What music are you into at the moment?
Hardly anything. It’s kind of ironic you wanting to ask me about music, the last few years I have zoned out of active listening.
I used to be really into music, and played music too – guitar, flute, even started playing sitar at one point in time. But when I started getting more seriously into photography, music just became less central. But in the odd moments when I do listen (during long bouts of editing photos for example, I might listen to something like Maria Callas, Latin Groove, classic blues, or whatever is on iTunes on my computer – mostly anything newer is whatever my assistant leaves there! Whatever little bit I do listen too is a fairly mixed bag!)
What was the first record you bought—any interesting story behind it?
I can’t really remember which was the first one, it was more like a batch that I actually owned when we were living in Europe. I was fifteen, late Sixties – I had worked all summer (my Dad was posted in Germany at the time) really back breaking work on an experimental farm. I had all this money saved up for all kinds of stuff. Then I broke the windshield on my Dad’s Mercedes (long story): he made me pay for it, so I had little left of the savings. I used some of it to buy albums by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan (Bob Zimmerman was the first to prove that it didn’t matter if you couldn’t really sing if you were a genius poet), Jimi Hendrix Experience etc. But I didn’t have a record player, so had to borrow my sister’s when she wasn’t around. Bummer hahahaha.
I also listened a lot to Leonard Cohen who was also a big influence on the music that I actually played. Everything I listened to was about rebellion, which was so big in Europe in the 60s. I had left Indonesia barely a teenager, and we had to sneak in listening to the Beatles. And the Rolling Stones was just starting to happen, I loved their albums. Meanwhile my Dad really was hoping I would listen to Keroncong.
Then when I was sixteen I finished high school and took off back to Indonesia and Bali, and then eventually ran away across Asia for a few years. I lost contact with rock and roll etc, and the music I listened to became what is known now as world music. I travelled light, with flutes in a bag. I remember playing flute (shakachi too) in the Taj Mahal one full moon night. They used to leave it open till 10pm on full moon nights! The sound was indescribable: it went straight up into the dome and then echoed down through all the alcoves with this amazing delay layered effect, it was almost like playing an organ, the sound just filled the place! There was a guard looking for me and couldn’t find me when i was in the shadows just a few meters away! Then after that for about a year I totally disappeared into the Himalayas, but that’s another long story.
When I was living in Australia in the mid 70’s it was stuff like Steely Dan, Steve Miller Band and the Australian music scene: Jimmy and the Boys, Rose Tattoo, Midnight Oil. I lived in Sydney in a huge house in Point Piper – but shared it with a bunch of other people. When we had parties in the upwards of 500-1000 people would show up and we would have the bands over so it was more personal. I had a studio down in the city (it was cheap in the lower parts of Kent St back then). I was doing airbrush for fashion industry and my friend was doing silkscreen. It was in Oz that I finally started getting serious about photography. The seventies in Sydney were seminal for music and arts. It was a pretty wild time, I had friends working on this crazy new film which turned out to be an international block buster (Mad Max) and so on it went.
By the time I made it back to Bali in 78 I decided to stay put. But visual stuff was more central to me then, and music was becoming much more peripheral, so in all these years I really didn’t explore Indonesian music beyond what had become “mainstream rebellious” (God Bless, and people like Iwan Fals who had a strong social message).
I loved Abraxas (Santana), loved the latino rhythm mixed with the way Carlos Santana played that guitar. I loved Hendrix Experience ( (loved the line “scuse me while I kiss the sky…” and “Wild Thing” just made me crazy, heh); And anything by the Rolling Stones was such a good singalong. Dylan’s poetry was so fast and smart and evocative (loved the way he sang “all along the watchtower” – it put you there). Leonard Cohen resonated with the moody bastard in me (‘Like a bird on the wire, like a drunken in the midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free”). Loved Crosby Stills and Nash (I had long hair almost to my waist after graduating, and that line “I almost cut my hair the other day..” seemed so important hahaha yet it was meant ironically. The long hair was such a symbol back then, it made you cool. And the cops in Jakarta used to chase us to cut our hair off—maybe that’s why I moved to Bali?
A few years ago I met Graham Nash, it was sweetly ironic: turns out he is a huge photo enthusiast so I wound up giving him a slide show. He started the whole giclé printing thing, so my first ever digital giclé print was done by one of my teenage years idol!!! On that note I also met Abdul Mati Klarwein, who was the artist who painted the album cover for Abraxas, in Bali.
What was the worst record you ever purchased?
Undoubtedly Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. At first I thought it was cool mind blowing stuff, but after the second loop I lost my enthusiasm.
I guess I always liked good lyrics. The title song was a bit lacking in that area….
Who do you want to be, other than yourself, next time you reincarnate?
A human being with good education and freedom. Oh, and I want good ears without the damn tinitis ringing 24 hours – the result from standing 30 feet away from banks of thousands and thousands of watt speakers. (Could anyone be that stupid to stand that close to the stage when for example Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were laying it down? Well now it’s official from the stupid horses mouth).
What music do you choose to start your weekend?
I like it quiet to begin with.
Starting 1st of July Rio Helmi is holding a big exhibition “Transitory” at the Komaneka Gallery in Ubud (Monkey Forest Road). It is a collection of his work on Balinese spiritual culture dating back 30 years. There are some from his latest book “Memories of the Sacred” released in October. “Besides different images,” he says, “what is also different this time is that I have painted quite a few of my prints on canvas with oil paints, and even applied gold leaf to a couple!”
• This interview was firstly published on The Beat (Jakarta) #41, June 2011
• This is the unedited version, a bit longer than what published on the mag