Ely Buendia on Existence, Loneliness, and the Songs That Matter Featured

Ely Buendia on Existence, Loneliness, and the Songs That Matter

 

 

The very first song I ever wrote would have to be this song called “The Junction,” inspired by Michael Jackson. Kind of R&B. Disco. Falsetto. I only got as far as the chorus. I got myself a Walkman and I bought myself the cassette of Off The Wall, and then I started sound-tripping and suddenly, after I put down the Walkman, a tune started playing in my head.

I remember the nights were very dark. We lived in Naga, Camarines Sur in Bicol, from 1970 to ’75. It was a very provincial existence. I don’t even think we had electricity. I just remember being very afraid when it turned dark. The lights were almost always out in our house. It was a small house. My mom, brother, and I lived with my uncle because my father was working here in Manila. We moved to Manila in 1976. I know that because the first movie I saw was Star Wars.

The first person I knew who played guitar was my cousin. In drinking sessions, he’d be the one sitting there, strumming a guitar. He could play anything. I got one of my songs from him actually: “Toyang.” I don’t know where he got it, I never asked him but I assumed it was a traditional Bicolano folk song.

Honestly, I’m more comfortable in English. Somebody said that I have weird syntax in English. I think I have weirder syntax in Tagalog.

There was a time when writing in Tagalog was more of a conscious decision. The songs that we started writing in the beginning were all in English. Blues-based stuff like “Waiting for the Bus,” “Scorpio Rising.” But “Ligaya” and “Pare Ko,” came from a natural place kasi probinsyano ako and everything I would hear in Bicol was all OPM, and I’m also comfortable with that kind of music. But lyric-wise, I could not write anything poetic in English so it was all kantospeak.

Wala akong concept ng baduy o cool noon. Ngayon na lang.

 
 


THE BAND

I didn’t think recording for a major label meant I sold out. I only had that concept instilled in me when people started criticizing the Eraserheads. I found myself wondering “Did I sell out?” I must’ve sold out because we made it big and a lot of people didn’t like the songs, they were too pop.

The Eheads wasn’t pop. I was pop.

When I started writing for the Eheads, I wrote for the band. I was looking for a sound everybody would be comfortable with. At that time, it came naturally. We played with the blues. We were into classic rock, Elvis, Beatles. David Bowie, we were into that.

We started auditioning in bars around ‘89. There was this place in Balara, a place called Anthem, and we played Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. Finally, Club Dredd took us under their wing.

The feeling of rejection isn’t nice. But I guess that’s where my naïveté served me. At that time, you had nothing to lose, and you believed in yourself and you believed that there has to be someone who’ll like you and that kept me going.

I remember a very cinematic and clichéd image: we just got rejected at Anthem, and we were walking in the rain after, and there was this truck that drove over a puddle, and it all splashed on to me. Just me.

At that time, you had nothing to lose, and you believed in yourself and you believed that there has to be someone who’ll like you and that kept me going.

 
 

Most of my lyrics are dark, if I had the choice, even the melodies would be dark. But then again it wasn’t going to work. We started covering Metallica, we started covering The Cult until Jing Garcia approached us and said di kayo bagay sa ganyan. He was right.

That band really had an identity crisis when I think about it. Iba-ibang influences eh. Raimund was a hip-hop guy. Buddy was a jazz guy and I was mostly a folk guy but I think that also affected the songwriting. We were trying to find the right style for us. We were so different musically, so it was a push and pull kind of thing, there’s always tension. For example, I’d write a song and I wanted the drums to be this way and Raimund wouldn’t follow me. Also Marcus. That’s why most of the time I always recorded the guitar parts.

I was aware that we were lacking somewhat in chops. Raimund was just starting out. Marcus just started learning guitar and Buddy wasn’t really a bass player. That was one of the reasons why I had to focus on songwriting and tried to be unique and new as possible.

At that point in time, it didn’t affect me at all. I had nothing then. There’s ego involved when you become successful. There were people who would say, “You’re the best thing to ever happen.” Of course, you can’t help but absorb that and believe it. And there would be people who would say something bad, and it would hurt. But before, it didn’t mean anything, because we were just starting out. I was very confident at that time, kahit na alam kong bano ako. It was all attitude, just sheer attitude of, “Fuck you, we’re gonna play our music.”

