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Alex Peters - Life's a Song

The Sunday Style - November 1, 1998

Alex Peters will deliver. For more than a decade, the album he promised to do has been spoken of, written about, dismissed and returned to favour more than any other in local history. Now it’s almost ready. He’s renovating part of the house to create the soundproof space he needs to record it.

Half the album is made up of songs written in the last 18 months, one of them just in August. They capture Peters’ intensely personal revolutions.

It’s been a long, long, journey for Peters, musician, songwriter, composer and quintessential Malaysian pub singer, to emerge from the rat-race of his own making in which he was alone, living a recluse’s life, repetitively recording, erasing and recording, the music of his faith as he wrote it.

Peters – 20 years on the entertainment circuit, 14 of them solo – is by any measure the best known pub singer still doing the rounds.

He is the shaman of the big sound, which he imported into the intimacy of the pub, gripping followers with the rebellion that can be contained only in song, on the bars of melody and anchored in rhythm, booming, pounding and rocking right at you.

And they follow. The fans of the early 1980s are now fathers and mothers, executives and experts at something or other, their cars upgraded but their passions still rooted in the rock ‘n’ roll of their day.

Peters makes fortysomething women jump to their feet; twentysomethings watch, somewhat inhibited and flabbergasted with the Natalie Imbruglia-Bee Gees-Jimi Hendrix mix.

Peters, his hair blazing and his beard like a fungal growth, looking lean and hungry in laced-up leather pants and Peter Pan shoes, stuns audiences with the musculatry of his voice which seem to lick the divine feel of an Indian raga one moment and the ferocity of rock the next.

Then he stuns you again, moving from Queen’s pounding We Will Rock You to the Bee Gees’ melt-in-the-mouth Massachusetts, from the palpitations of System of Survival by Earth, Wind and Fire and winding down for Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry.

He’s all seriousness. No wackiness, no zaniness, no comic relief. He seems not to rely on the methodology of showmanship, although he does energetically ride the notes with the whang bar on his 1988 Ibanez JEM77FP (the one with the monkey grip) and leap in front of the gadgetry in the seismic style of a rock star.

With a mildly distant demeanour, he watches his audience intently, tunes in to them as he fidgets with the gadgetry. He takes no breaks, playing six hours at a stretch, sipping once, maybe twice, on air suam. And that is preceded by a six-hour sound check.

As a merchant of sound, Peters has near virtuoso technical ability, weaving aural embellishments into the electronic gizmos, making them sing for him in second, third, fourth, fifth and more voices.

In 1983, he surprised us by announcing he would create a gospel album. He had an afro and sang Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton in pubs. They advised him to do a secular album first, so he could fund the holy numbers later.

“It was, and still is, perceived as a non-profitable journey. For some, it confirms I’m a nut. Christian rock doesn’t sound cook and, by local definition, is not saleable. I like challenges, working against the odds.”

Indeed he does, in a silent way. He’s taken 15 years. During that time, it was a long-standing pub-goer’s query; skeptics were convinced it was never, ever, going to see the light of day.

Two of the songs were written this year, four of them last year, and the remaining six are an assortment from mid-1985.

He’s producing and recording it himself and it will go with his own label, Flatfish (read that as five-loaves-and-two-fish) Studio. It’s not gospel music as it we imagine it to be. Not the music of big, black women in swaying purple satin. Peters’ is a pounding, rocking sound that seizes the cerebral section.

In it, you hear every recognisable element of musical form. The lyrics are an intense appreciation of the concept of God and the grand let-downs of the human condition.

That Peters is both pub singer and purveyor of Christianity is a clash of cultures to most. But check out his Petaling Jaya home and the story comes together.

Entire walls of books on religion, every possible discourse on God’s Man and Man’s God. And a collection of “The Making of…” of his favourite films because these teach him how to dissect a piece of work and reassemble it artistically.

There are seven guitars and enough cables and sound machinery to start as shop. Everything is functional, minimalist even, there’s a Mac, a fax and 18 Faber-Castell drawing pencils in a coffee mug because he’s an artist, too. Yet there’s little of an ornamental nature; no paintings, no domestic clutter.

There are no strong colours, as if he’s eliminated distractions to creativity. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, eats little and slow-boils herbal remedies for a nuisance sinus.

Peters was born in Sentul where his father worked with Malayan Railways (“like all dads in Sentul”), but grew up in the Cochrane Road area. By then, his father had moved to the Orang Asli Affairs Department.

At 12, Peters wanted to become a Catholic priest. At 14, after the household had engaged in tense debate, he began a two-year stay at the Gethsamane Friary in Cheras, from where he bussed it to the Jalan Cochrane Secondary School in the neighbourhood his family lived. At the monastery, it was a rigid, disciplined life which coached him on the rigours of decision-making adulthood.

During those two years, music filled the Peters home in a big way. Three older brothers, each on a musical journey of his own, shared a made-in-China Kapok brand acoustic guitar with Lion brand steel strings.

Then there was Alex, home only for holidays, the youngest and clamouring for his turn on the guitar because the music was surging inside him.

“There were four young men in the house, each into Santana, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Iron Butterfly, King Crimson. The strings popped a lot. Then my first public performance came along.”

It was a penalty thing: if you did not play a sport or join a school club, you had to do something for the annual concert.

Peters played the guitar, his head hung down, his eyes fixed on the stage floor throughout the performance.

His made, equally petrified, sang John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Road.

“We barely heard the words of the song. We were so scared. I was seized with fright".

