Laughing It Up With Rivermaya! (by Jeanette Chin)
Last Saturday (18 Aug), I had such a fun time interviewing 4 members of Rivermaya at the Hard Rock Cafe Singapore, before their show got started. These guys are so playful, and they’re such a laugh to be with! As I was sitting down to interview Mark Escueta (vocals/guitar/djembe), Mike Elgar (vocals/guitar), Norby David (vocals/bass) and Ryan Peralta (drums/keyboard), they started asking me a whole bunch of questions instead, and got me thinking, “Hey, wait a minute here, so who’s interviewing who??” Very quickly though, they got settled in to answering my questions, punctuating their replies with lots of laughter, and before we knew it, time was up! They were out the door for their soundcheck, leaving me with a great big smile on my face, as I hit rewind on my voice recorder to listen to this…
JC: In a strange reversal of sorts, Rivermaya has decided to interview me instead! OK, bring it on!
[The band and I are laughing]
JC: So when did you guys get started as Rivermaya, and what’s the history there?
Mark: We started in 1994, which means we’re now celebrating our 18th birthday. There were 5 of us in the band at the time. The year after, we went down to 4 members. Our guitar player left (Perfecto de Castro). Then three years later, our singer left. Bamboo Manalac was our first singer, he’s now a solo artist. So there were 3 of us left, and then three years later, bassist Nathan Azarcon leaves, so we’re down to 2 members. Then we had 3 new members in 2001, Mike Elgar, Japs Sergio & Kakoy Legaspi. Three years later, Kakoy leaves, so we’re down to 4 members again. And then three years later, singer Rico Blanco leaves. He is also a solo artist now. Then we stayed as a trio for awhile. Then we had auditions, and we got Jayson Fernandez. The auditions were televised as a reality show. Three years after, he’s gone. And then we decided to get 2 new members, Norby David and Ryan Peralta, while Japs is on leave. And throughout all those years, we released 11 full-length albums and a couple more project concept albums.
JC: So does that include the “Free” album that you gave away?
Mark: Yeah, that was something that we did in 2000. We funded our own recording, and we had a few thousand copies made, and we just literally threw them into the crowd at all the shows. And some people would come to our office and get them from there, or we would have to mail them. But none were sold.
Mike: Till recently…
Mark: They’re now collecter’s items. It’s also streaming online on a few websites. Downloadable. But it’s still free. So if anyone tries to sell you the “Free” album, don’t buy it.
JC: This isn’t your first time in Singapore, is it? How many times have you been to Singapore now?
Mike: We counted it awhile ago. This is going to be our 11th performance in Singapore. We’ve been coming here since 2005.
JC: So when you first came here in 2005, what was that for?
Mike: We were invited by Electrico.
Mark: Yes, that was our first gig… back to back with Electrico at Bar None.
Mike: I think it’s not around anymore.
Mark: It’s Bar Gone.
Norby: It’s Bar None, it’s none.
[We’re all laughing again]
JC: You’ve played some prominent gigs in Singapore and abroad as well, but maybe you can tell us a bit about your F1 Singapore Grand Prix experience, back in 2009.
Mark: Very memorable. Of course, that was a dream gig for us, because we were the first Filipino band to be invited to play for the Grand Prix. And it was also hard for us at the time, because at the exact same time, there was a super-typhoon that hit Philippines, and a lot of areas went underwater. So we were happy, but we couldn’t be totally happy. Still, looking back, it was fun. We had three shows, we played two 45-minute sets and one 1-hour set. It was our first time to see the Grand Prix. We were up on the 9th floor of the Swissotel Stamford, and we still couldn’t hear each other, it was so loud.
Mike: It was an amazing experience.
Mark: Mike loved the Backstreet Boys. (Mark’s pulling a fast one here, folks!)
Mike: No, that wasn’t me. I got to see Travis.
JC: I know you guys have done a lot of mall shows back in the Philippines. Can you make a comparison between what it’s like to do a mall show, and what it’s like to do a concert show?
Mike: We used to do mall shows. Nowadays, it’s not very common anymore.
Norby: There’s something about the audience, when the lights are bright. When it’s a mall show, it’s a little tamer, because people can see each other… it’s during the day, right? And when it’s a concert, and it’s night-time, and the lights are out, and the lights are only on the stage, that’s when people are more comfortable to go crazy and stuff.
Ryan: [Talking about mall shows] There are more families. You get kids and you get parents watching.
Mike: Back in the Philippines, it’s like a showcase. It’s like a promo thing for the labels, so we do a show for the people there, minimal advertisements for the shows, so most people who watch are actually just malling, walking around the mall.
Norby: Malling, it’s a very violent act! Like a bear.
[We all laugh]
JC: Can you tell us about your creative process as a band? How do you write all these wonderful songs that end up being classics?
Mike: Oh, that would be me!
JC: So what do you guys do? Do you get in a room, or how does it happen?
Norby: Mike gets in a room.
Mike: Norby gets in a room.
