[UPDATES 05/08/10: To add contributions from MIA PALENCIA and GINA PANIZALES, at the bottom of the post.]
This is the second post reflecting upon Sabahan guitarist Roger Wang’s first ten years as a recorded artist.
“I’ve always been fascinated with being able to be self-accompanied, using one instrument,” Roger said, at his RAM Production recording business, in Damai.
“Being self-contained, like a ‘One Man Band’. Plus, you know I found it hard to find other musicians to play with, so it became a necessity to find a way of doing things.”
In the late 80s, it was all about electronic music and dance groups, not bands. “My friends were not into music, and then, if you find some who are, they may not be into the same kind of music as you. It’s my personality also, I like to be in control of things. That just made it [fingerstyle] more attractive.
“I almost wanted to be a keyboard player, a pianist, because it’s so natural to be on the piano – you can sit down, and can play the full arrangement. But…I like the guitar!
“I sang a lot back then, I did the whole singing, solo thing, until ‘Double Take’ started. Then the finger style got just too complicated for me to do two things at one time. I wasn’t comfortable. I had also been backing up great singers, so I was more comfortable just playing, and I found my voice in the guitar.”
Discovering what music was “out there” was a struggle before the internet.
“I was constantly trying to find little bits of information; by going to record stores and reading whatever I found in the Guitar Player magazine, to give me direction.”
The style of American guitarist Tuck Andress and his singer wife Patti Cathcart hit a sweet spot for Roger.
“Tuck & Patti are what Double Take was based on: a jazz-influenced fingerstyle guitarist, with a vocalist. Tuck Andress and Martin Taylor; they got me into jazz.
“That style of playing! It was like: Wow! What is this? With Martin Taylor, I actually had to order instructional videotapes! It was expensive.”
Roger was pretty focussed. “I’d heard of people like Wes Montgomery, but he wasn’t doing finger style, and I was looking for that ultimate guitar technique. Even now, I think Tuck Andress has the ultimate way; how he combines jazz, funk, country, whatever.”
Roger did not feel the pull of KL, and after his degrees were completed, he chose to come back to KK.
“Somehow I felt that it was like a calling. I needed to come back, I needed to do something here.
“I didn’t get into any serious bands in KL, and there was nothing to tie me there. Of course, a lot of people are wondering why. But looking back, I think it was a good move. Because coming back here has allowed me to do a lot of big things, ironically.
“It feels like KL is where all the big opportunities happen, but for me, I played with Tommy Emmanuel because I was in KK. If I was in KL I might not have. I was playing at what is ‘Blue Note’ now, it was called ‘Something Al’s’ back then, a club that was managed by Cynthia Ong. She was an event organiser, and her partner saw Tommy in KL, became a fan and wanted to bring him to KK. So that’s where the connection happened. They called me and were like, ‘Tommy is coming, would you like to play with him?’ Sure! So I sent Tommy a demo, and he said, ‘Sure, jam with me.’ So that’s how I met him.
“I think being back in KK has allowed me to develop my playing and my style of music. Sometimes, if you are stuck in a scene — KL for example — you have to play what the audiences want. So you play what other people are playing, you join the bands, and you kind of sound like everyone else after a while.
“Leaving KL allowed me a few years to become lost in a lot of R&D and eventually find something that I thought was my voice.”
Hearing Mia Palencia, and the birth of “Double Take”.
Roger came back from KL and after working for a year at Baxter and James, he set up a recording studio from home.
One day, a woman turned up with her daughter Mia Palencia, to record a demo. Mia’s mother was organising an event for an insurance company, and they needed to record “New York, New York.” Mia was just 14.
“First time I heard her, it was like, Wow! I could tell the voice was there, and at that age, singing jazz with that kind of maturity, I was quite impressed with her voice.
“About a year later, I was looking for a singer to do weddings and annual dinners, that kind of thing. So she came in for a 3 or 4 piece band. A bit later, when she was about 16, I let her listen to Tuck and Patti. She got it right away, she understood what they were trying to do. So we started trying to do Tuck and Patti stuff, and that’s how it began.”
“We had our debut performance as Double Take in January 2000, at Something Al’s. That was the first time trying that whole ‘just a guitar and a voice’ thing. It was easy to gel with Mia, our tastes in the kind of songs was similar.
“Looking back, it was like: what are the odds of finding someone at the right time to put that together – there was no jazz going on here then! Nothing! We were heavily criticised when we came out. Like, why are two young people doing all these old songs? And with just a guitar? But we believed in what we were doing. We knew that this was the direction we should take.
“We did try to do the more standard things: we played in a band, things like that. But once we did that, our identity was lost; what was unique about ‘Double Take’ was suddenly not there anymore. We just sounded like any other band. What made us unique was the way the guitar and the voice gelled together.
“When we released the album ‘Double Take’ in November 2000, we tried to go to KL. Tried to break in the scene there.”
Roger shook his head at the memory!
