Monday, September 26, 2011

ROBIN RIVERA: The Eraserheads Album Producer Reveals the Secrets of the Classic Albums

ROBIN RIVERA: The Eraserheads Album Producer Reveals the Secrets of the Classic Albums
Categories: Features
Posted on February 23, 2009

From the electronic pages of our content partner Pulse.PH comes part two of writer Aldus Santos’ profile on Robin Rivera, the professor-turned-record producer who worked on all the Eraserheads albums. In this installment, Robin peels back the layers to reveal the recording techniques behind the classic albums. Robin Rivera also produced this band’s album.

sir robin rivera

Equal parts studio artist and logistician, Rivera always put emphasis on order and a rigorous program. He would invariably go, “Okay, Marcus, you have to work on this,” or “Ely, we’re gonna do this, so I want you to fix it already by the time you get to the studio.” Luckily, the producer shared, “When they get there, they already had an idea what they were gonna do. It was just a question of, ‘How fast can they execute their ideas?’”

The Eraserheads, needless to say, had very distinct personalities and conducted themselves very differently in the studio. “Ely would always come, and whatever he wanted to do, he had already broken it down to very, very small things. So, he would work on them one after another, these very, very little things. ‘O, what’s next?’ ‘I’m gonna do this guitar overdub.’ ‘Where in the arrangement are you going to do this?’ ‘Sir, it’s here, here, here, and here,’” he said of his singer and mainman, gesturing with his fingers like an agog child in a candy store.

On his drummer, he offered, “Raymund, because he plays drums—it was very hard to punch in drums—most of his performances were from beginning to end. They have to be practically in real time. Raymund, again, he does his homework, he knows exactly what he’s going to do—it’s just a matter of, ‘Can he pull it off?’ [For] each drum part, we’ll do about three, four, five takes. Usually, by the fifth take, he’s happy with it. I just wait ’til he says, ‘Sir, that’s the one!’”

His bassist, because of his proficiency, perhaps necessitated the least amount of looking-after, and he shared, “Buddy, every time he does a repeat, there’s very little variation.” On his beachnik guitar player, meanwhile, “Marcus naman is the opposite of Ely. Marcus doesn’t break things down to small, neat pieces; usually, it’s one big thing. I remember when we did ‘Maskara’ from Carbon Stereoxide. He showed up with this really big idea: ‘Sir, I’m going to play the entire rhythm guitar part backwards. I really practiced hard for it.’ ‘Bahala ka.’” The low-profile frontman of Markus Highway was, in his heyday, utterly unpredictable, to say the very, very least. “’Pag ganyan, you flip the tape over, and what you hear from all the previous tracks is backwards. So, you have to hear it several times before you know what you’re hearing corresponds to which section—just to know where you are! The time indicator was also baliktad, so we were computing,” the producer further elaborated on Makoy’s magic moment, emphasizing, “In Marcus’s case, it’s usually a very, very, very big idea, which, many times, makes it more difficult to pull off than what Ely does—pero, ‘pag nagawa naman, ‘Wow!’ It’s worth the trouble.”

As the boys grew in popularity, so did their creative restlessness. No longer were they simple Fender Stratocaster-loving college kids. They became, with the aid of Robin Rivera, one of the most envied studio bands in the land. From the naked, arguably lackluster aural quality of some of their earlier material—perhaps “Pare Ko,” most certainly “Tindahan ni Aling Nena,” in my opinion—they became the band to beat in studio wizardry.

“There’s one point, I remember—especially towards Natin 99—where, in addition to tape, we all had virtual tracks. They went to Japan, and they all had MDs, or mini-dics. So, they’d record at home, and we’d reload those into the studio systems. ‘Pag nand’yan na, ‘tsaka na lang mag-o-overdub si Ely ng mga stuff that was better done in the studio than at home—acoustic guitars, drums, stuff like that,” Rivera shared, exclaiming, “Anak ng tokwa, we were using twenty-four tracks on tape, and we were laying back at least twelve more into the computer, so we were running anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight tracks per song! It was really quite amazing. ‘Ang daming gamit, o!’ And this was before PCs, ha. I can’t walk on the floor anymore because there was so much stuff.”

With the technology, of course, came the subtle decline in human interaction, prompted in part by geography. “At that point, they weren’t living together anymore. Dati kasi, they all live within four to five blocks of each other at U.P. Village. But, siyempre, at one point, Raymund moved over to Marikina—he was renting a house with his brothers; Buddy was in another house in U.P. Village; Ely was in Teachers Village naman, because he had moved out of the apartment with Marcus. They weren’t living that closely to each other anymore,” the teacher recounted, emphasizing the great leap in his boys’ circumstances, whereas, “Dati nga, eh—I remember we used to record Mondays and Thursdays yata—Ely and Marcus had the same coding day, Wednesday. I’d pick up Ely first, then Marcus. Dadaanan ko sila, tapos gigisingin ko na sila.”

