Snakeweed Record’s first official signing and CD release, Return To Fall’s A Sense Of The Bitter, A Taste Of The Sweet, already promises to be the champion of the local emocore scene. Featuring the line-up of Christian Von Essen (vocals), Amran Khamis (guitars), Norsham Husaini (guitars), Cowan Thant Zin (bass) and Saiful Bakthiar (drums), the sheer quality of their debut CD bodes well for the future of the independent music scene. Interview by EDDINO ABDUL HADI.

The recording sounds fantastic. How many hours did you guys spend in the studio? Tell us a bit about the recording process.

Amran Khamis: It’s safe to say that you can only get a good-sounding record when you spend some solid time in the studio. We probably clocked in up to 300 hours the whole time we were working on the album. A lot of time was spent on getting the right sounds for recording and at the later mixing and re-mixing stages. Some tracks were easier to lay down in the studio, and some were just plain difficult. We recorded All I Do Is Leaving four different times before actually settling for one! But I think we all wanted to get the right mood and feel for each and every track, so that’s why we put in the extra effort. There was definitely a lot of hard work going on there. At the same time, recording at Snakeweed Studios and having Leonard Soosay as producer meant that we were working with people whom we could trust our sound with, and who were also our friends at the same time. It was definitely a healthy creative relationship, and I think you can hear that on the album. Though on hindsight, I do wish that we could have done some things differently, but that’s just the perfectionist in me talking.

Christian Von Essen: I think we had a great time overall. Relaxed atmosphere, almost no negative tension, few quarrels — I think we sort of agreed about most things, although it was quite annoying doing All I Do Is Leaving for the fourth time. I also had to redo vocals for Tears In January a thousand times, which was frustrating. But after all is done, maybe we should have redone more things anyway…

 

You described your music as "a melodious blast of human emotion, akin to the coupling of man and woman." Is the eroticism part intentional? Amran, that was a pretty big theme with Stroll.

Christian: Those are Amran’s words, and I guess they rather stem from a lack of eroticism.

Amran: (laughs) But what I meant was that the music was the product of a labour of love, just like that aforementioned blast of human emotion. There’s music in the act of eroticism and eroticism in the act of music as well. And with the band being like a love affair for all of us, I was just linking them all up. So yes, the eroticism was intentional, and it was just a more poetic way of describing the music. Although I do admit that these are my own words, and may not necessarily hold true for everyone in the band.

Amran, whatever happened to Stroll anyway? Is RTF the evolution of Stroll that never came to be?

Amran: I do believe that the band is still around although they’ve gone through further personnel changes since Faizal and myself left in 1999. We left because we felt that our relationship with the other two members had deteriorated to the point where it was pointless to continue making music with people who were no longer our friends. I don’t know what their objective and creative direction is now, so it’s best for me not to comment on their future. At the same time, I don’t think that Return To Fall is the evolution of my former band, simply because it is a wholly different unit altogether, with four members who have got nothing to do at all with Stroll. Yes, my playing style and songwriting has evolved from those days, and in writing the music, some of the songs’ structure and length were in fact a reaction to the simple short-fast-loud songs that Stroll used to play. But other than that, there’s no other conscious connection that I can think of.

Christian: I think we have virtually nothing in common with Stroll, apart from Amran’s involvement.

Emo music has been accused of being self-absorbed, whiny, ego pandering and catering exclusively to the middle class…

Christian: Well it sounds like a thoughtful, yet bitter description… I also think emo music often can get very whiny in a tiresome way. You write lyrics about heartache just because you’re expected to. For me, I write what comes into mind, be it relationships, politics or my own psychoanalysis. I think of us as a rock band, and not an emo band. Although I sometimes still use the term "emotional hardcore" to people because I think it is quite fitting, I also see the narrow-mindedness of genres, which I personally despise in all its innocence.

Amran: I agree, and at the same time I think that most types of modern music have at one time or another been accused of such, or at least in part. So there’s no getting away from that argument no matter what you play.

It seems that everyone’s wearing their hearts on their sleeves nowadays. What do you think is the emo appeal? Catharsis?

Amran: I think it’s part empathy, part catharsis in fact. You want to empathise with someone’s feelings and vice versa, and also purge those feelings away at the same time. Doesn’t necessarily mean that it works for everyone of course. On a personal level, I have had the most emotionally tumultuous year of my life so far, and going through recording and see it all come together in the end has been sort of cathartic for me, so there you go.

