If you've been present at many recent local music gigs, there's no way you wouldn't have stumbled upon TAJ. Made up of Tim de Cotta (bass), Audrey Tengkey (keyboards) and Teo Jia Rong (drums), the trio have been relentless in getting their name out there — even if it meant organizing a show themselves.
In conjunction with Lepark, TAJ christened their first event Getai Electronica and it was a resounding success, hosting close to 1000 people in attendance. With an excellent lineup and a killer location to boot (a delightfully spacious rooftop in Chinatown), the event was especially impressive for something that was conceived and executed within a week. The astounding effort that went behind Getai Electronica is a perfect example of TAJ's endless pursuit to grow and nurture an appreciation for Singapore-made music. They're just as passionate about the music around them as much as their own — and this is only just the beginning.
With the launch concert of their debut EP The Astral Journey coming up, we asked them about the post-release reception towards the EP (it's very good, by the way), their songwriting process along with some fascinating insight into setting up Getai Electronica.
TAJ PRESENTS: THE ASTRAL JOURNEY EP LAUNCH
What have you three been up to these days?
Up to our necks in work in all the music stuff we are doing. We’ve been up everything we could be up to while we find more things to get up to. Haha.
We are tirelessly promoting The Astral Journey EP and at the same time trying to do big things in the scene while bringing people into our music and the music of our contemporaries.
So promotion-wise, how are you guys doing in that area?
The EP is gaining ground locally and we're slowly infiltrating little parts of Bandung, Jakarta, Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur even with just a local-focused push so far, so that’s heartening. We released the EP online with our family label Darker Than Wax (shout outs to all y’all!) on 30th January and ever since our online the EP has even spread to London, Seattle, Holland and New Zealand — albeit in small ways. However, we are still looking closer to home to gain traction because that’s most practical for us now. And of course needless to say our hearts and souls are rooted in this part of the world.
We also managed to get the much-obliged backing of the National Arts Council towards the recording and the physical launch of the EP on 25th March, so that puts a spring in our step while we make things happen for ourselves — more and more, day by day. IF YOU HAVEN’T GOTTEN THE EP, GO GET IT! We promise you will not regret it.
At the same time we’re planning our next 2 to 3 moves while we continue to write new music and try new things!
"...we draw our approaches from all we have listened to. We gravitate to groove and funk and hip-hop so this is where we start writing from."
How did the group settle on the name TAJ?
It’s based on the lame story of how we named the band after the initials of our names. The initials which spelt TAJ and also inspired some Grand Maharaja-esque imagery that tripped us out! We are ethnically Asian (duh) and the Taj Mahal being one of the wonders in our part of the world, it helped us confidently settle on this name. Trust us, we went through a myriad of cheesy, soul-inspired, gaudy, bell-bottom-type, psychedelic, sleazy funk names. Thank God we choose TAJ.
You guys obviously love (hip-hop artist) J Dilla as much as 70s jazz fusion. Was it a challenge allowing your influences to affect your songwriting while still crafting out your own defining sound?
Not exactly challenging in that way. That’s not how we see it. Our influences are our influences. We will always express ourselves by pulling from what we know from expressions in the music that has influenced us. So naturally having hip-hop, soul, RnB, samba. gospel and jazz influences from the 60s to the present, we draw our approaches from all we have listened to. We gravitate to groove and funk and hip-hop so this is where we start writing from. Conversely, if we’d been more influenced by Led Zeppelin and AC/DC we’d write more like rock musicians.
As individuals, we always have something to say or something we are thinking about. As musicians, it’s easy for us to sit down and write around it, about it, or to get away from it. Our writing is always a spontaneous, indiscriminate affair that evolves into part of a song or even a full song. We have countless voice memos we vault and others which immediately turn into songs. It’s all about timing too. I guess every band writes differently but in the same spirit of 100 Bands, we #goje.
Our influences are the brand of paintbrush or type of material for the canvas we typically would choose, and the painting is our unique sound.
The cover art for the band's debut EP, The Astral Journey, by Eric Foenander.
Congrats on the success of Getai Electronica! What propelled you guys to embark on organising an event like that?
We were playing at the Waterfront on the Esplanade as part of their January programme “All Things New”. During our second set, our friends from Lepark — whom we didn’t know then — heard us from the bar on top of the Esplanade Mall. So they came down to watch our second set of the night and after, they approached us and asked if we wanted to do something with them in February.
Of course, we immediately said yes and got each other’s contacts. In the following week we were in touch and they showed us their rooftop and immediately we saw the opportunity that was in front of us. We blew it up and decided not to do just a TAJ show — which they suggested since our EP was just released — and pushed to do a 5-hour local music fest on Saturday 7th February. Being in the middle of Chinatown on that beautiful rooftop, and also with a lineup in mind, we named it Getai Electronica.
Overview video done by Fhage.
We got our lineup settled within three days, along with the posters and event design and with only a week to go, we started marketing it on social media. All the bands and crew were troopers and we couldn’t be more thankful for the combined effort to pull this off!
What really helped was the fact that it was on a rooftop (think Beatles) and the timing of the event which occurred just after Laneway. Our darling buddies .gif helped spotlight local music representing Singapore in such big events. So the other bands benefitted from this too. We also made the ticket-buying brainless, pricing it low and including a free drink.
