What’s the 4-1-1 in the world of Singaporean music? It’s a multifaceted question, considering the diverse range of local artists and their unique reactions to the challenges posed by the pandemic over the past three years, the surge in streaming, and other prevailing trends of our era. However, to get a glimpse of what lies ahead, we can turn to the recent endeavours of Singapore’s music veterans. We’ve reached out to some of our most cherished artists to gain insights into their current undertakings.
Sial consists of (from left): Vocalist Siti Fatimah, guitarist Hafiz Shamsudin, bassist Zafran Mohd, and drummer Izzad Radzali Shah
“Nobody cares about our lyrics because it’s just yelling,” says Sial guitarist Hafiz Shamsudin. However, the Malay punk act’s relationship with language runs a bit deeper than he suggests. Since its formation in 2016, Sial has cultivated a sound that music blog Stereogum has enthusiastically described as “apocalyptically angry,” “ripping,” and “nasty” (don’t worry, these are all positive attributes).
Frustrated by the limitations of English, the band has been deeply influenced by groups that scream in Finnish, Spanish, Arabic, and countless other languages from around the world. However, it’s important to note that categorizing their influences as anything-but-English would be an oversimplification.
Sial’s harsh songs are replete with Romantic idioms, proverbs, and literary techniques inspired by various sources, ranging from dangdut folk music to the Kurik Kundi Merah Saga. This collection of Malay poems was crafted to be recited aloud and shared.
As many artists break away from Anglocentrism, the dominance of English online has suppressed the use of Asian languages. Loghat or slang is declining among younger Malay speakers as schools prioritise functional communication. “They sound so stiff,” cringes vocalist and chief lyricist Siti Fatimah.
Despite its anticolonial credo, Sial’s output is by no means intended as educational. The band is content to allow people to figure things out on their own, including where they’ll play next (Sial has no social media).
This no-spoonfeeding attitude is rooted in the old ways, where hard-to-find zines and CDs would open doors for the curious to political punk scenes around the world. “You’d listen to an anarcho-punk song about, like, vivisection and go, ‘Oh, should I be vegan now?!'” jokes Hafiz, who, at the time of writing, is not vegan.
As an old-school touring act, Sial places more emphasis on physical, full-length releases and merchandise that generate income rather than streaming numbers. In the post-pandemic era, the band has observed a diversification of their audience beyond the regular punk kids in the scene.
People are more genre-curious than ever before. However, on their home turf in Singapore, the high costs of performance venues present an inherently classist obstacle for indie musicians. This situation provides plenty of reasons to be enraged.
Since Sial aims for one release per year, we’ll likely experience the renewed force of their outrage soon, during one of their electrifying, nonstop live sets. In these performances, Siti discreetly takes sips of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa or, more recently, a syrup formulated after one used by the Sistine Chapel choir in the 18th century – a form of salvation for a singer of uncomfortable truths.
THE GREAT SPY EXPERIMENT
The Great Spy Experiment comprises (from left) keyboardist Magdelene Han, drummer Fandy Razak, bassist Khairyl Hashim, guitarist Song, and vocalist and guitarist Saiful Idris
“I think I left my soul on the stage,” says The Great Spy Experiment’s (GSE) keyboardist Magdelene Han a few days after their comeback show at Baybeats in Oct. “It felt like the beginning again. I saw my bandmates smiling together for the first time in ages.”
Formed in 2006, GSE released two acclaimed albums and broke new ground for Singapore music abroad, including their performance at the annual music festival and conference SXSW. However, much has changed since their last performance in 2015. Time has mellowed the band, and studio sessions have become more focused, thanks to the demands of day jobs and children.
Although the stability of family life can present creative challenges, it has also inspired new motivations. “My father passed when I was five years old, and I only learned years later that he used to play music,” says vocalist and guitarist Saiful Idris. “Now, I want my son to know as much of who I am as possible.”
Beyond their own families, the younger generation is also transforming Singapore’s indie scene. With technology lowering barriers to entry, musicians are becoming proficient earlier in life and producing more polished and more complex work than their predecessors could. These days, it’s even possible to shoot a quality music video on a smartphone camera instead of spending thousands of dollars on rented filming equipment, says drummer Fandy Razak.
