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Infinite Labyrinths: An Interview with sub:shaman

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From where I was sitting, trying to figure out the combination to this three-digit lock, I watched 3/5 of sub:shaman fumble around in the dark with tiny, flimsy flashlights, racking their brains over a cryptic message scrawled on a wall. The four of us had been trapped in this confined space, no larger than a storeroom, for almost... how long has it been already? As Hans Zimmer’s “Time” played in the background through a pair of not-at-all inconspicuous speakers above us, I thought to myself: ‘time goes by so slowly’ - which also happened to remind me of that catchy Madonna banger. On the other side of a wall, we heard similar sounds of people fumbling and rummaging in the dark. In the upper corner of our room, a security camera resided. More GLaDOS than Orwellian, seeing how it appeared to have a twinkle in its lens watching us try (failingly) to solve the puzzles that would unlock our escape route. Suddenly, a door behind us creaked open slowly, filling the room with slivers of light. 

Riddles and mysteries seem to play a central tenet in sub:shaman’s motif, or at least for their first EP Outsider. The band - consisting of Wei Shan on vocals and synths, Isa Ong on guitars and vocals, Hanis Isahak on bass, Isa Foong on electronic soundscapes and Syahadi Samad on drum duties - have effectively created an aura of ambiguity with their music, which escapes distinct categorization. At best it can be described as possessing a basic essence of incendiary prog-rock combined with hints of math-rock and jazz - all while maintaining dark undertones and an outrightly ambitious desire to overwhelm your aural intellect.

Outsider. as an EP is both sonic and physical proof of their aspirations to take our interaction with music to the next level, a lovingly crafting record revolving around a murder-mystery of film-noir inspirations (think LA Confidential, The Big Sleep, Sin City, and to a certain extent, Blade Runner). It’s very much a concept album, involving four tracks that represents four characters respectively - the ‘Broker’, the ‘Sleuth’, the ‘Hypnotist’, and the ‘Harlot’. The challenge issued to the listeners was to solve the mystery, a sort of music-based game of Cluedo. Theories were submitted, conspiracies got discussed and whole lot of people became intrigued with the Great Sub:shaman Conundrum.

Noting their disposition towards the aesthetics of flummoxing, we took them to Xcape Singapore for a real-life escape game session, where they could test out their mettle with riddles and puzzles in order to escape imprisonment by exploiting all the clues available. As an icing to the cake, we took them to an Inception-themed escape room, as a direct tribute to the complex layers and winding orientation of their music. And man did we fail the test hard. 

And the deeper you go, the deeper you are able to go.

The door behind us creaked open slowly. In came a compassionate Xcape Singapore staff, who probably took pity after watching us flounder for almost half an hour through the camera. He pointed out a key clue we’ve already inspected but found nothing out of the ordinary with. We exhaled an exasperated “Ohhhhhh” and unlocked another box. Like an archangel, the man slipped away from the shadows an into the light, locking the door behind him. Thank you Based God. 

It did cross my mind on why the band picked neo-noir as a major concept for Outsider. The inception of the motif laid root through 'Hypnotist', the first song written for the EP. With the creation of that song, the band found an idea they wanted the explore, and that was the notion of outliers, people on the fringe. With that in mind, it became a lot easier for the story to snowball into something that soon wrote itself. An aesthetic they all could get behind. 

Visual artist Marc Gabriel Loh, collaborator and dear friend of the band, was one of the main progenitors of the concept, they proclaimed. He simply sat in with the band while they rehearsed in the studio, conceptualizing on the fly and providing a live visual interpretation of what he was hearing. “All we gave him were general ideas and song titles and he just started sketching it out on his notebook”, Isa Ong remarked. With Marc’s help, they managed to properly create a world within the music and the characters at the heart of it, which helped people connect with EP better. From the onset, Marc’s blueprints with the booklet and conceptual art included in physical copies of Outsider. was a crucial starting point from which listeners can embark on their gumshoe journey. 

A lofty concept for sure, but how did audiences react to the big reveal of Outsider. during their Blue Hour Sessions set? Most of their fans didn’t expect it really, assuming that the EP will just be a recorded archive of their already-existing songs, just louder and more aggressive. But the reaction that pleased sub:shaman the most was that it got people interacting IRL about what Outsider. was about. “It’s been pretty fun to see the people who’ve listened to the EP and ran through the ‘evidence’ come up with stories that even we didn’t think about in the first place!”, Isa Foong admits. Even after the launch show, Weish had friends coming up to her and throwing out theories left and right. The band wanted to encourage discussion and debate, and that’s exactly what they got. 

