"This music has become a lot about community, empathy, sharing and forming a bond together": An interview with EMONIGHTSG

"This music has become a lot about community, empathy, sharing and forming a bond together": An interview with EMONIGHTSG

Make no mistake: Emo music has evolved. Once perceived by its diehards as the most potent antidote to the personality-annihilating sounds and sensibilities emanating from clubs, it has found its place within the canons of dance music blasting from consoles the world over. And like they did back when its bands flew its flag onstage, fans of the Emo Night phenomenon are a deeply faithful and committed lot. In Singapore, the trio of Bryan Ulric Santa Maria, Amelia Chen and Edwin Waliman of Look Ma, No Hands, the collective behind EMONIGHTSG, has been holding it down for three glorious years.

An EMONIGHTSG party is a reckoning with the power of the past – of how you think you’ve moved on from those songs but can’t help surrender to them all over again. Singing, dancing and being in the anthemic thrall of the likes of Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance and Dashboard Confessional is a sublime feeling. It collapses time and takes you out of who you are now and brings you closer to the totality of what makes you you. That is what makes EMONIGHTSG one of the best parties to ever seize the night in Singapore.

Ahead of the their upcoming third anniversary shindig at Baybeats 2019, Bryan, Amelia and Edwin reflect on their legacy and ponder its future.

Happy third birthday EMONIGHTSG! 

Edwin: Thank you! This year just has a different feel to it. Last year, we were still trying to prove ourselves. This year, it's more like, "Yeah, we can do it! Let's elevate it and see what else we can do!" 

Now that we've got their backing, I feel like we've got a lot more support. Now, we can really let loose – whatever we want to do, we can do. 

Bryan: Yeah, we had to fight harder for them to say yes to certain things. 

Amelia: I mean, it's fair enough – they had to test us out, first. But the exciting thing about working with Baybeats is that we can do an all-ages show. We get that chance to widen our community. 

Edwin: Also, with the younger kids, obviously, we want them to experience it and grow up with it as well. We want to be a way for them to start learning about this music that was perhaps even before their time. 

Bryan: I wish I had something like this to go to back in the day. In the realm of the whole emo thing, we are the second generation, or, possibly even later. If we had something like that, maybe I'd be super into it. My exposure to emo was literally all these Taking Back Sunday, Brand New-type bands – they're like the loser younger brothers of the OGs. Hopefully we can help close that gap with the next generation. 

And what’s liberating about doing an all-ages show? 

Amelia: Having it at clubs means we have a minimum age for entry. But I think having that early discovery and being that space for them to discover the music early, is cool. We are still super surprised to see that our crowd is actually so young. I wonder how they discovered the music; how are they aware of this music, now? It's interesting to further widen the community and grow this culture from early on. 

Bryan: With these anniversary shows, we try to keep them free, so by partnering with Baybeats, it's the first time we don't have to worry about hitting numbers and stuff like that. 

For sure, we're never going to hit you with things like standard entry fees or VIP packages – we don't have to worry about all that. On top of the age thing, that’s great.

Edwin and Bryan, you both play in bands. How does DJing differ from that as an avenue of self-expression?

Edwin: Basically, my perception of DJing, at that point of time, was that it was just people pressing a cue button and playing the song. But it's different. I feel that now that I'm doing it, I can appreciate it – I see the art in it; I see how Bryan and the other DJs do it. Before, I never really appreciated it and it just never crossed my mind. It's like picking up an instrument – you don't know how difficult it is or how a guitarist is shredding. You just think, "Oh! It's just this guy strumming and tapping on a piece of wood," you know what I mean? 

It's a different kind of performance and a different kind of feeling. But at the end of the day, you still get the same rush of performing, of playing, and of creating your own set – that one hour is yours and no one else can take that away from you.

Bryan: I have way too much respect for DJs and turntablists to ever, ever call myself a DJ. We're just literally selecting a playlist – that's it. I do eventually want to learn how to DJ properly and be a proper DJ. I feel, with performing in a band and transiting into this "DJ" thing, every single time we step on stage, I make an effort to leave a part of myself on stage. 

That's in the sense where I'm losing the inhibitions and I'm singing along to the songs that mean something to me. I feel that it shortens my lifespan every time, just because of the way I perform – I feel that, it's not even technical on the DJ aspect, it's more of engaging the audience to feel the same way that I do with these songs. I don't know how to draw the line and it's only because of the foundation that I have performing live and standing there, holding the mic and feeling the music. 

Having played emo music for so long, what do the songs and the music mean to you now? 

Bryan: I know this is cheesy, but every time I hear 'Perfect' by Simple Plan, it hits some spot. [Laughs] Maybe it's just because it pertains to my own personal situation. 

Edwin: It's changed quite a bit, for me. Songs that you grew up with have meaning at that point of time. The reason I listen to this and why I got into it was because I relate to the lyrics and the emotions. Now when you think back, you realise that some of these lyrics are super kiddish. But when you listen to it now, there's still some parts that still remain true; there are still struggles and hurdles to overcome – which is why I feel that emo music has stood the test of time.

