In the world of Marisse Caine, 33, it’s not just technical prowess that reigns supreme (though she has that in spades). It’s her distinctive vision that truly sets her apart. Whether you delve into the captivating realm of her idiosyncratic portraits or immerse yourself in her insightful photography, you’ll instantly discern her uncanny ability to unearth a subject’s hidden quirks or cast an illuminating spotlight on the enigmatic fringes of Singaporean subcultures.
But as vibrant as her visual creativity is, much of her creative inspiration derives from the world of sound. From jazz concerts to hardcore gigs to techno raves, Caine has been a stalwart in the local music scene for over 15 years now. And beyond the fun times, the community and cultures of those spaces have also shaped her personally and professionally. Here, she reveals her thoughts on the state of the scene.
A shot taken in 2009 from the dancefloor of the now-defunct The Butter Factory, one of Singapore’s hottest clubs. The party establishment first opened in 2006 at Robertson Quay but closed in 2015 after a six-year tenure at its last location, One Fullerton.
How were you trained?
“I enrolled in a basic photography course at the Photographic Society of Singapore. Following that, I gained practical experience by assisting various photographers, honed my skills through regular shooting and practice sessions with friends, and eventually delved into the realms of conceptualisation and photography theory at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Additionally, I received invaluable guidance and support in critical thinking from my friend Timothy Stuart Wee, who currently lectures at Lasalle College of the Arts. My journey was enriched by exceptional mentors both within and outside of academic settings. I also read and looked at tonnes of photography across disciplines over the last 16 years. This encompassed a wide array of photographers, ranging from independent and semi-professional artists to luminaries like Steven Miesel, Daido Moriyama, Richard Avedon, and Nan Goldin.”
Caine took this portrait of Bongomann when he was 17 years old, and he has since become one of Singapore’s most renowned music selectors and producers.
When did you start venturing into Singapore’s music scene?
“My mother Yvette Atienza is a jazz musician, so I grew up around music and musicians. Naturally, I was drawn to the scene as it was something that was encouraged at home. But my entry point was through photography when I started shooting bands such as Trella (Bongomann and El Professionel from Super Enjoy’s former band), Caracal, A Vacant Affair and Amateur Takes Control in 2006 or 2007 – at places like Gas Haus and the former Home Club.
After the natural progression from rock to indie pop and electro, I started shooting professionally for veteran DJ Adrian Wee, snapping pictures for his Poptart parties at the now–defunct The Butter Factory – and eventually for Leon Ho (aka DJ Inquisitive) for his Mad Thrills night. Adrian gave me my first paying job. Shout out to the OG because I could enter the club at 17 to work as a photographer, and experience the enigmatic scene.”
The now-defunct Home Club, owned by Roy Ng (pictured in the top right wearing a black T-shirt) and shuttered in 2014, was one of Caine’s stomping grounds. The images here are from Beat!, one of Singapore’s longest-running indie music nights, headlined by DJs Ginette Chittick and Joe Ng (pictured at the top left). These photos also feature a club regular, former MTV VJ Holly Grabarek (wearing a checked top).
How has the music and community shaped you personally?
“In many ways, music and the community have introduced new neural pathways, fostering novel ways of thinking and perceiving within my mind. Whether through the exploration of new sounds or the vicarious experience of life through the lens of the many fascinating and brilliant artists within this realm, there’s never a dull moment.
Take jazz, for example, a significant presence in my life. My uncle, the internationally renowned bassist Christy Smith, refers to it as “Classical Black Music.” This perspective offers an intriguing insight, particularly when considering jazz’s origins in New Orleans and its connection to African-American culture. Music often serves as a response to the prevailing political climate of its time. However, if your sole exposure to jazz is hearing ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ at a dive bar, you may not fully grasp the genre’s historical importance, which can limit the expansion of your mind.
On the other hand, your entry point into jazz might indeed be “Fly Me To The Moon.” Later on, you could discover the enchanting voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and further down the road, you might encounter the film Green Book (2018) prompting you to question and explore deeper. I hope this perspective resonates with you, as immersing yourself in music can undeniably broaden your consciousness.
Learning a new genre or instrument also introduces your body to new rhythms. This is why some genres of music are often described as an “acquired taste.” It’s because not all music is easy listening; you need to train your mind to understand what you’re hearing.
For instance, consider John Coltrane’s album Giant Steps (1960). It employs an almost intuitive, mathematical approach to deconstructing the classical and timeless rules governing the combination of certain musical keys, rearranging them to create something entirely novel. Initially, this might feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but as you become more acquainted with it, the experience becomes increasingly enjoyable. It’s akin to the way people approach coffee or wine – the first sip may not be the best, often requiring added sugar to make it palatable, but over time, most individuals reach a purist stage where they can discern the distinct characteristics of different varieties.”
Party scenes from Poptart in the 2000s. The long-running club night, headed by DJ Adrian Wee, started in 2004 and is still going strong today.
Do you feel that the scene has influenced you creatively?
“The scene is what keeps me innovative and inspired. In some ways, it spoils me because I can learn so many new things without putting in the legwork myself, just by conversing with people.
