Not waxing philosophical, but in the most literal sense. For the past few weeks, I’ve been keeping busy with this little project right here which will hopefully turn into something larger. “Hear it is”, which is a series of oral histories, has been the most time-consuming, and yet one of the most rewarding self-imposed challenges I’ve taken on, because it’s really not that challenging when we break it down. At least not in the blood, sweat, and tears sense. Transcribing can be a pain in the ass, but it is what it is. Like love. Like life. Lolz?
I’ve been facing this folder full of books in .pdf form, waiting for the impending deadlines to light a fire under my ass. And since that’s not happening any time soon…(OH GOD, IT BETTER HAPPEN SOON)…I figured I’d answer these questions I’ve been pestering people with.
The obvious problem is that I’m not a musician, and these questions were tailored specifically for musicians, so I’ll just kind of work my way around how these fit into my own life as a writer, teacher, brain-for-hire.
What is my name and what do I do?
Alice Sarmiento, in case it hasn’t been made obvious by the header of this website. I teach full-time at the University of the Philippines, under the Department of Clothing, Textiles and Interior Design. Because of this gig, I also get consultancy work with clothing retailers and manufacturers. I also make clothes, because that aspect of my work is a muscle that needs to be flexed from time to time.
I’m also a writer, and it took a while for me to own that title because I live in a household of other writers–people who put out the occasional long, carefully drawn out work of fiction that’s bound to pick up an award somewhere. For that, I never really felt like I could place myself on the same level because much of the writing I do is either for a) expanding my grad school portfolio, or b) money; and I’ve always worked on terms–deadlines, word counts, editors I’ve never met–that were completely different from how my mother and my sister worked. I can’t say it’s a less humane environment because I’m still lucky to get to do what I do, despite lacking any formal training for it (other than about 9 units of the usual English classes when I was in college).
I’ve heard a lot that writing (like teaching) can never be considered serious business because of the laughable financial rewards it brings, but I do get quarterly jobs as a copywriter/researcher for a Singapore based ad agency. It took a while for me to wrap my head around the discrepancy between the price per word editors are willing to pay here in the Philippines and over there, in Singapore. It’s taking even longer for me to figure that it shouldn’t matter.
The kind of writing I do right now out of love is different from what I do for money, but those two aspects of the job overlap with the amount of writing I have to do for grad school. I’m taking my Masters in Curatorial Studies, so most of it is really self-directed research, which is a lot of fun, but also very taxing. When there’s nothing, there’s NOTHING, thus making it impossible to churn out a 12,000 word paper in a month. But once you get a certain groove going, you end up with this sprawling net of ideas, and it feels worth it, whether or not anyone’s even going to read your paper.
Lastly, I’m a volunteer/foster parent for PAWS.
I can trace my current taste in music to the first time I heard…
Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”, which I hardly listen to anymore. I guess it’s because it was the first song I heard that no one else I knew had heard as well. My friends and siblings didn’t know it, my parents definitely didn’t know it, and even better, it was usually played late at night when everyone else was already asleep. The album, Grace, wasn’t even commercially available then, so I felt like it was something I could really keep to myself. And I guess that’s where the whole fascination and pursuit of things that were obscure on some level began. Of course, in pre-internet Philippines, it doesn’t take much to be quote-unquote “obscure”, but I remember it was with this song and this album that my obsession with seeking out things that weren’t readily available began.
The first album that I bought with my own money was…
Sonic Youth’s Evol. The first CD I ever got was Beautiful Freak, by (the) Eels, but I didn’t pay for it with my own money. I don’t remember really liking it because who on earth would be that depressed at 11? (Me! I was fucking depressed! [I wasn’t that depressed]) But I think I was just so thrilled to have found it at all. I don’t know why.
Evol though was another story. I’d just inherited a box full of tapes, and a couple of them were Sonic Youth albums (Jet Set and Washing Machine) which I’d already been wearing out before I could even call them mine. That was one of the bands I was already sure I really liked, but I wasn’t exactly aware of how different Sonic Youth sounded in the 80s, so I must admit I was fairly surprised at how little I could relate to that album – at least compared to the more accessible Experimental Jet Set and Washing Machine.
I began as a musician by
…and the awkwardness ensues, because while I never thought I was a musician, in high school I felt like it was a scene that could readily absorb me–despite my glaring lack of any musical talent whatsoever. My dad’s biggest frustration was never having learned any instruments, so he bought a drumset. This was when he still worked as a consultant for the Aranetas, so he would be at Ali Mall a lot. This was also when they had just opened the huge branch of Audiophile. He said the kit was mine, even if I didn’t (and didn’t even want to) play the drums, in order to justify the exorbitant purchase. I asked for a guitar after that, which he relented to either out of guilt (single parent/weekend dad woes) or out of frustration or a need to live vicariously through me. I had a band in high school that covered Veruca Salt, then in college we got a new singer and covered and Save Ferris.
