The reconstitution of Caracal

The reconstitution of Caracal

When local post-hardcore stalwarts Caracal announced in late 2015 that K.C. Meals was leaving the band, it was a rude shock to their ardent fanbase. The band was riding the wave of their acclaimed second album, Welcome the Ironists, and had been playing shows at home to growing audiences, and furthering their ambitions abroad. 

After the shock subsided, though, there was sadness, and confusion – there had been no public explanation given for the K.C.’s departure from the band. Fans who’d been awed by the frontman’s compelling stage presence, and fans who’d identified with the pain and anger he so viscerally expressed, were left hanging.

Ahead of the release of their new EP next week, the longtime members of Caracal opened up to Bandwagon about K.C.’s departure, which as they tell it was due to anger issues stemming from drinking that drove a wedge between the then-frontman and the rest of the band. Those issues worsened particularly during Caracal’s tour of Japan in 2015, which drummer Martin Kong says was the beginning of the end. 

“The fact that we were going to Japan – we were pushing our band,” Martin said. “We were trying to push our band’s boundaries out of Singapore, and it was quite demanding in our lives, especially at our age when we were trying to settle down, save money, get married, get a house, that kind of thing… K.C. was being pressured. I mean, all of us were being pressured, but I think K.C. took it the worst.”

K.C. became more distant from the rest of Caracal after the band spoke frankly to him about their show in Nagoya, during which he had behaved with uncharacteristic violence and aggression onstage, Martin said. 

“No matter how much I would drink that night [after the show], I would still have a bitter taste in my mouth because of what I had experienced with my own bandmate,” Martin said. “I remember shaking. Just fucking raging, because I just couldn’t get to him, and I was just wondering why.”

Nevertheless, other members of the band still tried to reach and help K.C., but “it reached a point where us trying seemed to be making him worse,” guitarist Field Teo said. After K.C. continued to distance himself from Caracal while back in Singapore, and the quality of their performances continued to deteriorate, the rest of the band decided to tell K.C. that they had decided to move on without him. “In our own way, us moving on without him is trying to tell him, ‘You do your own stuff so you can be happy,’” Martin said.

Throughout this telling, the entire band is quick to qualify that Caracal bears K.C. (who is now sober) no ill will, and neither do they want to discredit him and his contributions to the band. “We don’t want to sound bitter,” said guitarist Gabriel de Souza. “We don’t want to flame him in any way, but this is just what happened.”

When approached for comment, K.C. told Bandwagon, "2015 wasn't a good year for me or the people around me. The things I did and the way I acted when I was in that mix of alcohol, anger and depression (which I was diagnosed for and encourage anyone who feels like they are to get proper treatment) was totally reckless and out of line. I am genuinely sorry for the way I was and hold only myself accountable for my actions. I’m glad the guys are still making music, they are immensely talented and it’d be a shame if they didn't." 

Everyone now knows the outcome of Caracal forging on without K.C., and then former bassist Jude Lee, for on Tuesday, the band released their comeback single ‘Manicenigmatic’, the first glimpse of their forthcoming EP Take It Apart and Put It Back Together. They also officially welcomed new members: bassist and backing vocalist Trent Davis and frontwoman Rachel Lu.

The new EP makes clear that this lineup change is unquestionably beyond cosmetic. One might think the EP’s stark title an indicator of its contents and subject matter, but as the band explain, the EP is not diaristic. Take It Apart and Put It Back Together is a more accurate summary of the band’s reconstitution. This is a different Caracal: where before the band was often preoccupied with the slow, emotional burn, on this EP they unleash coiled, compressed doses of fury and power. Where the former Caracal would give anguish the space to unfurl, on this EP, this new iteration of the band smother with aggression.

Bandwagon sat down with the band and Errol Tan of their label KittyWu Records for an in-depth conversation about the new EP, how it came together and their thoughts on the reintroduction of Caracal. The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

From what I remember of what you put out on social media, it seemed from the outside that the band was over. But also as we’ve established, you wanted to move on without K.C. So at that point, were you planning to start up again as Caracal, or were you uncertain whether you would come back?

Gabriel: I think we were certain that we would still be playing music.

Martin: At that point we didn’t think that far, because we are very small step people. We just wanted to make music. I would say two weeks after that, or one week after that, we were probably jamming already.

