Local bands, foreign gigs

This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 20, 2013

Local punk band The Caulfield Cult live a rock 'n' roll lifestyle - albeit one on the other end of the spectrum from the private jets and five-star-hotel-thrashing antics of the superstar names.

While most of their peers in their late teens and early 20s are taking backpack and gap-year holidays in foreign lands, they spend their holidays performing in bars around Europe and sleeping in rented vans.

The quartet, whose members are national servicemen and students, have often lost their way on unfamiliar roads, contended with freezing weather and even got into a minor traffic accident.

Still, singer and guitarist Nick Wong tells Life! that the European tours that the band financed and organised themselves in the last two years were worth all the trouble and hassles that they endured.

"Playing your own music with your band in unfamiliar places to unfamiliar crowds is a lot more fulfilling than spending your holiday enjoying yourself in a place such as Bali," says the 20-year-old.

The two-year-old band, which recently released their second album, Things Can Only Get Worse From Here, are now in the midst of their third European tour. They are among a growing number of musicians in the local independent music scene who are embarking on do-it-yourself tours in Europe, North America and Asia.

Some even manage to perform at high-profile festivals and venues: Indie rock trio Bored Spies gigged at annual Spanish music festival Primavera Sound alongside Britpop icons Blur and shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine last month, and power-pop band TypeWriter played at Liverpool's The Cavern Club, famously known as the Beatles' stomping ground in the early 1960s.

Earlier this year, rapper Kevin Lester, indie quartet The Sam Willows, electro-pop act Eli T and singer-songwriters Inch Chua and Deon Toh toured North America and performed at major music events such as SXSW (South by Southwest) in Texas and Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

Black metal band Impiety have been doing regular tours in Europe since 2000, while fellow metal outfit Rudra toured the United States in 2007.

The most active Singapore band on the European/North American touring circuit in recent years are three-piece grindcore band Wormrot, who are signed to prominent British/American metal record label Earache.

A popular name in the global underground metal scene, the band have done four European tours, two North American tours and several regional tours since forming in 2007.

Without exception, all these bands say touring for their music is not glamorous, not a sign of financial success and not even necessarily a step to bigger things. If anything, touring for many of the bands is about slogging for their passion and, often, paying out of their pockets for opportunities to have their music heard by as many as possible.

None of the Wormrot bandmembers are full-time musicians, though all three of them - guitarist Muhammad Nurrasyid Juraimi, 29, singer Mohammad Arif Suhaimi, 29, and drummer Fitri Hamid Drummer, 25 - have had to quit their day jobs because their tours last one to two months.

Says Nurrasyid: "Life on tour is hard. We are constantly travelling and we play a show almost every night, in venues ranging from big festivals to clubs, abandoned buildings and even in people's basements. We would sleep in people's houses, in squats, anywhere we can."

But the guitarist, who now holds a day job as a delivery man, says that the experience of touring is worth all their efforts and sacrifices.

"I love being on tour. You get to play your music to like-minded people, you meet new faces every day and when you play the big festivals, you get to see many other bands perform."

Hardcore quartet Overthrown started out on the overseas circuit by travelling on the weekends to do gigs in nearby places such as Malaysia and other South-east Asian countries, before moving on to lengthier tours in Europe.

Their first European tour stint last year was an "eye-opener", says guitarist Shahrizal Zainal, 33.

"Touring is not glamorous. Most of the time, you sleep in the van while travelling."

Still, he says that touring is the best way to connect with the industry, promote the band and sell their CDs and merchandise such as T-shirts and stickers.

He adds: "We have been together as a band for 17 years and we thought that since now we can afford to travel, why not tour as a band and fulfil our childhood dreams, especially when we have the opportunities. We take it as a band holiday. If we don't do it now, we might not be able do it at all in the future."

The band, who are scheduled to perform at Esplanade music festival Baybeats on June 29, will embark on their second European tour for the next two months.

Most of the musicians self-finance the tours, which can cost anything from $10,000 to $30,000, although some have received grants from bodies such as the National Arts Council and Media Development Authority. The payments that they receive from the shows, as well as sales proceeds from band merchandise, usually do not cover all the expenses.

Nurrasyid says their record label loaned them money for their tours, and he and his bandmates are still paying off the loans now.

Playing for free is common, although gig organisers usually make it up by providing the bands with meals, drinks and lodging. Wormrot make up to £500 (S$985) for a gig, while The Caulfield Cult are "happy if we get £75 for a show".

But as TypeWriter guitarist and local indie music pioneer Patrick Chng, 45, says: "It's not about profit or breaking even."

The band's frontman Yee Chang Kang, 41, adds: "We have never set out to make TypeWriter a moneymaking machine. Let's leave that to the talent shows. Through our songs, we get a much-needed creative outlet to express our feelings, our thoughts and our craft. To question and appreciate our very own existence, here in life.

