Profile: The Observatory

Published on 26 April 2016

Singapore band The Observatory never stops delving into new styles and issues.

BY JO TAN

In the 15 years that internationally-celebrated band The Observatory (or Obs for short) has been around, it has been constantly changing its sound, creating tunes that have been variously described as psychedelic folk, space-rock, electronica and more. The one thing that best describes all of their music is that it always stems from disquiet about the state of things in the world.

“Our music taps into the zeitgeist of whatever we are exposed to, and aims to make a ruckus about it,” says Leslie Low, lead vocalist and player of a number of instruments. He’s not kidding: Obs’ eighth and latest album August Is the Cruellest, released this year, is unabashedly described on its press release as a work of political noise, with its brooding songs conceived during SG50’s haze disaster and election drama.

Obs member Yuen Chee Wai, who plays synth and electronics, agrees. “We just want to amplify our views about what has gone wrong with the world today — whether hate, human frailty or environmental disaster — and hopefully encourage people to think and question: what can they do to make this a more bearable place to live in?”

While Obs’ globetrotting gigs take them from Norway to Japan, they explain that the apparent glamour often involves little money, bad food and being away from family. “In general, it’s tough being a full-time musician in Singapore. There’s no job security or stable income, there are erratic hours and lots of sacrifices one has to make in terms of lifestyle,” explains band percussionist Cheryl Ong.

Thankfully, their ample passion for their work more than makes up for the inconveniences. “We are contented to just be able to do what we love. We like listening to and being influenced by a wide range of stuff, so we try to put all these ideas from different avenues together during the song-writing process. That’s why when you look at our musical styles, we’re an ever-changing unit,” says Ong. “See, we get bored really easily, so we try to make things exciting for ourselves as well. That’s also why there are improvised sections within composed pieces of Obs’ recent music — so there is some freedom to expand and grow the material.”

It also helps that their work has constantly been getting rave reviews across continents, with critics even hailing Obs a band that can only be spoken about in a “reverential hush”.

“There’s no magic formula. You just have to keep working at it,” says Vivian Wang, vocalist, instrumentalist and one of the group’s founding members. “If I had to give advice to younger musicians, it would be: focus on the voice within you. Don’t be ashamed of sounding ‘local’, don’t ape a foreign band in current vogue. Be obstinate about following your own path.”

For more on the band, visit www.theobservatory.com.sg.

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