If you've been keeping track of the Singaporean music scene's refined exports of pure rock 'n' roll, it's fair to say that for four years you've been waiting for Cheating Sons to release something – anything!
With the strengths of their fiercely confident debut album Masters, Wives, Daughter, who could blame you? After all, it displayed none of the insecurities or shortcomings one expects of a band's first album.
It generously picked from the largely American musical traditions of country with rock and roots — echoing the sounds of Singapore's 60's and 70's musical heyday, peppered with local anxieties and scenarios for lyrical colour ('Ah Long On The Run', anyone?) and topped everything off with an iconic and intriguing album cover.
All the above could also be said of Cheating Sons' self-titled sophomore album that dropped in early May. But this is not stasis.
Rather, it is the sign of a band digging deep into what makes them truly unique, staunchly carving out a musical niche to thrive in, a niche often labelled – and sometimes dismissed – as "vintage." Sounds that Cheating Sons deal with aren't exactly extinct or under-appreciated, they just lack the necessary factors that could get it ahead of other genres like psychedelic rock or synth-pop in a modern wave of "retro-appreciation".
Step into the US, however, and you'll find kindred spirits in bands like My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes consistently selling out shows and records across the country.
Maybe it sounds dated. Maybe lap steels are no longer fashionable. Maybe the time of rock 'n' roll and guitar music is over and we ought to start paying attention to the young 'uns with their fancy synthesizers and effects pedals. Cheating Sons' answer to that is to gracefully and blissfully ignore you in favour of producing a labor of love that, halfway through 2015, is already a strong contender for local album of the year. Strap in for our comprehensive conversation with the Sons about their home-made studio, their creative process and lyrical influences.
You took four years to record this album, and according to an article in The Business Times, you kept it quiet. Why the secrecy, and why did it take as long as it did?
There wasn’t much secrecy, actually. Contrary to that, we had actually told the press in 2012 when we kicked off production that the record would be out sometime that year! That’s what we planned and budgeted for. Safe to say plans and budgets went out the window.
As we got further into making the record, we started to really pull away from everything. We didn’t want to play gigs, or talk about the record outside of the studio. It was six guys in a mine, too obsessed with the copper to realise how much deeper we were digging. And frankly, that’s not healthy for the brand of the band. But there’s nothing we enjoy more than creating music. Even more than performing it. And we just lost track of everything. Except the record.
So tell us a little bit of how Cheating Sons was recorded.
We started the process of making the record in the last month of 2011.
We had signed on Los Angeles producer Manny Nieto for the project. He’s worked on stuff by The Breeders at Abbey Road studios and his studio in LA (Estudio International) has been used to track Grammy nominated records such as Los Lobos’ Tin Can Trust in recent times. He came out of the blue, travelling through Asia discovering new bands.
We got on very well because he knew what we wanted and we knew what he was looking for. It takes an idealistic man to give up everything back home to search for new exciting art on the other side of the world. It also takes an idealistic band to give up everything back home to work on a piece of art and soak up all the knowledge and experience this man had brought to the table. He knew his shit — way more than us.
We spent many moonlight nights talking about how Fleetwood Mac recorded their drums, why Ram by Paul McCartney was so experimental, all those weird Nick Cave albums. He’s been through it all as a producer in LA.
With Manny, we built our studio in a basement and started pre-production. That took us through to maybe toward the end of 2012. Building a studio is one of the fondest memories we have from this record. Our beloved echo chamber (toilet with granite tiles), our electric amplification booth (bomb shelter) and trumpet spots (hard structural wall) were all discovered, wired and marked. We made a record the way many of our beloved musicians did – in a house, in a basement, in a room. We made everything in the space work for us.
We recorded on and off for a year all the way till end of 1Q 2013. Manny would fly in for a month or two, fly out for a month or so and fly back in. With the studio accessible 24/7, it meant that the band had a constant stream of ideas that we wanted to record and mix in. Again, we faced another problem of knowing when to stop. We had no such knowledge and we only stopped when the final flight was booked. It was hard to take.
