Former Eraserheads frontman Ely Buendia: “I had a chip on my shoulder for the longest time, and I admit now that it got to me”

The man once hell-bent on exorcising the past has now found peace with it – and he’s even got further plans for the Eraserheads’ catalogue

Ely Buendia wore masks pre-coronavirus. The former Eraserheads frontman is widely recognisable and deeply private, a rock star paradox that continues to plague him. Which is why he was doing grocery runs and banking errands in face masks, way before the pandemic came to Manila. “Now it’s normal, and I can blend in,” he quips from behind a laptop screen.

The Philippines has been notoriously vague about lockdown restrictions, but in mid-July, before the government called for a return to stricter quarantine measures, the musician was able to hit the road again with his motorcycle club, the Cruiserheads. With the wind in their face and the slithering streets to themselves, they knew it wasn’t quite as it used to be. They struck socially distanced poses for the shutterbugs, then ate at a restaurant with plastic partitions. These days, dining out means shrugging off the prison-visit set design. It’s an unusual time indeed.

“I was really excited to go out. And when I did, I didn’t feel weird at all,” Buendia tells NME, expressing some guilt over his elation. “I don’t want to come off as insensitive, but I’m really enjoying this time in my life.”

ely buendia night at the theatre
Buendia in ‘A Night At The Theatre’. Credit: Courtesy of Ely Buendia

The lockdown gave Buendia, a man long tangled in an awkward dance with fame, a reprieve that was more than welcome. Except when August swung around, he found his name hitting the headlines once more, when a talent contest mounted by a food brand awarded top honours to an alleged plagiarist who borrowed liberally from musical arrangements and creative treatments from Ang Huling El Bimbo: The Musical, a production that heavily features the music of The Eraserheads, with both his blessing and admiration.

If that sounds like a messy knot, it’s only partly the syntax. In many respects, the grammar of Pinoy rock is informed by a map of tangents with Buendia’s work. From theme songs for adverts to t-shirt rights to telco tie-ups to, yes, musicals, his work with The Eraserheads – divorced in 2002, briefly reunited for shows in 2008 and 2009, followed by a string of dates abroad – is a horse that refuses to die.

“You have to sift through the noise, but it’s hard when that’s all you hear,” he says of his former band’s massive success. “I had a chip on my shoulder for the longest time, and I admit now that it got to me.”

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Credit: Owen Reyes

Nowadays he’s not the biggest thing ever, hasn’t been for a while. And without asking him, you just know he’s OK with that. He made his bones in his early 20s, and not in any half-assed way. But hindsight is a blessing, and while he’s enjoying the reaping, he’s also treading lightly around that legacy.

“Post-Eraserheads, I was subconsciously being defensive, and there was an entire decade of me trying to do that,” he says, alluding to his work with The Mongols and early Pupil, both clear diversions from the hummable candy that permeated the ’Heads catalogue. His detour to funk and soul territory with Apartel, moreover, proves he’s not out to relive old glories. “I don’t regret any of it, because it’s part of my creative journey: to go against type and prove that I can do something else.”

On the subject of going against type, Buendia gets a different skip in his stride. He starts speaking of the late, great Marlon Brando, whose lifelong creed was to push the envelope.

“His approach to a lot of things, including the business side of the craft, was quite unexpected,” Ely says, trailing off to discuss how Brando would, for instance, refuse to memorise lines and hide cue cards in strategic locations to get through a take. There’d be cards slipped through slits in the ceiling, and he’d look up at them while the cameras rolled. Brando, in the end, would pretend to be in deep thought, looking up.

“He said real people never know what to say anyway. They take time to think about it. So, whenever he looked like he didn’t know what to say, he was actually being more realistic.”

“When you’re riding [a motorcycle], you’re a nobody, and that’s one of the best parts of it”

Writing about the actor’s turn as Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the author John Lahr compared Brando’s onstage presence to jazz, saying, “The notes were there, but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him.” The same kind of mercurial intensity – for a role that was meant to be played with more explicit brashness – was eventually seen on the big screen.

To Buendia’s mind, Brando’s plum reputation was a rare triumph of concession and compromise. “That’s the toughest act: to be true to your art, but also cognisant enough of the world out there. You have to be able to adapt,” he says.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ely Buendia

His own stellar discography is testament to this heady friction, but no matter the circumstance, he always stood by the work, reception be damned. In reality, the early releases of The Eraserheads left much to be desired in terms of production. But it was the band’s breakthrough debut, 1993’s ‘Ultraelectromagneticpop!’, that turned local music upside down. It was Manila’s ‘Nevermind’, but in place of seething rage, it carried collegiate, tongue-in-cheek, novelty-tinged tunes. For once, a local success didn’t mirror what was in vogue overseas. And if you’re a Filipino living in the late ’80s and early ’90s, you’d know that’s no small feat. Diehards would often refer to ‘Ultra…’ reverentially: a lightning timepiece that Buendia, along with drummer Raymund Marasigan, bassist Buddy Zabala and guitarist Marcus Adoro, would never quite recapture in later outings.

