MANILA -- Because he’s that good, a few believed Ely Buendia has sold his soul to the devil a long time ago, like a Faustian bargain. But one thing is for sure nowadays, the man got soul. As a musician, Ely has become a soul man.
Turning 48 on November 2 this year, Buendia is on a roll not only as full-time vocalist-guitarist-composer for four bands, among other collaborations, but of late, he took the plunge to produce albums for other artists. Judging from testimonials of his “pool of talents,” he’s the album producer sent by the gods.
“One year. Imagine that, we had the luxury of time to finish our album. In one year,” Allan Hernandez, guitarist and main songwriter of goth-rock band The Late Isabel, told ABS-CBN News. He said that with emphasis on the phrase “one year” as if still in disbelief.
If his name sounds familiar to most hormonally-active male readers, Hernandez was the last editor-in-chief of probably the longest-reigning men’s magazine in print, FHM Philippines. Like most monthly glossies, its existence is now purely online and Hernandez chose not to be part of it. But with print, he was EIC for three years in his 16-year stint with the magazine, or more than half of his professional life.
We’re at El Calle bar of Resorts World Manila and we’re not here to talk about the hottest female celebrity centerfold models Hernandez laid his eyes on during his FHM stint. We’re here because of the main man who composed the iconic song, “Magasin,” which could as well be related to Hernandez’s former day job. It’s the “coming out party” for the bands whose albums were produced, released or about to be released by Offshore Music, a new baby by Buendia and five other partners, conceived in 2016.
Buendia, through Offshore, is producer of The Late Isabel (TLI)’s latest album titled “Imperial.”
“Ely knew us from our goth days,” said Hernandez, explaining TLI’s sound now has become “dirtier.” “Goth siya na new wavish. This is grittier, mas post-punk.”
Though they’ve been around that long, TLI is among the few that chose to stay out of the mainstream studios over the years it has created a cult following. “[Goth and new wave] have almost been our sound since we began in year 2000. The band is known for playing mga old-school goth rock like Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees, sa goth scene familiar 'yun.”
From The Bunker to Crow’s Nest
He recalled it was in 2013 when Buendia met their vocalist, artist-photographer Wawi Navarroza, at an art fair in Hong Kong. Incidentally, Buendia had built a rehearsal-recording studio atop his own home in Las Pinas City and initially called it The Bunker. After a few renovations, he christened it Crow’s Nest Studio.
When he established Off Shore Music in 2016 the same time he formed the funk-soul band Apartel, Crow’s Nest has since served as Offshore Music’s main office and recording studio.
“So Ely offered Wawi to produce the album,” Hernandez said. “Technically, Ely signed the band only because we had not produced an album for a long time. We’re the [type of] band na we don’t like being around all the time. We’re here not to become famous. The mystique of the band works that way.”
Mentioning the word “famous,” it can be said Hernandez has been around too long in the industry to know Buendia, though not as a rock musician. Prior to his FHM stint, Hernandez was staff writer and editor for a few local newspapers. He was among the few credible music journalists covering the alternative band boom in the 1990s, which many music critics believed was ushered in by the Eraserheads.
Like in the Cameron Crowe classic film “Almost Famous,” Hernandez used to belong to the category called “the enemy” because his beat was music. He has interviewed bands who wanted to project they’re the coolest group in the scene. Little did Hernandez know years later he’d cross the line and embrace both persona.
“We were among first bands to work in the studio sa taas ng bahay ni Ely. ‘Yun ang value ng studio na nasa bahay lang eh. Mas creative. Dalawa kami ni Jerome Velasco, ‘yung sound engineer. One whole year magkasama kami sa studio,” Hernandez said.
Velasco was formerly lead guitarist of ‘90s rock band Teeth, another band whose gigs and albums Hernandez had written about. Velasco eventually joined Buendia’s post-Eraserheads’ band, the-now-defunct The Mongols and now with Pupil.
“Masaya siya. It’s less expensive and ‘yung creative process mas spontaneous,” Hernandez said. “Kahit na kilala na si Ely sa music industry, hands off siya sa [amin ni Jerome]. Like what he said, you go where the sound takes you.”
To paraphrase Michael Jackson’s classic funk hit, they didn’t stop till they get enough.
Hernandez said: “As producer, hindi siya 'yung tipong nakikialam in whatever creative process that we do. And if you’re a label who want to do business, we’re the last band you’d want to sign up because we don’t care about business. Wala talaga, hindi kami nandito para kumita ng pera or like what I said, para sumikat.”
Most of the time he and Velasco were doing their work, Hernandez said Buendia was just sitting in the studio, writing on his laptop.
Hernandez can think of only one moment when Buendia participated in the process and it lasted for a few seconds. “May time lang na may isang hindi makuhang vocals, nag-abot siya ng extra mike to get the sound right. So naging music engineer siya that day for that. 'Yun lang,” Hernandez said, laughing at the recall.
