THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH LEONARD SOOSAY

Champion of music talent

Soosay (second from left) with Breaking Glass circa 1987. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Soosay (second from left) with Breaking Glass circa 1987. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Leonard Soosay when he was five years old and in York University (above) in 1989. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Leonard Soosay when he was five years old and in York University (above) in 1989. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Leonard Soosay when he was five years old (above) and in York University in 1989. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Leonard Soosay when he was five years old (above) and in York University in 1989. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEONARD SOOSAY
Snakeweed Studios owner Leonard Soosay with one of the three cats in the studio. The animal lover took in four strays, with one at home. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Snakeweed Studios owner Leonard Soosay with one of the three cats in the studio. The animal lover took in four strays, with one at home. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Music producer Leonard Soosay is passionate about using his skills to mentor upcoming artists

When he was a teenager, music producer and studio owner Leonard Soosay had a crush on a Catholic Junior College (CJC) student, so he would hang around the canteen of the school in Whitley Road, hoping to meet her, never mind the fact that he was from another school, Temasek Junior College in Bedok.

He did not get the girl but some of her schoolmates were sizing him up. They went on to form local synth-pop group Breaking Glass.

Soosay recalls the story with glee as it was this band that led to his life-long involvement with the home-grown independent music scene and his status as one of its prime movers.

He says: "To blend in, I even contemplated buying a CJC uniform. But these guys were checking me out instead and, when we got talking, we discovered that we were all into Depeche Mode and we all played keyboards. So we decided to form a band and go jamming."

Soosay, now 48, has not been part of any band since he left Breaking Glass to study overseas in the late 1980s, but over the years, he has grown to become a crucial member of the rising home- grown indie music scene.

As a producer, owner and knob twiddler at music studio Snakeweed Studios, he has done studio and audio work for more than 500 local acts in the last 17 years.

More importantly, he is responsible for elevating the scene to a more sophisticated level by crafting world-class recordings for such bands as Electrico and The Great Spy Experiment, and helping them score radio hits as well as high-profile gigs at music festivals overseas.

He has also done remixes for global artists such as David Bowie, Kylie Minogue and the late Beatle John Lennon, and has composed many of the ringtones found in Nokia mobile phones sold worldwide from 2000 to 2005.

Soosay is also dedicated to nurturing the next generation of music talents. He is the co-founder of Thunder Rock School, a music school where local musicians teach 100 music students at two branches in Thomson and Katong.

He is one of the mentors for budding bands in the Esplanade's Baybeats music festival, which took place over the weekend, an annual affair regarded as the most prominent live platform today for local alternative bands.

Esplanade programmer Cecilia Chow says: "Leonard Soosay is one of Singapore's best in terms of music production and he has extensive knowledge about touring.

"He has been integral in the success of many Singapore bands. We believe an opportunity to learn from and be mentored by him will be invaluable to a young band."

Soosay was one of the first judges the Esplanade enlisted when it started the audition process for the Baybeats Budding initiative in 2007.

His transition from musician in Breaking Glass, which had a strong following among female junior college students and was a hot favourite at their house parties back in the late 1980s, to a behind-the- scenes, sound engineering guru took place when he went to Toronto, Canada, for further studies after national service.

He says: "Studying in the United States was too expensive and I didn't know much about studying in Australia. So I looked at the world map and saw that Toronto was the furthest country from Singapore that my parents could afford to send me to study."

To please his parents - his Indian father taught in a secondary school while his Chinese mother is a housewife - he enrolled in an economics degree course at the city's York University.

His passion, however, was still in music and, three years into his degree, he dropped out to study music production at Toronto's Harris Institute For The Arts.

"If I had finished my economics degree, I would probably have gone into the finance industry and done some nine- to-five office job and I didn't want that."

Upon graduating with a diploma in music production, he decided to stay on in Toronto but could not find work in the music industry because of the recession at the time.

He became, in his own words, "an aimless bum", working odd jobs from waiting tables in a pool hall to being a helper in a doughnut shop in the day. By night, he would head down to jamming studios around Toronto and record local amateur bands with a basic four-track recorder.

A 1996 television documentary on the development of the personal computer in the United States, titled Triumph Of The Nerds, convinced him to pack his bags and return to Singapore.

"It was that part about Steve Jobs barging into the Pepsi offices and saying to the vice-president, 'Are you going to spend the rest of your life bottling carbonated water or are you going to come join me change the world?'

"That line got me to jump off the sofa. I was in no position to change the world but it made me want to do something to make a difference to society."

The best way to do it was to use his music production skills to help young talents in the Singapore music scene.

Upon returning to Singapore in 1997, he worked as a studio hand in a recording and jamming studio, Myx Music Studios, and started up record label Snakeweed Records with former Breaking Glass bandmate Michael B.

The label had only two releases: Mantra by alternative-rock quartet Neural Vibe and a self-titled CD by metal outfit Ossuary.

Banking on his education and experiences in Canada, Soosay was intent on making the recordings a cut above many of the lo-fi ones made by other local indie bands at the time.

His plan worked. In a 1998 article, The Straits Times' then music critic Paul Zach describes the two releases as sounding "like nothing ever produced here".

