A few weeks ago I heard that Humpback Oak were releasing a limited edition boxed set. That was interesting.
Humpback Oak was one of Singapore’s best loved bands. They came up at a time when Singapore did not have much of a local music scene to talk of. (Actually things are a little better now but still not much. Not in English pop anyway.) There were other bands that were being bandied around like the Oddfellows. I had heard of Opposition Party, but they were metal and I didn’t dig metal.
I had heard of Humpback Oak. It was an interesting name, but they were a lot of bands with strange names. (Astreal? Livonia? Padres?) They were bandied around as one of the best Singapore bands. But it’s relative, I thought. Anything half decent would be considered excellent by our standards.
One day when I was in Tower Records (still remember that place?) I heard “Pained Stained Morning” being played. It was good stuff and I liked it. I’m not going to say they are the best band in the world, but it was streets ahead of what I was accustomed to. Funnily enough once I heard it I knew it had to be Humpback Oak, because of the accent, and because the music matched how it was described in the press. Somber, brooding, haunting. The last adjective is most salient because their second album would be called “Ghostfather”.
I got the album afterwards. I liked it, it was good. Musically they are really not very impressive, but Leslie Low was a good songwriter. I was a little startled at how many good tunes there were on that record.
Second album, “Ghostfather” was equally good. Even though it had fewer obvious pop gems than “Pained Stained Morning”, it was a more unified album, dealing with loss, restlessness and anomie. It’s probably one of the gloomiest albums that I’ve heard, in any case.
I don’t know why Leslie Low picked the name Humpback Oak. They are large, heavy objects. Probably archaic as well. I think Humpback Oak’s music is very Singaporean, rooted in the Singaporean experience. They may have been compared to American Music Club and REM, they may have started out playing a lot of Bob Dylan. But there was the heaviness, the feeling of being constantly trapped in a comfortable cage, of being a frog in a well. It’s not a surprise that they were on the soundtrack of Eric Khoo’s “12 Storeys”, which deals with similar themes. They are distinctly un-American. Their music is whatever the opposite of “yes we can” is.
Except that in the sense that your polar opposite is your own mirror, there was a lot to borrow from those American bands which chose to highlight the emptiness and futility of the American dream. You could borrow that, and it would sound right at home over here, and I think that is what Humpback Oak have done.
Lyrics, I wouldn’t have much to say about the lyrics. I think they are Leslie Low’s weak point, even though you still roughly get what his music is all about. Every Humpback Oak album has their fair share of clunkers, like “don’t die, don’t kill yourself, it takes too much time”. Or “Turkey you turkey me”.
But there’s a lot that Singaporeans can identify with. Like not having an identity, and not fully knowing what is the meaning of that flag you sing the national anthem to every morning. Like being alienated from your parents who knew so much more hardship than you did. Like the eerie emptiness of a void deck in the afternoon. Like staring 20 storeys down from the back of your HDB flat, feeling smothered and yearning for release. Because unlike most of the bands out there, Humpback Oak lives in HDB flats too. (Caveat: a lot of black music from the UK comes from council housing, which is rather similar to our HDB, except that their version of the HDB is more seedy.)
The third album, “SideASideB” wasn’t as good as the first 2. But if I listened to it, I could have 1 or 2 of those songs growing on me.
Anyway I made my way to Club Street with a bit of trepidation – I was on ICT and I was expecting a recall on that day. So I had to drive my van and all that army stuff down to my office, park it there, and take a bus to Club Street amid all that messy MRT construction.
I should go back a few steps to explain: Humpback Oak were releasing a boxed set of all their works, containing their 3 CDs, as well as a 4th CD, containing some rarities and (this is the most interesting part) MP3s of all their cassette demos that they used to hawk in indie music shops from when they were struggling musicians. They were going to sell the boxed set exclusively on Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 pm, at Polymath & Crust / Books Actually.
So when I got there the queue was snaking down to the first floor. It was a little past 1. The queue went all the way up to the 3rd floor. I bumped into the drummer from the second band. I bumped into Siew Kum Hong. So now you know that the NMP who advocated repealing 377A is also a Humpback Oak fan.
When it was my turn, I wondered whether I should buy 1 or 2. I bought 2, cynically thinking that I could probably sell the second one at an extortionate rate in 5 years’ time, especially since it was autographed by all 4 of them.
So there was this table with Leslie Low and 3 others. They looked like they have aged, they’re no longer the skinny indie kids you saw in the publicity photos. They look bulky and middle aged. I didn’t know which of them was who. I know what Leslie looked like, but today he was different, wearing a goatee and a moustache, and looking like that mask people wore in “V for Vendetta”.
Very hastily I mentioned to one of them that I was thinking of covering one of their songs. Which one? “Home”. Hey Leslie, this guy wants to cover our song. “Really? That’s interesting”, said Leslie. Well just send us a copy when you’re done with it, OK? So, great. Now I owe Humpback Oak a cover version of “Home”.
It’s true, though, that I thought I was going to radically re-invent that song into something trip hop and drum + bass. But I’m a long long way from completing it. I’m even a long long way from figuring out how to do drum + bass. I hear it in my head, though, and surely that counts for something.
Anyway, so I’m the new proud owner of Oaksongs, serial numbers 58 and 59 out of 500. I dunno if they’ve sold out by now. Maybe and maybe not. The obvious first thing is that they have spent a great amount of effort on the packaging. I think it was designed by one of the more famous designers in Singapore. The outside is designed to look like a worn cardboard box. A bit tricky when the cardboard is new. When you open it, it looks like a house inside, an indie slacker’s room with all those concert posters and stuff. There’s a little cardboard bed, which is actually a small box containing teeny weeny booklets with all their lyrics.
Leslie Low went through a lot of trouble making digital photographs of his lyric sheets. (Which I think is strange because lyrics is the one aspect of Humpback Oak that I’m not a fan of.) But you can see some of his old songs scribbled on SJI stationery (all 4 met at and were from SJI). In one of the lyrics, you can see his 6th form poetry and his “O” levels schedule side by side.
I also have to comprang about the CD packaging. The CDs are wrapped up in paper that is origami folded. Obviously not meant for heavy usage. I had to dig out some plastic jewel boxes to put the CDs into.
Otherwise, you can imagine, I was proud of my newest purchase. Now to list my old Humpback Oak albums on eBay and get my $60 back.
As for the recall, you can see from the news: some ppl from the Police and from Civil Defence got recalled, but not the SAF. So I didn't get recalled.