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The Observatory
Photo: Philipp Aldrup

The Observatory interview

We go backstage with one of the longest-lasting bands in Singapore

Written by
Su Ann Ng

The Observatory is a Singaporean band – but they’re not just any Singaporean band, they’re the Singaporean band. Since their formation in 2001, the avant garde art rock act has become one of the longest-lasting bands in the country; they choose not to stick with a sound that works, but instead reinvents and refines their sonic craft with each record, having inhabited – and having shed – various genres, from folk electronic to progressive rock.

Theirs is the Singapore story: its line-up is a rotating one which gives rise to its continuous artistic evolution, with members made of Singapore’s most significant music acts, although the core group of Leslie Low and Vivian Wang remains. Cheryl Ong and Yuen Chee Wai have joined the ranks of The Observatory’s current installment and the band released their eighth album ‘August Is The Cruellest’ in February. We catch up with them ahead of their set for Urbanscapes this month.

It’s been said that your latest and eighth album ‘August Is The Cruellest’ is your most ‘sonically-rich record’ since 2010’s ‘Dark Folke’. Is it a return to form of sorts?
Leslie Low: Listeners would have to be the judge of that. I think of this as bare bones: lots of string vibrations, urgent and relentless. The pulse and the riff. It’s the blues [in the key of] C.

You reference TS Eliot in this album (‘April is the cruellest month’ from ‘The Waste Land’, and ‘Four Quartets’, etc). Certainly the man, who began as an outsider, became the most celebrated poet of the 20th century – much like you’ve become the most important band in Singapore. Many people today would describe his work as being somewhat challenging, or difficult. Do you feel the same of your music?
LL: Thank you, though I’m not sure if we deserve it. The Eliot imagery, though, is used only on the title track. It stops there.

You state that the album is ‘a work of political noise, a punishing challenge to look inward and move forward’. The album artwork, for instance, reference the annual Indonesia haze, but what else motivated the album? Capitalism? Politics? Social injustice, the environment, loss?
Yuen Chee Wai: Everything is compounded into one. There is no one specific issue that we value a fight against more than the other. Everything that is affecting the world on every level is inter-related. More often than not, it filters down to the economics of greed, both in despicable capitalistic business ethics and governments. These two, over the last few decades have become synonymous and best bed fellows. We must start to think beyond the literal and look past the web of lies that they constantly fog our senses with.

A scene from 'The Obs: A singapore Story'

The music documentary ‘The Obs: A Singapore Story’ explores, as it goes, ‘what it means to be an outsider in a society that favours the mainstream’. It’s interesting that people still view you as outsiders when, forgive us, you’re Singapore’s most successful supergroup.
Cheryl Ong: Thanks for saying that, but that’s a heavy title to uptake! I don’t think we’re a very successful supergroup; there’s so much more that we can do and want to do. We feel like outsiders on a day-to-day basis. Every day is a constant battle with something.

Do you feel that Singapore has a musical voice that expresses its culture and identity in the way that hip hop does for America, for example?
YCW: The music scene in Singapore lacks any possible nuance of a voice. It’s sad. Many people don’t understand the power that music has, and how it can be a carrier of messages of change. There is so much music with meaningless lyrics talking about love and breakups; isn’t it time to focus on something substantial? No, Singapore has no musical voice that expresses its culture and identity.

What’s changed in the Singapore music scene since The Observatory was formed 15 years ago?
YCW: Music back then had more balls. There were some good musicians pushing boundaries, challenging the system. People organised concerts against the death penalty, there were more DIY music events, the zeal and passion to create and explore was much more rampant. These days, with everything becoming too expensive, it’s almost impossible to be a full-time musician or artist. Many have fallen through the cracks as the result of natural attrition. There is a new wave of younger bands, many hobbyists, forming and playing gigs, which is encouraging, but there is a magic that is missing. Their fire doesn’t feel engulfing enough.

'People organised concerts against the death penalty... the zeal and passion to create was much more rampant'

You’re not a timid band. You’re one of the more socio-politically outspoken acts in Singapore. You’re also the only independent band that’s partially funded by the National Arts Council in Singapore. In a Bandwagon article published last February, Vivian is quoted as saying that it’s ‘a slightly uncomfortable place to be in’, saying also that ‘it’s diffi cult to do anything without worrying about the consequences, and that in itself is a kind of self-censorship’.
Vivian Wang: My first line ‘a slightly uncomfortable place to be in’ explicitly questioned our effectiveness as a music group, if our creative exploits made any impact on society. It was said in a self-reflective capacity, to question if we really had the power and veracity to challenge the system and push back if we are operating partially within it. The other line ‘it’s difficult to do anything…’ was not a continuation of the same train of thought. Rather, I expressed that our fear of confrontation and political apathy is not at all unique to musicians. I said this as a direct response to Karen Gwee, whose piece for Bandwagon questioned the larger issue of whether bands and musicians should be more willing to engage meaningfully in Singapore politics.

We quite like this almost playful, a bit surreal side to The Observatory, like on the song ‘Everything is vibration’ which features the line ‘In Tokyo / cats sleep / and feel cold’. What’s that all about?
LL: Great line, those were written by Yan Jun [an affiliated act and Chinese poet]. I thought it evoked images of homeless men asleep on the wintery streets of early morning Tokyo.

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