TypeWriter's midlife catharsis is meant for everyone

TypeWriter's midlife catharsis is meant for everyone

By all accounts, TypeWriter is a veteran band. Just don't call them that.

The five-piece alternative rock group, fronted by guitarist/vocalist/chief songwriter Yee Chang Kang, makes it clear during our conversation that their new activity as a band — seven years since the release of their full-length, Indian Head Massage — was never meant to hinge on the combined legacies of its members.

A supergroup, they're not, but the band's personnel does make up some distinguishable names: drummer Robin Chua was previously in Livonia in the 1990s before taking helm as one-half of DJ duo EATMEPOPTART, bassist Desmond Goh is one of three members in Electrico, guitarist/keyboardist Alan Bok is a distinguished producer/engineer whose recent work includes Obedient Wives Club and Jonathan Meur, Chang Kang originated as a member of The Ordinary People and guitarist Patrick Chng is basically credited with kick-starting a wave of Singaporean indie rock from the late-80s — a wave that may ebb and flow erratically, but his work with The Oddfellows is still highly remembered today.

Originally starting out as a pet project for Chang Kang, TypeWriter is now back in 2017 with a brand new EP, What You're Feeling Is Not Enough, and a renewed sense of purpose.

For a bunch of 30-somethings whose trajectories have led them to paths all over Singapore, the consistencies in their work — even if sparse — make them an enjoyable listen every time, with an unmistakable foundation in clean, honest-to-God pop rock songwriting that aims to strike fast and linger hard.

In their newest EP, Chang Kang discusses just some of the topics they've mulled over for years, and even as so-called "veterans", their music aims to relate earnestly, without wagging fingers or hashing out sagely advice. As fully-grown adults with day jobs — and most of them supporting families — their stories are just a sliver of the Singaporean life, and they don't claim to represent all of it. But for what they do, they do it well.

Bandwagon recently sat down with TypeWriter to discuss What You're Feeling Is Not Enough — and the underlying meaning behind that title — along with their efforts keeping the band together, and why accents play a part in Singaporean music.

Draw us a brief timeline from Indian Head Massage all the way to the start of What You’re Feeling Is Not Enough. How did you guys start to conceptualize the EP after that album?

Chang Kang: "Indian Head Massage was from 2010, that was seven years ago. Within those seven years, we didn't really rest. We are a band with folks all in day jobs, so it’s harder. Along the way, we didn't slack off or anything, we were constantly trying to get this next release out. Time flies is all we can say."

So a lot of the time included songwriting?

Chang Kang: "Actually two of the songs are old, relatively older. There was a period of time when our previous drummer had to work in Kuala Lumpur, so we were waiting to see what was next. That took awhile, and it was decided that he had to be stationed there more often, so that’s why we roped Robin in.

That allowed us to work harder because he was there with us. Alan came along because Desmond couldn't go to the UK for our English Breakfast Tour due to his job. This was around 2013. At that point we liked him so much, we asked him to join the band.

During the rehearsals for the tour, we asked him to join us as a permanent member and that we would decide what he would do after we came back, since Desmond would be back to play bass for us once the tour was done. We told Alan, “When we come back, you’ll play the tambourine or something like that.”

Alan: "Suddenly I sound like the third wheel. (laughs)"

Chang Kang: "But it was a good third wheel. This new EP benefited a lot from Alan’s input. And of course Robin too."

The process for Indian Head Massage took a couple of years to develop. Did the band try to avoid that lengthy process this time around?

Chang Kang: "No, I don't think it was us trying to avoid it, it was us just trying to live an adult working life. (laughs)" 

Tell us more about that: living the adult working life and making music.

Chang Kang: "Half of the members in the band have kids now, so they’re fathers, first and foremost. They have their responsibilities. Those who don't have kids still have their families to look after.

So having five members in a band, there is a bigger permutation of things to work around. For every member, you add more time to figure out how to jam together."

So the many years it took to come out with this EP, did most of it had to do with working around everyone’s schedule?

Patrick: "Yes, that was the toughest part. Sometimes you feel like moving faster, like, "Why is it taking us so long?" But sometimes, no matter how fast you try to drive a car, there is still a limit. It’s frustrating but inevitable. But it’s not just that, we wanted to make it good and experiment with new sounds and stuff, that also took us awhile."

