I never considered I’d find my way back to Singapore after first visiting with my family back in 2005. It’s not that there’s nothing about the place that appeals to me – its almost seamless mix of cultures and nationalities has always intrigued me – but when placed up alongside the rest of Southeast Asia, it lacks a certain edge (and if we’re being honest, cheapness). Nevertheless, I found myself heading back last month to visit my brother and his family who relocated there this past summer. And as always with my excursion these days, I decided to dig beneath the city’s sheen surface and navigate its local music scene. And gotta say, I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity, the DIY ethos, and communal aspect of the underground music scene. Between showcases held in (physically) tight studio spaces to BYOB venues that can only manage to cram 20 plus audience members, each surly singing along, there was something intimate and welcoming (and unpretentious) about how it scene rallies together. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the places I hit up, and the bands I came across.
Started with an appetizer of a show at The Music Parlour, a rehearsal & recording studio located in the heart of Singapore. Speakeasy vibes and makeshift cocktails (made up of duty free liquor bottles – which have became a necessity in the city where alcohol taxes are pretty steep) – I was able to dip in and check out award-winning fingerstyle guitarist Neil Chan, whose polished skills can’t hide the mastery of his technique, and Masbro, a cross-regional guitar duo that flirts between rustic post-rock and tender math rock.
On Saturday, I was able to combo together two killer showcases. First up was a performance at Retrophonic Records – the quaint and cozy little vinyl record store down Duxton Road. My main reason for attending: checking out math rock outfit cues, who I was turned onto by an old Beijing pal who lives in Singapore now. And I can’t recommend these cats enough. Intricate barely scratches the surface. Made up of twin sisters Gina and Germaine Phoo on guitar, as well as Rex Chin on drums and Tang Hui Jun on bass, the young group, is a tapestry of innovative off-kilter rhythm changes, led by the bewitching synergetic twin guitarists whose interweaving melody lines and (sometimes) vocal intonations are something to behold. It’s vibrant, spirited, and brimming with Technicolor sheen.
Satisfied, I only stuck around for a few of Coming to Roses, the robust alt rock outfit, whose blunt and evocative sound touches are everything from shoegaze to grunge, with a pop sensibility that left little to the imagination. They were pros through and through, particularly vocalist-bassist Emily Sera whose bold and transcendent voice is really something – the type of band that has the potential to hit it big.
But my heart was set on Lithe House, the petite livehouse and record label, located in the charm and grit of Little India. By the time I got there, Plate, the ‘ambient rock’ outfit headed by multi-instrumentalist Zhong Ren, were the in the midst of rocking the house, maneuvering through their emotive, visceral sound that touches on emo, folk, and arena rock, earnest in its emotion with the orchestral skills to back it.
The true highlight of the evening came from lo-fi bedroom acoustic pop act Quiet Quiet, known to most for his role in emo math rock band Forests. Dipping between his own wistful, playful and devilishly self-aware material as well as a few Forests favorites, he managed to stir the crowd into a surreal frenzy, eventually being stronghold to close out with ’Tamago’ which might be one of the catchiest, stirring emo rock anthems I’ve heard since high school. Heck, he managed to have the whole crowd singing along and even vocalizing the other missing instrumental parts.
The evening closed out with a set from Goose, a funk-infused folksy city pop group whose retro sound, refined Mandarin lyrics, and irresistible groove quickly won me and the rest of the crowd over. Giddy from a solid roundup of tunes the audience spilled into the street for back-pats and street beers – culminating in an ever so adorable selfie. A fine end to a riotous evening of tunes and bands and proof that Singapore has plenty of underground music gusto.
Links to venues and bands below:
The Music Parlour: https://www.facebook.com/themusicparlour/
Neil Chan: https://www.neilchanmusic.com/portal
Retrophonic Records: https://www.facebook.com/RetrophonicRecords
Coming Up Roses: https://cominguprosessg.bandcamp.com/
Lithe House: https://www.facebook.com/litheparalogue/
Quiet Quiet: https://quitequietofficial.bandcamp.com/