In the late 90s, Singapore's independent scene was on the rise with exciting new bands like Plainsunset, Force Vomit and Sherene's Closet. Those glory days have passed, but bands don't die that easy – there's always time for one more song.
Next Monday, Sherene's Closet return with their second ever release, the Rebirth EP, 20 years after their debut album Kept Secrets. Leading the band is frontman, guitarist and songwriter Gerald Stahlmann, with three other musicians new to Sherene's Closet but certainly known to Singapore's rock music scene: guitarist Tan Shung Sing (aka Song), who used to be in The Great Spy Experiment; bassist Wann Hussein of Force Vomit; and drummer Martin Kong of Caracal, who are charging ahead in another renaissance of their own.
In 1998, Sherene's Closet broke through with Kept Secrets in a major way. It landed them many a gig; the respect and radio play of music critic Paul Zach, who ran his own radio show Zach's Trax; a Perfect 10 Music Award nomination; and even a placement for a television ad campaign for Anchor Beer (the unofficial, longtime fuel of toiling rock and punk bands in Singapore). Perhaps that doesn't sound like much today, but in a far smaller and younger scene, under the eyes of a music industry that was eager to commercially tap on these fresh talents – all while the lives of Sherene's Closet members were changing – it was enough pressure for the band to call it quits.
There were still songs left in the tank, however – leftovers from the very first demos Sherene's Closet recorded with Leonard Soosay at Mix Studios Hougang in 1997 (Soosay, who has been there with Sherene's Closet from the beginning, also co-produced this new EP). Two of those old demos have been given new life and now kickstart the EP: the single 'Catch You' and 'Sherene'.
The sound of the EP is one Sherene's Closet have wryly dubbed "grit pop": straightforward guitar music that eschews synthetic polish and electronic shine for an earnest, emotional landscape. And it's no coincidence that "grit pop" sounds like "Brit pop". For this EP, Sherene's Closet flew with Leonard Soosay to Liverpool, England for a 12-day recording session at The Motor Museum with producer Al Groves.
Ahead of the EP release, as well as performances at Baybeats and at benefit show Rock For Noah's Ark, Gerald, Song and Leonard sat down to talk to Bandwagon about how Rebirth was recorded, the low-stakes revival of Sherene's Closet, and more.
Gerald, are you the only founding member of Sherene’s Closet in the band now?
Gerald: Yes. Before, we were a three-piece band. Then we kind of stopped around 2000 because all of us had families and our personal lives. Only recently last year, I was like, “Hey you know, I still have about four or five songs which we didn’t release or record properly”. Some of them were just demos. So I was thinking, why don’t we try to reform? For the old members, they’ve all moved on. The next best thing was to reform the band with a new line-up: essentially with people whom I trust and whom I respect and we can be buddies and have chemistry.
So why did you decide to restart Sherene’s Closet? What changed for you?
Gerald: I have a day job: I direct videos, I do promotionals and all that kind of thing. After doing it for like 12, 13 years, and totally neglecting music, I kind of miss playing music and even hearing music, because music was quite far away from me for a period of time. I really missed going into the studio and creating – not really the gigging part, but going to the studio with a bunch of friends just to do something creative lah.
Before I went into filming I was in a band, and I was also a co-owner with Leonard for Snakeweed Studios. So at that time, I thought it was impossible to do both because [I thought] you probably need a lot of energy to do it. But as years went on I felt that it was time for me to actually start writing songs again, start playing music again because I realised how much missed it.
Also maybe expectations [now] are a bit less, because last time there was a bit of pressure – we were quite popular in the 90s so everybody got high hopes. “This band sounds like this band, that other band, I think they’re gonna be really big.” When you’re like 21 or 22 years old, these kinds of things get you to have high expectations, and that is the downfall of everything, I feel. But now we are actually more mature and we know what to expect. We do it not for the sake of becoming the biggest band in Singapore or becoming a top musician. We don’t have any expectations, we just want to have fun.
Song: It’s just a bunch of chill old uncles... other than Martin lah [laugh]
Gerald: Dad rock lah, this is what it is lah. We’re not going to try and reinvent music, we are not going to try and follow trends. We’re already 40 years old there’s nothing left to prove. So we come to this on a very grounded mentality.
So when did you start to think tangibly about restarting the band?
Gerald: Last year. Actually I was at the Guns N’ Roses gig [laugh]
Leonard: “If those old people can do it, I can do it”!
Gerald: I was like, eh, man! This is rock and roll and it’s so cool. Not pretentious, just music from the heart. So I guess that inspired me a little bit lah.
What was the recording process of Rebirth like?
Song: For me, it was good that I was given the liberty of doing it on a clean slate. So I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of the songs. I did get the demos and I was listening to them prior to the trip, but everything changed when we got to the studio because I worked very closely with the producer Al [Groves]. He’s a guitar player as well. It was a very creative process between me and him bouncing ideas.