Desmond: "If you listen to the new EP, you can hear the sonic shift from the Indian Head Massage album, both in terms of arrangements and songwriting. I think for songwriting, the core is still there from Indian Head Massage up to now, it’s what makes TypeWriter in a sense, but it is also up to us to individually add our own identities and sonic palette to it. Everyone has an idea of how a song should sound like. Sometimes, you wouldn't know when to stop."

Patrick: "We also didn't want to make another Indian Head Massage, we really wanted to push ourselves and challenge ourselves and make something that we’re excited about."

Alan: "It’s kind of like us trying to find TypeWriter 2.0 so we also understand the timelapse between Indian Head Massage and this new EP, so we wanted this to be a good reflection of the songs too."

Everything in our personal lives, sonically, musically, spiritually, we hope it all comes together and reflects itself on the new EP. It is also us finding maturity in our sound."

Robin: We kind of feel like a different band altogether. We couldn't take it for granted that people know us from Indian Head Massage, so we had to approach this like a new band, in a sense."

Chang Kang is considered the chief songwriter of the group. With some of you being in other bands and having their own sense of what the music should be like, how do you balance their ideas and your vision of what TypeWriter should be?

Chang Kang: "Everyday I’m learning, it’s not an easy process but I think I’m getting better at it."

Desmond: "Democracy is hard. (laughs)"

Chang Kang: "Democracy doesn't work. When you become too democratic, it ends up with “So Chang Kang, what do you actually want?” and you become a slave driver and end up being an asshole."

Alan: "We have faith in his ideas."

Chang Kang: "But time and again, we would have our fights. It has never been docile. There was once when Robin left early and the rest of us were jamming and I flared up, it was brutal. It was bad but I think after that, everyone stepped up also. We’re a better band because of that. I'm not saying we should fight all the time, but it happens — when it does, we become stronger."

Well, if there are heated arguments like that, you guys must really care about what you're doing.

Chang Kang: Of course, that’s one way to look at it. There was once, it was between Alan and I—"

Alan: "Think like on a level of a coffeeshop or nightclub fight. (laughs)"

Chang Kang: "It got so bad that the studio owner came up and had to ask us to quieten down."

So how do you resolve these kinds of situations?

Desmond: "Of course, as adults you have to rationalize and try to understand each other — even in marriages, like between husbands and wives, when they fight."

Patrick: "We just try to understand each other’s point of view."

We have yet to hear the new EP, but your music has a lot of ‘90s rock and power pop influence in it — there's a youthful vigor to it, with the power chords and what they represent.

You guys are at a point in your life where you have kids and jobs and responsibilities. It's a far cry from what power pop songs usually address. In the new music that you write, does it still feel honest and autobiographical? Or do you feel like you’re writing with a certain narrative in mind that comes from creative storytelling rather than honesty?

Chang Kang: "For me, as a songwriter, I usually write with an honest narrative. It is a learned craft to write "dishonestly", to appreciate writing from a third-person perspective. That way, I’m just telling a story, there are no emotions and feelings in that."

I think why we're still in the band is because we want to do more, to reach out more — whether if it's through my lyrics or the music. That’s what we're feeling.

At this point in time, other people are doing other things, so why are we jamming? Because we want to feel more."

— Yee Chang Kang, on making music in the modern age.

But even as you're writing stories, the emotions that you’re trying to convey — does that all still come from a personal place?

Chang Kang: "Yes, of course. The title of the EP, to me, is as honest as you can get. I think it’s a universal truth that every one of us, most of the time, are in denial — especially with Singaporeans. You try to talk about life, 95% of the time, the other person will tell you to relax and change the topic.

This isn't meant to be a condescending statement, it's just something that reflects what I see. It’s basically a question of "Are you feeling enough?" I think why we're still in the band is because we want to do more, to reach out more — whether if it's through my lyrics or the music. That’s what we're feeling.

At this point in time, other people are doing other things, so why are we jamming? Because we want to feel more."

What do you feel when you jam?

Chang Kang: "We feel cathartic. It is a form of release. That’s when we sound good. On the days we sound bad, it’s messy. But when you're in the zone and the vibes are good, it’s as good as doing yoga."

Patrick, you've been playing music since the '80s. What's your take on this?