FILM NOIR

It all sounds wonderful, but sub:shaman aren’t stopping there. They’re already commencing on their next project: a short film as a tie-in to Outsider. and their website. An ambitious task - one wrought with financial and logistical stumbling blocks - but the band are determined to make it happen as a grand closure to the chapter of what they’ve been doing since the beginning of the year. 

“Things are coming together and it’s looking really good,” Isa Foong revealed. “We’ve got our script done and settled the actors involved, and right now we’re aiming to shoot in May and hopefully premiere it by June... then we’ll see where we go from there”. 

No spoilers ahead, but obviously you know how the film will at least look like. It’ll be a neo-noir feature of what sub:shaman envisioned their Outsider. story to be. But of course, it’s not the only canonical version of the Outsider. narrative as Hanis affirms that the story is still open to anyone’s personal interpretations. 

“We just created a universe for people to listen and interpret any way the like,” he asserts. “We have our own narrative, but we’ve constructed the EP in such a way that people can create their own. That’s really how any piece of music works, it’s always subjective and open-ended”. It’s a truly respectable facet, how sub:shaman are elevating the listening experience to another plane - the interactivity between the band and the audience extend beyond just the surface duration of their music. Aspiring sleuths are free to add to the canonical universe, but the upcoming short film will be how the Outsider. story really played out. The whole open-endedness was reminiscent of the cliffhanger ending to Inception; did Cobb really manage to escape limbo? Was his top totem going to stop spinning? Why is the second-last track of sub:shaman’s EP 24-minutes long and just filled with drone? Mysteries, I tell you. 

Musicality

We got further ahead in our escape room puzzles, where we managed to unite the sub:shaman guys together at last, which involved the undertaking of some Japanese math problems and navigating through a labyrinth. Alas, we took too long and failed to escape the room within the stipulated time set, so apparently we were stuck in Limbo forever. Another Xcape staff (bless her soul) came into our room and gave a decent walkthrough of the remaining stumpers, receiving another collective “Ohhhhh” from us all. Pictured below: not true. 

It became apparent that the degree of difficulty in that escape room is not for all. It’s a trait shared with sub:shaman’s music - a polarizing, relatively inaccessible brand of rock that resonates strongly with some and off-putting to others. I realized that a huge chunk of their fan-base are musicians themselves, the very people who’d appreciate sub:shaman’s twisting and turning compositions, not unlike Tortoise or Hiatus Kaiyote for that matter. They’re a musician’s band, and it’s something that they’ve found comfort in. 

“We wish we could tell this to people more - that we’re really just a syiok sendiri band,” Isa Foong laughs. To a certain degree, that quality of self-indulgence is not something they’ve set in stone, Syahadi and Hanis agreed. Their songwriting process is a cyclic one, in which they’ll just keep playing something that everyone likes and agree upon, and keep repeating until the process feels complete, and the cycle begins again for a new composition. “We don’t really try so hard to be experimental, our songs just seem to make sense when we wrote it,” Isa Ong reflected. Other musicians may find it easy enough to pause at pushing themselves after finding something they’re at ease with but these guys were content with cutting the brakes and moving only forward, constantly trying out new things every jamming session.

Creative Manna

Resting at the (fake) grassy knolls of Lasalle College, we got to talking about the band’s origin story. The birth of the sub:shaman project began as cliche as possible with the relatable, universal question of “hey man, you wanna start a band?”. Originating as Cold Shoulder - an outfit formed just to accompany Weish on stage while performing at NUS music events - the band went through a formative refresh when they decided to audition in Baybeats 2013 as sub:shaman. 

“It’s been a crazy ride lah. The last 2 years have been pretty insane; we never thought that we’d be playing Baybeats or Night Festival or even Fred Perry Sub-Sonic within our first year. Life has been pretty kind to us in that respect” 

Their presence has been steadily increasing over the past few months, with already four upcoming shows this month, including a stint in this years prestigious Music Matters event alongside the likes of UK’s The Boxer Rebellion and South Korea’s Asian Chairshot. 

But with so many musical projects between each band member, how are they able to juggle other endeavours and avoid draining their creative well?