The trouble was, despite its unassailable songcraft, ‘Ultra…’ sounded awful. The snares sounded like tin cans, there were no lows to speak of, and the guitars were imprecisely tuned.

“There was a point in my life when music was a heavy burden”

So a quarter of a century later, as an act of corrective curation, Buendia would spearhead its digital remastering and vinyl reissue. And no less than decorated mastering engineer Bernie Grundman – who worked on landmark albums such as Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court And Spark’, and U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’, among countless others – would helm the sessions.

Buendia once said he was relieved that Grundman was “open-minded” about this odd-sounding record. The studio legend, he explained, treated any material that landed on his doorstep not as songs or notes, but as a web of frequencies. “Of course, it was always tempting to ask his opinion, but I wisely thought better of it.”

The limited vinyl reissue was a hit, and copies reportedly sold out on the day of the launch, on November 24, 2019. In a matter of weeks, resellers would start emerging, hawking the now-prized artefact at exorbitant prices, going up to as much as US$300 – ironic for a release that even its chief architect found more than wanting.

“Much as I hate it, I do recognise its importance. The fans love it, and I respect that. I’ll put as much love in this anniversary release as a mother loves her ugly child,” he joked, deadpan, the last time we talked.

The logical thing was, naturally, a follow-up. ‘Circus’ came out a year after ‘Ultra…’, and it depicted a band more certain on its feet, armed with songs that married youthful levity with a restless depth. In cuts like ‘Magasin’, ‘Minsan’, and ‘Alapaap’, there was an unmistakable vitality that was enough, 25 years ago, to have crooners and balladeers shaking in their boots.

“The concern during ‘Circus’ was, mainly, that we had to hustle in terms of recording. We had so much material and we wanted it all out; in fact, it almost became a double album,” Buendia recalls.

This time around, the singer took on the task of remastering ‘Circus’ himself for the digital reissue, which came out on November 15, 2019. “We just didn’t have the time [to have Bernie do the digital reissue], and I wanted to have something by the time the anniversary happened. People had other efforts to commemorate it,” he offers, conscious that anything related to the band was open season. As we speak, arrangements for a projected mid-2021 vinyl release are already underway.

Despite his initial misgivings about associating himself with The Eraserheads’ body of work, the man has now made peace with the past. He plays solo sets filled with singles and deep cuts, masterminds efforts to institutionalise the material, and gets behind projects that, in the intervening pre-reunion years, he wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole. With the noise now dead and the craze arguably over, life was no longer a circus, and he could look back on the memory with cautious optimism.

Break-ups can do that to you.

ely buendia offshore music eraserheads
Credit: Owen Reyes

There is a popular Eraserheads tune from 1995 called ‘Overdrive’, which lists road destinations the protagonist wants to visit. Each line features a locale, dish or activity popular among natives. The big irony, of course, is that the guy in the song doesn’t even know how to drive.

It’s a stark simulacrum of Buendia’s headspace then. Considering his old band’s Beatlesque stature, mobility was a rare to non-existent luxury. Theirs was a world of airports, hotel rooms and dingy holding areas.

Nowadays, while certainty has been rendered limp by a deadly virus, Buendia is enjoying a newfound clarity. He’s label head to Offshore Music, which makes him his own boss for once. And before working from home was a thing, he worked on said label’s releases from his home studio Crow’s Nest, in varying capacities: Seedy And The Years’ ‘downshift’, a follow-up Cheats collab called ‘Plunder My Heart’, Ena Mori’s self-titled EP and Pamphleteer’s debut album [Ed’s note: The writer is a member of Pamphleteer]. And that was just the past five months.

And just a few months ago, on June 20, he released a limited vinyl edition of ‘Full Flood’, his soul band Apartel’s second record. It sold out the week it hit the shelves.

“There was a point in my life when music was a heavy burden. But now it’s fresh again, and I surprisingly still enjoy it!” he says, almost audibly thrilled. “I do find satisfaction and fulfilment in what Offshore Music has become. It was organic. It was unplanned. And to me, that’s how most things in my career happened.”

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Buendia on his Harley. Credit: Courtesy of Ely Buendia

And to further sweeten the deal, he’s finally found a ‘lifer’ motorcycle (a Harley Forty-Eight) after years of wanting to buy “every bike in sight,” and he’s enjoying some measure of anonymity while riding it. In fact, it’s the riding that’s made the anonymity possible. When he’s on the saddle, after all, he remains masked, which means he’s faceless and nameless: “When you’re riding, you’re a nobody, and that’s one of the best parts of it.”

We bring up Dylan, Dean and the enduring romance of the road. But in the end, Buendia says he just appreciates the speed, the views and the company. Like a real rock dad.

“It’s like riding a bicycle, but with a rocket attached to it! I think the only thing that’s stopping people from pursuing it is fear,” he says. A very real fear, incidentally, we wanted to add, but thought better of it. All the best ones never listen anyway, and we kind of need them to be that way. We’re certainly all the better for it.

More info on Offshore Music here