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Drumming up a storm

SINGAPORE — The first thing you’ll notice when you watch Brandon Khoo bang the drums when he plays with Shirlyn & The UnXpected is: Boy, he’s a great drummer. The first thing you’ll notice when you talk to Brandon Khoo is that he’s not one to shy away from any topic you pose to him. He’ll tell you what’s on his mind in no uncertain terms.

Drummer Brandon Khoo says he isn’t going to whitewash what the music industry is like. Photo: Locke Hiah.

Drummer Brandon Khoo says he isn’t going to whitewash what the music industry is like. Photo: Locke Hiah.

SINGAPORE — The first thing you’ll notice when you watch Brandon Khoo bang the drums when he plays with Shirlyn & The UnXpected is: Boy, he’s a great drummer. The first thing you’ll notice when you talk to Brandon Khoo is that he’s not one to shy away from any topic you pose to him. He’ll tell you what’s on his mind in no uncertain terms.

Which is probably why he was asked to be a mentor for Noise Singapore’s The Apprenticeship Programme (TAP) this year. This year’s call for TAP apprentice entries ends on Feb 9, by the way. And Khoo said he’s going to tell his mentees “the honest truth” about how the music scene operates.

“I’m not going to tell people that it’s a beautiful industry to get into because it’s not,” he said. “I’m going to tell them the truth. That being said, it’s very fulfilling. You just have to be very careful. So I just want to prep them … for when they might fall, because ultimately, you’ll fall at some point in time.”

He added: “You have to pay your dues. Being a success is not something that happens overnight. The way I see it, this generation of musicians have all the tools at their disposal and they’re going full-on, but blindly.”

Khoo knows all about the pitfalls. He has been interested the drums ever since he was a young boy and he went through the highs and lows.

“I have been conned — if you want to call it that — a couple of times before, and I wish that I had somebody around to advise me, who told me, ‘maybe you shouldn’t do this’ back then,” he said.

After he completed his National Service, Khoo and his band, Aphelion, had signed up with a Chinese music company which had intended to groom them into a Chinese rock band.

“From that, it became rap-rock, and then rap. I was like, ‘this isn’t happening’, but we’d signed the contract already and it was a done deal,” he said. “And the guy who signed us kept coming up to me, saying, ‘Hey, I like your music, can I use it for myself’? So we suspected that he signed us just so he could use our songs for free. We were gullible enough to sign the contract without checking out who this guy was. You could say that I wasted that one year of my life, but I choose to think that I learnt a lot in that year. I guess things happen for a reason.”

Khoo served out the term of the contract and Aphelion carried on until 2003. After their last gig, he received a call from singer Shirlyn Tan, who was looking for a drummer to play with her band at pubs two nights a week.

“I was a working musician — and I’m very grateful to Shirlyn for roping me in,” he said. “And then I started getting offers to be a session musician and all that. And I learnt a lot along the way — like how much you should charge for your services, what price you should start with and all that — and I have remembered all these lessons till this very day.”

Khoo, who is an endorsee for renowned drum makers Mapex Drums, said that musicians should remember their worth. “If people believe in your work, they will pay for it — it’s as simple as that,” he said. “Nobody told me that last time, I’d take whatever people offered me — and they were not small fry — and they would undercut if you gave them a chance. But that’s the brutality of the music business. You can be good at what you do, but if you allow these people to undercut you, then you’re not going to survive for long.”

It’s these life lessons that he hopes to impart to the music mentees and he hopes that he can be an effective mentor. “This is what I’d like to be for the mentees. And I’d like to try to bring out their fullest potential as well. A lot of musicians don’t really come out of their shell and perform, with a capital P. It’s a show — whatever music you play — and you have to perform and entertain.

“There’s a difference between being a musician and being an entertainer. If you can be both, that’s the best combination.”

Q: So this whole mentorship thing…

A: I want to bring out the best in them – performance-wise – and to help them avoid the pitfalls of the music industry and try to cushion their fall as much as possible.

Q: But when these young musicians look at your CV – your gigs with all these cool artistes, your Mapex endorsement – they’re going to go, hey, I want to be like this guy too.

A: But you know, whatever I went through, has led me to this point, where I can talk to you, or rather, to the mentees about what has happened to me and go, “if you have a contract, let me see it” or take a second look, because most contracts are not signed on the first draft. That’s what a lot of people don’t know. So if someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I’ve been given a contract, should I sign it?” I’ll say, “Don’t let me see it, just ask for a revised contract”, because it’s not going to be their advantage anyway. This is something that I wasn’t told and I wish now someone had told me this last time. But as I said, it all happens for a reason.

Thankfully, I found other avenues to progress in the music industry. I realised that being a session musician was only one way to make it in the music business. Some people think being a session musician is the only way, but I choose to believe that the world has many avenues. Tap into each and every one of them as much as possible, and find your path. Yes, I had a few bumps and bruises – if I could have done what I did without falling, that would have been awesome, but I had to fall in order to learn.

Q: So let’s talk about your Mapex endorsement.