Raymund’s his own man and I needed that from the start, that’s why I just let it be. He could explain stuff that I could not explain musically to the other guys and…even though we didn’t write a lot of songs together, production-wise, arrangement-wise he was always with me.

How important was Buddy? Buddy played bass. (laughs) He played very good bass. He gave the Eheads a little bit of credibility. A lot of people laughed at the three of us but of course they were hats off to Buddy.

Marcus? Well, he was Marcus. He was there, he had his own thing. People responded to him. It wouldn’t be the Eraserheads sound without his dirty guitars.

THE SONGS

What would I consider the top five songs I’ve written? Number one would be “Poorman’s Grave.” Then “TNT,” “Alapaap,” “Magasin,” “Disconnection Notice.”

“Magasin” was based on my cousin who apparently dated Shirley Tesoro…Naging bold star siya. May mga movies siya dati eh. ‘Yung original title nga nun “Tiktik” eh. One of those songs I wrote on the way home from work. Bumaba ako sa Baclaran; puro magasin ‘yung nakikita mo dun. But the chorus came from a somewhat stylish influence…I got that from Marvin Gaye… “Sexual Healing.”

“Poorman’s Grave,” I’m so proud of because it was one of the few songs that I wrote that wasn’t based on anything and it came out from a real desire to express something that I felt at that time—which was, to put it bluntly, father issues, and not having the freedom of doing what you want at that age. I was a teenager then, in high school. Fifteen. It’s very, very personal and I only really appreciated that song after [the band] Hilera approached me and said they liked that song. And, well, gano’n naman ako eh, di ko alam kung maganda ’yung song ko or what. I have no idea if I’m good or I’m bad.

The greatest lesson from my mom is love conquers all. I think that would be it. She didn’t say it. She just showed me.

 
 

It was about my dad, what I saw at that time. I was frustrated, and that line about “He comes home drunk every night” was as real as I could get. Actually, “Acid Tongue” from Wanted: Bedspacer was also about him. “Acid Tongue” was him.

Now? We patched things up from the time that was really bad, and I like to think that I’ve matured and let all that go.

After [President] Marcos left, my dad lost his job. He had a hard time after that. Palipat-lipat siya ng trabaho. I remember I had to write letters to the school for my tuition, the promissory notes. I don’t know if those promissory notes were connected or not, but I remember that was when my dad became increasingly difficult. The family dynamics became much more volatile. He was always arguing with my mom, and taking it out on the kids.

I think, now, I understand my dad more. I was also hard on him and I could’ve done my part. Of course, when you’re a teenager, you’re only concerned with your own feelings. You have no clue about the big picture. When you grow older, you learn to appreciate what your parents went through. My dad was close to 30 at that time, and when I became that age, I tried to put things in perspective.

Ngayon na lang I think he’s proud. Brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. Of course when I was in college, I was really into music. I wanted it to be my career. I was just in Film because I couldn’t get into Architecture. He wanted me to become a doctor but I didn’t have the ability to become a doctor. And when I started playing, he wasn’t really supportive.

 
 


The greatest lesson from my mom is love conquers all. I think that would be it. She didn’t say it. She just showed me.

From my dad? Well, he showed me what I did not want to be, parenting-wise.

I’m more like my dad. He was a creative person. He wrote very, very long love letters. He was very romantic. He appreciated the value of being mysterious. He had this image of being mysterious and silent when he was in high school.

“Alapaap?” A songwriter can ask no more than to have a song as controversial as that. Was it an allusion to drugs? Of course. You should know. Kaya nga na-pinpoint ‘yun e ‘cause it’s pretty obvious. Puwede ring hindi (about drugs), and that’s what we argued back then. (But) everybody knows what it’s about. Weed lang naman.

It is similar to the Pale Fountains’ “Reach.” Yes, I admit. I think this is the first time I will admit that. I’ve never admitted it before. Just the first few measures, and after that it’s a different song. I wasn’t comfortable with that. Kaya sabi ko sa’yo, ngayon ko lang iaadmit yan. (But) I think it’s the way you appropriate it.

