HALFWAY through the set at The Fire Fight’s farewell concert, So Long For Now, frontman Joshua Tan decides to shake things up a little. “This is an unrehearsed song,” he tells the audience, acoustic guitar in hand, before starting on a quiet, emotional version of Sonnet.
Earlier on in the show, a couple of technical glitches had made for rough riding through the first couple of songs. At this particular moment, though, no one is thinking about technicalities. The sparse accompaniment of the band seems to scrub the air clean of the jitters that had come before, and Joshua has his eyes tightly shut as he sings about matters close to his own heart. He’s holding on tightly to the song, and the lyrics–“Into the fire, into your grace/into your love, You know I’m here/to love you”– seem to drift out of somewhere deep within.
At this point, Joshua turns away from the microphone to choke back a cry, tears streaming down his face.
Later, Joshua will tell me he was moved by the memories of the original revelation behind the song. Right now though, watching from the audience, one almost gets the feeling that God has just walked through the room.
TWO days ago, we are at Backbeats Studio, a jamming studio wedged in between the heartland and the city at Farrer Park.
The Fire Fight have been practicing intensely here for their all-important final gig together as a band before they go on an indefinite hiatus. It will be a Sunday matinee at the newly-launched SCAPE Warehouse; this is the band’s way of saying farewell.
Right now, we are trying to nail down the precise reason The Fire Fight are taking a break. Joshua starts off first, choosing his words carefully.
“We’ve come to the point where we realize we can’t really make a career out of music, and we need to make decisions about what we’re going to do with our lives.”
Drummer Iain Tham goes on to elaborate: “This is a critical point for us personally. We’re at the crossroads of our lives, and we have essentially two choices. One is to do music all the way, and the other is to focus on our personal careers and studies. At the end of the day, the most important thing for us is to make sure we can support ourselves and our families.”
The realization that he did not have a career stable enough to settle down, says Joshua, who is a media producer by day, sparked his decision to further his education in Australia. At the same time, the rest of the members in the band were reaching milestones in their lives as well.
Bassist Jbarks, for one, had decided to further his education as well, while guitarist Jonathan Leong will be graduating from the University of Buffalo in December this year.
With drummer Iain Tham also opting to pursue a career in piloting, it all came to a head in a McDonald’s outlet at West Coast, where the band agreed unanimously to take an indefinite break.
Was this the original plan, I ask, to reach a certain milestone as a band and then split up to focus on your personal lives? There is silence for a moment from the band before Joshua answers. “We didn’t really think so much when we started out,” he says.
“We wanted to take the music places and give our best efforts. Where we are right now, which is a certain level of recognition, is really the result of a blessing of events.
“People have been very gracious to us since we started; they’ve taken us in, believed in us, and responded to the sound. This farewell gig is our way of giving something back to the listeners, a way of giving them both closure as well as something to remember.”
The Fire Fight have a special relationship with their listeners, that much is clear. I ask them about the impact they think their hiatus will have on the scene, and their answer is unanimous: the scene is fickle, and it won’t miss us.
Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. The Fire Fight are not the only band to be departing the spotlight this year, though. Earlier on in February this year, Astroninja had similarly said farewell when their always-colourful frontman Levan Wee departed for Melbourne, while Allura will be thanking their fans for all the fish in July.
I ask the band their opinion about this trend, betraying my youth in the process. Esmond Wee (the band manager) points out things were even worse ten years ago, when bands would just fade away into oblivion without any sort of closure. On his part, Joshua treats my observation with a matter-of-fact sort of pragmatism, shrugging as he tells me, “This is the life-span of a Singaporean band.”
THE Fire Fight are quick to acknowledge that even within the scene itself, there are people who bear animosity towards the band.
Esmond, who watches over the interview proceedings with the watchful wariness of an older brother, tells me about how somebody on Facebook had slammed the band, describing them as “cocky, pubescent teens …more interested in swagger than musicianship”. To which Joshua had reacted with bemusement; the band, after all, are firmly in their mid-twenties.
The band laugh such negativity off. After all, Joshua says, there is something inherently funny about people who dislike The Fire Fight expending so much energy ranting about The Fire Fight.
The Fire Fight have made plenty of friends in their time, though, that much is clear. The guest performers at the gig are familiar faces. Esmond, who had earlier recounted the “cocky, pubescent teens” anecdote to the audience before the gig, joins the band to take vocals on a couple of songs.
Amanda Ling (she of ex-Electrico fame and schoolboy fantasy) also takes the stage at certain times to fill in the keyboard parts that were played by former Fire Fighter Chris Ong on Henri, their debut album released last year.