So all these factors saw us organically grow our response, and the event that we planned for 150-200 people saw close to 1000 people patronise it! That is the story of Getai Electronica. The crowd was super attentive to the music and very supportive of all the performances. Rarely do audiences focus that much attention to the music — I guess the stars aligned that night for good quality local music.
If such an opportunity approached us a year ago, we wouldn’t have seen its potential the way we did. I think we were fearless and mature enough to see what it could be even though that final product was totally invisible after that fortuitous meeting at the Esplanade.
To add to it, we did one more Getai Electronica-related gig at the end of February called the Lepark Sessions Vol. 1 and we included The Steve McQueens and Bani Hidir too! It’s gonna be a habit for us it seems...
Looking at how you guys have performed in many different stages (Sing Jazz, Getai Electronica, 100 Bands, Esplanade), do you feel your live performance is affected by your surroundings?
Totally. There are so many different vibes that each venue and event emits. There are also different setups and surroundings at each gig. Different crowds and moods. Different climates and noise levels. We are very aware of these things and have arrangements that suit a lot of different things we may face. We also like to match the vibe of any place by being open to what may happen during our performances.
What is jazz to you?
Jazz is the highest form of free music. Jazz is experimentation, tradition, innovation, expression and ultimately freedom. We don’t claim to be jazz and are surely not in our own eyes. We are more fusion-future-soul that happens to be instrumental and inspired at some points by jazz music. Jazz is the end goal, the aspiration, the culmination of exploring our musicality which we are still currently trying to unravel with each new song and even each new phase we go through.
What’s next for TAJ?
Our EP Launch is up next! 25th of March at The Substation we are going to play music from the EP and some new songs we have been writing as well as some new collaborations with artists we will be featuring. We also got a band called the Cold Cut Quartet who are sick to open our show for us! Like us they are instrumental and fusion based and a lot better than us in a lot of ways so you really need to check them out. And you will have that chance to come 25th March.
Our CDs and Tees will be on sale to promote the EP even more of course, but more importantly to help us make money to jump into the studio again for our 2nd and 3rd releases of which are in the planning phase now. We will be working more with our Darker Than Wax family to do a live EP of all their artists (which will make the 2nd EP) and working on our next batch of originals to release the third. Hopefully both releases happen over the span of now till mid 2016.
But of course, at the same time, we are making moves elsewhere with more Getais and Lepark Sessions and other gigs we will play. We will be hitting Johor Bahru just before our launch and that will officially the first time we ever cross the border. Once again albeit small moves at first, but we like to keep moving.
TOP 5 INFLUENTIAL ALBUMS
FULLY BOOKED | ROBERT GLASPER
BLACK RADIO | THE ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT
GROUND UP | SNARKY PUPPY
The Robert Glasper Experiment and Snarky Puppy were some of our shared initial influences and we would listen to it together in the car or in the studio in between things. We would share all their videos with each other online and spend hours watching and commenting on all the mind-blowing moments we watched. When we buy music we always will share them in our Dropbox and so when we shared these two albums, we got slightly obsessed with the styles of the instrumentalists in these bands; much to an unhealthy level, but that was how it was at that time.
We bonded over this too and would steal ideas and make them work in our own compositions. The Experiment and Robert Glasper himself were right up our alley with their strong jazz and hip-hop elements which we were kinda made of too, on a wayyyyyy more elementary level of course haha! Snarky’s music enthralled us composition-wise as not many bands write instrumental music as interestingly and dynamically as they do. Listening to these guys together inspired a lot of music between us and we wrote the EP in that time.
DONUTS | J DILLA
Needless to say we were Dilla crazy from the beginning too as we one of the first arrangements we wrote was a Dilla Medley which we never released. We are hip-hop fans in general but even more so of how Jay Dee hears samples and flips them so ingeniously into new ones. And how the roughness of samples define the feel of hip-hop and how we could learn to use that in how we play our music. Playing like samples and sampling ways to play. It’s very addictive. Donuts is one of Dilla’s defining releases and some of his best work. So this album really enriched how we approached infusing hip-hop vibes (of which we love) in our own music.
We're gonna make up the last album and call it “TAJ’s Music Gods”.
It’s a compilation of artists and instrumentalists who have shaped the way we play. Modern drummers-wise, Jia Rong (JR) is more inspired by Benny Greb, Chris Dave, Mark Colenburg, Mark Guiliana, Zac Danziger, Dave Weckl and the jazz greats. Other than just drumming he is also inspired by music from Taylor Eigsti, J Dilla, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, Erykah Badu and more.
Audrey was like JR, a classically trained pianist but in her stint in LaSalle College of the Arts, she changed her major and decided to pursue the jazz side of things. She always discovers new music and evolves her playing style but also growing up with RnB and jazz/fusion in Bandung, it was only inevitable she would be most comfortable in this vein of music. She is very inspired by Robert Glasper, Cory Henry, Mulgrew Miller, Caleb Sean, Taylor Eigsti, Bud Powell, and many other legendary jazz musicians.
Tim grew up with always liking hip-hop while being exposed to a lot of jazz, samba and 70s American folk-pop even in his household and eventually took to funk and soul and alternative RnB and Hip-Hop. Jamiroquai was a really big influence on his early playing and then he evolved with all the other music he was listening to, including a huge dosage of Soulquarian hip-hop and RnB with the likes of Common, D’angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Mos Del, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and Bilal.
The Astral Journey is out now on iTunes, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and Boomkat. Find out more about their launch show and get your tickets here.