When it comes to local music, Kelvin Tan has seen it all.
He was there as a music enthusiast during the clampdown on the then-vibrant Singaporean music scene in the 70s, and he was there as an active musician when the scene began to rebuild itself in the late 80s and 90s. But unlike many of his pioneering peers from that age, Kelvin has stayed an active – and incredibly prolific – musician.
A self-taught musician, Kelvin is most well-known for his role as a guitarist with alternative rock group The Oddfellows, but he has since gone on to forge his own path as a solo act, with voluminous results. Kelvin has logged 143 solo albums since 1998, which is likely the most number of releases for any Singaporean artist. Most of his work is documented on his official website Dialectic Realm, but his recent musical ventures are primarily catalogued on Bandcamp.
His latest works are largely improvised explorations on guitar and vocals, recorded with his long-time collaborator drummer Tan Boon Gee. The trio of releases from August 2017 — Songs in Tandem for Re-birth, Life in A Time of Dying, and Neither the World Nor Death — are each distinct in their own way, drawing on free-wheeling jazz scat singing, 90s indie rock, and atmospheric post-rock meanderings.
But Kelvin has not always focused on improvisation. His first release in 1998, The Bluest Silence, lies more in the vein of singer-songwriter folk — following in the footsteps of artists he had admired since young, such as Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen — with hints of the eclecticism that were soon to follow. Since then, many subsequent solo releases have skirted that template. (Kelvin intends to commemorate the album's 20th anniversary this year.)
It wasn’t long before Kelvin yielded to his other influences: long-form improvised jazz pieces and their skeletal (or even non-existent) structure, and avant garde music composed by the likes of John Zorn (whom he had the pleasure of meeting in 2000, an experience he describes as "unforgettable").
"The decision to focus on improvisation was because usual song forms were too structured, too technical," he tells us. "And the only way for me to break them up was to jump off the cliff into improvisation. One of the things improviser Derek Bailey explores in his documentary is how improvisation is actually fundamental to traditional and indigenous music, before music became formalised by classical music."
"And in a way, I’m going back to that. There aren’t many people who are making the same sort of music that I’m making now, in Singapore, so it was also a chance to try and create something fresh," he says.
Kelvin cites Bitches Brew by Miles Davis as a loose example of what he’s trying to do. "Miles was just screwing around with his musicians on that album, he just let them play whatever they want based on the music at that time, and he loosely directed things," he explains. "There’s this incredible spontaneity in just letting go."
In Kelvin’s case, the musician that he lets run wild on his records is drummer Tan Boon Gee, who has appeared so often in Kelvin’s current music that they could very well be considered as one singular unit.
They met in 2013 at a gig at the Esplanade featuring The Oddfellows. Immediately striking up a relationship, Kelvin roped in Boon Gee to play drums for him. During their first recording session, they went straight into the studio without saying a word or knowing what to play — and so potent was their wordless chemistry that Boon Gee has played with Kelvin ever since.
The latest album released by Kelvin Tan, Life In A Time Of Dying.
In contrast to Kelvin’s self-taught musicianship, Boon Gee is a trained jazz drummer. And while Kelvin is often instinctual with his performances, Boon Gee's knowledge of structure and musical conventions reins Kelvin’s wilder impulses in. "It’s nice to have someone pulling in the other direction," Kelvin agrees. "But it’s almost like telepathy. If I make a mistake, Boon Gee will somehow play something that cancels out, or joins in on that mistake. And vice versa." He smiles, "By now, we are like married."
But Kelvin isn't boxing his musical pursuits entirely into his partnership with Boon Gee. "I’m actively looking for collaborators," he admits. "It doesn’t matter what they play or what they like. What matters is the passion to make music for its sake first: to make good music."
Ambitious musicians often make and repeat such a statement, but it’s difficult not to take Kelvin seriously when he says that. There is nary a genre he is not enthused about, and he shows a deep respect for the specific craft required of musicians in their respective fields.
Before our interview he was happily digging into Zayn Malik’s Mind of Mine, and throughout our conversation he name-dropped artists ranging from Xenakis to Death Grips, Shostakovich to Bieber, Earth to James Brown, and Mahavishnu Orchestra to The Doors. If anything, his varied interests form the basis for what he imagines could be great music.
"Can you imagine putting someone like Zayn Malik and [drone group] Earth side by side?" he muses. "We all have access to so much music via YouTube and Spotify, and we can be inspired by the thousands of artists out there, it’s almost like this century is made for improvisation. But I would really like to try my hand at electronic stuff."
It’s not just improvisation with fresher faces that he’s interested in though – Kelvin is also open to the idea of collaborative songwriting. While he has personally shrugged off the act of writing songs because he finds working alone boring, he still holds the craft of writing songs in high regard, especially pop songs. "It feels like a lot of people have a problem with pop music or EDM nowadays. I don’t, because I think it’s damn freaking hard to write that stuff, it really is."
