Images: Of Methodist / Interview: Racy Lim
In late 2017, a relationship was formed with Of Methodist. Our first meeting was mostly fuelled by a mutual knowledge and appreciation for each other's work. Later, we embarked on several discussions about how we would write a story together – from the one-dimensional relationship between artist and interviewer, to the survival of artistry amidst varying degrees of polarisation. During the meeting, he let on that he would be flying off to Chicago to pursue his studies the next day. What ensued were nights of phone calls, that, if recorded, would serve as a great archive of his transformations in phases.
A few days ago he released 'Bayfront Stn', a song written slightly over a year ago. Coming out of 'Authority' and 'Sar 21, the tracks that gave him his first taste of music popularity, was certainly a pressure. Many months were spent debating about the likelihood of future success and how well people would take to his artistic progressions. It's safe to say that the recent release has calmed these inner fights, at least slightly. Listeners were happy to see the multi-hyphenate teasing his new album with this song, and that in turn gave the artist a confidence boost in carrying forward the project now with locally-based Umami Records as his distribution support.
Why did you choose to include a new rendition of ‘Sar 21’ at the end of the ‘Bayfront Stn’?
Sar 21 is the first song of the album, and Bayfront Stn is the last song. I wanted to connect them, in a way. Earlier on, you asked me if I’m having trouble getting my message out. I think you know that I do. The closest that I’ve ever been to stating my message is Sar 21, one of my favourite lyrics ever written – ‘a soldier without a rifle is a dead one, criticise for who what I love, oh god it brings me down but how do I still let you go’.
The notion of ‘how do I let you go’ is also evident in Bayfront Stn. By combining the two songs I’m telling you that ‘letting go’ isn’t always about a person but a mentality. Everyone immediately assumes that the rifle refers to the wife, the man or the significant other but a rifle can also be a political statement for patriotism, especially as a soldier, or defence.
Many things can be associated with rifles, one of them being your principles. This whole time I was trying to find that from within myself.Even though the lyrics at the end is so short and somewhat insignificant as compared to the long list of lyrics that I’ve written, I think this one in particular reaffirms that I’m talking about sexuality in most of my songs verus the significant other. It’s a form of subtext that informs the rest of the lyrics.
Most people, including myself, look at these lyrics as love songs primarily. But ever so often I think about them more as how I’m being criticised for who I love, in other words being gay. This gives ‘soldier’ a double meaning. Instead of just placing myself in the context of National Service, I’m also trying to do something else. I’m a soldier in another way. I think that was why I brought Sar 21 back. I started the album this way and now all these songs you’re hearing should be informed as such, hence, ending the album in a similar fashion. It’s my way of normalising sexuality.
On top of that, you weigh your individual agency against reliance. How do you juggle the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and having to normalise these themes?
‘Normalisation’, in my opinion, is a camouflage. Once someone presents something on the table and you instantly recognise that it’s provocative, that’s when it fails to be normalised in that moment.In that sense, it really is a thing for Of Methodist. No one was startled when I started developing my aesthetic into that whole faux leather and red filter imagery. Everyone just accepted it as Of Methodist because, yes, that’s me. That’s normalisation.
It’s the ability to see something as accustomed. That’s how mentality can begin to change – when people start accepting it into their everyday lives without questioning it. People usually feel pressured to attack on both sides but when it comes to an issue such as sexuality, the more normal it feels the less people are going to attack. The more inflammatory something is, the more people are going to resist.
That’s what I try to do with my music. There’s nothing distinctly aggressive or inflammatory about it. If anything, it’s a silent war. Nothing really fires in the album as of now, based on what I’ve shown you.
Everything is either bracing, aiming or grinding to a halt. Sar 21 ends with a gun cocking but when does it actually fire? It doesn’t.Just think about how that positions you mentally because you come into it expecting a war centric album. There’s a sexual and militaristic aspect to it - all of which by the way refer to the good and bad sides of people. The caricature of the ultimate subconscious human attributes is sex and violence.
Where are we at today in terms of perceiving sex?
There’s this false reliance on gender to define sex and people use it as a mark of general understanding. Even when I went to America to study, I was very ignorant to the more contemporary notions of sex. I was so ready to be wild and liberated but I found myself criticising and low key judging a lot of the practices here. For that reason I believe Singapore isn’t truly ready, even if we think we are forward-thinking or open-minded.
What truly is readiness?
