Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The crowd is looking up at the stage, entranced. They are all college students, “millennials,” as many would feel compelled to call them, especially in this state: effusive and completely transparent with their feelings in public. There are plenty of smiling faces, transfixed with a straightforward joy. Then there are some who look either too happy or in pain, or perhaps both, one emotion’s extreme crossing over to the other. They are watching indie band Ang Bandang Shirley perform their latest single, “Siberia,” a song about having no regrets in the face of heartbreak, and whose succinct chorus, “Pinili ang sarili. Sumaya,” has become a popular meme among fans of the band.
The crowd mouths almost every word of the band’s songs, even “Sa Madaling Salita,” a catchy single that came out when they were probably eight or nine years old. The passage of years has not had the same effect on millennials, with all their time-flattening technology. Tonight, like all nights, every song is as current as the last. They shriek upon recognition of every song, usually in the first couple of notes, and they scream “More! More!” after the last one is sung. But there won’t be more. This isn’t a concert with room for an encore; this is a school event with a tight schedule run by a De La Salle University student org, and there will be a student short film exhibition in a few minutes.
The event is at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater in Makati, a 400-square meter indoor space that, at least for tonight, houses the band, the audience, and a few food and merchandising booths. The smallness of it all runs counter to the immensity of Ang Bandang Shirley’s music and its impact on its fans, and yet the intimacy is apropos. Their winsome brand of melodic rock, characterized by catchy pop hooks and clever plain-language lyrics, make them sound simultaneously small and big, a cherished secret and the voice of their generation.
Their first two albums, 2008’s “Themesongs” and 2012’s “Tama Na Ang Drama” produced a string of earnest love songs so relatable, they may have invented “hugot.” “Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye” speaks of love that harks back to a childhood last experienced in the ‘90s. “Di Na Babalik” captures the feeling of letting go and still having a lot left to say. “Nakauwi Na” is the local equivalent of Scottish band Teenage Fanclub’s “Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From,” with arguably a better expression of the same sentiment: “basta’t makasama ka, ako’y nakauwi na.”
Some of the 20-somethings of the legendary Shirley “mushpits” — a more twee version of punk rock moshpits where bodies crash into each other out of joy rather than rage — are now in their 30s. New fans in their late teens and early 20s now join the chorus of emotive cheers for every new single released, like last year’s “Umaapaw” and “Siberia.” Their gig at the Power Mac Center Spotlight is their fourth in as many days, all of which are for predominantly student audiences. Later that night, they will play at the UP Fair in Diliman for the second time all week.
Before they finish their set, they announce the upcoming launch of their third album, “Favorite.” The crowd lets out a collective yelp of excitement. In this tiny theater, converted into an intimate lounge, their new album sounds like a massive event. Outside, where music is kept in pockets, it exists as scattered whispers.
At the turn of the century, when music was bigger, Owel Alvero and Ean Aguila, two budding musicians and songwriters, met at the Philippine Science High School. Alvero, a 12-year-old nerd who had yet to hit puberty, was afraid of Aguila, a tall boy who was part of the popular crowd. But they listened to the same bands — Eraserheads, post-Bamboo Rivermaya, and Eraserheads drummer Raymund Marasigan’s new band Sandwich — and would soon become friends. They formed Delta Joy, a short-lived band that Alvero abruptly left after a disappointing performance at a UP Fair gig.
The band continued and proceeded to rock harder (“Ako 'yung nagho-hold back ng rock,” Alvero jokes) while Alvero, an indie pop kid at heart, began working on a sound inspired by quiet indie bands like Brittle Stars and Winterbrief, whose sparse formula of jangly guitars + synths + drum machines + boy-girl vocals became a new obsession. He played around with a Casio keyboard with built-in beats and teamed up with a female schoolmate who supplied the girl vocals.
“Meron akong funny indie pop na parang jokey whatever na naging ‘Tsuper’ sa first album,” Alvero says. “Pero hindi pa ako marunong mag-record noon.” That’s when he decided to join an indie recording class called “Plug and Play,” (future members of Up Dharma Down were among the participants) where he would reconnect with an old friend.