For instance, I recently had a conversation with Xue, the butoh performer, and she was sharing with me her process and inspiration behind her work and practice. One of the many interesting things she said was that butoh is quite rooted in post-structuralism – which is basically doing a very simple movement, like of picking up a cup for example – but finding 50 new ways to get from Point A (picking up a cup) to Point B (the cup touching your lips). I didn’t have to go to class to understand a bit of Xue’s practice and to be inspired by her work. We just had a conversation and it was fun!
The scene comprises artists, forward thinkers, humble supporters, and needle movers. Everyone, more or less in their own way, is a disruptor. Whether in the creative scene, at the workplace, within the realm of identity, or even at home – how could I not be inspired?”
One of the “needle movers” who Caine believes has had a profound impact on the music scene here is the late Eileen Chan (pictured on the right). Chan co-founded nightlife spots Headquarters and Tuff Club, paving the way for the techno scene in Singapore.
Who are some of these people, and how have they helped the music scene grow?
“In my perspective, the key to delving into even more astonishing realms lies in keeping our hearts in the right place and never losing sight of the importance of community. This journey had its origins with the OGs I was fortunate to know, and these experienced individuals, in turn, were guided and inspired by their own mentors and trailblazers within the scene.
From Dean Chew’s role in “brokering” Boiler Room’s presence this year to Kiat from Syndicate releasing his music through Metalheadz, and from Roy Ng’s initiative in establishing Home Club to Eileen Chan and Clement Chin’s founding of The Council, not to mention Joe Ng, a multi-talented figure in singing, DJing, and composing music for local films, they have laid the groundwork that has positioned us on the musical map. To all the aspiring young enthusiasts out there, it’s vital to recognise that you’re only able to enjoy what you do because of the contributions of these iconic figures. And, of course, Hidzir, you have played an integral role in writing about and experiencing everything within the scene. Whether they are curating exceptional venues, gaining international recognition for our local talent, or diligently documenting its growth, these individuals have been instrumental in expanding and evolving Singapore’s underground music scene over the past two decades.
And now, we witness the emergence of a new generation, including talents like Kin Leonn, Weish, Yung Raja, Fariz Jabba, and Aisyah Aziz, who are propelling the scene forward with unparalleled excitement and dynamism.”
DJ Yetpet on the decks during one of the parties thrown by the experimental music collective Strange Weather
Which collectives are throwing the coolest parties right now?
“Coolness is relative to the spaces you’re drawn to. In my view, there’s nothing that isn’t cool. It may sound cheesy, but what truly defines coolness is when people unapologetically pursue their passions. What’s also cool to me is kindness and the spirit of supportiveness.
There are probably numerous parties that elude my awareness because I do not occupy that particular ecosystem. It could be due to the absence of friends in that realm or simply not having been exposed to it yet. Nevertheless, within the sphere I currently inhabit, I hold great respect for entities such as Strange Weather, Super Enjoy, Blench, North East Social Club, Ice Cream Sundays, Endless Return, as well as anything associated with Bobby Luo and Ritz Lim, Revision Music, Last Saturdays, Bussy Temple, Kings of Bass, and Darker Than Wax.
Dude, this list is extensive. Each of these entities, whether longstanding or newly emerging, curates distinct sounds and caters to diverse audiences. Some harbour grand aspirations, while others operate on a smaller, DIY scale. However, what unites them all is their mutual support and increasing collaboration, leading to an intertwining of their respective followings. This intermingling paves the way for a flourishing creative community and the cross-pollination of ideas. Whether they’re orchestrating grand festivals or hosting concealed pop-up raves, each of them plays a pivotal role in elevating the vibrancy of the Singaporean scene.
Singapore is arguably one of the most vibrant cities globally, and it’s astonishing how many people remain unaware of what they’re missing out on. There’s something to suit every taste and cater to every mood. And, you know, we’ve got that unique Asian flavour – everyone’s got their own distinctive style here. The range of cool offerings is so extensive that I might just find myself overwhelmed by it all.”
Marisse Caine captured scenes from The Last Mile, the farewell party slash music festival at Golden Mile Complex in March to celebrate its closing.
Where do you see it going in the next few years?
“I don’t know. I appreciate the fact that Singapore remains somewhat undiscovered by mainstream global media. It gives us a certain elusiveness. Musicians worldwide are already familiar with our talented artists, many of whom are touring internationally. However, there’s a need to raise more awareness about it. Take Wormrot, for example – they’ve reached iconic status in the grindcore scene. People from Europe even come here specifically to watch them and are ardent fans. I don’t possess a crystal ball, but I’d venture to say that we’re only going to become even cooler.
We have a genuine and vibrant music community here, a real music culture. I recently visited Japan and Korea, which are considered leading Asian cities, but I found their music scenes somewhat fragmented, with a limited rave culture. They typically attend events featuring specific musicians. In contrast, here in Singapore, you can encounter individuals from various music scenes like punk, psytrance, electro, and more, all sharing the same space, and we all know and support each other. There’s truly no other place in the world quite like this made-up country called Singapore, inhabited by made-up people known as Singaporeans. Honestly, we’re f*cking cool and hot AF, what can I say?”
See Marisse Caine’s work come to life in a fashion editorial for FEMALE’s November 2023 Music Edition, available on newsstands now