A: Actually, another brand offered me a contract, and they wanted me to endorse that brand. I asked them to show me the contract and for three weeks – nothing. Then one week before they were going to announce the Singapore endorsee, they gave me the contract. And I told them, “no”. They said, “read it first”. I read it and I said, “I’m not going to do it” - because the terms in there weren’t good. I told them that unless they are amended I’m not going to do it. And they said, “How can you do this, it’s only one week to the event. You are trying to sabo the event.” I said, “I’m sorry, I asked you for the contract before that and you had one month to send it to me, but you did not.” To send it a week before the event, to me, that is entrapment. A week after that incident, Mapex asked me to endorse their drums. I thought, “Woo!” So I said, “Please send me the contract”. And they sent it just like that. So I knew they were serious and sincere about it. And I so I decided to go with them. I mean, I played on a few Mapex sets before that, this was when they were just starting to make their mark here – previously it was always Yamaha, Pearl or Tama – but I’m happy that Mapex has turn the Big Three into the Big Four. I’m grateful to them because they take care of their artistes. When I went to Taiwan, the artiste relations officer took care of me and brought me around even though I didn’t ask him to. They arranged for me to go to NAMM (the annual music conference and market in Anaheim) as well. I like the fact that Mapex Drums does that and that’s what artiste relations is all about. Everything pretty much snowballed after that, with more endorsements: TRX (cymbals), Cympad, Cymbag, Audio-Technica (microphones), Heartbeat Drumsticks …

Q: In Singapore, do you see drummers coming more to the forefront? There are several really good drummers out there, but not many people – except those in the know – actually know about them.

A: I think there is a lot of potential for drummers – since we’re talking about drums – it’s just how you like to take charge of your drumming career. For instance, I like to think of myself as a musician, entertainer and businessman. I’ve seen those who are just doing it for the money – well, money is important but at some point, you have to think whether it works for you. I mean, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Shannon Hoon and all of them, are they still alive right now? Well, yes. Because there are kids today still going I want to be Kurt Cobain. I still hear Smells Like Teen Spirit or Purple Haze on the radio. So they’re very much alive. It’s having a legacy versus having the money straightaway. It’s a balance and how you take charge of your career. I went to this thing called The Sessions at NAMM. It’s a conference and people like Carmine Appice were there. The conference helped me so much, like how to market yourself. For example, things like do not use social media to rant. Nobody cares about what you ate today.

You know, record labels’ A&R people used to go to concerts to watch bands, not because they wanted to know how good the band was so that they could sign them up, but to see how many fans the band had. These days, A&R people sit at the computer and do a social media search for a band, they’ll see how much fans they have, they’ll see what, say, the lead singer is up to online. If he’s posting pictures of him drunk most of the time, they’ll say “forget it”. So you have to be responsible on social media. Musicians, do not use social media to rant.

And at this conference, one of the panelists asked, “Who played drums for John Lennon’s Imagine?” And nobody knew. And he said, “This guy” pointing to a middle-aged guy. And you know who he was? Alan White from Yes. Now, Yes is a prog-rock band, and Imagine is as far away from that as you can get. So another lesson I learnt was: Wear many hats. Don’t box yourself in. Play with as many people as possible.

Q: Well, you’ve played with many other musicians, not just The UnXpected. Any memorable ones?

A: The highlight was probably Kiko Loureiro from Angra, on Sep 15 – I can’t remember what year it was, 2004? But I remember the date because it was my birthday and Janet from Davis Guitar shop called me and asked me if I wanted to play for Kiko. I was like, “Yes!” I remember going to rehearsals with a grin from ear to ear. I was so happy. No, I didn’t charge him, or rather Janet, for my services, because it was a one-off and it’s Kiko from Angra! I mean, he goes round from country to country and gets the local musicians to play with him. Of course, if he had asked me to go on tour, I would have said, “Here are my rates…” Haha! So you have to balance it out. Use your brains. Sometimes people do things for the wrong reasons or ask for things at the wrong time.

Q: So how do you market yourself as a drummer?

A: To me, a drummer has so much to offer. As an educator, technician, performer, sessionist, you can market yourself in many ways. Of course, this marketing relies on Facebook, Twitter, social media, that’s why I have all that. And no, I don’t post rants. Sometimes I do post selfies – because I know people in other countries who want to know what I’m doing and it’s good to touch base.

Q: Are there any young drummers that Singapore should look out for?

A: Adam Shah. He has a lot of potential. He’s got a great groove, a real flair. His dad and mum are in entertainment so maybe there’s something there. But he is a drummer that I really like at the moment. Give credit where credit is due: Adam is getting a lot of gigs and he’s getting recognised. And I’ve heard him play – he gets the job done. Very well. Others like Tan Boon Gee or Soh Wenming too. I mean, they’re not that old, right? I think Adam has done quite well since he returned from his studies in Australia – with The Sam Willows, Vanessa Fernandez and Charlie Lim too, I think. There are a lot of reasons why people use him. One, you have to be easy to work with. Two, you have to know how to play to meet their needs. If he keeps this up, he can go really far.

Q: Have you told any of your students: Maybe drumming isn’t for you?

