Like everyone else during this wretched pandemic, Ben&Ben have embraced the work-from-home life. But unlike you and me, they’ve gone about it in dramatically roundabout fashion: all nine members in the Filipino folk-pop band literally moved in together to finish their new album.
“There was no other way,” co-lead vocalist Miguel Guico tells NME. Work on the follow-up to their 2019 debut ‘Limasawa Street’ wasn’t progressing as quickly as they had hoped; everything “tripled, even quadrupled” in turnaround time, he says. Co-habitation was the logical solution. “The decision was brought [about] by the need for survival,” the musician says, explaining that the band also felt responsible for the livelihoods of the members of their support staff: “This isn’t just our job; it’s also the job of the team that’s with us.”
For a good 14 months now, Ben&Ben have made their living their life: under one roof, breathing the same air, their co-conspirators literally within arm’s reach.
It’s gone better than even they’d hoped. Bassist Agnes Reoma says, “Now we’re more open [to each other], and we discovered some new things: who packs the most stuff, who likes snacking at midnight” (violinist Keifer Cabugao and his roommates, if you’re wondering). Keyboardist Pat Lasaten chimes in: “It’s a huge scam. Last year, we all said, ‘Let’s try it for a month then go back to our own homes’.” She shoots her bandmates a playful stink-eye. “But here we are – still here.”
“Here,” of course, is a reference to what they fondly call the “Ben&Ben House”, birthplace of their second full-length via Sony Music Philippines: ‘Pebble House Vol. 1: Kuwaderno’ (out yesterday, August 29). Intended as a “kuwaderno” (notebook) of a shared life under quarantine, the record is also testament to their restructured workflow: of the bedroom as isolation booth, of the living room as live room, of home as office and vice versa.
But after that, Ben&Ben lifted the curtain with August singles ‘Pasalubong’ featuring Moira dela Torre and ‘Sugat’ featuring fellow neo-folkies Munimuni. These were just the tip of the album’s iceberg of heavyweight collaborations: also on the record are Parokya ni Edgar’s Chito Miranda (‘Swimming Pool’), Zild with Juan Karlos Labajo (‘Lunod’), KZ Tandingan (‘Sabel’), and SB19 (who appear on ‘Kapangyarihan’ after tapping the group for a band rendition of their own single ‘MAPA’).
Some of the guests on ‘Pebble House’ initially seemed nervous, percussionist Andrew de Pano observed, out of some misconception that Ben&Ben were an insular, impenetrable unit – “like we have our own thing going on”. The reality was quite the opposite, he says: “It’s like we’re telling them, ‘You have a place here, and we want to swim with you’.” The fabled Ben&Ben House may have seemed bursting at the seams – roughly “20-plus people”, at last count – but they were eager to let even more guests in, both literally and figuratively.
“‘Pebble House, Vol. 1’ was this artistic melting pot that came forth because we realised we have so much more to tell, both sonically and lyrically”
Did the band craft the material to suit specific guest performers? “The skeletons [for the songs] were already there before we even considered collaborators,” co-lead vocalist Paolo Guico clarifies. Despite this, he adds, “We also believe that each artist [has] a different story to tell, and if their story would add to the story of the song, then we’re going to push through with it.”
This quality is more marked in some tracks, and less in others. The appearance of Parokya’s main man on ‘Swimming Pool,’ for instance, gives the song the rough edge that the pretty-voiced Guico twins couldn’t deliver as potently; and KZ Tandingan’s understated, scorched-earth turn in ‘Sabel’ lends it a gravitas that, the band admit, only the former The X Factor Philippines champ could deliver.
“Since it’s about powerful women, we couldn’t think of anyone else who could bring justice to it but KZ. We all felt she was the only one who’d complete the song,” Miguel says of ‘Sabel’, which calls to mind painter Benedicto Cabrera’s career-spanning works of the same title, depicting a poignant-yet-powerful scavenger clad in rags.
“It’s like we’re telling our collaborators, ‘You have a place here, and we want to swim with you’”
On top of the stacked guestlist, Ben&Ben stirred the creative pot even further by allowing each individual member his or her turn in the producer’s chair. “When Paolo first brought up the idea, we knew it would bring out our individual creativities but, also, save us time,” electric guitarist Poch Barretto says. “We just trusted each other to deliver each song in the best way.”
For a band that has been stomping on practically the same patch of musical ground – whether by circumstance or by design – the decision paid off. ‘Pebble House’ sounds even sweeter when you hear specific musical personalities come to the forefront, as on the funk-riddled ‘Kasayaw,’ helmed by Barretto, or the baroque, circle-of-fifths grammar of ‘Lunod,’ with Reoma leading the charge. In each calculated turn, ‘Pebble House’ becomes a “multiverse of madness”, as Paolo puts it – but also a vital creative pursuit.
Thematically, there isn’t a single thread running through the songs on this album. Rather, Miguel says, the record has a rough three-act structure that groups together songs of yearning, reckoning and release. Ben&Ben also sought to break away from typical romantic narratives in favour of social commentary: abuse of authority (‘Kapangyarihan’, initially released last December as a skeletal keys-driven number in response to the police killings of Sonya and Frank Gregorio in Tarlac), the primacy of women (‘Sabel’), the self-destruction that comes on the heels of grief (‘Magpahinga’), and mental health (‘Lunod’).
“It was this artistic melting pot that came forth because we realised we have so much more to tell, both sonically and lyrically. And we don’t see nothing wrong in telling these other stories,” Paolo asserts.
And if there’s anything Ben&Ben are big on, it’s stories. In much of the Zoom roundtable that the band hosted for the press – as well as their solo convo with NME – the emphasis is on what the songs are about, spiked with only the occasional comment on recording technique, arrangement, and orchestration.
“What has to remain constant, even if we explore, is really a simple thing: [a song] has to tell a story. It has to speak a certain truth to at least one person,” Paolo asserts.
For ‘Pebble House’, each little chord progression, harmony idea, lick, or vamp – each plank, nail, and screw in this allegorical home – is part of a larger narrative, or construction project, if you will.
“We had a kind of mantra, for every show and every song: that we’re always building something,” Miguel says. “And for this record, it’s a house, one pebble at a time.”
Ben&Ben’s ‘Pebble House Vol. 1: Kuwaderno’ is out now via Sony Music Philippines