“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.
Fathers and 70s-era piracy
“Default singers” and emotional truths
The trepidation that comes with creative output going public
“These people” not being your friends
I remember lying in the grass during one UP fair when I was in high school, lamenting the fact that I did not get into UP Diliman from UP Quill came up and asked me to stop moping and stay to watch Aldus Santos’s band, The Purplechickens, because “They’re my friends and they’re wonderful!” I did eventually end up in UP (forever. I’m gonna be in UP forever), from where I was able to more thoroughly (and quietly) follow The Purplechickens around, from Encomium to Freedom Bar to Gweiloz/new Dredd; tracking Aldus’s writing, from Sportscar to Girls, Etc., throughout college and into first jobs and first real heartaches.
Maybe it’s the wait between recordings or the relief that comes with the fact that they’re still releasing new work, but The Purplechickens tend to create music that makes more sense as you grow older. And it’s not out of a depleted sense of idealism, but more like an increase in empathy (or in tumblrspeak: more feels), or all those other little nuances that come with getting older. I still (and always will) look forward to Aldus continuing to create more.
I’m Aldus Santos, I’m an editor for Pinoytuner. I sing and play guitar for The Purplechickens, and I write songs for them. I guess I also keep other bands, but not as actively. The other bands are ASQ (that’s the Aldus Santos Quartet). That’s me and Marc Inting from Twin Lobster, Aids Arcega from Stereodeal, and Ean Mayor from Up Dharma Down. We have a “secret” fifth member, so the “q” is either a quartet or a quintet, whichever way depending on the secret fifth guy – who is Joon Guillen, aka Modulogeek. Ean plays his loops live, so we basically play around his loops.
I also play guitar for Kathy (Gener)’s band, Once More With Feeling.
I keep none of the bands actively now because I went on leave this year. My wife had a baby–well, we had a baby, in May of this year. So I talked to my main band that I’d go on leave for a full year, but that I’d keep working in the studio ‘cause we’re in the middle of a record. That’s it.
I can trace my current taste in music to my dad’s mixtapes. Nagpupunta siya nang madalas sa Raon, kasi meron silang database ng mga kanta. Then they’d write them down on a piece of paper and they’d do tape-to-tape transfers. I guess that was ‘70s-era-type piracy. My dad always played his 60’s stuff in the car. Most of what he liked was the basic stuff, you know, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits…Gary Lewis and The Playboys—sino pa ba?—I guess the British Invasion people from the 60’s?
Curious actually ‘yung taste ng dad ko sa music, because I think at his core, he’s a rocker guy. But he’d also have weird stuff in there like, real pop stuff, like Don McLean, Sonny and Cher, Gilbert O’Sullivan (the guy who sang “Alone Again (Naturally)”).
Basically it was those cassettes, at first. Then I picked up on The Beatles. Nobody told me they were cool, but you just sort of feel it. They have (…uhh…it may sound crappy but I think they have magic in them. The first Beatles songs I heard were post-moptop era Beatles; the first song I dug was “Because”, from Abbey Road, because of the 4-part harmony. Parang ang magical niya, because before that, I’d only hear those kinds of harmonies in choirs, I guess, but not in rock bands.
So I guess formative siya for me personally, because The Beatles paid more attention to singing than guitar playing in their material. Although, of course, they were competent guitar players, Harrison foremost, and then (in my opinion) McCartney next (although he played bass mainly, but he tracked guitar solos when he felt like it or when he felt George was messing it up or something).
John Lennon was the least competent guitar-wise, but I can sort of relate to that in retrospect. I never really took lessons—I mean Marco Harder (guitarist for The Purplechickens) didn’t take lessons, but he was just really good; Aids was also just really good (I guess they practiced more?)—me, I paid more attention to singing, harmonies, and doing guitar lines rather than guitar solos. I guess I’m more “indie” that way. I can relate to people like, I guess, Lennon or, some parts of Kurt Cobain – who was barely technical, but masked his weaknesses with noise and distortion.
My dad’s cassettes and The Beatles – ‘yun ‘yung mga hindi real time. Pero ano yan eh, syempre, sa tatay mo ‘yun. The real-time stuff that I really appreciated were everything from Gary Valenciano to The Eraserheads. With the heads, I guess you heard this several times, yung parang defining moment talaga sya for me as a listener, cause they were accessible—but they also weren’t. They were also obtuse in their own little way, like the veneer they assumed was that of accessibility (or at least their label made them put on that veneer) but they were really obtuse people. They weren’t funny “Haha-Funny”, like Parokya ni Edgar was or still are.