“One thing also is Ely should be the executive producer of the album but he declined. He said why would he take credit for something he has not had a part of so Jerome and I became the producers.”
The objective journalist in Hernandez posited this observation: “Sa akin I can say that for a fact, from a creative and business stand point, that’s almost unheard of. Kasi ang trabaho ng producer is makiaalam. Ely is not like that.”
Music comes first
It seemed their hard work paid off and the right decisions were made. When “Imperial” was released on November 10, 2017, it was a hit.
“There’s an audience for good music talaga. They are just waiting for good music to come out. Proof of that is ‘Imperial,’ when we released it sa iTunes, nag-chart kaagad,” Buendia said.
It has since been made available also on Deezer and Spotify. There’s a plan to release it on vinyl and CD formats in 2019, depending on the band members’ availability. Said Hernandez in jest: “Si Wawi kasi in charge sa album art but since sobrang busy siya hindi mabigyan ng oras. That’s the kind of band that we are.”
“Imperial” is the carrier single and the title of The Late Isabel’s second album after almost a decade-and-a-half since their independently produced debut titled “Doll’s Head,” which was released in 2004 followed by an EP titled “Lackadaisical” in 2011.
“Being a producer or executive producer, my main goal is, 'yun na nga, to stay out of their way,” Buendia told ABS-CBN News, laughing at the thought of it. “Because these are artists who know what they’re doing.”
“That’s why we got them in the first place because nakikita namin ‘yung work ethic, visions and integrity. Kasama na ‘yun sa package nila. So there’s nothing else for you to do,” he added.
“And speaking from personal experience, I didn’t want my producer to tinker with our sound too much. He can suggest stuff pero hindi rin naman namin papakinggan ‘yun eh because we know how we would sound like,” said Buendia.
“I guess that’s it, I could relate to them so I believe in giving the artists what they want. There’s a danger of thinking about business too much, it affects the work, it shows in the product you produce,” Buendia said. “Offshore stood firm in the belief that if we build it, they will come. If you believe in your music and you put your heart into it, people will see it.”
Since it involved funds, Buendia doesn’t give a “b” to the business side of it. Or not that much enough to get him sick or irritable. Asked if he and his partners employ accountants, bookkeepers, secretaries, he answered in the negative.
“Everybody’s asking how we do it. We’re all DIY. We had to do everything ourselves. We’re our own secretary, our own runners. We enjoyed it because it’s ours,” Buendia said.
This kind of freedom is being enjoyed by other artists under Offshore Music. Apartel recently released its single titled “Pateros,” which is part of their second album, “Full Flood.” (On a promotional tour, Apartel will perform at Eastwood City on October 27 with other Offshore artists.)
Besides Apartel and The Late Isabel, other bands under Offshore are The Ransom Collective, Eyedress, One Click Straight and veteran rocker Jun Lupito.
Give artists what they want
“Everyday we learn something new. Like that saying, ‘papunta ka pa lang, pabalik na ko’ (which incidentally is a song of another Buendia-led band, The Oktaves), that is so true,” said Toffer Marquez, lead vocalist and bassist of One Click Straight.
These boys from Paranaque City have been composing and performing since 2013 and have created a following among the younger crowd. The band members are in the late teens and early 20s.
Offshore Music website describe their sound, “a fusion of melodic pop, indie rock, and synth pop.”
Composed of Toffer, his brothers Sam (guitar) and Tim (drummer-songwriter) and childhood friend Joel Cartera (guitar-percussion), One Click Straight was introduced to Buendia by Offshore Music co-partner Pat Sarabia. She is widely known as drummer for Apartel and the “EB Live” touring super band.
“Pat is into the indie scene. She knows a lot of bands. We were told she found us through Spotify,” said Toffer. They were soon invited by Buendia to open for Apartel in one of its gigs.
“He talked to us after our gig and then told us, ‘We’ll sign you up [for an album].’ That was stunning,” said Tim.
This year, Offshore released their single, “She.” As of posting, they have yet to release their debut album titled, “The Midnight Emotion,” also under Offshore.
Asked about working with Buendia and Velasco, Tim said, “We get so inspired by them. People who’ve done this thing so long. It’s like saying, there’s hope.”
Obviously, they were babies during the height of popularity of bands like The Eraserheads and Teeth. “I used to read articles about them. How they did it. I know a few songs. Our parents were fans.”
Tim added: “They’re the breeziest people. They give you headroom where you can do whatever you want. They’re like your parents na you can do whatever you want in life but you also feel they are guarding you. It’s cool working with them.”
They get advices too in a subtle way.
“The way their lifestyle is what speaks a lot about them. How they guide us. How they think about us. They are not the type that says a lot of things. You can see them. We are subconsciously influenced by what they do. We learn from them,” said Toffer.
Younger than Pepe Smith
Veteran rocker Jun Lupito was asked by a millennial writer how does it feel being older than the producer.
“Yes, older than Ely but I am younger than Pepe Smith, just to clarify,” he said, followed by a burst of laughter. He rephrased the question, “How do you work with people younger than you? As my producer? Doesn’t matter if you’re older. If they believe in you.”