Ang Bandang Shirley’s winsome brand of melodic rock, characterized by catchy pop hooks and clever plain-language lyrics, make them sound simultaneously small and big, a cherished secret and the voice of their generation.
“I was in that class and nagpa-audition sila ng bands, which will be included in a CD,” Aguila says. “Hindi pasok ang Shirley,” Alvero quickly notes. “Feeling ko kung pasok ang Shirley doon, parang, okay na-scratch na ‘yung itch.” Luckily for legions of future fans, the itch remained and Ang Bandang Shirley was born. Alvero and Aguila were reunited. Guitarist Joe Fontanilla, who Alvero and Aguila met in college, and drummer Zig Rabara (also from Purplechickens), joined the band later. Eventually, they recorded a few songs in what would later be known as the “Rizal Day Sessions.”
The Rizal Day Sessions includes an early version of the Shirley classic “Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye,” which, in Alvero’s mind, was always meant to have female vocals in the background. After the original female vocalist left the band, he only had one replacement in mind. “Sina-stalk ko si Selena [Davis], tapos nabalitaan ko na umalis na siya sa [underground shoegaze band] Candyaudioline,” he says. “Sobrang fan ako ng Candyaudioline. Minessage ko siya sa Friendster.”
“Na-creep out ako nang konti,” confesses Davis. “Kasi grabe, he’s asking me to sing in his band, I don’t even know who he is. Pero I really missed singing. So when he invited me, inisip ko, you know it can’t hurt, maybe he’s not gonna kill me.”
“If it turns out na baduy ang music, parang it’s okay, nobody has to know,” Davis continues. “Leap of faith lang talaga. So I met up with him at Shangri-La…”
“Sa Tower Records sa Shangri-La,” Alvero interjects. “Para ma-date ang panahon.”
Those were more innocent times. Not knowing was a normative part of daily life, like how Davis walked into the recording studio not expecting what she was about to hear. “Na-in love ako sa music,” she says. “Pag uwi ko I remember writing in my journal about it, as in it really caught my fancy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” She went all fangirl on Alvero (“the tables were turned,” she quips) and asked him if she could be a permanent band member. “He said, ‘sige, parang Broken Social Scene na lang tayo, maraming member,’” she recalls, referencing the cult Canadian musical collective.
Davis’ voice was the final piece that completed the Shirley sound, as perfectly demonstrated in the final version of “Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye” on their debut album “Themesongs.” Her voice is no longer a mere ambient touch; it became an integral part of the song, setting the template for the vocal teamwork that would become a band staple. There are three “lead” singers in the band — Alvero, Aguila, and Davis — but other members of the band get to chime in from time to time. Most of their songs feature multiple vocals, lending a distinct sing-along quality to them, as if impromptu jams at a party (albeit with expert-level harmonizing).
Their voices have complemented each other better through the years, the same way couples grow to finish each other’s sentences. On their new album, “Favorite,” their voices are more at home with each other than ever before, leading to some of their most melodically satisfying songs yet.
In fact — and here’s a not-so-bold statement — “Favorite” may be Ang Bandang Shirley’s best album yet.
When the band talks about their new album, the word “confidence” comes up a lot. Confidence in writing any way they want. Confidence in collaborating with anyone they want, like indie musicians Mikey Amistoso of Hannah + Gabi, Joon Guillen a.k.a. Modulogeek, Migi de Belen a.k.a. Nights of Rizal, Paolo Arciga, Francis Lorenzo a.k.a. The Ringmaster, and Mario Consunji a.k.a. Big Hat Gang, who all share producer credits with Alvero and Aguila. Confidence in using the word “mawari” in the lyrics. The addition of bassist Enzo Zulueta, who the band swears is their most musically-fluent member. Or the plain and simple fact that they’re all better.