Readiness for me is when the mainstream is ready. There’s always a next step, and unfortunately the West usually establishes what that next step is. Personally, I think the next step is an understanding of transgenderism. We are still at the stage of normalising sexuality. A lot of people confuse that with transgenderism, often placing them in the same pool. They aren’t identical.
Also, sexuality is often viewed as this sort of power. Yes, it is, but there’s the romantic aspect of sexuality too. It’s not just about sex. It’s about me and another man, and us building this relationship.The fact that there can be this combination of men and the shared bond should be in focus too. Sex is an important aspect of being LGBTQ but it isn’t the endgame.
There’s also this duality in terms of evolving from your previous sounds. While you seem to have mellowed from ‘Sar 21’ and ‘Authority’, your imagery has become more expressive and provoking. Do you think that leads people into thinking the same of your recent music?
Yes. I have a lot of provocative imagery but at the same time, there’s nothing truly sinful about it. All I’m doing is slapping a red filter and wearing one piece of harness. There isn't that much skin showing. It does enforce the way people think about my music.
People tend to be more conscious of the overtly sexual language of my images but it truly stems from the desire to put people in this specific position – a relentless state of desire and caution.I think it’s necessary for people to look at it and perceive – is it provocative? Is it not? It’s funny because even in a song seemingly devoid of politically charged messages, the fact that I’m kissing a guy on the roof of MBS instantly makes the music provocative.
A form of bias at play?
Definitely. I don't have to sing about wanting to get strapped or whipped to be provocative, and perhaps that’s what people would think of when they see my imagery. Again, my images aren’t actually that sexual. Similar to my music, everything is laced with subtlety. People question who is Of Methodist because there is a form of contrast between the music and imagery. Bayfront Stn presents itself in a minute way.
The fact that a gay man can own his story, and the confidence in speaking about heartbreak is what makes it provocative.People end up perceiving the song differently according to geographical locations and cultural norms as well, don’t they?
For Bayfront Stn, one outside of Singapore can see it as a passing relationship. A train station is usually a sad place to be when you say goodbye to the people you love. That is an assumption. It isn’t the case in Singapore because our stations are so close to one another, and we generally travel to places really quickly. No one outside of Singapore would understand that. Instead that area of Singapore is highly commercialised, picturesque and excessive, just like Christmas.
Bayfront Stn really functions as a closing in more than one way. It’s also literally the closing of the year, and with that comes a new year so there’s nothing really negative about it even though that is the vibe of the song. Personally, there’s this intense sense of homesickness. It feels right that I’m coming home in a few days.
I’m more happy about the song now that it’s released and people actually understand it, and see what it's all about. Prior to its release, I was worried about Bayfront Stn because it’s such a new sound and not one that I often do. I never wanted to release it as a single because it sounds like an outro of an album, and it is. That’s why I felt that it lacked that sonic depth when I first listened to it. Maybe it’s the sound that makes me think of it as shallow but the more I read into it, the more I saw things which I hadn’t realised before.
Besides that, I was worried because there’s a sense of gravity tied to my roster of music. So doing something like naming a song after a station sounds funny. People who haven’t heard the song would find it bizarre or perplexing. It’s nice to know that people did end up liking and really enjoying Bayfront Stn. But still I get it, it’s weirdly packed in a way that it’s a song about Singapore, a Christmas love story and a personal heartbreak all in one.
That’s why people usually want the full album and story. I think that’s a really important indicator for where my art stands – when people don’t view your music as individual works of art or monoliths. The fact that it’s coming to people in pieces makes them want the whole thing.
Tell me about your architecture studies and recently formed art book practice. Is it safe to say that this aspect of your process is a form of personal rejection against the general monolithic view of artists?
It’s important to see artists as multi-dimensional. I don’t see many interdisciplinary artists who are also musicians in Singapore. Musicians often rely on other people to contribute to their art. Once again back to normalisation – it’s a shame as the big names here don’t advocate it as much. People don’t just assume you’re interdisciplinary. People don’t recognise that you produce your own music either. So to say that you do all these other things on top of that is really a stretch.
I find the personal rejection of the monolithic artist difficult to talk about, even more so than sexuality because one is about external inclusivity, and the other is about personal diversity.
Most of my artworks are hidden away in the corners of my Instagram feed, for example. Even though I graphically design or creatively direct everything you see, people don’t immediately associate my practice with that. I think one day it’s going to converge. Yes, I went through that phase where I didn’t want to make music anymore, and I think it’s because I didn’t want to face that identity crisis that comes with identifying as interdisciplinary.
