A safe route for many music fans would be to pin the term ‘cinematic’ to many instrumental rock bands, but for the five-piece group In Each Hand a Cutlass, it’s evident they’ve warmed up to the idea. “We form our own scenes in our minds and let the music support them, although maybe we all have a different scene in each of our heads.” confesses Amanda Ling, who serves as the long-time keyboardist of the band.
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Tracing back to their shared love of soundtracks, Ling cites composers as varied as Hans Zimmer — maestro of the archetypal summer blockbuster score — to electronic musician Jon Hopkins, whose nuanced score for 2009 sci-fi film Monsters was lauded for its subtlety and consistently moody tone.
Their affection for film scores reflects well on their songwriting where variation, to them, is key. “All instruments will be a lead at some point, and variation is always needed to not make it repetitive and boring,” says Ling. “It is very apparent in film music; a same thematic motif being expressed differently in different scenes. We take this approach quite the same way.” Drummer Jordan Cheng is even more fervent about their filmic influence: “I usually picture myself in a movie scene — battles to tear jerking moments, channeling all emotions and orchestrating them on the kit. Sometimes it takes several hours just working on a section.“
In Each Hand a Cutlass (IEHAC) are an instrumental rock band — playing music that contrasts the anthemic choruses and pop hooks of Electrico, of which Ling and guitarist Daniel Sassoon were a part of. Music fans have been comfortable enough to tag most bands without vocalists as ‘post-rock’ but that actually negates the output of a band like IEHAC to a certain extent. As that genre itself has been unfairly shoved into the church of avid Explosions in the Sky worship, this local project aren’t just all about the crescendos. Taking cues from bands all over the rock spectrum and, yes, film scores especially, IEHAC are all about bringing out vivid emotions and grandeur with regular rock instruments.
Already proving worth their salt on their 2011 debut A Universe Made of Strings, this new release, titled The Kraken, promises to reveal further depth into the band’s songwriting — which, at the heart of the record, lies a 21-minute track of the same name. “I’ve always loved songs that go on forever.” admits bassist Nelson Tan. “I told the guys to make it as long as possible. But we never really planned it out to be sound like that. It just happened along the way."
The cover art for The Kraken, illustrated by Andy Yang.
Writing a lengthy song has rarely been done on a whim — it requires deliberate planning, laborious rehearsals and above all, repeated assurance that it isn’t just mindless half-hour noodling, something usually reserved instead for the excesses of progressive rock. Thankfully, IEHAC barely falls into that category. In fact, ‘The Kraken’ wasn’t intended to be like that at first — initially envisioned as a concise but no less epic two-parter. After years of building the songs up, they eventually felt the need to link them together and wrap it up with a newer third part. “The interesting thing is that each part can be played on its own — and hold its own — or they can be strung together to make a near seamless 21-minute song.” says guitarist Sujin Thomas, who has been with the band since 2011.
For someone who styled himself as a bedroom musician, joining IEHAC was a sizeable leap for him that pushed him to step up his game. “The transition was quite scary as I had to learn the band's songs fast but I received a lot of encouragement that kept me going.” Sujin remembers. “It wasn't an immediate fast-track for me. It really took me a couple of years before I could sit well in this element.”
Sujin’s experience gives an idea into the band’s general work ethic — one that is rooted in discipline and constant practice but in a healthy environment that reinforces support with each other, even when facing line-up changes. “Everyone who’s been part of IEHAC previously – Farid, Kenny and Roland – have all contributed a lot to the spirit and thought process of the band in addition to the songs on our debut album, and we are grateful and have fond memories of those times, but of course it’s a different outfit now.” Sassoon declares. “While that initial blueprint was vital in our early years and provided us a chart to navigate the waters by, the ol’ pirate crew has changed and with that so must our approach towards everything that we do.”
The current lineup of In Each Hand a Cutlass (from L-R): Sujin Thomas (guitars), Daniel Sassoon (guitars), Nelson Tan (bass), Jordan Cheng (drums), Amanda Ling (keyboards).
With change comes with a shift in the band’s practice of recording. IEHAC hired Los Angeles-based producer Brad Wood to assist in The Kraken, serving as producer, mixer and all-round studio engineer. While A Universe Made of Strings was produced by ex-bandmate Roland Tan, the band made the jump to invite the US producer — who counts Sunny Day Real Estate, The Smashing Pumpkins and Touche Amore as past collaborators — and for them, it was an enlightening experience.
“Brad is a very down-to-earth and friendly guy.” says Amanda. “His friendly demeanour created a comfortable atmosphere for all of us to work with.” His professionalism and decades of expertise were substantially beneficial to the sounds recorded on The Kraken. “He had super-fast judicious editing and the ability to capture some really top notch tones at the source, in a fuss free manner without wasting time unnecessarily. It was all very ‘chop chop’!” Sassoon recalls.
