In censorship happy Malaysia, words have a tendency to spell trouble. With this in mind, composer duo Fung Chern Kwei, 34, and Ng Chor Guan, 35, figured that the easiest way to channel their creative output – minus the restrictions – would be to produce instrumental music.
“Since it’s abstract sound, what you think of our music is entirely from your own perspective,” says Fung in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Even the band name Fugu carries multiple meanings. It’s the Japanese name for blowfish, which also forms the band’s logo. In Mandarin it means “retro”, and on a more personal level it combines the “Fu” from Fung’s surname and “Gu” from Ng’s last name.
The avant garde electronica duo was recently in the Klang Valley, back from a year-long hiatus with a new album.
In March, Fugu made a short visit to Beijing for a handful of gigs. Fung explains it was only a hiatus in the sense they have been physically apart. Fung is based in New York and Ng in PJ. When not together, Fung is a member of US-based improvisational string quartet Sirius, while Ng is the artistic director of an art space in PJ.
For the Fugu backstory, Fung says it was old enough for them to have first met on MySpace, when “Myspace was still a thing”. They finally met in person in 2009 during a gig in KL that both were performing at.
Fugu the band came together in 2013. The duo’s first album was self-titled Fugu, released in Aug, 2014. It featured only two songs, Fugu #1 and Fugu #2, both more than 23 minutes long.
Last year, Fugu released the It’s You We Care About album, which reflects where the band is at the moment. Its packed schedules last year did not stop the band from recording two albums and playing several shows in New York, Taipei (Taiwan) and Malaysia.
“We felt it was the right time to release It’s You We Care About. With the world in turmoil, we want to comfort people through some melodious noise,” says Fung, who plays the violin, referring to the recent string of terror attacks around the world and the refugee crisis.
“The hearts of people are changing, they need art in their lives,” he adds with a grin, self-aware of how cheesy he sounds.
Utopian dreams and themes aside, the duo approached the recording process with military precision and a one-take philosophy. “There’s no way to do retakes, either we like it or we toss it,” says Fung, sounding simultaneously proud and deprecating.
It’s You We Care About was recorded at studio of experimental jazz music legend Karl Berger in Woodstock, New York. It’s You We Care About, which captures Fugu in diverse and twisted movements, was wrapped up in just three hours.
“The album was done closer to two (hours), if you discount the time it took to set up,” says Ng, who plays the theremin.
The trick, Ng explains, was coming into the studio with a set of ideas. The sound mixing and mastering, he says, was the difficult part of completing the album, something the duo worked on when they were apart. Sound files were exchanged regularly through email, bridging the distance between New York and PJ.
It’s You We Care About was done in four takes. The 72-minute long album features the slow-burning title track It’s You We Care About, the noise piece Equilibrium, an upbeat cut Under The Sea’ (no relation to The Little Mermaid song jokes Ng), and the final track Nectar, an acoustic piece.
Well, Nectar is as close as Fugu comes to being an acoustic act.
Fung says his violin – running through a chain of effect pedals – acted as a bridge between Berger on piano and Ng on theremin. The theremin is a musical instrument played by waving one’s hands at a pair of antenna to produce a wailing sound once described as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home”.
“I was attracted to the theremin due to it’s lack of touch. It’s a zero-g instrument that doesn’t need touch or gravity, which reminds me of my childhood dream,” says Ng, before adding, “I wanted to be an astronaut.” If you remember, Ng also produced the multi-media visual show Experience Space Age: Phantom Power in KL in 2013.
Fugu, on stage or on record, isn’t a difficult listen as you might expect it to be these days. Fung admits Fugu has made some changes like solidifying its themes and shortening tracks.
“We worry people will lose interest in a long song. We’re a fast food culture, we can’t consume slow things now,” he says with a sigh.
Ng is more positive. He says music like food is a treat to the senses and listeners are more open-minded now.
For 2016, Fung reveals that Fugu is looking at being more productive in the studio. The duo is currently mastering another album that it recently finished recording, tentatively titled Fugu Everywhere.
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