Monday, 20 October 2014

“We’ve always been ostracized, but we deem it as a way of life,” says Subash, vocalist and band leader of Truth Be Known, local veteran metal band.

Their live performances are known to be energetic and loud, which led to the moniker of them being “the angriest band in Singapore”. Their lyrics, explicit. If being a local band isn’t easy already, then perhaps being a local metal band would have it much harder.

As Subash of Truth Be Known (TBK) explains, “We tried getting funding from government agencies like NAC for our tours before, but it’s always difficult because of the genre we play. I’m a very vulgar person, and our band is also very vulgar. Our songs are peppered with lots of profanities, so we are definitely not censorship friendly (laughs).”

But even without external support, Subash and his band members soldier on.

“Most of us have given up, so we just fund our own tours. We would look out for air fare promotions, and try to time our gigs around the promotion period if possible. We also can’t do heavy tours. At most it would be three or four days, because of work and family commitments.”
Being honest and true to their music, TBK has not only managed to stay in the scene since 2005, despite the frequent change in their members, but also make a name for themselves. One of their biggest shows was at the “Bang your Head” festival in Semarang, Indonesia in mid 2006, which boasted close to 5,000 in attendance, a big number for the genre.

Subash, vocalist and band leader of Truth Be Known
During the interview, Subash shared many insights and inspiring anecdotes which are probably relevant to bands of any genre:
  1.  The metal genre may be niche, but the community is a close one. It’s because of this close knit community that word of mouth is spread more easily and hence stronger support for the bands. Keeping a close knit culture also encourages collaboration and new opportunities for everyone.
  2.  It’s not about the money. If financial gain had been a priority, then nothing would have been accomplished. The band would not have been able to release their self-funded albums, or go on their regional tours. They may not be making money from their music, but they would still continue to do it.
  3. Being open and flexible makes things work. As band members enter different life stages, they have to juggle family and work commitments, but they still invest time and effort in their music. For TBK, the members simply work around each other schedules to rehearse, jam and tour.  It’s the can-do spirit that has allowed the band to continue even as priorities change.
What was the metal scene in Singapore like in the past?
Subash: The metal scene in Singapore started at around 1989-1990, with bands like Abhorer, a black metal band. In the mid nineties, most of the gigs were mixed gigs. It was a big thing back then. The first in the lineup would always be the indie bands, then punk or skin, followed by the hardcore bands, and lastly the metal bands. They were held in venues like Octagon in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Macpherson ITE and Substation. Some of the big names back then were Rudra, Impiety, ITNOS, Doxomedon, Bastardized, Silent Sorrow, and many others. The community was very close. In the nineties, we used to hang out at Plaza Singapura Forum Gallery. People would come during weekends after work or school to go there chill, play, drink, and some people would catch the last bus by midnight, while others will stay until the next morning. Back then I was around 18, so during school days I couldn’t stay up too late. We would meet on Saturday evenings, and all the bands would hang out there. The Forum was a very important and pivotal place for us in the underground scene. It was where everyone met everyone, and that’s how you knew that there was a gig was coming up soon, and word of mouth would spread. It was also a chance to explore playing with other people.  There were also competitions like Clash of the Bands, which we (Kaliyuga) participated just to try out and see how good we were. It was during then we talked about our music dreams, like where to record our album (i.e. TNT Music). Even now I still record with him and he has never changed, always supportive of the local scene. He’s super ah beng, talks like an ah beng, but a very nice guy.

