 1”, then he left the band because he had different plans and he wanted to play mellow music. Deddy Stanzah was a great musician and bassist, but the collaboration couldn’t last long because of the problem I said just before. With Albert we worked hand in hand as a team.
Which one of your albums had the biggest response? And which one of them are you most fond of?
Even now people are still looking for Shark Move, Giant Step “Giant on the move”, “Night Train”, as well as “Lestari”. These ones are also my favourites.
I found in your music small influences of Genesis, Yes, ELP, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, but still they managed to deliver strong originality. Which musicians did inspire you?
I can say that Shark Move was influenced by Sundanese traditional music (listen to “My Life”), a little bit Yes, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson and ELP.
Was it difficult to be a musician in Indonesia? ...and now?
For a real musician (except mainstream ones) it is hard to be dependant only with music. For me music was just a fun and a hobby. Since 1970 I was registered as student of Agriculture faculty and music was again just a hobby. Shark Move’s album was produced by ourselves and so we can claim to be the pioneers of indie music in Indonesia. After completing my studies as Agronomist I worked 5 years in Great Britain and 5 years in America as R&D manager and during that period I still played music with Giant Step during the weekends.
Did you quit music after Giant Step split up in 1986?
I never said “I quit the band”, because music is my soul. I came back again only as a performer of my own music, I play music with my son Rama Soebardja under the flag “Shark on the Move” and we play songs from Shark Move, Giant Step and Idealego (Rama’s previous band).
Does your son play progressive Rock too?
He claims that his music genre is Modern Rock and Shark on the Move is Post Prog Rock.
How was the popularity of Progressive Rock in the 70s compared to nowadays?
Progressive music during the 70’s existed only in live concerts, while the recordings were dominated by mellow music. Now it seems that Prog Rock tends to come back with some new labels dedicated to Rock music, but the mainstream is still dominated by the main labels and television.
Are the rumours of a Giant Step’s reunion true?
At this time I am not interested about a Giant Step reunion because GS is over. Now I prefer to focus on developing Shark on the Move. I plan to make a recording with GS and Shark Move songs but under the name Shark on the Move. I really enjoy playing music with my son, he is a very multi-talented musician.
Can we hope the Giant Step and your solo albums will be reissued on CD one day?
Reissuing all my albums is in my programs but I’m still looking for the sponsor who can cover all the expenses for recording. Maybe you can find someone in Italy?