Jun Lopito: “I never considered myself a rock star. I just try to survive”

The famous (and famously elusive) Filipino axeman has released ‘BODHI3NMRK’, his first proper album in 25 years. He tells NME about the crossroads in his long, storied career

While touring behind his landmark album ‘Bodhisattvas’ in the mid-’90s, Jun Lopito returned to the Magsaysay Strip in Olongapo City, where a decade or so prior, he was a working musician doing up to five hour-and-a-half-long sets a night.

To Lopito, Olongapo was like church, but by 1995, it was a crypt. The death knell had already been sounded for a few years as American bases shut, and with the advent of karaoke, it was ringing with finality.

Lopito – by this time a bona fide star touring behind an acclaimed debut album – realised this when he bought cigarettes from a street vendor, only to recognise him as a fellow guitarist from the naval base’s golden age. “He was one of the best slide players – a Lynyrd [Skynyrd] man,” he recalls now, shaking his head and belatedly bemoaning the demise of the ’Gapo scene.

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Jun Lopito’s stunning debut, ‘Bodhisattvas’, remains the centrepiece of his oeuvre. It boasted appearances from Joey “Pepe” Smith, Edmund Fortuno, Cocojam, Spy, The Jerks, and Grace Nono, among other serious local A-listers. It also garnered him nods from the NU Rock Awards and Awit Awards, but perhaps most importantly, ‘Bodhisattvas’ gave Filipinos palpable evidence of what was previously only stuff of legend: Lopito is dynamite, and like dynamite, the sparks can be quite quick.

“I didn’t know I was going to be a blues player. I thought I was going to be a pilot or a doctor”

To paraphrase Filipino rock critic Eric Caruncho, Lopito is the sort of musician everybody’s heard of but few have actually heard. That’s partly because after a frenzied run as the country’s premier six-string slinger, he practically went underground: Save for a low-key release of instrumentals and Buddhist chants between 2012 and 2013, Lopito’s followers didn’t hear so much as a peep from the man.

In 2014, a string of illnesses related to a Hepatitis C diagnosis almost took Lopito away from guitar-playing. His motor skills were shot, and for a good while, he couldn’t move his hands. For someone who’s routinely mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Beck and Keef, it wasn’t something to take lightly.

Years on, though, he brushes it off. “I always get sick. I’m a sickly guy. But being Buddhist, I looked at it as cleaning my karma. Whatever I did, I have to pay for it,” he says, proceeding to credit his Nichiren Buddhism practice as a way of “revolutionising ourselves”.

Afterwards, he caught a second wind by going on a self-imposed extended sabbatical in Puerto Galera, where he wrote most of his debut two decades back. The island served as a site of both recovery and exorcism for the musician, who has increasingly grown resentful of city life. He didn’t set out to write or play there, initially only heading to the island to fend off city friends peddling – let’s just say – unsavoury wares. “If you would be so kind as to excuse me, I would just like to kiss the waters. I just want to be alone for a while,” he wanted to tell all of them.

The guitarist relished the anonymity. On the island, he could pick up the guitar outside the milieu of a rock show. People addressed him in with the same way they addressed the fisherfolk. And anyway, Lopito says, “I never considered myself a rock star. I just try to survive.”

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Back at home and reenergised, Lopito would, with little to no fanfare, release back-to-back singles from quarantine earlier this year: the introspective guitar-and-piano number ‘Moonflowers’ and the Stones-style rocker ‘Sagala Girl’. And unbeknownst to many, he reconnected with Offshore Music label head Ely Buendia – an old BMG labelmate he toured with during their parallel career peaks – to cut ‘BODHI3NMRK’, a full record of new songs, his first under the Jun Lopito and the Bodhisattvas banner since 1995.

One would think that with sketches from Puerto Galera in hand, it would have been a simple matter of giving the songs shape and form. But “Ely challenged me to make this album,” Lopito reveals. He also confesses an aversion to recording, describing studio work as a “tough” discipline that’s counter to his on-the-go and on-the-fly instincts. “I’m like a Navy SEAL [that way]. Bring me to any war and I’ll shoot the first guy I see,” he says, laughing at his own unwieldy simile.

