An acquaintance of mine recently got married to a former guitarist of a local band that I loved in my teens. I told her this, partially amazed at how one’s social and professional circles can collide in tiny Singapore. The next day, she said that he remembered me and described me as the girl who was “always in front, yelling lyrics.” I couldn’t help but cringe at the undeniably true and vulnerable portrait of my teen self, worlds apart from the kind of person I am now, half my lifetime later. My acquaintance expressed her surprise too. It is indeed hard to square up the image of a free spirited teen yelling lyrics with my current sedate self.
Back then, music was my whole life. I listened to songs on my mp3 player on the ride to school, my eyes half-filled with sleep, and would watch as the mist began its disappearance over the field opposite the train station, as students streamed into the bus. At that time, I listened to local bands as much as I did to international ones. I listened to Underoath, and A Vacant Affair. I listened to Muse and The Great Spy Experiment. I listened to Explosions in the Sky and Amateur Takes Control. My memories of those bus rides to school are filled with the songs from these bands.
On the weekends, I would amble to various venues to watch gigs and connect with other music-enthusiasts, many of whom would become my friends. I would have gotten to know about these shows through my hours on weekday afternoons spent on Myspace, where bands would list their upcoming gigs. This was the texture of my life in the 2000s, and enough time has passed that genres like emo and pop punk are even experiencing a revival (my apologies to those who would say that pop punk and emo were never dead!).
There is perhaps no other band that encapsulates that period in my life than Singaporean band, Plainsunset. I first heard them the way they were meant to be heard, live on stage. I do not remember which stage exactly, but since I was a teen in the 2000s it would have been within the few venues that I frequented to watch local gigs, namely, Scape, the Esplanade, or the Substation. They started their set with Girl on Queen Street. Two strokes of the guitar blasts open the song, before Jon Chan sings a proclamation, “When the sun rises again, I will be there with you my friend and I will be there looking over your shoulder”. The guitars return, the chords lifting higher, and the crowd swells and sing along to every single word. It was difficult not to feel envious of those who knew the words and could partake in the explosive energy as fully as possible.
Their songs were meant for live performance and it seems to me, were written with a live audience in mind. The term ‘rock anthem’ is a fitting description of their songs, since I learned their lyrics purely through their live performances. Their songs are often heavy with repetition and rhyme, that ancient method that helps commit long verses to memory. You could watch them twice and already commit the lyrics to memory. By the third time, you would be able to at least belt along with the crowd during their choruses, fingers pointed in tandem to punctuate each word. Their lyrics are uncomplicated and saccharine. I suppose the kids today may call it ‘cringe’ with its direct expression of angst and sentimentality. Like in Find A Way when Jon sings “Do you know that I’m still missing you, especially right now you’re far away”, or the line “I wish that you would write to me” in checking e-mail, or “I know, that I will miss you when you go” in Johari Window.
In general, Plainsunset appear completely uninterested in escaping the cringe label or attempting to be cool. They’re too down to earth for that, in a way that may be partially described as old-fashioned. In multiple interviews, they have spoken about the importance of working hard as a band the “old fashioned way” by performing live and not depending on garnering views through YouTube. It’s an era-specific sentiment. Remembering the 2000s, regular people became famous through their covers without the need of sending their tapes to labels. The gatekeepers were circumvented by the rise of an increasingly democratised, connected, pre-algorithm-dominated, and accessible internet. It was the time when Justin Bieber had his career launched thanks to a YouTube video. When musicians like Yuna and Panic! At the Disco were generating listens and a growing fanbase in Myspace. Having been born from the punk scene in the 90s, Plainsunset was already a veteran and no doubt operating on their preferred methods of having an audience judge them purely by their live shows. They must have found the act of playing to the camera or computer a disengaged one.
Image credit: Plainsunset’s Facebook page.
The Plainsunset I experienced and the memories I have of them would undeniably be different from those of earlier fans who have followed them from their punk beginnings in the 90s. After all, the band was formed in 1992, the year I was born (I am basing this on this interview, although another article states their origins in 1996; either way, I was new to life). I’ve read that in their beginnings they played venues as nondescript as community centres. Their earlier songs are even more energetic, the guitar riffs choppier and faster, the singing twice as fast as the ‘anthems’ they would play in the 2000s. It seemed to be more moshing-friendly too. When I first heard them, it was after they had reunited following their first band breakup in 2004. Writing this, I realise it was probably in 2006, at Scape theme park, along with local bands Armchair Critic and Postbox. They played an electrifying set at Baybeats that year too.
I remember their performances filled to the brim with energy that was spirited, heartfelt and overwhelming positive. They knew how to work the crowd, not just through their performances, but also through the banter and conversation in between songs, with Jon Chan’s off the cuff comments complementing Sham’s dry humour. Though they were the ones on stage, it always seemed as if they were there for a good time just as the crowd was. On being regarded as a veteran, big-name band in the region, Jon Chan had modestly replied “It’s nice and we feel honoured to be classified with the big names – but then again we don’t really do much. We’re a simple sing-along rock band.” Yet their simplicity belies their impact and the deep place that they hold in the hearts of so many fans. It’s hard not to feel sentimental thinking about them, entwined as they are with my memories of a period in local music when you could watch a gig every week, when every other teen dreamt of being in a band and before the inescapable force of the algorithm and other commercial forces changed the face and mood of how local music is marketed and experienced in Singapore. They have lasted and played indefatigably beyond that period, of course, and my nostalgia shouldn’t deny that. Their last album released in 2016, Both Boxer & Benjamin, is incredible and to me their best one.
The last time I watched them was in 2020, when I was 28. I had first listened to them when I was 14, and I was watching them again 14 years later. I stood at the back, listening, amazed that a band and its fans could be so resilient. Some people came with their children, and some were crowdsurfing again after what must have been a long time. I know many must have been feeling the way I did, deep in the bodily emotion of being taken back to a time we cannot return to. At first I stood at the back, singing along. But when my best friend went to the front, I followed her, and for a moment I was once again the 14 year old girl who was in front, yelling lyrics.
About the author(s)
Diana Rahim is an editor, writer and sometimes visual artist whose work currently explores the politics of public space and the experience of the environment. She dreams of autonomy, and kinder, more generative decentralised futures.