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My Story

A Filipino Record Executive for a U.S. Label
Written by Michael Sutton
A&R Representative/Know-It-All Records

 

IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT, and there was a ghost on my radio. The phantom voice that haunted my speakers not only sounded disembodied but it seemed to be ascending to the heavens. However, the icy falsetto did not belong to an unseen creature that hid in the shadows nor was it the chilly cry of the dead. Instead, it was the eerie introduction of a song from the Dawn. Entitled “Enveloped Ideas,” the track opened my ears to the Filipino underground of the late ‘80s. While America continued to manufacture one spandex metal clone after another, young bands in Manila absorbed the expensive British punk and New Wave imports they acquired and kicked out the jams.

 
   

THE DAWN MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE FIRST, but they were Ground Zero for me. The lush, atmospheric synthesizers and swirling, neo-psychedelic guitars of “Enveloped Ideas” was a revelation to somebody whose only exposure to Philippine music were the folksy storytelling of Freddie Aguilar and the MOR mush of Martin Nievera.

THE DAWN ROCKED.

EVERY TIME I HEARD "ENVELOPED IDEAS" on Manila’s New Wave powerhouse XB-102, the speakers would rattle from the volume knob being cranked, and my heart beat a little faster. Other similarly influenced artists such as Dean’s December and the Identity Crisis proved that the Dawn weren’t a fluke; there was explosive talent in Manila beneath the radar of its own record companies.

UNFORUNATELY, THE STORY ENDED TOO SOON FOR ME. Clutching a worn tape of “Enveloped Ideas” I recorded from XB-102 – yes, I still have it – I returned to the United States before 1987 ended. The Pacific Northwest became my home, and nobody knew who the Dawn was. Nor Dean’s December. Nor the Identity Crisis. Seattle had given birth to grunge, and its unkempt, unruly offspring were a million miles away from the spirit that opened “Enveloped Ideas.”

I COULD ONLY IMAGINE WHATEVER HAPPENED to the promising youths who dared to rebel against the well-groomed millionaires who sang the ballads of others for Philippine stardom. It wasn’t even until ten years later that I discovered that the Dawn’s genius guitarist, Teddy Diaz, was dead. I read about the alternative-rock revolution in Manila during the early ‘90s as major labels embraced groups like the Eraserheads, Keltscross, and Color It Red. But, aside from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it airplay on some specialty radio programs, none of their noise reached stateside.

IN EARLY 2002, STRUGGLING WITH PERSONAL DEMONS and frustrated and angered by how alternative rock in America had devolved into an unholy fusion of heavy metal and gangster rap, I asked my friend Denis Batungbacal in the Philippines to record me tapes of NU-107. I feel like I’m dying in a desert, I recall writing to him in my Wavelength mailing list. Although I was hired by the Tacoma, Washington independent label Know-It-All Records as its A&R Representative, essentially a talent scout, I was on the verge of giving up on new music. Alternative rock is dead, I told a buddy of mine. I envisioned becoming the Generation X equivalent of a baby-boomer who refused to buy any records released after John Lennon’s assassination.

IT WAS PAST MIDNIGHT when I began playing one of Denis’ NU-107 broadcasts and suddenly my radio came alive. There was a voice I’d never heard before; it was wounded and fragile. His words described domestic violence with unflinching honesty. I was finishing an assignment for the All-Music Guide; however, its completion would have to wait as I turned from the computer monitor and listened to his story. Click. Wirrr. Listened to his story. Click. Wirrr. Listened to his story.

 
 

PIN-UP GIRLS

Based in Manila, Philippines, the Pin-Up Girls were brought together by fate in nearly the same strange way they were suddenly elevated from underground all-stars to being the first Philippine-based rock group to be signed by a U.S. label.

The band was formed in 1996 after vocalist Mondo Castro was hanging out in a bar with guitarist Pamela Aquino and bassist Jeng Tan, former members of the all-female punk powerhouse Keltscross.

OVER.

AND.

OVER.

AGAIN.

THE TALE WAS CALLED "A COLD AND BETTER PLACE,' a pop masterpiece by Manila’s rising underground stars the Pin-Up Girls. My love affair with the Pin-Up Girls began with an accident; Denis simply let his stereo record everything on NU-107 to fill two cassettes.

WITHOUT EVEN HERING ANOTHER TRACK, I offered to sign them to Know-It-All Records. Although I have always believed that Filipino musicians were capable of producing rock & roll that was just as good, if not better, than their American and English counterparts, I had no intention of signing any of them to Know-It-All Records. It was too risky; just because you and your countrymen admire an artist doesn’t mean Americans will warmly embrace them. The U.S. market is a tough nut to crack. But the Pin-Up Girls have “It,” that indefinable quality that appeals to people of all cultures. They write poetic songs of love and loss and joy and sadness that anybody can relate to. Listening to their two-and-three-part male-female vocal harmonies and ‘80s New Wave jangling guitar riffs is as soothing as a backrub underneath the summer sun.

CONFIDENT THAT THE PIN-UP GIRLS WOLD OPEN THE DOORS for Pinoy Rock in America, I added two other Filipino groups to Know-It-All Records: Chain-Gang and Sheila & the Insects. They joined my other discoveries, Liverpool, England singer/songwriter Peter Coyle of the Lotus Eaters and half-Chinese, half-American crooner Matt Easton.

 

MATT EASTON

Singer/songwriter Matt Easton once led the San Francisco-based Jenny Thing, a ‘80s New Wave-inspired guitar-pop band based in Berkeley, California.

 

WITHOUT THE PIN-UP GIRLS, I don’t believe Chain-Gang and Sheila & the Insects would be able to cross over into the U.S. mainstream with their quirks and rough edges. It took the young punks Nirvana, and not their older brethren Soundgarden and Mudhoney, to penetrate the American suburbs with grunge. In July, Know-It-All Records released the Pin-Up Girls’ U.S. debut, Taste Test. The first printing is nearly sold out in America, and many of the customers weren’t even of Asian descent.

THE CD HAS RECEIVED COVERAGE in England, Sweden, and Japan, and now the Pin-Up Girls are swiftly gaining new American fans, including influential radio programmers, none of whom had heard Pinoy Rock before.

THE DOORS are about to swing open.

IT'S TIME TO LET THE REST OF THE WORLD hear what the Philippines has to offer in terms of original, cutting-edge sounds. And Know-It-All Records is extending an invitation to any person who’d like to ride with us. Know-It-All Records is not a Pinoy label; it is owned by an American, Lazarus. However, our ears are open to the world, and it will be through collaboration, not just through personal achievement, that’ll enable Pinoy Rock to make an impact in the U.S.

AS A FILIPINO A&R REPRESENTATIVE for a U.S. label with an international pool of talent, I am blessed with the opportunity of showcasing my native land’s most creative musicians, letting their enveloped ideas be heard by a global community.


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