Christian: It’s for people who would like to play punk rock, but they’re not political, and they can’t really play grunge, because it's "dead." Emo is the perfect solution. It’s probably also a reaction against the earlier macho sXe scene, and many of the people involved are the same.

You have been accused of marrying sensitive lyrics to testosterone-laden metal riffs. How do you plead?

Christian: Guilty as charged. I enjoy the mixture of hardcore and indiepop, and if used the right way, like I think we often do on our album, the results can be exciting, instead of sounding like everyone else. I don’t really like the growing nu-metal scene.

 

Will balls-to-the-walls, non-PC and pure unadulterated rock 'n' roll ever make a comeback? Slipknot don't count.

Christian: Well isn’t back? Just take a look at Sweden and the Scandinavian rock scene, with bands like Hellacopters, Backyard Babies, Nomads, Gluecifer, Trapdoor ****ing Exit, The Flare-Up, Turbonegro, etc. It’s been big over here in Scandinavia for years, much I think due to a reaction to whiny grunge and indie. Slipknot don't count. Why would they?

Amran: Pure rock 'n' roll will always be around. It’s the basic denomination of life, the finale in the holy trinity. It will always be brimming under the surface as music movements come and go.

The local press likes to focus on educational qualifications, even for articles of rock bands. The Life! feature on you guys, for example, reads like a resume and I remember reading an article in a local paper about The Offspring which emphasised heavily on the singer’s PhD. Ditto for the dudes from Bad Religion. What do you think makes it newsworthy — that rockers go to school or just a local obsession with the paper chase?

Amran: I think the majority of the people here in Singapore view the pursuit of music and artistic expression as being distractions from an academic lifestyle, so they’re bound to highlight the exceptions. At the same time, I’m of the opinion that the appreciation of music and art can sometimes teach you about life a whole lot more. Whatever it is, I do wish that the local press would talk more about the music, rather than the people behind the music at times.

Christian: It’s not strange in any way that an article tells things about the band members. I don’t see anything wrong in saying something about our past or present. The fact that we are educated does not say anything about our music. It might show that we are thinking human beings with ambitions not only within a potential music career.

If there’s one local CD that can breach the overseas market (and we’re not talking about Taiwan here), A Sense Of The Bitter, A Taste Of The Sweet has massive potential. Any concrete plans yet?

Christian: I see the potential, and we will do our best to spread the CD to the right people across the world. I think it’s a qualitative and competitive product, and with this "slick" recording, anything can happen.

Amran: It’s clear to everyone that the viable target audience is not local. So the objective would be to try for overseas distribution deals for the album. We’ll put in the hard work to get the music out to as many people as possible overseas, be it as promos or as sales, but success ultimately depends on the luck factor. Luck may or may not lend us a hand, but that’s not going to stop us here. We’re still going to make and put out music on our own terms.

If you were in Tanya Chua’s shoes, how would you approach the offer to write a National Day song?

Christian: Would try out some ideas for it, but in our own way. No adjustments or editing. We would probably emphasise the kind of nationalism and unity that we see COULD exist in Singapore, rather than pretending it’s all there.

Amran: Haha, I’d probably think the whole thing is a joke. I’m definitely not interested, and I don’t have any desire to taint my artistic integrity and ideals by working on some nationalistic propaganda. Not my kind of thing definitely.

Christian, what’s your take on the local music scene?

Christian: It’s getting better, but it still needs improvements. It sort of represents the small size of the island. Therefore the quality control is suffering. The big bands here often are like any small town act from the US, or for that matter — Sweden. The fact that no bands comes to play in Singapore makes it difficult to compare and get new inspiration. That’s why I truly welcome the kind of collaborations we have had with the Hongkong bands. If you saw the September Sub-C gig, you would have noticed that the energy level was way higher than it usually is. The bands were really giving 100 per cent, often triggered by the foreign presence. We need to play for new people, see new people play, get new influences. We should use Malaysia to a much greater extent. Singaporeans tend to lock themselves up in their city, because it’s too cozy and safe there, but by looking abroad, you start to see things that could be done with yourself.

Will you be staying in Singapore permanently? What happens to the band if you leave the country?

Christian: Well, actually I have already left the country, as I am writing this from Sweden. I’m taking some punk rock jobs right now, to get enough cash to come down and play in Asia soon again. But as far as our album goes, I can do a lot of promotion from here, using my contacts in the region. Of course, we will never split up the band, we will rather try out a long-distance relationship for now. But we will never let that split us apart.

Note: The above interview was published in BigO #194 (February 2002).
Click here to order a copy of the issue (S$4.80). Overseas readers can email
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