"I didn't like the name but it doesn't matter. They played great band music." - Nina Araknida Sunstar, Flip / September 15, 2002
"Few rock bands in town could stand at the crossroads of a dynamic and evolving music scene and knock down the high walls that divide music genres and audiences with as much success as Sheila and the Insects. " - Ronald P. Villavelez Yup!, Issue 1.03 / November 2001
"Sheila & The Insects’ music is new wave-influenced post-punk rock music that is considerably heavy yet still melodic " - Cris O. Ramos Jr. The Manila Times / May 31, 2003
"What does an indie band do with the oft-maligned mix of rock and new wave? In the case of Cebu-based Sheila and the Insects, plenty." - Ganns Deen PULP , PulpReviews / Issue 13, March 2001
Handuraw Café is still in its birth pains as a new restaurant and not many people hang out there as much as Kahayag Café, its next door neighbor. As part of its promotion efforts, the place is organizing a series of gigs. Tonight was the first one. We we’re playing together with Squall, Zarah Smith, and Urbandub.
It’s a bad start for me that night. On my long drive to the place, I was coughing my lungs out. I had been suffering my condition for the past few days and had been taking over-the-counter meds, which didn’t seem to help. My driving that night took real effort from the constant coughing.
When I arrived, I quickly made my way to the bar in Kahayag to get a warm drink. Hot lemonade never tasted so good. After a while, I began to wonder where the other guys were. I had timed my schedule so I would arrive at more or less the posted start of the show but except for Ian I had snubbed on the way in, none of the other guys were in sight.
It turns out the bands were appropriated a free room to lounge and everyone was there. I joined the guys there and made myself comfortable as much as I could. Borrowing a jacket from Warren of Squall, I had left mine at home, I tried to keep warm for the wait, mildly succeeding.
I wasn’t in my top condition that night but I didn’t worry about the show. I knew I could work myself up when we needed to. Later that night when our turn did come, I’d do just that. As it turns out, all of us would do the same thing.
Tonight, we were a blue-collar band. We played and played hard. From my opening spiel up to the distorted decay of our last note, we played like we were enjoying ourselves out there – because we really were.
Much later still that night, settling for our post-gig beer, we raised our bottles to celebrate the show we just played. Raw, live, loud, and fun. Jerros summed it up best when he said that the difference tonight was when we played out there, we did so with energy. We all nodded in agreement. Cold beer doesn’t help a sore throat but what the hell, we had cause for celebration.
There’s a band I read about who’s gone through lineup changes over the years and whose criteria for picking its new members each time around is height, looks, and talent. And in that order of importance. If the prospective band member is too short or looks too, for lack of a better word, ordinary, he or she doesn’t make the cut. Never mind that he or she can write songs, play an instrument well, and maybe even have a degree in music. Come to think of it, practically all of the pop acts we have today are anything but songwriters, instrumentalists, or educated. As an observation, pop divas today seem likely to know more about arranging their wardrobe than their music. But we all know that already.
For a band to choose height and looks over talent may seem amusing but is it at all surprising? Although it is not too common a practice among local bands, that says a lot about how the many new media forms has affected the way musicians have to promote themselves. It’s not just your music now. It’s your make-up and costume, your gear, your press photos, your website, your interactive CD’s, your videos, even merchandise. So why should musicians need to package themselves? Is it not enough that he or she just make good music and let the songs promote themselves? For a time, and to an extent, I’d say it was. But not today.
When MTV was launched in 1981, the very first music video it featured was “Video killed the radio star” by The Buggles. It was probably just a coincidence but I can’t help suspect it was a deliberate choice. For in any case, MTV went on to change the music industry and how we ‘view’ our music. Music now is a complete experience, and as visual as it is aural. And if you’re a groupie, the experience can even be more interactive, but that’s another story.
