In the control room booth of a recording studio in industrial Kaki Bukit, an unshaven man in a Fire Fight tee ponders the answer to the question I’ve just asked: “Tell me about the records you’re proudest of.”
I wonder what his answer might be: the raucous punk rebellion of The Boredphucks’s Banned in Da Singapura? The chart-topping infectiousness of Electrico’s So Much More Inside, so well received by the local indie underground and mainstream media alike? Perhaps even the haunted folk-rock of Monster Cat’s Mannequins, a personal favourite of mine out of the five hundred or so bands Snakeweed Studios has worked with. After all, most of the past decade’s most successful local albums have been produced at Snakeweed.
Instead, local indie producer Leonard Soosay says: “Nine out of ten times I suck.” He shrugs his shoulders, scratching his fingers through the tight curls of his close cropped hair.
I frown, unsure what to make of the statement. Potentially there is the smack of false humility, but the embarrassment at work rings dissonant in its abashed sincerity.
“You’re awfully harsh on yourself,” I say carefully. He smiles but refuses my offer to let him off the hook.
“It’s true,” he says. “The albums I remember working on the most—any B-Quartet record, maybe. The way they play and approach music—it just leaves people in awe of their talent and ability.”
I bite my lip curiously. There it is, faintly perceptible upon careful examination: an almost knee-jerk shyness for self-celebration. All reverie for the undeniable genius of the Bani brothers aside, Leonard has, not for the first time, deflected a question meant for him away into the direction of absent third persons, far from the spotlight of the present, of the centrality of himself.
Here is the eastern heartland of Singapore’s manufacturing industry, clear and distant from the polish and bustle of the city, with the warm midday dust of the low-lying HDBs setting off the imposing industrial park that has housed Snakeweed Studios for the past three years.
In some ways, the location of Snakeweed Studios, tucked away as it is in Kaki Bukit, offers glimpses of insight into Leonard. At first glance, the mundane surroundings of this gleaming industrial park seem incongruous with Snakeweed’s reputation as the premier recording studio for local bands to head to.
Down past the wide truck-friendly road though, turning a tight left into the elevating dock of the loading bay, beyond the goods passenger lift, on to the fourth floor of the factory block, past the nondescript door with only a poster and a small crucifix above the door hinting at rock and benediction, further in still, past the stacks of sound equipment and the posters of Bono and Thom Yorke, finally entering the threshold of the control room booth where Leonard sits in slippers and old jeans, peering over his spectacles at a computer screen, one begins to understand the vagaries of appearance.
We are here today for the recording of emo-punk quartet The Caulfield Cult’s second album, and as I walk in Leonard introduces me to the band and the cats (Missfit/Misstin/Misseah), in that order.
At this current moment, the band are discussing a small riffed out fragment of the song, vigorously dissecting the rhythmic minutiae of the guitar line. Leonard watches all of this relaxedly without missing any vital information.
For now the mood is casual and homely: apart from the studio standards, like the spacious table holding a mixer and twin monitor speakers, the room also features a cosy couch along the wall facing the soundproofed drum room, upon which the bandmates have planted themselves while critically listening to their frontman lay down his tracks, playing along occasionally on ukulele and unplugged guitar.
Later on, though, without looking at the screen, he will call out frontman/guitarist Nick after his part arrives late by a demisemiquaver.
For all of Leonard’s ahpek[i] demeanour and self-effacing inclinations, Snakeweed Studios remains unquestionably preeminent in and beyond Singapore’s indie rock scene. The contrast doesn’t escape his friends.
“It’s interesting how, despite being quiet and attention-shy, he’s achieved this cult status as an established Zen-like go-to figure in the local scene,” says Visakan Veerasamy, a blogger and former bassist for pop-punk trio Armchair Critic.
“If you asked a success coach or a consultant to evaluate Leo, you’d get a long list of reasons why he’s doomed to fail: no proper bookkeeping, no proper scheduling, no clear system of payments or real contracts… In an industry filled with obsessed chest-beating self-promoters, though, Leo gives zero fucks.”
At first glance, the dichotomy seems maddeningly counter-intuitive. After all, sheer apathy can only carry one so far—certainly not to a portfolio filled with no small number of seminal local records.
I ask Leonard to take me back to the beginning of Snakeweed Studios in an attempt to investigate the mystery, and he duly obliges.
“Snakeweed started out in 1997—we were a bedroom record label back then, so we would sign and publish promising young acts on top of recording them. We decided to focus only on production when we realized that the financial cost of printing and distributing albums was too much. The final straw was when we found out pirated copies of our records were being sold in Kuala Lumpur.”
A studio space proper was set up at Keong Saik Road in 2000, where it remained for the next nine years.
Prior to Snakeweed, however, Leonard had already been active in the scene, having dropped out of university in his final year to pursue an education in audio production in Canada, an itch sparked off in JC by his experimentation with a primitive form of sequencing (pre-recording or programming instrumentation).
