FREE SPECIAL EDITION 1
Cover Photo: Adam Tha Artist Copyright (2013) by Amelia Tan Hui Fang and Anjali Raguraman. Artwork and Layout by Syahidah Johari Printed in Singapore by Xpress Print Pte Ltd. All rights reserved.â€¨No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in aâ€¨retrieval system, in any form or by any means, without prior consent from the authors. This work was produced as Final-Year Project in the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 2
Tracklisting TRACK 1 - INTRODUCTION
TRACK 2 - RECRUITMENT
TRACK 3 - SONGWRITING
TRACK 4 - THE ALBUM
TRACK 5 - FEATURE: A WEEK IN THE LIFE
TRACK 6 - RADIO
TRACK 7 - STANDING OUT
TRACK 8 - TOURING
TRACK 9 - SUCCESS
TRACK 10 - THE RISE/THE FALL
In Their Own Right
The trajectory of a band in Singapore goes like this: it starts from the ground, then, takes off. Musicians launch themselves forward – from forming a band, to releasing an album, to playing a live show. All the while, an independent spirit endures, gaining momentum as they go along. With the force of the new wave of Singapore music backing them, and a pocketful of dreams, the only way is up.
A short tune on the keys teases the audience. It’s lightweight, like the beginning of a Disney film. Then, quick like the flick of a lighter, everything changes. In explode the drums. The guitars ignite with raw energy. Both, together, brazen with solid power. A slow build-up starts, then intensifies to a melancholic high. It’s riotous rocker rage: ANECHOIS blazes the air with their bass and electric guitars, meshing them together in haunting ecstasy. This hardcore energy spreads like wildfire to the psyched up crowd at the Esplanade outdoor theatre. In between fervent head slamming, the boys on stage glance at each other assuredly, leaning back as they flaunt their guitars. They know they’ve got it right. ANECHOIS blew the Baybeats judges away in their auditions, clinching a coveted spot in the finals of Singapore’s largest alternative music festival. One year on, with a sold-out debut EP, A Shadow of a Sound, and several big-time gigs in the bag, they’re still trooping on. While hobby bands and bedroom musicians are a dime a dozen in Singapore, this progressive-rock quintet is more than a group of friends coming together to play. Their eyes blaze when describing their music, their desire to stick together and pour their soul into something they love. And they want to be heard doing it. “We all have a good feeling about this band,” says Dale
Roswald, the band’s bassist. “Before that, we were part of tired cover bands, but this – we know it’s right. It’s a good thing, and we want to make it work.” And very much like ANECHOIS, other musicians here have the same fire. REWIND In terms of original music, Singapore’s music scene comes in waves. In the early 90s, there were Humpback Oak, Livonia, The Oddfellows, The Padres, and Concave Scream. In the early 2000s, it was Great Spy Experiment, B-Quartet, Caracal, Plainsunset, The Observatory, and Electrico. While their predecessors have enjoyed some success, in the last five years, bands are enjoying a revival of the Singapore music scene. ANECHOIS are part of this new breed of bands, alongside acts du jour Pleasantry, MONSTER CAT, Obedient Wives Club, The Sam Willows, and Kevin Lester. Though these musicians are fired up, most bands, and a large part of Singapore society, feel music is just a pastime. They devote after-hours to their guitar, losing sleep perhaps, but they’re not as willing to sacrifice their jobs or a steady income to build their lives around music. “It’s difficult in Singapore for many reasons, firstly because of the education system – we are taught to be obedient, not encouraged to question the norm,” says producer Roland Lim. “Many of us also lead comfortable lives, there’s not enough tension or drive.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Most bands may be coasting, but there are thriving pockets of creativity, musicians who go their own way. GO YOUR OWN WAY They may spend hours on YouTube, mastering the latest acoustic version of a song they heard on a radio to perfect their skills. They scrimp, save, and spend a few thousand dollars on a coveted guitar. They may even put aside their pride and their original music to play regularly at pubs, just to make money. These musicians buck the trend and won’t settle for the norm – they don’t just want to ‘get by’. They challenge, dare, dream: they want to make music their full-time occupation. Tim De Cotta, who graduated from university two years ago, decided to withhold his job search, telling himself he’d try being a musician for a year. That changed when he got used to doing gigs. “I realised I wasn’t giving myself a proper chance, or giving music the value it deserves – how do I just give a year? Then go back and join the system, plug back into the Matrix?” asks the full-time musician. Pleasantry also took the risk by going their own way without the typical headstart at Baybeats – often regarded as the holy grail for emerging bands here. The band is constantly in touch with promoters, music websites and publications, just to get their name out. While acknowledging the importance of the festival, Pleasantry admit that it is only a stepping stone in a band’s musical journey, not a goal, and definitely not an end. “It’s a good thing, but I’ve seen a lot of bands play in it, then stop. It shouldn’t be a dream – a dream should be big. After all, this is just another show,” says Adel Rashid, one of the band’s guitarists. They prove that it’s possible to forge their own path. Since their first gig at Home Club’s
Identite Night in March 2011, the band has been working the gig circuit, performing at festivals, showcases, acoustic sessions and practically every live music venue on the island.
also means they are not limited to just their home audience any longer. The world is their stage; but how well can they stand out and adapt? There is even more of a challenge to make sure they’re not just another brick in the wall.
NEW WAVE Now, more than ever, the music scene here is dynamic and vibrant.
“Gone are the days when you look to a distributor, or getting signed to a label. It’s about cutting through the clutter. You are putting yourself out there with everyone else,” says Chee Meng.
“Historically Singapore is a port city. We are very receptive to cultural influences from all over,” says Tan Chee Meng, head of Singtel’s music distribution service, AMPed.
MY GENERATION With each wave, new bands still push forward, like Olympic torchbearers, running ahead to keep the blaze going. Old-timers from defunct 90s bands kindle the flames, giving advice to the current generation. It’s this sense of community that pushes new bands forward.
Along with the diversity of music styles, getting new music out is largely possible because bands now have more places to play. With Home Club or Broadcast HQ, TAB or Wala Wala, Timbre or *SCAPE, there is no shortage of live music by Singaporeans. “These days, there are a lot more avenues to perform. You’re spoilt for choice,” says Patrick Chng, a stalwart of the scene.
Patrick Chng is assured that those who were a part of the scene will “help the scene grow” – it’s what he’s been doing. The veteran knows what it feels like to have a number one on the radio. In 1991, The Oddfellows’ “So Happy” had the distinct honour of being the first original Singapore song to hit #1 on Perfect 10 98.7FM.
On top of taking creative risks with their music, they’re putting even more on the line by taking their music overseas. Some look to the region to expand their fan base; ANECHOIS are embarking on a tour of Manila. Other bands look further ashore, with acts such as singer-songwriter Inch Chua, The Sam Willows and rapper Kevin Lester playing showcases to international audiences at major music conferences, including SXSW in Austin, Texas and Canadian Music Week.
But when the band packed their guitars and drum kits away in 2002, he never really left. He may not perform as much as he used to, but he is a music producer and mentor for young musicians. Having mixed EPs for Singapore bands Peptalk, Shelves, and most recently Sapporo Safaris, Patrick has kept himself busy. “Even though I’m not so much a performer any more, I’m doing a lot more behind-the-scenes stuff,” he says.
With the Internet as the great leveller, bands need not rely on record labels to market or to build them a fan base. As functioning independent artists, they have had to step up their game. “The truth is, an artist can do it all by themselves these days. But how well? And how much more?” asks Inch Chua. Any band in any part of the world can now put their music up on iTunes or Bandcamp. It
humble beginnings,” says vocalist Sandra Tang. What is forged from this gutsy, collective spirit is polished, solid, and tough as nails. But above all, beyond just defying naysayers and soldiering forward, it’s the music that takes precedence. And to Pleasantry, success is that one dream that justifies all they’re doing: how much their lyrics and music speak to people. “It’d be cool if 20 years down the road, my child tells his friend ‘hey, my dad used to play for this band’.” “That’s the aim of our music, to affect someone, an individual,” says Isa Ong, who sings and plays guitar in the band. THE FEARLESS FEW For Pleasantry, it is leaving a lasting impression with memorable music. For Sapporo Safaris, it is creating a colossal sound with an eightmember line-up. For MONSTER CAT, it is challenging expectations and taking over a new digital realm, one user at a time. For Kevin Lester, it is representing Singapore’s urban music all over the world as a self-styled ‘Lion City Boy’. For Inch Chua, it is going overseas to challenge herself, and hone her craft as a singer-songwriter. When being told ‘no’ – radio may not play their songs, a full house may not be there to cheer them on, people and parents may tell them to find a day job – they ask: why not? What all these bands know is that no one can teach or tell them how to be a rock star.