Maybe not in the current generation of what pop music is now, but just for dealing with your own demons – it still rings true. That part of your life is not erased. So, even if you've moved on from it, there's a certain comfort you get when you listen to this music. It not just transports you back to that period, but it also brings you to the present – how you're feeling now. The many layers of meaning become this multi-layered onion of song. 

Amelia: Yes. I feel like when I discovered emo music, it was very inward-looking. It like, "This guy is singing about this very personal experience that I also share”.

Listening to emo music felt like an isolated experience – like I'm alone in this world, feeling this pain, and I'm listening to this music that's only for me. But now, after three years, this music has become a lot about community, empathy, sharing and forming a bond together – just knowing that you're not alone in this and that so many others also share these experiences. 

Bryan: To be brutally honest, I still feel that same level of insecurity repping this music despite the fact that we are supposed to be the "champions" of this. As uncool as I felt back then, listening to this music. I still feel it now, of course way less, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around being extremely comfortable with this.

Say, if you met some music purist, and you tell that fella, "Oh, 'Perfect' still makes me cry to this day." They're going to be like "Really, bro? Not American Football?" It's shit like that that I still have trouble dealing with. At the end of the day, I'm not supposed to care, but I do. That's when I start questioning myself. 

That's interesting because now you're talking about the hierarchy of emo music. 

Bryan: It's like those people that say you should listen to Wu Tang if you listen to Chief Keef. Yes, you can, but it's different for everyone. We all have our own personal preferences – there are bands that we like and bands that we don't. But still, no body should ever tell another person, "This isn't cool." If I'm not a big fan of it, but you are, you do you! 

Amelia: Which is why we never try to assume a position of authority in music. We will never tell you what you need to listen to. It's just a shared experience among whoever feels the same. 

Edwin: I totally understand what Bryan felt, because there are still people who tell me that I'm stuck in that pop-punk era. You can diss it all you want, but at the end of the day, it's me, and you can't take that away. 

At this moment in time, do you have any idea of what the future of EMONIGHTSG looks like?

Bryan: Amelia always shares with me that the people that turn up to our events are so varied and are people that you won't expect. We have such a huge responsibility to promote a certain type of mindset or culture – more of like erasing negative etiquette. Long story short, it's treating other people how you want to be treated – perpetuating that positivity amongst the community that we have. It's a self-imposed pressure on how we should conduct EMONIGHTSG and ourselves as a brand.

Amelia: Today, it's very easy for people to be dismissive about things. I feel like at EMONIGHTSG, we teach people to be empathetic; we teach acceptance. If that can be embedded into the minds of the young people, it will help form their mindsets and perspectives about how they want to lead their lives in the future – just think before you judge someone else. 

Edwin: Honestly, I have no clue. I'm not the most optimistic person, anyway. I don't know, man, it makes me happy just chatting with the people that come to our shows. It's surprising because the emo community is supposed to be super shy and awkward, but it's totally not. Not at our nights, at least. It's these conversations that make me optimistic about the future of the community. The whole lost-and-found thing, too.  

So, I can't remember when exactly, it was someone who gave us something that they found after a mosh. A phone, a watch, or something. We posted it on social media and if it's yours, to DM us. And then, after that, more people started coming up to the DJ booth saying they found something. It's little things like that makes us feel like we're doing something positive. The feeling of looking out for each other – if something happens, we'll do our best to help you. That faith in humanity is somewhat restored, you know? 

Finally, EMONIGHT is one of those parties where the crowd's emotional attachment is so strong, it has developed a certain routine where specific songs are played at certain times. Three years on, what song do you still look forward to playing and why?

Edwin: I don't know if this is the definitive answer, but I look forward to playing songs that you don't think will stick – people will not think it's a popular song, but it’s become something else over time. That, for me, is Neck Deep's 'In Bloom'. 

Then, there are songs that you play, that no one gets. But at the end of the night, you receive a DM that says, "Thanks for playing that song!" That feeling of one person in the room getting it, that is the same feeling I get when I listen to music that no one else gets – it felt like it was for you. 

Bryan: I don't have one, man. I'm still pumped for all the My Chemical Romance songs. I wanna say 'Perfect' again, but I don't wanna be the "Simple Plan guy". [Laughs] That song just gets me in one kind of way. 

But I'm not going to be sick of 'I'm Not Okay (I Promise)'. I regard it as the EMONIGHTSG national anthem. I feel like the instrumentation and the message won't get old. It's straight to the point, just like 'Perfect' by Simple Plan. [Laughs]

Amelia: 'Welcome to the Black Parade' is always our last song of the night. The bridge always gets me – it's a high point to end the night on an affirmation: "You still got this”.

Catch EMONIGHTSG at Baybeats 2019 on day 1, Friday, 23 August, at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, 11pm – 3am. Entry is free.