So what happened was they would do all their own tracks first, they had it locked down: what the bass should be like, the drums, basically the building blocks of the song. Actually, when they were doing the recording I’d be down there, a bit stressed! “What can I do, what can I do...” But once it was my turn bouncing ideas with Al, everything just flowed out. Fortunately they were happy with it lah. Every song, I had nothing but I just went in.
Gerald: I think that’s really cool also: jamming together has its pros and cons but coming in just like that and just doing it...
Song: I think the difference is in the studio there’s more space to think about things. Because when you’re jamming, you’re running through one whole song, and then I can’t tell them, “Eh guys, stop, let me try this." It’s just: you play from start to finish. Sometimes it’s a bit counter-productive that way, I find it a very different experience doing it that way and in the studio.
Did you have in the back of your head the reminder that you were using limited studio time?
Song: Ya of course man, of course lah! We only had a fixed amount of time down there, it’s not unlimited. There’s no “take your time” there. Once I can’t finish, I can’t come up with something which everyone’s happy about, then there’s a pressure to do it. And there was a pressure!
Gerald, how did you feel when you heard the guitar lines that he did?
Gerald: Oh, I thought they gave the songs a new dimension. Song and I are very, very different guitar players. I’m a little bit more aggressive and he’s a little bit more spacey, so me and him together is just perfect lah. It sounds fresh. So even though some of the tracks are a bit dark and all that, Song gave it another dimension. Martin is a really hard drummer, so he added that also. Wann is really good with his grooves but he also held back. He could have been more flowery or groovy, but he played what was necessary for the songs, so I guess expectations-wise we were all very happy with what we did.
The initial plan was to actually record it in Snakeweed with Leonard, then go over to Liverpool to do the mixing. I had my heart set on Liverpool lah, I know why lah, because, I mean, I’m a Liverpool fan! And then also because one of my favourite old bands, The Beatles, they’re also from Liverpool. So Liverpool has this magic.
We found this producer, his name is Al Groves. He’s more of like a hardcore, more modern rock kind of producer. He produced that band called Bring Me The Horizon. That kind of sound. But I wanted just to keep my options open, because in my daily work also, sometimes people stereotype who you are. Like if you do this kind of work, it means you can only do this type of work. If you record this type of band, means you can only record this kind of bands... I was just trying to look at things differently lah. I keep my options open, never say like “this is not good” or “that is not good”... We go with the flow.
When I contacted Al initially, we were supposed to mix. I gave him some of the jamming demos, he heard them, then he was like “Why don’t you guys come down here and just record the whole thing?” Then we were saying, but it’s a budget thing. He was really excited about it so he said, “don’t worry about the budget”, because he has not heard music like this for a long time. So he really wanted to record the band. Leonard also said it might be a good thing to get away from Singapore. So when we go there, we sleep, eat and play music together for those days, so we are totally focused. Leonard was also really on, he came along with us and co-produced the album... Because he recorded Sherene’s Closet’s first demo, I felt like it was important to have him there.
Leonard: We wanted to do this album correctly. In a short period of time, we wanted to capture the essence of the band in that period because then as we go down the road, after many years apart, we can listen to the album and reminisce about the days we spent on a trip recording. It was not just a whole recording experience, we also went to where The Beatles existed, to Penny Lane, so for some of us the experience was more than recording. [It was] experiencing where rock and roll came from. The studio we recorded was also the place where Bring Me The Horizon, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys recorded, and the studio was owned at the time by the singer from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), this famous British band from the 80s. So we wanted to capture all that and feel that we were creating music based on history. I think it inspired a lot of the performances and rigour in the EP because when you’re playing the drums it’s like, “Wah, it’s the same room that Oasis recorded drums”.
Now that Sherene's Closet is returning, do you think of yourselves as someone who’s become a potential role model for people who might want to get back into music after all these years, with a nine to five job?
Song: I think the trick is to find that balance lor. Because at our age, life takes over, your priorities change, and that’s where people who used to play music concentrate on their career, family… But you can find that balance where the music comes out and it plays a part in your life, while you don’t give up on your real life lah. Everyone needs an outlet. So if you feel that, “Ya, I can do this”, just go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t work out, don’t work out lah!
Gerald: The role model angle for me personally, it’s more for my daughter. Because I have a 15-year-old daughter, who’s also very passionate, she loves music but she’s really passionate about dancing. I also want to be a good example: you’ve got to try out and follow your passion and not have any fears, then anything is possible... So I guess if my daughter sees it, like “Eh my dad is 40 and still cool lah, can play in a band, can still be part of the music scene”, I guess that would inspire her also to have more bravery for what she’s passionate about.
Leonard: I’m hoping actually it inspires a lot of mums and dads out there to go pick up the instruments that they gave up 15 years ago. Start jamming and start playing, because the joy they get from music is more than going to golf clubs and playing golf.
Sherene's Closet's new EP Rebirth is out Monday, 13 August.