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INTERVIEW: The Purplechickens

July 3, 2014 8:55 am by: Category: Features, Interviews Leave a comment

The Purplechickens1

For the past few weeks, The Purplechickens have garnered a lot of buzz from various music publications, a proof of their staying power in a scene with a small but dedicated cult following. The celebrated indie-rock champs have released their new single “Dayami” a few weeks ago much to the delight of old and new music fans looking for a kind of material that pushes songcraft conventions to bolder, more artistically daring challenges. They will also be releasing their 3rd album, Haláng on July 5 in Route 196, Quezon City. RSVP here.

Just recently, we initiated an online conversation with Aldus Santos, Marco Harder, Zig Rabara and Mikey Abola to discuss in detail, the conception process and challenges they have encountered on recording their latest effort, Haláng. We also asked about their thoughts on working with guitarist-producer extraordinaire Kakoy Legaspi and exploring the beauty and quirks of the Filipino language through their latest release.

1. If you were newbies trying to find your own spot in the music scene and just happened to stumble upon an album like Here’s Plan B, do you think you would have done things differently, especially with the accessibility of recording tools and stuff?

Aldus Santos: I’m still mighty proud of Here’s Plan B, both as a musical product and historical document. So, no. Whether or not “Dream Systems” or “Ars Terror” would have been better with more studio sheen is a question I’m not particularly interested in answering.

Marco Harder: I think anyone who looks back at a body of work will always find something to revise; I’ll be extremely suspicious of anyone who says he or she can’t find anything worth changing in a previous work. Hindsight isn’t just 20/20, it’s also very nitpicky. Sure, we’d love to have had the tools available now back when we were recording HPB, but then it would have changed the entire workflow and the dynamic of it; whether such changes would have yielded a better or worse record is a matter of speculation at best. That said, I think I’d be able to stand by the decisions we made for that album from both a production and technical standpoint more than a decade ago, simply because those were the best decisions we could make given the constraints we had then.

Mikey Abola: For starters, I’m not an original member of the band. So literally, I was once a newbie that chanced upon Here’s Plan B. Not so much the album per se but the band performing and touring it. I think I own the last copy of HPB, which Zig gave to me after I was officially part of the band (and yes, by official, I mean some pomp and circumstance was involved, which is really them setting me aside to a dark corner and asking me to bare my soul). My most vivid memory of watching the Purplechickens was during the launch of the video for “Dream Systems” at Club Dredd in Eastwood.  I was sent to cover it for the Philippine Collegian, and while I had seen the band once or twice before, I was not necessarily a fan. Until that gig though. At the time, Owel Alvero (of Ang Bandang Shirley) was playing bass for Manox. And the one song that really got me was “Jail Guard” (which is up for free download at Amplify.ph), and it was the kind of song that I had never heard before, much less experienced in a live setting. Owel had this way of playing single notes that could just make you cry.  If anything, “Jail Guard” was one of those songs that helped opened my ears, priming my mind to really appreciate bands like Maria Cafra, Ethnic Faces, The Wuds, etc., that is, aside from Radiohead, King Crimson and The Mars Volta (I apologize for the name-dropping). Somewhere along the Manox’s performance of the song, I remember thinking, Shit. This is the kind of band that I would want to be part of. Apparently, the universe is kind sometimes. Quite literally, things changed for me because I chanced upon a few songs from HPB. So to answer your question, albeit coming from a point of view, different from my bandmates: No, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Zig Rabara: I’d probably use better-sounding gear. I don’t hate the drum sound on that record but I think higher-quality gear would have made it sound better. Accessibility would be something we could tweak, too. High-speed internet was a luxury when Here’s Plan B was released, so our only venues for promotion were gigs and (very little) radio exposure. The Internet would have allowed us to reach more people.

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2. All the tracks in your upcoming third album, Haláng, were written in the local vernacular. What made you decide to pursue this direction?

Aldus: Since our early years the band has always been viewed as an English-language act, I think owing in part to some of us being published writers and authors in English. The exclusive use of Filipino on this record is, I think, long overdue.

Marco: First of all, this point needs addressing and I want to go on record saying this: it’s not written in the local vernacular, but the majority vernacular called Filipino (or Tagalog, if you prefer that; anyone who’d like to take me up on this is invited to approach me at any of our shows). It’s an insult to the other widely-spoken languages in the archipelago (Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, etc.) to claim that we have a single, national vernacular.