I think when you appreciate the song that appropriated the other song, if you can appreciate it on its own merits, even after the fact, I guess ‘yun na eh. ‘Yung sa Orange and Lemons parang kinopya lang talaga, wala nang dinagdag na halo…Wala silang dinagdag na sarili nila. Di pa nila binawi ng konti.

I think it’s the only artistic method, don’t you think? Everybody gets from everybody else before, don’t you think?

I kinda related to outcasts at that time and “Hey Jay” is not about being gay. Not strictly about that. A big part of it was. I also identified with those people who couldn’t express themselves freely.

I can’t write a happy song, although I try.

 
 


With the Eheads it was always the melody. Sometimes—like with “El Bimbo” and “Wag Mo Nang Itanong” and “Magasin”—lyrics came out at the same time as the melody. Mostly the intro and then I started mixing things up just to keep it fresh. I tried other methodologies. Some I got from Raimund and Buddy and Marcus who always wrote differently, who mostly started from lyrics. Sometimes I couldn’t understand how to do that. Just not the way I did things.

ON PLAYING LIVE

On critics telling us we couldn’t play? Even now, I look back upon that time. I’m still trying to figure out what was wrong, especially when we broke up and we started our own bands. Marcus started his own thing, Raimund had Sandwich during Eheads. I was always thinking “Bakit magaling silang live tapos ‘pag kami na, we suck?”

It wasn’t that we were lacking musical ability, no. We weren’t technically proficient. I think only Buddy really fit that bill. Raimund could play keyboards very well. Marcus really could not play during that time. I could not play for shit. Analysis ko dun it was the songs. Probably the songs.

Why were the Eraserheads successful? The clashing styles of the band members made up a kind of Frankenstein’s monster that somehow worked.

 
 

I think Eheads songs were too complicated. The songs I think were difficult to play for the biggest things. “Pare Ko?” Tuning pa lang, komplikado na. Naka E flat kami the whole time. E flat tuning kami. Why? Wala lang. In the spirit of being different. And I guess it was kind of a joke, too. Kasi ‘yun ‘yung uso noon na songhits…we wanted to give the tablature guys a hard time…Too many chords, too many styles. It was all over the place.

The other theory was, I think—and this is just my theory—I may be a bad leader. I think I have, like, this scrambler…I scramble their signals, their radar. It’s just a theory. Napansin ko kasi, nakailang banda na ako—nag-Eheads na ako, Pupil, Mongols—I’ve played with the best and when you look at their other work like Jerome (Velasco) and the other guys, sila Yanny (Yuzon) and, of course, the other Eheads, and I’ve even played with Hardware Syndrome, banda ni Kiko (FrancisM), pansin ko, pare, nagkakalat sila. Nagkakalat talaga sila—‘pag ako. That was my obeservation. And that’s true.

As for Pupil, we started to gel after the third album. And that’s because I started to put my foot down. I’d say what I really wanted, like, okay, live. Sabi ko, “Okay, Wendell, wala nang laro-laro. It fucks everything up.” When he’s playing with me, he just probably assumes he’s free to do anything he wants. I wanna fix that. And the live gigs got better! Mas malinis. With Eheads, everybody was playing—as in naglalaro lang talaga the whole time.

In the Eraserheads, we never rehearsed. We rarely rehearsed.

It’s only now, with Pupil, the rehearsals are more rigorous, and everything is calculated down to the ending. I think that’s it.

I think I lost my sense of humor right after "Fruitcake". It just became too much to handle. The expectations and the never-ending battles and the frustration.

More than the critics, it was me. I was my own worst critic. I really did not think the band was any good. I was trying to hold it up with pop songs, trying to survive.

Success is almost always the end of the line. That’s where things start going downhill and it’s almost impossible to hang on to it. It’s like quicksand, it’s like a trap. The more you try to please everybody, the faster you sink.

 
 


Why were the Eraserheads successful? The clashing styles of the band members made up a kind of Frankenstein’s monster that somehow worked.

Yeah, to an extent [the Eraserheads] were friends. We went through that thing together. We were.

Risk is coming out of your comfort zone. Doing stuff that you’re not sure about.

