Monday, August 24, 2015

Light and verve

I.

“I don’t think I’m gonna be making electronic music forever, so enjoy it now,” Zedd (Anton Zaslavski) told the press prior to his August 8 Manila gig. It wasn’t a threat but a recognition of the natural course of things. Zedd is a classically trained pianist, whom at age 11 became drummer in a metal band then later on went to test the EDM waters. He eventually released “Clarity,” a dance album that produced club staples, chart toppers and a Grammy award-winning record.

In his second outing, “True Colors,” Zedd makes a statement on his artistry, showcasing his musical depth. The tracks are even more melodious and diverse that you can take them as pop songs with a touch of electronica rather than melodic EDM, which is characteristic of his previous works.

We still get hints of “Clarity” with the opening tracks Addicted to Memory, I Want You to Know and Beautiful Now, though it goes in completely different directions from there on. Standouts are the rock-infused Transmission, folksy Daisy, indie-pop Illusion and clear-cut rave piece Bumble Bee.

For the third album, Zedd only had this to say: “I honestly don’t know.” But he was generous enough to share that he’d like to compose for films, do more orchestral stuff, and promised us that whatever he creates, it shall pass strict quality assurance. “I would not make music that I did not enjoy. I love making every single song I’ve ever put out,” he remarked. “I would never put my name on something I don’t like. And if it happens that there’s more rock in the next album, then that could be it. But for now I’m having fun to be honest with you.”

So we had to take him seriously when he said enjoy his music now. Sure they’re digitally preserved, but experiencing them in a room among kindred spirits, with Zedd himself behind the decks, orchestrating the party? That’s unrepeatable.

II.

Neverland Manila Presents: Zedd True Colors Tour began with that familiar keyboard riff in Hourglass smoothly leading to Spectrum’s chorus. When our ears were ready to take the full song, the chords drifted to the hook of Beautiful Now, Zedd’s current single. “Pa-pa-pa papa pa-pa-pa papa pa-pa-pa-pa papapa papapapa…,” chanted the glow stick-wielding audience of 12,000 at the Mall of Asia Arena. In front of them were huge LED panels in which hues from the “True Colors” album cover splashed about.

Crowd pleaser that he is, Zedd, on top of playing his hits, gave his remix of music fan favorites like Clean Bandit’s Rather Be, Maroon 5’s Sugar, Magic’s Rude, David Guetta’s Titanium, Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars, Bastille’s Pompeii and Jessie J’s Bang Bang.

To an outsider, EDM is equal to loud bass plus mindless rhythms. In a careless DJ’s hands, it may be so. But there’s something about it that’s exhilarating. Perhaps it’s the amplified, repetitive beats connecting with our own pulse, waking our senses up. Hearing it for hours, though, is tiring, boring. And this is what separates Zedd from your standard disc jockey: the man knows how we’d like to jump around, latch on to a melody, cry out lyrics we take as divine oaths, and sometimes do all three at once. In Zedd’s hands, EDM is poetry and rave.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


There’s no doubt that he owes this musical instinct to his classical training. “When I started making electronic music, I had no clue about it,” shared Zedd. So he wrote Spectrum entirely on the piano then made it electronic, and it has been a process which he adopted for his two albums. “It’s the easiest way to do it. Writing music on the piano already makes it more organic,” he continued. “Playing all those classical pieces, I kind of learned what is right.”

Sticking to the same writing practice, Zedd simply had to take cues from his surroundings when it came to producing a cohesive album. “After hearing four to five songs, I realized that all I’ve written were kind of different,” he replied when asked about the intention behind “True Colors.” “They have totally different colors and I thought that’d be a great concept — for every song to be some color. When you close your eyes, I want you to feel something in every single song.”

How anyone could keep their eyes closed during a Zedd live performance, I have no idea. One can only be drawn like a fire-hungry moth to the lights blazing throughout the arena. “The visual aspect is just as important for me as the actual music,” said Zedd in the documentary, Moment of Clarity. Unlike the random slivers of light that go on-and-off at nightclubs, the electric lights and graphics in his concert had a language of their own.

