If there’s a quality in a band that I appreciate — second to how vigorously they make my toes tap — it’s their ability to connect with the audience, i.e. me. Nothing makes my night more than to find out that the brains behind the music I love, also has a personality to match. It’s the equivalent of the musical first date, will I come out of a gig loving them or having my heart broken? And in that respect, I’m a sucker for the funny band, the sort that make silly jokes, take the piss out of themselves and thereby putting a grin on my face. And that’s where The Karl Maka come in.
Named after the famous HK actor, Jon Fong and Ken Hayashida make up the electropop duo that have garnered their fair share of fans for their cheerful pop ditties and their propensity to turn their gigs into impromptu karaoke sessions. On 15th Dec, they’ll be opening for Chinese electro band, IGO, as part of the Esplanade’s Electrolab series, a 3-day electropop extravaganza. I caught up with them to find out more about their friendship, the gig and that song about a certain foxy TV host…
The Karl Maka was born out of “a common love for old Hong Kong movies and electronic pop music”. What movies and music do you guys agree upon and the ones that you refuse to see eye to eye?
Jon: We love old Hong Kong movies; stuff by the Hui brothers, Stephen Chow, Wong Kar Wai and the odd vampire (jiang shi) movie that would come on in the wee hours on Channel 8 on Saturday nights. I think we are also drawn towards movies that encourage the viewer to think and reflect after leaving the cinema; stuff like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Fight Club.
As for differences in movie taste, Ken is probably more inclined towards arty, avant garde stuff and foreign films whereas I love my sentimental 80s and 90s teen romance comedies and cheesy b-grade horror/gore/zombie trash.
Music wise we definitely share a love for 90s alternative rock (Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer) and 80s electronic pop (New Order, Depeche Mode). I know Ken loves the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and John Fusciante, which i can’t say the same about. Likewise I don’t think Ken loves the brilliance of The Smiths as much as I do.
Both of you go way back as friends, but it wasn’t only until recent years that you became a band. How did the band happen? Has your friendship changed in any way?
Jon: We caught up in August 2006, talked about music and I passed Ken some tracks off The Postal Service’s “Give Up”. Somehow we both decided that we wanted to start a little musical project in the same vein; to make music comprising the elements of electronica and pop in the setting and safety of our bedrooms.
After agreeing on the band name in August, I went and made our first batch of DIY band tee shirts that very week. Thereafter, we lazed and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the year! It was only in January 2007 (during reservist) did we start collaboratively writing songs.
I think both of us could never have ever expected the amazing things (both highs and lows) that have happened for The Karl Maka in these 12 months. There are definitely moments where we have our disagreements, but I think what helps is keeping grounded, not taking things too seriously and to remind ourselves the whole point of even forming the ‘band’: to make music we enjoy and to have fun.
Thus far I can safely say that we’ve been able to do that and more, with some very kind support from friends and (dare i say it?) ‘fans’. Truly, we do feel blessed.
Ken: Yup. Being friends with Jon is more important than anything else. I think our friendship never really changed. It’s still the same as before.
The Postal Service, the Analog Girl, A-ha, Portishead, the Hui brothers, the Cure, Lamb, Wong Kar Wai, the Decemberists, New Order, Aces Go Places, Depeche Mode, Hot Chip, they’re all influences and it’s quite a mix! In essence, what do you think the Karl Maka represents in terms of music?
Jon: I’d like to think of our music as sincere and earnest. It may not get the nod of approval from the elitist music snob, nor may it make the top downloaded ringtones chart… but as long as it means something to someone… then that makes me happy.
I remember the very first song of the band’s that got my attention was “A Song for Debbie Wong” for obvious reasons. When you wrote it, were you really thinking of Debbie Wong or does she represent something? Does the real Debbie Wong know about the song? She happens to be a friend of a friend…
Jon: Ken should tell this story…haha. “Debbie” represents desiring anyone who’s deemed unattainable, from the hot cosmetic salesgirl, the popular convent schoolgirl, the hunkydory swim captain etc.. I’m sure everyone out there has had that kind of crush, so its a song about that feeling. Kinda stalkerish actually, ha ha.
Shane of Spellcast fame is my homeboy, think it was him who first helped to plug the song to the friend of a friend, who in turn kindly let Ms. Wong in on ‘her song’. Debbie’s response? From a forwarded SMS, her supposed reply was: “Wow! M totally shocked. Weird, huh?” We may have struck a sensitive note there!
Your tunes are really pop and upbeat, but the lyrics are, to put it bluntly, quite emo. ‘Tears On My Sweater’, for example, is about saying goodbye to an old love. Are you guys speaking from experience? What’s your songwriting process like?
Jon: We work collaboratively on ideas and stuff; sometimes I’ll come to Ken with a song on the guitar and he’ll add the electronic wizardry to it and vice versa. Lyrics are my department so uhmm yes, guilty on all emo charges!
‘Tears On My Sweater’ was a song title given to us by our mutual friend, Lee, after she saw a photograph of us. I just loved how it sounded and the song just grew from there. The idea was sorta a homage to John Hughes’ teen movies, where a couple has to part ways. I wanted to emphasize enjoying the last moments and celebrating the love shared between two people, rather than focusing on their eventual parting.
The Karl Maka is going to be part of the Esplanade Electrolab series opening for IGO. That’s really exciting! I’m guessing that it’s your biggest gig so far, how are you taking it?
Jon: Excited lah! Haha. This clocks in as our 11th gig this year (the first one was in May, the same night that Justice played at Zouk) and if someone told me 7 months ago if we would be playing at the Esplanade in December I would have laughed it off as a joke. But
really we feel very honoured to have been asked and we are indebted to the help and support from friends who have contributed to this. I think I jokingly told Ken way earlier in the year that if we ever got to play at the Esplanade we should do a tribute to KISS and go on in full rock gear and make up. Hmmm…
Ken: The pyrotechnics have been arranged.
After the gig, what’s next for the Karl Maka?
Jon: Hopefully, more gigs in 2008, making more music and having more fun.
Since movies are such a strong theme for the band, describe a scene in a film in your head that would be played to the soundtrack of the Karl Maka EP.
Jon: I think of ‘Tears On My Sweater’ playing to The Breakfast Club ending scene where detention is over and everyone goes their separate ways (no disrespect to The Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’). Or ‘While There’s Time’ being used in a zombie/horror/gore movie where bodies are being mutilated left right and center HURHURHUR…
(Contributed by Arthur C.) Every time I wear my Karl Maka t-shirt I seem to bump into Jon Fong. If there was a band’s t-shirt each of you guys could wear that magically allowed you to bump into the lead singer whenever you wore it what would that t-shirt be?
Ken: For me it would be a YMO t-shirt to meet Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Jon: HAHA great question. I’m not super keen on meeting one’s heroes but I have met Kele Okereke from Bloc Party and he is genuinely the nicest rock star I have ever met..so I’ll go with my ‘God Bless Bloc Party’ tee shirt. I do actually have a “I heart Smantha Fox” bumper sticker lying about somewhere tho……