Kien Lim sticks out like a sore thumb … and in the best way possible. In an age when what’s in vogue today could easily be history tomorrow, the Petaling Jaya-born, Penang-based musician makes music that is timeless.
Sure, that is a bold claim, and besides, what is timeless music, anyway? Simply put, it’s music that never dates. He isn’t guided by any music fad nor does he adhere to the sign of the times. His straight up, no-filler, all-killer album, The Red Room, can easily justify that lofty claim of period-free music. And he delivers the six songs in it with panache and style.
Question him about his uniqueness, and the musician laughs it off, but attributes it to the way he looks more than the way he makes music: “I guess there aren’t too many guys with a mohawk and rings piercings in Malaysia.” Fair enough, but there’s surely more to him than aesthetic indifference? “Perhaps, I’m part of one of the first electric duos here, although I’ve heard Lo-Fi, and they are fantastic,” he says, name-checking a similar outfit that ploughs the lonely furrow of going it with mere guitar and drums … a model in the vein of The Black Keys and The White Stripes.
The Red Room, to the untrained ear, might easily come across as rock n’ roll, but Lim is specific in his description, calling it grunge-folk rock, and with it, he says he is going for a big, gutsy, visceral sound with haunting melodies.
It’s obvious Lim has worked on his craft for a while, and the way he speaks and presents himself on stage suggests overseas exposure. “I lived in London for some years and started off as a session guitarist, and played in various bands from groove-rock, to heavy rock, to country Americana type rock n’ roll, to electro pop.” And it was this experience which taught him about guitar tone, simplicity’s benefits, the need to be unique to stand out, and develop his craft by adding his own take from his influences.
True to his description, The Red Room isn’t one of those albums where its source can easily be picked out, but the retro rock n’ roll vibe is apparent. From the clever turn of melodies to the cleanly strummed guitar parts and well-defined sounds, the album is a work of someone who knows his music … and knows it well.
He’s no cookie cutter, though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a good 20 years younger than his actual age – 57. So, when he reveals Elvis Presley’s Wooden Heart as one of the first songs he heard, it provides perspective to his musical wisdom. “I don’t only remember hearing the song, but also, the images and smell associated with it when I first heard it … a wooden bannister, sea-sand, the smell of a particular plant found in Penang, the bright sun, a memory and a reality that influences my creations as it is an inherent part of me.”
Today, though, he soaks up the sounds of My Brightest Diamond, Gillian Welch, The Graveltones, Filthy Lucre, The Black Keys, Lana Del Rey, Barefoot Tim and Charlie Lim. Music played from the heart and soul is what connects the tunes of his childhood to his current listening diet.
The Red Room was intended as a 10-song affair, but Lim trimmed off the fat, owing to what he feels are the six strongest tunes and how they correspond to each other. “Five of the songs are tied together, as they speak of being bound by desires and addictions, and I guess at one point in my life, I could only write about my own anguish. T Baby is the odd one out, as I wrote it after a conversation with my ex-flat mate about her male ‘friends’ who would eventually make a pass at her and ruin the ‘friendship’”.
So, who are Kien Lim fans, then? “Looking at statistics, the majority are 18–34-year-olds, mostly males,” he says with a laugh. Based on the feedback he has received, the listening audience is drawn to his melodies, voice and perhaps, the grungy guitars.
For most indie artistes plying the circuit today, gigs with a fair business model are hard to come by, but Lim defends club owners, insisting that they are merely catering to their rice bowl.
So, what is ailing the English-based indie music scene in Malaysia and how does it move forward? Lim reckons it all comes down to exposure and making inroads in the international music market: “We can fix it by playing more original music and getting it out directly to the public. Be part of the ever-growing indie movement and be pro-active. Let our art create the market. See the world as a viable market too, and get the music out there as well. Target international festivals and realise that they are possible. Let our music industry catch up with us.”
He says this knowing he has the goods, and it’s hard to imagine an album like The Red Room not making a dent in the international scene, given the right platform. It’s built on a foundation of earthy, groovy vibes that present all that’s wholesome about classic rock n’ roll.
The Red Room is available from www.kienlim.com and iTunes.