For the most part, Singapore’s image is that of a clean and prosperous nation that boasts security and success. Wonderful, but sanitized.
Today we talk to Deus Ex Machina (DEM), a metal band from Lion City, about their experiences playing in the underground metal scene, Singapore’s music scene in general which gives us a glimpse into the hidden parts of our local culture.
With us are locals Vivek Govind (singer), P Ryan Joseph (guitarist), Herman Razr Lee (guitarist), as well as Neil Halliday (drummer) from Scotland and Jussi Ahokas (bassist) from Finland.
Hello everyone! Tell us a little about yourself.
Ryan: Vivek and I started in a band in the 90’s when we were quite young. Once DEM returned after a hiatus, our guitarist was unavailable. So we went to Facebook and met Herman. Then, through a mutual friend of ours, we met Jussi.
Giussi: Yes. It’s hard to find people who like metal in general in Singapore. I really wanted to play and I met Ryan.
Ryan: And then he introduced us to Neil.
Neil: And the rest is history.
How did you get into making music? Have you been influenced by any specific bands?
Vivek: I think we all have a multitude of influences. Neil, for example, is more interested in Nu Metal. He loves Limp Bisket and Fred Durst.
Neil: Yes, growing up they were all Korn and System of a Down, Limp Bisket, but then Pantera, Slayer. I’ve been playing drums since I was 12.
Vivek: I think a lot of us basically grew up on a lot of old bands, and our tastes have somehow settled into new bands, so we’re always evolving our sound in that sense. We are always evolving to hear new things and see how we can improve the music from there.
Herman: For my musical tastes, most ranged from hardcore, to old school metal, literally everything. Mostly hardcore, punk and a lot of metal.
Vivek: I like folk and very pop music from the 80s.
Ryan: For us, it is sometimes really difficult to pinpoint where we come from. Like some of the old albums we made, a lot of people really thought we were a European band, or an American band.
What was your introduction to the metal music scene in Singapore? I know you guys were already metalheads before then.
Ryan: For me it was 1996. I was blown away and a friend passed me a set in ’94 or ’95, and they were all local bands. From there, I tried to find gigs, and I was quite young, so going there alone was a little intimidating because of the spikes, face paint and all. They turned out to be really nice guys and we started dating.
Herman: It was more hardcore for me then. I was at the Stomping Ground and in ’97 I went to this concert in Lasalle. It was a diverse concert, not just metal, it had bands like Vehement, Bastardise … It was my first exposure to local live music, and I was very surprised that it sounded so similar to the ones in the US. As a kid I didn’t think local music would be this good, but I was completely blown away. So that was my first stepping stone.
Vivek: For me this was a band in 1996 called Gray Coat. So, the funny story is that I had this friend dating the guitarist of the band. So I got the demo tape and I said to myself, what is this? That was my baptism of fire. The demo was called Cranium, and that made me want to be a singer.
Neil: For us [Neil and Jussi] it was probably quite different than growing up here. Getting into the local metal scene was just pawing for gigs, literally trying to find any band playing live shows and stuff like that. The first few times I went to some shows like Aliwal and Substation. I think the only way for expats to discover these bands was to simply go and see them. The decline has now disappeared, all places have disappeared. It’s hard.
Giussi: I think for me it was just through these guys. I’ve always looked for gigs in Singapore, but it’s hard to find my way to the local scene.
So together, you guys explore a lot of different areas of music. How do you juggle all of these aspects to create your sound?
Vivek: So I think what unites the band is the whole basis of writing a good song. It comes from different genres that have different types of, I would say, elements. For example, the groove that maybe nu metal bands have. The melody that Scandinavian melodic death metal bands have. The chug and progression, for example that hardcore bands have. American old school death metal bands. And also the rock aspect of what we love about bands like Kiss, Van Halen …
Vivek: Yes. He’s a Kiss fan, he just doesn’t want to admit it.
Neil: We were just saying before that Visions is our Bohemian Rhapsody.
Vivek: We just write songs that have a lot of influences. We do not delete or deny anything from the table. Bring your riffs, let’s just see what fits the puzzle.
Ryan: So basically I write most of the riffs. It really depends on what I listened to in that moment, what I watched or what I saw in the newspapers. So I listen to a lot of stuff, from 60s rock to bands like Zebra. It means trying to do something, I would not say eclectic, but different.
Herman: It’s not just music, sometimes it’s movies. They can be books.