The point in all this is that we can never go back to the time when it was enough that you had a good song and can play it with your guitar to an audience. To sell more, you have to please more so to make it in the big leagues, the music has to be fronted by a salable image. Remember Milli Vanilli? Music now is a commodity for sale to the masses. Naturally, all the elements of marketing come into play. Branding, image and advertising. Music must be packaged, promoted, and sold on racks much like shampoo on grocery shelves. As a musician, is this deplorable? Of course it is. But this is how the game is played now and the rules don’t quite change as fast as pop trends. So rather than change the rules, try playing in a different court.
This is where the independent music scene comes in: bands that throw the dirty finger at record labels and run their own thing. No massive label promotions or media blitzes, mainly just wild gigs in small clubs. No expensive and elaborately choreographed music videos, but creative low fi and low budget productions usually done by indie filmmaker friends.
It’s a totally different world and a departure from the stereotype of a spoiled pop or rockstar. And the fans stay fans longer. Many bands that started out as indie and later broke into the mainstream still pack concert halls and large venues. Pop stars on the other hand, have fans that last only as long as their pimples.
Indie bands are getting more and more attention as of late probably owing to a maturing audience or probably simply because pop has become stale for many because of too much hype and emphasis on style rather than substance. And besides, bias aside, indie bands now sound better, technically and musically.
So is indie the salvation of contemporary music sadly ruled by bubblegum pop and overproduced rap/rock? Could be. A caveat, though remember the 90’s? Alternative music offered the same ray of hope to the masses tired of bland radio programming only to implode when alternative itself became mainstream. The same thing happened with grunge. So it’s a cycle then. Vicious but all too real. Still, indie offers the only real alternative today. To survive then as a musician, one must transcend pop trends, go the indie way and stay true to one’s music. Maybe only then can you ride the cycle of waves and last longer than Vanilla Ice.
No fancy looks and painfully choreographed moves, only unfeigned and soulful performance. No glamour and hype, only hard work and substance. No image. Only identity.
We spent the last three successive sessions arranging the song ‘Happenstance’ and I will admit to myself, I think it has come out to be one killer of a song. Not bad for one we had basically put together during a drinking session in C24. An accidental arrangement. A marriage between Ian’s song he had written without lyrics, and lyrics I had written without a song. The marriage was a bit tricky owing to the awkward syllabication, at least at first. But we managed to pull it together before our next round of beer then.
By now, after our series of sessions we had started since last week, the song sounded very distinct. Boobop thought the arrangement was ‘intelligent’. I think he’s right.
It starts out with a strong first verse with a second voice for the vocals. Sweet and sharp. Then, it quickly segues to a snappy chorus. Solid groove and catchy rhythm. It’s becoming my favorite among all the songs we had already done.
Come to think of it, every new song we finish arranging, quickly becomes my new favorite. It’s like we keep outdoing ourselves. I know I’m not in the position to objectively rate our new songs being neck-deep in the arrangement work but just the same, I can’t help but feel our songwriting process is getting sharper each time around. Should be a good sign, if anything.
The band now knows we had to move fast. Together with Boom, we had set a broad timetable for us this year, which included, among other things, a target schedule to go in the recording studio by April, which was basically, just two months away.
So where did we stand for now? Lets see, we now have four completely arranged songs and a fifth one almost done so that makes five. We had 4 songs lined up for arrangement, all of them we had started work on. Two we shelved for the meantime. The other two, we we’re planning to work on next thinking they’d be easier to arrange as we had gotten stuck on the first two.
That makes a total of nine. Still not enough for a full album. Of course, we had other songs we were holding back for one or other reasons. Mainly however, I felt we’d be better off writing more songs together during our full sessions. In any case, we had a schedule to catch. And in any case, we had to put in more time. So in conclusion, we all decided to go for a four-times-a-week schedule for arranging/jamming. Pretty hectic for our band, any band for that matter.
I guess that means we’d all be spending more time and money on more days, actually, nights, of the week. Swell. We comforted ourselves with the thought that this would only be a temporary arrangement. True, for obviously, once we had all the songs arranged, recorded and released, we’d only then have to devote time for reviewing done songs.