I was also big on the folkies, like Neil Young, I guess because the more folk-y, the closer you get to folk, the more naked it becomes and the closer it gets to the moment of fruition. Like Neil Young’s songs from, for instance, After the Gold Rush were as good as demos; but that was already the album, because he didn’t really need anymore. He played piano, he played guitar, and he’d book a band sometimes but he didn’t really need them.
The first album I bought with my own money would have to be Let It Be (it wasn’t remastered yet). This is around the time cassettes cost around 90 pesos. And then R.E.M.’s Out of Time, which was a weird jump for me; because I was terrified of dancing, and “Losing My Religion” was a big dance hit. They didn’t intend for it to be a dance hit, but Michael Stipe was dancing in the video, so people picked up on that, like “Let’s make it into a disco track!” But there were also guitar lines that resonated with me—like really melodic playing—and I can relate to Peter Buck not being as proficient as the others from his era were. That was also a guy who couldn’t play mandolin but played mandolin all the time.
I guess there were also the alternative 90s bands – yung mga active [purchases]. I was actively purchasing cassettes (I guess on a weekly basis?) and whatever I picked up on NU, I’d research on that. I didn’t have access to the stuff I like now, retroactively. Like, I didn’t like The Wuds, because I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t have access to that kind of music. And I was sort of turned off with the sonic aspects of LA105. ‘Di ko sya type dahil dun sa timpla ng mga pinapatugtog nila – it was very rough (and that’s being kind).
That being said, that was my assessment during that time. But I’ve long since reconsidered.
I’d usually associate music with really personal moments. I’m the kind of guy who can remember— along with other things— what song was playing when this and that thing was happening. I’d also remember what book I was currently reading, what shirt I was wearing, etcetera. But mostly I’d associate it with being home. Kasi sa bahay namin hindi masyadong uso yung TV. We’d really just pop in a cassette, and yeah, of course much later on it became a more active type of consumption than just listening for pleasure.
When I started playing in bands I was more analytical—competitive even—and I wasn’t even anyone! Parang, “Shit, [radio plays] that shit?” Parang may ganun kang feeling lagi…uhh…it was competitive, I guess? I guess I’m also the first person (I mean among your interviewees) who’ll admit to that. But it’s like I’ve always felt like putting out music was putting out something really private, so you should maybe double-triple think the results. I’d imagine, in an ideal world, people wouldn’t be as proud of their stuff. I’d imagine—or I’d hope—people would be shyer about their material, or at least really conscious about similarities with other things.
As I was beginning to put out music – which means Manox (aka Purplechickens) version 1.0, playing activist gigs (which, I guess, were the only gigs available [in UP at the time])— there was this trepidation about going public. I’m not disaligning myself but I was conscious about whether we should sound like how they speak. Like, can I keep talking like this? Alam mo yun? Si Aids (Arcega, who was really the only first-batch Manox person I’m still in touch with) was really conscious about it, and we shared that.
So I’d associate music writing with this tremendous amount of insecurity, if not competitiveness on the polar opposite. Even listening to music, I guess, in public—alam mo yun, parang, I’m not the guy who’d spin at a party, na parang “I have a set!” Parang, baka ma-judge ka pa? (laughs) I was really conscious of the power of how music factored into socialization.
I had a tita who played guitar. She was a Born Again Christian and she played it for church. She was the only person I knew who played guitar when I was in 6th grade. It was a really bad-sounding guitar, one of those really cheap ones that passed for church but didn’t pass for anything else—not for school, not for anything.
I was studying in Letran, and having practically no money for stuff other than my daily needs, I couldn’t really afford an instrument of [my own]. Yung go-to place namin dati yung Raon. Everything there, if I’m being kind, was a facsimile of a Gibson, Fender, etcetera. So everyone in my peer group got their first guitars at Raon.