Field: Two months lah. We sort of had an unspoken agreement that we needed to just… forget Caracal music for however long we feel like. So it was a two month break and when we got back to jam again, it wasn’t like “Ok, fuck, we’re going to do this.” It was more like we felt we needed to get to know each other again without that one feller. Because that one feller was a very big part of the band. Not only band life, but also personal life. For example, schoolmates and stuff like that. So there was no plan to do Caracal. Not straight away lah. Maybe later on…

Martin: When we finally got five songs going.

Gabriel: We had 10 songs, right? We had 10 songs. We would just keep writing and writing, churning shit out, and when shit got maybe a bit promising we were like “Ok, let’s narrow it down.”

Martin: We were contemplating releasing instrumental stuff also.

"When we got back to jam again, it wasn't like, 'Ok, fuck, we're going to do this.' It was more like we needed to get to know each other again without that one feller."

So why didn’t you do instrumentals?

Field: I think because we [Field and Martin] were in ATC [Amateur Takes Control].

Gabriel: And I think we found post-rock slightly boring.

Field: Martin had told us before, in Singapore especially, there’s not many rock bands with strong singers. Ok, not say not many lah, but you compare to post-rock and it’s like a big discrepancy, right? So Martin had always told us, you know, we shouldn’t take the easy way out and just do post-rock. Not that post-rock is easy, but he always wanted us to have vocals to identify with and to spearhead the band sound. 

Martin: I think what I personally like to hear is a certain kind of melody. It’s the challenge of having a melody over crazy music. This EP –  we wrote this music without any vocalist in mind. We were challenging ourselves and making shit so difficult for ourselves to play, musically, and we would listen back to the songs and like, no one could sing this. "Who would want to or can sing this?" We finally got stuff down, and halfway Jude left the band, and we got Trent. 

Field: We found another sucker to join the Caracal sinking ship. [laughter]

Martin: And after we recorded, we also found Rachel. We jammed a few times. We liked her voice, we liked her vibe. Next thing we knew, we were always coming to my house, because we wouldn’t have our drums and our amps with us. So we’d literally come to my house and all of us would be singing shit out, you know? It’d be really, really weird. But it was the first time that we really full-on thought about singing, like all of us, which I think is amazing. The most different thing about this EP is that everyone contributed in terms of lyric and melody, which I’m very proud of. There’s a whole song by Gabriel, my god! [laughs]

For this EP, it was all five people?

Martin: Everyone. All five of us.

Field: We’d literally go to Martin’s house after work. I open my laptop, type random lyrics, Gabriel is forcing lyrics into songs, Trent is also writing lyrics. And all four, five people are trying to write their own lyrics and we’re all just trying to – 

Gabriel: take the best part.

Field: – rojak it into one thing, trying to make sense of it. Which is actually quite awesome, because I remember doing this when I was really young. When we first started as a band, and we’re 12 years old, 13, and we’d go to each other’s house late at night with acoustic guitar and just stay over at each other’s house.

Martin: Singing into this shit microphone.

Field: Ya, so when I hear Martin talk about this, it’s so cool because it was really like that vibe again when everyone is so involved. 

Coming back a bit to the music element, you said you guys were trying to make life as hard as possible when you were writing it. Was it this sense of “we’re back now, we’ve gotten to understand each other differently without K.C. in the room, let’s push ourselves”? Where was it coming from?

Gabriel: I think it was more like us just wanting to have fun with the music, because we didn’t have a singer to think about. “Okay, this part needs to sound like this so this melody fits in.” It was, "Okay, let’s have fun and go nuts". So that is probably how it came about, and we put in the melodies secondary after that.

Field: You’re right in a sense, though. It made three of us have to play outside what we’re used to playing, and make new music not sound like Ironists or whatever album. So that was good also lor. Like you said, made us try to go out of the box a little bit, don’t use our usual formula.

Karen: So Trent, you came in halfway through this process?