Mixing and re-mixing in LA took us through to 2014 and we mastered the record twice in late 2014, the latter master with Dave Cooley being everything we could have hoped for.
And here we are!
The official music video for 'Honeymoon', which serves as the second last track on the self-titled album.
What's the band's creative process like in the studio, and has it changed since the Masters, Wives, Daughter days?
Our creative process in terms of the songwriting starts off the same. It’s always with a spine and working on the drums. Then everyone takes it home and sleeps on it and we reconvene and start building bricks.
The creative process changed for this record with pre-production and with the alternative views and challenges brought by Manny during the recording process. He induced a lot of creative tension and challenged us to think, rethink and react. Also, he never said never. Everything we wanted to try was encouraged and some of the best parts of the record are there because he took the lead. Tracking backward guitars on ‘Patriarch’ through a tape machine, rethinking the tempo of ‘Carry Me Down’ and coaxing us to come up with new arrangements. Even if, at the end, the alternatives were rejected, we knew at least that the original part suited the song best.
Of course, we also wrote horns and strings for this record, so writing those parts and weaving them into the songs for the songs was enormously gratifying and pushed our creative boundaries. We don’t have string and horn sections on the songs just for the sake of it. We recorded many parts in almost all sections on all the songs but only kept those that worked for the song. That’s a principle that runs through our blood – we don’t show off; less is more; every arrangement must be for the song.
When you hear a singer going through his entire vocal range in one song, sure it sounds like he has the chops, but it’s most likely never going to suit the song. Mike Campbell from The Heartbreakers (i.e. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) is a prime example of playing for the song. He doesn’t play one note more on his guitar if it’s not necessary.
Designed by Andy Yang, the artwork for Cheating Sons particularly bears some resemblance to the album art of the 1971 Miles Davis album, Live-Evil.
What's the story behind the enigmatic album art?
The main themes in the record revolve around spirituality, divinity, mortality and redemption, to name a few. Some of these themes are personified in many of the songs. Mercy, for example is the good – the angel, the protagonist, whatever you want to call her. Willow is the devil, the queen of trickery, the jester. They are different sides of the same coin and they are both personified as females in the record. The album art, both front and back, are reflections of that.
We had spent months conceptualizing the artwork with Andy (i.e. Andy Yang who is a member of the band and a painter by trade). He worked on sketches and concepts and we had one night convened at his studio to run through the sketches. We ended up getting drunk, and his records started playing. As we would often do at his studio, we would admire his new paintings (and our stable of favourites) and talk to him about it. Just then we stood in front of one of our favourite oil-on-canvases - it was of a black lady with amber fiery hair sitting on a reflection. And we instantly realized what we were looking for was there all along.
Your lyrics weave wordy and complex stories. The songs across your album feature recurring characters. How did you develop this style of songwriting?
(Frontman and guitarist) Renyi: I think my lyrical style is very often narrative which naturally involve characters, even if oftentimes these characters (including the narrator) are not named. I hate lyrics that are there just for the sake of it. The vocal melody and lyrical rhythm is crucial to serving the song, but the lyrical content can’t be indifferent. I could use a Bob Dylan song as an illustration of phenomenal lyrical content and inspiration – ‘Open The Door, Homer’ off The Basement Tapes is one of my favourite tracks off that record.
Throughout the song, the listener is introduced to characters with everyday names recounted by the narrator. He’d learnt from Jim how to live off the fat of the land; from Mouse that one must always flush out his house if he don’t expect to be housing flushes. Nick had told him to take care of his memories for you cannot relive them. At the centre of it is his call “Open the door, Richard, I’ve heard it said before”.
Who’s the narrator? Is it Richard? Who are the characters? Do the insights make sense? Well you should listen to it over and over till you connect with them. Brilliant.
You had an amazing song you played live back in 2011 and 2012 called 'Pale Rider'. It was one of the most badass songs I've ever heard put out by a Singaporean rock band. It wasn't on Masters, Wives, Daughter, and it's not on your new album. What's become of it?