You can hear the confidence of “Favorite,” not just in the occasional electronic flourishes that dovetail perfectly to their already dreamlike music (making them sound like The Postal Service, Pia Fraus, and Prefab Sprout — foreign artists who’ve always shared their melodic flair). It’s also in how, despite the many turns they make, they never veer away from their signature Shirley sound: that youthful sheen that never fades, never ages. It’s unmistakable in the breezy indie pop of “Maginhawa,” the trippy electro-pop of “Relihiyoso,” the blips-and-bloops-inflected pop rock of the title track “Favorite,” and in how they somehow seamlessly transition into each other.
“Sinequence namin ‘yan, sinulat namin lahat ng titles sa papel, hiwa-hiwalay na parang title cards, nilagay sa mesa, tapos in-order namin … by feeling,” Alvero says. “Para siyang mixtape. Iba-iba kasi ‘yung songs. May songs ni Ean, may songs si Selena, may songs ako. May iba-ibang nag-mix and nag-produce.”
You can hear the confidence of “Favorite,” not just in the occasional electronic flourishes that dovetail perfectly to their already dreamlike music. It’s also in how, despite the many turns they make, they never veer away from their signature Shirley sound: that youthful sheen that never fades, never ages.
All bands are, to varying degrees, products of collaboration. But when you’re dealing with as many members and songwriters as Ang Bandang Shirley does, collaboration becomes more complicated. To simplify, the songwriters work alone, then bring their ideas to the band. That they could produce songs from different people with different approaches and still have them sound like a unified album can only be attributed to a solid band dynamic perfected through the years.
“We trust each other’s vision, especially ‘yung songwriters,” Aguila says. “Ako galing na galing kay Owel as a songwriter, galing na galing ako kay Selena. So parang kung anong gusto nila for the song, call na nila ‘yun. And may ganon din silang respect sa akin, so I guess, kaya kami nagwo-work.”
They are all fans and friends of each other, which makes them sort of a miniature of the mutual admiration society that the Pinoy indie scene essentially is. Backstage at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, when they are not joking around or sharing funny Twitter videos with each other, they are catching up with their friends from the other bands on the lineup — Hannah + Gabi and Jensen and the Flips. Theirs is a scene that resembles the echo chambers of social media, a loud and vibrant community that exists in pockets, which is the only way serious music can survive now that culture has fragmented.
But for Ang Bandang Shirley, the era of big, monolithic bands wasn’t that long ago. They grew up to the music of Eraserheads (their band name is taken from the Eraserheads song “Shirley”), Sugarfree, Sandwich, and Rivermaya. They recorded Rizal Day Sessions in 2005, the same year indie band Orange and Lemons became a household name, and a year removed from Sugarfree’s second album and Kitchie Nadal’s mammoth self-titled solo debut, both of which went platinum (for comparison: since 2012, there has only been one rock-oriented OPM platinum album — Parokya Ni Edgar’s “Inuman Sessions Vol. 2” — despite the platinum standard being lowered in 2013).
Their band was in its infancy right when the second Pinoy rock renaissance was nearing its death throes, before piracy and the internet changed the calculus of the music industry, closing the mainstream path for indie artists and the opportunity to make a living purely out of music. They were almost there. They had, and still have, a sound perfect for radio. They were so close. And yet, they never felt like they missed out.
“The way I see it is that we made our own thing and then friends — mostly friends — went to watch and they booked band friends din,” Davis says. “Parang ganon lang ‘yung story namin, we got our friends to our gigs and we got to put up our own gigs. Tapos na-cultivate lang ‘yung loyal friendship following na tumangkilik sa music namin.” For this group of friends who were just fans together and watched bands together, starting a band was never a careerist pursuit. It was merely an extension of their friendship founded on mutual interests. As much as they admired big successful bands, they were also fans of indie icons like Ciudad, Candyaudioline, and Daydream Cycle. They’re indie kids who never had to deal with the obsolete question of selling out. For Alvero, their timing wasn’t unfortunate; it was perfect.