How did you become a metal head yourself?
Back in 1994-5 I was a closet metal head. I didn’t know anyone. I listened to my own music, I bought my cassettes every week, and I never knew anybody. It was only when I shifted to Teban Gardens then I had a secondary school friend, and we would hang out together. I also met another friend who was also another metal head, and it turned out to be Selvam, who was the guitarist of Rudra. When I met him, I remembered that they were from Marsling, as their address was indicated in their cassettes (back then there was no Internet, email or website). So I thought he was from Marsling too, but it turned out that it was only his vocalist’s address. I was very surprised and impressed to meet a member of the band that I had been listening to. We clicked and hung out together. At that point in time, Rudra had split. The vocalist had a different direction, so he left the band, but the other members still wanted to play. They were looking for another vocalist and asked me if I was keen, and I wanted to try it out. So we started jamming together. I was the youngest member of the band, and they enjoyed my company because I was funny and had no airs. They also liked my singing style. We did covers together. After jamming for some time, we decided to join a band competition, Clash of the Bands, at Fire Disco. I was very nervous. I remember one of the judges was Suhaimi from Stomping Ground, and those guys are also the pioneers of the scene. We didn’t win, mostly because we are a metal band. We have always been ostracized, but we deem it as a way of life. As long as some people like our shit, we would be very happy.

Our first gig (Metal fest) was on 14 July 1997. I remember the date because when we released our album we called it 1407. That gig was very significant to all of us. During the 1990s, gigs were all mixed genres. There was never a pure metal gig. We were the first guys to do it. Everyone contributed. There were five or six bands who came together to do this after some discussion at our usual hangout sessions at Forum. Venue was the hardest thing to get. This gig was held at Bugis, a place called Noah’s Ark. It was run by New Zealand missionaries. They held hardcore gigs because some of the missionaries were hardcore band members too. We approached them to hold a metal-only gig. Initially they were a little hesitant because it was metal, as we would be wearing T-shirts that spouted inappropriate vulgarities. But later, they were cool about it and agreed to provide us the venue. They didn’t expect that it would be a big crowd, thinking that it would be only thirty to fifty people. We started to prepare for the gig. We created our own posters, printed our own ticket stubs. We placed our posters at Roxy Music. If you’ve had your poster there, you would have easily captured fifty people. Some of us placed them at important bus stops outside schools. News was spread by word of mouth and there were no pre-sale of tickets. Tickets were only sold at the door.
In the end, around two hundred people turned up. The venue was too packed and we couldn’t let in any more people. The missionaries were shocked because everyone didn’t expect it. It was a very pivotal moment for us as it was the very first metal-only gig, even before Chaos 99 which was held at Fire Disco.

In early 2000-2003, we released our album under Kaliyuga, a melodic metal band. We played a few gigs in Singapore, and a big one in KL. That was my first overseas gig. We got to know the organizer Fadzil. Under that time we were under Trishul Records which signed Rudra too. They paid for our CD production and took a cut. But to me, it’s never about the money. At that time, metal music was banned in Malaysia. For a good six months to a year, there were no gigs there at all. We were invited to play at the first gig after the ban lift, together with Impiety who were the headliners. We were the only other Singapore band in. We travelled by coach, which we paid ourselves, and everything else they would cover. However, when we reached the hotel, it was the worst place ever, with no air-conditioning, broken windows and cockroaches in the room. Spoilt as we were, we decided not to stay there and paid for our own accommodation as well. When we went for our sound check, we didn’t see the crowd yet. We went back to the hotel to chill until it was our turn to perform, and it was only then that we saw the crowd of over a thousand people. All these Malaysian fans had been starved without music for months, and people from other states travelled all the way to watch this gig. There was some racial bias at first, because we were an all-Indian band. I remember when we went up on stage, there were many people who were mocking us, shouting, “Kopi-O satu! Prata satu!” We wanted to retaliate, but instead we just let our music do the talking. It was a beautiful thing, because within that half-hour set, we changed their perceptions. Everyone started cheering for us. We played our own songs and covers, and they really liked our shit. At the end of the gig, I was totally exhausted because I gave my all out as it was my first overseas gig. After the gig, usually I would stay around the side of the stage after packing up and say hi or thanks to our friends, which is something that I do every time. They came up to me and congratulated us, told us that they loved our music. So it was a very big moment for us.