At their EP launch last year, The Sam Willows says they were bowled over by the musicians’ and industry players’ generosity as they readily jumped in, gave advice and opportunities to guide the band along.
These are bands who are proud of their stories. They dream, and against all odds, they overcome. And because they don’t do things by the rulebooks – they’re rock stars, in their own right.
“We expected them to be rock stars but, in the end, they’re not. Singapore is too small for a rock star, everyone comes from
PHOTO Nur Atiqah Aziz
At the dawn of a new band, thereâ€™s a divine ensemble of these elements â€“ a chance meeting, the right fit of people, the sharing of a musical vision, and, mostly, a dash of daring to put it all together. When all these come together, with a gut feeling that all is right, itâ€™s the start of a journey where anything can happen.
As In Each Hand A Cutlass frontman Daniel Sassoon said, “Being in a band is like being married to four other people.” Up-and-coming indie-folk rockers Sapporo Safaris have the unique task of making an eightway marriage work. Unlike most bands who have comeand-go sessionists, all eight are core members. While it’s an unusually large line-up, it’s a risk they’re willing to take.
Against the grey walls and carpets of *SCAPE’s Level 5 Gallery, it’s hard to miss all eight members of indie pop-rock band Sapporo Safaris as they take over the stage. The band is about to play to a crowd of almost a hundred people on a balmy Friday night, at the launch of their debut EP, Figures of Eight. The haphazard set-up of equipment and instruments are practically spilling over the sides of the stage. But everything is in its right place as they take their positions.
cannot sing, make noise also can!” he says.
comfortable with a band, I can’t connect.”
In all the apparent chaos, there emerges a tight unit of a band, doing what they love the most – sharing their music. This is the first time they are performing some of the tracks off Figures of Eight live. And as the crowd “Oh oh oh-ed” along to the catchy tunes, it’s clear they are doing something right.
Then again, it’s not always possible to have history like that. Sapporo Safaris’ coming together was part Kevin’s doing, and part serendipity.
“The idea is to go as big as you possibly can: Sound-wise, visual-wise, performance-wise, chemistry-wise,” says Kevin. “We kind of like that in-yourface effect – oh, there’s eight of them,” he says.
Lead vocalist Kevin Ho leads the charge. On his left, the horn section of the band, Ong Shi Chun and Cheryl Lim, herald the arrival of Singapore’s newest addition to the indie scene, like medieval trumpeters.
Most bands in Singapore start off as friends. Someone brings up the idea of forming a band, and soon they’re jamming together in a studio. Like them, Pleasantry was a group of friends first. Three out of the five members met in secondary school, and then met the two others through mutual friends.
Guitarists Royston Tan and Justin Seng hold down the right flank, building the layers of sound. Also taking her position down the line, building to the crescendo through the keys, is Jacqueline, Kevin’s sister.
As Adel Rashid, the band’s guitarist, says, “We hang out outside of jam practice. We’re friends first before band mates.”
Drummer Shaun Ho, almost hidden in the back, quietly but assuredly keeps the drums on point. Once in a while, bassist Edmund Tan emerges from his spot to crack a joke. “If you
This is important for creating music, as Pleasantry’s vocalist Samantha puts it, “I am for chemistry. If I don’t feel
Once Kevin decided that he wanted a ‘Stupidly Epic’, in other words, colossal, sound, he went about gathering his troop. While in the army, he met lead guitarist Roy. Next to join was Jacqueline, Kevin’s sister, who became the resident keyboardist. His law school classmates Justin and Shaun joined on guitars and drums respectively. “Then we found (bassist) Edmund because we had mutual drinking buddies,” says Kevin. After the six initial members, the band went through a phase of line-up changes. There was even a violinist at one point, who left a short while after. But it was through a former female vocalist that the band found trumpet players Shi Chun and Cheryl. Sapporo didn’t know it then, but inviting them to the brigade was going to change everything.
A Hard Day’s Night Desk job by day, but rock star by night – it’s the story of many a band member in Singapore. Instead of slipping into a phone booth like Clark Kent, they are more likely to slip into the upstairs toilet of Blu Jaz Café to change into their skinny jeans, black t-shirt and leather jacket – ready to rock out. PLEASANTRY The horn section turned out to be just what the band was missing.
they hate each other – like The Rolling Stones,” says Mohamed Shahid Bin Isahak, better known as Syaheed, director of local artist management company The Bedsty Group.
“We had been jamming for quite a while before Cheryl and Shi Chun came along. But the first time we played “An Island In You”, in a new rendition featuring the horns – that’s when it clicked,” Kevin says.
“They know that it’s a job – you have to come together and play. I hate you, you hate me, whatever, we’ll just play,” he says.
“The moment we heard the horns come into the song, that’s when we all knew that this is the sound we want.”
But as a band that’s just starting out, Sapporo Safaris is ready to take on the challenges that await them in the future.
“Me and [Justin] Seng just felt it when we started playing the first harmony and chords. It all blended and became very natural.”
Even now, a particular hardhitting challenge has come in their way. The band chose to pull out of Baybeats auditions as Cheryl had to go overseas for a school exchange programme. Though disappointed, the band was clearly supportive. “There’re other stages, there’re bands that don’t start at Baybeats and are still doing well,” says Kevin.
With their easy camaraderie, it feels like this mishmash of schoolmates, army platoon mates, chance meetings and siblings were all meant to come together. Even then, not all bands have the same friendly chemistry with each other. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. Even the greats had trouble, long after they came together, but they choose to stick it out for the sake of the band’s success.
“The thing I’m most proud of with this band is that we’re not just musicians in a room, we’re all pretty good friends as well. Sure, we started off coming from different circles, but through the year, we’ve forged good friendships with one another.”
“Some bands know that their best bet in making it in life is just to remain together although
PHOTO Pleasantry, Sapporo Safaris
The audience at Home Club applauds the five-member Obedient Wives Club as they step off stage to a barrage of hi-fives and fist bumps. Drummer Lennat Mak makes it out of the adoring mass, and is promptly handed a congratulatory pint. “There’s no high like the high I get after playing a gig,” she says with a grin. Forty-eight hours later, she is back to being a web producer at MTV Asia, taking conference calls and publishing the latest news on A-list pop stars. It’s a far cry from the Craviotto drums and Zildjian cymbals setup she sits behind on stage. “I’d much rather be doing my band stuff than sitting behind a desk”, she says,. But even rock star drummers need to pay the bills. Plenty of musicians hold down a day job, treading the line between effortless cool and asking if you want ketchup or chilli sauce with your fries. In Singapore, a band is more likely to make $500 from a show (split five ways) than
IN EACH HAND A CUTLASS the $500,000 that their A-list American counterparts take in.
through the band’s ambient, shoegaze rock.
Daniel Sassoon, former Electrico guitarist and current frontman of In Each Hand A Cutlass, has been playing in bands for the last 20 years. He is a legal counsel at Skype Singapore, and says that along with his music, he is “essentially working two jobs”.
Her band members, Isa Ong, Ahmad Ariff, Daniaal Adam and Adel Rashid, play with the selfassuredness of professionals. For that 30-minute set, she and her band are a rock band, and not just 20-something undergraduates.
“Music can be a full-time job. It’s not going to be easy though,” he says, laying out the sobering facts. “You’re not going to get a lot of money unless you’re getting a lot of albums printed, or your music is being played on the radio a lot, or you’re playing a lot of live shows. It will probably mean you’ll play the cari makan (Malay for ‘make a living’) shows like the pub circuit and doing cover songs.”
The parents of the boys in the band support them juggling school, music and part-time jobs, and even attend the bigger shows.