I formed my first band in 2nd year high school and I was bandmates with this guy who taught me serious guitar. My tita taught me chords, but this guy taught me how to play parts, how to solo, how to do the basic scales, and from there, we first got the hang of arranging. I was also bandmates with a guy who was a nephew of Regine Velasquez, and he had hang-ups that he didn’t want to sing; he wanted to play drums. I think his dad would insist—‘cause they were really in that scene—I think they were building up the whole clan to be professional singers. And for a moment he also [co-]hosted this kiddie TV show. Ano nga ba ‘to…Chikiting Patrol! Alam mo yun? Pangalan niya Vincent Velasquez, tapos nung nakilala namin sya, dun kami unang naging seryoso. This guy had a complete band setup at home, so we didn’t have to spend on rehearsal studios (I guess he was richer than us, and his family was a musical family); we’d just go there every week. When I was in 2nd year, ‘til we graduated, I’d experiment with different bandmates; but I always gravitated toward these guys. Glenn Tongohan – the one guy played bass, he taught me guitar. And Vincent Velasquez – he was an awesome singer but he wanted to play drums. And he wanted me to sing (ewan ko kung naawa lang sya sa akin, but he wanted me to “shine,” I guess).
I’ve always maintained that I can just carry a tune: I’m more a default singer for my own material just because there is a built-in distrust of other singers. It’s not so much the skill but, in my mind, if I’d written something, I’d know the emotional truth behind it, that would equip me to execute it the best way possible. It could be that someone, like, say, Wayne Coyne sounds awful, but that’s his emotional truth, and only he can carry it. Or even…umm…Robert Smith didn’t used to be like that, but he developed that. I guess it resonated with him.
Pero sa UP talaga ako unang nagkaron ng malay na pwede siyang gawin – I mean being in a band, writing songs. You could do it not for anything: it was its own end. Kasi nung high school, ito yung ginagalawan ko: okay, there’s Vincent (I guess he can be as popular as his aunt, but he didn’t want to be). So parang ganun na yung naisip ko, I mean, this was high school.
Pero nung nag-UP na ako, being around people who just played because it was fun gave me this idea and encouraged me to just push through with it. Popularity issues be damned. I’d see it in the resolve of our peers from that time. A lot of them are still around: Stonefree, Slapshock, Bridge (of course Johnoy [has gone] solo now), and much, much later on, Twisted Halo (who were Ateneo guys, but they were the first ones who were outside our comfort zone). But then we became close, kasi yung comfort zone namin yung mga tibak types. Pero ang balanse nung sa Halo e, kasi may tibak side that you see in Vin, tapos mayroong record collector fetishist side in Jason Caballa, and so on and so forth.
Actually instrumental din yung meeting na yun with Halo eh. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who’d credit them for the encouragement to push through with writing music. I still remember the first time I met them personally, when by some stroke of luck (or bad luck) the Chickens got a regular gig playing Thursdays at Freedom Bar. I think Fatal Posporos shot a video one Thursday, and I think they wanted to unwind so they went to Freedom without checking who was playing. And it was only Manox, with no openers, and we weren’t openers for anyone big. And we’d play our originals, but there was pressure in being the only entertainment for the night. So to please people, we’d throw in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” at parang natuwa sila na nag-“Parklife” kami (I think Jason in particular liked it). I don’t remember if their band was complete, but I remember the waiter bringing beers over to our table, and I said “I didn’t ask for any beer,” but he pointed to this other table where Vin was, gesturing for me to come approach. And I was like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” I mean, should I be glad?
But I put my glad face on anyway and said, “Thanks for the drinks. You really didn’t need to, I mean we are the houseband. We have drinks.” (laughs) But he exuded this confidence, parang present-day Vin na siya kaagad—yung alam mong walang crescendo to confidence. It’s just there. He wasn’t mayabang, I mean he can churn out praise. He can carry himself.
So pakilala siya, “I like your band, I have a band too called Twisted Halo,” then one thing led to another, and they’d book us, we’d book them, etc. etc., and I guess it was through them that we met some of the more popular acts in the Ateneo circles – the Itchyworms guys, the Ciudad guys. Apart from fanboying on some of these people, if not all of them, what was also instrumental for me regarding those meetings was realizing that they too experienced the difficulties of putting out music. Because these were the beginnings of indie as we then knew it, pre-Web 2.0. That was a difficult existence for bands because you’d have to hard-sell your music through your site or your yahoogroups, and you’d do EBs (eyeballs) or whatever—HAHAHAHAHA! And some of these people were signed.
Around the same time, I started writing about music professionally. I was contributing editor for the defunct site LegManila, which was put up [I think] by my poetry teacher Issy Reyes and some of her other friends. Apart from doing the indie bar-scene rounds, I’d also get introduced to artists via this writing gig, which I haven’t stopped doing until now. And the system was unravelling as it is now, and in my mind I had a front and center seat witnessing the demise of, I guess, the label system.
