“Hear it is” is a series of interviews with musicians, transcribed here as oral histories. We talk about what they do and what they’ve done, and what has changed since they started making music.
We Talked About
The vapid culture of being hip
The cadence of storytelling in music
Early Billy Joel
Late greats: Susan Fernandez and Karl Roy
How the CD is now peddling the gig
I don’t think anyone who grew up in the Philippines in the 90’s can forget the opening riffs to Rizal Underground’s commercial jingle, “Sabado Nights.” “Bilanggo” was also a fixture on the airwaves, so anyone growing up in Manila at the time would know that following the career of a band like Rizal Underground (or a man like Mike Villegas) would mean immersing oneself in the mainstream channels of the OPM industry.
Villegas openly admits to his involvement in the advertising industry and embraces Filipino pop music without shame or guilt. Rather than dwell on terms like “selling out,” or the death of “OPM”–which sparked numerous debates (as well as dead ends) earlier this year–Villegas, or Sir Mike (he’s not a knight, we’re just being polite), gives insights on what it means to create and contribute to a culture and a community, with the industry part being incidental.
I’m not a very cool guy, but I like to talk and I’d be happy to talk to you. I’ve been a part of several—and I hate the term—scenes, but I fucking hate the idea of a fucking scene. I fucking abhor it with all my heart. The same people who crave for the Eheads now are the same ones who cussed them out during awards shows. They were so sick of them because they weren’t Queso. I mean, music is fucking music, man? And I hated it. I loved my Dredd friends, but I hated what it represented.
There was a time when I was with Color it Red, when we were 18 and Cooky—who by the way, is one of my dearest friends—and I were in the band together, and we said we’d never become a show band. “We hate show bands.” But that is pretty good musicianship to do what they’re doing. You never know where you’re going to head with this, and when we were 18, I saw myself doing this for the rest of my life: playing and hopefully writing the way I’m writing now.
Let’s not say we won’t do this or we hate doing this, because you’ll never know. If something happens, and instead of opening yourself up to it (I mean music, it’s life, right?), uunahan mo ng, “Ah, hindi kasi cool yan.” I mean, what the fuck? I think there’s no more vapid or bankrupt culture than the culture of being hip. It really is. It’s vapid. There’s great music in every generation. The way we look at the classics—I mean, we look at Led Zeppelin, we look at Hendrix—in the early 80s, they were spit upon. They were ridiculed. I mean, New Wave is about as far from Hendrix as you can get—and I love New Wave to death, and I love Hendrix to death. But we—as listeners and musicians—I’d like to think a great listener has more akin to a musician than say a scenester, where you see beyond the bell bottoms and the hairstyles, and close your eyes and listen.
Anyway, that’s just my little rant there.
All right, what’s my name and what do I do?
My name is Mike Villegas and I am a composer-slash-performer of music. I can trace my current taste in music to the first time I heard Paul Simon. I’m very fortunate that my parents were—and are—hippies. They’re based in San Francisco now, but they raised us on early Billy Joel (which is the only Billy Joel that matters), Paul Simon, of course The Beatles, early Fleetwood Mac. Napakapalad naming ng twin brother ko (I have a twin brother who plays amazing bass and is one of our composers here at Hit as well, his name’s Angelo Villegas) and we were very, very lucky to have been exposed to the great shit early on in life.
The first album I purchased with my own money was Twisted Sister—HAHAHAHAHA!—We’re Not Gonna Take It, if I’m not mistaken. /sings/ “We’re not gonna take it!” It was 35 or 45 pesos a cassette, so if you’re lucky, may dalawang cassette ka at may pamasahe ka pa to go to SM North.
I have this weird tendency to shut some things out. If it’s music I do not like, I have a violent reaction to it. It’s not like I shout or anything, but I do this /rubs temples/ And I don’t know if that matters, but I associate everything with music, with the cadence. I love reading books, and my number one pastime is to find a great sofa somewhere or a friend’s house or a café and I’d bring one of my many favourite books that I wish I could finish in a day, and spend five hours with it. The cadence of reading or storytelling has a lot to do with music.
