Article first published on Popwire (our sister publication)
The Stoned Revivals are THE quintessential Singaporean band of the Nineties. Formed in 1990 as a four-piece band, they were influenced by an array of genres such as – Acid Jazz, Funk, Metal, Thrash, Punk, Madchester and Blaxploitation.
From record deal signings with Pony Canyon (Japan) to performing at the National Indoor Stadium, soundtrack features on Singapore’s 1997 breakthrough independent film 12 Storeys by Eric Khoo, the band had gained a reputation and fast following as the leading alternative band in Singapore.
The core band remains today with Esam Salleh (Vox/Guitar), Kamal Yacob (bass) & Syed Ahmad (Drums/Guitar/Keyboards).
Popwire’s Nez Senja interviews frontman Esam Salleh as he rolls back the years for a glimpse into the 1990s Singaporean music scene, the history and authenticity of The Stoned Revivals.
This is his curated Spotify playlist.
Hi Esam! Thanks for taking time out for doing this interview. How are you and how is Melbourne treating you?
Hi Nez, time flies! I have been away from Singapore for almost 14 years now. Some time 14 years ago, I was a mess coming out from a lost weekend that lasted 5 years. I then took a guitar, a bag of clothes, my last $450 and left for Kuala Lumpur. I went on a roller coaster ride of a lifetime with my soul mate Aimee King. We found our own tribe there and started DIY events with the help of a new found buddy Ethaya who just planted the seeds to his place Cloth & Clef in Changkat, Bukit Bintang. Our mini festival Disko Papan was a blast with a crazy mix of bands from both Singapore and Malaysia.
We were there for about 4 years before we bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne in 2010. We arrived at the peak of winter. Aimee, my then 6 month old son Ikkai and myself ventured into the unknown. I had my last $150 on me and Aimee had a card. I knew a friend Matnor, founder of Wicked Aura Batucada, whom I have not met for ages and my father in-law Gary lived about 5 hours away, that was it. We just rolled with it. Melbourne had music and fashion and that was pretty much all we needed at that point. Being nomads, we just went with the flow, started a new tribe, found a casual job within a month at a takeaway place called Sataybar. I worked hard and became the manager within two months and a co-owner within two years with the help of a friend from Singapore.
I then started my own non-profit organisation called Caveman Productions with my good bud Morgan O Brien in between grilling satay in Flinders Lane. We found means to give back to society through our gig series A Higher Ground which raised money for causes like Berry Street and Melbourne City Mission. All the earnings went to the charities helping abused children and homelessness.
Melbourne has been an interesting experience. Full of surprises, with four seasons in a day. That pretty much sums it up. As other places, it is a good mix of kind souls and not so kind souls. Choose your path, live it, and answer to no one but yourself. I am always hustling and I am always smiling. I have my wife Aimee and my two boys. As long as we stay healthy, all is good. You don’t really need much in life.
Let’s dive straight into the playlist and let’s go back to go forward…way back. There is one track in the playlist you sent me that isn’t on Spotify. Bengawan Solo by Oslan Husein. Of course, many know of this tune as a a old folk tune we learnt as kids in Singapore, no matter your ethnicity wherever you are in the region of the Malay archipelago or Indonesia – what draws you to this song?
Any early memories in your childhood, hearing this song for the first time?
There’s a story behind this song. This version in particular. For many years I was looking for the artist who sang this version, found it by accident and I found closure. My late father Salleh Suratman, who was a muso from the pop yeh yeh era was the one who taught me this version. Here is when it gets interesting. During the 60’s my young father and his blind buddy S. Jibeng randomly walked into my mom’s kampung armed with a beat up acoustic guitar. He had hair like Elvis, dyed red with inai, had on a black turtleneck, compulsory dark shades. He found a little ‘pondok’ (hut in Malay) and belted Oslan Husein’s version of Bengawan Solo. It was love at first sight for my mom Naimah. I dont blame her, my father had a golden voice. It wasn’t long before he sent his parents to ask for her hand in marriage.
This is when it becomes a bit like out of a Romeo & Juliet flick. They were from opposing tribes. Dad was Javanese. Mom was Baweanese/Bugis. The proposal was rejected. That night my rebel dad armed with a jack knife knocked on the door. He gave her dad two options. Let him marry the love of his life, or they elope. My grandfather gave in.
On their 52nd wedding anniversary, I recorded that same version of Bengawan Solo with my combo here in Melbourne at my mate Hum’s home studio. My sister Noraini recorded her vocals using two mobile phones, from where she lived in Germany. My niece made a collage video of their wedding pictures and we all flew in to surprise them. Syed Ahmad helped me master the track. That was my last gift for my dad. They had tears in their eyes hearing their love song sung by their children. Their marriage lasted for 53 years.
