The Saddest Music in the World

The last homegrown lost boy, Leslie Low, now The Observatory’s frontman.

31 Aug 2011
The Saddest Music in the World

In his over two decades of making music, Leslie Low has yet to write a “happy” song. According to the mellow voice behind Humpback Oak and The Observatory, “The stuff I do ranges from sad to reflective.” They are also some of the most life-affirming songs around.

Released while he was in polytechnic, Humpback Oak’s debut Pain-Stained Morning (1994) contained 14 folk-tinged confessionals that went from a single locked bedroom to many others. “Down to the low life, well do I like it?” one of its wry lines goes, “No finer time to be alive.”

That song, ‘Finer Life’, earned accolades even in demo form. In 1992, Zircon Lounge’s Chris Ho wrote, “His is a voice that reaches deep into the introspective shadows of doubt … Humpback Oak will one day prove to be a treasured find on the Singapore scene.”

Long since proven true, this proclamation has only grown stronger after the band’s split. Perhaps due to the highly personal nature of Humpback Oak, they attract and retain no casual listeners.

One fan, who goes by the online handle ‘sojourner’, snuck in to be the first to get Oaksongs, last year’s boxset of their three out-of-print albums and rarities. For that, Low “bestowed” upon him #333 of the 500-edition set, “that of the half beast”, he muses.

Oaksongs would be the last music I buy, Pain-Stained Morning being the first Singapore album I bought … This bundle will be spared from my material world spring cleaning”.

Through its extended afterlife, Humpback Oak has persisted as a hushed emblem of adolescence, and Low as its eternal purveyor. This is despite his having moved on to The Observatory, the five-piece experimental band, for the last ten years – they are currently writing their fifth album.

“When Time of Rebirth (2004) came out, we felt that some of the Humpback Oak fans didn’t like The Observatory. One guy wrote to me, ‘Why are you writing lyrics like that? You’re not writing the angry stuff anymore.’”

“I think a lot of people are hung up on nostalgia,” he says.

Born in 1972, Low is the only child of an army officer and the singer Dai Ping. She sang in nightclubs, restaurants, and also at home. “I'd hear my mom sing all the time, when she's cooking or cleaning, so it became a normal thing to learn how to sing. The funny thing is, when I sing I think I actually sound like her.”

While his mother performed mostly Hong Kong-influenced pop, Low was raised on a diet of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and R.E.M. It was in 1988 that he and his St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) schoolmates, Vincent Chin (guitar), Stanley Teo (drums), and Daniel Wee (bass), formed Humpback Oak.

They had attended the Alternative Pop concert where The Oddfellows, another seminal band of the BigO ‘zine generation, debuted. “We were the only acoustic band then,” Low writes in the book No Finer Time to be Alive? (1996) about the largely punk-inspired local movement of the late eighties.

To re-encounter Pain-Stained Morning today is like peering into someone’s teenage diary. Some of its lyric sheets, preserved on the Humpback Oak website, are in fact SJI foolscaps. On one, under “Name”, it was written “The disciples”.

At times, you can’t help but wince at its all-consuming bleakness (“paranoia”, “schizophrenia” and “catatonia” are all name-checked), but the raw sincerity of certain songs still take the breath away. “Honey, when you send for me / I’ll be there for you / Anywhere”, ‘Circling Square’, an outsider love song if any, attests simply.

When Low was nine, his father passed away.

“At that point, I remember I didn't really feel sad. It was only about a month later, I was alone in my room, and I just realised – he's never going to show up at five, six o'clock, coming back from work,” Low says. “I had to slowly find ways of understanding it.”

Humpback Oak - Ghostfather (demo)

Ghostfather (1997) is Humpback Oak’s first cohesive album. The weight of the loss hangs over this decidedly gothic record, but it is also more broadly about being unmoored – from Christianity, from being a Chinese singing in English, and from this “dream country”. They are also just really beautiful songs: ‘Stressed Out’, for one, makes that most Singaporean of conditions achingly attractive.

If Ghostfather was the sound of a band finding their voice, Side A Side B (1999) found them moving beyond personal politics. Its two sides were recorded a year apart, bookending Low’s internship in Los Angeles. The distance evidently accorded him perspective, for the songs only gain in quiet confrontation.

