Peering Into Paperplane Pursuit:
As Seen by Isaac Ravi
by Sarah Daniella Dickman
Paperplane Pursuit is definitely a pop band well known in the Malaysian music scene. Having caused a wave during the end of last year by breaking onto the US Billboard Top 40 Indicator Charts, this band has come a long way. With lots of hard work and dedication to reach the point they are at now, they do not plan on stopping. We spoke with Paperplane’s guitarist, Isaac Ravi, about his love for music, the achievements that they have reached as a band, and the trajectory of this vibrant group of talented musicians.
How would you describe your musical tastes?
Generally, I favour anything that is guitar-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mean rock, though. In the band, I’m the one who is mostly into indie or alternative music like Arctic Monkeys or as I would like to call it, the “mainstream hipster” kind of music.
Who were your biggest influences as an artiste?
I picked up the guitar at around thirteen or fourteen years old. My favourite band used to be Hoobastank, I used to listen to Sum 41 and Arctic Monkeys. I guess it would be the typical “highschool” music of that time. I was more into alternative rock as opposed to classic rock. I particularly liked musicians who were kinda out there like Tom Morello and Incubus. They didn’t go on the typical chord progressions or things that were in the norm.
“I tend to favour music that is fresh and weird; that interests me, I guess. It’s not like I’m trying deliberately to be different.”
How would you describe Paperplane Pursuit’s music?
Well, to put it simply, Paperplane Pursuit’s music would be described as pop. Which is pretty weird considering all that I’ve just told you, but I am a fairly recent addition to the band. The original band has been together since they were 14, compared to how long John and Andrew have been doing it together, I am relatively new. Over time I have learnt to inject my own flavour into the music of the band, particularly in our new album- set to release this year- I was given more space and have taken more liberties to put in new sounds into our music. But it’s still easy listening, we don’t want people to get to a point where they’re like, “I don’t understand this, what is this music”. Haha.
What about the rest of your band? Do you guys have distinct music tastes?
We all have different tastes. Drew, our drummer, is a metal head at heart. He likes the heavy technical parts and stuff. John has always been into pop. Ultimately, the thing that we have in common is that we all appreciate pop. I can turn on the radio and hear the newest pop song and be able to agree that “Hey, that is a good song!”; I really liked Rihanna’s latest album “Anti”.
What is the creative process behind your band’s songwriting?
The main thing is that no two songs are written the same way- different songs are written differently. Depending on how the song started out, that’s the direction it would take. For example, when we were writing “Feel Good”, John basically said “Alright, it’s time for us to write a new song, but I don’t have any ideas right now”. So I took out my recorder and recorded like three different riffs and passed it to John to listen to and see where we could go with it. Out of those three riffs, there was one that I didn’t really fancy, and turns out, that’s the one that sparked for John. Of course, now I like what the song has become. We spark off each others’ ideas and we let the composing come naturally.
Some songs just come with John thinking of a melody. And once he wrote a bunch of lyrics with a melody and all, but there was no music! And so the whole band came together and picked up the vibe of the melody and we let it come together on its own. It’s a lot of experimentation. Sometimes you gotta put it out in the open and see how it goes.
Before Paperplane Pursuit, what were you up to?
I was doing music- session-ing mostly. I used to play regularly with Prema Yin; I was her guitarist for a good 3 or 4 years. She was the first artiste that I worked with who had regular shows and her own songs. I also did sessions for other people- Bedroom Sanctuary, Darren Ashley. We still have DASH. I also have my own band with a friend at one point where we wrote our own songs and stuff. So basically I was just playing music, anywhere and everywhere- and that was my life. And then I got a job. Haha!
The good part is that I still got to do my music. I was with a start-up T-shirt company called Salty Customs; I was with them for three and a half years. I had to cut down some of the session-ing I did then. My bosses were very understanding, realizing that this was something I was clearly passionate about, so they were flexible with my timing.
I joined Paperplane Pursuit unofficially around the time I joined Salty Customs. Their original guitarists had left and I was session-ing with them for a while. I’ve known John from when we were young and went to the same church. They needed someone to play live with them and eventually things went well enough as a team that I joined Paperplane Pursuit.
How did the name Paperplane Pursuit come about?
I wasn’t a part of the naming process; Paperplane Pursuit used to go under a bunch of different names, one of them being “Silent Scream”. They decided that the name didn’t really suit the image of the band. The thing that we all have in common is that we have been doing music since we were children. So “paperplane” represents our childhood, or the dreams we had when we were children, and Paperplane Pursuit in full represents our pursuit of the dreams that we’ve had since we were children.
“The name Paperplane Pursuit represents the pursuit of the dreams that we’ve had since we were children.”
Having recently enjoyed new success, tell us how this has been going for you?
We were on the Billboard Top 40 Indicator Charts in September last year. It was definitely a milestone for us. But it was something that we had planned and aimed for, for almost a whole year prior to that. We worked towards it, figuring out how we were gonna get onto the charts and when we finally reached it, it was an affirmation for us.
It’s great and all, but it is just one step forward in the grand scheme of things. We don’t wanna have that attitude where we’ve made it and people should invite us for gigs and whatever. It’s not like that. We gotta be realistic about it. In the big picture, now it’s really exciting that a Malaysian band made it onto the charts, but a year or two from now, it would have been old news. So we can’t become complacent and sit back and say “we’ve done enough”, because it really doesn’t end for us here.
This could have gone one of two ways, so either it climbs or it flops. The affirmation for us is that it managed to climb up to the top 40, but it also climbed up pretty fast as well. So we know we are on the right track, and we more or less have the right ingredients to succeed further. This experience told us that we have what it takes, so now it’s just time to push harder.