He passed away the way he predicted his perfect death to me when I was a kid – on his bed, in the arms of the woman he loves. It was mother’s day when he passed on. I was getting ready to fly to Hawaii to meet my mom in law when I found out about his passing. Within two hours I was on a flight to Singapore, alone. I told my son Ikkai, “It’s Mother’s Day. You have to be with your mom . Your mom has to be with her mom. I have to be with my mom.” It was the hardest thing for me to experience. I lost my hero.
I was too late for his burial. Dad was a rebel, a non-conformist. He had an eclectic music taste, taught me guitar, the blues and painting, to keep me out of trouble. He taught me never to conform, to go against the grain and to fight for the woman I love, just like him.
Man, I couldn’t touch the guitar for months after his death. I was a wreck. Painting helped me. I wasn’t going to go into depression. My family needed me. I picked myself up and carried on his torch. Bengawan Solo has a special place in my heart. It represents true love.
This version is done in the rockabilly style, sung in Bahasa Indonesia, and instantly reminded me of one of my favourite tunes from this era, Fat’s Domino’s Fat’s Shuffle which leans towards a more Rhythm & Blues style. What is your definition of roots, in music culture or ethnicity? Could it be appropriated for good, or often today appropriated and and sometimes in some instances regarded as offensive?
This was the only version that kicks me in the gut, because of the history behind it. I instantly get goosebumps whenever I hear it. If you are talking about roots, then this represents me as a whole. Without this song, my parents wouldn’t have fallen in love. My siblings and myself wouldn’t have existed. The great P. Ramlee was heavily influenced by Cuban music. His art was a homage to his influences back then.
I cannot understand why it could be regarded as offensive in any way. I think there’s a bulk of those in our current society that has become way too sensitive on certain issues that were never even thought of in the past. We complicate things and the smarter we think we are, the dumber we become. Damn, I might as well burn my Levis and T-Shirts. Wear batik and sarong my whole life, just so that no one gets offended.
Man, we bastardise whatever genre that we could think of because we love music. It has no borders. No boundaries. It is free. How do you define roots anyway? When I was in Singapore, I was just a generic minority Malay. When I moved to Malaysia, I was still treated as a minority because I was Singaporean. In that case, colour took a back seat and nationalism was forefront. But like I said, I found my own tribe in Malaysia. In the end it made me realise that roots doesn’t really matter, we are all human.
We get into some sixties groove as your playlist kicks off with The Swallows La Obe sung in the Bawaenese language. The Swallows was a pop yeh-yeh band from Malaysia and Singapore in the sixties. Was The Swallows an early inspiration for you or The Revivals musically?
The Swallows was more of an influence in my childhood. I remember as a little boy from about age 5 holding their cassette in my hands at my grandma’s place. That record Nga Lompak A Go Go was seminal. So many good songs. Being part Baweanese, of course it was a pretty popular on the playlist of things or whatever it was called back then!
Growing up in the late 70’s Chai Chee Avenue was really intense. I think it was known as the ‘Black Area’, ha ha! We had two riot police trucks on standby at the carpark on most days. ‘Black Coffin’ was a pretty infamous bicycle gang in the east side of Singapore I think.. yeah, bicycle. The music I grew up with was a crazy mix as well. I would lie down alone listening to records belonging to my many uncles, while my siblings were in school. I was about five or six..
T Rex, Uriah Heep, Sabbath, Deep Purple, BT Express, The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zep.. pretty much all of the classic records, I had them in the palms of my tiny hands. I day dreamed a lot, while listening to Highway Star and Stormbringer. I wanted to be a rockstar, in bell bottoms. My dad schooled me in the blues and pop yeh yeh. ‘Gotta live the blues to play the blues’. Damn he was right. His favourite band was CCR and Three Dog Night tough. I watched him sing a lot. We had musos dropping by to jam with my dad in the little box we called home. My fondest memories.
Big brother Azim got me into Pink Floyd and Queen. He got more into Billy Idol and The Romantics during the 80s. I loved listening to his jamming sessions on my walkman. My world changed when dad played Misirlou for the first time. He told me about Dick Dale. He said that someday this cool song will come back and I should cover it before anyone else did. A couple years later Pulp Fiction came along and I realised my old man was right.
Surf rock was always a big part of the Stoned Revivals early influences. I think it trickled from my early years of playing in a surf rock combo with my old man at age 13. Straight after school, I would head home and jam with my dad for hours on end. Dude would stomp on his Schaller Fuzz box, close his eyes and I was transported to another realm. When Stoned Revivals first started we wanted to release 3 demos . One indie, one punk, one thrash. Of course, we had no money being just out of school. So that idea got shelved pretty early. But it was pretty much anything goes from day one with the Revivals. Our jam sessions would have Dead Kennedy’s, Fugazi, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets.. Misfits.. Anti Nowhere League..