Patrick: "It’s a very natural thing. Since young, I’ve loved music and enjoy playing it, so it’s just something I've continued doing, I don't really think about it. I have had many opportunities to play with different bands and right now I'm with TypeWriter, so it’s something I enjoy, and I’ll keep playing until—maybe one day we’ll play for Silver Arts Festival."

You guys could do a reunion show at the Esplanade Theatre, just like what the ‘60s bands did this year.

Chang Kang: "You’ll never know. I feel that as long as music is nicely archived, there’s something to look back to."

Back then, CDs and cassettes were widely used, and now the new EP isn't even going to have a CD release — only on vinyl and digital. How do you feel about the modern distribution services, especially with streaming?

Robin: "I think streaming has a certain level of convenience, it’s the most effective way of getting the music out there and it’s the most instant way for someone to get hold of a piece of music.

Everyone asks nowadays, “what’s your SoundCloud page, or your mixcloud page, and if you have Spotify” so it’s become pretty common. Everyone’s streaming and it’s so convenient. It might not translate into money for the band but it is the quickest way to get a piece of music out there."

Since young, I’ve loved music and enjoy playing it, so it’s just something I've continued doing, I don't really think about it."

— Patrick Chng, on playing music for almost three decades.

You guys seem very conscious about the current state of distribution — we talked about this being "TypeWriter 2.0", are you guys looking to reach out to new fans who don't know TypeWriter through digital means?

Chang Kang: "To be honest, being a veteran band, it means we come with a lot of baggage. We're not looking for a reaction along the lines of, “Oh look, it’s the godfathers of the local indie scene.” We just want people to enjoy the music.

Just to backtrack a bit to what you said earlier about Patrick being in the music scene for 30 years, that’s how we keep ourselves young, because we discovered music and we hope our fans can feel that same way by listening to us. I think we can all say that we’re a lot younger than the 20+ year olds working day and night.

It’s not about the age, it’s about doing what you want in life. But it’s been tough, we’ve been working for seven fucking years and only made five fucking songs. (laughs) Hopefully, people just recognize the effort we put into them."

What do you see for the future past the EP?

Desmond: "It's important for us to get a Milo endorsement. (laughs)"

Chang Kang: "We want to reach out to new fans. We’re happy that we have our old fans, but we want to reach out more. We don't want to be one of those bands who are obscure by choice — we want to grow the fanbase and reach more people. Hopefully people hear it and get inspired like we did when we were younger.

Back when the 100 Bands shows first started, not many people went because everyone only knew Baybeats. But there was this band there called Shophouse, and they told us that their most well-received song in the setlist was a cover of 'That Deepest Blue', which is our song. So we hope to inspire the next generation."

Robin: "I think for most artists, it’s safe to say that they make music to be heard. It’s not a private vanity project, they want to get it out there — to start a conversation between the artist and listener."

So the music you make is the music you want to write. What is the connection you want between your fans and your music?

Chang Kang: It's really simple. We just want them to be able to relate, and for them to say, “Hey, I feel that way too.""

Instead of asking “how is your music Singaporean,” let’s discuss how Singapore plays a part in your music.

Chang Kang: People have suggested that if we like music so much, we should just play at pubs. For others, music is just music, but for us, it’s a passionate thing. We churn out music that makes us feel alive, we’re not here to play covers just for the sake of it.

For the band, when it comes to writing, we discuss the basic gist of the song and everyone gives their input because they all have been in other bands with a lot of knowledge, and that’s a fucking great thing. There's a lot of passion."

The general consensus is that, back in the ‘70s, the actions by the government were a hindrance to music culture in Singapore.

Bands like yourselves, you built your sound from the ground up — do you feel that if that period wasn’t stunted, if you had more time to blossom and grow, do you think the music scene would have been different from what it is now?

Chang Kang: "Perhaps. I can’t say for sure because it would have been an alternate version of history. Let’s divert from the question a bit but we’ll come back to it later.

Another thing that is apparently curbing us is that even today — if you watch Dick Lee’s Wonder Boy, it’s all about someone local singing in English. We’re basically an import society, that’s why radio usually doesn’t play local music."

Robin: "Singapore is a multicultural community and that is one of our strong points.

Chang Kang: "But why should we mask our local accents? No one in real life talks like a radio DJ. Or our TV presenters, do people actually talk like that? Until musicians are comfortable in their skin, with Singlish and the way we talk, that is when we will get the support from local radios."