Other faces can also be recognized here and there: Angel Lee, who contributed backing vocals to the record, long-time supporter and close friend Kevin Mathews, Saiful Idris from Great Spy Experiment as well as Matthew Lim, Joshua’s bandmate from A Vacant Affair.
Matthew’s duet with Joshua at the gig proves to be one of the emotional watermarks of the event. Watching them together on stage, they make for an odd couple; Joshua in his Ben Sherman checkered chic best, Matthew in his cap and tee worn under an unbuttoned shirt.
Nevertheless, there is a bond between the two that is palpable; a friendship that one senses has weathered both laughter and tears. Together the two of them sing Hours.
The song is of particular significance to Matthew, who had been in attendance at one of the early gigs played by the Fire Fight (at a place that Joshua describes as “a dodgy club around the Duxton Hills area”).
At the time, Matthew’s late mother had been battling late-stage cancer. In light of his close friend’s personal situation, Joshua’s performance of the song took on a powerful emotional charge as he sang about mortality and eternity, about love and life and death.
“The song is basically about knowing how much time you have left with someone, and treasuring it,” says Joshua. “At that point in time, it was exactly what Matthew was going through. I took one look at Matthew while I was singing the song, and I started bawling my eyes out.”
PART of the magic of The Fire Fight is the way that their songs can morph and change to adapt to different situations for the listener, without losing anything in the process.
Portrait Lover is one example. Iain, who worked together with Joshua on the lyrics, tells me about how the song had resonated with a friend of his who had recently gone through a bad break-up.
Yet the essence of the song, according to Joshua, is less romantic than it is spiritual. Joshua explains it as being about intimacy, about loving somebody past their flaws.
This kind of love, the ancient Greeks describe as agape, namely, the divine, unconditional love of God. That is indeed the significance of the song for Joshua personally, though he is quick to stress that the song could also be about the love of a father or a lover.
“The same song can take on different shapes for different listeners,” says Joshua. “But I don’t ever feel like I need to water down God in my songs. For me, the songs are an honest, personal expression of myself. I don’t try to hide God.”
Joshua’s faith is a major contributing factor to not just the music of the Fire Fight, but also their mission.
Earlier on, I had asked the band if they were satisfied with their achievements. Joshua had responded with an admonishment, reminding me that the purpose of the band was not a certain level of success or recognition, but a mission of positivity and change, of bringing people together through music.
That mission itself is well-documented through various interviews and articles. What is less publicised is the manner in which Joshua was inspired to his vision. At the age of 12, Joshua had been going through personal emotional turmoil when he sat down in his bedroom with his sister’s acoustic guitar.
At that point, Joshua received what he calls a “revelation from God”: that his music could and would be able to change the world around him. It was a life-changing moment for the then-teenager.
Joshua tells me, “The reason I write music is to reach people where they need to be reached. I have no chance at all in this lifetime of ever being able to attend to anyone’s needs, but with music, I can help people without being physically present.”
Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, those same words would either have sounded insufferably saintly or symptomatic of a messianic complex.
Coming out of Josh, however, they sound just about right; something to do, perhaps, with the quiet conviction with which he speaks them, a certain vulnerability and humility that marks him more as a pilgrim than it does a preacher.
Not that Joshua is anything less than the consummate frontman. . As a performer, Joshua inhabits a certain charisma that makes it near impossible to take your eyes off him.
It’s a quality that defies analysis. One can try to examine his stage moves, his singing technique, sure. At a certain point, though, you lose track of yourself and focus instead on the song and Joshua.
To a certain extent, the song is Joshua. Whether he’s whipping around the stage during Train Song, his hair stuck to his face in the most unglamorous fashion or singing with his eyes tightly squeezed shut during an acoustic version of Fires at Night, Joshua Tan loses himself in the music.
The fundamental appeal of The Fire Fight, then, is their rapture; the essence of The Fire Fight experience is surrender, and no one personifies this more than Joshua himself.
OF course, The Fire Fight is so much more than just Joshua Tan.
It is fascinating to watch them live, if only to see the little details that colour their personalities, and subsequently, the way those personalities contribute to the overall spirit of The Fire Fight.
Live, you get to see how Iain is the one who takes a macro view of it all, perched from his drummer’s throne as he lays down a solid groove to hold the band together in time. Live, you get to see how Jonathan is the catalyst who ignites the cocktail, something that is most obvious when his guitar goes out because of a technical fault and the energy drops noticeably.
Live, too, you see how Jbarks is both Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr rolled into one, how his unassuming attitude leads him to be the one who plays with his back to the audience most of the time, and how disappointed this makes the schoolgirls, who are deprived of his movie-star good looks.
