It’s a Friday night and Celine Autumn is in a world of her own. She swirls onstage in a glittery, middriff-baring skirt, drawing curlicues in the air with her hands. With every gesture to and eye contact made with the audience, she reels the hundreds of us deeper into this little bubble of emotion that her band Sobs have crafted.
It’s a powerful reminder that pop music is performance – a fitting takeaway from last week’s sold-out launch show for ‘Air Guitar’, Sobs’ second album and their most assured release to date. Its artwork plainly touts the record as “the sound of pop music from Sobs!” and what a sound it is: a potent concoction of jaunty guitars, sparkling effects and zippy synths, and blithe hopscotching through power pop, new wave, bedroom pop and so much more.
It’s taken Sobs quite a while to get to this point, the band acknowledge in a chat with NME. They’ve trooped into a small Singaporean cafe for this interview, drawing stares thanks to Jared Lim and Raphael Ong’s bulky bags of guitars and gear – or perhaps because of the shaggy, two-toned hairdo that’s turned Celine Autumn’s fringe turquoise (she’ll dye it bright blue for the gig the following week).
Sobs formed in 2017 after Autumn and Lim met on the long-running Singaporean music forum Soft. Ong joined the band and they debuted with the ‘Catflap’ EP in June; they capitalised on the buzz the following year by dropping their debut album ‘Telltale Signs’ and touring Southeast Asia, building a devoted fanbase both IRL and URL. With those releases, Sobs became part of the ascendant roster of Singaporean label Middle Class Cigars, which was also putting out similarly buzzy records by Subsonic Eye and Cosmic Child; their collective emergence in those two years felt like a rising tide for local indie music and an exciting moment in the Singapore scene.
“Things moved very fast for Sobs,” Ong remembers. They didn’t go through that time unscathed: the ‘Telltale Signs’ era was a difficult period rife with interpersonal issues and communication problems. “We just didn’t know how to be a band yet,” Autumn says, “and we were very neurotic in all the ways… But we grew up and we understand each other better now. We work a lot better as a band.”
“Now, I can tell the difference between a good and bad line. I don’t want to make it too simple”
Beginning the solo project Cayenne during the pandemic also helped liberate Autumn from the “very suffocating space” Sobs had become for her. Embracing her hyperpop influences, becoming hands-on with production and co-writing with Lim outside the indie rock mode made her more confident. “I think I’m more sure of myself when I write now,” she muses. “I think I’m less sure of myself,” Lim counters. “I became more willing to do whatever and just send you stuff.”
That combination of daring and maturity – not to mention the abundance of time that allowed the songs on ‘Air Guitar’ to marinate and accumulate – helped Sobs lean into bold creative choices they had neither the vocabulary for nor the conviction to make mere years ago. Just take can’t-not-be-a-single ‘Friday Night’, which gives Autumn’s jaded narrator the escapism she seeks by throwing the guitars aside and hurtling into an effervescent electronic outro that gives “Sonic soundtrack-inspired drum’n’bass”, as Ong puts it.
The thrilling ‘Friday Night’ breakdown “was a spontaneous decision that was semi-ironic”, Lim remembers. “I didn’t think anyone else would like it.” (The fans at Sobs’ show, who went buckwild at the drop, beg to differ.) It tracks that this pure, poptastic endorphin rush began as a semi-ironic wink and nudge. Sobs are “students of the internet”, Ong says, and open admirers of knowingly kitschy and meta pop movements like PC Music and shibuya kei. Until recently, Lim and Ong enjoyed changing the wording in Sobs’ social media bios on a whim, Autumn jokingly complains, toggling between “cool pop music”, “uncool pop music” and “very cool pop music”.
The album took its title from the lead single and oldest song on the record, ‘Air Guitar’, which was written in October 2019 and features the following lines: “Rewind the tape and show me all your scars / I liked you better being silly with your air guitar.” That’s a coincidental summary of a Sobs song: guitar pop euphoria that lifts and leavens the heavy emotions in the lyrics.
It’s possible to listen to ‘Air Guitar’ and understand it, broadly, as a record about romance gone wrong. It’s full of narratives and dramas that aim straight for the heart: ‘Last Resort’ perfectly bottles a bittersweet mix of yearning and resignation; ‘LOML’ is an overwhelmed jumble of uncertainty. The opening lyrics of ‘World Implode’ speak directly to the state of being young and alive in 2022: “Am I allowed to feel this low / When I haven’t seen the world implode?”
“You don’t have to have a concept or a reason why you make art, but you have to package it in a way that’s beautiful”
But ask Celine Autumn about her lyrics and it becomes clear that it’s primarily a matter of craft. “During the ‘Telltale Signs’ era I didn’t know how to write good lyrics. When it was good, it was always by accident, by chance,” she says. “Now, I can tell the difference between a good and bad line. I don’t want to make it too simple.”
Sure, some stories on ‘Air Guitar’ have straightforward, real-life origins. ‘Friday Night’ mines late-night memories of sitting by the Singapore River and cracking open cans from 7-Eleven, while ‘Last Resort’ was inspired by a romance stymied by a language barrier. The songs “go with the wave of my life and things that happened throughout”, Autumn concedes, but what she relishes more than relaying the minutiae of her life is the art of songwriting: sowing seeds of ambiguity and putting in the effort to make a line just right.
It’s safe to say Sobs are in fighting form on ‘Air Guitar’, which is poised to snare them a bigger audience than ever before. It’ll get special releases by labels in Japan and Indonesia, and will mark Sobs’ debut on Topshelf Records, the US indie purveyor of indie rock and shoegaze that counts as alumni the emo luminaries Braid, Into It. Over It., and The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die.
After entertaining offers from various US and UK labels over the years, Sobs finally signed with Topshelf (who in recent years have branched out into Asian indie with Taiwan’s Elephant Gym and Japan’s Jyocho). With the label’s support, they’re currently laying the groundwork for a prospective US tour in 2023 that will include slots at showcase festivals as well as their own headline shows. In the nearer future, they’ll put out a couple more singles and possibly even remixes, continuing the promotional campaign they started last month with the release of the ‘Air Guitar’ music video.
That video – Sobs’ fourth – follows a vague narrative about signing an exploitative contract and cycles a malleable Celine Autumn through a range of identities: wide-eyed ingenue, evil corporate girlboss and adventurous astronaut. Pleasingly meta, ambiguous enough and a good mix of serious and light-hearted, it’s another apt expression of the Sobs ethos. It brings to mind an offhand observation Autumn makes in our interview: “You don’t have to have a concept or a reason why you make art, but you have to package it in a way that’s beautiful.”
Sobs’ ‘Air Guitar’ is out now on Topshelf Records/Inpartmaint Inc/Kolibri Rekords.