In fact, he is having an open call for any potential collaborators, though he also has his preferences: "the people from the younger generation are more open to new ways and ideas of playing music."
A music video for 'Your Smiling Face', a hit single by his acclaimed alt-rock band, The Oddfellows, founded by fellow veteran musician Patrick Chng.
Kelvin’s artistic portfolio doesn’t just consist of music. He holds a keen interest in philosophy and holds a degree in Literature. He also currently serves as a part-time lecturer in Lasalle’s Puttnam School of Film & Animation. Winning a short play competition as a youth and eventually branching out from theatre, adding prose writing to his resume, he's also authored three plays that have been adapted to graphic novels and films, and two novels (the first he calls a "meta-novel").
Unlike his improvised music, his written work feels meticulous in construction. With so many artistic tools at his disposal, how does he choose which medium to work in?
"When it comes to art, I’ve always felt that art called me, not the reverse. And art, to me, is just a subset of life. In the end, I love ideas and different art forms, knowledge and et cetera. I’ve always believed in keeping an open mind, being open to new ideas, and to change when need be."
But for all his years of putting out albums as a solo artist, Kelvin’s audience is small, and one can imagine it may very well be due to the avant garde leanings of most of his work. He does have his devoted fans, but it is only natural for an artist to crave a bigger audience to share his work with. I quote Thom Yorke of Radiohead to him: "the only reason any artist would carry on is in the faith that one day somebody would see or hear their work." Does his small reach ever bother him?
"It does, and I do want to be heard, but as Derek Bailey said, I want to be heard on my own terms."
What is it about music that keeps him constantly striving and recording, then?
"The sheer power and intensity of the medium of music," he says, "I’m just passionate about the work itself, and having supportive friends and family helps a lot in maintaining my passion."
He cites as an inspiration the life of 20th century classical composer Charles Ives, who worked as an insurance executive full-time while composing on the side. "He was an amateur throughout his life, and created great work still."
But his respect for Ives goes beyond just how Ives balanced work and passion. "Ives started a whole movement outside of the usual American sound itself. Even though some titles are American, like "Central Park in the Dark", there's nothing about the music that informs you about America, aside from a couple of marching band influences. And it’s the same for me as in Singapore."
At a time when Singaporean music is desperately trying to distinguish itself and make its mark in the world, Kelvin does not believe that it is possible to find a "Singaporean sound", or a set of characteristics that can define the face of Singaporean music. ‘If you talk to Americans, you realise that a lot of them can’t define the American sound. So I think the notion of a Singaporean sound is ridiculous. I just believe in the sound of authenticity. That is what matters."
When it comes to art, I’ve always felt that art called me, not the reverse. And art, to me, is just a subset of life.
In the end, I love ideas and different art forms, knowledge and et cetera. I’ve always believed in keeping an open mind, being open to new ideas, and to change when need be."
— Kelvin Tan, on the grander scheme of his artistic pursuits.
But he does admit that artists' belief in authenticity has led to a few common themes within the art community. "I look at my students’ films, and most of them are about the angst of living. You know how Singapore is now the most depressed country in Asia? I guess that is reflected in our art."
The angst of living in Singapore informs Kelvin’s music too, though not in the way one might expect. Another composer that inspires him is Dimitri Shostakovich, especially the way he operated within and around the rigid framework of the Soviet Union to make subtle digs at the system. This specific inspiration, Kelvin says, can be best seen in his 2013 album Talkin' True Lightnin' Blues! (whose cover also features a picture of Kelvin in 1998 playing onstage in North Korea, with Kim Jong-Il in the audience).
But Kelvin is also quick to distinguish Singapore from the Soviet Union. "I am not as anti-establishment as everyone seems to think," he says. "I saw a lot of poverty in Singapore, and my family wasn’t very well off either, and I saw how the system worked for me.
"So I have some amount of sympathy for our government. But having said all that, I am not blind to the faults. So some of the faults are discussed in the work I put out, but not incredibly direct. And this is the most I’ll say on this subject," he grins.
Things are changing, at least from what he's observed since starting out in music as a young, voracious listener and musician. "I'm a piece of history. I can tell you how hard it was back then. And because of that, I can appreciate what's going on now." Which is fair — there is far more interaction between various scenes that before, and though it does not necessarily lead to collaboration, at least there is some sort of connection.
He smiles when he is reminded of his role as a pioneer of Singaporean music — a role played by everyone playing or attending shows in the 80s and 90s — and expresses gratitude at that recognition. He continues to make music, and will release a set of albums this year. But how exactly does Kelvin see his role now, in 2018?
"Whatever the situation here, I would still do what I do. I’m up for the long run. The marathon. Every day, its like I'm starting on my first album," he says. "I have no tradition, I have nothing to turn to, so I will continue creating whatever I want. In a way, I'm creating my tradition."
"For me, art has always chosen me, not the reverse. It’s a calling. And I gotta do what I gotta do."