More than any other local band, The Fire Fight is a product of not just instruments but personalities. The spirit of the band comes from the interaction of these four characters together. You see this clearly when they strip away the noticeable elements of their songs to make them even more intimate and confessional than they already are, when they change the rhythms of their songs, the melodies, the guitar sounds, everything, in fact, that make the songs recognizable to the audience.
Yet despite it all the captive audience still sits enraptured in their plastic chairs, watching the band with something approaching wonder. Then you realize, ah. The spirit of this band withstands obvious guitar sounds, exceeds signature rhythms.
I ask the band what will happen to that obvious brotherhood when they go their separate ways, what happens to the relationships they share?
They break out into easy camaraderie like they did so many times before, like when they teased Jon about the size of his balls or Jbarks about his starring role in Boo Junfeng’s feature film, Sandcastle.
They gleefully list down the various ways they can keep in touch: e-mail, Facebook, Skype lor, TTYL lor…
Joshua is the only one not contributing to this. There is an ambiguous expression his face that straddles humour and sadness.
“The truth is,” he says quietly, “I don’t know. Relationships will drift apart inevitably. I hope we can keep in touch.”
AT some point during our interview at the small but brightly lit room at Backbeats Studio, I am asked what my favourite Fire Fight song is, and I answer Covenant.
It is an odd reply, not least because the song in question is rarely played live. In fact, clocking in at just over 8 minutes, it is nobody’s idea of a radio single.
Despite its unwieldy length, though, there is a certain captivating quality to the song, especially during the last minute or so, when the band takes off and slams into a joyful refrain that combines the jet engine from U2’s Beautiful Day with lyrics from King David.
Joshua tells me that the intent of the outro was to recreate a feeling of eternity, specifically, eternal praise.
(It is a testimony to the band that sticking on an eternal refrain to an 8-minute long song hardly makes it feel lengthy at all.)
Later on, at the gig, the band plays Covenant as their closing number. The inclusion of the song is a surprise, not least because it comes after their usual closer, Train Song.
Kevin Mathews had joined the band for that one, singing a mournful, haunted acoustic version of the verse as an intro before the band launched into the song proper.
As usual, the rendition is rousing, the hook at the end anthemic, and the audience sings along passionately until the finish. It feels like the end of the event, but nobody’s getting ready to leave just yet.
Joshua takes to the mic again after Kevin leaves, announcing the final number. “We’ve come to the last song,” he announces.
Then silence for a beat, as he realizes the significance of what he’s just said. The audience does too, and responds with some noise.
Then Joshua invites the guest musicians up, including Angel on backup vocals and Kelvin on trumpet, and they are off, launching into passion and emotion, taking us to church.
And the chorus is worshipful and the verses are earnest, but the band have one final trick up their sleeve as they blast into the stratosphere for the refrain, trumpets blaring, guitars riffing, Springsteen-esque vocalizations soaring, and the audience members leap out of their seats to jump up and sing a new song.
Joshua is right. It does feel like eternity.
THE most special thing about a Fire Fight gig doesn’t come during the gig itself.
Joshua calls my cellphone later that night; I had earlier texted him my congratulations and best wishes, having failed to catch him after the show. In response he sheepishly asks me who I am, he has lost my number. Pai seh lah.
We chat for a while and I offer my congratulations on the amazing show. Joshua’s voice is cracked and tired from the show, and he is obviously weary, but he makes the effort to engage on conversation (only breaking away for a while when his rabbit bites his finger).
At some point I tell Joshua something I have observed about his songwriting.
“Your songs,” I say. “They have no Them.”
He pauses for a while, trying to make sense of what I’ve said.
“It’s like this,” I explain, not quite knowing where I’m going as well. “In rock and roll—punk rock in particular—there’s always a mentality of us versus them. Versus the establishment, versus the government, versus The Man. Even in Christian music, you’ll find that mentality. The church against the world.
“But your songs have no Them, there’s only an Us. There’s only We. We are the problem—“sad sad so we are together, woah”—but We can also be the solution. That’s the thing I really admire about your songs.”
It’s a haphazard rambling, but Joshua thanks me for my opinion anyway. We talk for a while more before he excuses himself to rest.
That’s where their power comes from, I think to myself after Joshua hangs up. At the end of the day, it’s so much stronger to unite for something, rather than against someone.
The special thing about a Fire Fight gig doesn’t come during the gig itself.
It comes afterwards, when you leave the venue and realize that on a fundamental level, you don’t just feel like you’ve been uplifted.
You feel like somewhere within you, you can reach out and lift someone else up too.
(Samuel C Wee)
Pix by Thomas Tan.