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Space-time Continuums: An Interview with Charlie Lim

Timezone is an odd place to be in for three fully-grown Singaporean adults. It’s a place packed with worn out video game cabinets, sweaty pre-teens, and a nostalgic cacophony of bleeps and bloops calling out to us, pleading for us to Insert Credits and press Start. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless son et lumière;not to mention being handed a staff Timezone powercard (courtesy of Timezone management) - unlimited credits to play whatever we wanted, however long we wanted.

And yet here we were at the arcade in City Square Mall with one of Singapore’s most highly regarded music exports: Charlie Lim. It was probably a welcome break for the singer-songwriter, whose days and months have been occupied with an endless cycle of gigs, songwriting, studio recording and the miscellaneous little things one would expect in preparation for a full-length debut release. His recent adventures should already impart just how busy things are for him – performing at Singapore Day in Sydney, playing to a packed house at Blu Jaz Lounge and the Aliwal Arts Centre with his superband The Mothership, before flying back to Australia again for the Singapore WA Music Exchange (with The Sam Willows and Sezairi) among many other stints.

Our night was, to all appearances, a surrealist prospect: three adults yelling while attempting to out-drift each other on Initial-D as an elderly man watched at the side (he joined us later on). Charlie ranked first place in all three rounds we raced together – probably because he selected and pimped out the most ah beng Nissan Skyline between the three of us.

His ability to pwn even in other games such as Time Crisis 4 and Street Fighter IV shouldn’t come to surprise – Charlie is no stranger to video games. If one were to check his Twitter feed and his personal Facebook cover image, he geeks out about one of the best video games of the year (“I'll say it again: EVERYONE WHO KNOWS HOW TO OPERATE A COMPUTER NEEDS TO PLAY BIOSHOCK: INFINITE”). Bioshock is a densely layered parable exploring the philosophical themes of religion, American exceptionalism, parallel universes and predestination that culminates into a spectacular head-spinning conclusion. I asked him what he thought of it. “When the ending came, I was just like ‘ahhh mind blown!’ and spent the next few days reading nerdy discussion forums.”

Variables, Choice & Consequences

Perhaps his foray into the multiverse affected the creative thought process of his upcoming double-EP titled Time and Space respectively. “You’d be surprised how much gaming has influenced the way I think, write and even feel sometimes,” he confesses, mentioning how he got a lot of his chops from immersing himself into video games with excellent scripting, pacing and execution. “I guess there’s a very strong parallel to music in that sense, because as a producer and songwriter you’re actively involved in all these different variables and you want to create a similar experience for the listener.”

And yet it’s the endless amount of variables and choices that held him back at first after releasing his EP almost two years ago. “It’s the eternal question of ‘what is my sound?’ I guess I was trying to be smart about it but ended up spiraling into an overthinking rut. It’s overwhelming to try and process the amount of new music coming out on the internet sometimes, let alone attempt to figure out how you’re going to stand out amongst the anarchy.”

While figuring out what his sound should be like, he quickly admitted that he “kinda missed the plot” because he was worried about the accessibility of his music. “You’ve been to a few of my shows – there’s a lot of improvisation involved, and the mood can be as playful as it can be depressing. You can probably tell that I love neo-soul and jazz as much as folk and post-rock. At the same time, I’m primarily a pop singer-songwriter who grew up listening to Coldplay,” he laughs. Charlie’s recent foray into electronic music and the combination of different genres only exacerbated a sort of schizophrenia in his musical identity.

“When it comes to songwriting, I don’t have much trouble churning out bits of lyrics and musical ideas, but stringing them together to get across the finish line is what kills me. When you have so many options, you don’t know where to start.” He attributes his slow, deliberate output to two traits: perfectionism and procrastination. “It’s the worst possible combination. You want something to be done well, but it takes up so much effort you end up putting it off for something else. I’m trying my best to change that, hence the new double EP that’s in the works.”

