Side Effect: The Liberation of Burmese Rock

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Inky smoke oozes upward, staining the blue Burmese sky. But as Darko leads his friends closer, that ashy plume grows less and less ominous.

Before long the front man of Side Effect, one of Burma’s few alt-rock outfits, stands close enough to see what’s fueling that fire. He and his bandmates have devoted the day, a balmy afternoon in January 2013, to squiring Dan Boeckner and Alex Fischel, special guests from the American-based indie troupe Divine Fits who were visiting the former national (and current cultural) capital of Yangon. Their itinerary includes jamming for friends at a house party, visiting a few used record shops, stopping by touristy hotspots like Yangon’s massive Shwedagon Temple, and now a suddenly spontaneous detour to the site of a bizarre blaze.

This ashen destination is a different sort of sacred shrine. Unlike the majestically golden shaded Shwedagon, it’s a gruesomely impoverished scene. Soon, Darko’s guests understand why—they’ve happened upon Buddhists who are burning their dead, because they can’t afford graves.

“To bury a body in the city cemeteries is very, very expensive. Besides, they believe that when somebody dies the body is nothing, that their spirit is gone,” Darko says of the amateur cremation, adding it isn’t so startling once witnesses understand its context.

They’d spotted the smoke that day while driving to visit Darko’s old university on the outskirts of Yangon, after touring Boeckner and Fischel downtown all day. The Side Effect front man was surprised by his guests’ literally morbid curiosity. “When we were driving by they asked about the smoke,” he says, “and when I told them they were burning bodies Dan said he really wanted to see it. Seeing it was a real shock, and not just for them— I ‘d driven by those Buddhists burning bodies many times when I was in university. But we never went close because of the smell.”

Boeckner tried to ignore that stench as he looked on. And soon he saw a subversive beauty in that haunting sight, as he watched those supposedly timid Buddhists douse their loved ones’ remains and cardboard coffins in diesel, before setting them alight.

“Some of it was terrifying,” Boeckner says. “As I watched, the guys in Side Effect explained that when you burn a human body something happens to the spinal chord. Apparently it contracts and can make the corpse sit up. So they had to put weights on the bodies’ backs and burn them face down. That was certainly chilling. Being there with those guys from Side Effect, and seeing the way they dealt with it, was an amazing bonding experience.”

Boeckner and Darko hit it off immediately when they first met in 2010. The Canadian born indie rocker was then touring throughout Asia with his old band The Handsome Furs, and their gig in Yangon was one of the first Burmese concerts to feature foreign performers. But Boeckner insists that Side Effect, as the opening act, were the real stars of the show. Darko—the passionate front man, with piercing eyes contrasting his warmly boyish grin—sings in Burmese, but bellows his righteous themes past any language barriers. Drummer Tser Htoo—who is brawnier and taller than his band mates—pounds his kit like the monsoon rains that douse Yangon year after year. Guitarist Jozeff—Darko’s wily looking younger brother— strangles his fret board with a python grip, until serpentine riffs slither every which way.

Darko says the band’s influences—mainly the White Stripes and The Strokes—are apparent on Side Effect’s 2012 debut, Rainy Night Dreams. But, upon closer listening, it’s apparent that the disc is more eclectic than that. The opening track “Under the Influence” features a menacing guitar solo with what might be the slightest tinges of marimba. There’s traces of Queens of the Stone Age on the “The End’s” chug-a-lug riff and swaggering vocals. And midway track “Love Dealer,” rocks with the steady simplicity of a heyday Ramones hit.

Boeckner says he was hooked on Side Effect’s music from the first performance he saw. But he was equally charmed by the band members after they stepped offstage.

“They were really sweet and welcoming, and always seemed concerned that I was comfortable and having a good time,” Boeckner says of the time he spent with Side Effect in 2010, adding that hospitality compelled him to return in 2013, a visit that deepened their ties all the more. “Being at that Buddhist cremation back in January brought me so much closer to them. It was like a spiritual experience for me, and it really solidified my friendship with Darko.”

Boeckner had often daydreamed about seeing an exotic oddity like that makeshift funeral pyre, especially while growing up in a dull small town on Canada’s west coast. And that wanderlust only grew after years of touring gentrified North American cities in his former band Wolfe Parade (one of the many Montreal based outfits that fans and critics fawned over as that city’s scene exploded in the early 2000s). But Boeckner wasn’t alone in that feeling—the members of Side Effect were equally moved by that sight of that pyre.