The pressure that comes with labelling myself, if I haven’t already, involves this need to achieve everything with a balance. I need to make this amount of music to make up for other art that I’ve created. There’s no forgiveness in letting one go and doing something else. That’s what I’m not ready for because when I focus on one artistic aspect, I usually move away from the others just to make sure the focus is there. I’m finding a way to combine all three aspects of what I do – architecture (which I don’t consider art but design), visual art, music.
Once that’s done, identifying as all three won’t be that tricky because my music will reinforce my architecture, my architecture will reinforce other forms of art, and they will reinforce my music.Do you see your message as something for people in Singapore?
Yes. I don’t think of my message as being something for Chicago. I want people in Singapore to actively look at my message like it’s a doctrine and I want them to be confident. Don’t hide. Of course don’t go off the charts, but [don’t be afraid to] be provocative.
In a small place like Singapore, I want people to listen to my music and feel less lonely as a result. If you ever see me back home wearing my khaki trousers, flip flops and looking nothing like Of Methodist, you’re going to think, ‘oh I listened to his music a couple of days ago, but he’s not that faux leather clad boy, he’s just like me.’ I don’t drag this persona out into the streets, okay? There’s nothing particularly physical about Of Methodist (at least not until you print out a poster or something). It’s quite cerebral.
As for an international person looking in and listening to my stories, they usually end up having some understanding of Singapore. Honestly, I can’t see anyone else ever giving a narrative this personal and site-specific experience to our country. In this case the music becomes educational and experiential than relatable.
Do you find your process deafening at times?
This entire interview has been a testament to that. Very deafening. I think it’s very disruptive too, especially when I see something that I want to apply. I process them in categories. Will I throw what I have into this album or the next? I’m constantly moving from projects to projects, and often feel like I’m ‘stuck’ in time or a moment that I’ve moved on from.
Living like this can be frustrating. It’s a beautiful feeling that I get from making music, or telling my stories but it can be very, very deafening.The creation of art sometimes involves selling it. We both know that you find public relations tricky. Do you see it as a form of connection, and at what point does it stop becoming PR? Does the idea of PR make relationships unreal to you?
Yes. In Singapore, that happens when I’m talking to people who already know what I do. It naturally becomes a very PR conversation. The way I made friends was mostly through networking first, and if I bond with someone beyond the conversation then we form a friendship.
In Chicago, the reason why I don’t think I’m projecting a message here is because I don’t think of my relationships as stemming from PR. It could also be that we bond over architecture first, which is what people in school do anyway. Midway they might find out I’m doing music, and we go back to studying.
I like that I can have friends who are making art, some of them make music, but maintain a pure connection of getting to know one another.What I don’t value in PR is the momentary one-time situation, almost like a hook-up. It stems from the problem that I don’t like to forefront my music. I put out my desire to be an architect first, then my music, which is surprising because I have zero success in architecture so far. These days when I meet people I don’t immediately tell them that I produce music. I let them find out on their own – that way I don’t have to explain as much.
As for marketing, I find it problematic because of the cavalier mentality that I have. Some people live and breathe music into every conversation. However while it’s something I prioritise a lot, music belongs to the more cognitive side of my artistry. It’s also hard to market because I prefer to be very reserved about my music. It’s a self-hypocrisy. All that being said, this part of art creation and the music business is hard to avoid.
In view of these parallels in relationships, how do you position your work in these situations such that it remains self aware?
You really hit the mark on everything that I’m either insecure or thinking about.
I feel like there’s a risk of my music being too polluted with the emotional aspect of it, like writing about a heartbreak over the more important issue of sexuality. A lot of things have the tendency to change my art – what people are saying, trends, what I hear on the radio.
I don’t think I consciously try to remain self-aware or make sure that this album achieves its primary goal. Apart from the parameters and limits that I set in terms of writing, I let everything else that feels right to manifest by itself.What I’ve been telling you makes it seem like I’m writing for me, and my mind. I’m also trying to put myself in the shoes of people who are listening. I guess the only form of self-awareness comes through acknowledging that it can be exhausting to have to sit through an entire album and listen to sexual politics. An entire album built off pure sexuality and National Service? It could be exhausting. That’s why the other songs in the album don’t exude the politically charged, but they still are.