Three hours before Whitespace Manila’s doors open to a throng of costume-clad fans high on Halloween, Zild is busy tonguing himself in a mirror.
It’s for a perfectly acceptable reason: NME has asked him to strike a pose in the makeup room for a quick photo. The artist gamely improvises. “Narcissism!” he howls, wiping the mirror clean after breathing a quick apology to the venue (“Sorry, Whitespace”).
We’ve caught up to Zild Benitez whose packed schedule this October 31 includes interviews, soundcheck, and squeezing into costume. But that’s just his pre-show to-do list. The night is really about Gabi Ng Paniki, the live launch of his third album ‘Medisina’, which doubles as a Halloween party for a sold-out audience of 500.
It’s the first time the self-confessed “pandemic artist” – who started his solo project in 2020 and launched his first two albums virtually – is taking the stage to play songs from his new record. Typhoon Paeng delayed the event, but it couldn’t keep fans (or Zild) from turning up for the show two days later.
“Nothing compares to human connection and personal interaction with your community,” the musician says, referring to the fanbase he’s dubbed paniki, or bats. “We’ve all been hiding in a cave – but we’re not alone, we’re a collective. A lot of us are looking for things to relate to, and we’re able to relate to each other.”
Both Zild and his expectant fans get their fill of this interaction throughout the day. During soundcheck, onlookers queued outside the venue swarm to the hall’s large windows, pressing their faces and phones against the glass to get precious footage of the easy-to-spot, fiery-haired artist in platform leather boots. Zild runs towards them and waves hello. At the end of the night, he’ll amp up the connection by diving into the crowd.
Record three is a fine reason for Zild’s paniki horde to congregate. The glorious genre-and-era-hopping album is a welcome progression from the insulated bedroom-pop ruminations of ‘Homework Machine’ and the airier acoustic leanings of ‘Huminga’. ‘Medisina’ masterfully stuffs gleaming elements of ’70s/’80s disco, new wave, and post-punk into surprisingly satisfying ’90s and aughts alt-rock.
“When I’m not making music, I feel worthless, and it becomes a source of emptiness and sadness – so I keep coming back to it”
And the lyricism is just as stimulating. Zild writes in varying degrees of urgency (‘Dekada ‘70’, ‘Medisina’), cheek (‘Oh Lunes Na Naman’, ‘Duwag’), and unguarded schmaltz (‘Duda’, ‘Lumang Kanta’) – all met with rousing devotion, dancing, and moshing in his hourlong set.
Zild prefers bursts of inspiration over planning, but in making ‘Medisina’, the 25-year-old songwriter tells NME it was important for him to be “fearless and unpretentious about love”. Once averse to writing love songs that “sounded cringey,” he now thinks: “The way for me to get past it was just to tell a story of my experiences without trying to titillate or please anyone, and if it comes off corny, then I’m OK with being corny.”
Beyond sap, Zild grounds his lyrics in specificity: “There are so many grandiose songs about love, but sometimes love [can] also just be about riding a bus in Cubao. It’s mundane, but it’s still love.” He adds that he’s “embracing imperfections” and trusting “whatever rolls off the tongue.” This works delightfully in songs like ‘Oh Lunes Nanaman,’ a wry ode to Monday-induced anxiety.
The musician-producer also tackles darker, difficult themes, lamenting a love-hate relationship in the brooding title track and warning against returning despots in the deceptively dancey ‘Dekada ‘70’. “The contrast wasn’t intentional,” he says of the second song. “But at the same time, it’s a sensitive topic that I feel I can only talk about through music, especially with people who don’t share the same beliefs. People don’t want to be preached to, so if there’s a way to keep things light, it’s maybe better to go, ‘here’s vanilla ice cream’.”
“Sometimes love can also just be about riding a bus in Cubao. It’s mundane, but it’s still love”
Not that Zild needs to sugarcoat with his fans. When he delivers an incensed performance of ‘Dekada ’70’, panikis shout the chorus back with flaming urgency, and a few hold up cardboard banners scribbled with “Never Again, Never Forget” – maxims on the dark period of martial rule in the Philippines.
It’s one of the night’s several rousing highlights, which begins with exhilarating half-hour sets from Zild’s formidable supporting acts. Fellow BandLab NME Award 2022 nominee ena mori opens the show on a high note that indie darlings The Buildings hold steady.
Next are crowd-rousing pop-punk rockers One Click Straight (whose members Tim and Daniel Marquez also play in mori and Zild’s live band) and then early aughts pop-rock icons Barbie’s Cradle. Led by Barbie Almalbis, Zild’s godmother, the band supply sweet nostalgia and shredding like nobody’s business. She reunites with former drummer and Zild’s dad Franklin Benitez – who came in costume as his son.
At 9pm, Zild emerges through smoke and coloured spotlights in a strappy leather suit and a nest-like wig – perfect Edward Scissorhands cosplay. His bandmates (the Marquez brothers on guitars, Ana de Claro on bass, Daniel Monong on drums) follow suit, looking like a ghoulish glam-rock hair band.
“Nothing compares to human connection and personal interaction with your community. We’ve all been hiding in a cave – but we’re not alone”
Zild kicks off his set with the roaring new wave banger ‘CRAB’, a critique of crab mentality and coming up short when comparing yourself to others. “Ayoko ng sumabay sa agos ng iba” – “I don’t want to go with anyone’s flow”, Zild pleads in a falsetto that echoes across the bouncing crowd. He follows up with ‘Dekada ‘70’ and older hit ‘Sinungaling’ – which both turn into thundering political anthems venting frustrations on the current climate.
“People don’t want to be preached to, so if there’s a way to keep things light, it’s maybe better to go, ‘here’s vanilla ice cream’”
Zild cycles from crunchy, dancey tracks to quieter, tender ballads – working the crowd by asking them to plop on the floor through lovesick tracks like ‘Lumang Kanta,’ and pick up their feet and mosh on thumping songs like ‘Oh Lunes Na Naman’. He anchors himself to an acoustic guitar and sings fan favourites ‘Huminga’ and ‘Kyusi’ to an exhaling crowd, then takes the piss with the coolly detached romanticism of ‘Dasal/Kasal’. It’s Zild’s answer to the current TikTok-friendly OPM wave, and two minutes of pop-funk goodness that ends in a crashing halt.
He closes the night with the haunting sounds and trilling synths of ‘Medisina’ – then bounds into an encore and an emotionally charged performance of ‘Isang Anghel’. Zild rallies friends and musicians onstage, who like his fans, don’t miss a word of the catchy chorus about deferring dying on account of newfound inspiration: “Ayoko munang mamatay ngayon / Ang buhay ko na matamlay noon / Paligid ko ay nag iba / noong natagpuan kita sinta”. Zild hurls himself into the crowd and flashes heart hands at his fans.
Backstage with NME earlier, Zild tries to explain how he unexpectedly arrived at his third album. Much like the song, making ‘Medisina’ was “a love-hate relationship”, he says. “Music gives me hope. But when I’m not making music, I feel worthless, and it becomes a source of emptiness and sadness – so I keep coming back to it.”
‘Medisina’ is out now via Island Records Philippines