IN certain circles of the local music scene, you’ll find the term “mainstream” bandied about almost as an insult. Catalogue V will take that gladly as a compliment–this self-styled schizo-pop outfit is unabashedly hungry for commercial success and radio play.
Live, this six-man outfit consisting of Razil Razil Razil (lead singer), Matt Raham (drummer), Alfredo Lucius (guitars), Mal Mikhal (bass), Hans Ibrahim (guitars) and Rave Zulo (keyboards) are an electrifying, bottom-end moving act, combining sticky pop hooks with irresistible jackhammer funk grooves that disguise the oft-weighty lyrical themes of their songs.
Fresh off a November visit to South Korea for the Yamaha Asian Beat competition as the representative champions for the Singapore edition, we catch up with the homecoming heroes and find out what they have in common with army infantry units, Stanley Kubrick and leprechauns.
One month ago you guys were in S. Korea for the Yamaha Asia Beat. What was that like?
Mal Mikhal: It was an awesome experience. Definitely it was something different from what we have over here in Singapore. The atmosphere was quite encouraging.
Alfredo Lucius: We arrived in the middle of autumn so the weather was very cold. We were stuffing our hands in our pockets, bringing heat packs, wearing gloves…anything to keep ourselves warm.
Matt Raham: The entire experience was surreal, from the moment we boarded the plane at Changi Airport to the sound check before we played the gig. When we stepped on stage to a full house crowd…it was a really “wow” experience. The crowd numbered about 3000 to 4000, which makes it the largest audience we’ve ever played for.
Razil Razil Razil: It was a regional competition showcasing the champions from each country. We were the third band to play and we performed a song called “Mighty Night‟. Previously we had been told that Korean crowd was hard to please, but they actually stood up and danced and sang along during our performance. At the time we thought that the crowd was warming up and that they were going to do the same for the other bands, but they only did it for us.
It was quite amazing. We took a break outside of the hall and slowly the people from the audience started coming out and going, “eh Singapore!” We don’t get this kind (of recognition) in Singapore. We took a lot of pictures with both members from the audience as well as the other bands.
Did you guys play any other gigs in S. Korea?
Razil Razil Razil : Our trip was entirely sponsored by Yamaha, so we had to strictly abide to their terms and conditions. We weren’t allowed to extend our stay or play other shows.
Was winning an important thing for you guys?
Razil Razil Razil: Winning wasn’t an objective. The main objective was to leave them remembering the band from Singapore, and in that respect we’re quite satisfied. After our performance they (the other competitors) were saying they would tell their juniors back home to watch out for SIngaporean bands. That made us very proud…the main fuel for this band is not to impress, but to imprint. We want the whole experience to be imprinted in the minds of the audience.
I heard the rhythm section won quite a few awards…
Alfredo Lucius: One of the judges was a very good drummer named Akira Jimbo (from fusion-jazz band Casiopea) and when he came to Singapore to do his drum clinic a few weeks he actually mentioned our rhythm section by name. To get a comment like that from an international musician was a very big endorsement.
Razil Razil Razil: Apparently, there was somebody who was being condescending towards local music and putting down our musicians,, saying that the most Singapore could hope for was to replicate Japan’s music industry. Akira was actually pissed off, and defended Singaporean music by citing Matt as an example of local talent.
He might have a point though. Local music is not exactly financially sustainable. How are things on that front for you guys?
Razil Razil Razil: Financially it’s getting better and becoming clockwork. Before Korea we had a lot of doubts about whether we could sustain this financially as a career. After Korea I think most of the doubts have been cleared. Right now it’s a world ruled by the Internet. Online you can sell your music, talk to people, forego labels, and forego the middleman…so we’re planning to break into the digital market.
Definitely, with digitalization, you can distribute your music internationally a lot easier, but the flipside of that is that people are putting a lot less value in recorded music–they see it as something free and sharable. How do you guys make sure all those listens translate into actual money to recoup your costs?
Razil Razil Razil: It will be and it has always been very hard… it’s a matter of mental stamina. I think the only thing we only care about right now is our main focus, our passion to get the music out there. Money is always a need, yes, at the end of the day you need to put food on the table, but we take that as a secondary priority.
Matt Raham: We will probably do something different live from what we have on record and add something additional to our live experience. We can arrange something more extravagant…the challenge of trying to reinvent our songs live and add value is the proof of our musicianship.
For the benefit of our readers, take us through how the band started.