At one point, I found myself moving like the dangly neon straws projected on the screens. It was hypnotizing, to say the least. And when he played The Legend of Zelda theme remix accompanied by scrolling pixelated images of a video game character, nostalgic smiles flashed on people’s faces. Zedd might have been working his voodoo on us, but we would gladly submit to it again and again.

Towards the show’s final minutes, Zedd, going full circle, reprised the anthemic Spectrum and climbed the deck stand carrying the Philippine flag. Before saying good-bye for the night (he has always expressed a fondness for playing in the country), he had us dance to True Colors.

III.

“I would love to be remembered as somebody that made a difference in the electronic music scene… someone that had a big influence in its change towards something slightly more musical, more classical” was Zedd’s quick reply to questions of legacy. “There are certain bands that I look up to — Queen, Genesis, Beatles. Even when their sound changes, they’re still legends. They changed rock, they changed their genres.”

Touring the world at 24, making non-EDM listeners pay attention to the genre along the way, may not be a bad start. “I have a whole new respect for dance music, for how it comes together and the artists behind that beat that you’re dancing to,” Hayley Williams of rock band Paramore said as much after working with Zedd on the track, Stay the Night. And if my opinion counts, Anton’s true colors have just made me an even bigger, unapologetic fan of electronic music.

—Originally published in a different version on GIST.PH

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What's cool?

When a young, talented, not to mention good-looking band that flies around the world to perform in front of adoring fans have their vocalist sing, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids,” it’s quite difficult to be convinced.

American band Echosmith — a play on words echo (sound) and smith (maker) — is composed of the Sierota siblings, namely Sydney, Noah, Graham and Jamie. Hard as it may be to conceive, they have been around for almost a decade, but only recently broke into commercial success with the smash hit Cool Kids from their 2013 debut album “Talking Dreams.”

Sydney shared that the group wrote Cool Kids to express that universal desire to fit in. “There are times when I’m hanging out with a crowd and think, ‘Man, I don’t look like these people; I don’t act like them or talk like them,’” she said and further noted that the song is all about self-acceptance, which to her is essentially what makes any person cool.

She continued by confessing that they still feel pangs of insecurity “for some random reason,” whether together as a band or individually. “It just proves that no matter how much success you’ve had, you still go through that. We’re still learning,” remarked the 18-year-old.



Cool Kids no doubt has introduced Echosmith to the world, but the foursome follows it up with what may well be their signature song: Let’s Love. “We always thought from the start that it’s going to be a single eventually. That was the first song we wrote where we went, ‘Wow, this is the kind of song that we wanna go for, a song that really feels like Echosmith,’” shared Sydney.

Upbeat, positive, with barely a trace of angst or cynicism that pervade the works of artists in their teens, “Talking Dreams” is an album your mother would approve of and your friends would have blasting on the car radio during a summer road trip.

“Everybody naturally gets negative sometimes, but we definitely like to go for the positive things because it feels better that way,” said Sydney in explaining their musical philosophy. “We want people to feel better after they listen to our stuff or after watching us live, and even upon meeting us. That’s our goal. We might as well use the platform that we have the best way we can.”

And they seek to spread good vibes. When asked what’s the best thing about being in a band, they said it’s touring. “We mainly love going out to eat and roam. That’s one thing,” said Sydney, who also confessed to being a heavy sushi and rice eater.

Beyond the perks of traveling, though, it’s the magic of seeing what they do grow before their eyes that pumps up the siblings. “To see — after we go to the same city a million times — that the crowd gets bigger and the passion becomes stronger each time… from under a hundred people coming to 2,000 then to 15,000… it’s kind of crazy to watch that, it’s definitely the best part.”

With a Philippine concert slated in August, Sydney, Noah, Graham and Jamie will be able to witness how their following in the country has multiplied since their first visit last year. Manila’s intensity didn’t escape the group. Sydney recalled, “It was amazing. It was our first experience having people waiting at the airport and at the hotel for us.”