“It was a good experience for me too man,” Darko says. “It’s a countryside thing. We never see cremations like that on the streets, because I’m just a city boy. To see that, with all of us together, was a really great memory. “

Of course such a sight may seem morbid on the surface. But its spirituality and contradictions drew Darko and the other onlookers in. Like many other Burmese scenes, standing by that pyre was beautiful and brutal, spiritual without a trace of sentimentality. It was an intimate glimpse at Burmese culture. Sharing that nuanced moment with foreigners made it all the more special, because Darko typically entertains outsiders that see his homeland and his music in much simpler terms.

*

Too often, Darko has entertained ungracious guests. He says they’re typically reporters, rushing to meet a deadline and scurrying to meet Side Effect for quick answers to a few superficial questions.

“Most of the time they ask me if it’s difficult to be in a band here, or they want to know how hard my life is,” Darko says of the queries he’s fielded by foreign correspondents looking to learn more about Burma’s notorious corruption and rampant poverty.

In a way, one could forgive journalists for asking such questions. After all, the conventional knowledge about Burma makes for flashy headlines. There’s the fact that it’s one of the poorest countries in Asia, or that its traffickers cultivate the world’s second biggest source of heroin. And of course one can’t forget the nation’s infamous political strife—from British colonialist rule between 1824 and 1948, to a brutal military junta from the late 1980s onward that imprisoned a myriad of citizens on a whim. That dictatorship clamped down on freedom of speech until it ceased to exist, alienated neighboring nations until their economic sanctions sealed Burma’s borders, and then blitzed its citizens with propaganda. The Burmese were left isolated, impoverished, voiceless, and wary of their friends and neighbors for fear they’d be reported for violating one of the state’s strict Orwellian social doctrines.

In recent years, the government has attempted a cultural palette cleanse. The nation’s official name was changed to Myanmar (a moniker that still-estranged nations, and skeptical individuals, refuse to use). Democratic reforms were made. Elections were held and results were honored, including the victory of once-persecuted human-rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, ensuring her ascent as the head of the official opposition. Sanctions were lifted and foreign investment has been pouring in. The story has changed, but the reporters covering it still ask Darko the same old simplistic sort of questions.

“Before the government transformation period, they only wanted to write about how everything is so shitty in Burma,” Darko says. “And then after there were changes, and someone from the American or European government came, all the newsmen are like ‘It’s changing, all people are happy, no worries.’ At first I was happy to meet new people. But I’d rather meet someone I can really talk to, instead of someone who is hunting for a story that he wants.”

It frustrates Darko to no end, and Boeckner says he can empathize, considering he has fielded more than his share of superficial media queries.

“The worst it gets for me is an American or European reporter asking ‘What was it like to come up in Montreal?’ or ‘Do you know the Arcade Fire?’” Boeckner says of the aggravating interviewers he’s met over the years. ‘That’s annoying, but it’s pretty innocuous compared to Darko wanting to talk about his band, and him becoming the only reference point that a journalist has to the bigger, hot global story that is Myanmar.”

Daniel Gelfer, an independent consultant working in Yangon who pulls double duty as Side Effect’s manager, says visitors need to open their minds and do their homework before booking a flight to Burma.

“My own criticism is just lazy journalists in general,” he says. “They come here with pre-written stories, and they come here to cover the same social issues that have been detailed in 50 other articles. It seems to be written in stone.”

Darko concurs, adding: “I would be happier if we were known by our music, I don’t just want to be known for living in a very bad state. We don’t want to be seen as pathetic.”

Despite his reluctance to talk politics, Darko can’t shy away from one aspect of Burmese national affairs. The country’s recent socio-economic progress was jolted over the past year by a bitter surge of sectarian violence. In March the central city of Meiktila was overrun by a mob of local Buddhists who clashed with their Muslim neighbors, torching their homes, forcing 12,000 members of that minority onto the streets and leaving dozens of them dead.

Darko wasn’t at the front lines of the conflict in Meiktila, but he did engage in a war of words about it with his friends in Yangon. He even penned a song about the escalating tensions, naming it after the rampaged town located in the heart of Burma.