A: I don’t like to tell people you cannot play. Because for me, that’s unfair. To me, if you work hard enough, you can do it, doing whatever it takes. Maybe you can’t do it now, but you can find ways and means to accomplish it eventually. So it’s not fair for me to tell someone, “You cannot play drums”. It’s for that person to say, “I can play drums”. My duty is to educate you and bring you happiness playing the drums. As long as that is done, my job is done. I’m not about to say you can’t do that. If playing drums makes you feel good, then who am I to say you can’t do it? People come to me to help them release, let go, not think about work, just be happy – by playing the drums lah – and I’m not going to make them unhappy! If anyone tells another person, you are rhythm dumb or tone deaf, that’s really sad. To me, nobody is tone deaf. You can learn to keep in tune. After learning a while, you can do it. It’s muscle memory actually. You can do it. It’s a big social problem around the world, though. But no, I haven’t told anyone they can’t play. My duty as a teacher is to make sure they can play.

Q: So you still teach and you gig…

A: I’m still gigging with The UnXpected. I teach at The Music Academy and my own private studio – I teach every day. I play Thursdays and Saturdays at Wala Wala and Fridays at Hard Rock Cafe. But it’s quite difficult doing this all by yourself. I don’t have an assistant to help me manage my schedule. So it’s not surprising to see me wake up in shock and wondering who I’m teaching on this day. Yeah, I can be quite scatterbrain like that. I used to have a drum tech but he’s moved on: He’s now a pilot. He used to be my student and wanted to play drums for a living. He stuck with me for three or four years as my tech, but after while he figured that the whole entertainment thing wasn’t for him. Well, he had two dreams: To be a pilot and to be a drummer. He used to be hot-tempered and get into fights, but nowadays, he’s sending me pictures from Australia flying his Cessna. It’s a nice thing – my student remembers me. He’s doing very well in Australia. We still keep in touch. I’m very happy for him. I mean, look at him now! And that’s why I’ll never tell someone, you can’t be a drummer. Because if I had said that to him, he might not have become a pilot – he might have thought, I can’t do anything. So I say to people, “you can do it if you want to”. That is message to all my students. I don’t like to bring negativity.

Q: So what are you looking for in your mentees?

A: The natural potential to shine. I’ve seen people who had the potential but because other people told them otherwise, they didn’t realise that potential. Many musicians here go on stage and seem very quiet. I mean, I’ve come to watch a show. If I wanted just to listen to the music, I’d put on the CD – same thing, what!

Q: So you’d rather Keith Moon than Ringo Starr?

A: Er, if you put it like that. Ringo Starr is an excellent musician, very tasteful for his time. But if he were to come in fresh into today’s industry – and like Stevie Wonder too – they wouldn’t make it. The times have changed. The music industry is quite superficial. It’s different in Asia than in the US. In the US, you can be as large as Abe Laboriel Jr – and that guy is killing it. But he has an image with that. However, in Asia, it’s different. Looks unfortunately do count. If you want to break into the market, you need to get your foot in the door … then you can manage your career however you want.

Q: There are those who say that Singapore bands sometime like the ability to do a good show, despite them being great musicians.

A: Well, if you think about it, the last band from Singapore that gave a really good show was The Suns. The only other person that came close to them – although his approach was quite different – was Levan of Astroninja. There are few others who go all out like that. Well, Shirlyn too. But the rest are pretty safe.

Q: Can you learn to do that kind of show?

A: Of course. You have to realise that the stage is a stage. The moment you step on it, you’re somebody else. You’re whoever you want yourself to be. People pay money to watch you entertain them. People don’t pay you money to listen to music per se, because they can get from a CD. That’s why when I play live, I try to express it in a way that – and I believe Shirlyn has the same mindset too – you perform. That’s why I want to bring out the performer in the mentees. Because many times, people say “don’t show off”. But I say, “If you can do it well and make people smile, then do it”. At least one person who sees you will say, “That was awesome”. Even if you are a bit rusty. Of course, it has to be done objectively. And if you’re smashing guitars on stage, don’t do it with other people’s instruments! Use your own guitar!

Q: So what do you think of the music scene here? How can it be improved?

A: Let’s put it this way: Everyone has been telling everybody else that the music industry is good or awesome. No, it’s not awesome. I mean people are saying things like “Let’s create awareness for the local music industry”. That’s what we were saying 20 years ago and nothing came out of it. Please stop saying “creating awareness” and don’t brand the music from Singapore “local music”. Does it matter where a band comes from? How does that affect whether you like their music or not? The Oddfellows? They’re a rock band, or an indie band, or whatever. It doesn’t matter where they come from. “Creating awareness” - that term has been overused – since the ’80s. Creating awareness was what BigO magazine was doing when they started out. Now, more than 20 years later, why are we still “creating awareness”? That’s a problem isn’t it?

Catch Brandon Khoo at Wala Wala on Thursday and Saturday nights, and Hard Rock Cafe on Friday nights. The call for Noise Singapore apprenticeship entries ends on Feb 9. Visit for details.

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