Upon his return from studying, Leonard subsequently found employment as a sound engineer at Myx Studios and immersed himself in the burgeoning indie scene, recording demos for bands during the week and attending marathon underground gigs during the weekends.
It was there that he rubbed shoulders with skinheads and indie pop fans alike and plugged into the protest song fever of the times, with venues like Moods Bar and the Substation serving to hold the counter-culture rage and fervour of Gen-X disenfranchised youth.
It was at his workplace, though, that Leonard would make the acquaintance of Wayne ‘Thunder’ Seah of the Boredphucks and the Suns, who would go on to become both close production partner as well as intimate personal friend.
Wayne’s sudden passing from sleep apnea in 2007 came as a shock and massive loss to all who knew and loved him—in this case, often one and the same. It directly inspired Leonard to set up Thunder Rock School (named after Wayne’s stage name), a music school which will form part of the new complex Leonard hopes to build once the lease on the current Kaki Bukit location runs out.
Combining both the production duties of Snakeweed Studios with the educational aspirations of Thunder Rock, then, the envisioned complex will serve not so much as a groundbreaking institution as much as a way of making concrete what Leonard has already been doing unofficially for ages: the business of mentoring and developing young talent.
After all, be it the eclectic indie stylings of Inch Chua or the post-hardcore fury of Caracal, close examination of the company he keeps as personal friends inevitably reveals a consistent association with musicians who eventually rise to local scene prominence.
An embittered cynic might finger the insidious figure of sycophancy as culprit. Admittedly, it is all too easy to see how a young aspiring musician might gravitate towards Leonard, fuelled by thoughts of induction into a perceived musical elite.
Leonard, however, is quick to assume agency for his friendships.
“It’s me—when it comes to working with younger bands, I’m usually the one who’s seeking out potential in people,” he says.
“There are many talented young musicians right now who work very hard and have a good attitude: Cashew Chemists, Sydney Yeo from Tall Mountains, Chris Jones of These Brittle Bones...
These Brittle Bones (Chris Jones)
The nature of the Singapore music scene is that as they get older, bands eventually feel the need to go on and start families, which slowly kills off the music. The musicians I’ve just mentioned will eventually settle down as well, but if we keep working with youth eventually we’ll be able to push the scene forward.”
I nod. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel curiously evaded.
Once again, Leonard has stolen the charge from a question aimed at addressing his status as scene authority—first by defining himself as the prime mover in his personal friendships (thus paradoxically taken up a lower position of humility), then by masterfully steering the gist of the topic away, towards the greater cause of the scene at large.
Like it or not, in his dual role as quiet personal mentor and illustrious industry figure, Leonard occupies a unique place in the scene.
It’s a position that transcends the occasional festival or big-name client (Brian McKnight and Rachael Yamagata counting among the scalps).
After all, in the microclimate of the local music industry, an uneasy tension has always existed between the indie underground and the pop mainstream.
Witness, for instance, the recent outpouring of scorn showered upon Hype Records head honcho Ken Lim for his doomsaying pronouncement of local music extinction, or the furore catalyzed by Singapop! two years back, when the Dick Lee-organized concert meant to celebrate Singapore’s musical heritage inexplicably snubbed indie bands from the line-up.
As flag bearer for the indie scene’s commercial charge, then, Snakeweed occupies the awkward middle ground between anti-establishment indie purism and the Singaporean pragmatic desire for financial sustainability.
That’s not to say the lines haven’t been crossed before: pre-Singapore Idol, both Taufik Batisah as well as Sezari Sezali were heavily involved in the local indie scene with bands Bonafide Vintage Flav’r and Juxtapose respectively.
Similarly, though published on independent labels, most commercially successful local bands have historically still been dependent on major label distribution for the marketing power accessible to corporate conglomerates.
The distinction comes in the fact that despite Snakeweed’s status as one of the few English recording studios to consistently achieve commercial success, it remains fundamentally independent in philosophy despite the prospect of bigger money.
“Leonard’s one of the most humble persons I’ve ever met in my life,” says Levan Wee, former frontman of hard rock outfits Ronin and Astroninja.
“He could have sold out years ago to record more famous Chinese pop stars or something. Instead, he chose to keep working with young unsigned bands. I think that says a lot about him as a human being."
Leonard’s close personal mentorship also means that his role in the studio goes beyond mere sound engineering. In this case, however, the specifics of his role as producer are a tad trickier to pin down.
During the interview, I ask Leonard about his production philosophy by way of his heroes—is he a hands-off facilitator like Rick Rubin, for example, or a micro-managing arranger in the vein of George Martin?
He replies in typical fashion.
“I’m a non-intrusive producer. I try to just let the band play. I will point out mistakes and try to get a better performance if I can, but most of the bands that choose to work with me are usually of a certain standard anyway.