Soosay, who had planned to break into the bigger music industry in Malaysia, decided to dissolve the label when he found out that pirated copies of Ossuary's CD were sold in music stores across the Causeway.

"There was no way we could have fought it, we were just a small label and we didn't have the resources to take up a legal challenge."

What he did instead was to focus on running his own studio.

After leaving Myx, he took over the reins of another local studio, Mastering Suite, with another Breaking Glass ex-member Brian Colaco. They did it for a year before he set up his own, Snake- weed Studios, in an old shophouse in Keong Saik Road in 2000.

"We were looking for cheap shop- houses to rent. When we went there, we really liked the ambience and colour. At that time, it was still a red-light district. You could sit at the coffee shop, at another table would be a taxi driver, a mamasan, an office worker or lawyers from the nearby courts having lunch. Everyone was friendly."

The studio became the haunt of many bands here and Soosay recorded close to 400 bands there. These included not just popular indie names such as Electrico and The Great Spy Experiment, which recorded all their albums there with Soosay, but also edgier acts such as post- rock band I Am David Sparkle and eclectic rockers B-Quartet.

Four of the songs recorded there have hit the No. 1 spot in radio stations here: Electrico's I Want You (2004) and Love In New Wave (2006), pop-punk band Pug Jelly's Come Home Soon (2004) and rock band Ronin's Black Maria (2005).

At Snakeweed, Soosay scored a deal with Nokia to produce ringtones for its mobile phones, until MP3-playable and smartphones came along and scuppered that market.

One of the most significant things about Snakeweed was its low pricing. Soosay understood that most of the bands he was working with were young, many comprising students and NSmen who did not have deep pockets. Their hourly recording rates were five to six times lower than other professional, 24-track studios in Singapore.

He says: "More of the bands are realising that their recordings are competing with the ones from the West that have million-dollar budgets. We tried to bridge the gap, at least provide a decent recording that would not sound out of place on radio."

The income that he made from Nokia and other corporate jobs such as audio post-production work for advertising agencies, was used to subsidise recordings, he adds.

In 2011, the studio moved to an industrial estate in Kaki Bukit after the Keong Saik landlord doubled the rent.

It was then that Soosay and such friends as Amanda Ling, former Electrico keyboardist now playing for In Each Hand A Cutlass, and musician brothers Ian and Deon Toh, decided to start up Thunder Rock School.

"The future of the music scene lies with a lot of the younger talents and education is key," he says.

The school's name is inspired by his close friend, Wayne Thunder, real name Wayne Seah, a former drummer with rockers The Boredphucks and The Suns, gig organiser, producer and local scene activist who died at the age of 29 in his sleep in 2007.

One of the bands that Soosay helped nurture from when they were schoolkids in 2006 to a world-touring band today is post-hard- core quintet Caracal. He produced all their recordings and travelled with the band on their tours to Canada, Japan and China as their sound engineer and all-round adviser.

The band's drummer, and fellow Thunder Rock School founder Martin Kong, 27, describes Soosay as someone the band trusts.

He says: "Working with Leonard has been an eye-opener every step of the way. We've learnt so much from working with him that we could have never learnt from books. His honest criticism is constructive in a way that brings out the best in a recording session.

"He has been one of our main pillars of support in  Caracal's journey as a band. Without him, we and many other local bands wouldn't be where we are today."

Soosay's easy-going style - he is usually in T-shirts, jeans and flip-flops - and genial demeanour are what makes him so easy to work with, say his friends and those who work closely with him.

Daniel Sassoon, 39-year-old guitarist with prog-rock act In Each Hand A Cutlass and former member of Electrico, says: "Leo is one of the warmest, most genuine and well-meaning people I know. He's never hesitated to lend a hand to others in need, especially musicians, even if he may not know them well or even at all, in some cases.

"Whether it's touring with them to do live sound or helping bands out by giving them advice or more studio time than they could have afforded to pay for, his biggest impact is probably him just being himself - he's a one-of-a-kind character and a true champ."

The pair work together not just on Sassoon's bands but also as co-organisers, in collaboration with a Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar GRC Indranee Rajah, for local music festival Lepa(r)k!, held at Tiong Bahru Park in 2011 and Marina Promontory in 2012.

Soosay, who has a brother, 45, a manager in Hewlett-Packard and a sister, 42, a research professor in Adelaide, says that he is still single because he has little time for relationships.

"A lot of my time is dedicated to this, so I had to make a lot of sacrifices for the scene and for the bands. Most times, I spend my nights with musicians, so I don't really have a social life. My only social reward is travelling with the bands overseas."

But it is a sacrifice that the man, who lives with his ageing parents in a terrace house in Siglap, is glad to make.

The only constant companions in his life right now are his four cats - three at the studio and one at home - all of whom he took in off the streets.

A staunch animal lover, he and his Thunder Rock School staff organised World Animal Day events at Orchard mall 313@Somerset in 2011 and 2012, with local bands performing and raising funds for animal welfare groups.

Soosay says he has no regrets about dedicating his life to the Singapore music scene.

"When I went into it, I really wanted to make a difference to society and people's lives," he says. "And I still believe that I haven't achieved 100 per cent of my goals. I just keep trying, I won't sit back and regret not doing other things because everything has its ups and downs. If I had gone into finance, I would have regretted not doing music."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg

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