On the mostly acoustic Side A, ‘The Last Homegrown Lost Boy’ finds the titular character stuck as he tries to make his exit. A plaintive call is made: “Can you teach me how to deal with shock? / How to beat the clock? / Can you talk a bit to me?” By Side B, the first and last time Humpback Oak recorded live, the ending note is “One pretty government / One big happy family”, before it explodes into squalling feedback, like a National Day Parade gone terribly wrong.

Humpback Oak - Modelcitizen

Humpback Oak disbanded in 2001. Its members had graduated and were starting out in their careers. Currently, none aside from Low continue to work in music. For someone who had previously railed against capitalism, Low made the move into advertising.

His stab at the Singaporean musician’s day job found him composing jingles for KFC, Citibank, and Starhub TV commercials, amongst others.

“The advertising years are not really something I enjoy talking about,” he says. “In Singapore at least, advertising is pretty much about copying something. They give you a reference track and want you to emulate it. To me, they are all kind of the same. It was very technical kind of work.”

These nine years found The Observatory emerging at night. Time of Rebirth was first recorded as a demo, after days of work, between Low and Vivian Wang – his band member, girlfriend, and fellow ex-advertising employee. The album of sprawling electronica, later re-recorded with Observatory members Dharma (Heritage), Victor Low (Concave Scream), and Evan Tan (Opposition Party), begins with a question: “How’s life, living like this?” and ends on the sound of rain. 

“The Observatory came about from wanting to do things on our own terms,” Low says. “It was the question of ‘Do you want to help somebody else sell their commodities, or do you just want to sell something yourself that has integrity?’ If everything boils down to just earning a living, then there's not much joy in that living, I feel.”

Time of Rebirth’s brand of trading vocals over late night downtempo may sound slightly one note (especially post-The xx), but it was expanded upon, within the same year, by Blank Walls (2004). The more aggressive textures of ‘Olives’ provides heft to the soul-searching at hand, while ‘Finch’, ostensibly about a cat, lends some levity.

The Observatory - Olives

2007’s A Far Cry From Here was delivered in a red parcel, bearing a stamp of outer space, marked ‘Singapore’ (in perhaps the best holdover from advertising, each Observatory album is lusciously packaged). Their third record found them experimenting out and out with dissonance.

Low confesses that it “alienated” a lot of people. “They preferred the more song-based stuff with the first two albums,” he says, “but we felt that we hadn’t found our voice then. We reached a point where we felt, is this as much as we can push it?”

Recorded in the winter of Norway, Dark Folke (2009), their latest, is a very noir album. Contained in what looks like a book for twisted children (designed by Justin Bartlett), the prog rock and doom metal here, not out of place in a horror film, is combined with blues guitar, gamelan-like textures, and chanted vocals.

‘Lowdown’, for example, has the most unsettling of voice-overs: a female voice questions, “What does money mean to you?” The male one answers, “Money is the root of all evil … A living example is just next to you.” Their echoing laughter takes the eight minute-long track out.

The Observatory - A Shuffler in the Mud

It may not be the easiest of listening, but the thrill is in hearing Low’s spider web vocals holding its place against coarseness. Melody is still here, but like the message, is heavily obscured and all the sweeter for it.

Since 2010, all the members of The Observatory have become full-time musicians. In addition to focussing on original music, they are also making a living organising events. These include the recently concluded Playfreely, six concerts of improvisational music that had a minimum entry of $10. A solo album by Low is also in the works.

“Even though we may be critically acclaimed, it doesn’t translate into a living. It has never translated to a good living. A lot of people have been saying things about the music scene here for more than 20 years, and it’s still the same, nothing has changed. I don’t think anyone is listening,” he says, only half in jest.

The homebody has for the last few years stopped going out. “When lunchtime comes and I need to go out and buy food, it’s so noisy that all I want to do is head back to the studio. You get so used to how nice it can be when it’s quiet.”

“All my creative moments have been late at night, when it’s really quiet. Ultimately, your brain mimics whatever frequencies you hear, and that affects your mood and character. Sound,” he says, “is actually very important.”

While he calls his a “low voice”, it is perhaps the fragile and boyish qualities of it that listeners still continue to hear. About a state that leaves so many others in paralysis, Low's songs of sadness keep bubbling forth.

Leslie Low - Gentle Willie (Bill Fay)

Words Dan Koh

Images Philipp Aldrup

Video Chris Yeo

Music Humpback Oak, The Observatory, and Leslie Low

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