“If you’re only doing a bit of that, it’s not going to generate anything that’s significant,” he says. Balancing work trips, along with setting up gigs, is part of his reality. “I can’t let my employers know that I have shows that are going to interfere with the job,” he says. However, the money that he makes from his full-time job allows him to make the music that he loves. “For me, having a corporate job pays the bills, which then frees me up to make the music I want to make rather than what needs to sell,” he says. “There is so little time to make music, so I want to make sure the music is what I want.” While there are those who need to make a living, others face a different reality – keeping music a secret from their family. Lead singer of indie darlings Pleasantry, Samantha Teng, is mesmerising on stage, gliding
It is hard then, to believe that Samantha’s parents don’t even know she’s in a band. “As fundamental, doctrinal Christians, they do not believe in contemporary music. I wasn’t allowed to listen to pop or anything else that was not classical,” she says. Only once did her father broach the topic, after seeing a photo in the newspaper, and asked: “So, are you famous?” The uneasy truce is something Samantha is willing to put up with to continue making music, but it’s something she wishes she didn’t have to hide. Ultimately, bands and musicians in Singapore do what they have to, to make it work. Lennat says, “Sometimes I feel I should just give up and stay in my comfort zone, not giving a damn about things, But I’d hate to be a defeatist.” Lennat is all too familiar with rushing down to play a gig after a long day in the office. Still, she hopes she can one day give up this balancing act, and believes it’s all worth it in the end. PHOTO Little Ong
A Acid Bar 180 Orchard Road, Peranakan Place Actually... 29A Seah Street Actually Actually 16 Purvis Street, 02-01 agnès b. 2 Orchard Turn, ION Orchard, 03-24 350 Orchard Road, Shaw House, Isetan Scotts 252 North Bridge Road, 01-26 391 Orchard Road, Takashimaya Department Store, L2 2 Bayfront Avenue, B2-31A Alley Bar 180 Orchard Road, Peranakan Place Antipodean 27A Lorong Mambong, Holland Village Artisan Hair 42A Lorong Mambong, Holland Village B Ben Sherman 290 Orchard Road, Paragon, 03-48 1 Harbourfront Walk, 01-24 Blackmarket No.2 181 Orchard Road, Orchard Central, 02-01 Blue Jaz 12 Bali Lane Books Actually 9 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru Estate
Bottles & Bottles 80 Marine Parade Road, Parkway Parade, B1-83K/L 1 Harvourfront Walk, VivoCity, 01-165 3 Temasek Boulevard, Suntec City Mall , 01-K24
H Habitat Coffee 223 Upper Thomson Road Hide & Seek 71 Bussorah Street Home Club 20 Upper Circular Road
C City Golf One Raffles Place, 1 Raffles Place, 61-01
Hotel 1929 50 Keong Saik Road
Club Street Social 5 Gemmill Lane Cupcakes With Love 348 Tanjong Katong Road D
NAFA 151 Bencoolen Street, NAFA School of Performing Arts
K.ki 7 Ann Siang Hill
Forever 21 313 Somerset Road, 313@ Somerset, Level 1
Manicurious 41 Beach Road
J. Shoes 1 Raffles Link, City Link Mall, B1-22 2 Handy Road, The Cathay, 03-11
Kizuki 328 North Bridge Road, Raffles Hotel Arcade, 0303/04
Maison Ikkoku 20 Kandahar Street
KIN 51 Haji Lane
Dr. Martens 181 Orchard Road, Orchard Central, 03-05 501 Orchard Road, Wheelock Place, 02-17A
Dad’s Shepard’s Pies 407 Sembawang Road
Loysel’s Toy 66 Kampung Bugis, Ture, 01-02
Klapsons The Boutique Hotel 15 Hoe Chiang Road
New Balance 2 Orchard Link, *SCAPE, 02-15 112 East Coast Road, 02-25 4 Tampines Central, Tampines Mall, 02-18 238 Thomson Road, Velocity at Novena Square, 01-39/42 New Majestic Hotel 31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road NEXT Salon 271A Holland Ave, Holland Village 2 Orchard Turn, ION Orchard, 03-24A
Orchard Xchange (above Orchard MRT Station), B101 to 35
LaSalle College of the Arts 1 McNally Street, Block E, Level 1 Reception
Forty Hands 78 Yong Siak Street, 01-12 Fred Perry 8 Grange Road, Cineleisure, 03-07A 2 Orchard Turn, ION Orchard, B3-01
Leftfoot Cineleisure 8 Grange Road, Orchard Cineleisure, 02-07A 14 Scotts Road, Far East Plaza, 04-108 2 Handy Road, The Cathay, 01-19/20
Fred Perry Laurel Wreath 19 Ann Siang Road
Little Man 7C Binjai Park
Front Row 328 North Bridge Road, Raffles Hotel Arcade, 02-09
Lomography Gallery Store 295 South Bridge Road, 01-01 15
Find more outlets at ziggymag.sg/distro
Anyone can write a song, as long as they’re armed with pen, paper, and a guitar. But what sets apart this group of homegrown musicians is their boldness to tell their story to the world. When they write, it’s not confined to the four walls of their bedroom. It’s on the radio, on the Internet, or on albums they’ve lovingly created. But what they desire most is this: to let their music – their stories, their songs – affect someone out there.
Whether itâ€™s writing from experience, fitting a song together or jamming, theyâ€™re expressing themselves the best way they know how. The creative process of musicians like Inch Chua is inspired revelation.
Blank walls. Just a girl and her guitar. Clad in an effortless cardigan, musician Inch Chua plays the first notes of “Hurt”. The room resonates with her soft voice as she unravels the lyrics with powerful emotion.
At the heart of it all though, and what makes her different, is that she’s putting her music out there, to be heard by others – scrutinised, criticised, loved or adored. “I want to have a story to tell,” she says of the songs in her second album, Bumfuzzle, where each song is based on a boy and the “confusing, flustering parts of love”.
Inch is a storyteller; she weaves parts of her life into her songs. Even the painful experiences, especially the frayed strands, give the songs substance. “Writing music is cathartic. If you tear a page out of my diary, you’ll literally get a song,” she says.
It doesn’t matter that her inner demons are exposed; Inch wears this, and her heart, proudly on her sleeve.
Revealing the inspiration for “Hurt”, the singer-songwriter says, “When something bad happens, there’ll be a theme song playing in my head. It’s the same here. This one’s a funeral song for my friend, when we quit being ‘friends forever’.”
MORE THAN WORDS Inch heads out with at least three notebooks with her, jotting down lyrics when an idea comes along. “I’ll write freely, without
censoring. An hour later, I’ll switch hats and start editing. That’s always been the way I write, I let the right brain have fun first, then let the left brain kick in,” says Inch, a solo artist who started her musical career at 19 with Allura. She is now based in Los Angeles, due to release her sophomore album, Bumfuzzle. Like most musicians, her songwriting starts with the melody, followed by the lyrics. “From the melody, I hear what the music says. You don’t need words, music has a language of its own,” she says. “When the melody hits me, I’ll grab whatever is nearest, and it’s usually a guitar.”
TIM DE COTTA
THE SAM WILLOWS
Inch is not the only musician who lets the music guide her songs. Lead singer of Sapporo Safaris, Kevin Ho, writes in the same order: “I’ll start off with the melody and do the lyrics last. First, it’s a vocal riff. I’ll be humming the tune in my head.” He then adds and arranges the various musical parts – the vocals, the harmony and the basic chord progression. “From there I get the feel of the song, and from the feel, I get the lyrics,” he says. “For example, the tune of “Electric Handshakes” gives off a happy and dance-y feel, and the song ends up being about the happy buzz you get from meeting new people.” Sometimes, it takes a keen ear and an added stroke of genius to make everything come together. Independent musician, Tim De Cotta, spent a “frantic, almost reclusive writing period”, essentially madscientist conditions, to piece the instrumental tracks for his upcoming album. Like a modern-day Frankenstein, the former bassist of hip-hop band Sixx, plucks music from his head and chops it up; then adds loops, uses synths and guitar effects, or throws on a
drum track to create his musical monster.
becomes a secret language that whispers from their fingertips.
Having a good repertoire of skills, honed from years of practice, also helps him express himself musically. “The worst feeling is when you have something in your head you want to share, but you can’t do it on your fret board. You need to practice, you’ve got to keep learning the art, and that takes time.”
The process is equal part creative chaos and control. It’s at times cacophonous, a riot of sounds. But if a band has synergy, they work around each other to create something harmonious. “It’s like passing a ball – I do something on my guitar, then they will catch it and go with it. It’s all very organic,” says Tim.
JAMMING WITH OTHERS For many bands, writing songs takes place in cramped jamming studios. It’s awkward, there’s hardly room to stand. But does not take away from the creative overflow. Music is at its most spontaneous when jamming with like-minded musicians.
