Starting over

Not content with an award-winning career as an interactive designer, Singapore-based artist Sean Lam wanted to share his talent with ears as well as eyes. Co-founder of influential '90s band Concave Scream, Lam has moved on from angst and rebellion to discover the simple honesty of folk music. What started as an outlet for personal expression, soon became a project unto itself; the solo venture earning the title Hanging up the Moon due to the many late nights Lam spent recording. Coupled with Lam's unique visual accompaniments and collaborative input from old band mate Dean Aziz, Affixen's Victor Low and The Observatory's Leslie Low, Hanging Up the Moon is a complete package of lo-fi melodies and heart-felt lyrics, perfectly at home on Singapore's Kitchen.Label.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? 

As a child, I attended classical piano lessons. I never enjoyed it and always dreaded lesson time. I found it too regimental and technical. So much so that it killed the joy of music-making in me for many years until I was in my late teens.

I got really interested in making music after watching “Rattle and Hum” on the big screen with a close friend of mine. I remember there and then, we decided to form a band... never mind the fact that I didn't know how to play the guitar yet.

It wasn't until 1994 that I started writing originals with my first 'proper' band, Concave Scream. Prior to that, I was just a kid fooling around with a guitar and playing cover songs for school 'talent-time' events. I was naturally impressionable at that age and heavily influenced by post-punk groups like New Model Army and The Cure. The songs I wrote then were all rather angst-ridden and naive. I remember a line thanking “people that made us feel like shit...” listed in the credits of our demo EP.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?

Forming a band with friends and making our own music in the early 90s – and realising that there was actually a tiny receptive audience – was a key moment. Maybe it's because culturally, we didn't have much of a scene going on back then. The swinging '60s was the golden era for the music industry in Singapore, and it was downhill from there. In part, this was due to rock/pop music being seen as promoting 'undesirable activities' by the authorities then. We notoriously denied entry to rock legends Led Zeppelin not once but twice when they tried to perform here in the '70s,  just because they had long hair.

So back to the '90s... there was this buzz in the air, a feeling that local music was making a comeback, like an awakening of sorts. It didn't matter which genre of music one was making, but the fact that young Singaporeans were finally choosing to make their own music rather than listen to imports all the time felt really optimistic and encouraging. 

Up until recently, my involvement with music-making was experienced through the band as a collective. So when I started writing songs for myself as Hanging Up The Moon, that was definitely another key moment. In a way, I was really starting out all over again. From learning the software and rigging up a simple home studio to picking up the ukulele, everything was new-ish to me. However, I somehow felt as if I knew exactly what I was doing and was very clear-minded about the direction I was taking the music. The songs wrote themselves in a fairly short time and before I knew it, I had enough material to put together an album. 

What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?

I'm unschooled in music. I failed the above-mentioned piano lessons at grade 4 and forgot music theory altogether, so I've been playing and composing by ear all along. Because of this, I have difficulty recalling what I wrote and I often need a reference audio file somewhere to help me recollect the parts I played. I do wish to study music theory again eventually. 

Production-wise, I'm happy with my humble home studio set-up. I can't afford to soundproof it so the downside is that I can only record during certain quiet and ungodly hours of the day.

What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?

There is no real process. It all comes down to inspiration and the mood I'm in on a particular day. Sometimes, tunes and words just flow into my head and they are so clear that I can pen them down in a matter of minutes. Other times, I could be fiddling with my guitar the whole day and nothing happens.

The important thing for me is not to try too hard and to let the songs write themselves. I also consciously try not to work too much on a song. By trying to perfect something, a lot of feel is lost in the process and once that is gone, it's really not the same anymore.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

I'm intrigued by and have a huge respect for improv-art and artists, but I currently lack the courage and confidence to embrace it fully myself. I feel that I need to be more proficient with my craft before any honest attempt at improvisation can take place. Charley Harper, a Modernist artist that I admire, said that a painter needs to be able to put in the details before knowing what can be left out. I find that to be true and am old school in that way. 

I don't see the need to separate improvising and composing as long as the result is honest. Some riffs for my songs were born out of improvisation. I suppose it contributes to the composition in that way. 

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?

I see composition as the story that you want to tell. How you want to tell it and what emotions you want it to evoke from the listener, comes from the careful crafting of sound and well-judged use of space.  

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