Patrick Chng: From Oddfellow to Typewriter guitarist

Patrick Chng might have a reputation for being the nicest guy in Singapore rock, but that does not mean he cannot get annoyed.

One thing that gets his back up - journalists who play up his position as an elder statesman of rock and how his band The Oddfellows blazed a trail two decades ago.

His past seems to be what many of them are interested in, at the expense of what he is doing now.

"I hate those questions," he says, flashing an embarrassed smile. "I didn't just live in that period."

It presupposes that he belongs to an earlier time and that today's music scene is produced only by fresh-faced members of the YouTube generation.

At 45, he still thinks of himself as deeply involved in the industry, as guitarist in pop quartet TypeWriter, producer for local acts, music journalist and soundtrack composer, and as a representative of American guitar company Gibson. He co-founded and runs music news site walkonmusic.net.

But he does not blame writers for putting his legacy ahead of his current work.

There is a curiosity about the days when the only local acts in the English- language rock scene were cover bands, he says.

If support for local original music is poor today, it was completely absent when The Oddfellows formed in 1988. For the few making original music, there were no gigs, no radio or label backing to be had.

"They want to ask someone who has been there, to compare those times and now. In a way, they have a right to ask because it was a completely different world," he says.

It was in that world, in 1991, that Chng, with drummers Casey Soo and Abdul Nizam, released the album Teenage Head.

The cassette and CD achieved several firsts: First full-length alt-rock album by a local band in almost a decade; the first underground band to be released by a major label, in this case BMG Singapore; and the first indie band to reach No. 1 on the radio charts.

Recorded for a princely sum of $500, it was actually a demo recording that BMG felt captured the do-it-yourself underground vibe and was distributed with minor tweaks.

The baby-faced Chng was the main singer and songwriter. His singing was raw, often off-key, and songs were built around simple patterns and his strummed guitar.

Teenage Head is now considered a pop culture milestone but it is not one that Chng can listen to today. He cringes if he hears it or any of his early material.

"Oh s**t," he says, groaning. "The vocals are so bad, the guitar playing is so bad, it's out of tune. But back then, it was all just for the moment. You go in there and just do it, you don't think so much about it."

Like several of the acts which followed and which produced music that was just as unpolished, his band were inspired by the lo-fi, do-it-yourself scene. At the time, production tools were expensive and the province of music professionals, far beyond the reach of indie acts.

Today, at TypeWriter's rehearsal space on the second floor of a shophouse in Arab Street, there are Mac computers doing what it would have taken a roomful of gear to do back then.

Chng is in a T-shirt and shorts. The space, Thom's Loft, smells of cat and is named after the resident feline. The grey, fluffy Thom sleeps in a corner during the interview.

However, Chng does most of his music production work at his home studio in an HDB flat in Marine Vista.

He considers himself primarily a musician. "That's what I put on immigration forms," he says. But his time is spread around his various freelance gigs, as well as being a husband and the father of a two-year-old son.

His own life reflects the reality of what it means to be a musician in Singapore.

"I know a lot of musicians who play in clubs, playing covers, and in the day, they teach music or they might do music production," he says.

He speaks enthusiastically about how TypeWriter recently toured Britain at the invitation of a music festival there and the band plan to release an EP soon. He and Oddfellows member Kelvin Tan, who joined the band later, are also talking about recording an album.

For someone who says he is an "instinctive musician" and who became known for simple songs, it comes as a surprise to learn that he does have a musical education.

As a child, he studied classical piano up to Grade 5, from the age of seven to 12. Both his parents were primary school teachers. His mother died of a viral illness when he was in Primary 6. His father is retired and he has two younger sisters, aged 44 and 42. The older sister lives in Australia and teaches piano, and the younger one is a housewife.

Both parents loved music and he grew to share their enjoyment of it. His father likes The Beatles and The Everly Brothers while his mother preferred Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard songs. His primary school education was at St Michael's School (now St Joseph's Institution Junior), then St Joseph's Institution, before going to Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he took a diploma course in business studies.

He picked up the guitar at 10. There was always one in the house, he says. An uncle showed him a few chords but he also learnt to play from the thick, inexpensive pop songbooks found in every bookshop in the 1970s.

St Joseph's Institution was close to the old National Library, then in Stamford Road. It was perfectly located for a boy fascinated by pop and rock music.