Indeed, the narratives gave way to free association, and the organic gave way to the constructed. By the sunrise of Sticker Happy, the garage charm of the ‘Heads will be replaced with a much disembodied, almost alien-like sensibility. By Natin 99, that quality would reach even greater heights. However, the ‘Heads weren’t noise artists, nor were they peddlers of dissonance, and their penchant for memorable melodies and turns-of-phrase remained intact.

“People knew that they were already living apart from each other, and maybe you might get that impression, listening to the records,” Rivera guessed. “However, if you listen to the recordings alone, the objective was always to make it seem like everything was originating from one place. That was always my target. Eventually, they were able to set up their little studios at home, and that took over.” As Carbon Stereoxide swung by, it was getting clearer that, not only have the Diliman lads grown in songcraft, they have also developed as studio artists.

However, their celebrated producer shared, “To me, [my role] has stayed pretty much the same. The thing with the Eraserheads was that we recorded so many albums together that, by the latter albums, I didn’t have to tell them anymore what to do. They sort of knew already, eh.” The good professor, who around this time had just started work on his doctorate degree, would have two to three voluminous , er, volumes in the studio. As he flipped through the pages, he would be swathed in the ‘Heads’ technical banter, and he was like a confident parent letting his children loose without any fear of broken limbs or broken china, so to speak.

Needless to say, Robin Rivera had enough academic detachment to appreciate how his most popular clients became not only a phenomenon, but a standing metaphor for a well-lived life as well. “Each album has some connection to what they were going through. Ultra, Circus, and Cutterpillow were the adolescent albums. These were the albums in which you see, most of the themes are all those which happen to people who were experiencing adolescence,” he opined on the ‘Heads’ first triad of releases, continuing, “Pagdating ng Fruitcake, that was another part of their lives: they weren’t kids anymore. They wanted to do something a little more ambitious—something that still had something whimsical, but still had something different.”

“Pagdating ng Sticker Happy,” he offered of their genre-bending release, “they began traveling. They were beginning to see the world; they were getting older. Those songs had something to do with discovering new territories.” He offered the same dissection of Natin 99, saying, “They were experiencing new places, new technology—new this, new that. It’s something that only a twentysomething would write. Unfortunately, the people who started out with them—who were now actually twentysomethings—were more interested in clinging to their adolescence, because that was the part of their lives that was fun. Because, now, they’re working—and work is drudgery.”

“Mas lalo ang Carbon,” he stressed, “eh, nu’ng Carbon, parents na sila, eh! They were starting families. May burdens na, eh.”

As for the group’s dissolution? Well, all good things come to an end. “People started having their own lives. The fans had their lives to live also, so they stopped their dependence on the ‘Heads.” On a more positive note, he added, his brows meeting midway in the depth of his forehead, the memories battling for room in the producer’s restless mind, “Music was never a burden to them.”


Please Transpose: Kris Dancel and the Eraserheads

A good read about the Eraserheads AFTER Ely Buendia.

Please Transpose: Kris Dancel and the Eraserheads
by Aldus Santos


I am at my favorite Filipiniana-themed restaurant along Kalayaan Avenue, yet, somehow, it feels like the train at a dead hour, and I keep straining for the security guard's whistled warning; after all, it appears like I have accidentally stepped into the ladies' portion of the train. My peripherals tell me that's Earnest Zabala at the head of the long table that's otherwise empty, save for her and a friend. In a matter of a few minutes, artist Cynthia Bauzon-Arre will arrive, husband Arnold Arre in tow. In a matter of a dog's tail-wag, decorated bass player Myrene Academia will also step in, all smiles. And, as if on cue, the woman I am meeting: Kris Dancel, singer-guitarist for Cambio, Duster, and, most notably, Fatal Posporos. Old wood and yellowing portraits abound at the resto, and, because of the vaguely antiquarian interiors, teleportation (or, to some degree—though imagined—time travel) is on my mind: tonight's dramatis personae feels like a modern recasting of Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits with its strong women—Nívea, Blanca, Alba, Clara—and it is making me feel small. The song in my mind right now, for obvious reasons, is that one by Space, the one that goes “The female of the species is more deadlier [sic] than the male.” Lest I reference to oblivion, it needs to be said: these great, strong women have one thing in common—they were, in one way or another, connected with the Eraserheads. Kris Dancel, as a matter of fact, was one.