This collaborative effort is also tied to an essential part of being a musician – being open enough to listen to others and evolve. “The only way to make good music is to let go of your ego and pride. Listening only to yourself, that’s wrong,” says Tim. KEEP ON WRITING These musicians take it seriously. They try hard because they’re duty-bound to make good music, not just for the fans and themselves, but for music’s sake. It’s tough, but Benjamin Kheng, vocalist of The Sam Willows, does not give up.
Beyond his solo project, Tim is also part of neo-soul and jazz trio, TAJ, consisting Audrey Tengkey and Teo Jia Rong, where he is bassist and co-songwriter. The trio keeps things fresh by vibing off each other. “What struck us when we first jammed was that it was so natural,” he says.
every single day. You could have 100 crappy songs, but the 101st one could be golden.” Inch comes up with one song title a day, or writes haikus to keep her mind active. “I’ll watch Disney movies and mute the volume. That’s what I did for one of my back-up vocals. I wanted it to have the old 1940s movie feel, with the huge choral – kind of like in Peter Pan,” she says. It’s a growing process. “Songwriting comes more naturally to me now. I’ve also grown more as a musician. When I started, I could barely harmonize, but now I can easily create five to six layers,” she says. Beyond writing songs, what comes next is something Inch feels very much for too – the performance: “There’s the writing, and there’s a second tier of expression. For an hour, you get to have an alter ego. It’s good for purging yourself.”
“It happens with a lot of bad mistakes along the way,” he says.
There’s no order, no talking. Their instruments become their voices instead, and music
“You’re not a single-barrel shotgun, shoot once and a great song comes out. You got to write
PHOTO Inch Chua, Sapporo Safaris, Tim De Cotta, The Sam Willows.
TRACK 4: THE ALBUM 22
After the songs are written, it’s time to put them in an album. Some write a 100 and pick the best twelve, while others write five songs and record those. For some, it’s their chance to divide critics or rally reviewers. But more than that, it’s an anthology – a story through song.
The process seems simple: putting an album together from the initial jamming and recording to releasing it to the masses. The skill is in doing it well.
1. JAMMING HOW IT’S DONE Before the neighbours complain, bands move out of their bedrooms and into a studio. Jamming is a good way of collectively working out technical kinks and churning out new music. HOW MUCH There are over 50 jamming studios in Singapore, which charge $12 to $20 per hour.
A TYPICAL SESSION Pleasantry usually heads to Beat Merchants, just off Haji Lane, for their jams. At $12/hour, it’s one of the more affordable studios. Each of their sessions can last at least three hours.
WHERE Bands decide on the studio they’d like depending on the sound they want (and can afford). • For a raw street feel/ lo-fi grunge sound. Think Pavement. $45/hr (Four Tones) • For a slick, polished and clean sound. Think Gotye. $200/hr (Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music)
IN THE STUDIO There’s more than one way to record. • Multi-track recording: laying down instrumental tracks one at a time. The drums are usually tracked first, followed by the guitars, keys and finally the vocals. • Single-track recording: recording it ‘live’. Bands might prefer the more cohesive sound and energy, though re-records are inevitable. Vocal dubs are added on later.
HOW IT’S DONE Bands hire producers to make their music sound flawless. They do the following: • Editing (piecing tracks together) • Mixing (determining the ‘feel’ of the song. Louder hand claps? More cow bell?) • Mastering (the details – volume, transitions, EQ, playback formats and compression) HOW MUCH Producers in Singapore charge $30 to $80 an hour, while high-end producers demand more than $100. DO-IT-YOURSELF ANECHOIS chose this option on their five-track debut EP, A Shadow of a Sound. It required the expertise of keyboardist Firdhauz Asyraft who worked on the sound engineering and mixing.
4. PRINTING HOW IT’S DONE Some bands save money by doing a digital release, but most bands print CDs so people can buy their music. ALBUM ART Bands prepare their album art – the cover design, inside panels, liner notes, and CD design – and usually hire a designer, or better, design it themselves. HOW MUCH Together with album art, it costs about $4 at most CD printing shops. NOT JUST A CD There are other formats bands can play around with, and recently, there has been a trend of going back to old-school cassettes. Obedient Wives Club released 100 units of their special edition, handdubbed, cassette versions of their EP, Murder Kill Baby.
5. ALBUM LAUNCH PARTY(optional)
Roland Lim isn’t afraid to knock ‘em down, nor does he worry about stepping on people’s toes – he doesn’t care. This hardhitting music producer isn’t afraid of saying ‘no’ if he doesn’t see potential in a band. “Stop encouraging mediocre talent. Efforts are wasted on people with no potential,” he says.
HOW IT’S DONE Bands get to be the star of the party as they headline their own show. Instead of waiting to be invited by music venues, they do everything themselves and invite their friends, fans and media to showcase songs off their new album.
While he may come across as ruthless, for him, it’s about finding the best – go big or go home. As a producer, he exercises his choice, weeding out the average, and, hopefully, finding the roses among the thorns. The man records bands and masters songs out of a purposebuilt recording studio in a four-room flat in Sengkang. Entering his space is like entering the cockpit of the Starship Enterprise.
HOW MUCH They fork out more than $800 to rent out a space at Home Club, *SCAPE or Blu Jaz – and this does not include the cost of setting up the stage and equipment rental, expenses which can run up to the thousands. MERCHANDISE BOOTHS At their debut album launch, Sapporo Safaris chose to go wild with merchandise, proudly emblazoning anything – badges, stickers, t-shirts – with their name and logo. A hand-painted banner hung as an impressive backdrop for their booth.
6. SALES HOW IT’S DONE Bands put their music up on Bandcamp , a free website that caters to independent artists by letting them sell their music and merchandise directly to fans. Paid options include Deezer and iTunes. DISTRIBUTION DEALS Some bands, like The Sam Willows, score distribution deals with a major record label (Warner Music). The backing of a major record label beats the hassle of negotiating with shop owners for shelf space, and it guarantees that a larger number of CDs will be manufactured and shipped out. Depending on sales, it could also mean regional and even international distribution of CDs.
Bands like The Summer State have thanked Roland for “taking their song to the next level”. Their single, “I Do, I Don’t” has been receiving heavy airplay on 987FM and its music video garnered 15,000 views within 48 hours. He also works with overseas bands – 70% of the bands he worked with last year – especially those in Hong Kong and Australia. This global experience has honed his perspective on how Singapore bands compare with the rest of the world, and he brings that experience back to Singapore when working on local bands.
AS THE PRODUCER OF SYNC STUDIOS, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR JOB? “I find a band’s vision, and project the band with the right music. A lot of times, people come because they are clueless about what they sound like, so I try to find their essence, take what works for them and amplify it.” WHAT DOES A BAND HAVE TO DO TO GET NOTICED BY PRODUCERS? “As producers, we have to like a band’s music, and like them as people. Communicate your art – all you have to do is prove you’re a diamond in the rough. It’s also good to have The Package: good looks, a good recording sound, and sounding good live. A lot of bands have only two out of the three. They will do well, but may not be a world-beater.” WHAT DO YOU FEEL ABOUT COVER MUSIC, DOES IT TAKE AWAY FROM CREATING ORIGINAL SONGS? “For bands that do too much cover music, it feels like their drive to generate original music, music that can compete with the world, is diminished. Still, it’s a way for bands to hone their craft. When they start learning covers, it helps in their songwriting, like Charlie Lim, who built his craft by doing covers. That’s a journey that people seldom see, and some of that experience has probably moulded him into the talent he is today.” HAVING WORKED WITH OVERSEAS BANDS, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE SINGAPORE’S MUSIC INDUSTRY? “In Singapore, most of us lead a reasonably comfortable life, so there’s not enough tension.
