The depths of sadness and the highs of pop | Djun

With a focus on loss and the passage of time, the newly-minted, genre-hopping band Djun will be performing on June 10, while also prepping their debut album in parallel. TEODOR RELJIC speaks to the band’s bassist and lead songwriter, Charles Cassar

Djun – Illustration by julinu.com
Djun – Illustration by julinu.com

What was the main motivation behind the setting up of Djun, and what did you set out to achieve with the gathering of musicians that you had at hand?

In the beginning of 2017 my old friend Mark ‘Zizza’ Abela, of Brodu fame, approached me to start writing Maltese language songs together. We both used to play in a funk band called ‘Zizza Ensemble’ a few years back and had been looking for an excuse to reconnect. While I used to write most of the music for Zizza Ensemble, I had never put words to music. But I somehow discovered I have a knack for it, and quickly got hooked, rapidly producing ideas that centered around the themes of finitude and the passage of time (early onset midlife crisis I suppose). We’re both old hands in the local music scene now so we were quickly able to put together a group of amazing musicians; Justin Galea (vocals), Paul Torpiano (keys) and Ryan Refalo (guitars). Eventually, Zizza couldn’t keep up the commitment, given that he essentially plays in every band on the island. So we amicably parted ways, with the very talented Michael Vella Zarb taking his place on drums.

The boys brought a huge amount of passion to the project and made it their own. So at first it just started off as me and Zizza fraternalising over music and me dealing with a mild existential crisis, and now it’s taken on a life of its own.

“I wish more local musicians would take artistic risks and stop fooling themselves baiting hits because they think they’re trying to make it big”

With your influences of jazz and prog very much evident, would you say that there’s something austere and serious that’s essential to your sound? With this in mind, how would you define yourselves in terms of your chosen genres, and how does that influence your process?

I’ve played in rock, jazz and funk bands all my life, and wanted Djun to be something different. Profoundly sad, but contemporaneously listenable and uplifting and ‘pop’ is what we’re aiming for. I’d like our audience to enjoy what we do, but not necessarily to ‘have fun’. Although they’re free to do so, within limits.

Regarding influences, while I did indeed grow up listening to lots of progressive rock and jazz, I have been absorbing very different influences over the last few years – the sad folk of Sufjan Stevens primarily but also the Genoese songwriters, lots of voguish psychedelic revival bands like Tame Impala and Mild High Club, latter day Radiohead and such.

In terms of how those influences filter through into the process, we crystallised the core themes and ideas for our first album fairly early on in the songwriting phase, and so were also able to specifically seek out influences and ideas. Fundamentally, we’re all song crafting geeks and we all love hunting down the right chord or sound for a particular idea.

What would you say you contribute to the local musical scene – do you think you bring something on board that wasn’t there previously?

We’re less middle class than the Travellers, less angry than Brikkuni, less likeable than Brodu, and less attractive than Red Elektrick. It’s all about that austere minimalism. Less is more. Jokes apart, I think the combination of ‘very sad’ and ‘very pop’ is relatively unexplored here.

How do you feel about the local musical scene? What would you change about it?

The contemporary Maltese language pop scene is small, but closely-knit and thriving. The jazz scene is also doing well, and producing some frighteningly talented young musicians. I don’t follow the festival scene and find it completely uninteresting. I wish more local musicians would take artistic risks and stop fooling themselves baiting hits because they think they’re trying to make it big. If you’re trying to ‘make it’, you need to pack your bags, quit your job and go somewhere closer to the action. If, like us, you’re simply interested in creating something beautiful that might mean something to a few people, might as well take risks and do something interesting.

What’s next for you?

After we ‘unveil the band’ in a more or less official capacity during our June 10 gig in Zabbar, we will then focus on recording our debut album – ‘Il-Hlas’.

So who are the bands that Djun is comparing itself with?

‘MIDDLE-CLASS’

The Travellers

While there’s certainly an audience for strummy, uplifting Maltese-language folk-pop – especially as the summer climes wind their humid and Rose-in-the-evening way across the island – one can also understand why Cassar would characterise their sound as ‘middle class’. Comfort listening at its best/worst, depending on your musical inclinations and general predisposition.

Red Electrick
Red Electrick

‘ATTRACTIVE’

Red Elektrick

Operating under a healthy balance of mainstream and rock-and-roll, Red Elektrick are perhaps Malta’s most palatable ‘radio-friendly’ band, whose sleek
image belies a genuinely healthy love for the music.

Brikkuni
Brikkuni

‘ANGRY’

Brikkuni

Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella is certainly no stranger to controversy or unpopular opinion on social media, but it would be a shame if this ‘persona’ wholly overshadows the band’s musical legacy. And while their most recent release – Rub Al Khali – may actually cleave closer to Djun’s own melancholy overtones, the raw wellsprings of anger found in their debut – Kontrabanda! – are certainly worth revisiting, especially its more punk-inflected tracks like ‘Kontra Kollox u Kullhadd’ and ‘L-Eletti’.

Brodu
Brodu

‘LIKEABLE’

Brodu

Interlinked to Djun’s history and eclectic blend of styles through the aforementioned Mark ‘Zizza’ Abela – lead singer and guitarist here – Brodu’s freeform blend of rock, jazz, blues and everything in between may not have the mainstream appeal of the likes of Red Elektrick or The Travellers, but they did achieve a measure of virality in select scenes with the excellent number ‘Ic-Cimiterju’; a song that confirms the band’s genuine emotional resonance as well as the overarching ‘chill vibes’ within which they operate... certainly cementing their ‘likeable’ stamp in the process.

 

Djun are: Charles Cassar (bass and lead songwriter), Justin Galea (vocals), Paul Torpiano (keyboards), Ryen Refalo (guitar) and Michael Vella Zarb (drums). The band will be performing at the Blue Arena of the Maria Mater Gratiae band club, Zabbar on June 10 at 19:30. Bookings: https://shop.trackagescheme.com/event/brodu-u-djun/

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