I already heard a four-track demo of “Dayami” probably 3-4 months after we launched Girls, Et Cetera and, around that time, I had already written “25.” I proposed the idea of writing exclusively in Filipino as a creative challenge to Aldus, which ended up with both of us writing the dozen songs in the record. Perhaps it was a way of exploring the discussions he and I have had regarding the linguistic qualities of Filipino and how it influences the way one writes music. To my mind at least, it felt like certain sentiments could only be expressed in a musical lyric in Filipino not only because of its semantic content but also by the force of its phonetics and its natural prosody. For all we know, this could be an illusion inherent in anyone who sings and writes in his or her mother tongue, but in any case this overarching idea was very instrumental in crafting the musical content of Haláng.

Mikey: That decision was really made between Marco and Aldus. Zig and I just like to make rhythms.

3. How different is Haláng from your previous releases, Here’s Plan B and Girls, Et Cetera?

Aldus: The songs on this current record are more deliberate, more to-the-point. The sentiments are more Everyman, and that of course entails clarity in expression, which I think it also has in great surplus.

Marco: Language and technical notes aside, Haláng feels more focused than the first two albums, which is not to say that our earlier works were scatterbrained efforts. In the last few months before we finished recording, we all realized that we still had a clear idea of what we originally wanted with this record. The Purplechickens’ recording schedules have always been plagued by long intervals and as a consequence of this, changes in taste and preference are likely to set in. It didn’t seem to be the case with Haláng: how the songs were envisioned on day one in the studio still determined how we approached the recording and production even in the last weeks of recording. Perhaps the choice to use one language was key to this, but I’m not too sure that it was just that. Live recording of the basic tracks was one of the methods we insisted on using whenever we could in the making of this record. Aside from three songs that had to be done layer upon layer, the idea was to get all four of us in the room, and play the song as if those were the only instrumental tracks we were going to be allowed. I remember saying something like, “Let’s play as if these were going to be the final instrumental tracks,” or something like that during the sessions. It made for a focused mindset in terms of writing and playing, in my opinion.

Mikey: Of course, technology has opened so many sonic possibilities, enabling us to be more nitpicky and demanding, be more discerning about how things should sound on Haláng. But the fact that we hadn’t released anything in seven years, I believe there was a deeper sense of urgency to make sure the album, at the very least, sounded great. Because that’s what was merited. We’d sometimes say that the songs deserved to be given proper production values. I guess that’s what prompted the decision to take on a producer, like Kakoy (and a sound engineer like JP Verona), and follow their lead in having the record mastered in Nashville. There was also some very short-lived talk (between me and Aldus, mostly) about Haláng being the last record Manox would release. At the time we were making it, life happened to the rest of us (as cheesy as it sounds). Aldus and Zig got married and became fathers. Marco and I started to seriously pursue new professional endeavors. Somehow, it just made sense for us to pull out all the stops for this record, adopt an almost hedonistic approach to making it. We clearly didn’t have that attitude while we were making Girls, Et Cetera.

Zig: I think Haláng is more grown-up, simply because all of us are.

4. You’ve maintained a consistent cult following all these years and gained critical adoration from pretty much every local music publication. What is it this time that you want to achieve as a band?

Aldus: I just want us to continue being artistically productive. There are kids now who are only exposed to our present-day material, and I’m excited for them to hear our back catalogue, and also our future stuff. I still don’t want to play any games or be in some imagined contest with our peers, but I do want to try being more visible. It’s something that’s not up to us, but I guess Facebook helps.

Marco:  I’m grateful that this band has a very attentive following, as small as it is. We’re not as present online or onstage as most bands are, but I’m glad that there are people who genuinely like our work and expect us to deliver more of it. I’m not sure what you mean by “critical adoration” but hey, if that’s what I think it is, I’ll take kindness wherever I can get it. Haláng was never meant to be a concept album, if that’s what you’re asking. If anything, an idea Aldus and I maintained as we were writing was that we wanted to write each song as if it were going to be a single, as if we had no room for filler. Whether we’ve completely succeeded in that objective is for listeners to judge.