Your playlist does a sudden turn, to some metal from Celtic Frost & Post Mortem. You must be a metal dude?
In Siglap Secondary School my nickname was Esam Metal. Hahaha! I had the compulsory studs and patches on my school bag and I hung out with the older kids. We were those annoying kids with boomboxes at the back of the bus blasting Destruction, Kreator and Sodom. Sometimes we blast Iron Fist when the pre university jocks were serenading their girlfriends to More Than Words or Richard Marx on their acoustic guitar. Yeah I was one of those metal heads. I think it was a natural progression.
From classic rock like Scorpions, Whitesnake.. I moved on to Joan Jett, Queen, Dio, Judas Priest. My uncle got me into Iron Maiden and that whole British Heavy Metal explosion. I was a classic Mat Rock. My dreams involved corduroy pants, buckles and civil war hats. On Saturdays we got our boomboxes out on the basketball court in Opera Estate Boys School and blasted I Love Rock and Roll. I was 10. Then my buddy Imran passed me a cassette belonging to his older brother. The band was called Tyrant. The next thing thrown at me was King Diamond’s Fatal Portrait. We corrupted the hills of Fort Canning with The Candle on our boomboxes during a school excursion.
I was 12. It was 1986. In secondary one my classmate, a girl named Sharon passed me a cassette in class. She told me her brother hangs out in Haig Road with the metal heads and I should try listening to Destruction. Then she started passing me dubbed albums by bands like Sodom, etc. We got into Celtic Frost, Sarcofago, Ratos De Parao, Sextrash.. got into Japanese zines that featured local bands like Nuctemeron. Those were fun times!
How did your inclination to metal music affect the birth and formation of the Stoned Revivals? Paint me a picture of Singapore’s music scene in the early and mid nineties and right up to 1999 when Golden Love Songs from the Evil Island of the Handsome Tropical Cannibals was released.
The Stoned Revivals started as a side project between Kamal and myself in Siglap Secondary School. By then we were into the early punk stuff, besides metal itself. I was playing guitars in a rock band fronted by one of our classmates. They were all into soccer so naturally they were called Strykers.. a homage to Stryper. I was the last to join the band. I was not interested in soccer by then.
We had fun! First gig I was in a flannel shirt, donning a Public Enemy knockoff tee my mom bought me on her trip to Batam with her friends. I didn’t realise Stoned Revivals was going to be a full time gig. We roped in our classmate Matthew who was into the Grasshoppers. Introduced him to the Sex Pistols. He taught me mathematics, I taught him bass. My buddy Khairul was doing vocal duties as well. Kamal was on guitars. We bumped into a skater named Maazrin at East Coast Park’s McDonalds while blasting Goo by Sonic Youth on our boombox. We asked if he could drum. He said yeah and the rest was history.
Gigs were word of mouth. Passed around during recess period. It was precious information. You felt special. You didn’t belong in the normal scheme of things. You don your Doc Martens. You shave your heads. Just then, I saw Stompin Ground at Paya Lebar CC. Mindrape Protestants played as well. OP didn’t get to play. That gig changed my life. I had found my tribe. The Substation definitely played a big part during those days. BigO magazine was a wealth of information. Gigs were intense. It was a raw energy. Demos were precious. Pony Canyon (Japan) got into the picture, some bands got signed, some didn’t.
I started organising gigs in Singapore Poly with my buddies who studied there, Najadi and Sulaiman (Riot In Magenta). Saturday Night Fever and Solid Gold were two of the gigs we did.
We had a thousand in attendance and this was just through word of mouth. Flyers were passed around at gigs and to anyone wearing Doc Marts in Orchard Road.
We played countless gigs non stop, until one day Joe Ng stumbled across the band and funded our demo which opened so many doors. This led to movie soundtracks, radio hits, magazine features, the Indoor stadium.. stuff like that. It was fun and we got lucky. Andrew Ing from Zouk was a strong supporter of local acts. Bands played at Zouk at no cost. Free of charge. He was an unsung hero. We eventually jammed with DJs in Phuture on some nights and this led to playing the main room, including the show for our album launch. I think the 90s were cool. I mean I remember watching OP play Impending Death on prime time TV!
YOU MOVE INTO BRITISH MUSIC TERRITORY WITH THE BROODING PJ HARVEY AND THE TRIP HOP, DOWN TEMPO LUSHNESS OF ZERO 7. HOW DOES THIS DIVERSE TASTE IN MUSIC INFORM YOUR SONG WRITING BACK THEN WITH THE REVIVALS, AND TODAY AS A SOLO MUSICIAN?
First heard her on John Peel, after school. Just love her to bits. Bjork as well of course. She’s batshit crazy. It was never a conscious plan to sound different. It just felt right. To us that was normal. Dudes from the label didn’t know how to market us. We told them this was music from the future. No one listened of course. Look at how music has evolved now. MGMT pulled it off for a bit. I get bored easily, so I like to experiment.
