A Life Of Music And Stories
Updated: Jul 26, 2018
N. Rama Lohan is living proof that multipassionates can survive and thrive
As a child of the 80s, pop tunes were a staple in my home. I vividly remember the 1983 Matthew Wilder hit ‘Break My Stride’ as a favourite and it is this new wave/reggae song that came to mind when I concluded my interview with N. Rama Lohan, a multipassionate who’s a musician and a journalist.
For those who remember, it’s this part of the song chorus that is oft-quoted:
Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride Nobody's gonna slow me down, oh-no I got to keep on moving.
However, before we zero in on the end of the interview, one needs to understand how it all began for 43-year old Lohan.
“Writing was never a struggle for me. I was very, very fortunate to be good at it. I started at 19; it was 1994 and my cousin plucked me out of Ipoh to live with him in Kuala Lumpur,” Lohan recalls, adding that he started his journalism career with The Sun, which had recently become a nationwide newspaper at the time.
He secured a job interview with the hiring editor at The Sun, who happened to be his cousin’s friend. “I went for the interview with no bloody interest in the job, absolutely none. The editor gave me 15 minutes to write why I wanted to be a journalist. I was a cocky 19-year old punk, I didn’t want to do it. I thought she said five lines…and for the next 10 minutes I was twiddling my thumbs.
"Suddenly, I realised she meant five paragraphs and so I wrote five paragraphs in five minutes on why I had absolutely no interest in the job and I didn’t know what I was doing there.”
Unsurprisingly, Lohan landed the job due the quality of his writing. Realising that he couldn’t possibly say no to the job, he accepted the job offer.
His journalism career kicks off
“The whole company knew that I was this 19-year-old punk who got hired for the features desk. I waltzed in there and within a short time my editor was Alistair Tan. He had so much faith in me and confidence in my work, and he felt it was a travesty that there were journalism graduates getting paid much more than me, who couldn’t write half as well as I could,” Lohan says.
Tan made sure to give Lohan his dues as a writer and it wasn’t long before Lohan established himself as the main music writer to Sebastian Lim, the entertainment editor reporting to Tan.
According to Lohan, he carried out media coverage on international artistes who visited Malaysia between 1994 and 1997. “From the crap to the good and everything in between, I did it,” he laughs.
Life wasn’t easy back then for Lohan, who had a starting salary of RM600. “My take-home pay was RM735 per month with that money, I would buy two guitar magazines a month and two CDs and starve myself to death just to educate myself. I would say 80% of my music knowledge is what I have read from books and magazines.”
He adds that he’s always felt that information has more value when you pay for it. “When things are just a Google click away, you treat the information cheaply. So I have my younger bandmates today who come to my house and see my collection of 4,000 CDs, 2,000 records and 1,000 magazines and they ask me: "How did you do this?" And I replied that it was a lot of hard work and hard-earned money, there was no shortcut. No one’s going to hold your hand and guide you through these things.”
An early love for music
I ask Lohan when he first got involved with music. “Since before I could talk I was into music. It was always Western music for me. At five years old, I remember coming back from school at noon and my dad would come back for lunch hour and I would run to my aunt’s house about 500 metres away to listen to records.”
Even at that tender age, he knew how to handle a record. He would play The Beatles’ Red and Blue Collection non-stop, he says, adding that the earliest music he listened to was The Beatles, Boney M, ABBA, Air Supply and Lobo.
“Once my brothers and I started to get into chart music on the radio in the early 80s—we listened to the British synthpop bands such as Wham!, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. A few people have tried to test me on this…play me any 80s song and I will tell you the year it was from. My accuracy is 99%. It isn’t that I try to remember, it just comes naturally to me,” he explains.
During the late 80s, Lohan immersed himself in rock culture with bands such as Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses being major influences. He shares that Guns n’ Roses first album ‘Appetite For Destruction’ was the reason he wanted to become a guitarist. And he was only 12 when he first heard that album.
However, Lohan only actually started playing the guitar four years later. “I met this other 16-year old at my tuition class who looked like someone from my kindergarten and we got to talking about music. He invited me to his house and took out this beat-up guitar and started playing the opening notes of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’.”
That’s where it started, Lohan says. “I thought if he could play the guitar, so could I. He’d been playing the guitar six years up to that point but in less than two years I was better than him.”
How did he do it? Lohan shares that he is entirely self-taught, helped along by a chord book that cost him RM1.50 from Mubarak Bookstore from Ipoh. “That was it; my journey began from there.”
Personal goals and getting to good
Fast forward to his first year at The Sun and Lohan at the time felt he wasn’t good enough to play in any serious band. His first opportunity came along in 1995 during the paper’s Deepavali variety night show.
“Some older guys wanted to put a band together and didn’t have a guitarist so they asked me. The first time I played was in 1995, and the following year when I played I was better. My colleagues were surprised and stunned, but to be honest I didn’t rely on other people’s feedback and I always was hard on myself.”
