Zane Stroud and I used to be bandmates; we left the band and started new lives, and Zane is now heading in my direction–to become an academic.
Zane and his wife Bessie drove Zoe and me to Clearwater Bay to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. We took this double date quite seriously, because it was our first excursion together in a car.
We arrived at the beach, and were glad that the kids were all home. Quiet was all we needed. The wind was pretty warm, but Zoe didn’t complain, which means the temperature was just right. We set up a small tent, laid our food and drinks on the mat, and lit the lanterns (electric ones). Zane and I chatted about our jobs and studies, and the wives took pictures of the moon, trying very hard to zoom in and capture the craters.
We ate some sushi and pizza, and drank just a little bit – Zane was driving back that night. We planned to stay until 1 or 2 a.m. When the moon would be high. We didn’t have to work on Saturday – Zane no longer had Saturday tutoring jobs.
This was probably the first time I saw Zane looking more relaxed on a weekday evening.
We suddenly brought up memories of our previous incarnations as indie musicians. Not really suddenly, because we were talking about how we finally understood our priorities, and had made choices that we considered best for what was to come in five to ten years. We didn’t regret it.
“I don’t think we’re really great musicians as we thought ourselves to be.” Zane said as his gaze moved in random directions, tracing his memories.
Zane and I played in our friend Corey’s band The Gatling Gun Revival, from 2012 to 2014, and released our only album. We played quite a lot of shows. Proudest moment: on the main stage at Clockenflap, which hosted acts such as Tame Impala, Two Door Cinema Club, Alt-J and Damien Rice:
Stuck in the Middle with You
We did have our opportunities; we just let them slip. There was once a wealthy businessman called Steve Bernstein (who managed Yuto Miyazawa, a child prodigy who plays the guitar). Steve reached out to us to see whether we wanted him to manage us, too. How we responded to his proposal didn’t surprise us, but it surprised him enough that we didn’t hear from him anymore.
It was clearly bad timing. We all had reached a certain age and it no longer made sense to take risks and lead the lives of touring rock-stars. We did a proper reality check. It was 2013. We had all just turned 30. I had started my PhD. Zane probably was still figuring out how to move forward, and Corey was just married. We had realised that we weren’t going to make a living doing music.
“Well, we sounded like Mumford and Sons didn’t we? We just couldn’t get rid of that vibe… when Corey played the guitar and a kick drum,” I replied, struggling to stand up and shake my legs after sitting in a weird position for so long. I’m nearly 40 now.
“I have always wanted to sound like a Beatle. After all, we weren’t really that original.” I shrugged, and made a face as if I slightly despised myself.
Once in a Lifetime?
I searched through my memories as we were silent for a moment. There were quite a couple of times when I had to make similar decisions, and finally didn’t choose the musical path.
After all, the Gatling Gun Revival was hardly my first band. Innisfallen, the band I founded in 2005, released its only album, Reallusion, in 2007. For this album, we recorded our songs in four different locations: two studios, our rehearsing place, and the rooftop of the studio. We crammed into a small van, and had our promo pictures taken at three spots in Hong Kong. We organised three release parties. Asked two friends to do a stop-motion promo video for “Butterfly Effect” (I sang really bad):
After Reallusion, I let my guitarist and drummer go so that they could focus on their careers. I still thought I would persevere. But after playing at Spring Scream 2012, I wasn’t really committed anymore. I didn’t know how to go on with my materials, and didn’t want to face the fact that that was it. Innisfallen then went on an indefinite hiatus. What a euphemistic way to say we “disbanded.”
The closest I felt to really getting one foot in the door was 2010, when I halted all activities with Innisfallen and started an acoustic duo called The Tranquil Summer Sea with a girl named Karmen. Long story short, we won an audition held by a radio channel, and a chance to perform at Simple Life Festival in Taipei.
A friend of mine made a short documentary about The Tranquil Summer Sea:
After that, things started to take off – we had a lot of gigs at events and malls, and started to become popular. We had our demos recorded, and that was when I seriously considered getting signed. We were also ready to record our songs more professionally.
Another Brick in the Wall
Then one day, Karmen called, “we’re going to TVB!” As an indie musician, I don’t find it overly glorious or appealing to perform on a mainstream TV channel that had never shown respect for music – their music programs were shown late at night, meaning that very few people would watch it. And I also didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t involved in the discussion about when and where to record, and where to play our music. I didn’t feel respected as a partner.
Although my principles were apparently justifiable, I chose the most cowardly way to end the partnership. I stopped responding Karmen’s calls and messages, and the group was no more.
There was one night when I had a conversation with Zoe, who was still my girlfriend then, and I cried for not being able to reach the heights at which I could pursue a music career. I didn’t admit I hadn’t worked hard enough to take the leap – I just thought I was “getting old”. Neither did I admit that that were just some stupid principles I upheld that kept me from going further.
How to Disappear Completely
If I look back at the choices I had made for my music journey, the conclusion I can draw is: I only thought I was serious about a music career. I thought I poured my heart and soul into it. I thought I had the grit to stay who I wanted to be.
It turns out subconsciously, I’ve held back; or maybe been subconsciously giving myself reality-checks. The reality that “musician” is always an identity after a slash: a white collar/musician; a PhD student/musician; a scholar/musician. Pursuing one dream has kept the other in check. A dream of a stable and recognised life trumps rocky adventures.
I will never say one should not pursue a music career here. It’s just there’s too much precarity in this field that I can no more tread the risky water at my age.
Excuses, excuses. But maybe not bad ones. For Zane and for me.
Rewind: this was probably the first time I saw Zane looking more relaxed on a weekday evening.
Zane has finished his undergraduate degree and just started his master’s degree in TESOL. Aspiring to be a university lecturer, he landed a part-time teaching job in the evening. This means that he doesn’t have to travel all over the city to do exhausting tutoring jobs.
And me, I’m still practising music and writing songs. But that’s simply because I have earned the stability in my life: married, no children, fulfilling career, and occasional double dates like this one, celebrating that work is over for the week.
These are the realities I can hold on to.