The genre-bending Malaysian artist on realizing a futuristic vision with Y2K-indebted pop

Shelhiel’s 2020 debut, Superstrobe, appeals to our emotions as much as to our senses. Although it’s mostly defined by how intensely it extols pop music’s euphoria, it also serves as a marker where past and present coexist: a past that is singular, one before the pandemic.

It’s because Superstrobe’s fictional narrative—an angel who fell to earth to find love—is not only one of the most timeless themes in music: the desire to be loved, it’s also recontextualized today as an immediate, palpable need for companionship.

The Malaysian multihyphenate underscores this wish fulfilment in his visual interpretation for “Star 星,” which he conceptualized, wrote, and creative directed. Helmed by director and frequent collaborator Nelson Chong, Shelhiel plays the role of an angel in a parallel universe called Earth-527 (which is his birthday, May 27) who abandoned his duties (and God) to attend a party to find “The One, The Star” who illuminates his world, only to realize in the end it was not one being all along.

Its motivations hit close, as most of Malaysia remains in lockdown since June 1, with infections still at an all-time high. When asked how he’s doing, Shelhiel tells us that while he’s okay, the prolonged restrictions are taking its toll. “We’re all pissed, angry with the government, and mostly tired,” he said. “I think my mindset now is ‘I’m still going to push out as many great quality works that I can,’ as we need music and art more than ever.” 

It’s also why “Star 星” is a decisively collaborative effort: the “virtual club” scenes feature his fellow Malaysian artists, creatives, and friends; with wardrobe provided by local fashion designers Joe Chia, Shaofen, and Ghostboy; while the virtual reality aspect of the video was constructed with the help of 3D artist Shanghai Cattin Tsai. “It is also my first time as an architecture graduate [to work on] UI and 3D environment,” he tells The Rest Is Noise. “Honestly, the rollout of promo can be better but I’m doing my best using my own funds for all these visuals, etc.,” he admits.

Despite these operational limitations, Shelhiel remains enthusiastic in finding workarounds and building more personal connections online—something that’s characteristically steeped in his music to begin with, a self-confessed product of internet awakening. He tells us he wants to visit Manila soon and meet with musician friends such as LONER, dot.jaime, and similarobjects.

We spoke with him about his latest music video, the excellent Superstrobe, and angel powers.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

It’s been more than a year since Superstrobe was released. How do you think your record (and others similar to it), which inevitably evokes a lot of what we miss about live music, changes or maintains its themes and essence now that we’re still mostly barred from going to live music spaces?

I think it definitely changes how we release music where [doing] promo now is all focused fully online, no more on-ground shows, and to connect is fully through the internet now. You have to be more actively involved in the communities or social media if you want to push your music or connect to people, but I felt like now it’s quite a breaking point for us here when there is no balance of meeting IRL versus virtually. I would say live music is still the best: certain notes or melodies hit you differently live.

“Star 星” and the rest of the EP is a highly stylized concept album: future-forward but very intimate at the same time. How did you arrive in this direction in terms of influences, circumstances, etc.?

Not sure why I’m really into the Y2K era. Most probably my upbringing in the suburbs and having less pop culture influences from the cities made me catch all the pop references like decades late, which fits perfectly now, hahaha!

Can't be the millennium if there's no flip phone in sight

Superstrobe is the perfect blend of everything about me: my faith, my heritage, my multicultural upbringing—a perfect intro story for my artistry and my future releases to come. The ideation comes easily, yet the maturation of the concept took like eight to 10 months to solidify (shoutout to my art director Curly). I remembered I did like four to five mood boards for the EP concept and for the logo typeface I think we did like six options before finalizing this font. Thank you architecture class for helping me organize my thoughts and ideas.

Let’s talk about the fantastic visual for “Star”: you were very hands-on with putting this together. Can you share with us the process of translating the song to this visual narrative? 

The story of star is actually a part of the same Superstrobe-verse. So I really did draw a diagram of a timeline of what really happened throughout the EP, and if you can tell, its a cyclic story and the tracklist goes both ways, depending on the ascension or the fall of the protagonist. If “Superstrobe” is the enlightenment intro, “Chillin” is the breaking point, “Runnin” is the abyss, [then] “Star” is the climax of the story, happening in the parallel reality of Earth-527.

I was wondering: What do the characters at the beginning mean?

Is it the character after Shelhiel? That’s my chinese name in traditional chinese: 鄺晅恒, designed by Tauras, a similar motif with my English name, which was inspired by ancient Chinese glyphs, gothic art, as well as art nouveau.

Let’s say if you were indeed an angel and you fell to earth in the middle of all this mess we’re still in and you only have one last angel power to do something (except get rid of the pandemic, which is a given), what would it be and what would you do with it? 

One last angel power! Oooh, this is hard. I think I wanna be a mind angel, where I can come in dreams and ideas to comfort and shower some love to weary minds. I do believe that minds are greater than anything, and definitely for now [we] need better and healthier mindful minds more than all these materialism.