Argee Guerrero of I Belong To The Zoo has a unique relationship with his fans. For starters, he much prefers “friend group” than ‘fanbase’, he tells NME over a video call, speaking primarily in Tagalog. “We have our own Facebook group called We Belong To The Zoo,” he shares. “That’s where we hang out and talk.”
Everyone in the Facebook group affectionately refers to each other as ‘farm’, a playful take on ‘fam’ and a thematic reference to the band’s name. The group is also where he’d been giving updates about ‘Kapiling’, the new album I Belong To The Zoo dropped at the top of October. “They’d repeatedly been asking about the new album for a while, and it took us a few years to release an album,” Guerrero recalls. “I don’t want to make excuses, but the pandemic happened. So I posted in the Facebook group to apologise that there weren’t as many new songs as we would’ve hoped to put out.”
Guerrero himself contracted COVID-19 last year, and he says he’s still feeling lingering side effects. “I get tired more easily, and my throat dries up faster,” he sighs. “It took me multiple takes to get our cover videos on YouTube right during those first six months since getting infected because I just couldn’t sing everything in one go.”
‘Kapiling’ (a term for a person close to you) is the first I Belong To The Zoo album since the songs ‘Sana’ and ‘Balang Araw’ gained serious traction, to the tune of millions of streams, in 2018. Guerrero started the project in 2017 to house solo material that didn’t fit his previous band, the alt-rock outfit Tonight We Sleep, releasing a self-titled debut album that year. I Belong To The Zoo has since expanded to a five-piece band featuring Simon Clariza and Lee De Veyra on guitars, Kristoff Medina on bass, and Ow Owyong on drums. “I don’t want to perform alone anymore,” Guerrero laughs.
Recording ‘Kapiling’ was a very different process than the 2017 album, now that I Belong To The Zoo is no longer just Guerrero and an acoustic guitar. “We have three guitar players now, which is more than usual even for a full band,” Owyong says in an email interview with the band. On ‘Kapiling’, they sound like a pop-rock outfit, with moments reminiscent of mid-2000s alternative rock. But Guerrero’s voice still stands out. “The instrumentation is different, but the depth and emotion remain,” Clariza adds.
The farm may have grown, but the music is still largely influenced by Guerrero’s own life – not that you’ll find him detailing the stories behind his songs on social media.“Not that I’m hating on artists like that,” Guerrero says. “I just don’t like literally explaining every meaning [behind] my songs.” It makes sense for Argee Guerrero, someone who admittedly prefers to listen rather than speak when it comes to matters of the heart. “I put those emotions I can’t verbalise into my music as an outlet,” he says.
The final track on ‘Kapiling’ is an example of that. Entitled ‘Makinarya,’ the song is about his sister, who battled a severe COVID-19 infection, and a dear cousin of his who had passed away from causes unrelated to the coronavirus. “It was difficult because I couldn’t be with her or speak to her,” he recalls. “We’d have video calls as a family, but I really hate verbally spilling my guts in front of someone, so I put everything I wanted to tell her into the song.”
Writing, composing, and singing are cathartic for Guerrero, who is particularly introverted. “If I keep on performing the song, it’s like I’m chipping away at the sadness so that hopefully I can sing the song without feeling pain anymore,” he reflects. “I still go through all those feelings when I sing my songs, but afterward, I’m OK.”
He points out one of his signature songs, ‘Sana,’ which is about an ex-girlfriend leaving him to get back with her own ex. “Whenever I sing the song these days, it makes me feel good because it brought me so many blessings,” he says. “Even though the experience was incredibly painful, I’m happy I wrote the song. I’m glad I went through all of that.”
“If I keep on performing the song, it’s like I’m chipping away at the sadness so that hopefully I can sing the song without feeling pain anymore”
I Belong To The Zoo’s music has gained widespread attention and acclaim in the Philippines because of how universally relatable its themes are. Everyone goes through the same feelings of pain and heartbreak, regardless of where they are in life. “Nobody was born and immediately found themselves in a happy and perfect relationship,” Guerrero quips. But he digs deeper into why his music has touched so many: “Even if the song isn’t really about what you’re feeling, the moment you hear one line that just hits you, the song immediately becomes special for you.”
Guerrero cites Dashboard Confessional’s ‘MTV Unplugged 2.0’ live album as a key influence on his confessional songwriting, particularly how vocalist Chris Carrabba put his heart on his sleeve when he performed. “He’s so emotional when he performs, and that’s what’s important to me – when you really feel it,” he stresses. “And the hugot songs, those are the ones you really feel.”
Hugot songs – and by extension, hugot culture – are pervasive in Filipino pop culture. The word ‘hugot’ means to ‘draw or pull out’, and colloquially refers to drawing meanings and emotions from places or memories and then expressing them. Hugot culture took on a life of its own sometime in the last 15 years, with lines from movies like One More Chance (2007), That Thing Called Tadhana (2014), and I’m Drunk, I Love You (2017) quoted ad nauseam in memes on social media. Popular and cheesy pickup lines are shared by influencers, celebrities and even politicians online. And in music, acts like UDD, Ben&Ben, Moira Dela Torre and, yes, I Belong To The Zoo, have made songs about heartache their calling card over the years.
What does one make of hugot culture at a time like this: when the Philippines stands on the precipice of one of its most volatile election seasons, and when its government faces allegations of mishandling COVID-19 funds amid the never-ending pandemic? These are trying and turbulent sociopolitical circumstances, but Guerrero doesn’t think hugot culture will become any less relevant.
“Music is an escape for me,” he explains. “These days, I use music to escape from my Facebook feed, all the fake news… That’s what makes me want to just make music that isn’t related to the chaos of the real world.”
He’s self-aware enough to recognise how odd that might sound, because most of his songs are sad. But Guerrero actually finds enjoyment in wallowing in the pain and just ‘emoting,’ as Filipinos would call it. It’s actually part of self-care – something that he’s happy to help listeners with as I Belong To The Zoo.
“You can’t fix anything if you don’t fix yourself,” he says. “If you’re internally troubled, how can you create positive change in the world?”
I Belong To The Zoo’s ‘Kapiling’ is out now