"Monetarily, like many bands here, having day jobs helps us to fuel this passion. Our England tour has inspired us in so many ways, and that experience itself is priceless."

The band received an invitation to perform at the International Pop Overthrow Festival in Liverpool, and decided to book more dates around England. They played seven shows in Liverpool, London, Cornwall and Devon.

Lester says that performing with other world class artists at major North American music events such as the A3C Hip Hop Festival in Atlanta and CMJ Music Marathon in New York last October has inspired him to be a better showman.

"It just challenges you. The level of musicianship is so much higher that you're just trying your best to polevault over them," says the 28-year-old, who recently released P.Y.C.O, a hip-hop anthem dedicated to the LionsXII football team.

One of the major considerations for the bands is booking gigs in venues and festivals that suit the bands and their music.

Punk band The Bois had to cancel an appearance at a music festival in Germany after they found out that the line-up featured some right-wing bands that associate themselves with the neo-Nazi movement.

Says bass player Mohamed Iqbar, 36: "A friend of ours from Holland is booking the shows for us and we had to emphasise that our band take a very strong anti-racist and anti-fascist stance in our music. We won't play shows with other bands who don't share the same view."

The quintet will be embarking on their first European tour next month and will perform in Holland, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic.

The key to getting these overseas shows is networking - lots of it, says Bored Spies singer- guitarist Cherie Ko Xinyi, 22.

"It is really important to build relationships and connections with people in the music industry overseas, especially with promoters and bands. You should always network as much as you can."

She adds: "In this day and age, artists and bands do not earn much from record and CD sales. So playing live shows is essential to a band's livelihood. In order to make this happen, it will all boil down to the connections with promoters and organisers."

It also pays to ride on bands more seasoned on the touring circuit. For Overthrown, their first European tour came out of their friendship with Dutch hardcore band No Turning Back, who brought them along on the road.

Says Shahrizal: "It's best to tour with another band from where you're touring. This cuts the cost of expenses, unless you're a big band with a record label or booking agency handling the tour."

Being Asian can be an advantage when it comes to playing to European and American crowds, says some of the musicians.

Says Lester: "The Asian guy who doesn't look Asian performing a very American genre of music - that became my calling card in the US and it's something I've embraced to my advantage."

Nurrasyid says a lot of the metal fans in the US and Europe who go to their show were initially curious about Wormrot being a metal band from Singapore. "They go to a festival and they see so many of the typical metal bands from Europe or America, and that makes us stand out. We have never had any negative reception."

Chng says the audiences in England that they played to were "really cool and positive".

"Everywhere we played, we were the only Asian performers. The crowds were so appreciative."

Wormrot have become so comfortable playing to foreign audiences that Rasyid says that he feels more nervous about their upcoming set at Baybeats on June 29 than when playing their overseas shows.

"I think a lot of people from the local scene started to get into us after we got all the buzz from the overseas metal community, so I feel like we have high expectations to meet."


SXSW Music Festival, Texas, the United States

Known as the world's largest music festival, the annual trade event attracts more than 2,000 performers from around the world playing in more than 100 venues within Austin.

Singapore bands that have played at SXSW, which stands for South by Southwest, include post-rock outfit I Am David Sparkle, indie bands The Great Spy Experiment and Electrico and retro- rockers The Pinholes. This year's SXSW, which took place from March 8 to 17, featured rapper Kevin Lester and indie-folk quartet The Sam Willows.

Canadian Music Festival, Ontario, Canada

Billed as Canada's largest new music festival, the annual industry event features acts performing over four days in various venues in Toronto. Rockers Caracal were the first Singapore band to play there in 2011.

This year's line-up included Kevin Lester, The Sam Willows, Eli T and singer- songwriters Deon Toh and Inch Chua.

Primavera Sound, Barcelona, Spain

An annual music festival that features big names in the global indie/alternative music scene including The White Stripes, The Cure and Iggy And The Stooges. This year's edition, which took place last month, featured Singapore-based indie band Bored Spies.

Obscene Extreme

Featuring extreme metal and punk bands, the annual Obscene Extreme festival started in the Czech Republic and has spawned franchises in Mexico, Indonesia and Australia. Singapore grindcore bands Wormrot and Demisor have played in the Czech Republic and Jakarta editions.

JakCloth Summer Fest

Held in Jakarta, this year's edition runs from today till Sunday and the line-up includes home-grown bands Caracal, Villes and The Summer State.

Spring Scream Music Festival, Taiwan

An annual multi-genre festival that has up to 300 international acts playing over eight stages.

The edition last year included local Mandarin rock and pop acts Little Green Frog, Elyzia, Redpoll and Ah5ive.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 20, 2013

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