IV Of Spades’ Zild Benitez on solo album ‘Homework Machine’: “I put excellence above perfection”

The bassist lost a bit of himself amid Spadesmania. Now, on his solo debut, he fleshes out his own “childlike” vision

It was one of those days. Zild was killing time, listening to a podcast featuring two of his heroes: The 1975 frontman Matt Healy and ambient collagist Brian Eno. Healy was asking Eno to elaborate on his metaphor for band chemistry, to which the sound artist said that steel is basically iron with 2 to 4 per cent carbon added. Though the latter may account for just a sorry fraction of the whole, “it’s that little tiny bit of carbon that makes the difference”.

The erstwhile IV Of Spades bassist, who just answers to his first name these days, attempts to parse the metaphor: “You may contribute a great deal to everything – songwriting, production, branding – but it won’t be the same without that 2 per cent.” Was Zild carbon to his band’s steel? Maybe, maybe not. The group continues to be a looming ghost – never mind that two years have passed since singer Unique Salonga bowed out, or a month since the surviving trio have announced a break.

The 23-year-old musician has gotten over it – or at least he’s beginning to. And what better way than through a solo record? He first teased ‘Homework Machine’ around his birthday in April, purportedly giving himself a three-month deadline, as you do with homework. And he was able to turn it in by August (with honours, if we’re being fair).

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It was the first time Zild had done anything in public without his usual conspirators, and it was both liberating and terrifying. “In a band, you’re like parts of a robot; you’re not really you. With this, my name’s on the line,” he says of his first solo release, which is a pointed departure from the musical idiom of his well-loved band.

“As a kid, it’s hard not to get affected,” he says of Spadesmania. “And in the middle of all of that, I kind of lost of who I am. Now I’m slowly drifting back there.” Zild sounds helpless but not hapless, almost like he’s belatedly mourning his late teens. He’s drifting back to peace, for sure, which means rethinking his musicality and creativity. It won’t be a return to infancy but even further back, to conception: devoid of impulse, influence, and intellectualising.

You can easily point out that space on a map of Zild’s life: It’s in the influence of his father, who used to drum for Hungry Young Poets and Barbie’s Cradle. It’s in the time he joined Music Hero with Spades guitarist Blaster Silonga, because they needed 10,000 pesos to buy tickets to a Panic! At The Disco and The 1975 show in Manila. “Our allowances weren’t enough, and Blaster and I weren’t the type to ask our folks for money,” he recalls. They didn’t even want to win – it seemed like a long shot – but they did anyway.

And then they just kept on winning.

Zild, alongside Salonga, Silonga and drummer Badjao de Castro, slowly amassed a frenzied following with each single, appearance and show. But the band’s peak is easily the release of ‘Mundo’, a live performance of which has clocked in north of 120million views on YouTube. The IV Of Spades foothold was further secured with their debut ‘Clap!Clap!Clap!’ in 2019. Theirs was a funky brand of guitar pop, and apart from providing persistent earworms, they also filled a gaping void in the scene: technical mastery. At a time when having mad skills had become passé, Zild and his cohorts delivered.

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“When I became a musician, it was partly like school: like learning how to read or write,” he says. His upbringing was “instructional, technical, and theory-based” and he used to have a ravenous appetite for Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report and Chick Corea, among other virtuoso heavyweights. “What I learned, though, is that once those lessons are lodged in your subconscious, that’s the time you stop thinking about it.”

‘Homework Machine’, in some ways, is the sound of Zild no longer “thinking about it”. It’s the sound of a man with a formidable armoury at his disposal but goes instead for knives. And in any case, the pandemic has made that simplicity a necessity. “I think the greatest virtuosos no longer even think of the technicality of what they’re doing,” he muses, quick to qualify that he doesn’t count himself among those hallowed ranks: He’s all nerves onstage, overly conscious during solos, and just too damn insecure about the whole thing.

Just as well, because who needs chops when you’ve got chiptunes? The ‘Homework Machine’ songs have their own visceral immediacy: one informed by technical limitations, but also human ones. He did away with live drums, guitar solos, and – save for One Click Straight’s Sam Marquez on mixing detail – also people. The end result puts grit over great, and also bang over brain; it’s punchy in all the right places, imbued with pulsating electronic energy that doesn’t let up.

“All those things associated with Spades’ music, I avoided them. I wanted all the drums to be robotic-sounding, and I didn’t want deep words in the lyrics. I told myself I’d write just like a kid talking: a more childlike approach, not like a poet or anything,” he tells NME.

“In a band, you’re like parts of a robot; you’re not really you. With this, my name’s on the line”

Once more, he stresses the “childlike” framework, something we end up challenging: how much of this is in fact childlike, and how much is childish? There is, after all, a confrontational, almost illogical derring-do in tracks like ‘Sinungaling’ and ‘Dila’, countered by a sweet awkwardness in ‘Habulan’.

“OK, maybe it’s 70 per cent childlike and 30 per cent childish,” he estimates. After all, youthful innocence isn’t all there is to the new songs. Beyond the belligerent playground banter lies a very human, very flawed spirit.

In the end, Zild says, there’s something of him in those three specific songs: hypersensitivity in ‘Sinungaling’, passive aggression in ‘Dila’, and bumbling spinelessness in ‘Habulan’. “There’s Zild for you: a touchy, passive-aggressive wimp,” he says laughing. Despite the self-effacing litany, however, it’s clear that his first foray into electro-pop territory is the farthest thing from clumsy.

He knows it, even humblebragging a bit about wanting to finish ‘Homework Machine’ just for the sake of finishing it. “I don’t mean I went out of my way to make it suck; it was more, like, I put excellence above perfection,” he clarifies. And that seems to be the crux of the matter for ‘Homework’: context, both the creation’s and the creator’s. “Music was a saviour for me” when he was making the album, Zild says. “When my mind is idle, it just goes places. It was about surviving through creativity, rather than just being creative.”

Interestingly, part of the noise IVOS initially generated revolved around their fashion sense. The tweeds, paisleys and flares were period cosplay, but they also mirrored the group’s musical vibrance. Now on his own – but also in absentia because of the countrywide lockdown – Zild instead chooses representation over presentation, through 8-bit avatars of himself inspired by video games of yore.

He revels in the very idea of a constructed identity. He sees it in St. Vincent’s grasp of theatre in ‘Masseduction’. He sees it in David Byrne, whom he calls “an absolute cliché-breaker”. And he sees it in Björk, singling out the plasticity of something like ‘Army Of Me’, “like it wasn’t even people that played in it!”

“All those things associated with Spades’ music, I avoided them… I told myself I’d write just like a kid talking, not like a poet or anything”

“I think of a look like a hook,” he quips. “And what is a hook, anyway? It’s something you remember through repetition, like how Spongebob or Patrick Star always wear the same things, for example.”

The world depicted in ‘Homework’ may be unreal – with roll-on/roll-off environs, fake plastic trees, and a backdrop that’s all primaries and no gradients – but to Zild it’s strangely comforting, mostly because he gets to live life on his own terms. “I find that when you have more time for yourself, you get less insecure,” he smiles.

Whatever way Zild’s cartoon life goes, we’re confident it’s worth sticking around beyond the pilot for.

Zild’s ‘Homework Machine’ is out now

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