He explains that he has always had a personal benchmark. “If I couldn’t play all my favourite guitar players’ songs, I wasn’t good enough. If I could play their songs, I believed I had some technical ability to pull off those songs. At the time I knew I was a long way off being them, but after a while you realise also you have a day job and you don’t have the time to dedicate to practising.”
Lohan points out quite rightly that all the famous musicians got better because they had people around them (their band mates) who were driven by the same level of passion. “Here the community feel wasn’t so great, I always felt it was a solo ride. In terms of my personal development, I have not relied on anyone else or based myself on someone else’s ability. So it’s always about what’s demanded of you. Can you deliver? If you can, you must be doing something right.”
Writing or music?
Does he feel that he has had more challenges as a musician or a journalist? Lohan admits that the reason his father thought he had a decent of being a journalist although “my SPM results sucked” was because he was one of six boys in his school who scored a 1 for the 1119 exam.
“My language strength was always there. I wasn’t out to prove I was an academic genius; I just had the flair for the language. My parents had good grammar, so I didn’t have the chance to pick up bad language habits.”
Having a flair for the English language, he quickly earned the respect of his features editor Alistair Tan, as well as his entertainment editor. “At that point, I just had to survive. Now in retrospect, I realise they must have trusted me a whole lot and when I sent in my stories, they came back pretty much intact.”
Lohan eventually moved on to The Star, where he worked for the next 20 years. In fact, in his last 10 years at The Star, Lohan had been editing other journalists’ stories. He shares that he turned down promotions to be editor twice.
“I didn’t want to manage people. I was clear-minded about that and so they had to push me laterally. So I left The Star as a chief reporter in 2017,” he adds.
Commenting on how he balanced journalism and his music career for over 20 years, Lohan admits that even when he had his day job, he always made it known to all his editors that he was a musician first.
“Quite often I used to play music at night. So they all knew it and I think in my early years as an entertainment journalist, my editors realised that playing music meant I had a better understanding of musicianship. So when I did a concert review, it really was a critical appraisal because I knew the subject matter first-hand. I had a unique perspective that other writers didn’t have.”
When he reviewed albums, musicians used to tell him: “It means the world coming from you, Lohan.” “Because they see me as one of them so when I make a comment, I don’t have an ulterior motive. I consider their interests and livelihood and am just being objective,” he explains.
His daily work routine would inevitably give way to music after work ended. “I would finish work at 7 and for the next two hours I would go through a vigorous warm-up routine. I’d put my hand in hot water, rotate Chinese medicine balls and do stretches and warm-ups on the guitar. While driving to the jamming studio, I’d do breathing exercises and vocal warm-ups,” he recalls.
In fact, Lohan candidly admits he’s considered being a full-time musician several times in the past five years. However, he says he’s also bound by reality. “I’m a band-oriented musician; I like the band unit. That whole team concept, I have always liked it---you feed off each other and work for a common goal. But to find that right personnel is mission impossible.”
Striking the right balance
Lohan says he “is not a full-time anything at the moment”, but is on the lookout for writing, as well as music opportunities. “I am slowly picking up on the freelance work as I haven’t jumped into it since I left The Star. I’m looking for as many music opportunities as I can get as well.”
He shares that while much of the freelance work that comes his way is editing, he is getting the bug to write again. He admits that while in the past he never liked writing, after a while when people gave him feedback that they loved reading his stories, he started to respect his own work more.
“I realised that my house, my car, my CD collection and all the shit I had, came from the money I made as a journalist. Is it only during these last few years I've decided to respect my own ability.
“I just went with the flow. I’m a stickler for grammar…when I send a piece in, I send in complete work…full of imagination, the circular ending, the whole works. It’s a pride thing: I don’t want people to have the perception that I’m not good. From me wanting to be not bad, people said gracious things; that they liked my work and that I’m good. In the last two to three years, I realised it was time I started to respect my work.”
I ask Lohan how he feels about his musical abilities. He says he gets very uncomfortable when people label him as being “talented”.
“I put a lot of long hours into doing what I did, but I think my one talent was my ear. I’m self-taught and my ear is my most powerful weapon. A lot of me excelling in music has to do with my attention to detail as opposed to my technical ability. What limited technical ability I have, I refined. So let’s say you draw comparisons to a great guitarist like Slash, let’s say I am 10% of what Slash is, in my mind I want to be 100%. And I tell this to everybody from writers to musicians. It doesn’t matter how good you are when you benchmark yourself against something else. Be the best you can.”
What advice would he give people who want a career in writing and music, or a career in writing and something else? He believes that “if you want it bad enough, the balance will strike itself”.
“It doesn’t become difficult, it really doesn’t. I’d have band practice from 9pm to 12am after work, shouting out 30 to 40 rock songs and playing the guitar; there’s definitely a physical element to that. The whole 8 hours of work was just a detail for me, nothing was more exciting than being in that room, singing those 35 rock songs. I guess I always wanted it badly enough, so I never struggled.”
“For me it was just the drive, the drive drove me and I just hung on for the ride. The need to play music and to be the best version of myself. And I have surprised myself by trying to achieve that,” he concludes.
For more about Lohan’s work as a journalist and musician, visit: http://nrlohan.com/