Subsonic Eye: Restless Singaporean indie rockers turn their gaze to the planet

On third album ‘Nature Of Things’, the five-piece drift further from dream pop and towards self-discovery

Subsonic Eye tuned into a divine frequency to make their new album. The Singaporean band mean that literally – instead of the usual 440 hertz that most music is tuned to, their third record ‘Nature Of Things’, released last month, was written to the alternate frequency of 432 hertz. That’s what conspiracists declare a “healing” and even “divine” frequency, because it’s what the earth resonates at.

“Allegedly,” vocalist Nur Wahidah interrupts guitarist Daniel Borces, mid-explanation.

“It’s allegedly the frequency of the earth,” Borces amends, “and it heals you and stuff. So if you were to pick up a guitar with a normal tuning, you won’t be able to play along to the tracks, unless you tune to 432. Just a small, twisted easter egg!”

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Twisted? Perhaps. It makes perfect sense for ‘Nature Of Things’, a record that wholeheartedly embraces the great outdoors and our awe-inspiring planet. The album’s packaging dubs the songs “a field guide to the nature of things”, and to take promotional photos, the five-piece hopped on a boat to Pulau Ubin, an island to Singapore’s northeast, with sun hats and camping chairs in tow.

This marks the first time Subsonic Eye have leaned on such a discrete theme for an album: On 2018’s ‘Dive Into’ and their 2017 debut ‘Strawberry Feels’, Wahidah and Borces – the band’s chief songwriters – grappled with the vagaries of growing up, from angst to lust and uncertainty. The green outlook of ‘Nature Of Things’ came after the duo discovered a love of hiking and a fresh perspective on nature together.

“I’ve always been really passionate about the environment,” Wahidah says. “I got into bird-watching, also. When it comes to being in nature and bird-watching, you’re not actively interacting with the birds. You’re just this tiny subject in a whole forest, you’re looking at this bird but the bird doesn’t even know you’re looking. It’s just flying around.” Borces adds, “You’re just an observer of this beautiful thing happening.”

Subsonic Eye are not naive observers: ‘Nature Of Things’ opens with ‘Consumer Blues’, a dreamy ditty that breezily summarises our impulses to buy for pleasure: “Don’t care ’bout nothing / I just want my things / I don’t know what, what I need / And what I need is given to me.” And it closes with ‘Unearth’, where Wahidah metabolises the suffocating climate anxiety that both pop stars (The 1975, Billie Eilish) and the avant garde (ANOHNI, Massive Attack) have tried to exorcise in their own music. “Thought you’d care about the world, but you don’t mind,” she sings, “It brings me to tears to see nothing change / We’ve pushed her to this.”

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Though ‘Nature Of Things’ gives voice to these broader societal concerns, the record’s defining moments of charm and beauty stem from personal experience and revelatory events in the duo’s own lives. ‘Kaka The Cat’ – already a fan favourite – cribs Kurt Vile’s slacker cadences to tell the sad, true story of the time Borces’ cat fell ill, and how he had to clean out the band fund to pay the vet bills (Kaka recovered just fine and Borces eventually paid back the $800 he borrowed, they hasten to note).

‘Further’, particularly its resonant final lines, was inspired by a life-changing hike Wahidah and Borces took at Coney Island (which is still known for a resident wild cow even though it died in 2016). They got caught in a downpour, and when it stopped, Wahidah remembers, “the whole of Coney Island woke up and came alive. It reminds you: rain isn’t a bother. It’s a renewal, and it’s so beautiful. Normally when it rains, you’re like, ‘Fuck, got to take out an umbrella, fuck, now my shoes are gonna be wet’. But what happens after the rain is the most beautiful thing that we get to be a part of.”

“I was like, ‘screw this’, and picked up an acoustic guitar from my store room, which was pretty beat up but still worked”

That introspection characterises Wahidah’s lyrics, which are interior and pleasingly elliptical. For her, songwriting is a vehicle of self-discovery. Sometimes it’s unconscious: when writing ‘Fruitcake’, she thought it was a song about “really angsty people who wake up every day and get mad about everything”. But when she revisited it just a month ago, she realised she had been writing about herself and her own stewing negativity during a period of chaos a year or so ago.

And for Borces, songwriting is a consequence of discovery. On ‘Dive Into’, he was inspired to try motorik rhythms after watching a documentary about krautrock, and the writing of ‘Nature Of Things’ was heavily influenced by a deep dive into Buddhism he undertook while on a four-month, pre-pandemic sabbatical. “I think it’s a cool way to live,” he offers of his interest in the religion. “But you won’t see me holding, like, joss sticks.” Exploring Buddhism led to “droney” Tibetan chants, and Hinduism, Hindu music and the sitar, he says. “The sitar is a very ‘flow-y’ instrument. That was the guitar sound I wanted, and having it in alternate tuning really helped – which is something I got from Sonic Youth.”

Subsonic Eye new album Nature of Things interview 2021
Credit: Chris Sim

Subsonic Eye are always growing and learning, which lends the band a restless creativity. The duo have already completed demos for album number four, lockdown songs which they describe as “post-punky and a bit more angry”, and they’ve thoroughly outgrown their old material, much of which they now deem immature and insincere. “I just cannot stand ‘Sunkissed Skin’!” Wahidah exclaims.

The sparser sound of ‘Nature Of Things’ can also be chalked up to a sort of impatience: Borces wanted to streamline a songwriting process that had become unnecessarily drawn-out due to a heavy reliance on guitar effects. “First, I gotta plug everything in, I gotta come up with a nice set of effects, the tone has to sound nice,” he exasperatedly explains. “You waste so much energy and by the time you have to come up with an actual song, you’re drained. So I was like, ‘screw this’, and picked up an acoustic guitar from my storeroom, which was pretty beat up but still worked.”

With ‘Nature Of Things’, which draws on ’90s alt-rock and emo, Subsonic Eye drift further away from the “dream pop band” rep that they’ve built over their past two albums and that Borces deliberately sought out in the beginning. Going to shows, he’d observed how few dream pop and shoegaze outfits there were in Singapore as compared to hardcore and emo bands – even as American favourites like Turnover and The Title Fight carved out trajectories that showed one could evolve from the latter sound to the former. “I was like, why is no Singaporean band doing this?” he remembers. “There was a hole in the marketplace.”

Borces uses the same phrase to bat away compliments about Subsonic Eye’s sold-out album launch this Saturday. As Singapore cautiously reintroduces live concerts, relying on big-ticket pop and hip-hop acts to draw audiences back into the fold, the indie rockers’ show in the grand Esplanade Concert Hall stands out.

The 250-person audience cap means the band aren’t expected to sell out the whole room, but it’s still a vote of confidence for them by the arts venue, and testament to the scene’s love for them, NME suggests. Wahidah and Borces demur. “I think it’s because there’s no other band,” Borces says. “Like, there was a hole in the market. And I guess we were just the only ones. It’s kind of like a monopoly.”

A monopoly is the last thing Subsonic Eye want, though, even as this album and concert propel the band towards something akin to flagbearer status for Singapore indie rock. Rather, the more the merrier, Borces says. “I don’t see a lot of ’90s-ish alt-rock here,” he muses. “I don’t like to compare Singapore to the west because it’s not fair – I like to look at Indonesia and the Philippines, because we’ve been to both countries to tour. And wow! Their music scene is like a buffet. There’s a show for any kind of music you like… I do wish that people will realise, ‘hey, we can make this kind of music, and people will like it’.”

Subsonic Eye’s ‘Nature Of Things’ is out now on Middle Class Cigars. The band play the Esplanade Concert Hall on February 6

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