Time & Space

Our Timezone expedition carried on in a frenzy of exploring its fringes in search of another game, after being disappointed at Time Crisis 4 – the 2P gun kept shooting off-target. We found a suitable successor in air hockey, which resulted in the most intense match of Bandwagon VS Charlie Lim. Pucks flew around savagely as we fought to a draw. I brought up the topic of his upcoming double EP, in light of what we discussed earlier about the ever-elusive quest to find his own sound.

“I guess the answer was in the question itself. I had this epiphany, like – hang on, instead of getting hung up about distilling everything into a singular voice in order to fit a mold, why don’t I just take a snapshot of where I am right now and see what we’ve got instead? That’s where the double EP came to mind.” Spending five weeks in Melbourne back in July, he put together all the little ideas he had written and categorized them thematically and stylistically in order to see the bigger picture.

He explained that the record will be broken down into two factions: one being a slightly more DIY, electronic/indie-R&B kind of sound, and the other being more of a tribute to the folk-rock/adult-alternative singer-songwriters he grew up listening to: Jeff Buckley, Damien Rice, etc. 

But that’s not to say that the two parts don’t intertwine – thematically they’re the same. “That’s why I’m releasing them together. They’re two sides of the same coin – contradictory yet identical. A lot of it has gotto do with dealing with the idea of long distance and how that could bring people closer or tear them apart.” It harks back to the underlying theme of all good art: juxtaposition and bipolarity. It’s also an encapsulation of how he’s been feeling over the past year and a half.

It’s a bold move, especially for an independent Singaporean musician. “At the end of the day it just felt right”, he pondered. “Strangely enough, I thought people wouldn’t be so open to the idea of it, but immediately the people closest to me were like ‘yeah this it what you should be doing, it makes the most sense’. Trying to make something personal that people can relate to is a paradox in itself, because you need to look inwards before you can step out there. It’s inherently selfish, but the byproduct can be satisfying for everyone too. I think all the best art begins from that point.”

Exploration & Experimentation

We skipped on to shooting hoops, which we all pretty much failed at – an onlooking child was cackling over how much we suck at basketball. Giving up, Guitar Hero (or in this case, the Japanese version Guitar Freaks XG3) was next. Alas, even at easy difficulty we were fumbling with the notes so much that even our cutesy cartoon avatars looked genuinely disappointed; and so was the kid watching us by the sidelines, his hopes of being entertained that Tuesday evening entirely crushed.

As ‘CONTINUE?’ flashed spitefully on the screen, I asked Charlie about his interest and curiosity in electronic music, given that we all had him pegged as a blues/soul crooner.

He credits it to necessity. Interning at recording studios during his moonlighting days while in National Service, he developed a curiosity in the art of mixing and a penchant for recording on his own.The whole DIY aesthetic also appealed to him, being a self-admitted ‘control freak’.

He also felt drawn to the UK electronic scene, and remembers being blown away watching James Blake perform live in Melbourne. “Coming from a singer-songwriter background and whatnot, I got kinda pissed off listening to his record – he’s just singing the same line over and over again. And he didn’t even write it! But when I watched him live, him and his band just blew my mind. It was like a paradigm shift. Plus I’ve never heard so much sub in my life before.” The experience made him appreciate how a lot of electronic music today is perceived; most popular music follows a more traditional approach to storytelling whereas the EDM, production-driven point of view is more of a confluence of textures and sounds that evoke emotions.

“As soon as I latched on to learning how to make that sort of stuff, you kinda realize it’s a lot to do with happy accidents.” A future single (after ‘Bitter’) will be the first time we’ll be seeing his foray into the electronic side. He recalls house sitting Kimbra’s apartment back in Australia, and he used her gear to make a dance track just for the fun of it. “So much of making electronic music is just layering textures, endless tweaking of effects, and a lot of trial and error. But it’s not that hard to get into. It’s more about thinking from a different, more vertical perspective.”

Charlie brings up again about the thematic concerns of his double EP.