The show itself has a room in her memory: “It was such a good crowd. Everybody was so passionate, so excited. You don’t want anything more than that when you’re in a band. I’m just excited to go back,” she added. “We might throw some balloons, some confetti, some surprises,” shared Sydney upon prodding her into divulging their plans for the upcoming concert. “But our goal is just to have fun, jump around and play music. We might do a few covers.”

It may appear that the Sierotas are living the life all kids out of high school dream of. But young as they may be, touring has taught them that time isn’t on their side. “There are only 24 hours, which sounds like a lot at first, but we’re flying and driving, and that takes a lot of our day,” explained Sydney.

“I’m now realizing that quality time and time are different,” she continued. “We have to be careful how we spend our few free hours. So instead of looking at IG for hours and hours or watching TV, I make time to call a friend or a loved one.” The four even believe that they still need to hang out as siblings and talk about matters unrelated to music. “We’re still learning how to have balance, but we’re getting there,” she added.

Another lesson that the band has learned and wishes to impart to start-up bands is commitment. “If you really love something and you know you want to do it, just stick with it. We’ve been a band for nine years. Now it’s working and it’s awesome but it took a long time for us to get here. It could happen overnight or it could happen in a span of ten years — you’ll never know,” said Sydney, adding matter-of-factly, “You have to be prepared to wait.”

In a generation where many are spoiled by instant gratification and have somewhat lost their capacity to wait, Echosmith — whose oldest member is only in his early 20s — preaches patience by example and that’s pretty cool in our book.

—Originally published on GIST

Monday, August 10, 2015

See the world: notes on traveling

(An officemate dug this up, because it was his job to dig things up in the newspaper archive. This was written as a filler, and over a year later, I got praises for it.)

*

There used to be, at least on my part, a great sense of romanticism when it comes to traveling. It is what you do to “find yourself”, “escape”, maybe meet “the one”, and if you’re truly lucky, discover a purpose in life. These may well be clichéd notions, but they are nonetheless alluring.

Not to say that the idealism is now entirely lost on me, only that travel has become such a buzzword in the past years that its initial glamour and mystery have somewhat waned. If you love traveling, or would like to try it, safe to say that it is easier these days. Travel deals and promos abound. All you need is some cash, time to spare, and an open mind. And this is perhaps where the difficulty lies, and why I haven’t been traveling as much as I’d like to: it is one thing to prepare the luggage, but quite another to prepare the mind.

When I said I love food, I didn’t mean I love all food. This was my first mistake in traveling with a group for the first time. Little was I aware of my biases, and instead of taking the chance to get acquainted with the unknown, I opted out.

Others would surprisingly confess that one of their mistakes when traveling is bringing a camera. Capturing the moment removes them from the moment. This is not to say that taking a photo in your trips is despicable, rather, it is a reminder to pay attention. Among all the things we associate with travel, we could at least agree that it is an occasion to see the world.

What I look forward to seeing and seeing more of is nature and architecture. What nature does is humble you with its vastness and inexplicable grandeur, and realizing that you are part of it is empowering. My faith in the universe is strengthened as a quiet voice says, everything is in its proper place.

Architecture, on the other hand, strengthens my faith in humans. Not a church-goer myself, I can stay for hours inside the Miag-ao church in San Joaquin. Why? Because these structures standing for centuries show that mortal hands can create something beautiful and enduring. It proves that we are intelligent creatures who care for each other.

I vow to get out more this year, and along with this is the promise to be more open and attentive; but this time, not just to nature and works of art, but also to other people. If I may borrow poet Mark Doty’s words, when people are “real” to you, you begin to understand them for who they genuinely are and not as part of a category.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from my few travels is that traveling can never be mere passing by, checking things out, and taking photos for proof. Most of all it shouldn’t be an escape as it ought to teach us to be “in the present”, and that seeing — giving your absolute attention to the littlest things — must be a way of life.