Unfortunately, we split up after that due to many reasons, and I started to look for a new band to form. That was when Truth be known (TBK) was formed. We started out as a five-piece death metal band in 2005, consisting of John, Anesh, Gene, Arul and myself. Even though we were from different bands with slightly differing music genres, death metal proved to be the common factor for us to start this band. I had to give Arul a lot of respect because he stayed in JB. So whenever we had gigs and jamming sessions, he would travel over. And so, armed with 3 songs and a couple of covers, we played our first gig on 1st October 2005 at the Guinness Theatre, Substation. I couldn’t remember what happened during the gig because I was totally drunk. I was drinking the night before, a few hours before the gig, and even after the gig. We made a few mistakes here and there, but generally we had a good response. This was the only gig with this lineup. In early 2006, Anesh left for Australia to pursue his studies. We decided to enlist the help of another friend from scene, Damien from Bhelliom. With the lineup complete again, we went into full song-writing and touring mode. In the following years, we played numerous shows locally and around the region.
On 8th August, 2008, we launched our debut album “Just Another Lamb” which was well-received by peers and fans alike. After 3 years together however, the individual responsibilities of each member began to take its toll and ultimately led to John and Arul leaving the band to concentrate on their personal lives. We had to take a short hiatus to recuperate. After about a six month break, the remaining members, Damien and Gene and myself picked up where we left off and recruited our good friend, Joshua (who, coincidentally, mixed and mastered “Just Another Lamb”) to play bass.
Gone were the days of the angry. The new Truth Be Known was all about having a good time. Though we’ve dubbed our new style “Fun-core”, the music leans more towards punk and grindcore without forsaking our roots in metal. With this new drive, we went into writing mode and within a few months, we were ready to show the world what Truth Be Known is. We performed at the Soundcrusher gig held at the House of Rock and has been performing quite regularly since then. We also recorded and released a “teaser” EP entitled “Rock ‘N’ Roll Baby”. The feedback was positive and this encouraged us to release another EP called, AsphyxiHate.

How do you promote your band now?
I would say it’s become lazier. Now that there’s Internet, everyone puts up their stuff on a Facebook page. But in this way we’ve also managed to reach out to fans overseas who came over to watch our shows, which is great. We also have our live shows videos on Youtube, which helps to garner more interest. We just completed a new music video too, which was produced with our own budget. I got a few good metal head friends of mine to help with the filming, directing and editing.
But the best form of advertisement is through word of mouth, when your friend asks you to check out this band he found. After the gigs, I will also stay around and say thanks to the people who came all the way down and paid to watch us.
In the past, how metal heads discovered music would be through buying cassettes, sometimes only by looking at the album cover, and if it came with the disclaimer Parental Advisory, it would be even more attractive to them (laughs). Nowadays, people can discover music through Youtube or Spotify to try and listen. I’ve been speaking to my manager to put our music on digital channels too, and we are happy to make our old songs available free for download.
Our manager is Bret from Mourning Sound. He watched a few gigs of ours and was kind of impressed with us so he decided to manage us. Promoters come and go. Not many stay for a long time. Brad plays full manager role, but he promotes the annual gig, Full Battle Order, and he also promotes Taiwanese bands like Anthelion and Solemn. He would go to Taiwan to help them out, and if they are going to release an album or do a tour, he would provide contacts and try to get them to play here. The contacts from Taiwan, Japan and Australia are mostly his. The scene in Taiwan is pretty big and they are very supportive of the local scene. When we played in Taiwan, it was a big surprise. It was a professional venue, the people were all very nice to us, and they were all very appreciative of what we played.
Our new album, By Any Means Necessary, will be released in the later part of 2014. We are hoping to tour with Anthelion who has also just released a new album.

