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'Local music is more of an expression and an art form': Deus Ex Machina explains the Singapore metal scene

'Local music is more of an expression and an art form': Deus Ex Machina explains the Singapore metal scene
PHOTO: City Nomads

For most, the image of Singapore is of a clean, prosperous nation that boasts safety and success. Wonderful, but sanitised.

Today, we chat with Deus Ex Machina (DEM), a metal band from the Lion City, about their experiences playing underground metal scene, the Singaporean music scene in general that gives us a glimpse into the hidden parts of our local culture.

With us are locals Vivek Govind (lead vocalist), P Ryan Joseph (guitarist), Herman Razr Lee (guitarist), as well as Neil Halliday (drummer) from Scotland and Jussi Ahokas (bassist) from Finland.

Hi everyone! Tell us a bit about yourselves.

Ryan: Vivek and I started in a band back in the 90's, when we were pretty young. Once DEM came back after a hiatus, our guitarist was unavailable. So we went on Facebook, and we met Herman. Then through a mutual friend of ours, we met Jussi.

Jussi: Yeah. It's hard to find people who like metal generally 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 guys get into making music? Were you influenced by any specific bands?

Vivek: I think all of us have a multitude of influences. Neil, for example, he's more into Nu Metal. He loves Limp Bisket and Fred Durst.

Neil: Yeah, growing up it was all Korn and System of a Down, Limp Bisket, but then Pantera, Slayer. I've played the 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 sort of settled into new bands so we're always kind of evolving our sound in that sense. We're always evolving to hear new things and see how we can improve the music from there.

Herman: For my musical taste, most of it ranged from hardcore, old school metal, literally everything. Mostly hardcore, punk, and a lot of metal.

Vivek: I like folk music and a lot of 80's pop.

Ryan: For us, it's really hard to pinpoint where we're from sometimes. Like some of the old albums that we did, a lot of people actually thought we were a European band, or an American band.

What was your introduction to metal music scene in Singapore? I'm gathering that you guys were already metalheads before that.

Ryan: For me, it was 1996. I was blown away, and a friend passed me a set back in '94 or '95, and it was all local bands. From there, I tried to find gigs, and I was pretty young, so going there on my own was a little bit intimidating cause of the spikes and face paint and all that. They turned out to be really nice guys, and we started hanging out.

Herman: It was more hardcore for me then. I was at the Stomping Ground, and in '97 I went to this gig at Lasalle. It was a diverse gig, not solely metal, it had bands like Vehement, Bastardise… It was my first exposure to local live music, and I was very surprised that it looked so similar to the ones in the States. As a child I didn't think local music would be as good, but I was totally blown away. So that was my first stepping stone.

Vivek: For me it was this one band in 1996 called Gray Coat. So, the funny story was that I had this friend who was dating the guitarist for the band. So I got the demo cassette and I was like, what is this? That was my baptism of fire. The demo was called Cranium, and that made me want to become a vocalist.

Neil: For us [Neil and Jussi] it was probably quite different than like growing up here. Getting into the local metal scene was just scalping for gigs, literally trying to find any band that was playing in live shows and stuff. First times, I used to go to some of the shows at like Aliwal and Substation. I think the only way for expats to discover these bands was to just go and see them. Decline's now gone, all the venues are gone. It's tough.

Jussi: I think for me it was just through these guys. I've always been looking for gigs in Singapore, but it's hard to find your way to the local scene.

So together, you guys a lot of different areas of music that you explore. How do you juggle all these aspects to create your sound?

Vivek: So I think what gets the band together is the whole basis of writing a good song. That comes from different genres that have different types of, I would say, elements to it. For example, the groove that maybe nu metal bands have. The melody that melodic death metal bands from Scandinavia have. The chug and the progression, for example that hardcore bands have. Old school American death metal bands. And even the rock aspect of what we love from bands like Kiss, Van Halen…

Herman: Kiss?!

Vivek: Yeah. He's a Kiss fan, he just doesn't wanna admit it.

Neil: We were just saying earlier on that Visions is our Bohemian Rhapsody.

Vivek: We just happen to write songs that have a lot of influences in it. We do not eliminate or negate anything from the table. Bring your riffs in, let's just see what fits the puzzle.

Ryan: So I basically write most of the riffs. It really depends on what I've been listening at the time, what I've been watching, or what I've seen in the papers. So I listen to a lot of stuff, from 60's rock to bands like Zebra. That means trying to do something, I wouldn't say eclectic, but different.