I look up to people like Daniel Lanois, who’s a Canadian producer known for his collaborations with Brian Eno. I found their approach to music and sound very inspiring and actually applied to work with Lanois’s studio back in Canada.
They didn’t accept me of course, but I’ve tried to apply some of the things they do to my own work. For example, Lanois once put a microphone out the window to try and capture the sounds of the traffic, and I tried to do the same thing with Leeson.”
I point out to Leonard the irony of him citing Eno and Lanois as role models while describing himself as a non-intrusive producer.
It was Daniel Lanois, after all, who famously deconstructed drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s technique, transforming the punk-martial roots of the drummer into a textured polyrhythmic style most evident on tracks like A Sort of Homecoming.
Leonard concedes the point.
“My heroes are specialized producers. Daniel Lanois for example works a lot with roots musicians, whereas Brian Eno experiments with ambient textural music. With experimental acts interested in exploring the more sonic aspect of music I can work that way—start to explore using the studio as an instrument."
“Take I am David Sparkle for example—they’re an instrumental post-rock band without any vocals, so they depend very heavily on different sonic textures and dynamics to evoke feelings and convey a message. Because they’re a four-piece, when they jam or play live they’re limited to what two guitarists, a drummer and a bassist can do. In the studio though we have a lot more flexibility to experiment and add different tracks to the mix, so we play around with things like taking some textured guitar tracks and burying them in the background, or adding infinite delay to the guitars so the notes build on each other to create a wall of sound until the listener feels heightened.
Most of the time, though, I work with a wide range of genres, so I tend to be generalized instead and focus on doing my basic job instead. Half the time, anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Despite the admission of involvement, one gets the sense that Leonard is again downplaying his contribution.
Esther Low, former vocalist of indie-pop and folk rock bands Indus Gendi and Monster Cat, notes that Leonard’s role as a producer varies from facilitation to collaboration depending on the depth of his personal relationship with the musicians involved.
Having worked with Leonard on her debut solo EP Strange Place to Meet (due between April and May), Esther explains: “A producer’s basic responsibility, on top of supervising the recording, is also to coach the musicians in the studio and tell them if they’re out of tune or time. When it comes to people closer to him, though, Leonard also contributes a lot of frank input and no-holds-barred criticism to the arrangement of a song—the harmonies, the melody lines."
“I’ve known Leo since my poly days, and he’s an amazing friend. There were times in my late teens when he’d just give me money when I was broke—that’s how kind-hearted he is.
Working together with him was an amazing experience, because Leonard knew intuitively what I wanted. We have a very intimate way of communicating. I would describe how I wanted a song to be mixed—like, ‘this song is supposed to make you think of a dark and miserable woman who wants to eat her own children because she has no food.’ Other times I would just make noises. He gets it every time, and perfectly reproduces the sound the way I wanted it.”
Leonard elaborated more upon this intuitive relationship, saying: “Esther and I are very close—we spend a lot of time together, so I understand her as a person truly. She has a lot of ideas that she finds hard to put into words sometimes, so it’s my job to interpret them based on what she tells me to create the ambience needed. For the song she mentioned, I made her double-track a vocal and put a lot of reverb and delay around the second line, but I then placed that line slightly before the actual vocal line to create the effect of the words being sucked in, which evokes the scary aura of suspense which the song needed.”
One gets the sense then, that his is a genius sparked and renewed continually by the flame of friendship.
I think back to Visa’s claim about Leonard’s apathy for business strategy and his disdain for corporate discipline—more intriguingly, to the comparison made of Leonard’s cult status to a spiritual figure.
As I listen to albums from Leonard’s oeuvre, be it the melancholic atmospherics of I Am David Sparkle or the anarchic pop-punk of Astroninja, I imagine Leonard doing the same while leaning forward in his cat-scratched chair, artfully coaxing out soul and elegy with an enlarged heart and a finessed ear honed by years of hard nuancing.
Even if the man himself might shy away from due credit in the spotlight, preferring vision over visibility, the musicians themselves can’t help but tip their hats to him.
“The thing about Leonard you need to understand is that unlike his competitors, he’s completely uninterested in furthering his own career,” says Levan.
“This is a man who’s genuinely dedicated his own life to making other people’s dreams come true, and that’s what made him so great professionally and personally.”
It all seems to verge on hyperbolic, until you realize the depths of the rebel rocker’s disdain for cheap sentiment—this is someone much more at home writing about Japanese sexual deviances than love ballads.
Seen that way, then, through bukkake-tinted lenses, the mystery of Leonard Soosay begins to unfurl slinky and slow—almost feline in nature, one might say, this low-key benevolent ahpek-like creature with the golden touch and the wily wink, the humble heart and the proudest dream.
[i]Esther Low: “Leo is hardly ahpek like. He's Peter Pan!”