Gigi: Originality is the name of the game
Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The four members of pop group Gigi quickly got very defensive when asked by journalists why, after eight albums, the band had never managed to achieve runaway commercial or critical success.
Despite several hits, collaboration with international musicians and even experiments with opera, they have still failed to come up with any albums that are truly memorable.
The group's self-justification became even more pronounced when we suggested that this was surprising given the level of talent of each member of the band.
Dewa Budjana was already known as a top-notch (jazz) guitarist when the band was formed in 1994. Vocalist Armand Maulana, bassist Thomas Ramdhan, and drummer Budhy Haryono were also well known at the time. All of them are now still considered noted musician/singers.
"Skill has nothing to do with sales. It can't be used as a parameter. Who can tell from the beginning that an album will sell millions of copies? If a musician could foretell this, he would be so rich!" Armand said during a recent interview at the offices of Sony Music.
"Say, Budjana knows everything about the guitar. But maybe there's a street singer who can only play three chords and still come out with catchy songs. You know what I mean?"
At this stage, his voice on the tape was drowned out by an animated exchange between Budjana and Thomas as both of them took the tape recorder to give their views on the issue.
The four lads indeed like to mess around and give tongue-in- cheek answers, when not actually playing with our tape recorders. We were also drawn into a silly debate over which albums were better than which, their rather flat and not so catchy new album Salam Kedelapan (Eighth Greeting), or their first two albums.
"How old are you?" Armand, 32, asked me I mentioned something about their best work.
"You like those albums because you were still in high school back then. It's a memory thing. Now that you're busy with work you don't follow us anymore. We find that different people and different generations like different albums."
When the band was formed in 1994, many predicted that it would become one of the greatest local bands given the talent of its founders: Armand, Budjana, guitarist Aria Baron Arafat or Baron, Thomas and drummer Ferdinal Ronald Fristianto or Ronald.
Despite the noted members and warm reception, the band's first album, Angan (Dream), sold around 100,000 copies. Sales, however, got better with their second effort a year later, Dunia (World), and 3/4 in 1996. The latter sold 400,000 copies.
The next album, 2x2, however, was a flop despite contributions from Mr. Big's bassist Billy Sheehan and saxophonist Eric Marienthal.
Other records that were released by the band also only achieved modest sales, with the most successful only selling 400,000 copies. Not bad, but compare with some new bands who can sold over two million copies, this figure is nothing. Especially, given the caliber of the members.
On the other hand, the demand for live performances still remains due to the band's attractive stage act.
In the course of its history, the group has undergone a number of personnel changes. Three members, Baron, Ronald and Thomas, quit after the third album.
Two new members, Budhi, and bassist Opet Alatas, were then recruited. Opet then quit and was re-replaced, so to speak, by Thomas, who by then had overcome his drug addiction.
Given all these ups and downs, the band now feels content that it has been able to survive all these years and still come up with an album that, despite modest sales, people have welcomed.
"I like being in this group because we have this high level of synergy and tolerance," Armand said.
So tolerant that each member can really control his ego in the studio?
"We make each song together, meeting in one place and discussing things together. This is unusual in other groups that rely on only one member as the main songwriter. We're very proud that we have always written our songs together, right from the first album," Budjana said.
The group also insisted it still followed current trends.
"We always see what is happening around us. We're like Madonna," Thomas said.
He added that despite modest sales, compared to new bands that were able to sell millions of copies, it was the comfort that counted.
"I feel very comfortable playing in this band, with the latest line-up. We can perform contentedly on stage, and are well- received by the audiences, who normally go hysterical upon hearing the intro. What matters to us is writing something that is original," Thomas said.
Originality was what really counted for the band, as there were so many rip-off bands nowadays.
"I've never heard comments from people saying that Gigi sounds like such and such. This is what makes me proud," Armand said.
"It's would be great if we could sell lots of records. But what really matters is that we still exist, and kids today still like us. High school kids still hire us to perform. We think that's the biggest reward for us. We're truly grateful that we've been able to keep going until now."