The chart is much longer than 40, but only the top 40 is displayed. It was around September when we broke the charts. It took a few weeks, but it did climb enough to say that it was because it is a good song. This chart is actually based on the number of radio airplays. So this chart showed that we were being played a number of times across a bunch of radio stations.
What are some of the challenges you face or that you have faced?
Before we got exposure, before “Beat of Your Love” in 2013- before that song became a success, the struggle was that we had to keep writing songs as best as we could until something hits. Before this, we had already released three different singles, all of which hadn’t done spectacularly well. The challenge was that we had to try a lot before we actually got the break that we needed. I think it was the consistency that got us there too.
Another thing was that prior to “Beat of Your Love”, no one really knew us, so that meant we didn’t get invited to gigs as often or to make appearances and stuff. For the longest time, we all had our jobs, and we poured in whatever extra time and extra money, whatever it took to keep our dream alive.
We had to slave away and sacrifice our time and money and effort for a few years to break that momentum from a very slow one to something more exponential.
What was different about “Beat of Your Love” compared to the other songs that you had released previously?
It’s a very cheeky, fun song, the chorus has barely any words. At that point when that song came out, it was very different and very quirky. It was interesting and people liked it; it got played a lot on the radio. It was fresh and easily enjoyable. I guess it was the right song at the right time.
The song before that was a slow song. In the earlier days, we used to be known as the band who was good with the emotional-type songs. Then we realized that we don’t wanna be known as the band who is always sad. So we started writing songs that are upbeat.
People who’ve known us from “Beat of Your Love” onwards know us as the happy band and the people who’ve known us from way before that know us as the sad band who became happy. Haha! We’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I have to say we prefer being on the happy side. I think we’ll continue to stay on the happy side.
What would you say is a huge barrier to success in the Malaysian music industry?
First of all, the market for English music here is small. You’re limited to the urban side of KL and maybe Penang and that’s about it. There are a lot of bands too, a lot of good bands, so a lot of people are fighting for a relatively small pie. It’s not hard to imagine that most bands don’t earn enough to actually do this full time. Most bands I know who have a name for themselves, still have to maintain day jobs.
There are a lot of barriers, but the barriers that the musicians themselves can destroy comes down to the quality of music produced. The general perception is that there is ‘international quality’ or ‘local quality’. One of the comments that we got a lot when our songs were being played on the radio or on YouTube was shock at the fact that we were Malaysian. Of course they meant it as a compliment, but the way I see it, while there a lot of Malaysian musicians who don’t have the same quality of music as the British and American artistes, that is something that has improved greatly over the years. That is important, because if you want to be an English artiste, you have to at least be on par with international artistes. So you gotta work as hard as you can to make sure that your quality is there. More and more people are realizing this and hence the quality of our Malaysian music has improved.
The good thing is that if enough Malaysian artistes focus on this quality change, it will reach a point where we are on par with the rest of the international artistes. Suddenly, as a Malaysian teenager I would want to pay money to watch a Malaysian band live as I would do for an international artiste.
Do you think you would wanna hit the Malay market?
Our goals are different, though. Our goal is not to be the biggest band in Malaysia but to be the biggest band internationally. Where we are now is that we have had relatively good success in Malaysia, so the next step is to look at how we can branch out to the rest of the region like Singapore and the Philippines. But we have been lucky enough to have been given a shortcut straight for the US market.
We definitely wanna make English music. We don’t really wanna make any other kind of music just for local or regional success. We believe we can succeed on our own path now, staying true to the music that we wanna write. At the end of the day, this is our career and we actually do need to make money to survive and to live. We have to look at the bottom line and determine the path to most success.
What do you guys have planned for this year?
Our new album, of course. It’s a 10-song album, which is kinda longer than any compilation we’ve released prior to this. We’re still working on how we’re gonna fire our bullets now. Our production and management is 100% independent, done by us. There are four of us, and each of us basically have our portfolios- completely self-managed and self-funded. We’ve done this more out of necessity. Secondly, we are also looking to sign a record deal this year. The goal here is to accelerate our growth; to partner up with a label that can catalyze our progress. If that doesn’t work out, we will definitely keep working at it on our own, but we would have to tweak our model of operation and how we’re doing things.
So the things to look forward to is the new album, the new deal and- the sky is the limit, I guess.
What is the craziest experience that you’ve had with this band so far?
There was this one time we did this school show, and we like doing these kinda shows because they are our truest fans. They haven’t reached a point where they’re “too cool” to have fun.
So, somehow everyone was going crazy from the set before that and we were finishing the set by playing “Beat of Your Love”. So it started with one person running onto stage to take selfies and stuff and suddenly there were like three-quarters of the crowd on stage with us! And we were thinking, should we face the audience, or should we face the crowd jumping on stage! Haha!
Similarly, when we opened for 5 Seconds of Summer, everyone was so excited to see us and they really rocked with us during the whole set. It was a 4,000-strong crowd. Again this was affirmation that we must be doing something right. It feels good to have people reciprocate and enjoy your music with you.
What advice would you give to bands and musicians who are starting out in their career?
It’s not impossible. When I started my first full-time job, the general feeling was that I loved music, but the most that this could amount to is a very serious hobby. I never felt that I could actually tell myself that I could actually do this for a living. I’ve been doing this for a year and a half already and I’m surviving pretty well. Just know that it’s not impossible.
“You can’t magically write a hit song or magically become an overnight sensation. Know that it’s not impossible, but you would also need to put in the time and effort.”
That being said, it’s not enough to just have the dream and just believe. John gives this illustration – “If you expect to work 8 hours to earn a living at an office job to get whatever you want in life, how can you do music and expect to work any less to succeed? If you spend typically 40 hours in a week at your office, you would need to work as much or more to succeed in this”.