“We were a product of that ‘OPM boom’ of the 2000s. They’re very influential to the point of kung paano ako mag-gitara,” Alvero says. “I paid attention to the chord structures, ‘yung progression, ‘yung melodies. I guess naging nerdy kami about it. May conversations kami ni Ean about how, for example, Raymund Marasigan has certain songs na ang ginagawa niya lang nag-e-enumerate siya ng stuff. Tapos may Rico Blanco analysis din kami kung paano siya magsulat. It’s not like we were trying to copy them, but it’s more of we try to do it our way. Feeling ko kung naging kasabay namin sila, hindi kami ganito kagaling.”
"We made our own thing and then friends — mostly friends — went to watch and they booked band friends din ... Parang ganon lang ‘yung story namin, we got our friends to our gigs and we got to put up our own gigs. Tapos na-cultivate lang ‘yung loyal friendship following na tumangkilik sa music namin."
They don’t regret missing out on the era of full-time rock musicians, either. Unlike their more famous idols, they all hold day jobs and lead normal non-celebrity lives, which somewhat explains the large gaps in between albums. Real life always gets in the way of ideal timelines. But for Aguila, this is a feature rather than a glitch. “Maganda nga ‘yun, eh. Walang pressure,” he says. They write and record when they feel like it and not because a major label contract obligates them to. And how they write affects the kinds of songs they make.
“For sure, kung career musicians kami, mas marami kaming na-e-experiment, nata-try na ilabas,” Alvero says. “Pero ngayon, in terms of at least writing, parang mas nahihinog ‘yung songs before they come out.”
“Mas natural ‘yung mga kanta, mas totoo siya for me,” Aguila adds.
“I feel that every four years or so, may mga major life changes and then the songs are about the major life changes. So meron siyang weight. Mas meron siyang gravity,” Alvero says. The quiet and ponderous “Ono” is this album’s “Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye,” he says, qualifying that “it’s a decade removed from the person that wrote it.” That’s what real life does: it ages you from a peppy pop song into an expansive 9-minute meditation on love.
“‘Yung E-Heads if you pay attention to their discography, ‘yung mga songs nila pagdating ng ‘Natin99,’ sobrang baliw na compared to ‘Circus’ and ‘Cutterpillow,’” Alvero notes. “Nagpunta na silang States, kung anu-ano nang ginagawa nila, tumutugtog na lang sila always, parang iba na ‘yung mindset nila, hindi na ‘yung … uy, pumasok ako sa opisina, I had a bad day. So iba na ‘yung songs nila. If we were career musicians, baka maging ganon. Pero in a sense, relatable ‘yung music because we’re getting old and we’re writing about it. Tinuloy namin ‘yung real life pero nagsulat kami about it.”
“Favorite” opens with household noise — the clanking of dishes, the background chatter of T.V. dialogue — broken by the opening strums of “Maningning” falling like the hushed light of dawn. The best Shirley songs are the ones that provide a welcome break from the everyday by making the everyday poetic. But real life is about to disrupt this poetry. The “Favorite” album launch on March 25 will be Davis’ final gig as member of Ang Bandang Shirley. She’s leaving the band for private reasons concerning her family, a decision that was hard for her to make.
“Part of me can't believe it's the last time I'll be performing songs that we've been dying for our fans to hear for the first time,” Davis says. “I’ll miss my bandmates so much. We have a way of loving each other and exchanging ideas that becomes this creative soup that births our music. Telling them about my plans was the hardest thing.”
“I met her as a teenager and I grew up with her in the band,” says Alvero, who took the news especially hard. “I learned to use my voice through watching her sing and singing with her, I saw her start writing songs, falling in love, saw her take control of her life.”
The band has gone through lineup changes before and will have to adapt and evolve yet again. But losing a vital voice, both in their music and in their group dynamic, is going to be a great challenge.
“I guess we’ll have to find someone else, which is exciting, but at the same time we might end up fighting with each other and disbanding before we find someone else just because there’s no one left to be the arbiter,” Alvero says, laughing. “I just know that I’ll miss her, and that I’m very happy for her, and I’ll always have the music, as cheesy as that sounds.”
It is past midnight and the band’s day is only midway through. They are now at UP Diliman, straight from their DLSU event gig in Makati, where they posed for pictures, signed autographs, and chatted with a few fans backstage before braving the Saturday night EDSA traffic.