Ryan: Yes, we have this song, Visions Blind, which is pretty much the whole Da Vinci Code in six and a half minutes. We also have this song that could be banned here, it’s very controversial but also very close to my heart. It’s called Eyes Wide Shut and it’s about child abuse, rape and everything wrong with the world.
How would you say that Singapore’s metal scene differs from that of other places?
Neil: I guess the main thing, especially after Covid-19, is the lack of locations. The lack of the ability to have live shows and things like that. Right now it’s really limited to studies. You have Tone House, Travel Cube and will have 30 to 50 people in the room. There are no more locations.
Ryan: If you look at other places we have toured like Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia … We played badminton hall in Indonesia, it held almost 2,000 people, it was huge. Then when you look here, it’s a lot more like ‘Oh, you guys are metal. You guys are gonna destroy our stuff. You guys are drunk, you know, all that is bad about us, but we’re some of the nicest guys around.
Herman: It is the negative stigma. Back then as in the early 90s, yes, we were destroying things. In any great show, there would always be a title. Like when Slam Dancing was banned, it was on the front page. It has had a very negative impact on us, because they only see violence. When we were young we expressed ourselves. We certainly weren’t happy with the company, and that was our way to let off steam. But it was good clean violence, like you would help people after throwing them, which you can’t see. They don’t read the lyrics or try to listen to us. They just look at us and think we’re drug users.
Ryan: The good thing is that the company I work with has no problems with hair, tattoos and everything in between. But first it was oh you have long hair, oh you have tattoos, you must be really bad.
Neil: I guess looking at it from a stranger’s point of view, it’s like seeing the 80s from anywhere else. It’s like he’s 20 years behind. It seems that metal is still seen that way, even though it’s already 2022.
How has metal music evolved in Singapore over the years?
Ryan: It’s better. It is much better. People take their music much more seriously. Some of the bands are really cool, like some of the riffs that come out of these bands, I’m just blown away.
Vivek: Personally I think social media has done a lot for bands that want to up the ante as well. A lot of old bands are probably wondering where they would be if they had it in the past. But now young bands have this opportunity. I think this gave the bands access to different people. This prompts them to write their best riffs and their best songs to release. So I think the quality of the music in Singapore has improved a lot.
Herman: In the past you had to write to magazines to make yourself known. For comparison, last time it was much more social. We had to get close, we went to concerts, to be there physically. Social media has helped a lot, yes, but for me the approach of making friends, being more social, has been the driving force behind it all.
Given how relatively conservative Singaporean attitudes can be, I imagine a lot of people would have been closed-minded when it came to listening to metal music. Has it changed in recent years?
Ryan: No not at all. So this band should have played here a few years ago, like a six hour roadshow. This lady petitioned, the church got involved, saying these guys are satanic and shouldn’t play bla bla bla …
Everyone has the right to have their own opinions. Everyone has the right to listen to what he owes, I don’t have to sit down and do things I don’t really like. I’ll accept it if you believe in something and I don’t, that’s fine. But going to cancel something based on the thought that tattoos, long hair and sheep skulls are a bad thing in their own ideology. This is still widespread, not just in music but in every part of life.
Are there any figures in the Singapore metal music scene who have inspired or influenced your love of metal?
Ryan: So many.
Herman: You may have heard of Wormrot, Unholy, Stomping Ground … these were the godparents.
Ryan: Melting snow, gray cloak, bastards …
Your favorite up-and-coming metal bands from Singapore or others you would like to recommend to our readers?
Neil: Lots of local bands. Glass Mouth, Nightingale – they’re not metal but they’re great -, Assault Aggressive Raisin Cat…
Herman: Recover, Witch Seeker. I can go on forever. We have a lot of bands actually. Lots of bands but minimal support. You can just say Metallica and people will swarm. Why can’t we have the same for local bands? We have to show some love because, if not us, who?
Any advice for new musicians who want to enter the scene?
Ryan: Do not give up. Be as social as possible. Try not to be a carbon copy of your favorite band.
Herman: Be yourself. You don’t have to impress people. Music, especially local music, is more of an expression and an art form. So to be more honest, it’s better for music. Don’t be afraid to even play in front of two people. Big bands have done it too.
Vivek: To add to that, bands shouldn’t be afraid to pay their dues. Is very important. Never deny what you think works best for you. Never be afraid to carefully examine what you are writing and bring out the best in yourself.
Herman: The most important thing is to have fun.
Keep up with the band on Spotify, Instagram and Facebook.
This article was first published in City Nomads.