Anyone with a vested interest in uncompromisingly DIY Singaporean music should be familiar with these five names: Overthrown, Recover, Fuse, Doldrey and False Plaintiff.
Collectively, those five bands symbolise the evolution of Made In Singapore hardcore music over the years. Originating here in the ‘90s, the scene and its attendant spirit have evolved to become more than a heavier and angrier offspring of punk. Hardcore is a sonic metaphor for transcendence – for resolute determination in the face of adversity, for independence and, most crucially, for community. Hardcore runs parallel to, and never into, the mainstream consciousness and into the hearts of those that can hear past the deafening screams and understand the deeply poignant and resonant stories behind the aggressive lyrics.
In the roundtable interview below, Jai, frontman of Overthrown, Azfar, guitarist of Recover, Syafiqa, guitarist of Fuse, Farhan, drummer of Doldrey and Nicholas, guitarist of False Plaintiff, chat with us about what hardcore means to them and how it continues to impact their lives in myriad ways ahead of the Vans Hardcore Showcases slated to happen in October and November.
What does hardcore mean to you in 2019?
Azfar: It’s loud, positive music. If I were to explain it to someone who doesn't go to shows, I always say it's just another genre of music – just that it might not be your cup of tea.
Farhan: If we were to go deeper, hardcore is a place that is positive but there are also people who want to abuse it, by abusing alcohol, drugs, and do other crazy things. That's the thing about hardcore – you don't push them away. They are still part of the group. It's a bit of a complex. But then again, we accept it; we are not supposed to judge.
Also, like other genres such as hip-hop, hardcore is a genre that comes with its subculture. It has its trends, fashions, and everything else that comes with the music.
Syafiqah: It's an outlet to express your sense of individuality. Hardcore is very diverse. There are bands who talk about spirituality and wanting to be a better person. There are other bands who talk about politics and the realities of the world, such as greed, police brutality and racism. Each person's experience with hardcore is unique, and it depends on what they relate to and what resonates with them the most. So, for me, it's mostly about spirituality and wanting to better myself for the community and the people around me.
Jai: To me, it's a channel to express oneself – something personal, something to keep myself sane. I don't want to conform with people of my age who are tied to their jobs – this is my alter ego that keeps me going.
Why is being DIY so important in hardcore?
Jai: I've always been very independent in my personal life – I do not like to depend on others. There was a time where you needed to know certain people in order to be part of the scene – I never believed in that. My mindset was to just do my own thing, create something of your own, invite your friends and grow together. That’s how we all did it and that’s why we never needed things like major labels.
Azfar: Whether it's okay to be signed under a label, it depends on your preference. Whatever you do, in whatever scene, people are going to talk shit no matter what. For example, even if you're not signed to a major label and you're with a more underground one, you can still be screwed over by the system. There's really no right or wrong.
So, to me, DIY means having control over your music – distribution, collaborations, target market, and all the other aspects. No one's going to tell you that you need to record six albums before your contract is due – you have the freedom to decide for yourself.
Farhan: DIY labels don't sign bands; there's no physical contract. It's more like a handshake agreement. I think that these underground labels who are run by one to two people are a good platform through which you can get your name out into the world. Singapore is so small, the furthest you can realistically go is within Southeast Asia, Australia or Japan. Working with these labels makes it easier to show the world what we've got in the Singapore scene.
Jai: If you wish to be signed by a label from, say, the UK, US or Europe, then you have to be prepared to tour. Otherwise, it's pointless. The reason why they want us to tour is to promote our music – they want to make sure it's selling. There's no point if they sign us and print 300 copies of our album, and it stagnates there. So, if we are independent, then we are free to go wherever we want.
Syafiqah: I agree with what Farhan said earlier. The main point of being on an international label is to sell your music by getting it out there. But in the DIY scene, profit is not the main goal – it is purely to spread your music. That's why I prefer the DIY scene.
To me, being independent is to make music that I really want to make, and staying true to what I want to create.
Nicholas: On the topic of big labels and such, I do feel that they have their pros. At the end of the day, it's about whether the band and the label have a mutual understanding of what they want to achieve. My take on independence is, like what Syafiqah said, is having that total control over what you want to create. If the label aligns with what the band wants, that's perfect.
And how do you balance your day job with being in a hardcore band in Singapore?
Farhan: It's like a hobby. With Doldrey, we just jam when there's a show or when we are writing new music. I think it's a roughly once-a-week-thing for everyone – so it's just two hours of being in a band, or if I'm in two other bands then it's about six hours.
Syafiqah: Well, I just graduated and I'm looking for a job. So, I wouldn't want to work for a company whose ethics don't match with mine. It's a sense of dissonance that I feel within myself, so I'm still trying to figure that out. Sometimes you have to separate your day job and your music because you have to make a living.
Jai: I'm a nurse, so people don't know what I do outside of my nursing life. I don't tell people either, unless they find out for themselves and ask me about it. I get asked why I shout in my music, and I tell them that I got into hardcore not for the screaming, but for the lyrics and its positive messages.
To say that hardcore is a way of life is a bit of a cliché, but it was real, especially when I was younger, back in the '90s, when there were street gangs and other unsavoury groups. People as young as 12 were allowed to go to Tea Dances on Sundays, where alcohol wasn’t served before 6pm. There were gang fights, drugs and all that. So, I didn't get into those things because I escaped to skateboarding and the hardcore scene. To me, hardcore is a way of life outside and away from those struggles.