Trent: Ya. So Martin and I were session musicians for another band. And one day he said, "Hey, come jam." I was like, sure. So I was just screaming over what they’d written. So yeah, it was honestly a bit daunting, for two main reasons. One, I didn’t really know much about Caracal at all, besides some friends and industry people talking about them. And secondly, because I knew there was a bit of a history with that band. And in fact, I’ve known K.C. longer than any of these guys. But when we first started jamming, yeah, like I said, it was a lot of screaming, a lot of aggression. But I think it comes back to their not willing to compromise on vocal melody – I think after a few weeks it was kind of clear. “Trent, you’re not nailing these parts. Let’s keep some of the aggression but let’s find somebody who can really do justice to what we want.” At least from the moment I’ve come in, it’s been a quite honest and interesting experience. They made me push myself, in terms of my voice, then we redesigned it a bit, and tried to figure out where the hell the melody is going to go. Then when we met Rachel, someone who can pull together all of these things, it fell together very nicely.

Rachel, how did you come into the picture? 

Rachel: I saw Martin around all the time because we have common friends. One day he just Facebook messaged me, and I thought he was going to ask me about something else, work stuff, because I was joining his company. Then I realised it was to join his band. And then I was like “Oh my god! Are you serious?” because what I do, or what I sing, is very different from this music. He asked me to come down and jam here. I was just so…

Martin: You were so nervous on your first day.

Rachel: Ya, I was so nervous! Because I didn’t know if I could pull it off, you know? I still wasn’t decided after the first day. I think we came to jam quite a few times, right?

Martin: Four, five times?

Rachel: Four times... And after five times, I still wasn’t decided. I think the time I decided was when I told Mart, “Hey Mart, how much is the rental of the room?” At that point I was like fuck it, just do it lah.

Martin, why did you ask her?

Martin: I have two friends, Ian and Simon. I was asking them, "Eh, fuck, who should I get to sing? I don’t know anymore." We’d asked so many people already and none of them kind of fit the bill. Both of them mentioned Rachel. They didn’t even plan it. Both of them were like, "She sang a fucking kickass ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ cover, the Nirvana song, and she kicked ass at it." So I was like "Okay, that’s cool." I didn’t hear it, I checked out some videos and was like, "Okay, I think she’s not bad." I wanted to hear it for real. So inviting her to jam, to try out some covers, was the next step. And it was crazy. Her voice is nuts. Like, I still get scared when I hear it sometimes. [laughter

Was that vocal power what you found in Rachel you didn’t find in other people? We’ve been talking a fair bit about vocal melody. What were you looking for?

Martin: Ya, I would say it’s that vocal tone that she has. And we can hang out lah. For me to click with someone and to hear that her voice is mad, I think that’s just the only two things I’m looking for.

Gabriel: And also her range, right?

Martin: Ya, her range.

Errol: I think everyone had to redesign their instrument in a way, right, including Rachel. She had to adjust and adapt to how we wanted. And then initially when Martin first told me, "Oh we got a female singer for Caracal", I was like “Okay, are you guys sure? I hope it doesn’t come out like Evanescence or something like that.”

Field: I love Evanescence!

Trent: That’s like the number one criticism, right? Any time a woman gets into a heavy band, it makes you immediately think of Evanescence. I think that’s why it’s such a cool thing to have Rachel in this band because she really kicks arse. She surprises everyone that listens to her. I think more than a range of any of her vocal qualities, her commitment is just awesome. After the first few jams, she could have walked away, because already this genre is not really her thing. And on top of that, the music was never written for vocals. It was an out-of-context instrumental mess, right? For her to keep coming back and keep trying, even when she was sick, coming in to really nail those parts, it was the best thing.

Rachel, what made you keep coming back and eventually stay on?

Rachel: It was really, really very challenging to do the type of songs they were writing and to actually nail those parts, the timing and all that. I don’t know. I think I just wanted to do better. I wanted to see this through at the end of the day. And they are very fun to play with, sing with.

"The music was never written for vocals. It was an out-of-context instrumental mess, right? For her to keep coming back and keep trying... it was the best thing."

Obviously many, many people are excited about this comeback, and many fans and listeners care about Caracal. And everyone here knows how much K.C. meant to the Caracal that fans care about. So what were you thinking about when it came to, to put it frankly, replacing K.C., and how people would take it?

Errol: I mean, we can’t replace K.C. K.C. himself was such a charismatic singer. The reinvention of this band… correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re trying to steer it into a different territory, as opposed to singing the same old Welcome the Ironists songs, or Bear. Shark. Wolf. 

Trent: I think some people will be upset, undoubtedly. You can’t avoid that. But there are a number of options for those people who don’t like whatever’s coming. Because K.C. has a new band [Sun Eater]. If they specifically want to hear his vocals, his music is there to be enjoyed, and any of the previous records are there to be enjoyed. But I think if people are open to a new direction for the band as a whole, it can be quite an interesting ride for them.