Our first order of business after our Sinulog gigs was to go back to writing and arranging songs. After the long break from the habit, we we’re all eager to get back at it. We had decided to come back to working on ‘Happenstance’, the last song we had been working on.
The break afforded us the needed space to develop fresh insights on how to arrange the song. Personally, I had wanted this piece to be one were I did not do any guitar work. I had always wanted to be able to sing a song without having a guitar slung over my back. I knew we wouldn’t be able to do such very often considering we were only a four-piece band, which meant we had to maximize whatever instrumentation we could muster.
By the middle of our arranging session though, the guys coaxed me to consider putting in guitar parts anyway. We needed to explore a wider soundscape, no big deal. So I played a few improvisations in the arrangement. Very simple parts were all I could develop and add. Through all this, the song kept evolving. Kept emerging. By the time we were winding down to our closing minutes, the song had really shaped up more.
Obviously, my minor guitar contribution made a difference. Ergo, it’s staying in. O well, we still got other songs to work on. I’ll get another chance I’m sure.
After a while of cooling down with beer, Ian and I decide to go back inside ‘Veranda’ and finish packing our gear. Jerros and Boobop had, minutes ago, already gone ahead for other places. It was after all the Sinulog weekend. There was a lot happening all over town.
We on the other hand, had made other plans. We were to meet up with Boom, a friend of April’s. April arranged the hook-up to discuss a possible band management arrangement. We desperately needed a strong contact in Manila if we wanted to achieve even half of what we set out for the band this year. Broadly speaking, Boom fit the bill. Based in Manila, Boom was in town together with a few of the bands she was working with. Managing even, if you could call it that. Typecast and Chicosci were two of the acts in town she was with.
Arriving at the Rivergate Mall after a brisk drive through Cebu’s uptown nightlife clearly charged with the festive spirit, we immediately noticed the crowd spilling out from the ‘Casbah’ gig that had just ended.
Quickly enough, we hook up with April. I do a quick scan around and try and guess which one was Boom. Half-expecting someone with a flamboyant air, I was nowhere near in my guessing. I kept thinking of Don King, the eccentric boxing promoter, for some unknown reason. Anyway, she was there just in front of me sitting quite relaxed, and almost unnoticeable. I almost doubted by her looks if she could handle such a job of reigning in varied egos as only rock music attracted. After some drinks and a few hours of half-serious chat, which saw us into the wee hours of the morning in C24, I concluded this could work. Finally, we got ourselves an agent.
Before dropping her off with Gabby of Urbandub at their place where she was spending the night together with her wards, we agreed to meet again before she left for Manila a couple of days after. We had much to discuss.
Thinking to myself through the alcohol and building fatigue on my long drive home, I told myself this was going to be a big year. How big remains to be seen.
For the first time to my memory, I actually dreaded hearing the clamor for "more!" from the audience yet there it was. It wasn’t like the ‘Veranda’ patrons were on their feet eagerly demanding an encore, but you couldn’t help but hear the distinct requests within earshot. Sadly, these we had to ignore as we quietly went about our business of packing our gear with sweaty hands and moist brows.
As much as we hated disappointing the audience by not playing more, we would have probably disappointed them anyway had we given in and extended our set. Having only prepared just enough songs to do a one and a half hour set and nothing more, we simply had to say goodbye. We could have winged it and played anything we hadn’t already from our limited repertoire but then again, we’d probably have ended up playing an awful improvisation. Hence my unusual dread.
This situation wasn’t unexpected, so why the lack of preparation? For the last few months, our focus had been to write songs. Building up our repertoire was a far second on our priorities. Beer sits within the top five and recently, food-trip particularly ‘ginabut’ a new entry.
Anyway, we felt euphoric playing our closing set that night, never mind the fatigue that was by then starting to set in. Even the bar owners respected our decision to play all originals except for a couple of covers we threw in plus a remake of an original Cebuano hit. We got paid and we get to come back and play again. For many bands, that would have been all that mattered. But for us, we’ve loftier goals and we’re getting there as sure as our last closing note that night that ended a satisfying evening marred only by the Sinulog-induced traffic that was absolutely horrendous.
