The Haunted Troubadour? The Hungry Ghost? MARK WONG takes a walk on the dark side to meet up with the artiste sometimes known as Blake Chen.
In an email dated Dec 3, 2001, Blake Chen sent out a short message to those on his mailing-list: "The Haunted Troubadour is no more... From this day forth, call me... THE HUNGRY GHOST.
"In Tibetan Buddhism, a 'hungry ghost' refers to someone with an insatiable yearning for information, stimulation and experience; a person who is always searching without rest.
"The term 'hungry ghost' also has its roots in Chinese legend..."
The Hungry Ghost is also the name of Blake Chen's new album, his third, a bizarre electro-goth concoction of disembodied voices, '80s new wave ambience, '90s cut-n-paste electronica and a dervish of traditional Chinese instruments all recorded during the seventh-month festival. Visited occasionally by the apparitions of Dylan, Reed, Almond and Gore, Singapore's emigrant son is mixing up a wicked brew in Detroit.
Why did you change your name from the "Haunted Troubadour" to the "Hungry Ghost?"
Actually, I've always had two different stage personas. The Haunted Troubadour is the drifter in a cowboy hat who wanders, observes, and learns, but never takes an active part in what he sees. The Hungry Ghost wears a hood and black cape. He's a much more aggressive persona, angrier, more mischievous, and much more willing to influence and shape his destiny and that of others he comes across. So it wasn't a name change as more of a shift in focus. I'd been having a recurring dream, one I interpreted as a wake-up call. I knew it was time to take charge of my own destiny. To focus attention on The Hungry Ghost side of me.
You've been recording and releasing CDs on the net. How "successful" has this been?
Like most independent artists, the majority of my CD sales are at shows. I'm still waiting for this net revolution that's supposed to take place, where artists can sit comfortably at home, live off their web sites, and say **** you to the major labels!
How do you define "success" for yourself?
At this point, I'm not sure. I think I'll know when I feel I've achieved everything I'm capable of achieving. Right now, I don't feel like I've reached that point at all. I don't feel satisfied, artistically or otherwise. I'm hungry and ambitious. For awhile this was an uncomfortable feeling, but now I embrace it, because it means I have something to strive for. When you have no goal in life, when you're not excited about its possibilities, there's only emptiness.
The copy of your new CD I received is titled "The Haunted Troubadour," but it seems the one on your website is "The Hungry Ghost." I've also found that you had two different covers for your previous album, Shadow. What's going on?
That comes from that feeling I was talking about. I'm never satisfied with something I've put together, so I always tinker and make changes. I believe an album title and cover should represent the songs. So I've made changes in an effort to best represent them. If you think this is confusing, I can give you a dozen potential album titles and covers I've come up with that I haven't made public! But as of now, the official title is "The Hungry Ghost." The CD you received was a pre-release copy.
It was after studying in Anglo-Chinese Junior College that you went to the US for further studies, but how did you end up making music (for a living too!) there?
Actually, it was after national service that I went to study in the US. When I was in the army, I longed to pick up a musical instrument and a friend persuaded me to get an electric guitar. I did, but soon found that I preferred the sound of an acoustic a lot more. At that time, I was getting into singer/songwriters like Dylan and Leonard Cohen. So when I was in college I started experimenting with writing, singing, and playing the guitar. By the time I finished college I had enough songs to put an album together, so I decided to do it. But after finishing the recordings I had no idea what to do with them. I was very ignorant about the business side of music, and I figured the only thing I could do was send tapes out and hope to get discovered by some label. The problem was that most labels don't listen to unsolicited submissions, and I had no contacts to get me through the door. Then I picked up several books which explained the process of releasing an independent record, and I realised that I didn't have to wait around, I could go ahead and form my own label and release the album myself. I was inspired by artists like Ani DiFranco who released their own records. That whole DIY mentality.
In an interview with Paul Zach in 1998 you said that, "Actually if I were to make a career decision I would probably choose to stay here (in Singapore), because music and economic scene here is a little bit bleak, I hear music and economics. I thrive on that... I like the challenge. It's kind of exciting that we don't really have a musical tradition. If I were here I would try my best to start one, to get something going." So why did you choose to base yourself in the US as opposed to Singapore?
Did I really say that? Err... I dunno, probably because after a while I realised that in Singapore, there are limited opportunities for an act to expand. I'm talking about the business side of things. Over here in the US, if you're a popular indie artist and you've sold 2,000 CDs in your hometown, you can start playing in neighbouring cities. Eventually, when you've established yourself in those cities, and sold about 10,000 records on your own, that's when the big labels start knocking on your door. Because, like in any business, you've built a regional base and you're ready to expand and go national. In Singapore, national and local mean the same thing. I did some research when I started out. I talked to people who've been there and done it, like Lenny Garcia, Leonard Soosay, Roy Ong, the folks at BigO. And what I found was that Singaporeans, in fact, support local music as much as anywhere else. The Singapore audience has been unjustly maligned because there have been many bands, from AWOL to The Boredphucks, who have succeeded in selling 1,000-plus records locally, usually with their very first release. That's a great way to start, the same way Korn and Kid Rock got started in their hometowns, before expanding to surrounding US cities. However, in the case of Singapore acts, where do you go? Many have attempted to expand to countries like Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, etc., but there's a lot more red tape involved when you're promoting an act to a foreign country. Will you be able to get visas so you can tour? And then there's piracy, as well as the language barrier. I believe, though, that nothing is impossible if you want it bad enough, and the Singapore act that cracks this problem will go on to worldwide fame.
You've been in the US since 1992. Ten years is a long time, do you see yourself returning to do anything in Singapore in the near future?
