Culture | Singapore's Subsonic Eye playing happy music for sad people
Glad to be sad: Subsonic Eye are out to change Singapore's career-centric mindset with their brand of ethereal, dreamy pop. Photo: Official band picture
Glad to be sad: Subsonic Eye are out to change Singapore's career-centric mindset with their brand of ethereal, dreamy pop. Photo: Official band picture
CultureSingaporeInterview

Subsonic Eye: happy music for sad people

The dream-popsters release their debut album early in 2017 in the city-state that mostly dreams of business and boardrooms

December 31, 2016 9:15 AM (UTC+8)

In business-driven Singapore, art is rarely considered a career choice. Subsonic Eye are trying to change all that.

The young dream-pop five-piece are poised to release their debut album in the Lion City early in the new year. If the band’s past few single releases are anything to go by, it will be a compelling collection of lush melodies, ethereal beats and melancholy vocals to rival anything by British contemporaries The XX or French electro combo M83.

For the band, writing and recording the provisionally titled Strawberry Feels has been the easy part. Winning over a city that has traditionally shunned music in favor of commerce and industry is where the hard work begins.

“As a kid growing up, you’re ingrained to believe that art is just a hobby to pass the time and that you won’t make a living out of it,” says guitarist Daniel Castro Borces, blaming “stereotypical Asian parents and lack of exposure in school.

“It was frustrating thinking that I couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do the most as a career,” he says.

The rest of the band — vocalist Nur Wahidah, Zhang Bo on guitar, Spencer Tan on bass and drummer Lucas Tee — also found little succor from their teachers on the polytechnic music course where they met and still study.

“Even our lecturers tell us about how hard it’s going to be,” he says.

Wahidah’s hopes to be a professional musician haunt her everyday life.

“I get weird looks from adults and sometimes they just don’t take me seriously,” she says. “There’s always a risk to making something like this a career choice in Singapore. It’s constantly a question of sacrificing your financial future for something you love. It’s hard to get music and financial security hand-in-hand but one can dream.”

Dreaming and dream states are central not only to Subsonic Eye’s ambitions but also the music of the band formed in 2015 when Daniel bumped into “wannabe hipster” Wahidah in the first few days of college. Woozy and subliminal, their single releases to date have a maturity and assuredness that sets them apart from their peers.

“We play happy music for sad people”

Cosmic Realignment and 2Daze, both released in 2016 on their own Middle Class Cigars label, build from simple repetitive electronic motifs into glorious wall-of-sound crescendos overlaid with Wahidah’s icy, cracked vocals, a voice reminiscent of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Frazer.

It’s a comparison the band’s likely to approve of: they list the Cocteaus’ contemporaries My Bloody Valentine among their influences. It’s also possible to hear touches of other favorites, such as The Cure, Perfume Genius and Bjork in their clean, glacial electronic sound.

“We play happy music for sad people,” Wahidah says of the thread of melancholy that underpins the music. “We don’t get a lot of those around here.”

“We try to combine other ‘styles’ of music with dream-pop and indie-pop. That makes us have somewhat our own ‘sound,’” says Daniel. “What helps with that is all of us are listening to somewhat different things now so all the different influences add up.”

That said, it’s difficult to hear any shades of bassist Tan’s favorites Billy Ray Cyrus or Fleetwood Mac, and that’s probably just as well!

The band members are in the middle of mixing the album themselves, relying on their own and borrowed equipment, because they are “all just really broke students,” says Daniel. The process is going smoothly so far and Daniel says he’s confident the record will contribute to changing attitudes in Singapore.

“There’s a noticeable shift in mindset from both the government and the people,” he says. “Everyone’s sort of more open-minded now, and the government has grants, organizations and stuff like that that really helped those who want to pursue music.”

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