Interview: Racy Lim / Cover Photo: Left – Jun; Right – Zeek
Speaking to them, it’s fascinating to imagine how two people of seemingly parallel personalities draw each other to a single sound. “He’s usually the more noisy one, while I help to fill the silence if there’s any,” Zeek tells SAND.
Later on during the conversation, the both of them admit that while they see differences in their ways of life, their attraction towards music builds a seamless, shared experience during the creation process.
We’re interested in knowing more about Lies.
J: Ok, when did we record this?
Z: It was 2016, in January. So it has been two years.
J: We recorded this two years ago? I remember initially we wanted to get it done and over with. The nature of creative projects is, if you don’t get this out, you wouldn’t want to work on the next one. That was how it worked for me, at least.
Remember how I folded a piece of paper and made a very crude CD cover? I wanted to quickly release it so we could move on to the next thing. But somehow, we forgot about it until you reminded me. When we listened to it again, it still felt relevant and with some distance actually sounded better.
Z: That was after we recorded it. The process of coming together to record was a different story altogether. With the third release, we were kind of lost. The first one, EEP (2014) was noisy – just us unleashing everything out into the open. With ambient sketchings (2015), we had more stripped down elements.
After that, we told ourselves, let’s not try to do everything. We wanted it to sound like a two person thing. We’ve mellowed a lot since the start. Lies happened not long after we came together again.J: Then I wanted to release it very quickly, and tried fit the timeline shortly after.
Z: We ended up taking a long time to release it…
What about it took a long time?
J: Did we forget about it?
Z: I didn’t forget about it. It was always at the back of my mind.
J: I was very into getting it released after we finished the songs. I think I sent a draft cover to you, and you didn’t reply for a long time. The conversation dragged on for a while. Much later, Mark from Ujikaji checked in with us.
Z: And then we thought of releasing it on cassette. It was just something we grew up with, and he collects cassette tapes. I regarded it as a special recording – and so that, along with getting it mastered properly, made sense.
J: Mastering! So to get it mastered would cost us a fair amount of money, and we debated on whether we were willing to spend, or burn, that much.
Z: There was a lot of, why are we doing this?
We went ahead anyway. I had just discovered this label called 12k, run by Taylor Deupree in the US. I don’t usually ask these questions, but we did. I asked if he was willing to master the songs. At that point in time, I really liked his works.J: 12k is a very interesting label with ambient, minimal synths.
Z: If you’re familiar with Ryuichi Sakamoto.
J: So Zeek got me into this stuff as well. Before that, I liked my music loud. I was on the rough spectrum, and he kind of mellowed me down a little. Don’t get me wrong, though. He’s also a metalhead – he used to play for a band.
Z: That was around 2006.
J: This is what maturity looks like, I guess (laughs).
Back to the release, we were wondering if it was crazy for us to spend that much money on our little cassette album. Considering the non commercial viability and our financial situation, it’s quite a chunk to burn. After mastering the tracks, we also had to think about the cost of production – how many cassettes should we produce, and so on. How did Mark hear about it?
Purchase Lies by Pupa here
Z: We wanted to release on cassette but didn’t know how.
J: So we asked if he knew anyone who could do it. We knew Mark from way back. I mean, anyone who does experimental music in Singapore would know Mark and his label, Ujikaji Records. He offered to listen to our album, and later on brought up the idea of distributing it. I told him that I’d have to ask Zeek, but the decision was more or less set. It was pretty much a no-brainer.
Since Ujikaji Records is mostly a one-man show, we had to wait for things to tide over with Mark and his multiple projects on hand. We went through a lot of back and forth processes, with his cassette manufacturer in Indonesia travelling and whatnot. Only now it feels like it's really going to happen.
Z: In the meantime, we could focus on our personal projects.
J: Yeah, Zeek just played CHOPPA Experimental Music Festival.
How many songs are there in Lies?
You mentioned on text that Lies is a form of escapism. How did you manage to make that form of escape a reality through your sounds?
J: That’s a very abstract question, and there’s so much to be said.
Z: Many layers exist within the album. For me, while playing and recording, it was much more about listening to each other and affecting what I can affect at that point.
During the active stages of making the sounds, I was already building worlds in my head. The process of listening back builds another picture, I guess. That image keeps changing, but it does form a world that’s not present for me.J: Is the recording process an escape, or only when you listen to it?
Z: I think it was just in my head while playing, but when I listen to it again the escape manifests itself.
J: I guess all creative expression is a form of escape but at least for me, I want to make it my living. A big part of our process was learning from Zeek. Objectively speaking, he’s a better musician. He knows the technicalities better than I do. On the other hand, I’m lucky that I’m able to borrow my friend’s studio so we don’t have to adhere to the usual studio rules and hourly rates. As a result, we have a lot of time to record, sit back and listen to what we’ve done.
My mind runs 240 miles per hour, and so I create many stories out of these sounds. Some people say post-rationalisation is a bad thing, but I enjoy it. The reason for the title of the album was the cover art – a photo of our friend’s parents back in the day, in a faded sepia tone. The combination with that particular image resonated with me. It gave our sounds a certain pessimism even though they seem happy or carefree – hence, Lies.
It conjures the notion of the events in your life that could be a lie. Say, the rat race. Even though you may not necessarily believe in the concept, you’re living it. It’s also about survival before the ability to dream.How connected are you to the music scene?
J & Z: We’re very disconnected from the scene, actually.
There’s always this talk about survival, right?
J: No artists in Singapore should feel entitled. The whole talk about ‘supporting local’ – I think there’s something missing here. Just support good music. There’s always value in listening to the sounds of your own people, I get that sentiment but never forget the quality of what’s being created.