We have values that are different from countries whose music industry has some sort of maturity or success. It’s not that we lack talent; our ‘industry’ is too small-scale. In mature industries like Malaysia or Indonesia, they have stars who make it big, musicians who are in the twilight of their career and have power to influence the next generation. In Singapore, we don’t have enough of that. It could be a chicken-and-egg problem – there are not enough successes to groom the next generation in the first place, no leading generation to pull everyone up. Also, I work with bands that pay well and are serious about their music. These bands, usually from other countries, are willing to spend money to do original stuff. In Singapore, bands can only spare a day or two, whereas others usually spend weeks.” WITH ALL THE TALK ABOUT GOING BEYOND SINGAPORE, HOW CAN SINGAPORE BANDS MAKE IT BIG INTERNATIONALLY? “Most bands here are too shy and afraid of negative criticism. Also, the mindset of musicians here, they feel like they have to make it in Singapore before going overseas. This works for other countries that have a critical mass, so musicians can tour to different states. We have to change that mentality: use Singapore as a springboard instead. Plus, we have a good passport so we don’t need visas when touring in the region. Singapore will get there with time. No one will be prouder than me if we find a Singapore band that can go to an international level.”
PHOTOS Sabrina Tiong
A WEEK IN THE LIFE
There are two Isa Ongs. One is quiet, painfully shy, and barely audible when he speaks. He’s unassuming and eloquent, especially when talking about music. The other is the performer, the one with the furrowed brow, belting in to the microphone and head banging during his guitar solos.
use this one for Pleasantry, this one for sub:shaman and this one when I play with Amateur Takes Control,” he says, unwrapping each guitar from its casing lovingly. He looks after his guitars, but he doesn’t go as far as to name them like some other musicians do. “I wouldn’t sell any of them. Ever. I’m sentimental, played too many shows with all of them already.”
On a warm afternoon in sleepy Tampines, it is easy to see which Isa Ong is sitting at the stairs, mucking around on his acoustic guitar. Right now, he is not a student or a brother or a son or a frontman. It is the self-effacing, but quietly confident Isa. Just a boy and his guitar, doing what he loves.
He finally picks his Fender Jaguar to play. Isa first started playing bass about 10 years ago, and used to clock in at least three hours a day of practice, through “crappy computer speakers” instead of amps. He also admits to secretly playing his elder brother’s guitar when he was out, and watching YouTube videos to learn chords.
“I do it here because there’s reverb,” he says, as he steps into his makeshift practice space, a stairwell right next to his unit. He settles onto the stairs and starts riffing, going into his own world.
A candy-coloured glockenspiel is one of the eight instruments he has in his collection, which he started amassing since 15.
It’s term break, where Isa can afford the time to practise at home. Clad in a Plainsunset t-shirt, he painstakingly takes out his massive array of guitars. “I
A week in the life of Isa Ong
On a weekday afternoon, seated at the benches at National University of Singapore, Isa is in academic mode, looking just like every other student as he spends his free time between classes doing readings. He says most of his classmates and teachers don’t know about his musical alter ego, or, at least, they don’t show it.
Instead of a guitar, Isa steps out from the Central Library with notes and laptop in hand. It is another one of his regular study haunts since it lies close to his faculty. The modern day beatnik majors in geography. “I do better if I study less,” he says. He’d rather spend his time making music instead.
Speedily and skilfully unwinding tangles of wires, Isa’s long hair obscures his face as he sets up his suitcase of pedals in front of him and plugs in his guitar, a routine procedure for the musician who is in two other bands, and a solo project as well.
Isa meets his sub:shaman band members, Hanis and Isa Foong on a weekday evening, sipping teh and grabbing a quick bite over at Baghdad Street before settling down outside Beat Merchants. Pre-jam, the boys catch up over a smoke as they wait for the other members to arrive.
Isa is the first of the band to strap on his guitar and start tuning up. He strums it, testing the sound levels, and tries to recall notes from previous sessions. The self-taught multiinstrumentalist can’t read music. “But a lot of people are like that,” he says.
While the other band members are still setting up, he slings his guitar round his back and helps vocalist Weishan figure out the Kaoss pad hooked up to her microphone. Once that’s sorted, he steps back into his spot. Turning to face bassist Hanis, he asks, “Eh, how does it go ah?” In just under 30 minutes, the band is ready to start. A full three hours later, they emerge from the room, exhausted and pumped up from a night of tightening up their set in time for two gigs the following week.
A Kerouac-esque sight as he leads the band up the stairs, with his traveller’s wares hanging off his shoulders, a musical hitchhiker on his way to the jamming studio.
Kombi Sessions With the help of the music community, there are now new avenues for independent artists to promote their music. “If ‘Almost Famous’ was Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, Kombi Sessions is our love letter to local music,” says Lennat Mak, one of the five people behind the web series.
The idea: an ingenious take on established live performance shows like ‘Live From Abbey Road’, but with an old-fashioned, sepia twist, filming bands performing on the move from inside a vintage Volkswagen Kombi van instead. As an ode to Singapore music, five friends got together to create web series Kombi Sessions as a way of showcasing the talent here.
Before he goes on stage, Isa proclaims, “I need to down this,” holding up a pint of Asahi. He adjusts his black cardigan, uncomfortable in his own skin. Liquid courage. The transformation is about to begin.
In 2012, Obedient Wives Club’s drummer, Lennat Mak, roped in her friends – Derek Sun, Aidil Teper, Patrick Chng and Shirley Ong – with the purpose of “documenting local music”, to get Singaporeans to listen and take notice of up-and-coming young bands.
On stage though, Isa is in beast mode. He’s barely recognisable. Wielding his Fender Jaguar with magnificent prowess, killing it. As the band transits to their next song, the guitar assault quietens down as Isa eases into the words of “Smooth Sailing”. He unwraps the microphone cord from the stand and pulls it close to him. A complete 180 from the open-stanced guitar god he was moments before.
“If ‘Almost Famous’ was Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, Kombi Sessions is our love letter to local music,” says Lennat. “Before this started, I didn’t know if I could get a team together, I didn’t know if I could get the bands to be involved in the series. I didn’t know if I could pull it off.”
It’s hard to imagine that this was the same mild-mannered person casually chatting with his kakis, barely a week ago. But be it formidable performer or sentimental musician, Isa is both, and everything in between.
The first episode of Kombi Sessions featured Cashew Chemists on acoustic guitars, channelling a Beach Boys vibe with their feet-tapping performances of original numbers “Not in Love” and “Road Trip” as the van cruised past Singapore roads on a sunny afternoon.
Lennat spends weekends with her team scouting for locations, coordinating with the bands, filming, and finally editing the photos and videos. They stick to a rough schedule of one video a month. The project is not without its challenges, especially with finding time to coordinate shoots and editing content. “We all have our full-time jobs and side projects. I’m still amazed that the team puts so much effort and time into this project with no complaints,” said Lennat, who works at MTV Asia. Still, she admits that a lot of it came together because of the encouragement from those around her. The owners of Kombi Rocks, Pearl and Hai, were immediately supportive, and sponsored the vehicles, including the fuel and a driver. Their vintage diner is often used as a backdrop during interviews with the bands. Four episodes in, and after wrapping up Season One with a party featuring three of the bands performing to a packed diner of supporters, Lennat is glad she chose to embark on the project: “At the end of Kombi Sessions, we might not achieve anything, but at least I did it.”
TRACK 6: RADIO 34
All We Hear is Radio Ga Ga
It was 1984 and Freddie Mercury sung of radio’s demise in an age of television. Wind the dials to more than 30 years later. His “old friend” is still with us. But even now, the debate rages on: what good is radio? Can Singapore music thrive without it?
“If we do things only because people want it, we’re not going to be pushing anything forward,” says Vanessa Fernandez, former radio DJ and now solo musician. “When a song is on the radio, people will listen. And when we do that, play our music on the radio, we are pushing the culture forward.”
But despite radio programme 987 Home’s devotion of one hour a week to local fare, hearing a local band on our airwaves is as elusive as striking 4D.
Radio is not a dead medium yet. Video, and all its YouTube incarnations, didn’t exactly kill the radio star – at least, not here.
“If 50 people called in to 987FM every day to demand our song, they would put it on 987 on heavy rotation. It’s as simple as that,” says lead singer Hentai Cat.
“Not everyone searches YouTube for Singapore music, so the only other way you hear of music is through radio or TV, stuff that is there playing in the background,” says KittyWu label manager, Errol Tan. “It’s like being able to sing to Carly Rae Jepsen. I didn’t buy her music, but I can still sing her song because I hear it 10 times a day,” his co-label manager Lesley Chew says. Lesley recalls a time when Singaporeans embraced local music. “It never used to be like this. You would hear local music interspersed with the Top 40 stuff. People knew of the bands, people would be able to sing to the bands,” she says.
Folk-rock band MONSTER CAT feels that fans have a stake in the kind of music that is played on radio.