Herman: It's not just music, sometimes it's movies. It can be books.

Ryan: Yeah, we have this song, Visions Blind, that's basically the entire Da Vinci Code in six and a half minutes. We also have this song that might be banned here, that's very controversial but also very close to my heart. It's called Eyes Wide Shut and it's about child abuse, rape, and all that's wrong with the world.

How would you say the Singaporean metal scene differs from that of other places?

Neil: I guess the main thing, especially after Covid-19, is the lack of venues. The lack of the ability to have live shows and stuff. Right now it's really limited to the studios. You have Tone House, Travel Cube and it'll have like maybe 30 to 50 people in the room. There're no venues left.

Ryan: If you look at other places where we've toured like Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia… We're played in a badminton hall in Indonesia, it held almost 2,000 people, it was huge. Then when you look here, it's much more like 'Oh, you guys are metal. You guys are gonna destroy our stuff. You guys are drunks', y'know, everything bad about us, but we're some of the nicest guys around.


Herman: It's the negative stigma. Back in the day like the early 90's, yeah we used to destroy stuff. At any big shows, there would always be a headline. Like when Slam Dancing was banned, it was on the front page. It had a very negative impact on us, because they only see the violence. As youths, we were expressing ourselves. We were definitely not happy with society, and that was our way to vent. But it was good clean violence, like you would help people up after throwing them, which you don't get to see. They don't read the lyrics or try to hear us out. They just take one look at us and think we're drug users.

Ryan: The good thing is that the company I work with has no problem with the hair and the tattoos and all that. But previously, it was oh you have long hair, oh you have tattoos, you must be really bad.

Neil: I guess looking at it from an outsider's perspective, it's like seeing the 80's anywhere else. It's like it's 20 years behind. It feels like metal is still seen like that, even though it's already 2022.

How has metal music in Singapore evolved over the years?

Ryan: It's better. It's much better. People are taking their music much more seriously. Some of the bands are really amazing, like some of the riffs coming out of these bands, I'm just blown away.

Vivek: I think personally, social media has done a lot for even bands wanting to up the ante. A lot of old bands are probably wondering where they would be if they had that back in the day. But now young bands get that opportunity. I think that's given bands access to different people. That pushes them to write their best riffs and their best songs to put out there. So I think the quality of music in Singapore has improved quite a bit.

Herman: Back in the days, you had to write to magazines to get yourselves known. To compare, it was a lot more social last time. We had to approach, we went to gigs, to physically be there. Social media has helped a lot, yes, but to me, the approach of making friends, being more social, that was the driving force behind everything.

Given how relatively conservative Singaporean attitudes can be, I'd imagine that quite a lot of people would have been close-minded when it came to listening to metal music. Has that changed in recent years?

Ryan: No. Not at all. So this band was supposed to play here a few years ago, like a six hours roadshow. This lady sets up a petition, the church got involved, saying that these guys are Satanic and they should not be playing blah blah blah…

Everyone has the right to have their views. Everyone has their rights to listen to what they have to, I don't have to sit down and do stuff that I don't really like. I will accept it if you believe something and I don't, that's fine. But to go and cancel something based on the thought that the tattoos and the long hair and the sheepskulls is a bad thing in their own ideology. That's still very much prevalent, not just in music but in every part of life.

Are there any figures in the metal music scene of Singapore that inspired or influenced your love of metal?

Ryan: So many.

Herman: You might have heard of Wormrot, Impiety, Stomping Ground…these were the godfathers.

Ryan: Melting Snow, Gray Coat, Bastardise…

Favourite up and coming Singapore metal bands or any you'd like to recommend to our readers?

Neil: A lot of local bands. Glass Mouth, Nightingale – they're not metal but they're awesome –, Assault Aggressive Raisin Cat…

Herman: Recover, Witchseeker. I can go on and on. We have lots 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 tips for new musicians looking to break into the scene?

Ryan: Don't give up. Be as social as possible. Try not to be a carbon copy of your favourite band.

Herman: Just be yourself. You don't have to impress people. Music, especially local music, is more of an expression and an art-form. So for us to be more honest, it's better for the music. Don't be afraid to play in front of even just two people. Big bands have done that too.

Vivek: To add on to that, bands should not be afraid to pay their dues. That's very important. Never negate what you think work best for you. Never be afraid to scrutinise what you're writing and come up with your best.

Herman: Most important thing is to have fun.


Keep up with the band on their Spotify, Instagram, and Facebook.

This article was first published in City Nomads.

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