Roger Wang recorded his first (and only) solo album “Journey Home” in 2003. “At this point, I felt it was something that I had to do.” What was Roger coming back to, on his Journey Home?
“‘Journey Home’ was ASIAN. Growing up, I listened to Western music, played a Western instrument, I was “Westernized”. So on this album, I was applying all that to Asian tunes. It was a musical journey home in that sense. It was in my back yard.”
The seminal idea for the album came from a joke, a challenge from Roger’s friend Yap Kv.
“I was at a point: ok – this is my instrument, this is the way I play it, but what do I play? My good friend Yap said, “Play a Chinese piece, apply your style to that! So, for a joke, I did it – just to shut him up, you know? But halfway through I thought: ‘Hey you know, it sounds right! This is something which could work!’
“‘Journey Home’ took one song from each country, as much as was possible: an Indonesian song, one from Korea one from Japan, Taiwan. That was the concept. The repetoire was right and the album is still selling. It was something different from ‘Double Take’; it was a guitar thing, and I haven’t done a solo album since then! The rest has been all collaborations. I’ve been writing things for a solo album, but other things are always coming in! But it will happen one day.”
Peter and Simon Lau, partners in time
“I met Peter and Simon Lau in 1997 or 98. They are from Labuan and are based there. I met Simon first, through another bassist I was playing with. We jammed, and he was into something totally different from any other bassist I had played with. He was a bit jazzy, a bit funky. He invited me over to Labuan, to do something with them. They played at a club named Zoom. Peter’s drum kit back then filled up a whole room. He was like – doing everything! Legs and hands and everything. He was into that kind of style: big, very heavy, showy stuff. Loud!
“When it was time to do ‘Journey Home’, I knew I wanted it to be more than just the guitar; I wanted a band for certain songs and they were the best musicians that I knew. I enjoyed working with them. For Peter it was a challenge in the beginning, to tell him to play less; and to do more with less things. But he got it, to the point of designing drum sets to play with me. We did a short tour together for ‘Journey Home’, and there is always fighting when you have a full drum set and an acoustic guitar. The drums are too overwhelming. So he needed to modify something, and he’s still doing it. Peter Lau understands what I am trying to do, and he’a a good player. His brother Simon is a good player too. So these two, they’ve always been with me.”
The Audiophile Scene and Leslie Loh
Roger did not realise that the album “Double Take” had become a favourite with audiophiles.
“Leslie Loh [whose company is audiophile record label pop pop music] brought me into this whole audiophile scene. He came to Double Take’s first ‘No Black Tie’ show. The album had become an audiophile’s reference disc, mostly because the instrumentation was simple. It’s just a voice and a guitar, and it was playing music that audiophile people could relate to. With very simple instrumentation, they can hear details: they want to hear everything.
“So Leslie got me into that scene and wanted to produce an album for audiophiles. 2V1G is his brainchild.”
Working with pop pop music is a personal experience. “It’s a very small independent company, started by one or two very passionate guys. Working with them is not like working with Universal Music where you are dealing with a corporation.
“Leslie wanted to take that idea — just a guitar and voice — and apply that to Chinese music with audiophile recording. It sounded like something that would work, because I don’t think anyone else was doing that – and you’re talking about an audiophile market which would generally be a lot of Chinese in the 30, 40, 50 year old age range. So as a concept it sounded pretty good. I didn’t imagine it going outside of the audiophile scene.
Now, I don’t listen to Chinese music, and Leslie wanted me on this project, because of my non-Chineseness. Leslie felt that, for me to look at Chinese music from my angle, would be refreshing. Of course he could get an American to do it, for example, but he would probably be TOO non-Chinese! I mean, I still eat rice and all that, right?
“My music is leading me back to China, but it’s being in KK which has enabled all this to happen. Despite avoiding everything that was Chinese, it’s my music that is taking me back to China. My friends all tease me: ‘You can run away but it’s gonna pull you back in!'”
Growing up, I tried to avoid anything that was Chinese. Music, the culture, the language. I don’t speak Chinese very well. I did my whole primary school in Mandarin, and told my mum that’s enough. No more. It’s not working for me. So I have a history in that “non-Chinese” thing.”
” ‘Journey Home’ was one step towards that, and now it’s step-step-step all the way to Beijing! [Roger is referring to the planned Jacky Cheung concert in Beijing, to promote Jacky’s ‘Private Corner’ album, on which one song is written and performed by Roger].
Roger always stayed true to his music. Even to play with Cantopop icon Jacky Cheung, Roger did not walk over to Cantopop. It was Jacky who wanted to make a jazz album.