AFTER THE EHEADS

Leaving the Eheads, that was a risky move and wasn’t well thought out. I wasn’t thinking straight, not planning ahead. There was a time that I was down financially, down creatively, you name it.

The animosity that resulted from breaking up with the Eraserheads was something I did not imagine. I didn’t take it lying down, definitely. I fought back.

Medyo matigas din ulo ko eh,and the more na pinipilit nila ako to look back upon it fondly, the more I hated it. The more the audience wanted me to sing Eraserheads songs, the more I hated it.

In a way she [Diane Ventura] was the way out that I was looking for. I could not do it on my own. It was scary. I did not know what to do. If I had the choice, I would’ve left earlier.

During Natin99 it wasn’t fun anymore. I was really depressed and I was really boxed in. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything that I felt was what I really wanted.

MORE FROM ESQUIREMAG.PH

I wanted what Raimund had. I was envious of Raimund. Because he was playing with a band [Sandwich] that was close to what he wanted. It was the sound he wanted. It was the bandmates that he wanted. That’s why they played well and I was stuck with the Eheads. I was stuck with a band that I didn’t form in the first place. They recruited me. I was a recruit. It was the three of them: Buddy, Raimund and Marcus. I just came in because my real band left me—I preferred that band. The guitar player was [another guy named] Raimund but he switched to jazz, and he was into Morrissey like I was. And we were starting to write when he left.

Not to take away anything from the three guys, I’m just saying what I felt at that time cause my world was really… dun lang naka-focus attention ko. I really want to be in a band I was really a part of building.

The songs I can’t sing anymore are “Tindahan ni Aling Nena,” “Shake Yer Head,” “Toyang.” A lot of the early stuff. But I sang “Toyang” in the reunion…Yeah, because people wanted it. You know me, I am here to please. But “Aling Nena,” it’s just so hard to sing.

I stand by Fruitcake. As a whole, as a concept. But I won’t listen to it in its entirety. It was caught up in this Sgt. Pepper thing. A lot of people noticed that and that’s one of the things I regret, not being able to see the bigger picture.

I wanted what Raimund had. I was envious of Raimund. Because he was playing with a band [Sandwich] that was close to what he wanted. 

 
 

Can I imagine going back to the studio again with them? To record new stuff, no… I have scenarios in my head also—not because I’m interested in that kind of thing, but that’s the only thing I hear! You can’t help but think, ano pwede gawin kung saka-sakali? Yeah, I came up with…definitely I would not want to write songs for the Eheads. The expectations would be too great and I myself would be too concerned with a lot of stuff to ever write anything good so what I thought of was maybe other people can write the songs for Eheads and for us to record it.

Well, I like to live dangerously.

I’ve always been collaborative. I had Raimund. I had Jerome (Velasco) in The Mongols and to an extent Yanny. So I’m still a collaborative person. I don’t like the idea of being solo that much.

Why did the Mongols fail? Timing… It wasn’t time for me to do something new. I just left the Eheads, and I guess the name (he wanted to be referred to as Jesus “Dizzy” Ventura then) didn’t help also. And the label that we were on didn’t help, definitely.

That was the first time I actually enjoyed playing live. Again, not to take anything away from the Eheads, but that was the kind of music I was gearing towards. Of course, I was a big fan of Jerome. It was always a pleasure playing with him, even recording for him. We actually wrote a lot of good songs together.

I think my self-consciousness went away (when I started playing with Pupil). In Mongols, there was still that thing that I wanted to come up with different sounds as much as possible and I think the fans noticed it. It was trying too hard. But with Pupil everything got more settled and natural. I wasn’t afraid to write again.

I hate bands that change their styles but I can understand that. Being a songwriter, you just cannot write that same style the rest of your life, di ba?

 
 


Is songwriting easy for me? Yes it’s easy.

I want hits. I want to write hits. It’s the way I make my living. Why would I not want to write hits? The only difference probably is that the melodies are not as soaring as before. I cannot write [songs like] “Ligaya” anymore. I can’t hack it as a singer.

I’m just conscious of one fact: will I be able to sing it well live? Will I be able to play it well live? Will I be able to have fun with it live?

I can still sing “Ligaya” but it takes effort. I guess that’s what I’m going for now: effortlessness.