Earlier that night, we played our set at the Ayala-FGU grounds where the stage was bigger than the entire ‘Veranda’ club. Of course the feel of the performance, expectedly, was entirely different owing the larger scale of everything. But what remained the same was our enthusiasm in playing our songs. There’s something to be said about performing up on the stage. The experience is elevating in more ways than just literally. Tonight we felt it in our bones.
We’ve been doing all original sets ever since this new lineup debuted during the Idiot Board concert last year but I still cannot get over the euphoria of enjoying my time up there. The feeling is no less than liberating. After years of suffering cover songs during packed concerts, out there, I’m no longer ashamed. And that’s all I ever wanted being in a band – to be proud of what I do.
We ended after an hour and a half, tired and with a mix of uncertainty and excitement. We would have wanted more practice minutes but ours and the studio's schedules made it impossible. This was the last of our series of practice sessions we devoted to getting ready for our long Sinulog gig at the Veranda where we're supposed to play an hour and a half. Exactly as long as our just ended practice session. We're not too worried about our gig at the Ayala since we'll only be playing a half-hour set there. Then again, the crowd there would be definitely larger. Hundreds, I'd say.
Already, the Sinulog festivities are beginning to gain momentum. Go around the city and you'll know what I mean. There's electricity in the air, aside from the very visible corporate banners hung from every possible overhang above shoulder level. Our Ayala gig will be a two (or is it three) - night event that starts Friday. The lot is within view from our office window just across the street so pretty much, I've witnessed the transformation of an open grassy lot to a flashy and overly conspicuous outdoor concert venue.
I'm trying to cut down on my alcohol and nicotine consumption this week on the days leading to our gigs. Coming outside after packing my guitar and gear, I see the guys gathered 'round a table already enjoying a few drinks and with a few friends from Manila who're in Cebu early. Mong of Chicosci and a few other buddies. And the beer looks tempting. Hmmmm.
Before the new year really gets its momentum going, allow me to settle the question on how we came up with our band name if only because I’ve heard more than my share of totally inaccurate and sometimes absurd explanations as to who Sheila is and why 'Insects'?
The most common is that there really is a Sheila in the band and I only do the fronting duties in her absence. I remember I'd jokingly apologize on my concert spiels that Sheila couldn't make it but that the Insects were all present. Apparently, I didn't sound funny enough and maybe a few spectators actually believed me.
On conversations, I'd remember getting weird faces when I'd mention I was the lead vocalist for Sheila and the Insects. For a time, many thought we actually were a female-fronted act.
There was another time long ago I remember someone remembered our name wrong and referred to us as “Samantha and the Butterflies”. An interesting iteration, I thought. Just thought I’d mention it.
Another story I heard, and I’m not joking, is that Sheila is actually Ian’s closet name. Now if Ian does have one, I can assure everyone it is not Sheila. Then there’s the story that Sheila was a Fine Arts undergrad in USC who hung out with her barkada of mostly Chinese friends, “Insik” in colloquial, which morphed to Insects. Then there’s the scandalous story that Sheila was a girlfriend that we ‘shared’ within the band. A girl-pet of sorts if there ever was one. All untrue.
The real story though is really unremarkable which is why we try to avoid narrating it. Sheila is a real person and she used to hang out with the band back when we still had a different name. She’s not the type who’d impress you with her wit and grace. In fact, her enthusiastic attempts at humor were nothing less than pathetic, but we’d still be game enough to laugh, but only because we still had some tact intact. We we’re many things in the past but brutal is not one of them. Despite our behavior, she still was slow to catch on that we were actually laughing at her and not at her jokes. Anyway, one time, this Sheila made a casual reference to Blair’s fidgeting, which, unknown to her, was because at that time we were giggling about a private joke. She commented that Blair probably had insects in his shirt. A comment that amused us for its staleness. So much so that it became a sort of an inside joke that stayed with us for quite some time.