Leading them into the backstage area is Kathy Gener, manager of the band and co-owner of Wide Eyed Records, an indie label she founded with musician and record producer Joey Santos to help the band produce and distribute its own albums. She has been there from the start. Looking at the large crowd at the Sunken Garden, she recalls one of the band’s earlier UP Fair appearances where the crowd was clamoring for emo band Typecast before Ang Bandang Shirley was even done with their set. She laughs at this memory as only true survivors can.
Gener wasn’t always the band manager but she’s always been friends with the band. In fact, she predates the band, or at least the current lineup. She met pre-Shirley Alvero through a Ciudad fan mailing list and would go on to watch Freedom Bar and Mayric’s gigs with him and Aguila. Since she’s always been part of the barkada — and Ang Bandang Shirley is essentially a barkada with musical instruments — her transition into a formal manager was so seamless as to be indistinct in memory.
“Parati nasa gig si Kathy tapos parang kinakausap na niya ‘yung mga tao, tapos dinadalhan na kami ng water, tapos parang, ‘ikaw na lang [‘yung manager],’”Aguila recalls.
“Hindi ko kayo dinadalhan ng water,” Gener protests as the rest of the band laughs. “Nanonood lang ako ng gig parati tapos sinabi ni Owel, ako na lang daw mag-ayos ng sched dahil ayaw na niyang gawin ‘yon,” she continues, as the laughter heightens.
And so Gener became a permanent member of the band: a manager who occasionally contributes vocals and lyrics (she wrote “Siberia” based on a personal story). Much of her work as band manager is informed by her experiences as a fan and long-time observer of the local indie scene. She has witnessed firsthand the changes in the industry and the ways in which new technology has changed fan behavior. Ang Bandang Shirley has adapted with these changes.
They are active on social media, where they regularly update fans and engage with them. They have taken advantage of streaming technology, dropping last year’s two singles on Spotify and even landing on the top spot of its “Viral 50 Philippines” chart late last year with “Siberia,” proof of the band’s popularity in an era where measuring popularity has become trickier.
“Ang mindset ko with streaming is about promotion siya. ‘Di ka talaga masyadong kikita doon,” Gener says. “‘Yung Shirley naman kasi wala kaming big machinery to promote our music,” Aguila adds. “Wide Eyed records does its part pero wala namang power to push sa Myx Top Ten or sa radyo. Pero feeling ko sobrang organic lang ng pag-spread ng music namin. So streaming makes it possible for, let’s say, a superfan to cry and forward the song link to somebody else. So very important for me ‘yung streaming. Pero promotion lang siya, tapos ‘yung physical copy, merch na siya. Parang ‘yung gigs na talaga ‘yung main thing.”
But Gener still sees the physical album as the band’s bread and butter. She realized its importance after talking to members of Oh, Flamingo!, a relatively new and definitely younger band who, for a time, didn’t have physical copies of their online release. So their fans struggled to ask for autographs. “‘Yung niche kids that are into indie music? They want something tangible,” she says. But she also understands the appeal of music streaming, which is more in step with the current generation’s obsession with instant gratification. Ultimately, she doesn’t see the different formats competing against each other.
“The streaming, the merch, and the CDs, ‘yung physical thing, puwede siyang mag-coexist,” she says. “‘Yung streaming is more for promotions. ‘Yung mga bata kasi ngayon gusto lang nila ng easy access pero ‘pag may nagustuhan sila, bibili pa rin sila ng physical product.”
Keeping up with the times has become imperative for a band like Ang Bandang Shirley, because they’re an aging band whose fans are getting younger. They keep playing in school events because students keep requesting for them. And Gener has noticed how much their audience has grown over the last few years.
“As in wave siya,” she says. “Iba ‘yung nakikinig na dati, ng ‘Themesongs.’ Ngayon nasama kami sa mga kabataan, which is good. May mga fans na nakita ko from ‘Themesongs,’ na may fans din ng ‘Tama Na Ang Drama,’ tapos may fans ngayon. In a way, proud ako na nakaka-relate pa rin ‘yung mga bata sa amin.”