So there we were, this little crew of high school kids. We played Kafe, Mayrics, and Freedom Bar a few times. My favorite gig was at a skate park in Marikina, where you had to slide into the halfpipe first before climbing the “stage”. We also played on a truck for the first lantern parade I ever went to. TTTTTRRRRRRRRUUUUUUUUCKKK!!! Then there was a huge falling out of sorts, and everyone (save for our drummer, Nikki Cuna, who’s now with Nyctinasty) said fuck it and pursued other things (see no. 1).
Since then local music has changed in terms of…
The live scene
I used to go to festivals and a lot of radio sponsored gigs. Now, in the absence of radio, I’ve made more friends who actually head production outfits and curate their own rosters and lineups. I can’t really tell the difference in terms of the energy, because it’s one thing to slam dance with strangers as a high schooler, and quite another to begin a mosh pit populated mainly by your closest friends.
I don’t record anything, except interviews for work, but I have watched friends record demos by diddling around on their laptops and it’s amazing. You see how they upload raw tracks, bypassing all the original filters (like Francis Brew on In the Raw), and get feedback, and keep growing as artists. You see too how crowdsourcing opinions and user-generated content really changes the culture not only of creation but of critique. Mostly, this is a good thing, but there are times when mob mentality or blind devotion kick in, which kind of defeats the purpose.
Marketing and Distro
The idea of a music blog came about because I wanted to do reviews of these independent releases I bought when I was in Jakarta a few months back. Every local music scene seems to have its own harsh criticisms of itself, but it’s easy to miss the bigger picture and skip the important discussions on how all these external factors–like marketing and distribution–affect creative and artistic pursuits.
So I was in this tiny record store called Hey Folks looking at a wall of CDs, and my friend Yudhis was apologizing for how little Jakarta had to offer because most of the local acts he liked didn’t have anything physical to sell. It was a little ridiculous, because I was already looking at more local music (archives and new releases) collected into one location than I was used to seeing. And these were mostly just acts from Jakarta–imagine if they had added releases Surabaya, Bandung, and Yogyakarta to their stocks. The night before, we were at demajors, which was another label with its own record store and its own performance space, watching a bunch of ska bands pay tribute to The Dropkick Murphys; and I remember thinking about how awesome it was to be able to address these three aspects (the live performance, recording, and marketing), but more importantly, it was recognized that they were all different functions, and whether or not they were integral to the totality of making music was what would make your craft as a musician into something sustainable.
Press and publicity
I’ve written about musicians before. Heck, my first ever writing assignment was to do a profile of Shonen Knife – which meant working around a language barrier and a bit of a generation gap. Shonen Knife had been around for 29 years when I interviewed them. I was 25 at the time. After that, it was The Drums, Panda Bear, the Vancouver music scene, Rob Corradetti, and Aska Matsumiya, but I had never been asked to talk about someone local. And of course that was weird, but I can’t say it was all that surprising.
History and Icons
I live really near Kamuning, so sometimes I see Pepe Smith buying bread. Almost everyday, I see the dude they call Pepe Smith’s brother walking around with his du rag and box guitar with the nails sticking out. I don’t know yet how that makes me feel, but it says a lot about proximity to greatness and not really having much of a choice on how to go about our lives when the rewards we reap for cultural contributions are so arbitrary.
I studied at the University of the Philippines, so I spent a lot of time in the shopping center at Nella Sarabia’s optical. One time Dong Abay came in with his kid, and I clammed up. I’m not easily starstruck, but Dong Abay was someone I’d listened to since I was little and had always placed on a pedestal because of what he had to do with, oh I don’t know, my consciousness. And here he was, just chillin’ like a villain with his kid. It’s always interesting to have the humanity of your idols confirmed.
Potential and Future Prospects
I don’t know what depresses me more: the state of Philippine music or the state of Philippine literature or the state of Philippine fashion. I think I started with talking about music because the factors involved–live performances, the artists themselves–were just so much more accessible to me than anyone in literature or fashion.
Then again, I’m not even depressed about any of these things, because it’s not like I ever had trouble creating something for these respective fields. I think the only way I really know how to contribute is by writing something, and there’s so much that needs to be thought out, discussed, and written down. Publishing, like recording, is another monster altogether. It’s the underwater level. Then we hit the big, fire-breathing boss that is getting your work on the shelf and into someone’s hands in the hope that they read it, or listen to it in the case of musicians.
Mostly, it’s just something I do for love, and that’s a lot to go on so long as there are ad agency jobs and steady government employment to tide me over.