Mark: We’re releasing 4 new songs tonight, and these past few months, we’ve been writing. Some of the songs came from or were products of rehearsals that had no rules. Someone would start something, and we would all play, and it would be recorded. We just leave the recorder on, and then we go back to the music, and see if we could add lyrics to it, or a melody. There are some songs that happen that way. And then there are some songs that we wrote individually, but we all try to finish everything together as a band.
JC: Who are your favourite musical artists or bands, people that influence you?
Mark: Do you have enough batteries in your… [He points to my voice recorder]
[And the guys are laughing their heads off again]
Norby: In alphabetical order… let me check my iPod…
Ryan: Well, I listen to a lot of jazz artists for drumming. Playing rock and Rivermaya songs, it’s like exploring a new phase musically, which I’m enjoying. But for me, what I’m listening to is different from what I’m playing.
Norby: I really can’t tell who my influences are, because there’s just so much music out there, right? And you hear so much of it… like driving In your car, you turn on the radio, you don’t know who it is, but you’re gonna hear it, and you won’t really notice, but later on, it’s gonna affect how you think musically, so I can’t really point out specific influences.
Mark: I think when you’re gunning for creativity, the best thing to do is to try to find your own style, your own voice, so in terms of influences, everyone will have their own favourites, what you’ve been listening to since you’re a kid, up to now, it’ll stay with you, even in your subconscious. But one thing that I’ve learned is very helpful as a musician is to be influenced by the good things that other artists have done to get to where they are, besides the music. If you can learn from the life of this artist, and how he did this and did that, that can also help you plan your own strategy as to what kind of an artist you’re gonna be. ‘Cos at the end of the day, there’s a lot of talented people out there, but there’s only a few who will really make their mark, because they earn respect from people, and sometimes that’s more important than the music itself. I want to give two examples of what I mean. One of the most influential artists for me is Miles Davis, because of how open-minded he is about music. ‘Cos there are some jazz musicians who just don’t even turn to pop music, they’re just purists. But even though he’s a hardcore jazz musician, if he hears a pop song on the radio and he likes it, he’ll do a version of it. That’s why he did a version of “Human Nature” (Michael Jackson) and “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper). Another one is Stevie Wonder. Because it’s just really amazing for me that he was blind, right… but when he sings, it’s like he’s seeing things better than anyone. Like for example in the song “Lately”, he sings, “Lately I’ve been staring in the mirror…” and you know that he physically can’t do that, but when you hear him sing, you really believe that he did. You try to achieve that with whatever instrument you’re holding or with your voice, and with whatever you’re trying to do with your own music, and it could really inspire you to do things.
Mike: I’m basically a guitar player, so when I was learning how to play the guitar, I was a typical guitarhead kinda guy. So I grew up listening to Van Halen. The guitar player in that band was a major influence for me, in terms of being a musician. I really learned a lot from emulating their records. But nowadays, I seldom listen to this old stuff. It’s more about listening to new stuff from newer artists, who are not necessarily guitar players, but even pop singers like Katy Perry. I have a daughter. I’ve learned a lot from her, in terms of current music. She’s at that age, you know. So I kinda see the direction where music for kids is actually going. So I’m not really influenced, but aware of One Direction. But yeah, I came from a really hard rock background.
JC: You now have 2 new members, Ryan & Norby… are they really new, or have they been in other bands? What’s the background there?
Norby: We’re old…
[The other band members laugh]
Norby: It’s very intertwined, the stories. ‘Cos Mark and I, we’ve known each other since we were 7 or 8 years old. We went to school together, and we formed our first band together. Then, I was in another band with Ryan. And Ryan and I were in another band with Mike. So it’s all so intricate. But I dunno, who’s gonna tell the story?
[And the band is laughing again]
Mike: Well, basically, Mark and Norby formed their first band, and Mark became the drummer because he got a drum set for Christmas, but he didn’t know how to play the drums, but Norby did, so he taught Mark how to play drums. So that’s the background between Mark and Norby.
Mike: For Ryan, Ryan came down from a higher place in the Philippines. From the mountains. Have you heard of Baguio? Yeah, he came from Baguio. He went to Manila with only 500 pesos, to try his luck in music, and he met these guys. By 1998, he was Mark’s substitute, ‘cos Mark was still in college at the time, finishing his thesis, doing exams. He would play drums for Rivermaya when Mark wasn’t around. Then in 1999, we all met in a band for one day (Mike, Ryan & Norby).
JC: For one day??
Norby: ‘Cos I got fired. The leader of that band fired me. No, he didn’t really fire me. He just never called.
Mike: That band was really short-lived. Because a few weeks after, Ryan left. Eventually, I left also. Then, I joined Rivermaya soon after. And after a few years of playing in Rivermaya, Ryan came in again, as a session percussionist. Then, we were supposed to do a show here, which was cancelled, way back in 2010. We forced him to play the keyboards then, so he learned the keyboards for us, and played percussion for us. Then, we got Norby to play guitar in 2011, and sometimes bass when Japs isn’t around. And then we decided in late 2011, to welcome Ryan to the band, ‘cos he’s been very good to the band and he’s been very helpful, and we all knew that he would be able to add something great to the band. So we added him, and Mark decided eventually to let go of the drums, and play guitar instead. But eventually, you know, we may decide to expand our set-up with 2 drum sets maybe. Then once in awhile, they could play together.