I guess that’s why I mentioned that these meetings were instrumental—apart from my conversations with my interviewees. Because you see how many of these guys are dismayed with how business is being done—although I had no idea how exactly business was being done. I mean, were they unhappy with their fees? Were they unhappy with their cuts? But I realized this wasn’t about fees or cuts, it’s about music not being put out or marketed or seriously promoted the way it should. It was being promoted the way it’s always been promoted—the way Gary V. or Ogie Alcasid are promoted.
So when the time came for our turn, for us to put out our own CD, we didn’t plan it. There were just a handful of fans who were asking for recorded versions of the songs (pre-Here’s Plan B). We had this semi-popular song around some circles on campus, it was called “Lady-Light”; and people were asking if they could download it or they could buy it, and we were like, “No, but we can play it for you when we’re around?” So when the demand went up, I thought of a crowdfunding scheme, where we asked people who were asking us to record to just fund it before it was even out. And that business model wasn’t popular yet, but that’s how we did it. Mayo (Martin) and I both had jobs then, at least half of the band was still in school, so we didn’t want to spend on a rock record.
So taking cues from the people we’d meet – like the Twisted Halo guys – we’d just do as they did. I met Nella Sarabia because they said you could sell records at her shop. And I was pleasantly surprised that it was an optical shop selling indie records. Tapos nakita ko na kasama ko si Marcus Adoro, bumibili siya ng CDs. So it was just taking cues from people, because up to now I still don’t know what I’m doing.
At least in the circles we move in, I guess the live scene hasn’t changed much. It’s people coming in to see their friends, or bands they’ve always liked (or bands recommended to them by friends or by the bands they’ve always liked). Actually, that can get frustrating for people who aren’t like you or me; when I bring a guitar to work, they’d ask, “O, saan ka nakapwesto?” (meaning regular gigs). And I’d have to explain that we play productions. In a way, I’m afraid that we tend to be myopic about these things—us, the players and the audience members. And that could be a good thing, because if we’re too conscious about the bigger scheme of things…I mean this matters to us, so this matters to us, period. Pero pag may nakakilala sa atin sa mall, okay lang. But when I’m at Route (196) or at Saguijo, I’m that guy – I’m the “Dream Systems” guy (laughs). I’m that guy who goes apeshit on the guitar.
I used to be conflicted about it, how inward looking we are sometimes, but that’s how it starts. I mean that revolutions [have to] start somewhere (laughs). I hate to sound terribly ambitious, and I also don’t want you to think I’m kidding, but that’s how it is. I’ve been reading Allen Ginsberg’s journal (there are several, but this one’s called Early 50s-Early 60s), and I’m in the early part before the groundbreaking “Howl” reading, and he was convincing Kerouac, et al. not to worry, “These works are already published in Heaven.” It was dopesmoker talk, but some form of delusion is in order for you to push through and persist.
I’d rather be delusional than shy and not write. So I guess that way, I’ve resolved that conflict. I mean let them say, “Who the fuck are you guys?” I think you can say the same thing about other people (I’m not inciting fights or whatever), but some form of delusion is present: the mutual admiration and nurturing, which are necessary. Otherwise, we die. What we do is already dead in several definitions, but let’s work on this dictionary together.
You know how some restaurants don’t improve the way they look? Parang, ang sama ng sanitation, and some of them even have cockroaches, but there’s this one dish you keep coming back for? It’s not perfect, but you tell your friends about that one dish. That’s how I see the scene.
Recording is easier now that it’s gone digital. We’re not just talking about the format, I mean things in general are more compact. Now I can record on an app (I personally won’t record on an app–HAHAHA!). I mean, Japs Sergio’s record [Monologue Whispers] was really very good, but a lot of indoor musicians may fall into the trap of doing things the easy way—like, “Let’s not record this in a proper room because I can just record it on the computer.” I mean, I still believe in the old madness of some of the things. Like, I’d want my drums to sound like they were recorded in a proper room. Same with my voice. But at least the guitar, ang dali nang gawin sa bahay, you no longer have to count the hours, because you pay by the hour for that.
And of course, with the proliferation of material to get inspired by, there’s really no excuse to be lousy, because there’s a healthy sense of competition. Even for geniuses, geniuses have to be on their toes all the time. I always think back to that period where Brian Wilson was super competitive with The Beatles, and his answer to Rubber Soul was Pet Sounds—which of course was the best. I think two months after, The Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper, so the Beach Boys had to release something even more complex, I mean ang ganda. Ang ganda ng palitan. They weren’t drinking buddies and they weren’t backstabbing each other or anything, but they’d appreciate the merits of each other.
