In Living Room with Mondo Gascaro

1 September 2017 - He may be under the radar in Indonesia mainstream music game. He learned how to play the keyboard on a paper keyboard, imagining the music in his head, but his works have garnered him prestigious accolades, including "Five Asian Albums Worth Buying" by Time magazine in 2005 and "Album of the Year 2008" by Rolling Stone Indonesia with his former band Sore, "2nd Best Album 2016" by Rolling Stone Indonesia, "Album of the Year 2016" by Tempo magazine, and "Album of the Year 2016" by MetroTV for his latest solo album Rajakelana. A humble and soft-spoken person, Mondo Gascaro sat down at Seasalt Living Room to talk about music over a cup of coffee and a bowl of Bonitonara.

Tell us about your working method, how do you proceed each song from writing sketch to final product?

In many cases, I would start from chords, create guideline through MIDI, and bring it to studio to record the demo track-by-track. But in my first album, maybe because I worked in a long time span and in-between my other projects, so I don’t have any specific method. Each song begins from various starting points and has its own needs with regards of arrangements and instrumentations. In “Into the Cloud, out of the Ocean”, I knew I wanted to have a saxophone part without even having the whole song completed up to that point, so I recorded that part with Jay (saxophonist) first and completed the song months later. In “Naked”, I worked on the bossa-nova inspired rhythm first before continuing with the other parts. Sometimes I knew how the whole song would sound like from the beginning, like “Lamun Ombak”, I knew it would be sung by a woman.

Speaking of your Japanese-descent, is there any significant Japanese influence that inspires your daily life and of course, music production?

There is. For “Rajakelana” I took many inspiration from 70s and 80s Japanese pop music which itself was influenced by The Beach Boys. But to be honest, Japanese cinema influenced me more than Japanese music. I love Japanese cinema and personally  admire the works of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, and Takeshi Kitano. I think their works are like paintings and they balanced space and objects very well.

You are very well-known for having a complex, intricate, and detailed music arrangements. How do you bring your studio arrangements to live performance or touring?

*laugh* that’s always been my biggest challenge since I was still part of Sore. Basically modern music always maximised the use of recording technology, so it’s always a challenge regardless what genre you are performing, unless you are doing electronic music. What I do is to re-arrange the song for live performance with limited instrumentation while keeping its essence clear – my guitarist is not only playing his guitar part but I encouraged him to explore new sound to cover, let’s say, the saxophone part. So far that trick is working well and our live performance keeps getting better. Ideally our band should consists of six to seven people, though *laugh*.

Do you think your complex arrangement is your signature style? Is there any reason behind it?

I would say it’s my preference, or maybe I subconsciously has the need to do that *laugh*. My thinking process is always orchestral; when I listen to music, I will capture every instrument part; brass, strings, woodwind, percussion. When I’m thinking about guitar, I might write some guitar parts that are totally different to each other. I have never intended my arrangement to be complex, but, yes, when I implement this to my band it’s indeed a painstaking process.

What is your favourite music album and why?

Too many to sort through *sipping coffee*. This is important *pointing at his coffee*, it’s a tough question. I would not say favourite but perhaps influential, something that I listen over and over again. The first one is “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles. And the soundtrack of “Badai Pasti Berlalu”. And there is one more, I forgot the title, it’s a collective jazz project from the 50s. I think it’s called “Birth of the Stream” (referring to The Birth of the Third Stream). It involved a collective of jazz musicians performing some classic and avant garde-infused jazz pieces. Jazz legends Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, J. J. Johnson, and Gunther Schuller were part of the project. Aah, and *(Apostrophe) by Frank Zappa!

In the end of November 2016, your first solo album “Rajakelana” was released. You mentioned that the album is “an expression of life celebration”, while another article in the internet said that “Rajakelana” tells a story about “hijrah”. Could you tell us more about this?

 It’s a journey. Journey from the past to present. And it’s a long journey beginning with my departure from Sore, working for various projects for fellow musicians and film scoring, until I start working on my first album with friends and Sarah (Mondo’s wife). It took 1,5 years to complete (the album) but I started writing the materials in 2011. Working solo is not easy. I was worried about the music distribution, financing, time management, and instrumentation. Along the way, I met many people who unexpectedly helped me to complete this album. My old friend Bayu (bass player) in Jogjakarta suddenly WhatsApp me saying he wanted to come to my house. We recorded many bass part spontaneously in my house.

The album itself is inspired by actual roadtrips and vacations me, Sarah, and our friends took in the past. We spent new year’s eve in Kediri, East Java. We went to a beach in Tulungagung and Jogjakarta, to old own of Surabaya. We took photos and video footages just for fun, we had a good time.  Some footages we took ended up in “Naked” music video. Many moments happened along the vacations also inspired me to write songs. Maybe that’s how the album naturally earned its tropical and travelling vibe. I bet it would have sounded totally different if I had worked on it in Jakarta.

What do you think and feel about many positive feedback and accolades for your first solo album “Rajakelana”?

Thank God. I’m happy to finally released it after a very long process. I didn’t expect to receive such positive praises from media and most importantly, fans. I’m also thankful for our record label partner in Japan, Dessinee, who helped releasing my album there with special Japanese-style packaging. And Japanese price too *laugh*.

All visual artworks related to your projects, including with Sore in the past, are very particular and is inseparable part of your music. How did you do it?

Maybe because it’s Mayumi (Mayumi Haryoto, Mondo’s younger sister). She knows all the musical process I took since I started my career with Sore. She know how I wrote my songs, how I arranged it, and what is the direction. She knows best how to visualize my works. She works alongside us (Sore) or me while we are finishing the music, meaning that the artwork is always closely connected to the music, and reflects the themes and ideas that come up as the albums are made.

Did you actively involve yourself in that visual process?

Yes. And that what makes the difference (between me and other musicians). Also in music video. I wrote the scipt for “Lihat” (Sore’s song). But eventhough I’m not directly involved, part of me will always be in the video like in “Naked” and “A Deacon’s Summer”. “A Deacon’s Summer” was Sarah’s idea to having me walking around the location where I grew up in; Cikini, Senen, like The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”.

It was shot by Omar (photographer). He was like the unofficial photographer of Sore. He started his hobby doing photography by taking photo documentary for Sore back then. He was in senior high school. He wouldn’t be like he is now without Sore, he said to me. Maybe because he’s a close friend of mine so he can capture all those relevant footages.
As I mentioned earlier. I’m so thankful to have my friends around me. Who unexpectedly met but eventually played big part in my life and career.

What is your current project?

Um. I’m still promoting my album and have been in this RTS (Road to Soundrenaline) for a month, from Jakarta, Medan, and now in Bali. I’m into some projects that I cannot share to you now *laugh*. It’s a producing-role projects.

Have you had a thought on your next album and if so, what should we expect? Would you make another film score or develop a film-like concept album with storyline?

I have some songs to work on for my next album but I’m not sure about the concept or direction yet. “Ports of Lima” was recorded as companion to a fictional film in mind. There are fictional characters and scripts there, a very surrealist one *laugh*. But I would prefer to work with a reputable writer I suppose. I don’t know. For me, music is a journey. Music is how we see and experience life through the perspective of hearing. So, let’s see.

Mondo Gascaro's music is available on iTunes and Spotify