We’re stoked you remember 'Pale Rider'! We had actually recorded the song for this record, but it did not make the cut because it did not suit the flow and style of the record. It’s a great song to play live though because it is so percussive and we have also incorporated a different version of it into our recent sets. The recording will definitely see the light of day in the future. We’re just not sure when.
You use a lot of instruments and amps from the 60's through the 80's. How is it like to acquire and maintain such vintage gear? Is it difficult?
Vintage gear contains vintage problems. There’s no other way about it. We acquire it on ebay or from the odd local fellow clearing his gear. Then we send it to our amazing Tech – Goose (of Goosoniquieworx) – who gets it ready for recording. We then take it out for gigs and get chided by him for using vintage gear for performances (and many times, something will happen or blow), but we still do it anyway. It’s become a part of our identity, especially Don’s.
Much has been made of your influences and your very specific, vintage sound. Are there any modern music genres you enjoy that may surprise listeners?
For sure! It just depends on the context. If we go to a karaoke bar we’re going to be singing the latest hits from dusk till dawn. Pharrell, John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Aviicii, you name it man, we’re singing it.
Top 5 Influential Albums
London Calling | The Clash
Renyi: Joe Strummer and Mick Jones would very often share vocal duties and the contrast of their singing style just made the songs so interesting. Topper Headon’s drumming was sensational and Paul Simonon – apart from the iconic cover shot, recorded his first song in Guns of Brixton for the band and you can imagine how big an influence that song and its bassline would have had on hip-hop.
To reach such a level of musicianship is my goal. To write, arrange and record a body of work akin to London Calling in depth and quality is what I strive to achieve as a songwriter and musician. Rudie Can’t Fail is close to my heart. The chorus acclamation of “I went to the market to realise my soul, ‘cause what I need I just don’t have / First they curse, then they press me till I hurt, Rudie Can’t Fail” always gives me perspective. And the Band’s name is partly inspired by The Card Cheat. I wanted the word ‘Cheat’ in our name as a silent nod to this great band.
Physical Graffiti | Led Zeppelin
Chez: It’s an all-encompassing, definitive album by Led Zep, covering every facet of the band in a single album, and despite the extended years of recording, they managed to keep it all together and create a masterpiece.
Running On Empty | Jackson Browne
Don: I first heard it when I was 14, the music just moved me, every song, every detail in the recording, which was recorded live on stage, in a hotel room, on a bus, moved me. Jackson’s voice, David Lindley’s lap steel, the rest of the band were on more than a cocaine high when they performed each of the 10 tracks.
The lyrics about life on the road captivated me as a boy and made me want to go on tour with them, be their roadie. It was sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll artistically rolled into that one album without being a typical rock album with loud guitars and drums. This album directed my taste and direction in music.
Wish You Were Here | Pink Floyd
Andy Yang: I think I was about 15 years old when I first heard it. Hated it at first because I was into heavy metal at that point in time. But after a while, when I decided to give it another shot, I got hooked. Blown away by the Hipgnosis-designed album cover art that was so far our an idea at that time.
Then came the atmospheric soundtrack that was created to match the clever lyrics of Roger Waters. They were totally in their own world. One of the albums to play at my funeral.
Everything | ABBA
Andy Liew: It’s hard to pick a single record. The music of Jim Reeves, Cliff Richard, Abba, Elvis, Don McLean, Neil Diamond, has been blasting in my house since I was a baby. But I’ll go with Abba based on what it does to me. Every time I listen to an Abba song, I feel like ripping out my intestines and using it as a guitar, or blowing into it like the saxophone solo on Voulez-Vous, or smashing it on my drum set till the song ends. Then repeat.
Satchmi and Bandwagon have teamed up to bring some of the best music in the region to Philippine shores - first up, Singapore's Cheating Sons.
The self-titled sophomore record is now available at Satchmi.