Time - being a linear concept - is the “more organic, singer-songwriter, storytelling side of the coin”; it would be recorded and mixed with a more analog, old-school approach. Space, however, is where the experimentation comes into play. “It’s literally going to sound more reverb-y, slightly more cold in a digital sense,with less focus on the narrative in a horizontal manner like Time is, and more on playing with changes in structure, texture and harmonyI love stretching the limits of a typical pop song, and this just allows me to do more of that.”

While this sounds like a very exciting prospect – Charlie Lim as a post-dubstep artist, he quickly stopped us before any labels could be slapped on.“I’d never dare call myself a dubstep producer! I’m really just trying to have fun… amateurism can be quite liberating.”

It was near closing time at the arcade, and we had one last game we just had to play: Street Fighter IV of course. The first bout against him was a warm-up for me to see how good he is – and I have to admit he’s pretty killer with Ken. I went all out on our second time round by being an asshole and spammed Blanka’s electric shock (エレクトリックサンダ) attacks. Even that I lost.

Bitter

After a satisfying ice-cream sesh at Swensen’s, we scoured outside City Square Mall for a place to sit as it started to drizzle, and found refuge in front of a garish Christmas display. We laughed about the unreality of the whole thing – here we were at a relatively posh shopping mall, complete with excessive Christmas decor while everything else outside the mall’s vicinity just looked run-down.

We got round to talking about his upcoming single ‘Bitter’, which we’ve listened to numerous times live to the point of memorizing the whole thing altogether. Working together with Jason Tan on the track’s final mix, ‘Bitter’ was slowly put together piece by piece while Charlie was on tour around Asia. “That song took almost a year to finish recording,” he reflected. “It’s terribly ironic because that’s what part of the song is about: trying too hard for way too long to make something fit. Even though it’s an ode to a failed relationship, the process of getting all the right pieces together became a thing of its own. I think the song is cursed, in the funniest way possible.”

Even before heading into the studio, ‘Bitter’ was two years in the making. Charlie found himself coming back to the same certain riffs every time he tinkered around on the guitar. “I had the guitar part and melody down, and they were swimming in my head for months without lyrics. Nothing seemed to work for the song, no matter how hard I tried. The words finally came to me after a breakup.”

Recording it was a form of final catharsis for him. “Obviously it’s about a relationship that didn’t quite work out. It was quite painful to write because of how personal it was; about finding the right person too early in life. It’s shitty because you invest everything into that one person, and it’s tough to figure out what to do next when the one thing you’ve built your life around is gone. I guess that’s how I operate in everything I do, which is very dangerous… I suppose the song’s a byproduct of those actions.”


The Last Mothership

We got chased away by a security guard for loitering and chilled on a bench nearby as we soaked in the post-drizzle Little India air. We talked about the shows we’ve been to, and his preparations for his upcoming show with The Mothership this Sunday at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. It’s generally agreed upon that Charlie Lim has quite possibly the best collective of musicians on stage with him. “I’m usually quite self-deprecating about these things, but that’s one thing I wouldn’t be afraid to admit,” he laughs. “They’re the top jazz guys here, and I love playing with them. There’s a lot of love and respect going on, and it’s also quite a geeky camaraderie – we’ll just hang out drinking whiskey after rehearsals, play Street Fighter and have four-course suppers. But yeah, this band is definitely the best incarnation of the Charlie Lim Band so far that I’ve managed to put together. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

By the end of the night, it was still a lot for us to take in. Even as we were dwindling down to the last part of our hang out, he dropped in his personal take on a lot of things. His proudest achievement - not playing a sold-out show or audience numbers, but maintaining a good relationship with his parents despite the various decisions he has had to make about his career.

As commanding he is as a musician in Singapore (and as a player of Street Fighter, and all arcade games in general), Charlie still believes in constantly improving himself. Some time in the arcade after we had both failed completely at Guitar Freaks, Charlie sighed: “Looks like we’ll never make it as musicians in real life.” Oh how wrong he is.


Interview by Ilyas Sholihyn & Delfina Utomo
Complimentary credits courtesy of Timezone

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