I regret not being an asshole enough. (laughs) I think I would’ve avoided a lot of pain and stuff ering for everybody. I would’ve been more dictatorial like Morrissey.

I guess if I weren’t in music, I’d be in film. But I wouldn’t have gone far. In fourth year college, I realized I just wasted four years of my life studying film. Wala eh. Nag-intern ako sa mga Ishmael Bernal films, kay Lino Brocka sa TV specials and TV movies. I didn’t work with Ishmael. Lino Brocka, I was just too intimidated to talk to him. Nakita ko na that with film, it was going to be a long road.

LIFE, ET CETERA

Those two occasions where I almost died, it made me appreciate life more, appreciate music. Yeah, that’s it.

I don’t even know what agnostic means. I definitely am not an atheist. I believe there are more things in heaven and earth than what your philosophy has dreamed of.

How do I deal with pain? I try to accept it and let it happen. That’s the only thing you can do. If you don’t accept it, it’s going to stay there, fester. A lot of people have been telling me na kaya ka nagkaka-heart attack kasi you don’t express yourself, you don’t share your emotions. To an extent they’re probably right.

Fortunately I don’t have to deal with that a lot. Most of the pain comes from the past so I’m going through this thing, all that crap about being in the now.

We’re all doomed to fail. I mean relationships are doomed to fail.

I guess I’ve gone through a lot in terms of the dream, of being in that romantic dream of finding the right one.

Yes, I do feel lonely even if I’m with somebody.

We’re all doomed to fail. I mean relationships are doomed to fail.

 
 

Is that why I write songs? I guess.

What did I learn from marriage? Nothing. It wasn’t a marriage at all. The very first marriage, we were very young. We didn’t know what we were doing. Wala kang mapupulot sa ganun. We didn’t even live together. She lived in the province and I was busy with my career. I guess, what I learned from that, you never force kids to get married for whatever reason. I’m glad to say that we are on speaking terms now. ‘Yun nga kasi kinakausap na ako and last year she allowed Una [their daughter] to stay here for Christmas kahitbirthday niya. It’s going well.

What is the greatest thing I’ve learned from women? They love me. And I love them back! (laughs) But like everything else, there’s pride involved and, yeah, I have learned to become a better person or a better man because of my relationships.

Yeah, everything does (leave permanent scars). That’s also part of growing up, I guess.

I’m not breaking new ground anymore, I’m in my 40s. I can’t be in that mindset anymore ‘cause I know too much.

I’ve been through a lot, that’s why I look to Elvis on what he’s doing or what he was trying to do at my age. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to get fat any time soon. Or do drugs.

 
 


I will continue making music, but not necessarily release it. What for? To remain sharp.

What do I want to do now? I don’t know.

Why do people still love those songs? That has nothing to do with me, or the song. It was just a convergence of the right elements, the timing. People grew up with “Ligaya,” “El Bimbo.” They were in high school, they were having fun, they were young. That’s why they liked it.

How do you write songs that matter? How? You should know better than to ask that. I would not be able to answer that.

What songs matter to me? Songs from my childhood. Rico J Puno. He was funny, he had soul and he could sing with conviction. And it just happened that my mom loved him and I could hear him all the time. I was starstruck when I first met him. I don’t remember what I said. I was probably speechless. I think we didn’t really talk at all. I remember he hugged me. I really felt the love and the fact that he called me idol was, woah!

I don’t wanna be content. Yes, it’s a goal but it’s not necessarily the right goal especially if you’re a creative person.

I guess I still enjoy playing live. I think I never enjoyed playing before. I will still continue playing live. Most probably I will be content if that happened. People will say, “Yeah Ely’s band, they’re awesome live!” That’s the best compliment.

You always think it was better before. You just like going back to the good old days. I wouldn’t trade places with the past and now. That’s the kind of philosophy I’m trying to adopt now, like really appreciating the present, not to be too identified with the past. I think it’s the greatest source of suffering for people—thinking “Mas mabuti ako before, in the past.” It’s almost always pure ego. Don’t be identified with your ego, because that’s not you. It’s an illusion.

 

By ERWIN ROMULO

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

 

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