Buendia and Audry Dionisio split producer duties on ‘BODHI3NMRK’, which was tracked, mixed, and mastered for the good part of three years. Lopito reimagines old territory on the record: slide guitar, the blues, meditation. His faith has been central to his life and art, he says: “Being Buddhist, for me, is like finding the Holy Grail. I found myself with it. I can challenge the harsh realities of life, no matter what comes.”

“Fame and fortune is nothing if you’re not rich in self”

Maybe it’s the newfound inner peace, but Lopito’s fretwork in this new record is an exploration of rhythm and pulse, rather than a race to crowd empty bars with as many notes as possible. In a Zoom listening party on the eve of the album’s release, he puts it down to maturity: “As you age, you refine your technique. You’re not as flashy, you let other people play, and you learn to play good rhythm.”

And for a guy who admits to having had a Michael Jordan-like competitive streak in the past, it’s heartening to hear strong strains of collaboration and outside influence in ‘BODHI3NMRK’. It’s there in the buoyant, strutting cadence of ‘Lumampas Ka’, in the Paul Westerberg-inspired ‘Tanging Sandata’, in the celebratory Delta stylings of ‘Mrs. Hippie Blues’ and ‘Riverside Blues’. The Lopito swagger is in all of it, but so is the soul of creative partners like singer-songwriter Paul Putian and drummer Rene “Chong” Tengasantos.

Lopito’s claims that he “does not need anyone” are residual rebellion at best, and his ascent to go-to axeman of his generation has been a matter of confluence as much as a product of coincidences. His brother-in-law Tony Jalandoni was bandmates with the late Joey “Pepe” Smith – the last great Pinoy demigod, who a couple of years after opening for The Beatles in ‘66 with The Downbeats would start a rock revolution with the Juan De La Cruz Band.

Whenever Lopito, then a teenaged greenhorn, went home from his church gig, a revolving door of Pinoy rock legends would constantly be in the periphery, quietly egging him on. And before he knew it, he was learning the greats by ear: the slide parts for George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, the licks for Eric Clapton’s ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, the acoustic-guitar phrasing for Dave Mason’s ‘Look At You Look At Me’, the bossa lines in the Allman Brothers’ ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’.

“I didn’t know I was going to be a blues player. I thought I was going to be a pilot or a doctor or something. Maybe an owner of a drugstore,” he muses about the early years.

Lopito first fashioned himself after Clapton, and later on, Jeff Beck. His brother-in-law would agree to school him in the instrument, after attempts at formal school proved to be futile. He got so good that when he saw his rock star elders once more, it was not to gawk at their coolness but to play alongside them as equals.

It still amazes Jun Lopito that all this zipped past him with no weight or import. To his then-young mind, he was a tag-along and a hanger-on. “I was with these rock stars, they were doing their thing, and I got to move with them. And I was [a kid], man!” he says, remembering being a fly on the wall for some historic moments such as the Mareco recording sessions for Anak Bayan’s ‘Probinsiyana’.

His big break would come at 17, when Smith invited him to be in the Airwaves. It was a no-brainer for Lopito, a rookie shoved into the big leagues seemingly overnight. “That’s like being asked by Mick Jagger, you know?”

Jun Lopito new album 2020 BODHI3NMRK
Credit Offshore Music

Over the course of several years, he built a name for himself beyond pedigree, association or comparison. He no longer operated in the Clapton-Beck continuum; he was a venerable guitar stylist out to break new ground. He would play with Sampaguita, Asin, The Jerks, and the world-fusion collective Pinikpikan, among many others. He was a constant nomad, sought by everyone but tied to no one.

That Jun Lopito, despite his stature, is only on his third record, may baffle the casual observer. But to the erstwhile wunderkind, the guitar is more meditative tool than artistic weapon, and the blues, along with its countless permutations, a sort of social adhesive. Ultimately, he feels records are quick snapshots rather than the full picture.

But what a picture ‘BODHI3NMRK’ is: personal in intent and communal in execution, it effectively detaches Lopito from the virtuoso narrative. In it, he is more congregant than shaman, more creative channel than focal life source.

“I was able to breathe. I was able to look at my past, see my future, but also deal with the present. I didn’t have money, but I had music, man,” he says, looking back on how the last few years have marked a turn for the better. “Fame and fortune is nothing if you’re not rich in self. What matters most are the treasures of your heart.”

Jun Lopito’s ‘BODHI3NMRK’ is out now.

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