They are aware of their songs’ emotive quality being the most relatable aspect of their music, especially to younger listeners. But don’t get them started on all this “hugot” business.
“Hindi siya hugot just for the sake of maka-relate lang ang mga tao with feelings,” Gener insists. “Dati pa naming ginagawa ‘yon. Wala kaming pakialam noon na considered ma-drama mga kanta namin. Ngayon kasi mas open mga bata sa ganon, diba?” The band may have tapped into something this generation holds dear, but pandering is the furthest thing from their minds. “Na-experience namin lahat ‘yan, sinabi lang namin ‘yung feelings namin because that’s what happened to us, that’s what we feel, hindi siya dahil sa environment, o gusto mo lang dramahan. Ma-drama siya sa iba, pero sa amin, matter-of-fact siya,” Gener says.
"Hindi siya ‘yung parang, ‘gusto naming umiyak ‘yung mga kids,’” Aguila says. “Ito talaga yung lumalabas eh, eh di ito.”
Alvero offers his take: “We don’t even think that some of the songs are very emotional in nature but I guess the way that it’s arranged, and then the way that other people receive it, meron sigurong reputation of the songs carrying this kind of feeling.”
“Nilalagay nila ‘yung lungkot nila sa song kasi parang perfect fit ‘yung lungkot nila doon sa song,” Aguila adds.
The disconnect between artist intent versus audience interpretation will always be a part of pop music consumption, but Ang Bandang Shirley genuinely appreciates their fans and goes out of their way to connect with them on a personal level. “Lahat kami fans din kami before, so we get them,” Gener says. A few years ago, they set up a meet-up gig for the Ang Bandang Shirley Barkada Club Facebook group, where the members instantly became friends. Their story’s familiarity is a source of pride for the band.
“‘Yung mga na-experience namin when we were growing up as music fans, shinare lang namin sila,” Gener says. “Ang ganda na naa-absorb nila ‘yon, na may mga ganon pa ring mga bata ngayon.”
The UP Fair event is running a little late. It’s almost 1 a.m. and Parokya Ni Edgar is still playing. This is what it looks like when rockstars take the stage: the venue is packed and every word is amplified by the capacity crowd, even if most of them weren’t born yet when the song came out. When you’re a legacy act, your songs become part of the atmosphere people are born into. And when you’re a legacy act, chances are you’re among the last rockstars left in 2017.
Alvero and Gener, ever the music fans, watch from the side of the stage, patiently waiting for their turn. When Parokya Ni Edgar is finished, the band quickly disappears into the backstage and two-thirds of the crowd slowly shuffle out into the darkness. The sunken garden looks like itself again. The place is a lot quieter now, as UP Diliman’s own Shirebound and Busking plays, the noises and cheers scaled down.
Ang Bandang Shirley finally takes the stage at 1:20 a.m. Those who have remained in the crowd greet them with eager screams. This is no longer the monolithic roar of an hour ago; these are individual sounds made distinct by the open space — a tiny shriek here, a bellow of palpable excitement there, a scream quivering with pent-up anticipation from the distance.
Aguila opens the band’s set with the opening lines to “Nakauwi Na”: “Bakit kailangang malungkot at umiyak?” The crowd collectively loses its bearings. From afar, the crowd looks small, crammed around the stage area like water crashing to the shore at the edge of a quiet sea. But up close, their expressions are large: pure bliss, in near tears, palms in the air, as if trying to touch the music. The emotion builds with every song. “Tama Na Ang Drama.” “Umaapaw.” The opening notes to “Siberia” are greeted by a noise that can only be described as manic kilig.
There is a parallel universe where the monetization of music remained intact, where radio remained central to the culture, where the trajectory of OPM rock was never disrupted, and where Ang Bandang Shirley is the biggest band in the country. It’s there somewhere, if you zoom out far enough. But look close into the faces of the people who matter, the people to whom they matter, and the what-could-have-beens suddenly evaporate into the night. You realize that love is never in the numbers. It’s in the details.