It's been a little over a week since spirited indie-rock band, Stopgap, released their debut album - an incredibly exuberant nine-track beaut called Totems. Featuring daring grooves and sprightly melodies, the album's songs appear to be inspired by the band's up-and-down life experiences, dealing with their struggles in National Service, crippling stage fright and much more.
As guitarist Calvin Phua explains, "We've linked the songs to objects that represent the experiences behind the songs, which is why we named the album Totems'."
Much has been made about what a lively listen it is (all true), and its that exact same zestful sense of fun that made their launch show such a blast! With an open bar helping lubricate festivities, their physical albums (packaged cleverly as a collectible USB thumb drive) flying off the merch booth like hotcakes, and a large and very appreciative crowd in attendance, Stopgap and crew must have been extremely pleased with how smooth it all went.
Everything in the lead up to to Totems gave the impression that the merry band were constantly having a ball, from their jokey demeanor during the show itself right down their highly-amusing music video (featuring Irsyad "Shag" Sidharta busting out a variety of bombastic dance moves). But behind the scenes, their journey towards building Totems wasn't all just fun and games.
For their debut full-length, the band elected to take a very hands-on approach through every step of the album's process, from conception to birth. In line with that DIY ethos, the band went to great lengths to take care of everything in-house - from the recording and production of the LP, to the filming of their music video for 'Nervous,' to the the logistics and organization of their launch show.
As you imagine, the workload over the past few months has proven to be quite a strain on the guys. But as arduous as the process has been, the experience has also been incredibly rewarding. Many musicians in Singapore choose a DIY approach to their work, and while that route is intense and full of unexpected challenges, nothing beats the satisfaction and sense of ownership that comes at the end. Hard work pays off manifold, as the boys from Stopgap can earnestly attest to.
Now that the band has had a few days to catch their breath and soak it all in, we thought it'd be prudent to ask them to reflect upon their DIY journey to their remarkable debut LP...
On their decision to do it themselves:
Like most indie bands, we were limited by budget, seeing as two of us are audio engineers (YJ and Adin), we decided to record and mix the record ourselves. Besides budgeting we simply really wanted to do it ourselves. It just seemed like the right path because we had more control over how we wanted to do things and there was almost a sort of magical or romantic aspect to it.
Although we naturally tried to do whatever we can ourselves, we’ve had lots of wonderful help and advice along the way. Saiful Idris of The Great Spy Experiment mixed four songs off the album because we were cutting it real close and we really liked the mix he did for 'Roots'.
On working with Saiful Idris:
We first met Saiful when he was our mentor back in 2013 for the Noise Singapore program. We had the same musical influences and kind of clicked. He understood our music and where we were coming from. It also helped that we’re fans of GSE!
Since Noise, we've never stopped asking him for his opinions and advice so it was kind of natural for him to co-produce the album, and eventually mix four songs or us. We haven’t always taken his advice (Laughs)... but even when we don’t he still makes us think, and that’s important.
On the recording process:
Recording the album was a pretty drawn out process. Being an SAE student at the time, Adin would book studio sessions at night and we’d all come down and record into the night, or at least till the school closed.
Drum sessions were always more challenging just because we chose to record drums acoustically and not go the e-kit route, using triggers, quantizing it and such. It was quite tight because we only had four hours a session max, and there was lots of set-up to do for drums. Good thing we have five guys in the band, plus Irsyad “Shag” Sidharta, our live sound engineer who was always there to help us out.
We kind of took our time earlier on and took for granted it’d all be alright but later on realized we were running out of time to record and mix the album. It wasn’t a five song EP but a nine song LP so we freaked out a bit there.
On filming their music video for 'Nervous':
We’ve worked closely with our director Lenne Chai before and she’s the magician who shot our press photos too. Most of the band works in the film industry or has that training, so we ended up shooting the MV ourselves, serving as our own crew. It was a pretty awesome and intimate experience shooting with close friends and band members, didn’t feel like work at all.
One of the initial problems we had was getting a location that would allow us to shoot with the limited budget that we had. Shoutout to The Projector for being the amazing venue that it is and for letting us use the cinemas!
We also shot the MV on a very small budget, lucky for us we had our camera sponsored by the folks at Canon and got the rest of our equipment at a good price too.
"People hire other people to do stuff for a reason. Trying to do everything can be tiring but at the same time, makes your songs that much more precious. The whole process has taught us that it’s actually do-able, and it’s very satisfying."
On organizing their album launch show:
We were supposed the launch the album earlier in the year. First Taylor Swift bombed our date with her concert here. We swapped our launch date and Neon Lights festival bombed our date again. We were all super frustrated at all these huge events bombing our dates but looking back it’s pretty hilarious.
We were looking for a venue for our launch show and almost held it at The Substation, but we talked to the folks at *SCAPE and they were incredibly supportive and agreed to partner up to bring the launch party into the huge space that is the *SCAPE The Ground Theater.
We were pretty worried that we wouldn’t be able to fill the space. We were anxious about it all the way till the day itself when people started pouring in for .gif’s set. The alcohol sponsored by Snow Leopard, Cutty Sark and Brugal helped, no doubt about it. The line for the bar went right across the hall to the entrance.
We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without help though, even if it’s “DIY” no band is an island. Our team was very good to us and helped us out when we needed it most.
On what they've picked up from working with scene veterans:
YewJin does sound for The Observatory sometimes and the band comes along to help tech for their bigger shows. Just being around them and hearing their stories and observing how they work gives us an insight into how things work for them and kind of gives us a better understanding of where we want to stand or how we want to work.
It’s all really chill. Saiful is a great guy we love talking and grabbing a bite with him. The Obs are great to hang out with too, they’re always very grateful for help at their shows. There aren’t any egos or anything like that, we’re all friends and part of the same music scene.
On the lessons learnt from this whole DIY endevaour:
This is a tough one. People hire other people to do stuff for a reason. Trying to do everything can be tiring but at the same time, makes your songs that much more precious.
The whole process has taught us that it’s actually do-able, and it’s very satisfying. Also, a killer team makes for a killer launch.
Stopgap's stellar debut album is out now via Bandcamp.