Z: Yeah. Support good music, whether local or not.
J: Then again, supporting local also stems from the effects of globalisation. When the whole world is available for you, is there anymore incentive to listen to the people around you? I’d say yes, it’s second nature for me. Not that I necessarily jump onto the bandwagon but I do make it a point to go shows where my friends are playing. I’m sort of in the scene, so it’s difficult to say.
I mean, can you be considered a supporter of the local music scene if you play?Z: I guess.
J: But when people say support local, they basically mean ‘buy my album’ right?
Where or how do you channel your energy to create your sounds? Do you pick from your own personal practice?
Z: That, and our conversations before we jam. We say a lot to each other, and sometimes they are not even about music.
J: The recording sessions, and I think Zeek will agree, are therapy sessions. Our conversations help to set the path for our recordings.
Z: Because we don’t really plan any style that we want to play. We’ve tried that and failed miserably.
J: I wanted to be a loud, noisy group initially but both our energies mixed together just isn’t that. We have an ongoing obsession —
Z: There’s this guy that we listen to a lot, Satoshi Ashikawa. He died tragically after releasing one album.
J: I didn’t get it at first. In fact, I found it boring but only because my music taste was made up of noisy, loud, fuzz music. But this track came up on shuffle one day, and I became obsessed ever since. It’s a mixture of ambient, low key piano, harp and glockenspiel piece of instrumental music. Also, we have tried writing songs but to no avail so far.
What do you thrive on as musicians?
Z: Listening back to a sound, I consider the present moment. The entire process is very intuitive for me.
Everything I do is a chronicle of time, and so I take into account my emotional and mental state, along with the circumstances at one point.J: If you’re talking about career, it’s survival. I made the choice to go art school, and be a working artist – so I have to be good at that to survive. I also thrive on empathy – walking in another person’s shoes. My solo recordings are embedded with some essence of that, but the things around you end up informing any music that you make somehow.
What is it like being a working artist?
J: You have to be very real with what you have – work, necessities, savings and money to burn. Along the way I figured that my long term goal is to have fun in what I do. In that way, Zeek is more of an adult than I am.
I can sort of see the polarities between the both of you.
J: I cannot stand having people tell me what to do. My aversion to authority came from working in a photo studio for two years. From then on, I wanted to be my own boss. I’d say I’m still treading water but I’m also a very practical person. I know when to call it quits.
That said, I don’t believe in ‘quitting music’. I believe it slowly fades away, if at all.The act of music — playing, consuming, jamming — is ongoing. All things are musical. I do hope Pupa will be a thing for awhile. No one can tell the future, but I know that we’re going to jam this Sunday. The moment is now. It’s always about the ‘now’.
Do you think art or music is open ended, always?
J: If someone were to approach us and expect to know what the album is about before listening to it, I really wouldn’t want to respond. I want to talk to you after you’ve gained the experience from the album. So it’s definitely open to interpretation – whether I like it or not.
Z: I tend to keep it open as well. I don’t like to talk about what the music is about – that should be the listener’s perspective. It’s going to be different, anyway. Like our humour in sound.
J: In the jamming room, we’re always laughing for some reasons. Our humour in sound is similar, but no one else ever understands.
Also, I’m greedy for interpretation. I may have my own, but I want to expand what the piece means. So I want to know what you see in your mind, and what you hear. Having multiple interpretations is useful and interesting.Career wise, do you think the focus is different for experimental artists?
Z: For me, there’s no separation between my personal and experimental side.
J: That’s a weird difference between us again. I need people to buy tickets to come – I’m a little bit more desperate than him in that aspect. That being said, I’m also the one with no Facebook or Instagram (laughs).
‘Experimental’ is a useful word to describe a genre but it says very little, actually. To answer your question, I’d have more to gain in maintaining a certain image if I’m in a big pop group for example. That’s just because more money is at stake. It’s very easy to throw tomatoes at something that’s visible. I guess it all boils down to envy – these people are more likely to play at international shows, and they can afford great budget. I don’t think pop music is any less relevant.
Perhaps the small quantity that we hold makes it even more of a prized possession. When you have something that’s available everywhere, as compared to an obscured act who can only afford to produce limited quantities.Z: In the music industry, there’s a conscious effort for an artist to upkeep a certain image. It’s very competitive to stay visible.
J: I’m conscious of building my image, actually, as a working artist. I feel like not having Facebook is a deliberate move to maintain that image of a non-image, you know? At the same time, there’s a lot of luck to talk about. So I’d always just go with the flow and try to maintain sincerity along the way. Then again, how does one define ‘insincerity’? I always say, there’s no harm in accepting money. This is a far fetched scenario but if one day, Coca Cola were to get us to place their logo on our album, why would we not do it?
Z: I’d fight for the middle ground and to have creative control.
Finally, do you think your sounds are best played live?
J: Lately we’ve been very production-focused.
Z: We can’t play the album live.
J: Woah, that’s not true.
Z: Okay, we can but we don’t. It just wouldn’t sound the same because most of what we’ve created are improvisations.
J: We’re not going to play the exact same thing, obviously. It would be a tweaked version. Still, I don’t believe it’s best played live. We’ve produced the album to be contemplative, for you to listen alone. On the way home, on public transport… Those are the moments I tap into. Even if you're sharing the moment with other people, there should be no more than three. Let’s just say I would be interested to let a lot of people hear it at once but I’ve no idea what that would look like. I’m thinking mass meditation…
Z: Or sleep concerts.
J: Having visuals alongside would be good to explore. Come to think of it, I’ve played to one guy before. That wasn’t deliberate. It was because no one else turned up. But it was perfect – I loved it very much.
There’s this obsession within me to play a one-to-one show.