But they are not making excuses for themselves. “It’s our responsibility then, to get so many people to like us that they want us to be on radio. If that’s not happening then, I blame us,” he says. Vanessa, better known as Vandetta, says it is not as simple as just playing the songs: “When I was at 987FM, I tried pushing for one song an hour, but then the ratings went down. When that happens, the people at the top don’t want to take the risk anymore.” The ratings could be a sign that, despite local musicians’ desire to be heard, Singaporeans are not listening. But keeping them
MUSICIANS AND INDUSTRY BIGWIGS WEIGH IN ON THE QUOTA, AND ON RADIO. IT’S ABOUT MAKING THE MUSIC HEARD ‘We do have quality content that you can use. Singapore bands are getting their albums mixed and mastered overseas. If you didn’t put a tag on it, you probably wouldn’t even notice the difference.” Errol Tan – Label manager, KittyWu
tuned in is an uphill task that musicians, and the music scene, are willing to undertake. It’s a slow process, but it has to start somewhere.
hope is lost. Local musicians are not left flailing, especially with the backing of the first national music association, the Singapore Music Society. It says that the quota is just one of the many ways to advocate local music. The association has an Executive Committee that reads like a who’s who of the industry, and includes 15 key members of the music scene.
Now, there are signs that people are sitting up and taking notice. Radio airplay was even brought up in parliament last November, where a quota for local music was discussed. A radio quota, setting aside a certain percentage of radio airplay for local music, might give artists a boost, thrusting their music into the mainstream Singapore audience’s purview. Countries like Canada and Indonesia are all for it. Radio stations in Philippines play four songs an hour, in a bid to garner support for homegrown talent.
While some of its members said no to the quota, they still want to raise Singapore’s music standards and be advocates for local artists. “The challenge is to change people’s attitudes towards musicians… but it’s not nationalistic pride. Great music is the winning factor,” says its president, Graham Perkins. “When an association brings everyone together, one voice can make a change.”
While the verdict is out – the Media Development Authority denied the quota, citing Singapore’s lack of broadcastquality music – not all
IT’S ABOUT SUPPORTING LOCAL MUSIC “Every country needs a radio station that supports local talent. Without a quota, the Big 4 music labels will feed us what they want us to think is cool. When we’re young, we don’t really question that. But we can always try to build the music community in our own way.” Danny Loong – Timbre cofounder
RADIO ISN’T AS IMPORTANT, SO A QUOTA ISN’T TOO “Radio has completely abandoned local music in the past couple of years. But then again, radio isn’t the influencer, or the tastemaker that it used to be. Everything is in a bit of a flux right now.” Daniel Sassoon – Guitarist, In Each Hand a Cutlass IT’S A LOST CAUSE “There’s talk of a 20% quota for local music on radio, but why? What are you going to play? The fact is, we don’t have enough quality music. Why fight for radio when it’s a lost cause?” Sameer Sadhu – Head of Digital and Marketing, Love Da Records IT’S ABOUT GOOD-QUALITY MUSIC “Before a quota, we need to fix the problem of content quality first. It’s not that we don’t have enough good music. Even if we wanted a quota, the approach should not be a fixed percentage; it should be progressive. Let’s develop our content over time, so at least there’s growth. Syaheed – Artist Manager, The Bedsty Group PHOTO MONSTER CAT, Olivia Sari-Goerlach
Glam metal band KISS is unrecognisable without their black and white face paint, body suits and platform boots (well, except for Gene Simmons). The peppermint colour scheme of the White Stripes became the de facto look of Detroit Garage Rock. Slash is unimaginable without his mop of curls and mirrored aviators. Image is part of their allure. Love or hate it, their style is distinct enough to spawn copies every Halloween and earn a place in the pop culture lexicon. But while the greats could get away with that, musicians today are dealing with something completely different: itâ€™s the age of digital music, and itâ€™s that much easier to click, swipe, and move on.
Slicker than MONSTER CAT must be doing something right. Taking cues from the rock star Hall of Fame, they adopt a surreal and eccentric visual style to match their experimental music. While their peculiar
All four members of MONSTER CAT are clad in white t-shirts. An atypical choice for rock stars, a bit straight edge if anything. But their sartorial choice makes sense once the projectors go on and images of moving water are shone directly on the band. Pale-faced lead singer Hentai Cat barely flinches as the light flashes directly on him. The visuals respond to the music, beginning with moody monochrome images, and then flitting to a technicolour assault as the dark folk tune builds. It’s a spectacular sight, as the band fades into the colours and moving images, subsumed by the live art they create on stage. The vivid hues give the impression of an artist painting on blank canvas; the band knows it’s all about creating an image and making a name for themselves.
In this brave new world, getting a band’s name out is no longer about old-school publicity flyers. From YouTube to iTunes, digital music is the new vinyl, and bands have to adapt to how fans find, listen and get their music. While the Internet makes it easier for bands to promote their music without relying on traditional record labels, there’s a new challenge. Bands have to stand out among an infinite catalogue of other bands. It’s also about changing the way they put their music out, in an online world, where page views, downloads and subscribers are king. All hail the viral video era, where keyboard cats and rainbow unicorns are worshipped.
the plethora of music on the Internet.
kooky outfit choices befitting of the kind of music they play.
Bands in Singapore are also in a unique fix: they get little radio airplay, and being a small country means cross-country tours are impossible.
Bands adapt, and embracing idiosyncrasy, both online and offline, is just one of the ways to move forward.
And while international artists rely on a publicity team to come up with the next marketing blitz, musicians in Singapore have to master the art of creating their own buzz. “It’s not enough to put out a press release,” says Sameer Sadhu, Head of Digital and Marketing at Love Da Records. He believes that it’s “about storytelling and creating a social identity”, and suggests doing something out of the box to generate interest.
At Social Media Week, musician Inch Chua said the biggest challenge for musicians now was to get discovered among
One of the ways is for bands to take on onstage personas and
Take MONSTER CAT for instance, who’re not afraid to put their own stamp on style. The mysterious foursome goes under the pseudonyms Hentai Cat, Copy Cat, Meta Cat and Psycho Cat. They have a dark air about them. A monochromatic colour scheme on their albums, music videos and website, coupled with washed-out filters and sullen faces, are the order of the day. The band members are healthierlooking in person. MONSTER CAT plays a mix of alternative folk and rock, which they describe as “intimate, intense and haunting”. Sounding
your average style could have been snubbed, the band goes all out. More than that, they’re heralding their presence in the online realm, risking new ways to push their music out there.
like Bowie-esque space oddities, Hentai Cat adds, “We use a lot of visual stimuli to communicate to each other how we want to sound. The music has informed how we want to look visually and vice versa.” “At live shows we want to give the audience an entire experience so it’s not just watching a band perform. We want them to be fully immersed in the music,” says Hentai Cat.
music videos that show off their oddball style, MONSTER CAT has been leaving their paw prints all over the Internet.
But putting a song on iTunes means going through a third party, which adds costs; and every other band puts their music up on Bandcamp. So MONSTER CAT took the risk and danced with the devil – they put their music up for free.
Their weirdness is charming. And it’s a charm they’ve used to great effect when they put their music up online, ready for download. Digital downloads are part of a new reality for musicians, and it is something that the band has embraced. “How are you going to get your music out? That is a legitimate question,” they ask.
With breathtaking visuals projected directly onto themselves during live shows, their onstage presence certainly succeeds in captivating the audience. “In a Singaporean context, I don’t think anyone else has done it before. I think that’s pretty unique,” says Copy Cat.
Instead of treating the Internet as a monster to be battled, MONSTER CAT is using it to their advantage. They shot an e-mail, and got a coveted spot on the landing page of The Pirate Bay, one of the world’s largest torrent download websites.
Having a strong image is one thing. Making it known online is another. Other than creating
It would usually be unimaginable for musicians to feed in to the culture of illegal downloading.
And it worked. Within three days, the band had 150,000 unique views of their album Mannequins. “Pirate Bay was a test. I think we passed,” they say.
“You can get all these hits, you can get all these views but so what?” says Hentai Cat. Copy Cat answers: “There’s a step before that, which is, the music needs to be awesome. You have this amazing thing, the Internet, but if your product is not up to standard, everyone can see it. It might just kill you.”