“My friends were getting knives and blades as big as swords, telling me ‘Just in case, if it happens here, we’ll be ready.’ And I was surprised, I kept telling them ‘you don’t need to prepare for that, you just need to calm down,’” Darko says of the Islamophobia that has been budding amongst his friends, which inspired what will surely be one of Side Effects most biting future songs. He adds that a generation of government indoctrination certainly isn’t helping the matter. “I think people are confused, or a little bit scared. They are misguided, and misinformed. In our culture, when I was a kid you listened to what your parents said, and when we were students we couldn’t ever question the teachers. So I think the majority of people are getting carried away by what they’re hearing, without stopping to consider it.”

Boeckner says he admires Darko’s frank songwriting about all that turmoil, adding that his friend shouldn’t worry about it leading to more dull, political queries from journalists.

“Twenty years from now, a kid can go back and listen to a Side Effect song about the ethnic conflict there, about the breached birth of democracy in Myanmar. That’ll have so much more social value than any negative impact for Darko,” Boeckner says of the international press’ potential reaction to the song, adding that he is more concerned about the government’s rebuttal, despite its recent free-speech reforms. “I worry if they roll back those freedoms, and if Darko writes songs that are critical or even topical about what’s going on, that he might become a target.”

Darko insists it’s a risk he has to take, saying the stakes have already become personal.

“A lot of my friends hate me for writing about what’s going on with the Muslims, for not getting angry or siding with the Buddhists. But I’m not writing to blame the Buddhism, I’m just trying to speak out against that kind of violence,” he says, adding that he still worries about how those socially conscious lyrics will be received.

“If we’re only known by this political stuff, one day people will get bored. We’re a band, so I want people to ask ‘How do you sound?’ and ‘How good can you play?’ I also want to tell them about the things we did in the past, how we survived in the Yangon music scene. I think that would be more interesting for the readers anyway.”

*

Darko hated Yangon’s music scene long before partaking in it. He formed Side Effect in 2004 with drummer Tser Htoo and brother/guitarist Jozeff, the only people he knew that shared his love of then indie up and comers like The White Stripes. Nearly every other band in town sounded like a nü-metal imitator, injecting Burmese lyrics over Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park covers. Crowds flocked to those shows, and deemed Side Effect’s punk-tinged alt-rock to be dated.

That alone would have made the task of building a fan base tough. But on top of that, Side Effect’s members could hardly find a venue to give it a try. Most stages charged the artists high rental fees for even short shows, and Darko and the others had to often perform for free to attract an audience.

It was a struggle to break even, let alone make a living. To this day Darko and his wife have to run a tailor shop to make ends meet. Tser Htoo had a day job at a radio station, but even that wage wasn’t enough for him to buy a drum kit. So he resorted to rental kits for gigs, and drumming on piles of books for practice—stacking a few soft covers for a snare, several hardcovers for a base drum, and so on.

“Different piles of books can’t really give you enough different sounds. But if you use your heart to hear it, you can hear the different sounds perfectly,” Tser Htoo says with a laugh, adding the method was very strange, yet somewhat suitable for a while. “I’d wrap some books in plastic bags to try and make them sound like hi-hats. I still don’t make enough money to buy drums of my own, but now I can afford to rent studio time for practice.”

That change in Side Effect’s fortune is a recent development. The band’s members had spent years facing economic hurdles, indifference from the music scene, and even scrutiny from the government, having to submit their songs for approval by the junta’s rigid censorship authority.

“It’s angering and depressing—I can’t imagine how they can be okay with censoring a song that someone created.” Tser Htoo says, adding that he’s cautiously hopeful recent political reforms will keep Side Effect from being muzzled again. “I feel wonderful that the censorship laws are gone now. But nobody knows what will happen if we sing something ‘wrong’ in the government’s eyes. I don’t believe in them.”

Through it all, the members of Side Effect stuck with it. And gig after gig, the troupe slowly built a steady following. One of those early fans was their now-manager, Gelfer.

“What sets them apart is the fact that they write original music,” Gelfer says. “They don’t play covers or imitate one band or genre. But that definitely makes them outsiders here.”