Isa Ong (also of Pleasantry and Sleep Easy)

"I would say it’s a completely different mindset when I’m playing with different bands, because I have different roles. In sub:shaman I’m only on guitar and vocals. With that I’m already tapping from different pockets of inspiration - it’s a completely separate process when I’m in other projects."

Weish (also of .gif and... Weish)

"Juggling different projects definitely stretches me out in terms of time-management and staying sane! But it’s something I really like to do and that it’s all very different. Firstly you don’t have a problem of sharing the same kind of ideas or repeating the same kind of material because they’re all vastly different. In my other stuff, it’s very locked in a loop-based kind of structure. 

What I feel and want in my solo setting is more freedom and more room to be dynamic, to move the song and keep changing by beefing up in terms of layers and song arrangement. With sub:shaman, it’s liberating to have a group of people that can move the music anywhere they want at any point in time, in any part of the song. So it’s a whole different frame of mind entirely, and something that I appreciate." 

Syadie (also of Paris In The Making)

"For my music in Paris In The Making, it’s not as complex as playing in sub:shaman. Every time I learn something from my playing in Paris, I apply and combine in sub:shaman. But music-wise, it’s very different. Sometimes the reverse is true as well. From a musician’s point of view, it’s always good to be versatile - Paris is hardcore/metal, sub:shaman is alternative rock - so I don’t get bored playing at all."

Hanis (also of Spacedays)

"With sub:shaman there’s a lot of fluidity - we try not to play in a structure so much. It’s different when you play with other musicians that don’t actually follow that same fluidity. So the inspirations are vastly different in that regard - when i play with sub:shaman, the ideas tend to be more cinematic, like ‘what scene are we in?’ rather than ‘what’s the form of the music?’. With Spacedays I think in terms of ‘how do we add to this form of music we’re playing?'"

Isa Foong (also of Blankverse)

"Blankverse just started out as a platform for me to experiment with the electronic medium that I use - which I learn and channel it back to the band. The idea of using soundscapes and all of that is something very new to me - I started learning that when we formed the band." 

Outsiders

If one were to watch them live during their early formative period, one would notice the inescapable notion that they can’t seem to escape from the affliction called ‘horrible sound’, as if no equipment could ever fully flesh out their very big, very bold sonic objectives. After pointing this out to them, the band groaned unanimously. “That repeated for out first five to six shows man...” Isa Ong lamented. 

At which point were they at their most lowest though? After some thought, Weish confesses that their Fred Perry Sub-Sonic Live set counted as their worst one. The rest of the band agreed. Hanis explains. “When we think of the worst - sound-wise - it would be that one. In terms of preparation and expectations for that show, we were holding it in very high regards but we were let down by the sound.” 

The band had worked really hard with HORNS, the four-piece horn section they were assigned with, and everyone had put in their utmost to get the entire flow going - but when it came to the show itself, they suffered yet again with horrible sound and it came to the point where people wanted them to do it again in another setting. “In the end we felt that it was something totally beyond our control. We’re not blaming the folks behind Fred Perry show - all credits to them because they really did the best they could.” Isa Foong commented. “But it was not the first time we felt that the sound has directly affected us and the way we play”.

At the end of the day, their ongoing problems derived from their ambitious, bold soundscapes. What they were attempting to do required a certain level of equipment and expertise in terms of setting up, and the places they’ve played so far have all been mere plug-and-plays. Naturally, it didn’t translate that well. 

Their best show? Opening for And So I Watch You From Afar at Zouk, with Utha ‘Black Beard’ on the soundboard. “He understood what we were trying to do and told us which parts were muddy and which parts were problematic, making all the important changes needed,” Hanis quipped. “The Zouk show was when everything came together. That was definitely when everything came together in the right place and in the right combination” Isa Foong agreed. 

When you think about it, sub:shaman are also the right combination of things, a melting pot of talent, sounds, and ideas. While 'supergroup' is a word that doesn't sit well with most (conjuring thoughts of bloated egos and imbalances in creative control), tis cannot be said of this band, now sitting on the lawn at Lasalle. They've managed to take what they've learnt from their respective projects and leave it as that. In sub:shaman, it's back to square one again, it's figuring things out from the scratch again, and so far they're doing pretty well we must say, navigating the layers of labyrinths they've created for themselves. 


Interview by Ilyas Sholihyn & Delfina Utomo. Venue sponsored by Xcape Singapore. Images shot with Nikon D610, courtesy of Nikon Singapore.

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