It’s like sacrificing a bishop to get the queen. The calculated strategy has its rewards, not now, but in the future. With more exposure, their fan base is expanded, and this means more album or ticket sales the next time round. At the heart of it all, the band understands that above the offbeat choices and online adaptability, their music is what counts.
PHOTO MONSTER CAT
In a generation that wants “instant gratification and success,” Singapore music veteran Patrick Chng cites REM and Red Hot Chilli Peppers as examples of bands “who took 10 years before they ever made it big in the mainstream”. “Back in the day we believed in paying your dues. You have to play to 10 people before you play to 10000 people. It takes years to get that kind of momentum,” he says.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us 44
It’s the most exciting part of a musician’s journey – they leave the studio, put on their ‘game face’ and take the world by storm. More than a humble meetand-greet or a promotion strategy, for artists like Kevin Lester, it’s giving the audience a show worthy of their talent and making sure they sit up and listen.
The hype man shouts into the mic: “Make some noise for the Lion City Boy!” The crowd dutifully screams. Hoody up, face shielded, Singaporean rapper Kevin Lester saunters on to the floor of Avalon’s Mixing Lounge, like a prizefighter, ready to throw some punches.
Touring and playing live shows are now an essential part of a musician’s repertoire, especially in an age of digital music and piracy. Whether it’s Kanye or Kevin Lester, musicians all over the world are now relying on ticket sales, and selling CDs and merchandise at the live shows to make money.
The only punches he’s throwing are musical ones, as the sinister beat of his latest single “Hear Me Go” drops. Those taken over by the music report to the front of the dance floor.
“It’s not enough to release an album,” says the head of Singtel’s digital music services, Tan Chee Meng.“Bands have to go on the road, and be good at what they do, which is performing and getting the crowd going.”
No backup dancers, just the DJ and his hype man for company. His confident swagger makes it believable. Someone in the crowd remarks “Are you sure he’s from Singapore?”
For Daniel Sassoon, former Electrico guitarist, the absence of a proper touring circuit is a challenge for Singaporean musicians as compared to the region, like Taiwan, China, Korea, Indonesia, Philiipines or Malaysia, which have states or provinces.
Yes, he is, very much so. Raised on the Eurasian staple of devil curry and brought up in Ang Mo Kio, Kevin Lester Sarjit is as Singaporean as it gets. Of Eurasian and Sikh heritage, the 29-year-old has been in music for almost 10 years now.
“In Singapore we don’t really have that kind of [touring] infrastructure, because the country is so small,” he says.
A line in the chorus goes “Barely on the scene, but can you hear me go?” Funny, considering this is a man who has been around the block.
“You play one show, in a central place, and the people who want to be there will be there.” Kevin’s manager, Mohamed Shahid Bin Isahak, known as ‘Syaheed’ in the industry, understands that it’s not enough to get a song out.
More famous for his role as the resident rapper of nine-piece soul/funk group Sixx, Kevin’s focus has shifted to his solo project.
“Putting a song on iTunes is like putting a book in the library and not giving it a call number. To stand out, to stick out – it’s so much harder, and that’s the challenge now,” he says.
He’s played the corporate gigs; he’s even played New York nightclubs. But now he’s back on home turf, doing his rounds of Singapore clubs as part of a mini “tour” to promote his latest single.
Neither is it about expecting that people will turn up at shows. It’s
about creating a good story, an aspiration for listeners to want to be like the artist. “As a musician, you have to have certain larger-than-life qualities,” says Syaheed. “We [as managers] play up on their personality, take the songs they write and amplify them.” A typical cross-country touring circuit may not exist in Singapore, but Kevin and his manager Syaheed have worked out a way to get his music on the road: two weeks of heavy radio promotion on top of the club tour, which included stops at Zirca, Butter Factory, Avalon and Home Club. “Kevin had always wanted to take his songs to the club — he always felt it was one of those things that people would really respond to and let loose… and it works, especially in the club setting,” says Syaheed. Support from the DJ community in Singapore was a major advantage on the club tour. “The DJs know Kevin, and they know his music. So it was really something that was very organic. They really encouraged us,” says Syaheed. “It was really more of the community getting behind each other and making it happen.” However, once he has the attention of a crowd, Kevin understands that he has to give them a show. “You need to have ‘moments in the set’. You’re an entertainer at the end of the day.” He has come to terms with the fact that “the Singapore audience wants to be won over in one song.”
For artists like Kevin, a more global outlook is in the works. Part of going overseas involves learning about the perils of the music industry at large. “When I was travelling, I met people who would hustle. This means they would do small things just to get further. It’s all or nothing and every next album is like gambling”, Kevin says.
for wanting their stable of bands to go on overseas tours. “It’s something we want all our bands to do, get out there and experience the same hurdles that even UK/US bands face,” says Errol. According to him, most bands have the misconception that it’s easier to tour overseas, but the truth is that there’s not much difference.
It’s a similar story for the boys from MONSTER CAT. Playing shows, no matter how small, at the Culture Collide Festival in Los Angeles and the Reeperbahn Festival in Germany, is experience under their belts.
“By seeing that overseas bands might have it even harder, it makes our bands work harder,” Lesley adds.
Errol Tan and Lesley Chew of KittyWu Records, who manage the band, have practical reasons
Lead singer Hentai Cat agrees. “In Los Angeles, there’s a good 100 shows going on every
night. You might get ten people showing up for a show, if you’re lucky. We have it better [in Singapore] because we do have an audience who shows up.” He adds, “It opened our eyes.”
about clouds and rainbows. It’s about the hustle.” While hustling is usually associated with shady business, it’s the work ethic behind doing everything to get closer to the goal that Kevin hints at all along.
But even with all the overseas exposure, he still wants acceptance back home.
“You cannot just sort of want it, you have to want it like you need to breathe.”
“Playing at the Laneway Festival in Singapore is a dream show for me. I don’t want to fly halfway across the world just to play to strangers. I want us to be accepted in Singapore,” he says.
He acknowledges that to get to that level, you need to “pay your dues”, a journey he is very much still on. He adds, “You have to give the audience five times more than what they expect.”
Whether amplified over the radio or a larger-than-life personality on stage, Kevin understands that “Music is great, but it’s not all
PHOTOS Adam Tha Artist
Success is hard to quantify. No one likes to talk about it, and bands usually skirt around the label – saying a band is successful can either imply pride or doom them to failure, while saying they’re not undermines their past work. Here, it’s not the typical model of success that record labels hold on to, such as a platinum-selling album, or a chart-topping hit. There is no denying that bands in Singapore are successful, in their own small ways. Most of all, they know it’s not the end, and there’s always another peak.
when you’re winning
Named after the unit number of the jam studio where they first met, 53A are a foursome who do music full-time, presenting one version of success. But the beauty of success is that there isn’t just one way of defining it – it’s breaking out, it’s taking on the world, and it’s having a hunger for what is to come.
With her soothing voice and tousled mane of red hair, singer Sara Wee is effortlessly cool as she eases up the crowd on a weekday night by the Singapore River. She picks up her guitar, and the band takes her cue. The air is soon abuzz with familiar radio-friendly hits. They take song requests from the audience, but don’t expect 53A to be a bunch of followers; if success is defined by being able to make a living off making music, they’re in the lead. A mainstay at Timbre, the band consists of Alvin Khoo, Bani Hidir, Irwan Shah and Sara Wee. They are hired by Timbre and Wala Wala, and play to a full house at least four times a week. “We’ve all been through our first gig where we were super nervous. Performing is second nature now, we feel more adrenaline than anxiety.” The fact is, getting a residency at a club and playing covers guarantees a consistent income, and 53A straddles the line
between being a cover band and an original band. They play at corporate gigs. Events at Marina Bay Sands or The New Paper New Face modeling competition are no issue for the seasoned band, who are paid at least $1000 for such performances. But they also put their money to good use on their original album, Settle the Kettle. “We get a lot of people asking for original songs,” says Sara. They play these most during campus shows, where “they even mouth the words to our songs”. A live recording of their most popular song, “We Should Be Together”, has garnered more than 20,000 views on YouTube. With Singtel advertisements and Sara recently being picked as the new “IT girl” of skincare brand SK-II, the band has its presence here; which is why they prefer to make it on home turf first before touring overseas. “There’s so much ground to cover here, and we want to do as many
shows that come our way, play to anyone and everyone who will listen to us,” says Sara. SUCCESS BY ANY OTHER NAME While 53A’s form of accomplishment is admirable, Syaheed from The Bedsty Group says that the music scene has more to improve on and this change won’t happen overnight. “We need to catch up on having experienced business managers, and having a support system in place,” he says. Some musicians have taken it upon themselves to venture beyond Singapore. It’s not a cop-out, but a realigning of their vision. While they might have gotten a start here, they feel like they have the flexibility to go for international success. So they throw themselves in the deep end and compete in foreign markets instead. Singer-songwriter Inch Chua made the bold move to uproot and settle down in Los Angeles. Armed with an artist visa, she is now able to work and earn money there as well. Being around a community of artists 24/7 has pushed Inch to hustle harder than ever. “I’ve never felt like I needed to work harder in my life until I got here. No matter what you do there’s going to be someone more talented, smarter, more hardworking, more hungry, more tragically hurt than you as an artist,” she says. And worked hard she has. When it came to her sophomore LP, Bumfuzzle, she raised more than $15,000 on crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. Still, her hopes for the new album are simple. “I just hope that they’ll love it and want to buy it. I need to eat,” she says. Going for international music festivals, and getting their name out is also a good gauge of success. In 2010, Inch became the first Singaporean solo artist
invited to play at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Music Festival in Texas. She went back again two years later.
