From folk to electronic and prog to avant rock, Singapore’s The Observatory is best known for their continuous exploration in the experimental sonic sphere. Their last record Catacombs explores a deeper, heavier sound than their previous works, and upcoming release Oscilla is likely to do the same, which the band has attributed to touring with Norwegian noise rock band MoE over the years. We managed to speak with members of The Observatory on their creative process, influences, and the origins of their band name before they got ready to perform alongside MoE for their Transitions Tour.
Every album sees some form of change and it’s become pretty unpredictable for fans. Could you guys describe the creative process?
Leslie Low There’s a lot of emphasis on trying to get everyone to write and contribute to the music, so we try to do that. And very often every member will come up with a song idea, and the rest will then feed off that idea. So, in that way, we try to get as much as possible to become varied with our music so we don’t become like one baggage.
So, it’s more of a collaborative effort, from songwriting to studio production.
Vivian Wang Yeah, sometimes it goes on until we go inside the recording studio. We’re still kind of rearranging stuff, trying to make it more interesting and maybe more coherent for the final product. We never stop until the album is released. Even with the creative design of the packaging, we very much have a hand in it. Like Yuen Chee Wai is helping us with designing the album this time. So, it’s a lot of us in every aspect of it. Not just the music but how it’s going to be presented, how it looks, how it sounds, and how it’s ultimately sold to fans.
What are your influences? Do you guys have disparate influences and combine them all together or do you guys share mutual influences when making a record?
L I think there are some crossovers definitely, but each of us will have our own influences. We try to share our influences so as to understand each other better. Over the years a lot of bands have gone by that have influenced us. For this latest record, there are some elements of John Coltrane (the improvisation, the solo-ing) and Neil Young & Crazy Horse (that kind of very rough and raw sound).
V It’s getting harder and harder to pin down our influences. We can listen to anything from ‘60s folk to ‘70s progressive to techno/electronic. We try not to ape it like any particular style, but we try to capture the essence and the spirit of any one musician or band that we admire like MoE. For example, when we went on the road with them last April, we were so influenced by their heavy sound that it has kind of seeped into this new album as well, so it could be anything.
The Observatory has been around for quite a while, with members coming in and going. How has the band changed over time?
V We got darker maybe, a lot heavier, louder, more experimental. We got more practical, I think, because we’ve toured a lot more, so we’ve gotten a lot more realistic. When we first started touring we brought the whole house including the kitchen sink with us, bringing any instrument we could think of like an acoustic guitar, lots and lots of sh!t. Now we just bring as little as possible. We try to make do on the road and just focus on the music rather than [bringing] the kitchen sink (laughs).
Finally, tell us about the origins of the band name. Where did that come from?
L Well, it just means the observatory, like a space to observe ourselves in society, political situations, social situations, that sort of concept.
V It’s a bit of a looking glass to which you examine society, things about humanity. The stuff that we cover kind of sound serious but that’s what really matters to us. We really are interested in what’s happening to people in Malaysia, in Singapore, whether young people have the same right to the freedom of speech and expression — all those things matter to us. We want to not just sing it in lyrics but we want to express it in music, the collective energy that we give out. Even if the music is dark we still want to empower people and let them know that there is hope for them to move humankind in a better direction than it is going at the moment. Right now, it’s pathetic. What’s happening is very worrying, not just in Asia. It’s very important for us that people feel that they will keep their freedom of speech, thought, that kind of stuff.
The Observatory performed at Free Space @ Kakiseni with MoE for The Transitions Tour 2014 on Thursday 19 June ’14.
New album Oscilla launches on Friday 15 August ’14.