Aug 31 2014
When I first met Alf way back in ’99, he caught my attention with his honesty, which included revealing that he loved self-help books and wasn’t ashamed of it. Some of you might remember that he’s guest starred on this blog with a post about his favourite self-help titles. Lately he’s been reading a book called The Attractor Factor, which is yet another book about getting what you want by putting your mind to it. He’s not crazy about the book but we had a chat this afternoon about music and our band days, and we recalled how we had one awesome year where we got everything we wanted, seemingly just by wanting it.
By the way, the quote (pictured above) about us all being in different bands isn’t exactly true–we were fairly new to the music world, but we were also smart enough to make ourselves seem more experienced than we were. In truth, some of us had been playing together since ’04 or ’05. At the time, Alf’s cousin Serene fronted the band as our singer and it was enough for us just to be part of a band. Serene and I got silly and wore our hair in pigtails because that was what some indie rocker girls were doing back then, and Alf and I would feel important and liberated dragging our guitars to jam studios every week to play our favourite songs. In reality it was a mismatch because we were all novice musicians save for Alf, and we all liked different music ranging from r&b to classic rock and indie. Also, I never wanted to perform but everyone else did. The others said to me, what’s the point of having a band if you don’t play for anyone? I couldn’t argue with that, so I went along with the plan and the first gig we played was at Boys Town during a fun fair, where the front row was taken up by our family members and the rest of the audience were randoms looking for shelter or a seat. But no matter, it was still a milestone moment.
For our first gig, we’d called ourselves The Exploding Hearts but on googling the name later, we discovered there was already a band with the same name, and worse, they’d all been killed in a car crash! I was a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan back then (the TV series, not the movie) and I had this Buffy book with an episode index, so we scanned it to get another name, Never Kill A Boy On The First Date. We played a few park gigs with that name, and it was such a mouthful that we eventually shortened it to The Daters. It was a trend at the time to go without a bassist and we managed without one in the beginning, but we later added a bassist to our line-up, my friend and ex-schoolmate Greg. We played a couple more gigs as a band of five. And we changed our name to The OKs–shorter, snappier, and cooler. Or so we hoped.
One goal for the band was to write our own songs, but back then I had no confidence in my creative vision. Alf on the other hand was so creative that he’d come up with 20 different versions of a single song, and we’d get tired of listening to his ideas by version three. Serene the singer wrote lyrics and I attempted to write lyrics, but neither of us could tie our words down to a tune and suggest how the instruments should be played, so there was plenty of to-ing and fro-ing and things did get tense. I’m sure we took turns to privately wonder what the trouble was all for. With Layla due in mid-06, we decided to take a break. There was a final gig we were supposed to play–my gynaecologist loves to tell people that one of his patients was still strapping on a guitar in trimester 3. It was at a park just across The Esplanade and we joked that we were practically gigging at The Esplanade, which meant we’d come a long way from that first funfair performance! It wasn’t to be though–it rained and the gig was cancelled. We hid out in a nearby cafe, had our iced drinks, and left our rock ‘n’ roll dreams to fizzle. Somehow this seemed like a fitting finale; our expectations were low at that point anyway.
In ’07, Alf and I felt cloistered in our roles as new parents and we were both dying to escape the home to do something different. We talked about starting up the band again but this time, our singer declined. By chance, our drummer Lennat found someone else wiling to give singing a shot, so we called our bassist Greg and met Shirley our new singer in a jam studio for the first time to play this song. After the session ended, we thought hey, this could work!
In ’08, our “new” band, now named Midnight Marvel, did everything we’d never done before and never expected to do. We recorded our first original song; we were featured on a charity compilation; we auditioned and made it to perform at the Baybeats festival at The Esplanade; we played pub, club, and studio gigs to warm up for the big show; and we did web, radio and print interviews and got press mentions. We shot a music video too, although that was pretty embarrassing and I’ve never watched it. The following year, one of our songs made it to a National Day list of local songs “that defined the nation” on Today. Not too shabby!
So, what was different about the band in ’08 that helped it to chalk up its tiny successes? Alf and I had a few ideas and I’d like to share them here, just for fun:
#1 We changed our mentality from “Why try?” to “Why not?” Shortly after that positive first session, we became a foursome again with Alf taking over on bass. At the time, our band was mangling cover songs due to lack of practice and still failing to cobble together an original song–there was a petty argument over what we could achieve together and whether we should work towards trying out for the country’s only indie rock fest (i.e. Baybeats), which required decent musicianship and 30 minutes worth of original tracks. Our bassist told us politely to get real, but I wasn’t in the mood for reality and invited him to leave. Strangely, that development energized the rest of us and gave us a new sense of urgency and self-belief that wasn’t based on anything concrete. Note: We’re still friends with our bassist and he showed us the meaning of graciousness by turning up for our subsequent gigs and giving us words of encouragement. A year later, when Alf and I exited the band too, we modelled our behaviour after his.
#2 Someone took the lead. Previously our songwriting process worked like this: Someone would hand out lyrics (except Alf, he was shy), and we’d take them home and add music using Garageband and mail the ideas to our bandmates. Everyone would then chime in with suggestions or say which idea they liked best, but we were never happy with the end product and made a gazillion changes until the original idea was unrecognisable. It was pointless and demoralising. Then one day, our singer Shirley came into the studio with an idea. She had words for a song, she showed me how to play it on guitar, and the others filled in the gaps on bass and drums. It was simple but memorable and it had punch, which had been lacking in our other attempts. It was short, so we decided to play it twice. There wasn’t an ending, so we made one up on the spot. We had a song, in a single session! Shirley became our official songwriter, and this was our first and probably most well-publicised track, titled “Spit It Out.”
#3 The timing was right. With an original song in hand, we realised that the deadline for the year’s Baybeats shortlist wasn’t over yet. We had a few days to work with, and it so happened that the studio we jammed in also provided recording services. We recorded our demo in one afternoon, spent another evening taking band pictures and putting together a bio, and finally submitted our track. (I should add that my mum-in-law was a great help, covering for us with Layla.) Alf and I were very much in sync then; we wanted to try as many new things as possible because we both felt we had nothing to lose–except time. Most bands start out with members in their teens or 20s, and we could’ve all passed for 20-somethings or even teenagers if we tried, but we couldn’t run away from the truth. Alf and I had already crossed 30 and our bandmates were getting there too. Maybe that was our version of the midlife crisis, but whatever it was, it propelled us as we survived the initial shortlist as well as our first-ever audition to score ourselves an opportunity to perform at The Esplanade.
#4 Relationships matter. Our drummer Lennat is the sort of person you’d want to high five even if you’d just met her; she’s all energy and enthusiasm especially if you share her interests. She also goes out of her way to seek inspiration and connect with her heroes without caring if they’re famous or not–she has some interesting mentors and friends as a result. I’d like to think we made it to Baybeats on merit alone but I suspect Lennat’s connections counted for something because she knew at least one of the judges. People have always been eager to support Lennat and lift her up the way she’s lifted them (she’s written about it here), so it’s not inconceivable that this played a part in our getting picked.
#5 Luck counts too. A good friend (who’s also a local music veteran) gave us a chance to be included on one of his music compilation projects, and it was on that album that a Today journalist noticed us. He liked us enough to mention us repeatedly, interview us, and recommend us as a “must watch” act at Baybeats. And in the following year, he featured us at the tail end of this list (look for no.36). All of which was totally unexpected… and lucky!
* Update: I don’t have recordings for our original songs except for one. Here’s “Spit It Out.” Turn it up!