I used to do a lot of running, and I associate that with music. Especially now, because ito na yung hanapbuhay, pero lahat ng ginagawa natin sa buhay natin, may cadence yan na nakaipit sa nararamdaman mo at any given point—if you’re horny or angry or sad or pissed off at your life, if you’re sad for your kid, sad for your loved one, happy for your kid, happy for your loved one—meron lahat nun. Much in the same way that you can tell from the music you’re open to listening to at a given point. There are days when it has to be “Here Comes the Sun”, by The Beatles. And there are days when you can’t stand that song, because the sun ain’t shining on your life right now, and it has to be something from Hetfield. I associate everything with music, so when I see a badly performed cover—cover na nga lang, badly performed pa—on one of those TV shows, I really have to leave the room.
The start of my musician phase was when I started making money from it. I started playing for money when I was 17: my brother was with The Jerks and I was with several artists—I believe Buklod and Sinaglahi and the late, great Susan Fernandez—and Color It Red of course. Prior to that, it was just gigging with high school bands. Tapos nung college ako (I was in UP Mass Comm), I told my mom and dad to give me a year, because I can’t handle it. And funnily enough, my dad was a musician, a great musician (he still is, just not as active), pero he used to play bass for Lolita Carbon and for Freddie Aguilar, and nabahala siya na magmumusic kami full-time because he wanted us to go to college para magkaroon kami ng fallback where the real money comes in.
Little did we know that the tables would turn in a few years, and who would have known that Rock would become an industry? Because it wasn’t, back then.
The live scene is where it’s at. The live scene has always been vibrant, I mean this is where you’ll see if the song you wrote in your living room at two in the morning will stand up in front of a crowd, like say at Mayrics before, or Conspiracy now, 70’s Bistro or Saguijo. Doon mo makikita kung tatayo yung kanta. The live scene is great, but sadly the scene where the money is made, which is recording, nagbago talaga. Piracy did away with labels spending hundreds of thousands on a band to release a really well-recorded album and to promote it. Pirates just did away with that.
The live scene will always be vibrant and up to now I try to play at least once a week. It used to be that we’d do live shows so that we could ripen the songs for recording; now we do recordings, whether or not hinog pa yung kanta, para lang makatugtog kami kasi hindi na kumikita from the album. It’s a weird symbiosis. My wife and I put a label up this year called Mayumi Records. Sobra kasi akong nalulungkot—I mean here I am bitching about how OPM is lacking in new stuff—kasi puro revivals ang ginagawa ng mga majors, but I’m a part of that machinery because I’m paid to arrange for these artists.
But I can’t bitch without doing something about it, and I lucked out and found a voice for my new songs: I found Cathy Go, and I wrote some songs and I produced them here at Hit. The whole thing: we found out how to make it legitimate, PARI member kami. I found out at 40 years of age what was going on behind the scenes for the last 20 years of my life – I found out in my 40th year just how this business has been. And I saw firsthand how difficult it is to make money from recording and from album sales.
The live scene now is completely the opposite: I come up with albums to sell at gigs, but it’s really the gig now. Right now, you have recording companies trying to cash in on managing the artists, kasi alam nila na it’s not the album sales anymore that bring in the money – it’s the publishing and the gigs. So now nagiging weird nanaman yung symbiosis because sometimes the last person you want handling your career is the recording company, who are usually handling 15 other artists who all have nothing to do with one another.
I work in the advertising industry and I work at Hit Studios, where we have the best gear and the best people manning the gear, because otherwise it would be very, very expensive. That said, ang dami nang software ngayon that allows people to do their recording at home, pero iba siya eh. Kahit anong ganda ng gamit mo, what has happened (especially with the advent of digital recording) is nasanay ang mga tao na magsulat at gumawa ng kanta mag-isa – where nobody is walking into a room with five other people and just fleshing it out together. That’s the magic of what Circus was, and what Ultraelectromagneticpop was, and what Cutter Pillow was –it was the sum of several good parts turning into a band’s work. Recording is easier now, but it’s not necessarily better.
