Homegrown & Well Known: Leo Sinatra

Author: Rudolf Dethu

He’s one of those young virtuosos from Bali. Has got himself one of those more guitar, less talk attitudes, started his career as a metal head and once, rather reluctantly, this skinny jeaned guy tried taking over the mic. But that was just a fleeting moment for this string axe loving guitarist. For he went knocking on rockabilly’s door and now calls psychobilly home. His name is Leo. Leo Sinatra, to be precise.

You started as a speed-metal Helloween-oriented guitarist and now you’re known as a psychobilly axeman? Quite a contrast.
Yep, you are correctamundo. Back in the day I was a heavy metal man complete with long hair, ripped jeans, and a tonne of heavy metal accessories! Was such a different look to the one I have today cause these days I’m all skinny jeans and slick back hair.

People may or may not remember but I was in band called Soul of Speed (SOS). We were pretty popular; made it to our fair share of band festivals in Bali and Java. You know, our very first gig at Gedung Mario in Tabanan and from there we went on to receive The Best of the Best High School Band in Bali award and I got myself the award for best guitarist. We also won first place at a band festival in Jember, we were chosen as the “favourite band.” That was some journey! I’m going to cherish those memories forever, those SOS days were pretty incredible.

Was all good but, times change and with that, it eventually came time for me to break loose from the heavy metal scene. Let me tell you, it was so damn hard to cut that long hair!

Interesting. Tell us more. How exactly did this drastic influence-shift come about?
It was 2004 and a friend of mine came back from Australia for school holidays and gave me a Living End album on CD. I was so amazed by them, I went over to Opix’s house (Suicidal Sinatra’s vocalist). We went for a drive, I cranked up the music and he was so unimpressed that he turned off his CD player. I was laughing so much, but I didn’t give up and honestly it didn’t take long for him to come round. We started studying The Living End rigorously and that really influenced our next album, Valentine Ungu. Surprisingly the album, despite how different it was to our metal stuff, was really well received by both friends and fans as well, gigs kept rolling on in after that. We started playing gigs, gigs, and more gigs and by then we all felt that the rockabilly feeling burning our hearts. By the time we released our second album, Love Songs and Stinkin’ Cheese, we had changed our name to Suicidal Sinatra.

The album was produced by Electrohell Records, which is owned by Bobby Kool of Superman Is Dead. They’d shown a lot of interest in the band over the years and post that we went on to meet heaps of new and interesting music-industry people. It was amazing, I felt like I’d found my way, musically speaking.

And since then, having tapped into psychobilly music, things have kept getting increasingly better, bigger, and more interesting. During that Living End inspired era I discovered Tiger Army and were totally and unbelievably hooked. All my bandmates were just as hooked as me. So all of us jumped in together; like we were drowning in a Tiger Army frenzy! That band changed our vision. We became darker, angrier, and became increasingly conscious of sociopolitical issues. The shift we made in the psychobilly-infused Boogie Woogie Psychobilly album is a testament to that. It’s darker, heavier, faster, but it also makes you want to dance like a drunken devil. Man, my wildest dream would be to share a stage with Tiger Army – it’d be totally insane. I’m going to keep being optimistic about that, it’ll happen. You know, not so long ago I shared a stage with Travis Demsey, the former drummer of The Living End. Best feeling ever!

How did you come up with the name Suicidal Sinatra? Does it mean anything?
We were all out one night, drinking and talking about new band name possibilities, fuelled further by a really good friend of ours was there who knows our style. It was one of those crazy drinking sessions, a little suicidal perhaps, and thanks to that, by the end of the night we’d come up with the infamous name. We all started putting Sinatra at the end of our names and it caught on. Guess our fans thought it suited us and them too ‘cause it wasn’t long before the more diehard among them were going by the name Sinatra like we were.

Let me put it this way, the meaning of Suicidal Sinatra, is what it is; a more suicidal version of Frank Sinatra. Still slick and melodic but much more badass, heavier in a punk rock sense. More hardcore.

Suicidal Sinatra is arguably Indonesia’s first psychobilly band. In the beginning, how did people react to your arrival on the music scene?
Yeah, I’m fairly sure we were the first. It was a bit hard introducing Indonesia to the genre because of the heavy chords and dark lyrics. But it turns out that there were quite a few rockabilly kids out there looking for things to get dark. Darker, heavier, faster. They were the first to accept us and through them the general public got to know us. Then, boom, psychobilly fever hit. Now Bali also has a couple of psychobilly bands, like Uncle Bean and Mad Dog, and I think there are a few more in Jogja, Surabaya and Jakarta too, of course. But I’d imagine that there’s at least one in all the major cities.

What’s the latest Suicidal Sinatra news? You started as a quartet, went trio, and now I hear you’re back to four again. You going to bring out a new album anytime soon?
You know, we are all family men in this band and thus, family is an important factor. It’s true, at one point Opix left to work on a cruise ship so we went from four to three. To have lost our singer, that was a big dilemma for us. I stepped up to the mic but, honestly, it was a nightmare for me. I had to force myself to sing, just to keep the Sinatra flag flying high. That’s when we released Los Sinatras in 2009; it was supposed to be proof that we were still kicking. Five years later, Opix is back! We are a quartet again, I finally get to ditch vocals, and the band is ready to boogie. A label in Jakarta approached us and we’re currently in the process of producing a fresh album. The plan is to have 12 songs, plus three bonus tracks. Hopefully it’ll be ready for your musical pleasure-seeking selves by mid April.

And what about your solo project? Is it still happening? And is it as psychobilly as your band?
It’s funny but, I think, because of how much I hated having to become the lead singer of Suicidal Sinatra, having been forced into that experience built up my confidence to sing. And yeah, now I have several side projects. One of those is a band called Leo Sinatra and the the Mad Rockers. It’s a country, honky-tonk kind of band, influenced by Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, with a touch of psychobilly thrown into the mix. This particular project has helped me to explore my skills using a lap steel guitar whilst singing.

I’ve also got a skabilly outfit called Jack Knife Blues which is more fun, dance your little heart out, easy listening. I guess the point of all these projects is to test my potential and also my skills. As a musician you want to be able to gather more skills and explore new music. I sleep, wake up, and breathe music.

You’ve just opened your own clothing store, with a music cafe where indie bands can come and play. Awesome move! Bali, especially for the alternative scene, doesn’t have a whole lot of venues for non-Top 40 artists does it?
Yep, I did. My wife and I have just opened a place called Rumble Girl, stocking girl’s clothing, and we’ve got St Lucas’s coffee shop. Our aim is to support local bands and create a cool hangout place at the same time. We let the bands play for free and in return we give them free drinks. As you said, Bali has limited venues for alternative bands to perform so this is a good thing for us, the island, and for them. However, as our location is smack in the middle of a residential area, the performances are restricted to acoustic and can’t go on till too late at night. So far so good though cause we’re full to over capacity most shows and we’ve had big names play; Dialog Dini Hari, Nymphea, The Dissland, The Bullhead, Roots Radical, The Brews, and Natter Jack – just to name a few!

In your opinion, what are the three most highly recommendable rockabilly/psychobilly albums?
The three that have shaped the person I am today; all the Tiger Army albums, Living End by Living End, Swing Sinner by James Intveld, and Dead Moon Calling by Mad Sin. Sorry, that’s more than three, it’s not possible to just list three. Any last nagging words? My life and love is music. People should always be respected for their passion. I came across this quote one day: “What if they’re right and I have no talent at all? ….F#%* them all, I’m an artist.”