earning just enough to survive – that’s not really making it,” says Justin, the band’s guitarist. “We want to make sure we can work on music. That’s not an ideal but a goal.”
Musicians like The Sam Willows have had a meteoric rise since starting out just last year, and they’ve been working hard at gigs from the New Year’s Eve Countdown Party, all the way to this year’s SXSW Festival. “We always say that SXSW is a long-term goal. When we received the e-mail, and saw the word – invited – everyone went bonkers,” says vocalist Sandra Tang. “It was a great boost to us. Knowing that we were recognized gives us the extra push to know why we’re doing music.”
And that hope means looking forward, expecting a cultural change, but still being thankful for what has passed. “Every developing culture needs to have pockets of art. Success is not just the buildings you build,” says Danny Loong, Timbre’s cofounder. “What we have now – it may not be like Madison Square Garden, but musicians can still make a living in a small way.”
Success, then, is a hope – it’s an insatiable hunger for something more; it’s looking ahead to dream bigger dreams.
Then, there’s just success in making sure people remember their name. One year after their breakout Baybeats audition, in 2012, ANECHOIS is still fondly spoken of in the audition room, where a new batch of bands gets ready to perform. In a candid moment before the auditions began, Riot! Records’ Mike See leaned over to his fellow judges and said, “So how guys? Do you think we’ll find another ANECHOIS this year?” Compared to the international artistes, these small successes achieved by Singapore musicians may just be a blimp on the world’s music radar. But for them, there’s always the next step. Back in December, ANECHOIS was still discussing the possibility of reaching out to their fan base in Southeast Asia. Now, they’re about to embark on a tour in Manila. Success, then, is a hope – it’s an insatiable hunger for something more; it’s looking ahead to dream bigger dreams. “I hope that the band reaches the point where we can make a living. Being ‘ramen-profitable’ –
THE RISE 52
For some bands, their trajectory ends in a crash landing â€“ tears, fistfights and destroyed relationships. But even for those who have broken up, there is always the second coming.
When the lights go down It’s not always paradise in rock stardom. Egos get in the way. There are “creative differences”. The marriage to four (or more) other members doesn’t always work out. In Singapore, there is no front-page story when a band breaks up. Instead, it is silent fade away into darkness, with no “fin” to mark the end of the film.
When bands break apart, their dreams are put on hold. Guitarists leave, singers are kicked out, drummers are ditched, sometimes the entire band simply… disbands. Syaheed from The Bedsty Group, the manager of now-splintered band Sixx, says “Bands break up. Full stop. Bands will go through this dynamic shift all the time – break up, change members, whatever it might be.” Having been in the music scene for over 20 years and having played in many bands himself, Patrick Chng candidly admits that “life gets in the way”. He rattles off a list of things that kills bands: “Well, national service, work, relationships, family.” Even with all the upcoming new music, when life does “get in the way”, there seems to be an expiry date for Singapore musicians. Singer-songwriter Inch Chua says, “There are a lot of young people coming up. But there’s a drop-off rate at a certain age too.” That age comes round when certain band members’ priorities shift. “They can’t make it for the jams, or they have no money to contribute to the record, they’ve got girlfriend problems or family issues, or they’re studying overseas. That holds everything back,” Daniel Sassoon, formerly of Electrico says. “If you’re in a young band with four or five people, you have to realise that one or two members may not cut it. They’re not going to be able to keep up with pace, they’re going to have different goals in life. Chances are, you’re not going to stick together with the same line-up,” he says. “People will change, people will leave. It is what it is.”
Comeback Kids When it all ends, not every musician goes back to being the good Singaporean, with the goals of cash, car, condo, credit card and country club membership. There are those who go back to help the younger generation with the expertise they have built up.
Through line-up changes and hundreds of gigs, Patrick Chng and his band, The Oddfellows, ran the gamut. After getting a few songs in the local top 10 charts, playing a tour in Kuala Lumpur, opening for The Buzzcocks and releasing a second album, the band went on an indefinite hiatus in 2002. This year will be the band’s 25th anniversary. Though they only play together once a year, the band remains friends. But Patrick has never really left the scene. As members of former big name bands return to music, many of them also give back to the community by teaching and sharing their experience with the new generation of musicians, like Jedi masters to young padawans. Patrick serves as a judge and mentor for Baybeats, while Daniel Sassoon mentors young musicians with NOISE Singapore, an National Arts Council programme that grooms young talents. Besides their role as guides, those who come back continue to create original music, usually with a different configuration of band members. Like The Travelling Wilburys or Them Crooked Vultures, the Singapore version of ‘supergroups’, are made up of a mishmash of former band members from Singapore bands. Daniel Sassoon and Amanda Ling, both from Electrico, went on to form post-rock band, In Each Hand A Cutlass, with former For This Cycle drummer Jordan Cheng. Vanessa Fernandez, formerly from Urban Xchange and Parking Lot Pimp is now part of an electronic duo Octover, with pioneering electronic producer Jason Tan. Similarly, after the Oddfellows, Patrick and members of other Singapore bands formed Typewriter. With Desmond Goh from Electrico, Yee Chang Kang from Ordinary People and Redzuan Hussin from Force Vomit, the line-up of local heroes is a group of ‘Avengers’ in their own way. While ‘supergroup’ evokes thoughts of bloated egos and battles for creative control, it could also connote flash-in-the-pan success that doesn’t get bands very far. Typewriter though, have been together for 12 years now, with a few line-up changes along the way. The band is embarking on a UK tour in April 2013. Patrick can’t seem to keep himself away from making music. But one thing is clear. The music never really dies.
No rest for the wicked The musicians we’ve met in the past nine months come from different backgrounds, wear many hats, and have diverse opinions. We’ve listened: to their music; to their accounts of heartfelt moments; to their stories; their fears, tears and dreams. One common thread holds them all together. They all are proud of what’s here and every one of them can’t wait to see Singapore’s music scene soar.
supporting infrastructure is not yet in place, the wheels are already in motion. The sustainability of music in Singapore is at stake, and existing bands don’t want to see the local music scene just fade into obscurity. In fact, there is already a whole new batch of bands, eager, poised and ready to take centre stage. Original music in Singapore is alive. It is present. And it has plenty to offer. It is now time to celebrate the people who are a part of our story.
Industry insiders suggest that the scene is already in place. Therefore, the next step is to elevate it into something compatible with the worldwide music industry. While the
We know a change is gonna come. Yes it will.
THANK YOU. We would like to thank all the musicians, bands, labels, managers, producers, recording studios and venues that so generously gave us their time and let us into their worlds. Their candidness and spirit is what gave us the inspiration
to keep writing. More than interview subjects, they have become friends.
Willy Beh and Isabelle Lim, for their love and support. Special thanks to Lennat Mak for being our first rock star, and for giving us a good footing in the scene to meet everyone. No regrets, just love.
Thanks to Syahidah Johari for taking our words, and making them fly (Like a G6). Thanks to our families and friends, namely Linus Ho, 56
And lastly, we would like to thank our project supervisor, Mr Andrew Duffy, for his guidance, and for reminding us to be rock stars ourselves. He told us to “go forth and be brilliant”. We hope we’ve done him proud.