kris dancel

The Eraserheads were, as usual, touring their then-current record, 2001’s Carbon Stereoxide—which, by all accounts, was nothing like the sunny Eraserheads of yore. On the creative front, the band was as restless as ever, but, on the personnel front, things have been going a little haywire. And then, that fateful day came, and, when it did, Kris Dancel was being a wife and a mother. “Nakikipaglaro ako sa baby ko, and then, nag-ring 'yung phone, and Vin answered it; it was for him, the call. It was Raymund, or Buddy, or maybe both of them—I don't remember—but, anyway, they were asking for advice [on] what to do, kasi umalis na daw si Ely sa grupo,” she recounts from seven years back with visible effort, continuing, “And, of course, Vin, hearing the news, he didn't take it silently: 'Ha? Umalis si Ely sa 'Heads?!' Siyempre, medyo violent 'yung reaction niya, 'di ba? Which is, narinig ko. So, sabi ko, 'Okay, sige, ako na lang 'yung papalit.' Siyempre, I was kidding; I wasn't serious.” There was panic at the Dancel household. These are their friends, and their mega-selling band was practically on life-support. The man of the house, at a loss for words, relayed his wife’s quip to Marasigan and Zabala, “Ha-ha, sabi ni Kris, siya na lang daw 'yung papalit.” A bit of dead air, and then, “Siguro, less than an hour later, tumawag uli sila, sabi, 'Sige, Vin, punta na kayo dito.' Kukunin na nga daw nila ako!” you can still hear Kris shriek, adding, “and, as a fan, kahit sinuman 'yun, kung i-o-offer ka na maging part of that band, hindi ka naman hihindi, eh, 'di ba?” She challenges, “If you receive that call, would you have refused? Hindi, eh! So, 'yun, I accepted the job. In a way, para akong napasubo, pero, in a way, okay din, Masaya; sobrang saya.”

Kris was no stranger to the scene, being the frontwoman of then-burgeoning band Fatal Posporos. However, her good fortune also translated to a delicate situation. It was, after all, Ely Buendia who left. She had no time to seriously sink her teeth into this scenario, however, because, “When I stepped in, trabaho agad siya, kasi may commitments at gigs na agad, eh. Siguro, I had about two weeks to study, like, thirty songs. Nakalinya na 'yung mga gigs, and, in fact, they wanted me to play a gig three days after the call. Gusto nila akong isabak na agad! It was a busy environment. Okay naman sila, very helpful, et cetera, et cetera. Pero, kumbaga, I started working agad.” When this new Eraserheads lineup debuted at the Hard Rock Café, the band was shaken but very, very excited. Kris shares, “Si Raims—may video nu'ng first gig, eh. Kita 'yung reactions nila. Si Marcus, 'yung reaksyon niya, 'Ang haba naman ng slit nito.' [laughs] Mahaba raw 'yung slit ko! Hindi raw siya sanay na ganu'n 'yung kasama niya onstage. Tapos, naaalala ko, nabuhos ni Raims 'yung beer sa drums niya, tapos sabi ko, 'Kaya pala malagkit 'yung tugtugan!' 'Yun 'yung mga natatandaan ko.” “Hindi siya, kumbaga, shinowbiz—I don't remember it being like that,” the singer-guitarist adds.

“'Yung songs naman—since binubugbog na rin naman namin sa practice—ayos din naman. Singing and playing guitar—hindi naman siya alien to me at that time, kasi I also do that for Fatal Posporos. And, the Eraserheads songs, hindi rin naman sila alien,” the lone female Eraserhead in Pinoy rock history recalls. However, her femininity—which of course brings along physiological, and, consequently, musical issues—brought on some minor changes in the band’s dynamic. “Pr-in-actice namin sila [the old songs] in my key. Same progressions naman, transposed lang—pero hindi pa rin siya super-natural,” Dancel shares with no hint of apprehension. Transposition, in music, merely involves a horizontal shift in the key a performer would play a piece in. If, say, “Magasin” was sung by Buendia in the key of C (C, E-seventh, A-minor, F), Kris, I’ll venture a guess, probably sang it a whole step higher, in the key of D (D, F-sharp-seventh, B-minor, G). In more general terms, however, to “transpose” would equate to putting something in “a different order,” as with rearranging words within a sentence. A new set of songs was, therefore, in order.