So you think there's a deeper problem than the government trying to tone things down?

Chang Kang: "The problem is that there are not many people who appreciate local music. If you want an entire generation to embrace local music, we all need to be comfortable with the way we sound.

It doesn’t mean that just because we talk the way we do, that we can't think or articulate properly. But the government doesn’t understand that, they think we have to speak in perfect English for our words to carry some weight. That needs to change to support local acts."

I think what some of it has to do is the comfort in our identities, that it takes a foreigner to see the uniqueness rather than locals who have a general perception that local bands aren't good."

— Robin Chua, on Singapore's general perception of local music.

Some would argue that having the International form of English is necessary to reach audiences beyond Singapore, but you guys do have fans from other countries. What is one thing they point out that they appreciate?

Chang Kang: "There was a professor from the U.S, who was a fan. He was invited to give a lecture in NUS and he wanted to meet us. We had dinner with him and he played some our songs for his class to listen to. We were all shocked! That’s the beautiful thing about music, it transcends languages, everything can be conveyed just by the melodies."

Robin: "I think what some of it has to do is the comfort in our identities, that it takes a foreigner to see the uniqueness rather than locals who have a general perception that local bands aren't good. Most locals who hear our music will say “Doesn’t sound like a local band."

Many locals tend to despise local music on the base that, we’re basically local. I've worked at Hear Records in Chinatown for awhile and foreigners would come in and ask if we had any local band records. I would play something for them and they’ll go “Wow, I can’t find anything that sounds like this back home,” and they buy it.

In that sense, locals need to see the appeal in music from Singaporeans."

That kind of phenomena is not exclusive to Singapore, with a lot of countries having their own problems in their respective music scenes. It also seems like after SG50, more people have been more open with their support towards Singaporean music. Have you seen any differences since the '90s, for example?

Chang Kang: "Of course, it’s all good. I wish every band and every local musician success. You can only say that there’s an alternative music scene if there's a proper mainstream scene. Back to what you said about accents and all, I’m still working on better pronunciations myself but I’m not going to go all out and put on an unnatural accent.

Fortunately, I have four other guys who all ask me to sing the way I do. They’re not like “Chang Kang, why don't you sing with an accent, we can get all the girls,” so kudos to all of them for believing in my singing and my accent and are still sitting at this table, talking to you. If any of them weren't happy with it, this conversation would not be happening."

Desmond: "To further elaborate on what you were saying about the changes in the local music scene, I think the new local artists like iNCH and Gentle Bones — Gentle Bones had two sold out concerts at the Esplanade — it’s a good stamp on history that something is happening and people are starting to listen to music made in Singapore.

We have a very young music culture and even though it has been slow, it is still a form of growth and now is a good time for younger musicians to pick up the craft because all the avenues are out there for them to make use of."

Chang Kang: "Like Desmond said, people are doing things, but how do you affect the audience to stay supportive constantly?"

Do you guys have, at least, an idea of how to do that?

Alan: "No. I think for us, staying together and doing it is contributing already. The hard truth is, at our age, with the economic baggage, we can’t fully concentrate on music.

I actually don't think the language barrier is much of an issue. Look at Sigur Rós for example. They’re singing in languages we don’t understand but they’ve played multiple shows here. And Iceland has a smaller population than Singapore. Sadly to say, it's a fucking hard truth lah.

I hope the next generation of musicians really take the risk of focusing on music and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Be bolder and braver, not everything leads to a degree."

Desmond: "Like the guy who pointed the middle finger last night, right? (laughs)"

Alan: "Language isn’t a big issue based on the tours we’ve had with TypeWriter and our individual bands. They don't judge what your pronunciation is like. We hope what we're doing will inspire the next generation. Actually we want to take our hats off to our peers in The Observatory, who really went on the unbeaten path and made music a full time thing for them."

Desmond: "We’re pretty jealous to be honest, that they took such a big step in what is not the social norm in Singapore. But you’ll never know because everything is changing so quickly, the internet is still young and all of a sudden, we’re streaming."

Alan: "You'd never know, one musician may be yodeling in Singlish and they'd be big in Iceland. (laughs)"

The band's launch party for What You're Feeling Is Not Enough is happening on September 9th at Esplanade Annexe Studio. Supporting acts are Lost Weekend and Tiko Disko. Standard tickets are priced at S$18 and can be purchased here.