“But that’s why I say being in KK has made enabled all these things to happen,” said Roger. “Stephen Lim [Jacky Cheung’s personal sound engineer] is from KK.” The KK Jazz Festival, I started it here. I wouldn’t have started a jazz festival in KL. It was through the jazz festival that I met Stephen, a KK boy.”
“Being in KK means having the freedom to record and release an album even though it’s not relevant for the market, just because this is what we like and we want to put it out. Being in KK means having the liberty to do that, and the facilities to do it.”
It was Roger’s one track mind again, as if he doesn’t consider what other people think, when he wants to do something. It must be an overriding trait which brings him to where he is now. “Yes,” Roger concurred. “It’s a blessing and a curse.
“One of the reasons I wanted to study sound engineering and sound production, is because I wanted the knowledge to be able to do everything on my own. Not just the playing, but the whole thing. That characteristic is definitely in me.”
The recording of 2V1G.
“All the songs on the album were covers of Chinese songs. They sent it all to me, and my first impression was: they all sound the same! What can I do with these?”
This project was in a different realm. “It was really challenging to get deeper into it. I have to admit, the first recording session was tough. Some of the songs I couldn’t do anything with. I finally figured out the only way to make it work was to accept that it’s not about changing the chords or turning it upside down, but it’s more on the touch: how I play the notes. It could be just a simple arpeggio, just the way it’s played, that’s what made it work. It’s not whether it’s a C Major 9 flat 5 kind of thing, because throwing in a heavy chord didn’t work. If you look at it on paper it looks so simple, so it was more about the touch and approach.
To help his interpretation, the record company translated the titles and the meanings of the songs to Roger.
“The first session was really, really a struggle. The producer in charge was a pioneer in the Chinese pop music scene.
[Separately, Leslie Loh said his name is Zhou Jin Liang (Chow Kam Leong). A veteran with over 20 years in the local Chinese pop industry. He also produced Ah Niu’s (Tan Kheng Seong) debut album which sold over 100,000 copies.]
“He’s Malaysian. He was describing to me what he was looking for, and I was like, ‘Does he mean this? Does he mean that?’ So that first session – actually the first whole album – was a struggle. By the end I was slowly getting the hang of it.
“The producer was a guitarist too, and he gave me the freedom to explore what to do. I mean, he knew why I was there, to give these Chinese songs a fresh interpretation. So he was trying to allow that to happen and not control me too much. But at the same time, he was trying to lead me to the right direction, to what I should be doing.
“But I think he was also struggling. After recording that, in all honesty, I didn’t expect much from it. That’s the thing, you see. When you are trying to do something new, it’s very hard to put your finger on what is right or not.
“Working with two singers from the Chinese pop industry was totally different from working with Mia. The approach, everything was different. With jazz, there is all that flexibility, improvisation, spontaneity. With singers from a pop Chinese scene there’s none of that. They sing it the way we rehearsed it.
“The album came out in 2008. After I did my part with the guitar tracks it took about a year before the album came out. I had kinda forgotten about it. It was a side project, just something to try out, I just didn’t think much of it, frankly speaking.
“Leslie sent me the album. When I heard it again, I felt uncomfortable listening to it, because the recording was very dry. Naked. It was really like this group is sitting right in front of you, playing. No effects, very pure. Too pure. No echo, no reverb, hardly anything. It’s the audiophile approach, they like it as pure as possible. It’s even purer than ‘Double Take’, which I already thought was quite pure. To make things worse, what I was playing was so simple! I felt really uncomfortable about that. I couldn’t get past that, at first.
“But it did well in the market. The industry people reacted quite heavily, like: ‘You can’t do that. It’s silly, it’ll never work.’ But the consumers – the audiophile people – they liked it, and surprisingly it crossed over to the mainstream market. Somehow, the non-audiophile listeners could relate to it.
“I think this is because Chinese pop music has gotten to a point where everything is over-arranged, over-produced, it’s lost some kind of intimacy. So I think 2V1G gave a breath of fresh air to the whole scene. It’s actually my best-selling album! To the point that it’s been pirated 😀 ” Roger dug out the pirated copy! “I had to buy one for myself. It cost me three ringgit!” He laughed. “It has three bonus tracks on it which have nothing to do with us. From Karamunsing.”
“So we are working on the second 2V1G album now [due out mid-August], and this time going into it, I feel more comfortable. Same concept, but with a different singer, Jeffrey Lim. The songs don’t go too far back. Mostly it’s 80’s and 90’s Mandarin pop. Also, they’re doing a Mandarin version of ‘Love Scale’. Leslie always wanted to do it. So I’m glad that didn’t come out first. It would have been a problem [for the Jacky Cheung recording] because then it would have been out in the Chinese market already.
[In the next post, pop pop music’s “Love Tapestry” with Gina Panizales, and working with Farid Ali. See you then!]