JC: You mentioned that Japs is currently on leave, so what is he up to these days?
Mike: Last year, he released a solo album, it’s called “Monologue Whispers” and his name there is Japsuki. It’s electronic, similar to his original band, Daydream Cycle, which is also on hiatus at the moment, so I think he missed doing the indie stuff that they used to do before he joined Rivermaya. He formed another project band with some friends of ours, called Peso Movement, and they’ve been recording stuff too. Yeah, he’s been busy with those 2 projects, plus his business.
JC: Do you each have a favourite Rivermaya song, and what is that song?
Ryan: Maybe it comes in seasons, like you listen to one song, and that’s your favourite, and then after a month, this is your favourite. For now, something that I enjoy playing… probably “Faithless”. It’s fun, and it’s rock!
Norby: We like watching Mike suffer.
[Everyone bursts out laughing]
Norby: I dunno. There are so many good Rivermaya songs, everybody knows that. But if I were to choose one that I always would go back to would probably be… maybe “Kundiman”, that’s a tagalog one. (A kundiman is a traditional Filipino love song).
Mike: From the “Trip” album.
Norby: Yeah, from the second album. It’s such a powerful song. It’s a ballad, but it’s very powerful.
Mark: Can I choose a song that will be released tonight? For today, my favourite song is “Malayang Magmahal”. In English, “Free To Love”. Sounds so cheesy in English.
[The rest of the guys start to chuckle in the background]
Norby: Free love.
[They all laugh it up]
Mark: It is a song about this couple going through some things, and because of that, they can’t be together yet. But they’re hoping that someday, things will be ok. So that’s my favourite song. We’re gonna sing it tonight. It’s a mid-tempo pop song.
Mike: Can I mention more than one? The first song that I really liked by Rivermaya was “Hilo”. I still wasn’t part of the band at the time. It means dizzy.
Mark: It means high, in English.
Mike: Hi and Lo. It’s kind of a pop song. It’s kind of a weird song.
Norby: It’s like Lionel Richie, “Hilo, is it me you’re looking for?” [Norby sings]
Mark: I like that song too!
Ryan: I like that song also!
[And the band is roaring with laughter again]
Mike: For me, at that time, it sounded different from what other the bands were doing. Of course, that same year, that same album saw a wonderful song called “Himala” that came out. It’s a really really nice song, I think. Perfect. Very simple. Three chords. But very moving lyrics. And then, a bunch of great songs came out from Rivermaya, till I joined. When I joined, I think it got really bad.
[Laughter from the other band members]
Mike: When I joined, I kinda preferred the songs, not because I wrote them, but because it really came from my heart. Like the song I wrote for you-know-who, it’s called “She” (Mike’s wife is called She). And I wrote a song “Pure” for her also. And a song for Akemi (Mike’s daughter), which is “A.M.” And then of course, the song, “You’ll Be Safe Here”, which I’m really really proud of, because of what it became.
JC: Going forward, what are your plans for the future?
Norby: Change more members.
[Everyone bursts out laughing]
Mike: Plans for the future? Mark will explain the process of releasing the first batch of songs tonight…
Mark: Yes… we’re releasing 4 songs tonight on a website called opm2go… it’s a website that only sells Filipino music, but anyone can access the site. Then every month, we’ll be releasing maybe 1, 2 or 3 songs, so it’ll be a little more exciting for the fans, because they can expect new songs every now and then, instead of having to wait for a year for a new album to come out. Also for us, we’ll be able to write about things as they happen. Let’s say, if something comes up tomorrow, and we think of a song, we can always call each other, record the song, and then we can just upload it, and everyone can get it. Then hopefully, we get to do videos for maybe all the songs, even simple ones, and get to perform more often here and around the region again.
JC: Have you tried any local foods in Singapore? What is your favourite local food?
Mike: Is Laksa a local food? Yeah, Laksa is my favourite here.
Norby: There’s this one dish that I tried. It’s like this squid thing. It’s crispy. I don’t know what it’s called.
The others: Maybe crispy squid.
[And they all laugh it up]
Norby: That’s really good. It’s sweet, and a little spicy, and crunchy. And that, what’s that? Pepper crab. I heard that’s really popular here. I wanna try that.
Mike: Norby’s very adventurous in terms of food. He eats anything. Like when we were in Indonesia, he ate goat’s eye.
Norby: Yeah, goat’s eye.
JC: Then if you eat fish-head curry in Little India, you can eat the fish eye, apparently it’s a delicacy.
Norby: In the Philippines, everybody eats that.
Mike: [Trying to imitate me] Jeanette’s like, “Eeeew!!!”
[They all have a laugh at my expense]
Norby: [Trying to imitate me thinking out loud] “Who are these savages?”
[And they’re laughing again]
Mark: The best and most popular appetiser in the Philippines are ant’s eyes. Very expensive. They need to be plucked fresh. And with a special tweezer too.
[And everyone’s roaring with laughter once more]
JC: Do you have a message for your fans?
Norby: See you guys tonight. We’re thankful, and we hope that you continue to support us. We’re excited for you guys to hear the new stuff that we have.