In my free time, I throw random stuff like grindcore and funk together just for laughs, it’s fun. It’s therapy. I love Smoke City as much as I love Electro Hippies, Voivod, Exodus, Bob Marley, Diamanda Galas and Cliff Burton. In my garage, I listen to my dad’s old keronchong record collection and stuff by Rhoma Irama or DuoKribo.
More British flavours, with the acid jazz of Mother Earth’s Jesse. I reckon this was ‘nu’ in the nineties and had definitely influenced material of the Revivals. How was the process of incorporating acid jazz into the music within the band?
Kamal put on Jamiroquai’s Too Young To Die at the old record store he worked at. We locked the door, closed shop and danced . That was euphoria. Whatever was on our discman would eventually rub off on the band subconsciously. Bands like Corduroy, Phaze, Snowboy etc etc.. Man, we loved Acid Jazz. That and blacksploitation and 70s porno soundtracks. I mean you also have stuff like Stereo MCs, Digable Planets, Urban Dance Squad all in the mix.
Then comes along a band like Space, Super Furry Animals.. Ocean Color Scene..Catatonia..It’s all good stuff for me. On a side note Jellyfish was an excellent band, I think they were American though. Great songwriting. The drummer sings, like Jatt Ali and Don Henley. Mother Earth’s Stoned Woman was a classic. I think they were sampling stuff and eventually became a band.
Zouk played a bit part introducing the masses to quality electronic music, no doubt about it. Rave culture.. we kind of get immersed into it through Manchester bands I suppose. It was a natural progression. Drum and bass is definitely a personal favourite of mine. Of course we remember those Guerilla nights. Damn, they were dope. First time I heard Ladytron, Air and Groove Armada or even Concorde Dawn.. good stuff.
You get into newer music with Tobacco’s Human Om, which is a modern, digital sounding track. How does modernism and looking back to older styles of music inspire you as a musician today?
Black Moth Super Rainbow was a band I liked so Tobacco was a natural flow. I am always checking out new music. Can’t be that old man stuck in the 90s, haha! It’s come full circle though.. nothing is really original but most of the time updated with a fresh approach. The older styles come back subconsciously.. like a ghost from the past.
Being in Melbourne, you are spoilt for choice. New music all over the city. Being a father of two, I don’t have the luxury of checking out new bands these days. I guess listening to my sons on the bongos like a caveman is a lot like meeting a future primitive. I never push music to my kids. I just let them hear bits here and there. Let it happen organically, so to speak. My eldest loves old school hip hop thanks to mom.. he’s a B-boy. I am his Mat Rock father. We are oxymorons. I love checking out new bands from Singapore. Their fire inspires me. I just stumbled on this band CB Dogs.. pretty rad raw punk energy. Stellarium just came out with a record as well.. Kribo Records.. too many to mention.
What is on the horizon for you or the Revivals? Any chance of new material from the Revivals or a solo project idea? I know you busk and play music on the circuit in Melbourne, any great vibes from your current musical journey that may materialise into fresh Esam Salleh output?
We don’t really plan much these days, but good things are definitely happening on this trip. Besides the shows, we are trying to record an album, maybe two albums.. in the short time that I am in town, might be a split between Syed Ahmad and myself on one. I love recording with Kamal and Ahmad. There is that energy. Munir completes the circle. Nothing can compare to how we bond as a band we are family. A lot like blood.. a warm flow.
I have been writing songs and passing them around to friends, getting feedback from the old boys. We go a long way back so we can feed off each other and bounce ideas, it is nice. I have played non-stop since I moved here and I have only stopped two years ago to spend more time with my family and my newborn Keahi Rain. He is two now.
So I went more into busking on the streets. Formed an imaginary band made up of strangers I met while busking. They come and go. Most don’t even realise they were part of the band. I named the project The Makeshift Magick Band. We had a sitar player, a girl on accordian, a dude on double bass, a girl who can rap in a cartoon voice, emcees from a Sudanese hip hop crew, street punk on farfisa.. you name it, anything goes. Music is music. It’s all the same to me. There is good music and bad music. Over here we lug our gears. Amps. Drummers have a tough job, carrying their own drum set.. so you play hard and you don’t complain. Theres no pampering. It bonds you even more. Same same but different. Sometimes I can sing 11 hours non-stop with a few minutes of toilet breaks on the streets. It’s fun learning bladder control!
Thanks for your time Esam. It’s been an honour to listen to your playlist and doing this interview. Stoned Revivals was one of the very first Singaporean bands that influenced my ears, heart and soul and is still a big inspiration today. Thank you, Handsome Tropical Cannibal!
Thank you again for the interview! Thank you for being a part of and sharing our musical journey. Shout out to everyone in the lion city. See you soon…