From what the three of you know of your fanbase and the people following you, do you have faith they will follow you into this new direction?

Gabriel: Ya. I have a lot of faith.

Martin: It was very important or very clear to the three of us – what was clear was that we needed to keep this band, or at least let people know this band is not K.C. The band was fronted by K.C., but the essence of it is not K.C. Him not being in the band – he was just the front, but he wasn’t the ground, he wasn’t the base of it. So…

Trent: It’s just more difficult when a frontperson leaves a group.  They are probably the most human element of the band. The voice and the words…

Martin: And that’s what we’re hoping to change. We’re hoping to change the fact that, or at least fight the fact that you know, we have a frontperson, but it’s really more of a collective project that is done together rather than by just one guy. 

Field: Anyway, even if you can’t change people’s mindsets, it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, when we come back to the jamming room, five of us have to face each other. We don’t need to face Tom, Dick and Harry and tell them “Please support the band, don’t support just one person.” So I’d much rather five of us be on the same page with each other, be committed to each other, rather than have the majority of the fanbase be committed to us. As important as that should be, it’s not what’s fuelling this band anyway. So if we can have old Caracal supporters come on board with us, that’s awesome. If they don’t want to come on board, like Trent said, there’s many other bands out there. But at the end of the day, it’s more important that five of us are real with each other.

What was it like writing lyrics together? Since it was the first time both Trent and Rachel joined that process.

Martin: It’s new for us, even. Because last time, like Welcome the Ironists, it would be me writing on my own and then sharing with K.C. or Field: “Eh, this one cool or not ah?” But now it’s like – you try your idea on the spot. It was more open. You had to not be shy anymore.

Field: You had to stare the person in the eye. “These are my lyrics.” [laughter]

Trent: It was a bit of an uncomfortable experience doing it, right?

Martin: Ya.

Field: Because it was never this way. In older songs, for the most part, I never wanted to ask Martin, “This song about what ah?” It was like, “You finished, cool, let’s record, let’s do it.” But this one – we literally asked each other, “What you trying to say? What you trying to talk about?” 

Martin: And you had to justify what you just wrote!

Field: Ya! And then that never mind, you still have to look back at the first verse. Does it make sense? It’s like you said, different people had different parts in the lyric. So it really made us have to really like analyse stuff, rather than just take it for granted, “Oh, it makes sense because I wrote everything.” It wasn’t, because everyone wrote some part of the song. So we had to keep doubling back, make sure the rhymes are working… [laughter]  Just to make sure the content is linking up lah, for the most part. But you’re right. It should sound like multiple people have written it, but the overall message should still be somehow aligned at the end of the day.

"Even if you can’t change people’s mindsets, it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, when we come back to the jamming room, five of us have to face each other... at the end of the day, it’s more important that five of us are real with each other."

Rachel, you mentioned in your previous band you were only singing covers. What was this lyric-writing process like for you?

Rachel: Oh, it was super new to me. Never done this before. And what made it worse was that I didn’t really know these people yet, right, in depth, as friends, as band members. So to sit down in a room with them and just watch them come up with lyrics and stuff, it was something really, really new to me. For part of it, I was just sitting down and observing and just learning, how do these people do things like that. But of course then I found out that this is the first time for them too. So it was really new and scary sometimes. Because this guy [Martin] would ask me “Eh, how? Can or not?” 

Martin: Usually when we write, we’d be like “Rachel, can you sing this?” because we’d have to check on the spot whether it’s in her range or key. So in the middle of the night it’d just be like “WARGHHHH!” and my wife would be like “What?” [laughter]

So it was a pretty steep learning curve for you, in that regard?

Rachel: Yeah.

Errol: Maybe you could say it’s like being an actor. You aren’t familiar with them so you couldn’t really get into their headspace where the song is going with and the emotion that they feel about it.

Rachel: Mmm. You could say so. But also it helps me to know them a little better. How they write, how they think, how they feel. So it was through that process that I got to know them lah, more as friends and family.

Trent: I think she’s more of a method actor, in that sense. She will learn what we have to offer, then when she has all that knowledge, she will apply her own rage or whatever it is in the lyrics. You can’t fake that stuff. You can’t put emotion behind words you don’t believe in, right? So I think when it comes to grabbing that microphone, her own experiences are going to come through.