Azfar: I don't claim to be a "true-blue hardcore person", because I never was one to begin with. I don't hide it, but I don't show it off either. When I first stepped into the working world, I was an art and music teacher in a secondary school. I taught for almost two years, and then I realised I couldn’t do both.
There was an incident when I was dressed up in the punk get-up – studded jackets and all. I had to go to the ATM, and I bumped into my class. [Laughs] It wasn't really a big deal, but maybe to some people, it might not be a very good example to the youngsters. Some might see the positivity in hardcore, but a lot of people see the negativity. That got me thinking, and I realised that teaching was not for me, so I ditched it and went into events, videography and sound – which fit me and my lifestyle better.
Nicholas: There honestly isn't any issue for me. How I see it, is I use my day job to fund what I want to do. I currently work in advertising. The good thing about it, is that it's a very open industry. I have no trouble asking my boss for leave if I'm going on tour. There will definitely be people who don't get the music I play but I normally just recommend they have a listen and decide for themselves if they like it or not.
What's the weirdest thing anyone's ever said about your music?
Nicholas: One of my colleagues said my band sounds like Metallica! I feel that people just can't differentiate between the subgenres.
Jai: Yes. We often get compared to a lot of bands in metal subgenres. People associate us with death metal and trash metal but not hardcore. I work in a government hospital and I can't have long hair or deviate from the protocol. So, at work, at least, I don't expect people to know what I'm playing. Working there has actually kept me grounded. I see everyday people trying to overcome the different curveballs that life has thrown at them. It's very eye-opening.
Azfar: I find it much easier to just say I play metal when asked what kind of music I play. Otherwise, it'd be so exhausting trying to explain to them.
Farhan: Luckily, for me, my colleagues are black metal fans – they know their stuff, so I don't have to explain to them what exactly it is I play. I admit that mine is a special environment.
Azfar: But to be honest, hardcore isn't a difficult genre to explain. There's nothing really that technical about it. It's fast and heavy but not in the way that metal and all its offshoots are. It's not as politically radical as punk. One of the things that is special about it is that it emphasises the element of community in all aspects of life.
Yes. It's known that unity is a big part of the spirit of hardcore.
Jai: Unity is definitely a huge part of what hardcore used to be. But that means unity is hard to achieve. As a whole, even within the scene, people have their differences. In the general sense, people are just bound to butt heads because everyone has their own way of thinking. But the good thing about our scene is that we all go to the same shows and enjoy ourselves. Conflict is normal but if everything is too perfect, there won't be such a thing as hardcore. Negativity keeps it colourful – and keeps it going.
But musically speaking, I don't just write about unity anymore. Now, I write about love, betrayal and things like that.
Azfar: I've had this conversation with my vocalist before – what do we, as a band, write about in 2019? We've been together since 1996. Back then, it was all about unity, which is a principle that trickled down from punk. That's why I think hardcore is a more mature take on punk ideology. Punk is more radical and activist-driven. But in 2019, I think we have to go beyond unity and write about more things. That foundation has already been established. Let's talk about love! It's so hard to talk to about love in the hardcore scene; it's such a taboo.
But taking it back to unity, I want to make it clear that it's important but we have to move beyond it. There will always be differences and if we want to be better human beings, we should accept and respect those differences and move on.
Syafiqah: At the end of day, there's no point in forcing unity. If you write and sing about something that isn't really there, what are you really saying? You'll naturally gravitate towards people who have the same values as you but the main basis of the scene is that, despite whatever differences in thought or opinion, we all go to the same shows, we all love the same music and we all have the same passion. We shouldn't expect everyone to hold hands.
Jai: Yes. I actually feel that the scene is stronger now. It's had some years to grow and develop so, in the general sense, everyone who's in it has a more mature understanding about how to stick together and continue on.
That's a good point. Jai and Azfar, as veterans, what are your thoughts on the scene today? What keeps you believing in it?
Jai: It's definitely more established now. Look at the room. These are all new kids from different bands that have come in and are playing better than the bands that came before them, to be honest. Look at Fuse and False Plaintiff. The older ones in my circle may not get them but there are lots and lots of people that do.
Another good sign is that more Singaporean bands are getting opportunities to tour and play overseas. This means that there is a demand for this music beyond Singapore.
Azfar: Music-wise, there's definitely been a progression. It actually surprises me that there are new people still coming in. Back then, I thought it would become old and jaded and I'm glad to be proven wrong. You always see new faces. A good example of this was when Recover played for another hardcore band called Deceased. At the show, we realised that there was a whole other hardcore scene apart from the one we were used to, with people we had never seen before. When we asked around, we were told there's a whole other separate scene. That is proof that the scene is evolving.
Vans will host a concert series that will pay homage to the legacy of hardcore music, and the DIY ethos that informs it.
The first of the three shows will take place on 4 October, at Decline, and will feature Overthrown, Radigals, and Bind from 7:30pm onwards. The next two dates are 18 October, with a final show in November (TBC). Other acts slated to perform include Wormrot, Doldrey, Recover, False Plaintiff, Hollow Threat, LC93, and Fuse. All three shows will be free and open to public.
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