Folk band The Cotton Field Scarecrowes are living proof that perhaps the best music always comes from home
By Adrian Yap CK
'As you grow older, you experience more of life, from being a teenager to being an adult, and it will definitely shape you,’ says The Cotton Field Scarecrowes frontman Johann Sultan, when asked what inspires him to write the kind of music he does. ‘In some ways it will make you a mellower person because there’s a sense that you’ve worked out the things you needed to. That, and maybe as you get older your ears get a little more sensitive.’
Johann is not exactly the living embodiment of the music he makes. Over the phone, he sounds like a kid eagerly chattering about his first makeshift science project – a far cry from the laidback, almost-hymnal folk music of his band, which also consists of his stepbrother Shahrhyl, Damian Xavier (bass) and Praveen Mathews (drums). It wouldn’t be such a notable point if he’d been born on a prairie and wore overalls and suspenders all his life. But Johann started out his musical journey in a punk band back in 1994, so to go from the noisy nihilism of punk to the serene, peaceful tunes he makes now is quite a massive shift. He credits this ‘turnaround’ to his college hobby – collecting vinyl records. ‘I was exposed to a larger sound base, ’cause you could only get records from older acts, so I got into the music of The Beatles, The Shadows and Leonard Cohen then. Music that was not built around a distortion pedal.’
He’s been a journeyman of sorts, as far as musical influences go, discovering experimental music through Sigur Rós – ‘Probably the most amazing, mind-blowing band I have ever heard,’ he says – and Radiohead in the early 2000s before chancing upon the music of Fleet Foxes, where he finally found his musical identity. ‘I think you discover a band once every ten years maybe that completely changes the way you look at music. Sigur Rós was definitely one, but also Fleet Foxes.’ And quicker than you can say ‘three-part harmony’, Johann turned back to his trusty acoustic guitar and started writing.
But there was a piece missing from his musical jigsaw. He had songs lying around but no impetus to finish and get them on tape – but the universe, it would seem, had a solution for that. Johann had for a while lost touch with his half-brother Shahrhyl; they met when they were kids, lived apart, and while there was an attempt to reconnect when Johann was in college, nothing really stuck and they drifted apart again. That changed when Johann’s girlfriend started a job where her assigned work buddy happened to be Johann’s half-sister. They all went out for some meals and this time it stuck. ‘My girlfriend suggested I approach my brother to work on those songs I had, to exchange musical thoughts.’ They met, jammed around 2012 and it all clicked into place. ‘As it turns out, we shared a lot of common influences, probably from our father’s record collection.’
Within three months, the duo had written, finished and recorded their debut, ‘Dancing Hymns and Broken Rhymes’, an eight-track album that at times sounds like it was forged in the dreary sun of the outback. The hauntingly ethereal opener ‘Grass Beneath the Petals’ sets the tone for the record perfectly. Built around Johann’s voice and stark percussion, the song’s hymnal melody immediately washes over you like a gust of fresh air, announcing almost instantly that this is unlike any other record by a Malaysian band. But it’s really in the next track, the bittersweet ‘Letter From Tennessee’ that the band’s proper character comes out. ‘Everything came together after “Tennessee”. When we finished that song, me and my brother knew we had something going,’ he shares excitedly. ‘The rest of the songs came together rather easily after that.’
On the back-print of their record there’s a picture of a kick drum with the phrase ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ In many ways that phrase adequately sums up what the band is all about. The familial themes that run through the band’s formation and its music are clear, but larger than that, there’s an underlying push to bring communities together through music, no matter how it looks or sounds. ‘I think we’re very comfortable growing this way as a band,’ he says. ‘I think there will always be an element of imperfection to our music, but we’re fine with that.’