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A still from THE OBS: A Singapore Story

AN entire production crew was on standby, ready to film a concert which would mark the start of a year-long production. It was to be a ground-breaking music documentary on The Observatory, one of Singapore’s most iconic indie bands.

As fate would have it, that’s when they had to have the worst possible gig. In the words of Observatory frontman Leslie Low, everything that could have gone wrong, did.

“We were all pretty frustrated with how the show went,” he said. “There were technical difficulties, no soundcheck, the works.”

It wasn’t the best way to start their year of being shadowed by cameras, but in retrospect, Low said the incident captured the band’s spirit perfectly.

“I’m not sure if the director used any footage from that day but I remember feeling it was quite an apt representation of how things are with us, how serious we were even then.”

Director Yeo Siew Hua and co-producers Adeline Setiawan and Dan Koh spent three years making The Obs: A Singapore Story. Adeline described it as “a documentary about the struggles of doing something creative in a country which is not particularly supportive of creative arts, both financially and psychologically.”

“Through the years growing up listening to American and British indie music, listeners naturally incline their musical tastes and influences towards the West.

How special does a band have to be to have an entire documentary made about them? Pretty special. In Yeo’s opinion, no band embodies the theme of the documentary better than The Observatory.

The art rock, experimental and electronica outfit has been around for almost 15 years, and its lineup has included alumni from some of the most influential Singaporean bands of the 90s.

“They represent the trailblazers of Singaporean music,” said Koh. “They’ve always been fiercely original and stuck to what they believed in, even if it meant losing popularity or funding.”

Although not as popular in Malaysia, The Observatory has its fair share of admirers this side of the Causeway, including Kyoto Protocol frontman Fuad Alhabshi.

“Their music is a bit of an acquired taste,” he admitted. “The first time I heard them it was like nothing I had ever heard before. You could almost say it was a hallucinatory experience.”

The team that produced The Obs: A Singapore Story, (from left) Yeo, Adeline and Koh.

“Couple that with the fact that radio stations, newspapers, periodicals and television have always placed Western music on a pedestal and treated anything local as second class, this naturally endows the listeners with that same mindset.”

In an excerpt of the documentary, Singaporean music critic X’Ho speaks about how vibrant the Singaporean music scene had been in the 60s to 70s, before the government killed it off through levies, media bans and more.

In another scene, ex-Observatory member Dharma revisits the 90s, where there was a ban on slam dancing and more levies imposed on concert promoters.

Based on what he has seen, Koh said the Malaysian and Singaporean music scenes share a lot of the same issues.

“Both scenes are faced with fickle or little support, and an audience that prefers Western acts,” he said. “Musicians playing in their mother tongue are accepted within those communities, but local acts that perform in English find themselves competing for exposure against international acts so they end up sounding the same.”

Yuen Chee Wai, The Observatory’s current synth player, agreed. “Through the years growing up listening to American and British indie music, listeners naturally incline their musical tastes and influences towards the West.

“Couple that with the fact that radio stations, newspapers, periodicals and television have always placed Western music on a pedestal and treated anything local as second class, this naturally endows the listeners with that same mindset.”

Ironically, the filmmakers had to crowdfund to produce the documentary after being denied grant money from the government. They raised around SG$50,000 (RM144,521) through word-of-mouth and a PayPal account.

“Crowdfunding allowed us to tap into an amazing pocket community of support,” said Koh. “It was very encouraging to be approached by so many people who wanted to volunteer their money, time and services.”

But even with funding, filming the documentary wasn’t easy for those on both sides of the lens. For The Observatory, it was an unusual experience having everything they said or did recorded on camera.

“When situations got a little tense or difficult, as things are bound to, I would suddenly become acutely aware of the camera,” said Vivian Wang, the band’s current keyboardist and percussionist. “That’s when it gets uncomfortable.

“But I can totally understand why the filmmakers needed to zoom in on us and what we do. You can’t be selective and just present what’s good.”

Koh said the band members were supportive and cooperative from the start, but filming them wasn’t without its issues.

“They’re not the expressive sort. In fact, they’re quite protective of their privacy, and rightly so. It was a gradual process of getting to trust each other before they let us into their personal spaces,” said Koh.

“The toughest part for them, I think, came when we had to interview them about band members leaving, right as it was happening. Needless to say, it was a very emotional time as even they weren’t sure if the band would go on.”

But of course, the band did go on. New members were brought on board, and Yeo, Adeline and Koh were able to finish their documentary.

The documentary will premiere in Malaysia during the three-week-long Urbanscapes festival. It will be screened at The Bee, Publika, on May 5, along with the launch of The Observatory’s latest album, August Is The Cruellest.

“I can’t think of a better occasion for the Malaysian premiere than Urbanscapes,” said Koh. “A festival that celebrates original and homegrown artistic expression.”

R.AGE is an official media partner of Urbanscapes 2016. For more info and stories on the creative arts festival, go to rage.com.my/urbanscapes2016.

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