Anyway, to continue the story, our band used to be called “The End” but when another group from Manila emerged with exactly the same name, we decided to rename ourselves. So we brainstormed and after much debate, decided tentatively and not unanimously on “Toilet Ducks”. Don’t ask me to explain and I know it’s not as funny as it is tasteless. What can I say? We we’re young and unrefined. So anyway, just as we we’re raising a toast to our new name, Blair jokingly suggest the name “Sheila and the Insects”. We all laughed remembering the story behind it. Then after the hilarity of the moment ebbed, it dawned on us four – why not? So there.
Everyone hated our new name and told us so. And for those who showed a bit of tact, you could still sense they we’re laughing their guts inside. Hey, It’s not like you could blame them.
Anyway, we stuck to our name in spite of it all. Personally, I had stuck to the belief that a band name is not as important as the music that you will eventually make. I had always believed that whatever name we would have decided to use mattered less than our songs and our sound.
I trusted that our music would eventually define our name and not our name defining our music. Looking back at the years and albums past, I’m proud to say I think we’ve come to achieve that.
Apparently, only Ian fails to realize that Sinulog was less than 2 weeks away. Cebu's biggest festival, the most colorful and the best attended is a weeklong celebration with the culminating parade on the third Sunday of January. And with the traditional festivities come lots of events and, yes, gigs. So instead of arranging our new songs, we agree to review our set instead. Rightly so, we all agree, if we were to put up strong performances. Sinulog shows are traditionally the grandest, so there.
For now, we've been booked for three gigs on the 15th, which is the eve of the Sinulog. The first is a short set at the Baseline Complex where we do a gig for "Amped", the local TV show. The second is an outdoor concert at the Ayala-FGU grounds with River Maya. And the last is a set at the "Veranda" which is, for the moment, the "in" hangout in Cebu. A small but cozy place that is always packed on weekends. Should be fun.
This will be the first Sinulog for the band with the new lineup. Which brings me to recall with some amusement the last gig of the old Sheila and the Insects.
This time last year, Ian and I finally got around to agreeing between ourselves that we had to quit our band and build a new one. We had gotten tired of playing the same old covers. Who wouldn't? Okay, half the band didn't but there's more to it than that. But lets not go into the painful details. Anyway, Ian and I got around to realizing that we both wanted to play and promote our own songs primarily instead of just throwing in one or two every set. Sometimes, none at all. How could we build a name for the band that way?
Okay, arguably, things were different for us here in Cebu. In Manila, we did all original sets, practically all the time. Cebu, it could be argued, had a different crowd. We had fallen into the trap of thinking that's just how things were, forgetting in the long run that if things were to change, it had to start with the us and not with the crowd.
It wasn't all for lack of conviction though. In fairness, we had started out and built our band from obscurity up to our current status by playing covers. Our own songs had to take the backseat. The conditions back then when we had started just weren’t right.
Anyway, after long talks between beer sessions, Ian and I discovered we both wanted to end it all and start anew. This was last year. Secretly, we agreed to just stay on with the band only until the Sinulog, quit, and then just take it from there. We played our very last set at the Fuente Osmeña, Cebu's most popular converging point and a landmark in itself. It was a huge crowd and packed tightly towards the stage. The thrill of playing for a huge crowd is totally indescribable. You get such a kick out of it; I'll admit that much. But walking away from the big stage with my guitar slung on my back with Ian was the biggest thrill for me that night. After all the pent up frustration, we were finally walking away from it all and into a, then, unknown future. But a much more exciting future however uncertain it had been.
This year, things will be decidedly different. Our last scheduled show this coming Sinulog weekend is the one at "Veranda" which is a very small place. One that, I estimate, can only pack in less than 50 people at any one time. A far cry from the thousands that had watched our last gig at the Fuente Osmeña. We'll be playing our own songs, and maybe throw in a cover or two just for kicks. The complete exact opposite of our 'final' set last year.
I will be playing my own songs to a packed room instead of old, tiring covers to thousands in a packed oval. Yet for all the disparity, this is exactly what I chose. And I’m completely thrilled.