Mikey: I believe more people should hear our stuff, more so the songs in Haláng. Of course, every band wants tens of thousands of listeners. But I guess, for me, this is the first time reaching out to new audiences has become a real imperative for us to pursue.

Zig: Our goal right now is to reach as many people as possible. We have some marketing ideas that we’re exploring. Hopefully some of them pan out.

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5. What was it like working with Kakoy Legaspi? How do you find his approach as a producer?

Aldus: He knew when to call us out on stuff that just wasn’t working, and he also policed us on redundancy and monotony. We all know he’s an ace guitarist, so I initially imagined him to be a guitar-centric producer, but no, he’s pretty all-around: he arranged vocal parts, guitar phrasings, and had some really cool mixing ideas, which were all executed very well by his engineer Jean-Paul Verona.

Marco: Having Kakoy around made it easier for us to take a step back whenever we had to evaluate the work as it was being created. It was also very good for us to have someone outside the band to call out bad takes and direct performances in the studio, as there is a strong tendency to be complacent particularly during the latter hours of a recording day—we clocked around 7-12 hours per recording day for this record—because of fatigue.

Mikey: Kakoy is the first producer we’ve worked with as a band. So literally, nothing compares to him [laughs]. We’ve always known him to be an awesome guitar player, but what really surprised us (or me) were his ideas for back-up vocals. He introduced seemingly minute details (especially for “Dayami”), but those that really enriched the song. But more than anything, Kakoy has become a friend throughout this process. The type you have inside jokes with, which you always bring up after not seeing each other for a long time.

Zig: It was a great experience. Kakoy has a great ear and will be very honest if he thinks whether or not something is working. He was great at making me feel comfortable during my sessions.

6. Let’s talk about the songwriting aspect of your work, particularly on Haláng. Did technology change how you conceive a song?

Aldus: No. I’m still not a very diligent demo-ist, but Marco schooled me on tech—I acquired at least two recording machines during the writing of the Haláng songs: an analog four-track and a digital eight-track I bought from Joon Guillen (Modulogeek), both from Fostex—and I must say the laying down of ideas became much easier. Like most musicians our age, we also started acquiring better onstage gear: mostly guitars and effects and things. They’re better tools, but I can’t say they informed the writing in any way. Books and movies and other non-musical art forms have a stronger impact on my writing than anything music-related, I would say.

Marco: I think having owned recording devices prior to writing the songs in Haláng changed the band’s compositional calculus, in a manner of speaking. Aldus and I both got cassette multitrackers in 2008 that allowed us to write songs and conceive parts more quickly, which somehow made the songs more definite when they were presented at rehearsals. It also made it easier for us to communicate our vision for each song to the rest of the band, which then lessened the trial and error that usually ensues when songs are introduced in rehearsal.

Mikey: Marco answered it perfectly. But it has to be said that we started earning more disposable income to buy better gear. Having a Gibson on hand does have an effect on how a song is conceived.

Zig: While it is much easier to record and share demos now than it was back when we were recording the first two albums, we still prefer to work out a song’s arrangement in the studio. Technology has made the initial phase easier, but getting the song to its final form still takes as much hard work as before.

7. When is the video for “Dayami” coming out? We’re kind of expecting a compelling visual treat in the “A Break in a Prayer” and “Dream Systems” mold.

Aldus: We’re talking to at least two directors, both very close to us, about making a couple of videos. I’m still thankful to the teams that did “A Break in a Prayer” and “Dream Systems,” but I just don’t feel these new ones—if they push through—should be tethered, look-wise, to the old ones.

Marco: We’re thankful that you’re looking forward to videos from us, but while there are plans and ideas being floated around by the band and our friends, it’s not a priority at this point at least as far as I’m concerned. There is the question of economics, of course: would we want to spend time and money on a video, or use those resources to fund the sessions for the next record? Another thing to ask is whether videos still matter, considering 1) MTV and Channel V have pretty much lost their arbiter-of-taste status thanks to the internet, and; 2) the breakneck pace expected from entertainers to release content online—can we follow through and are we willing to make that investment of time and energy?

Mikey: Let’s just say plans have been half-discussed. Which really means, we have no idea just yet. [laughs]

Catch The Purplechickens on July 5, Saturday at Route 196 for the launch of their third album, Halang.

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