It's too damn hot in Singapore to wear black, that's the problem! But seriously, I expect to do some shows there in the near future. It's just a matter of getting things organised. I would like to get to a stage where I can return maybe once a year to perform.
As a Singaporean, even if you are operating from the US, do you feel any affinity with other Singaporean bands?
There was a time when I was checking out a lot of Singapore music from here, thanks to sites like mp3.com and Audioload. I've slackened a bit, I have to admit. I feel somewhat out of touch right now.
What drives you to keep making music?
Again, it's the hunger, the need to better what I've done in the past.
Do you feel the urge to get a "proper" (nine-to-five) job?
God... no! I'd be useless at it.
Any pressure from, say, your parents?
No, they have been supportive. I come from a family of risk-takers, and they understand that in life, you reap what you sow.
You used to be into comics. Any comics projects in the works?
I plan to use the songs from the new album as a springboard for a comic series. Most of the songs were inspired by comics anyway. Scary Town is a glimpse into an apocalyptic future where mutants run amok. In Walk On Fire, an ordinary human has an intimate encounter with an omniscient being. Lady Twilight is about a woman who goes through a strange transformation. The comic will expand on these situations and give names to the characters.
There is a gothic aspect to your image/works. How did this come about?
Like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by darkness. For me, though, it's a particular kind of darkness. I'm not into movies with a lot of gore and gratuitous violence, for example. I'm not into in-your-face, gross-out horror. One of my favorite movies is The Sixth Sense, for the way it approached scary themes in a very subtle, intimate way. I loved Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, for the way he melded themes of longing and romance into standard horror plots. I wanted to evoke that same feeling in my music. One thing I decided with the new album was to avoid using distorted guitars, because I feel they kind of grab you by the throat, which is not what I was going for. There's a groove to the music, but it's more of a downtempo, melancholic groove.
What about the changes in themes and directions of your new album?
I had more freedom working on this album than any other, because this one was completely homemade, from the writing to the recording and production. I recorded and mixed it in my basement, and it was a wonderful experience, because I got to feel what a painter working in his home studio must feel like. I had all the time in the world to try and fail and try again, until I had the mood and picture I wanted. Now, anyone who's ever recorded in a professional studio knows that the process is nothing like what I just described. You have very limited time, and there's always pressure to get things done. But thanks to computer technology, I didn't need to go to a studio.
How long did you take to write/record everything?
It took me about a year to get everything down from the idea stage. But some of the songs have been lying around for years in the form of lyrics scribbled in my notebook or melodies which I'd thought of but never used. What's different about this album was that I didn't go to a recording studio and crank out the songs in a week, or whatever time I would've been able to afford to book the studio for. Over a year ago I was doing gigs with a band I'd put together and feeling frustrated as I didn't feel my vision fit in with the other people in the band. They were more into heavy rock and I wanted a different sound. It wasn't long before the whole thing fell apart and my guitarist, just before he quit, introduced me to looping software like Cakewalk and Acid, and I started playing around with samples and synth sounds. Soon I had found a way of combining acoustic guitar and vocals with ethereal ambient grooves, and I started coming up with stuff which I thought sounded cool, so I went with it and, before long, I had rough mixes of about 20 songs. I picked the best ones and fine-tuned them for this album. The result was an album which completely fitted my vision, which was as dark and as intimate as I wanted it to be, with no compromises.
What has been the response?
Slow, but then the album hasn't been officially released yet. I feel stupid saying it's been released when it's not in any record store and there's been little airplay or publicity. You guys are among the first who've heard anything about it, which shows how cool you are, and this is the first interview I'm doing about the album, which shows how much I love BigO. There... have I sucked up enough to get on the front cover? Hehe
What are some of the instruments you use on the album? Tell me more about those traditional (very Cantonese!) Chinese instruments!
Well, the album is mostly a combination of vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards, drum loops and FX. As for the traditional instruments, those parts were sampled, so I don't know the names of the instruments. I could pretend to be clever and claim I knew what the hell I was doing there but I really didn't! Somehow it came together. Spooky, eh? Hehe... I wanted to evoke the feel of music played during Hungry Ghost festivals to keep lost souls from causing trouble. I thought the sound fitted in with the lyrical themes of the songs.
What were you listening to as you were writing/recording the new album?
Leonard Cohen's The Future and Various Positions. Great albums, very dark in tone. Some trip-hop. Film and TV music as well. Angelo Badalamenti, Mark Snow, Jan Hammer.
Since Shadow, you've always been interested in adding elements of electronic music into your songs. Recently, you were featured on d[electronic]t, a compilation of electronica artistes from Detroit. Your track, On The Stroke Of Midnight, stands out in that it sounds as if it started out as a "normal," folk song with lyrics on acoustic guitar but where you slowly added more electronic sounds, as opposed to other artistes with a more beat-heavy, dance-trance-oriented flavour and little/no lyrics.
That came from my background and influences. Having grown up reading comics, I tend to favour a literate approach to songwriting, and I work on my lyrics probably more than most artists. That's why I got into folk music, for its literacy. However, I wasn't happy just listening to folk because a lot of folk music deals with real life, and I'm more into fantasy. That's why I started experimenting with ambient and electronic sounds.
How has Sept 11 affected, you, Blake Chen, the Immigrant?
I don't think it's had a dramatic effect on me. This may sound cold, but I've just gotten on with my life, really, because that's the best way to fight terrorism.
There's always been a religious/spiritual element to your work. There's a song called Heaven Is A Dark Place on your new album, and Haunted is a serenade to Jesus. What are your own religious/spiritual convictions?
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Hungry Ghost's self-titled CD.
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