Now, web 2.0 is the answer to a lot of things, I mean not just for bands, for audiences as well. You just have to keep putting out material, because I think web 2.0 is a take it or leave it proposition. If you start getting annoyed by the appearance of certain artists in your feed, just hide them or unfollow them. It’s as if you’re curating an RSS feed of the things you like and things you want to read about on a daily basis, otherwise I won’t add or follow them. So it works both ways.
But some of the old values still stand. You still play shows. You still need to go on radio (as a guest) and by that, I also mean online radio. I think the key is to go out of your comfort zone. It’s good to be terrified by unfamiliar audiences. We once played a Party List show in the outskirts of Metro Manila. I mean, you can’t get any less familiar, walang may alam ng “Ars Terror” doon (laughs). It was a community that wasn’t aware of indie or Pinoytuner. As with other art forms, I think you have to be open to the unfamiliar. With the shows you book, you have to risk the dead faces and the dead air, because there is a chance that you could change at least one kid. Maybe one kid would like the chorus at the very least, or would like your guitar playing or your antics at least.
Scenes are okay, but the danger is the monotony. And it’s not wise to keep playing to the same 200 people, 365 days a year; let’s say you play twice weekly to a hundred (the hundred at Route 196 or the hundred at Saguijo)—I mean, I’d be happier just playing at these places than in unfamiliar territory: I’m just saying it would be wise to play in an unknown place, stretch out a bit. But with that being said, I guess I’m pressuring myself to act on it, at least when I get back to gigging.
I don’t think press and publicity pose a problem because I know people, but it’s the same for other kids as well. Other kids tend to know these people too – I mean Jason Caballa’s a PM away; I mean it’s okay, so you can try, you can get rejected. I’ve been getting unsolicited demos for a good decade now. I’m not Francis Reyes or anything, pero nakakatuwa rin kasi a revival of the thinking press has occurred. It used to be just the Jingle people for their era, then I guess it was the Pulp people. But kids would always get access to, say, the fluff pieces of record labels. But it’s great that kids can follow writers they like. They can follow Jason, or they can follow you or Owel who also started writing. Even that is magical to me, kasi di naman ako magpapadala ng demo kay Eric Caruncho dati, anong gagawin ko? Call the Inquirer and ask for Eric Caruncho’s address?
I like the sensibility of the alternative press, and kids are now more discerning. They can identify the fluff pieces of the record labels—even my fluff pieces, alam na nila yun (laughs) when I’m doing someone a favour or I’m doing press for events. Pero pag opinion, opinion talaga yun. So it’s easier, it’s hard sell, and it doesn’t cost anything but your internet connection, basically.
My wife and I were talking about how she would rather not be friends with the artists she admires most. She told me she doesn’t want to know how my afternoon went with a friend of mine who happens to be seen as an icon, like “Don’t tell me anymore if he was an asshole at the restaurant.”
Pero maganda rin yung accessibility nila. I guess because information is evidence. Now, the information you access is not left in the hands of a few, it’s not just in print or on the radio. I mean, you can still consume those, but you get to have your own opinion of your idols—online, at least. The other potential problem though is that we may reach a saturation point. It’s not a problem per se, but there would be no icons as such, because we all get a stab at it.
I think some distance is in order though, but not everyone seems to want to keep that distance—at least not right now. I guess so be it. The other problem with kids following their idols on Twitter is that their idols exist as private individuals as well, so they could be setting themselves up for disappointment. Parang ‘yung sinabi sa Almost Famous, about how “It sounds great. But [these people] are not your friends.” And I think you have to maintain that attitude despite the comfortable distance (or lack of distance) between us and them.
I see prospects in terms of work—not so much the reach or the popularity, but I’m glad things are the way they are, because in this atmosphere I can still play without worrying about losing money or not having friends (laughs) or not having listeners. It is, in a sense, its own end – which was true in the past, but it was a more painful truth in the past. I mean, in the past, creation was (and still is) its own end—but you shelled out this much (laughs). It matters. A lot of people think it doesn’t, but it does. You do spend on recording, you do spend on gasoline driving to shows; but at least now you know the game better, so you cut your losses.
So I’m glad technology is the way it is, and the web is the way it is; that media, though not perfect, is the way it is now, because then I’m welcome to create music.
Recorded in Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila. Duration: 64 mins.
Thank you to Gabe Narguiat for the awesome illustration!