You said that over one and a half to two years, you had 10 songs. So how did you pick these five?

Gabriel: We picked the hardest songs! [laughter]

Martin: Why ah?

Gabriel: It was just the most fun, and the ones that we wanted to release first.

Martin: Ya, I think what also influenced us was that we always played sets previously and felt “Eh, we don’t have enough fast songs.” So I think this is a quite fast-paced EP. Maybe that influenced us.

Field: To add on: we wanted to be a bit conscious not to have music that sounded similar to Ironists or Bear. Shark or anything. So we tried to pick songs that really had a… not that it was a new sound, but a different vibe.

You’re going to play Ignite and Baybeats. Have you been rehearsing the old material with Rachel?

Martin: Yes.

How’s that been like? 

Field: Honestly, we’re trying it but still figuring it out. Because at the end of the day – personally for me, I don’t know about the rest – I don’t want her to sing an old song for the sake of an old song, but her sounding not as herself as it could turn out to be. So it’s like, how to strike that balance…

Trent: Theoretically, it’s exactly what Rachel is used to, right? She comes from a cover band background. So becoming that voice should be no problem. But I think that’s exactly what the band wants to avoid: to treat it like a cover song, and do it line for line how it used to be. I think it will only work and stay in a set, A, if it gels with the new stuff. And B, if Rachel feels comfortable bringing her own edge to it.

Rachel, how have you felt about singing the older material?

Rachel: I’m still trying to find my footing. I really like it. I really, really do. Guys, I really do. But as you said, it’s very different, me and K.C. So I’m still trying to find where I should really – should I do the same thing, or should I do something else?

Martin: Do your own thing!

Field: Ya! Honestly…

When you were in a cover band, how you thought of yourself as a singer, versus now, being in a band that writes its own original material but also has old material you have to learn – have you thought of yourself as a singer differently at all? 

Field: When she started singing for us, she kept singing like how she would sing in covers. So a lot of not her natural voice. And so many times, me and Martin and Trent and Gabriel had to keep telling her, “Rachel, you don’t have to do that voice. Just let your own voice come out.” And she’d feel very weirded out by it. She’d be like “Huh? What do you mean? But when I do covers they’re telling me to try to hide my natural voice and do as much of the sound of the cover as possible.” But we’re telling her, she literally has to flip her script and be like, “Okay, time to sound like myself.” 

Rachel: Because I teach vocals, right, so whenever I teach them, it’s like different voices. And that’s what I’ve always thought to do. Just try to imitate the person first, then see what happens after that with your own voice. So you can say that I’ve played with so many different voices that I’ve sort of forgot what my own voice is too. And this process has actually really helped me find out what it is. And I really like that they kept pushing me to do it. 

Do you have any last thoughts about anything before we wrap up? 

Field: This album – even though it’s only five songs, it’s to me the most Caracal album ever, for the plain fact that everyone chipped in for everything, as opposed to previous albums where one guy settle this, one guy solo, one guy… It was always like that. This one was really like team project sia. School project, everyone… group work shit. And it’s really amazing for me. Because we really took time out of our lives, to meet after work, twice or once a week, write lyrics together. As a grown man, that’s very awkward for me, but everyone took the time and looking back on it now, it’s like wow, I’m really thankful for all these people for putting in the time. Because that really rarely happened before lah, honestly. So if I can add anything I would just say, I’m very thankful for Rachel and Trent, Gabriel and Martin, that we really put this album together as solidly as possible. People may think it sounds whatever, but to us I think it’s a really fucking… as Caracal as it can be, whatever the fuck that means. That’s all.

Martin: I just want to say that this band is – I don’t know how, but it’s become bigger than five people, three people or whatever. We have a label helping us and managing us, doing stuff. There’s a whole team behind it. There’s Leonard Soosay helping us, and a video guy called Teck, and Siti who edited the video. It’s crazy how these people will help you, as demanding you may be to perfect your craft, and your video and this vision that you have, they will go all out and go the distance. It’s something crazy. The music we’ve done together, I don’t know how these people are still helping us. I think that’s the crazy part also. I’m super thankful for that.

Caracal's new EP Take It Apart and Put It Back Together is out 24 July. Pre-order the EP on iTunes here.