Lupito is considered by veteran rock journalists Eric Caruncho and Juaniyo Arcellana, former staff members of the defunct Jingle magazine, as one of the best guitar players in the country and sometimes referred to as “guitar god.” In this video, he jams with fellow local electric guitar virtuosos.
Lupito went on to explain that he’s the type who takes his time and not rush into things. He released his first solo album, “The Bodhisattvas” in 1995, the height of the Eraserheads mania.
“Actually, 33 years old na ko noong gumawa ng album. I met Ely in 1995. Late bloomer ako. Nakasabay ko siya sa isang gig sa Subic. Niyaya nila (Eraserheads) ako kumain sa Jollibee. After no’n, hindi na kami nagkita. Kasi I am the type who do my own thing. I would hide away in places away from the city, like in Puerto Galera, I stayed there for a long time to write my own stuff.”
Little did he know that Buendia has always been a fan of him and his music. Now that Buendia is in that position to help other artists, there’s a plan by Offshore to release “Bodhisattvas” on vinyl and another solo album with new songs. Reassuringly, Lupito said: “I’ve written about 16 songs, enough for an album. Watch out for it, hopefully via Offshore.”
If there were instances where Buendia has become actively involved as producer, it was when he recorded two songs with Itchyworms. These are “Lutang” and “Pariwara,” in which Buendia is also credited as co-songwriter. These two were released in 2017 in limited edition “double A-side 45-rpm vinyl single” under Offshore, which also served as music publisher.
Chino Singson, lead guitarist of Itchyworms clarified they are still not under any label and that they remain independent. He said: “Hindi kami nag-sign ng deal. It was just a project with Offshore Music. So since si Ely naman ‘yun, pumayag kami to release under his label. At siyempre honor ‘yun to be associated with his label.”
“With Itchyworms, happy kami sa pagiging indie. Hindi pa kami ready mag-sign with any label. We call the shots. How to do it. When to do it. Like ngayon, we had an opportunity to do a project with Ely. Hindi naman kami nakatali with anyone,” said Jazz Nicolas, drummer of Itchyworms.
Nicolas was once called the fifth Eheads because of his participation in The Final Set, the second major reunion concert of the Eraserheads on March 9, 2009, at SM MOA Concert Grounds. Nicolas was the all-around session musician doing keyboards, back-up vocals, guitars and drums. Nicolas remembered his participation with The Final Set. After the concert, he said there were people pointing to him, saying “Eraserheads oh, tara, picture.”
“So picture, picture pero after that sasabihin ko. Hindi ako 'yun. Tumulong lang ako.”
Asked if Itchyworms has plans to release a full album with Buendia under Offshore, Singson said the idea didn’t come to them yet until now. “Magandang idea 'yan. It would be nice to do an album with the man [Buendia] himself. Siyempre alam natin kung gaano ka-busy ‘yung tao.”
There were earlier reports that Buendia described the collaboration with Itchyworms as a “match made in heaven.”
In disbelief, Singson said, “Talaga, sinabi niya 'yun? Kahit papano may sound kami na malapit sa Eheads. Siguro ‘yun ‘yung reason for that. ‘Yung songs na ginawa namin with Ely, tunog Itchyworms. Lumalabas pa rin yung personality namin but at the same time like what Ely said sa ‘Pariwara,’ parang isang tao lang gumawa.”
In recollection, Nicolas said it began when Buendia gave an unfinished song to them. “O, tapusin nyo. Separately kami ni Jugs Jugueta (vocalist of Itchyworms), we tried to finish the song. Then when we were done with it, we sent it back to Ely. So 'yun nga sabi niya, parang isang tao lang daw sumulat.”
“Seamless daw ang song partnership,” Singson said.
But the connection cannot be denied. In college, before they formed Itchyworms, they were among the hundreds of thousands of die-hard Eraserheads’ fans. When they formed the band, at some point, they regularly opened bar gigs for the Eraserheads, like in the good, old Mayrics’ Bar on Espana Boulevard in Manila.
Recalled Nicolas: “Lahat kami fans ng Eheads, fans din naman kami ng Beatles. ‘Dun 'yung intersection siguro. Sobrang blown away. To say na kami tagapagmana ng Eheads. Sobrang big honor. Kasi noong teenager hindi namin maisip, mahirap sabihin. Tapos ngayon collaboration na.”
Despite being long-time friends with Buendia and having done collaboration with him, Singson and Nicolas said they still feel nervous whenever Buendia’s around, in gigs or at Crow’s Nest.
“Working with him? Kinakabahan ako 'pag nandun siya. Kahit matagal na naming kakilala. Sobra starstruck pa rin. Siya 'yun, si Ely 'yun,” said Nicolas.
Singson was more frank. At the El Calle launch, Singson was approached by Buendia. “Kanina noong kinamayan ako ni Ely, sa sobrang kaba, na-ihi ako bigla.”