Marketing and distribution are in flux. We’re gonna hear stuff like “the internet is the way and the light,” at doon tayo papunta. But you know what, I have stuff on iTunes, CDBaby, and iMusic.com. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. You still have to go out there and really promote your stuff. All of marketing and all of distribution still revolves around expecting people to spend—and sadly, people don’t want to spend for music. I would be surprised if I knew ten people who bought a CD in the last month. Ten people. And I’m a musician. I’m a musician and I don’t know ten people who bought a CD in the last month, OPM or otherwise.
Marketing and all the distribution really changed: now you’re marketing the gig. You’re distributing your contact numbers para magka-gig ka. Now you’re distributing your number for the producers to call you up for a show (say UP Fair or a corporate gig across town, that’s where the money is). People will spend for a ticket to see a great band, but sadly people don’t want to spend for the album. It’s turned into content, and they feel entitled to content that’s free (for some reason). You’re not selling the CD: the CD is there to sell the gig. You come up with the CD para i-abot sa promoter, and that’s totally different. It’s a totally different mindset.
Press and publicity are so much better now. Yung sinabi ni Tito Sotto tungkol kay Sarah Pope, na “Ba’t ko siya i-quo-quote, blogger lang yan,” is about the most backward thing I’ve ever heard about the internet. It’s because of people who log their experiences on the web—which is what a blog is—you have a web of publicity na hindi mo mababayaran whether you wanted to or not. And that’s been a fucking godsend. All of a sudden, hindi na uubra yung five or six journalists with whom you’re assured of a positive review. If your shit is shit, lilitaw na shit yan. And that for me is one of the bright lights that technology has done for music retail and music publicity—and film as well. Ngayon, metacritic na. It’s not enough that Rolling Stone likes it, ang dami ngayong pinagbabasihan ng ratings ng content. It’s a lot more democratic, I’d like to think.
I’m very careful of how I would call something an icon. I remember—and he’s one of the greatest performers OPM has ever seen—Karl Roy was and is a fucking icon. Pero after “Panaginip,” ano yung naaalala mong kanta na ginawa niya? And that’s not to flog the man and what he did for the scene. But I remember fully well that people were calling him an icon when he was still alive, and it may not have been the most positive thing for him, personally. All of a sudden he had to be this thing that performed like that—which is great—but he also had to manifest the naughtiness of the scene every time. It’s like if he didn’t act the way he did or do the stuff he did, the way he did, he wouldn’t be an icon. And I would rather he wrote more music, or he made more of a name for himself as a songwriter or a creator, as opposed to the wild man that he is offstage. He was amazing onstage, but I really think that the icon aspect of his life had more to do with his life off the stage. Don’t get me wrong, I love the man to bits, but I wish he was still alive and sharing more music with us. I mean, “Yugyugan” is a cover.
And then you have Ely and Raimund, who I consider heroes as well, and Joey Ayala. I’m more comfortable calling them heroes or people to look up to, as opposed to icons who embody something. That’s scary.
It’d be hypocritical of me to say that I’ve never downloaded music, but I can also safely say that in the last year or so, I’ve bought about 15 or 23 albums. And that’s still not a lot, but I buy, especially OPM. Nagbabago na ngayon ang music retail, for example, iTunes Philippines just launched, you also have MyMusicStore – all the machineries for music retail for the Philippines is gestating na. So eto na, pumepwesto na yung mga majors: you can buy an Ebe Dancel off iTunes legitimately if you wanted to. Dati kasi hindi option yan (and I believe he even went number one). So online is the way to go.
But the internet has made it difficult for us to buy when it’s on YouTube. Yung pinaka pangpromote ng artist is there, and since we’re a singles based market, why should I bother paying for the 5 other fillers on the album? It makes it difficult to be legitimate. Why pay for something that will be on your mp3 player, that you’ll listen to once in a while when you’re driving or jogging? Why, when you can just stream it? That for me only underscores the idea of the gig being the new CD. You come up with CDs just so you have something to promote—it’s no wonder you have all these foreign acts coming here—because the gig is the only money left.
Recorded in the pantry of Hit Productions in Makati, Metro Manila on Oct. 29, 2012. Duration: 37 mins.
Illustrated by the amazingly talented Jules Quiambao