"Before and after school, I'd go there and read all the rock history books," he says. "It also had a small collection of CDs and a CD player with headphones. There were two CDs I kept listening to over and over - Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run. They were my favourites."

He played the electric guitar for the first time at a jam studio while waiting for his O-level results. He was working at the then C.K. Tang department store and co-workers had invited him to play with them.

"The sound was so powerful. There was something about it," he says. He was hooked and saved up money from part- time jobs to buy his first electric guitar. He joined his first real band when he was in the polytechnic.

In 1985, the seminal pop culture magazine BigO by brothers and former journalists Michael and Philip Cheah, and Stephen Tan was launched. The monthly opened the teen's eyes and ears to new sights and sounds.

"They spoke about an alternative culture, about music that you couldn't hear on the radio," he says.

The magazine announced that it would release a recording comprising original music submitted by readers. The teen sent a tape recorded on a portable player, but it was not picked.

The cassette compilation, Nothing On The Radio, was released in 1986 and it hit the polytechnic student like a thunderbolt.

"I said, 'Wow, this is awesome'. It was mind-blowing, one of those life-changing events," he says. Hearing the bands Corporate Toil and State Of Art told him he needed to up his songwriting game.

A year later, he formed The Oddfellows, with drummer Soo and Tan, one of the founding members of BigO. They released a demo EP, Mild, in 1988 and the three-song cassette Phooney Accent in 1990.

But Tan quit after getting married in 1990 and Soo dropped out to study in Australia in 1992.

Johnny Ong replaced Soo in 1993 and is still the band's drummer. Vincent Lee, who was playing in the Nonames, replaced Tan on bass. Kelvin Tan, a friend of Chng's, had played guitar on his tape submission to BigO. He was added as a guitar player in 1991 after the release of Teenage Head. A second album, Carnival, followed in 1992.

While the band's music could be found on shorter releases and in compilations, Carnival was their last full-length album. In the early 1990s, Chng could focus on music for the band because he worked part-time, "just bumming around", he says. He had a job at a CD shop and also at the Singapore International Film Festival when it was in season.

But his father urged him to find full- time work and in 1995, he took a job as production assistant with cable channel MTV Asia. Band activities then took a back seat. He went on to do Web content production with MTV Asia. By 2007, he become editor of its website.

He quit that year to pursue his current interests because he felt stifled creatively.

Oddfellows members have never opted to dissolve the band and there has never been a member who quit in anger, he says, and they still perform the old songs at reunions and showcases.

Guitarist Kelvin Tan, 49, says the secret to the band's longevity is the absence of ego.

Chng has been the band's principal singer and songwriter, but unlike in many other groups, does not act as if the role gives him extra rights.

"He doesn't want to be in control. We all have an equal say. We are really democratic as a band. It's a very rare thing," Tan says.

The musician, who has had a long career as a solo singer-songwriter and teaches part-time at the Puttnam School of Film at the Lasalle College of the Arts, confirms what others say about Chng - that he is extremely even-tempered.

Chng's air of calm will desert him on a few occasions, such as before a live show or if someone is less than punctual for practice. He does not treat the music as just rock 'n' roll, says Tan. Achieving a standard of performance is important to him.

"He worries about whether the performance will go well. In normal life, he's quite zen. But it's another thing altogether when we are on stage. When he's stressed, he will become quiet and wants to be left alone."

Chng's decision to leave his MTV job was a decision that his wife Stephanie Chok, 37, who is pursuing a PhD, did not have a problem with.

In an e-mail interview, she says she understands and supports his decision, even though he had to take a salary cut.

She says: "I understood why he did it because I also freelanced for a few years and I have friends who have freelanced for a very long time... I wouldn't want him to stay in a full-time position if he was unhappy.

"Moreover, freelancing has its benefits. Yes, financially, there is less security and income fluctuates month to month.

"But when Matt was born, this meant that Patrick was able to spend a lot more time with him. It also meant he had more freedom and time to develop and get involved in a variety of interesting projects."

These projects - running the music website and music production, among others - "don't earn half as much" as he used to make as editor of the MTV website. But it seems that the spirit that moved the younger Patrick Chng to form a band doing only original material is still present.

"Financially, it's tough. But I need to put my heart and soul into what I love. I have no regrets," he says.


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