How has the metal scene changed over the years?
I missed the old days. In the past, people were into the music mostly because of the angst. Nowadays, metal has become more like a fashion trend. Some of the bands now are more into the visual side of things, but their music sounds a bit copied and factory-like. When you listen to their music, you’ve heard these rifts before.
On the other hand, we should try to adapt to new trends. Bands and audiences have become more diverse. It used to be dominated by the Malays, but now we have different races joining the scene. Nowadays we even have non-metal heads, being curious and wanting to check things out, coming down to metal gigs, which is a good sign. We would never have that last time. Our fan base has also changed a bit. We have some younger fans in their twenties, and we even have female fans, which is very rare in the past.
Currently, because we have been around for some time, it’s likely that a metal head would know us. But I’ve always made the effort to check out the younger bands too. For all you know, this new young band could have a lot of potential, and become bigger than us in future too. I would try to talk to them, encourage them, or if they are really good, I would offer to rope them in for future gig opportunities. One thing that has not changed all these years is that community is still just as close. It’s a metal thing. When you meet random metal heads wearing a certain T-shirt, you would still give them a nod of recognition and approval. I still get that once in a while too.
In the next five or six years, I would see that if the bands that are starting now can stay together after National Service, they would easily be the headliners of the future. If we want to continue playing into our forties, we have to keep up with the times too. Overall, there will be more sub-genres, which is more exciting for the whole scene.

What kind of challenges is the local scene facing now?
At a local gig, you may have 10 or 15 bands, and the ticket price would be around $20, which is fair. Local bands would have their own regular followers, and everyone knows each other. But when you attend a gig of a foreign band, you’d see all these new faces, and you wonder if they came and paid a high ticket price only because it was a band from overseas. Our local musicians are quality musicians too, yet we do not see their support for our own gigs.
In the ’60s and ‘70s, the radio stations would play local music, and we would listen to local music first. It was until the ‘80s and ‘90s then it stopped happening. Now it would be even worse. People hardly listen to local music. Yet, the musicianship from the ‘60s till now has always been fantastic. It would be great if there was more support from local fans and radio stations. As of now, the only person who supports airplay for local metal or hardcore bands is Borhan from RIA 89.7FM. He used to play in a band called Manifest and Urban Karma and now he’s a DJ, playing metal songs on Sundays for an hour or two.
For some promoters who support local music, when they bring in a foreign band, they would ensure that the opening band is a local one, which is a very good way to expose local bands to local fans.
Venue remains a major challenge. There’s the usual Substation, Aliwal Arts Centre, Blackhole. But many of the smaller venues have closed down. These days, the organizers all the more have to be very creative and resourceful, and we’ve performed at the most unexpected places like the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
How can local bands find gigs overseas?
Many of our bands go on the Internet to search for local promoters, chat with them, send them their profile and music links, and try to get a gig. Another way is through friends who are in bands that are already playing in the gig. Then you can ask the organizer if they could take in another Singapore band, and if they are ok, then you’re good to go. Transport is covered by the band; accommodation and sometimes food are covered by the organizers. Sometimes the organizers would also give a token fee to the bands playing. But we don’t care about the money at all. When we play a gig, we take it as a holiday. If we can make a bit of money from merchandise, that would be a bonus. We wouldn’t count on CDs either. In fact, for the new album, we will be only printing a few hundred copies and we plan to sell most of our stuff online. The CDs are more for promoters and media. T-shirts, badges and stickers sell best. We don’t mind spending a bit, just to let more people know and listen to us.
Currently, Indonesia is a very big market. Any metal band has to play in Indonesia at least once. The first time I played there I was overwhelmed as well, because there were at least one thousand people there. The atmosphere in Indonesia is great, the people are very supportive, but they generally are not very rich. You cannot sell your stuff at the normal price or at a profit. You may not be able to sell CDs, but you can sell smaller items like badges, T-shirts, wristbands, which they will buy.

Where else have you toured?
We have also played with Japanese bands like Hydrophobia, Defiled, GSD (God Send Death). They messaged Bret saying that they are doing a tour in Southeast Asia, and they are looking for a spot in Singapore, so what Bret did was to get a few local bands to play with the foreign bands. We toured Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. In Taiwan, they have bigger festivals like Spring Scream, and some of our local bands have also played there.

Other than Taiwan, we have also toured Malaysia and Indonesia. We were supposed to play in India and Sri Lanka as well, but at that point in time, some of the band members couldn’t make it. But we will definitely try to make it for the next festival in Sri Lanka. We make it a point to tour at least once a year, but in my band, almost all of us are married. Everyone has commitments, and family comes first, so we can’t be so hardcore already (laughs).