By 17, Peters was seized with rock ‘n’ roll. Music had taken over his life. Priestly plans were cancelled. Staying at home, he joined his brother Matthews’ band Mainstream, doing mostly soft rock at private events.

Then came the big moves. He told his mother he was going to fail his MCE, that he decided to be a singer and needed a RM173 loan to invest in a real guitar. She had something of a fit.

“She gave me the money eventually. I was focused. I think she saw that. That was the turning point. I had decided what I wanted to do with my life. There was a definitive plan, a clear path.”

A path from which Peters has not veered despite occasional, sometimes long, breaks from singing. From 1978 to 1982, he was part of a group – three separate line-ups of Stratosphere – as band mates came and went. They played hard rock, soft rock, jazz rock, disco, country & western and reggae.

In 1983, he went solo and slowly purged country & western from his repertoire, turned up the sound and began a rock and reggae reputation.

It repelled the older regulars at Bangsar’s Moonraker pub who came in for Your Cheating Hear and couldn’t fathom the pulse of a rocker.

Peters brought in a new generation, sent a new trend and had bona fide fans.

One group of diehard loyalists were there every night. They called themselves the Gravediggers – they were young, full of macho b.s. and at the age when men like to give themselves mean-sounding names.

In 1992, three of them formed a band. No prizes for guessing what they called themselves.

Late in 1984, the voice went away. Peters, diagnosed with voice abuse (gross loss of larynx muscle elasticity) retreated for two years and used that time to learn the workings of new generation sound machines.

Then he was back, bringing with him that big sound he is now famous for. He created a serious following at Trefpunkt in Petaling Jaya.

In 1988, he won the first Top of the Pubs contest, sweeping the crowd with a frenzied rendition (which people still talk about) of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit.

The contest, now an annual event, made Alex Peters a household name.

He took another long break and returned to Damansara’s Centrepoint with childhood friend Viji in an outfit called Flower Power!!!

They played serious 60s stuff (Peters handled the octopads, Viji played guitar), taking the repertoire from bubble gum through psychedelia which some people soaked in and others just hated.

Then came the five-year break.

“Even I heard I had retired! I was re-engineering my carrier in slow-mo. No rush, no quotas, no panic, no disappointment. I was ready to rock an album.”

It was a compelling five years, obsessively working on his sound, the attitude and delivery, compulsively rewriting, re-recording, praying for the parting of the waters.

As it turned out, those five years became Peters’ rehearsal for a lifetime. There was a demo tape recorded in analog, not good enough for release but it taught him exactly what he could do on digital.

He wasn’t seen much, save for one performance at a friend’s wedding and surfacing for teh tarik at Bangsar’s Akhbar Shah, which “.. is to die for”.

Also going down was an encounter with religion. Peters was part of a church group which, he says, turned out to be a cult movement.

He left, somewhat acrimoniously, and rethought life. In was a contemplative phase in relative isolation, going over the package of bitter experiences, figuring out what people really want.

“I’m not against the system, just against the system that prescribes evil. I guess when the anti-Christ does take over, it’s always be in the form of an economic system.”

There was a powerful exit from seclusion. Peters met Steve Vai, one of the fastest electronic axemen ever, and gave him a tape. On it was Steve V’s Raga, a Frank Zappa tribute to Vai which Peters had rewritten and recorded with a full-blown Indian raga.

For Vai, it was an unpredictable piece of music and went on Malaysian TV to say so.

Vai, guitarman for David Lee Roth and Whitesnake among others, performed at the Hard Rock Café last year shaking the serious-about-their music out of the woodwork with rarely-seen vibrance on his custom Ibanez.

That one-nighter was rated one of 1997’s unexpected pleasures in an ocean of commercial music

Vai, a student of Joe Satriani, is best known as the late Zappa’s guitarist, whom he joint at age 18 and stayed with for five years. Vai handled stunt guitar work on some of Zappa’s wildest 1980s recordings.

Vai once took the mumblings of his two-year son and wrote them into a goofy pounder called Ya Yo Gakk on the 1995 Alien Love Secrets album. That collection also featured Bad Horsie, in which he made his guitar neigh with delirious fury.

Needless to say, Peters is high on Vai.

In April 1997, Peters made his big comeback at Bangsar’s Big Willy’s, working a refreshed repertoire and wearing Alain Delon shades to face a three-part audience: those sure he still had it, those who wanted to see if he still had it and a bunch of pre-economic U-turn mat salleh expats who were totally bamboozled by that bigger-than-ever-before big sound.

That Big Willy’s is across the street from the old Moonraker premises (now Lucerne) where Peters first went solo was nostalgic coincidence.

Peters has entered other performance genres. He worked with dancer Marion D’Cruz (a distant aunt) for her solo performance in the 1994 Dick Lee-Komei Sugano musical revue Fantasia which toured Japan.

The music, a five-minute instrumental created entirely on a Korg keyboard synthesiser, captured the sounds of Asia with asli, Indian ragas and a haunting flute. It was called The Grand Harlot II.

For the Five Arts Centre’s 1995 production Skin Trilogy, in which a variety of performers ventured a view of Malaysian life, Peters composed the background on acoustic guitar for Sunetra Fernando, live flute solo The River Song.

Late last year, in Haze Fever, a frenetic eavesdropping on Malaysian conversations about the frustration of life, produced by the East One Hundred Theatre, Peters had a one-song performance. But it was somewhat irrelevant and out of sync with the rest of the show.

Even with such forays, Peters keeps returning to the pub. It’s the chemistry of being up-close, he says, which the concert format doesn’t offer although he does not rule out the idea of a completely acoustic performance, maybe even in a tux.

“Don’t own one, but why not?”

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