It’s clear that the band favoured the producer’s skills over his impressive resume but there was an importance of hiring someone overseas, compared to roping in a local figure. “Established producers who reside overseas obviously bring with them a wealth of experiences and knowledge from working with different musicians over the years, and maybe even decades.” says Sujin. “It's not that producers here aren't up to scratch. Many of them are truly top-notch, but I guess we wanted to have a different third eye watching over our album. Someone who could bring something fresh to the table, knowing very little about our Singapore music scene, and bands which have come out of it before.”
“There were a number of times during the songwriting process when we scrapped portions of much because it really did sound like something we'd heard before, even if it was unintentional. We consciously killed it with a laugh.”
The band also made the far-sighted choice of getting a third party individual over producing the album themselves, even though it really does seem like the band has a firm grasp over their vision. “If musical decisions need to be made that cannot be mutually decided by everyone – not that that happens often — I’d rather they be arbitrated by a trusted third party advisor who can look at things objectively because we’ve engaged them for that purpose. So, not for us.” Sassoon admits.
For a band with a copious amount of influences, they’ve been conscious not to rip other artists off musically, although they’ve admitted that it is, in fact, inevitable at times. “I look at it from a mathematical point of view.” Nelson explains. “Though there could be many different tunings at different pitches, we basically only work with 12 notes at a time before we hit the next octave. And though there could millions of different permutations, we can’t avoid the fact that somehow or rather some songs are going sound similar. But as a professional I would never ever want to copy someone’s work. It’s just not something that I would be proud of.”
Sujin adds, “There were a number of times during the songwriting process when we scrapped portions of much because it really did sound like something we'd heard before, even if it was unintentional. We consciously killed it with a laugh.”
Their songwriting process is something that’s only sparked once a few ideas are laid on the table, a move that’s less imposing and even more suggestive that these people truly trust each other as a working unit. “It’s like sometimes we just have this great idea that we can work on out of the blue and at times we struggle to even get shit done.” Nelson admits. “But most of the time we throw out ideas that we have during jam sessions and see what we can add on to it. Everyone has different ideas and interpretations so that really helps when we write.”
With their single 'Satori 101' showcasing a different side to the quintet — think less cinematic and more danceable — the group’s writing method helped. “I was messing around on a patch off my new keyboard, randomly played a riff and Daniel joined in after, picking up on the dance-y feel we both were on, Jordan then came in with a dance-y beat and the rest joined.” says Amanda.
While writing 21-minute songs is already an endeavour on its own, performing them live is an even greater task — a momental test of their abilities as musicians. “Someone asked me recently how we play without scores since each song can be quite haphazard, eschewing conventional verse-chorus type structures.” Sujin elaborates. “We do it mostly through memory and by keeping count. Personally, I see almost every song as a series of numbers running through my head and as long as I don't lose track of the numbers, and keep time, I am fine.” Stage gear is crucial to the band’s live performance, apparently even making a name for themselves as a band with a meticulous tech rider — all in the name of music. “We all have day jobs but the band is what we call a professional hobby and we're dead serious about the craft.”
Even as they count themselves as first and foremost Singaporean musicians, they’ve been hesitant in incorporating elements of their national identity into their music. The support for ‘local’ music, depending on who you talk to, lugs around on the occasional question that few confront: what makes local music “Singaporean”?
“The last thing we want to do is to try to consciously tack on a Singaporean element to an already heady, complex brew.” Daniel Sassoon says. “The closest parallel I can draw is that Singapore is a melting pot, and so is our music. We hope that is good enough for our listeners, no matter where they come from.” He infers that their successes so far have been judged on their merits as an internationally recognized band rather than being a truly “Singaporean” band. “IEHAC doesn’t play anything remotely “exotic” like, as in we don’t play up anything Asian in our music, so I guess people are judging us by our own merits and not because we’re some kind of cultural curiosity.”
At the end of the day, IEHAC prefer to absorb influences and sounds regardless of cultural importance, being fans of grandiose Hollywood films and repping equally ambitious bands like Deafheaven and Porcupine Tree. Their aim of “casting all music boundaries aside”, as stated on their Facebook page — which reads almost like a manifesto itself — isn’t just another buzz-phrase regurgitated by one too many try-hard art rock bands. It rings true to their identities as Singaporeans who they’re just as capable of writing complex and ambitious compositions as well as their international peers.
Looking back at the vast cinematic influence in their music, it’s strange that the band hasn’t already embarked on a film score of their own.
They recognise that different styles can be interloped with great effect, barring away indulgence and excess, just as much as they’re confident that their origin of birth does not hinder them from understanding musical concepts created on the other side of the wide — casting the boundary of nationalities aside, if you must.
With The Kraken officially released, the group is currently planning to do more shows, now especially armed with a brand new set of songs. Looking back at the vast cinematic influence in their music, it’s strange that the band hasn’t already embarked on a film score of their own.
Amanda has done her fair share of soundtracks but her experience has taught her that it's barely a similar task as compared to writing a full record. “The role of music is to support the scene, mood, movement and breathe life to it through sound and music. You can't go just writing music because it feels good or sounds good but whether the music can give emotive value to the visual on screen.” Even a band of adventurous pirates like IEHAC know their limits.
The Kraken is available to stream and purchase on their official Bandcamp page.