You may have to watch this video first before you fully get what Shelves is about.
It's impressive for a few reasons. It's shot and edited with a very professional touch; lead singer Noel Yeo fended off the hawker food melee with an affably steely gaze and a complete lack of vanity.
But more importantly, it reinforced the message of the song. A globally intrinsic sense of defiance against the odds, set in a definitively local context. (For this writer anyway, her Singaporean heart ached at the sacrifice of what appears to be a well made cup of kopi O in the video.)
Meet Noel Yeo ( Vocals), Mel Ho (Guitar), Brian Leery(Bass Guitar) and Robin Chua ( Drums), the men behind the powerpop quartet:
You guys are all veterans of the scene and mostly family men, what made you start your first band/music project and what motivated this renewed gathering with Shelves?
Mel: Allow me to clarify please, Shelves isn't a renewed gathering of any sorts. We are a new set up. The idea was to get a band together, record an album and have a memento for keepsake. Everything else after that was unplanned, if we might say, a bonus.
Brian: The motivation for getting together with Shelves is that I get to play bass for legends, and they get to make fun of me.
Noel: Although I stopped writing or performing music for a decade, I never stopped listening to it, especially new music. Craved it. Eventually it became a question of whether I wanted to continue to be an observor or be back as a participator. Watching at the sidelines is rewarding enough, but to play and sing and write and shout and laugh with like-minds is like nothing else in the world.
When was the album produced? Any memorable moments during the recording to share?
Robin: The recording started late 2010, & carried on into 2011 with me laying down the drum tracks first. My "memorable" moment was during the first drum recording session when I injured my ankle because the drum stool fell on it. It happened when I was lifting it, not realizing that it wasn't secure. Not exactly a good sign to start with, but I had to push on for the recording. Thankfully, I managed to nail down eight tracks that day. Could have gone on to do more but I forgot to bring my cowbell for "Killer Concern". (Biddy: Cowbell is important.)
Mel: Vaguely we started close to 2 years ago but everything started coming together in the last 6 months of it. That was the real memorable part, watching it come alive. The album was deemed release worthy in the first quarter of 2012.
Brian: One memorable moment was when I was tracking in Noel's Loft, and he was wearing an eyepatch. So much for depth perception.
Noel: It started fairly early, two years ago, probably, but everything sped up towards the end when we realised we were performing more and more songs that weren’t gonna be on the album! So to save ourselves from embarassment, we quickly finished it as well as we could. Everything ramped up when Patrick Chng agreed to mix our album. He’s a local music legend by every definition and he loves power pop so we know he’d get what we’re trying to do, and he did!
What are the songs and inspirations behind the song?
Brian: We play the kind of music that we wouldn't mind listening to over and over again. Even if parents cover their babies' ears in mock horror at our fuzz-ridden guitar riffs.
Noel: Songs are about what’s going on in my head at that time. Often it’s a melody or riff first. Lyrics only come later. I struggle with lyrics, actually. I envy people who can freestyle. Maybe I need to take freestyle classes. That’s not very cool is it? To take classes for that?
The video for Against the Wall, who came up with the idea and what in your own words is it supposed to symbolise?
Robin: Noel... :-)
Mel: It was 100% Noel's idea conceptually from the start. Pretty brilliant I must say.
Brian: Noel... :-) Remember, DEFIANCE.
Noel: It started from a panic when we didn’t think we were going to have a video for our album launch tour. (We eventually did with ‘She Wakes Up To (The Beat)’ by Rayner Lim in collaboration with Lomography Singapore.) Anyway, needed something easy to pull off in a few days that didn’t require the entire band. I remembered my nose bleeds easily, and I thought that might be cool to watch on film. (That didn’t happen because none of my mates actually punched me in the nose!) The brief to the crew was really one word: Defiance. It has got to feel like a defying of all the put-downs, "no’s", obstacles, everything in our way. It’s the first song off the album, and it felt like the perfect introduction of a band some may have discounted because we aren’t technically new.
Qn: Discounted? I would think not being technically new is a strength...
Noel: Think there's a bit of ageism in music. Older folks aren't expected to come up with a new sound. So to have been around might not be as exciting to watch as someone new.
What's the best thing about being in the band?
Robin: Get to drum with wild abandon again. And being noisy musically.
Mel: The fact that we have 4 very different personalities and backgrounds all come together and connect on the same level. That's a beautiful thing.
Brian: You're pretty much sorted if you're wondering what to do with any free time, you meet great people, you get to stay out late and have an official excuse to party like a rockstar (without needing to be an ace geologist) and best of all, you get to do something that matters.
