As the sun fades over the jungle canopy, I find myself lured subconsciously inside the depths of the forest. Through the dense vegetation, a dark, hazy figure can be made out, bounding through a junkyard of split cables, drum machines and busted speakers. As I push past the sonic mist into the clearing, I come face to face with the creature I have been seeking. A hairy wanderer, a headphone wielder, a MUNKEY JUNKEY.
Now, sat on his couch in his basement studio, admiring the fine detail that has gone into the room’s messy aesthetic, I feel right at home. Munkey Junkey (Kurran Karbal) and bandmate/best friend Zuzu head off to grab a brew while I sit and listen to his latest tracks. When they return, we settle in, and after a half hour chat about football, holidays and our preferred methods of intoxication, we finally slide into musical discussion.
Born in New York, growing up in the Middle East, moving to Switzerland, then London, then finally Birkenhead, Karbal has witnessed cultural extremes from across the world. It is clear, not just from his appearance and accent, but from his music as well, that this exposure to such different societies has expanded his mind and changed his perspective of the world. The more he talks, the more I understand why his music seems so insistent on pushing boundaries and fighting against censorship.
“Growing up in the Middle East, anything that was parental advisory, so anything I liked, was illegal. A CD would cost 50 dirhams [around £10] but if you wanted anything that was parental advisory, they wouldn’t have it on display, you’d have to go up to the counter, ask for, say, ‘Limp Bizkit’ and pay 100 dirham. We are about to go on tour with one of the sons of Billie Joe Armstrong [Green Day] and Dookie changed it for me, but you just couldn’t get hold of that kind of music out there.”
“I went to visit my sister in Damascus,” he continues, “and my sister’s landlord asked me not to play my guitar because the secret police would come and search the house if they heard it.” Not to say that Karbal didn’t enjoy his time spent in Abu Dhabi (his best friend, who he ensures I clarify is “a Jersey boy, not from New York”, moved out there just two weeks after he did) but it certainly affected his musical growth. Now, with this new Munkey Junkey project, he seems intent on innovating and continuously pushing his sound without holding back. In fact, that is part of the reason behind his name – he explains how his favourite Hindu god is Hanuman the monkey, known to be joyful and innovative.
His music reflects this in abundance. On my first listen I struggled to place his disjointed beats onto my spectrum of musical perception. The electronic production, the hip hop beats, the emo influences, all didn’t register; it is a new sound, a new concoction that is fresh and insightful and one that has continued to grow on me until this very moment.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to produce something familiar,” I say. “It’s a safer bet financially”. “Especially in Liverpool,” Zu adds.
“Yeh, totally, I always think of that South Park episode with nostalgia berries, because everyone loves hearing a song they know. It’s definitely a slippery slope as a musician to go for something because its tried and tested. We’re all guilty of it. At the moment I’m getting really into that Frank Ocean record, Blonde. The first time I heard some of them songs I was like, ‘This is too crazy,’ but now I’ve heard them 10 times I’m like, ‘YEH!’ Once you know the journey you kind of enjoy it more.”
Even Karbal struggles to describe his own music to me, but the idea of a theme park is one that sticks, with a multitude of thrills and spills just round each corner. I liken it to riding on those freaky Harry Potter staircases; never stagnant, always pulling you from your seat. However, there is a flipside to this desire to push things forwards. The reality is that if you break from the crowd you are on your own, often with self-doubt as your only companion. Karbal explains how this affects the creative process, saying that “even though you like a record more when you are familiar with it, the tail-end is that if you’ve heard your own song 500 times you start to hate it”. I can sense the atmosphere of the room sink as we begin to discuss the emotional side of making music. I can feel myself picking at the scab, scraping past the bubbling surface and discovering the harsh realities that Karbal has already faced so far in his life. The tones lower, and the faces become more contemplative. It feels like a good time to dig into Munkey Junkey’s lyrics.
His first ever release, Kill My Ego, tackles issues close to the heart and features his family past as a motif throughout. He talks about his family returning to India after his cousin had just committed suicide, partly, Karbal believes, due to the pressures burdened on him by Indian culture.
“That cousin was the only cousin I had who played an instrument and I looked up to him, but he killed himself because of the pressure. It’s something that gets felt a lot in Indian culture, there’s a huge pressure to do well financially and maybe not be so creative. It’s like when people ask, ‘Why are there no Indian players in the Premier League?’ I know why!”
Being a creative can be painful; the process of making music is cyclical in nature, and leaves you exposed and vulnerable, opening up a space for the dark recesses of the mind to take over. However, as Karbal points out, it can also be the best platform to heal your subconscious self and feel more connected to the world. “I think it’s healthy to talk about it. We all feel some fuckin’ crazy emotions, so to feel isolated on top of those can really send you into a spin. I feel like music can really help that.”
“We live in crazy times, y’know, with everything being so positive… everyone adapts. There’s kids living in penthouses that are sad as shit and some people live in tiny villages and are happier than them. It doesn’t matter where you are in life, how much money you’ve got, how many people love you, we can all be our own worst enemy and be fucking depressed.”
I guess Karbal’s own nomadic youth has had a part to play. When the only consistent element of your life is change, adaptation becomes second nature. However, it is this ability to adapt that has also helped him to overcome these emotions.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re on a tiny little life raft out in the ocean,” he continues, “but, as Drake said, once people sing your songs back to you, you’ve won.” This is becoming all the more regular for Karbal now, both with his own music and in performing with Zuzu. After starting the project around a year ago, he is now involved in Merseyrail Sound Station, which aims to support Merseyside’s next generation of artists via studio workshops and artist-led masterclasses.
“Zu actually applied for me and I’m so stoked that she did! It’s sick, like all the tutors are all great! I was like, ‘Uh oh… time to play my music again’ and I wanted to shrink up into a hole, but they were so nice. The whole thing is just really good, you can feel isolated being a musician, so to be put in a spot with other musicians who are going through the same thing is so good. I’m still riding the confidence boost that I got from it!”
Now, feeling rejuvenated and full of creativity, Munkey Junkey seems ready to take off, with the Merseyrail Sound Station journey culminating in a live performance at Liverpool Central station in March. New single Look Out Below, which he played to me earlier, is also set for release in the coming months. It holds a deeper texture than his previous tracks, and gives evidence of his personal and musical growth over the past year. With this newfound confidence it feels like this is his time and that the next six months will be huge for him.
As we tail off into conversation comparing the traits of Liverpudlians to those from London and I realise I have missed my train, it seems the right place to end. Karbal has been all across the world and somehow ended up in Birkenhead. Merseyside should be happy to have Munkey Junkey. He has integrated into the music community, been lifted by the welcoming nature of its members and is now repaying us with warmth, vibrancy and great music.
Look Out Below is released in March. Munkey Junkey performs at Liverpool Central station on 29th March as part of Merseyrail Sound Station Live.