Established in 2006, The Great Spy Experiement has released two acclaimed albums and broke new ground for Singapore music overseas.
Far from feeling pressure to play catch-up with the kids, GSE is evolving with the times while retaining its signature magic. Bassist Khairyl Hashim puts it plainly: “A good bowl of laksa will always be a good bowl of laksa.” The signature stock, in this case, is the quintet’s unbreakable bond.
Since its start, the band has agreed that nobody who wanted to leave would ever be replaced. “For the five of us to last as long as we have… I know I need to cherish this forever,” says Fandy. “Somehow when we get together, it just happens,” agrees guitarist Song.
What the future holds next for GSE is a wide-open mystery. When the group first discussed reuniting in late 2021, it was on the condition that they wouldn’t commit to any long-term plans: “We’re taking it slowly, one dance at a time,” says Song.
Wormrot drummer Vijesh Ghariwala (right) and guitarist Rasyid Juraimi (left)
“When we’re playing overseas, sometimes random people shout ‘Singapore rules!’ and I don’t know how to feel,” says Wormrot’s guitarist Rasyid Juraimi. The grindcore band, formed in 2007 and now considered one of the genre’s finest by rock critics, wasn’t gaining traction in Singapore when they decided to tour Europe with only $50 between them. They quickly won over audiences abroad (folks at home would follow later) and became the first Singaporean act to appear at Glastonbury in 2017, breaking even after almost eight years of intensive touring.
“We just pushed and pushed,” Rasyid recalls of the days when the mosh’s energy was the only thing keeping Wormrot going. “It took forever, but we’re finally in a position to work on our music full-time.”
Not bad for a project formed by a crew of young, restless NSMen. But now as then, building a musical career in Singapore is a long, uphill battle. With little encouragement or prospect of financial viability, music will always remain a passion project for most.
Rather than being embittered, Rasyid is zen about the realities of musician life in Singapore. “You can get bored of music or return after a few years,” he says, “It doesn’t matter because music is always there for you.”
That certitude proved stabilising throughout the pandemic. Wormrot’s members calmly passed time practicing, composing, and studying music software, which culminated in 2022’s Hiss. The album was praised for its experimentation with the cinematic strings of violinist Myra Choo and is only the start of the band’s ambition to innovate outside the grindcore box.
Having just concluded a monthlong Southeast Asia tour, Wormrot is already mulling a tour of Japan or Europe. “If not, just a vacation in Osaka would be nice,” says Rasyid.
Leonard Soosay has been engineering the sounds of Singapore’s music acts since 1995
“I was working 12-hour days before Covid,” says veteran music producer Leonard Soosay, who has produced and recorded hundreds of local acts since 1995, composed ringtones for Nokia, and worked on commissioned remixes for superstars David Bowie and Kylie Minogue.
“But the quietness of the circuit breaker and the reappearance of butterflies brought me back to a simpler and less hectic time,” he adds. Despite carving out more time to sleep and creatively recharge, Soosay produced no fewer than three albums during the pandemic (including Wormrot’s Hiss).
The founder of Snakeweed Studios, who was pursuing an economics degree before making a sharp turn to music, sees this as less of an effect of overachieving than just being. “We are all born with the ability to create,” he says. “Some of us come into ourselves early and spend our lives creating. Others realise their potential later or decide there are more important things in life… the end goal is never as important as the journey.”
His work with countless Singaporean artists has given him a unique bird’s-eye perspective on the industry. “I think the pace of music-making here depends on money, or more accurately the lack of it,” he says, smiling. “Some bands take five years to complete an album because they can only record after payday.” That slow and deliberate pace, however, can give artists breathing room to rethink and refine their material.
At present, Leonard is finishing up mixes and singles for the likes of Caracal, Pleasantry, Amateur Takes Control, LEW, Esther Lo, Erika Poh (the list goes on), while also preparing to tour Asia with Motifs. His indefatigable drive can be summed up in the lyrics of ‘Siti’, which he produced for the band Force Vomit in 2002 and describes as his go-to song: “Don’t give up, oh Siti, don’t give up, for there are many in the fishbowl, even if it’s not too large.”