So Gelfer offered to lend a hand, helping to orchestrate a Yangon gig for The Handsome Furs’ Asian tour. Side Effect opened the show for a huge crowd that was curious to see an expat act for the first time. Before long, Darko and his bandmates became foreigners themselves, landing a gig at a festival in Bali, and then making a breakthrough tour across Germany in the fall of 2012.

“That tour was so good for us,” Darko says, citing the Berlin show as his favorite. “Fans have so much musical background there, and know many styles, so our music wasn’t strange for them. And I believe they enjoyed it quickly. But back in Yangon, a lot of people just scratch their heads when they hear our songs and say ‘Is this punk? Is it pop? What is this?””

The German tour was hugely validating after years of fruitless effort. Side Effect will return for another German leg this summer, along with two Danish gigs in Copenhagen and Aalborg. But those benchmarks aren’t enough to impress Darko’s family.

“When I came back from Germany the first thing my mother told me was how local pop artists are getting paid however many kyats (ie. Burmese currency) to perform a song, while we are not getting any money. ‘ You played in Berlin, but you’re not professional.’ My mother told me that!” Darko exclaims. “It’s very discouraging man, so I try to stay away from them, because I don’t want the spirit of my music to be ruined.”

But that dismay is becoming much more difficult to dodge because Jozeff, Darko’s sibling and Side Effect’s guitarist, has decided to quit for steady work on a freighter.

“He’s going to be the lowest rank on the ship, like mopping the floor and stuff,” Darko says with a sigh, adding that Jozeff’s playing style has been an integral ingredient in Side Effect’s sound. “It broke my heart man.”

Jozeff didn’t respond to PASTE’s request for an interview. But he recently left a telling post on his Facebook wall: “Sometimes you got to shut up, swallow your pride and accept that you are wrong. It’s not called giving up, its called growing up.”

Darko says he took that message to heart, adding: “I gotta let him know man. He needs to learn, he needs to find it all out himself. From my point of view he was not born to be a sailor, he was born to be a rock star. I just want him beside me, playing next to me.”

***

Side Effect will embark on its European tour without Jozeff this summer. Darko says he’s already recruited a “longterm friend” named Eaiddhi to step into his brother’s shoes, learning the old intricate riffs and hopefully writing a few of us his own before long.

Boeckner says he’s thrilled to finally see Side Effect take an extended trek abroad. It reminds him of a song he and Darko sang together during his visit in January. While they were preparing to jam at a house party, Boeckner phonetically memorized the Burmese lyrics of one of the front man’s most candid tunes.

“It was a two-chord song, and I love two-chord songs because they’re so simple, so direct,” Boeckner says of Darko’s tune, before elaborating on the lyrics that complimented those minimalistic notes. “It was called “Ma Sone Naing Dot,” which in English means “I’ve Never Been There.” And it was just a list of all the places Darko had never visited—Singapore, Germany, England, on and on. I especially love that memory today, because now he has to cross a few of those names off the list.”

Darko and Boeckner shared another, much subtler milestone before that house party duet. They had finally left the Buddhist cremation, near the beginning of Boeckner’s visit and finished the drive to Darko’s former university on the outskirts of Yangon. Near the old classrooms, situated deep in the jungle, was the Side Effect leader’s favorite watering hole. Boeckner knew not to expect barstools or draft pints as they ducked inside the grass hut, but he was still surprised to be served palm wine and barbequed field rat. Darko was even more taken aback by the sight of his expat pal gulping it all down with as much gusto as the locals.

“Once I got a little bit drunk, and the sheer surreal-ness of the surroundings wore off on me, I realized the vibe wasn’t that much different from the pub by the college that I went to in my early twenties,” Boeckner says. “Those experiences with the guys from Side Effect humanized Burma for me, to the point that I don’t see it as this strange, tragic country anymore. I see it as a place where my friends grew up, had their hearts broken a few times, and wrote some great songs.”

Darko says he was equally glad to welcome a few genuine new friends to his old neighborhood and offer a few glimpses of everyday life there. They quickly grew tipsy after a few rounds of palm wine, which Darko describes as being similar to champagne, but slightly sourer—a bittersweet flavor that he’s grown more than accustomed to over the years.

“I didn’t see it as bringing a bunch of successful Western musicians to a strange place,” he says of the palm hut bar. “It felt more like old friends, taking time to find a place to hang out.”

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