Kris remembers, “Ginawa namin 'yung Please Transpose as a songwriting exercise for the band, to see how we would work together. EP lang muna siya, kasi wala pa kaming label at the time. And then, hindi namin r-in-elease 'yung EP na 'to officially. What we did was, du'n sa rehearsal studio namin sa Thirdline, we invited friends, family, at saka 'yung mga record labels—to see the band perform, and, also, to give away that EP, para makita namin kung ano 'yung reaction nila. It was good.” Said EP even produced a modestly well-received single called “You Make Me,” as well as a supporting music video. Meanwhile, her life as a musician was drastically changing as well. While the Fatal Posporos existed in a low-key manner, the ‘Heads, naturally, couldn’t escape its superstardom, and they were always wanted in different parts of the country. Dancel was, naturally, nervous about the undertaking, because, mainly, “First time kong sumali sa banda na super-duper legend—Eraserheads 'yun, eh. Kasi, iba 'yung audience ng Eraserheads, eh. Para kang batang itinapon sa dagat na maraming pating—'O, sige, matuto kang lumangoy!' Ganu'ng klaseng kaba: na, any moment, p'wede kang kainin ng pating.”

With beauty comes terror—I forgot who said this—and the whirlwind excitement was coupled with a polarizing backlash on the fan front. However, Dancel was unperturbed, saying, “Ang hirap isipin pa 'yung mga externals na ganu'n. I wanted to focus on the music, 'di ba? Nakakahiya naman sa mga tanong nakikinig, at nakakahiya rin sa bandmates ko! [laughs] Siyempre, mas concerned ako sa iniisip ng bandmates ko, kaysa sa kung ano'ng iniisip ng audience. Kasi, 'yung nga may ayaw naman sa band, 'di na rin naman sila nanonood masyado. Pero, du'n naman sa mga nanonood, na-notice ko rin naman na, you only had to sing one line, tapos kakantahin na nila 'yung the rest. So, it's really the songs din; may power 'yung songs ng Eraserheads—sobrang catchy nila, sobrang nakadikit na sila sa ulo ng mga tao.” As for occasionally bumping into the man he replaced, “Even before he left, hindi kami masyadong nag-uusap [ni Ely]. Natatakot ako, eh, parang may fandom [pa rin] ako, eh. Hindi ko alam kung ano'ng sasabihin sa kanya, even before. After, ganu'n din. Nahihiya rin ako sa kanya, na-sha-shy ako sa kanya, kasi fan din ako, eh! It's slightly awkward, parang, 'Uy, ano ba'ng chords ng...?' [laughs] Hindi, eh, it's not right, eh! Hindi tama, eh! To make small talk naman, parang, 'Is there an elephant? Is there an elephant here?'”

Kris Dancel would be in the Eraserheads for almost two years, and the band would gradually morph into what is now known as Cambio. Sugarfree’s Ebe Dancel, her brother-in-law, will join them, as well as Monsterbot’s Diego Mapa. The name-change, however, was prompted by Marcus Adoro’s decision to finally leave the band. “By the time na officially umalis na si Marcus, we understood, kasi, at the time, surfing mode siya, eh. Ang saya nu'n, eh—kung kami lang, marunong!” she shares, opining, “Nu'ng umalis si Marcus, medyo ridiculous nang gawin pa siyang 'E-heads,' kasi dalawa na 'yung wala.” Some people may have scowled at the thought of an Eraserheads being fronted by another person other than Buendia, but Dancel rose above it all, and, when it ended, she was able to take good things with her. “They're brilliant people, and they inspired people to be more creative. They inspire creativity; hindi sila selfish, never sila nagpaka-rockstar sa amin. Sobra nilang open and collaborative. Alam mo talaga na love nila 'yung craft, and they really have talent,” Dancel speaks of her colleagues with the glinting eye of a rabid fan. The ‘Heads were a band, after all, who, after over a decade of reigning the scene, seemingly had to start again. If the seven-song EP Please Transpose was to be any indication of their individual skills, however, it would be safe to say that they still ruled; they still sounded like a band that played, toured, and wrote nonstop. “You Make Me,” “Everything,” “I-centric,” “Lahat,” “It’s Not You, It’s Me”—as well as two transposed and rethought-of versions of “Paru-Parong Ningning” and “Dahan-Dahan”—these songs (most penned by Marasigan, some co-written with the rest), would have signaled a new era for the ‘Heads, in spite of the not-so-minor changes that the band went through.

“Dynamic sila; they're never stagnant. Sa sarili mo, you should always raise the bar—ganu'n 'yung attitude [na tinuro ng Eraserheads]. Wala 'yan sa number of albums sold. They're very human, very sincere. I feel that our circle of friends, sobrang dynamic. Lahat tayo, gumaling, eh! 'Yung Eraserheads 'yung nag-set nu'n, eh.”