Alfredo Lucius: It basically started when I was playing an acoustic show at a company corporate show in mid ’09. I can‟t remember who the singer was, but Razil was in the audience and we met. We both wanted to start something and slowly we started sourcing for musicians. I knew Mal from NS and so I roped him in almost instantly and Razil met Matt in reservist training.
Razil Razil Razil: We were looking for a permanent keyboardist, and while Matt was sessioning for another band he met Hans. We intended him to be a keyboardist, but when I heard him playing guitar I was like…hell no, I‟m not gonna let this dude not hold the guitar. The line-up was complete when we saw Rave at the Boat Quay underpass outside Home Club, busking and playing keyboards early this year.
How long did it take for you guys to find a musical identity–what’s the creative dynamic in the band like?
Matt Raham: We basically came from different genres and…when you get different colours from different rainbows, you get a new rainbow which is unique.
Alfredo Lucius: And if you try hard enough, you might find a pot of gold…
Razil Razil Razil: And Fred would be the leprechaun.
Alfredo Lucius: Creatively, we work like an infantry section. The rhythm groove section are kinda like the SAW gunners who sit back and lay down the suppressive fire… and the vocal instruments like the guitars and the keyboards and the vocalist, we’re the soldiers doing the flanking.
Rave Zulo: For example, for “Mighty Night‟, Razil came up with the initial idea and we all tried to contribute. On my part I wanted to find the right kind of sound, the right kind of melody that would make people dance.
Razil Razil Razil: We’re all writing the song, and we don’t want to consciously set out to replicate the same sound with every song. We‟re not one of those bands that go, “Oh, we want to sound like The Strokes!” Basically our mindset is that every song is a movie.
How do you mean that?
Alfredo Lucius: Well, you can look at certain directors who‟ve directed movies of various genres, but their movies are still very distinctively them. People like Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, they‟re all directors who touch on various different themes but still retain a distinctive identity.
I’ve noticed some pretty interesting terrain in terms of the lyrics. What are your influences?
Razil Razil Razil: As a lyrics writer I’m very influenced by narrative song writing, people like Babyface, Anthony Kiedis, and Jay Kay from Jamiraqoui. I try to be ambiguous and make it relatable. The song “Dancer‟, for example, is a sarcastic song about girls who lead guys on, but I get female dancers who come up to me and tell me they identify with the song! So my approach is to leave it open so that the listeners can find their own meaning in the song.
Alfredo Lucius: We try not to do the obvious thing. “How I Am Alive‟, for example, is a song that has a very serious message about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, so we tried to make it easy-listening so it would grab attention.
Razil Razil Razil: It’s about the psychology of the song. We didn’t want to write a slow song which would only put people into a mood for moping and complaining–we wanted to inspire people to get up and do something about it.
So what’s your definition of success?
Razil Razil Razil: Our definition of success is having our songs played on local radio. Other radio stations might be friendlier, but our goal is still to get our music on local radio even though friends might tell us not to waste our time. It‟s not a matter of wanting to prove something. We want to be mainstream; we’re not shy of being mainstream. Some people come up to us and call us sell-outs–we don’t care. We want as many ears as possible. We’re doing the digital media thing but we also want the conventional media recognition because nobody is trying to change the system.
Doesn’t it frustrate you though, going to a foreign country and getting such a warm reception from fans and musicians alike, only to come back to Singapore only to run into so many walls?
Razil Razil Razil: It does but we’re still gonna be very optimistic about it. We take it as a new challenge to make Singapore react as much as a foreign audience would. We’re not giving up on Singapore…I still believe that if you can’t succeed in your own country, what makes you think a foreign country will be any different? We want to make Singapore dance.
So any concrete plans for the future? Is a full-length album coming out?
Razil Razil Razil: We‟re working on an EP right now, and “Mighty Night‟ is going to be the first single for sure. Most likely we’re gonna focus on releasing our songs single by single and afterwards compiling them into an EP.
Alfredo Lucius: It‟s a singles market now. With Katy Perry‟s last record, ten of her songs hit the charts–every song has to be a single.
Razil Razil Razil: You need all killers, no fillers now. The way music is consumed is something that‟s not in our control anymore. You used to be able to package your music and have the audience experience it the way you want it to tell a story, but audiences are much cleverer now. They mix-and-match, and music is like a candy store to them where they cherry-pick the songs to put on their iPod.
Alfredo Lucius: We’re living in the age where everything is being customized to what we want. Everyone has the option of a playlist made for themselves.
(Samuel C Wee)
Watch the video of Catalogue V’s performance in South Korea at the Yamaha Asian Beat below.