“You know, before Air Asia and the whole travel thing, KK and KL were just totally different countries! Even the radio stations that we listened to; in Sabah it was Radio 4, that was the big thing, the English pop channel. In KL, Radio 4 was considered ‘the government station’. They were more into private radio stations.
“We just went there with a few leads, but either we weren’t knocking the right doors, or they were not ready for us. Some record companies were like, they’d heard the CD but weren’t sure what to do with it.
“The Guitar Store, they liked what we were doing, because I was playing a Maton guitar, so they were like our first supporter, and our first partner in KL. There were one or two music outlets where we played, but it didn’t lead to a gig anywhere. We tried to get on radio on that first trip, but we couldn’t get a slot! There was no opening. They were just NOT interested. No Black Tie was there, but we didn’t know about it!”
Mia’s mother acted as a kind of manager for the duo. They stayed in KL for a week or two. “Looking back now, I don’t think we achieved much,” mused Roger.
Double Take did a few performances, a week-long gig in the lobby of the Concorde Hotel in KL, and a short stint in Kuching.
“Mia was still studying. She was in Form 4 or 5 and a lot of things had to evolve around her studies. Later on, our ‘Double Take’ sound became clearer.”
The importance of Timing and Repackaging.
Roger decided to do an album on his own in 2003, ‘Journey Home’. Through this work he got to know EQ Music, a distributor in Singapore. They wanted to repackage the album ‘Double Take’.
“They released in KL again; same songs, same line-up, everything. But THIS time we had a bunch of interviews and we were on radio stations, because by then everybody was doing an acoustic jazz thing.”
From Mia Palencia
“As Roger mentioned, I met him when I was 14 years old. He made a huge impression on me from the start. In many ways, he was my first music teacher. He was the first person other than my family who encouraged me to really explore myself as a singer. After all these years, he remains a music mentor and a treasured friend.
“Looking back, I marvel at the evolution of Double Take. We struggled with finding a style and groove in the beginning, and we dabbled with many genres. At the end of the day, however, we gravitated to each other and found that keeping the equation down to its simplest form was not just less hassle, but incredibly liberating. Of course, we still went through a lot of trial and error, even after making that decision to work as a duo! While playing with less people gave us a more defining focus, the fact that it was just the the guitar and the voice opened up a completely new world to us. When you take out the drums, the bass and the piano, you effectively have two people who must work doubly hard [no pun intended 😉 ] to sound whole, grounded and interesting all at the same time. We spent a lot of time jamming and practicing before finding the cohesive sound we enjoy today. Of course, it helped that he has always been a superb guitarist.
“Through it all, however, we always got the fundamental part right; and that was to have fun. Working with Roger doesn’t feel like ‘work’ to me. There is real magic when we get together, and our chemistry both on and off the stage makes making music with him a real joy. His sensitivity, not just with his guitar, but towards my singing, is unrivaled. It’s not always easy finding the right person to make music with. I guess I just got lucky from the start.
“Roger and I will continue to evolve as musicians, with and without each other. We both have separate solo careers and I deeply respect that. But there really is nothing like Double Take … just like there really is no one like Roger Wang. 🙂
All the best,
From Gina Panizales
Roger is one of the coolest musicians I’ve ever met. Cynthia Ong introduced us at the point in my life when I thought I’ll never sing again. We jammed in his studio…and the rest was history.
I told myself, this time, I’m going all the way and making the most of what I’ve got. But when I was starting my album — I couldn’t. It took me three months to push for it and pull it out because I had no heart to do it…He was very patient to wait with me and very professional. And when we cracked the first track, everything just flowed through. We were like a family, even sharing with him my baby’s cot so he didn’t have to buy one.
I’m sharing with you part of the credits in my “Finally” album:
“To Roger Wang who unselfishly shared his extraordinary talent, patiently collaborated the arrangements with me, and especially allowed me to spread my wings and fly, my sincere thanks. Finally I know what artistic freedom means. Also to the staff of RAM Studio KK for cheering and supporting my efforts, I thank you.”
Roger said that 2003 was the year when things really took off for Double Take. Roger played his first gig at No Black Tie in KL, on an all-guitarist night. Double Take followed suit, and then it was on to the Sunrise Jazz Festival in KL.
“The reaction there was the typical resistance which Double Take had to overcome everywhere,” he said. “The emcee for the festival was a guy called Tim, who was a popular DJ in KL. He saw us – we were this two piece band – and he said to the organisers ‘Are you sure you want to put them on? The other bands will eat them up!’ The other bands were six piece bands, with big drum kits, the works. The organisers stuck by us, and by the end of it, we were Tim’s favourite act. He put us on his radio show, stuff like that.
“This is how it has always been for Double Take. People ask – so, what can they do? Strum and sing? That is the kind of perception we have to break, every time. ” But 2003 was the year when it all took off for Double Take.
[Roger’s ten year anniversary album, Milestones, will include tracks from Double Take, along with 2V1G, Farid Ali, and Gina Panizales.]