Noel: You know how in your day you have doubts? Or sometimes worry about the future? Am beginning to sound like an insurance ad, but really, it’s the only time in the day––when playing in a band––that I’m completely living in the present. At the risk of sounding like a douche for quoting a Shelves song, I mean it when I wrote, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be, than to be right here.”
What difficulties are there?
Robin: Not really considered as difficulties, but we all do have our families & other commitments, so getting together can sometimes be a challenge. But when we do meet up, every minute counts & that's precious to me. Unlike years ago when youth was on our side we tend to be a bit frivolous with our time. Now we're more measured.
Mel: Being in a band as adults living in a society like Singapore - its a choice. With every choice comes commitment and pain, if we saw every little obstruction along the way as a 'difficulty' then why bother making that decision to play music in the first place?
Brian: This depends on how you choose to measure your success. A band should always strive to achieve its goals, no matter what they are, no matter how difficult it is. So I'd say, planning and committing to attainable goals is the difficulty. How much is too much, and how much is too little?
Noel: Time. Then making sure the time you do have for music happens to coincide with everyone else’s time. It’s a miracle we could even make it work.
Do you think "local" is a dirty word? As in when a person says "local music", how do you feel? And why?
Robin: Nothing wrong with the word. Just the impression it sometimes give. Problem is a lot of artistes tend to worry about getting support when they should work at their craft first. Let their music speak for themselves, y'know? Push themselves to see how far they can go. Don't whine so much.
Mel: Doesn't matter really, local is subjective to where one is anyway. Likewise, a good song is a good song, its formats of representation make no difference. We're just happy to be making the music we love.
Brian: When a Singaporean tells me about local music, I know they're talking about Singaporean-written music. All music is local, and some music is global. I think people who like or dislike local music have certain pre-concieved notions, but at its heart, I think people either like your music or they don't. So no, I don't think "local" is a dirty word. Maybe if we did something that made everyone like or care about, then there wouldn't be those negative emotions that sometimes get associated with the word, "local". However, for perspective, being involved with Singapore's indie scene for such a long time, I think everyone in the band is immensely proud of Singapore's indie bands, and since we were willing to give it a shot, we secretly hope that more Singaporeans would give themselves a chance!
Noel: Music is music. Don’t think there should be boundaries. Where does it all end? Should we also promote Toa Payoh music? Or Jurong East music? Where does it all end? Bedok North Ave 3 Block 8? I believe that if your music is honest and true, it would naturally reflect where you come from and how you were brought up. If you are a true Singaporean son (Biddy: Ahem... or daughter.), your music would be local music.
When's the next gig?
Robin: There's one in May where we're playing The Pigeonhole, with Novak (featuring Max Ho, who's Melvin's brother).
Mel: After the performance in May and the band will be taking a short break after.
Brian: After promoting the debut album rather rigorously, we're thinking of recharging over June and July, head back to the rehearsal studios in August and start writing new songs and start gigging again after that!
Noel: It’s also a showcase of the drawings by Amanda K. Ang. Then we take a short break.
Who are your influences?
Robin: I'm quite an eclectic kinda person, so anything I listen to will definitely go into my playing. Sometimes it could be a rhythm pattern from a dub track. Or it could be how a guitar riff is structured that will affect how I drum. But I also adore drummers like John Bonham & Dave Grohl.
Mel: We knock a lot of ideas off one another actually, not sure if our individual personal influences show up in our playing...
Brian: John McVie of Fleetwood Mac influences me in almost everything I write on bass. Is it melodic, is it rhythmic? Does it add a songwriter's touch to the song or does it take something away? My lines may not sound like his, but I try to channel the thinking process when I write my parts. Bands without bass players also influence me (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Keys. etc), because I notice how they write without basslines, and they're usually very good songs! If I can't add to a song, there's no point playing on it. I think that sort of simplicity also adds to the appeal of SHELVES' music. John Maeda, a rather famous graphic designer known for his work in creating complex visual pieces using algorithms also famously said, "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction." Long story short, so many things influence us because we consume so much creative information, but how we distill all that and then write music for SHELVES is really thoughtful reduction of what we know with the available materials at the time.
Noel: Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, and all of its power pop bethrens. Didn’t even realise that a lot of the music I enjoyed was called power pop till someone told me it was power pop. Pavement was also a huge influence. More than any other band, made me realise that being punk was an attitude and not how you look. If you could rock wearing a long sleeved shirt with a buttoned-down collar, then man, you really can rock.
Qn: Why the name Shelves?
Noel: No real meaning here. Wanted as plain a name as possible, without a hint of machismo in it. That way the music can start to define it. Same with Pavement, which was essentially meaningless until the music of Pavement defined it.
They are also currently garnering votes for a chance to play in Germany along with many other local bands. Check it out and lend your support.