The Black Vomits on treading that Gray Ground

Filipino rock band The Black Vomits on their first album, staging a rock opera and being the resident misfits in a gray ground.

It’s a Tuesday night and I’m with The Black Vomits. Many Tuesdays, Saturdays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays have been spent with them, but today is different. Their test pressings have arrived. And so we are gathered here today, brethren of the black, to listen to them. My colleagues often joke about my “conventional” taste in music. Bruce Springsteen is not very #artph, I guess. But I’m not here to critique, huh? As their no. 1 fan (there are around five of us tied at this spot), I am here to remind them of how surreal this is, how, beyond the technicalities, the squabbles, and the very real struggle of staging this impossible project, they’ve accomplished the rare and precious feat of independently putting out their own record, a rock opera, no less. There’s an old saying that goes, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose what music they make.” I invented that. It is a great relief that my friends make tolerable music — this is me talking to the reader, hoping to sound as objective as possible.

Side X is done. Side Y is on. The opening chords of Deranger start to play. Joyen Santos is singing, Bryan Escueta is on the guitar, Igan D’Bayan plays the bass, and Julius Sanvictores is on drums. Hearing them on vinyl is like realizing for the first time that Santa Claus is not real. These are just my friends, playing a song I’ve heard a hundred times, on a fragile, spinning black disc that people will probably want to get their hands on. It’s them. I’m not going to cry, because that’s just very not rock ‘n’ roll. So I douse my feelings with beer and bob my head.

This vinyl record — their self-titled debut album — will be launched on May 20 via the staging of a rock opera called The Gray Ground. At gigs, they would always stick out like an angry middle finger. One of them would like to think it’s because they’re always the best looking band on the lineup. To be honest, I think it’s the scowls on their faces and the music they make. Categorically, it’s post-punk rock. To a regular walk-in customer just looking to have two bottles or three on a Saturday night, it’s strange, moody and totally un-karaoke-able. The Black Vomits are permanent residents of the Gray Ground, that sliver of land where no boy band will ever set foot. And they’re putting that on record, rather literally, and staging an operetta to celebrate. Libations for everybody!

I hate to segue into a Q&A so ungracefully, but describing this rock opera businenss would best be left to its creator, artist and writer Igan D’Bayan. He tells the story of Jan, a writer suffering from writer’s block, through the music of The Black Vomits, and a cast of odd characters sharing the stage. What differentiates it from a concert, a play, or an opera — and why it matters to them.

Igan D'Bayan, bass
Igan D’Bayan, bass

How would you explain the rock opera to a millennial?

IGAN D’BAYAN: Well, it’s not just Don Giovanni with guitars. The rock opera is a bit of a misnomer: it’s rock alright, but it’s really not opera. But we in the band love incongruous stories and post-punk rock (or, to muddle things up a bit, post-rock punk), so we thought of melding them together to come up with a rock operetta or a musical suite.

There is this deaf, dumb and blind boy who turns into a pinball wizard in The Who’s Tommy. Peter Gabriel and Genesis had Rael who searches for his brother John and finds a missing part of himself instead in The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway; Rush created a dystopian future in 2112 where self expression is outlawed; and John Cameron Mitchell, as an East German transgender singer, channels Bowie, Iggy, Lou and all the strange glam rock ‘n’ rollers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The Gray Ground song cycle is the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album; an attempt to approximate vinyl records you put on, trip to and get euphoric by. We wanted it to be glorious, loud, cosmological, epic, Kafkaesque, Floydian, anachronistic and risky. Quite an ill fi t with the times that we live in where pop stars are manufactured, marketed, dumbed down, turned to memes, and crammed into your consciousness — you just can’t find misfits and oddballs anymore.

Julius Sanvictores, drums
Julius Sanvictores, drums

Why do you think is the rock opera not a more common project among musicians and why stage one in 2016? What makes “The Gray Ground” a relevant story?

In these times, well, experimentation is frowned upon. The music industry relies on hits, digestible tunes and specific looks. Our band is in a “gray ground” of sorts. This is the age of Katy Perry and Imagine Dragons; and we are doing a Pete Townshend. We are doomed to fall upon the cracks since our sound is utterly anachronistic, but we don’t give a shit.

What makes The Gray Ground relevant to our times is that the main character is a writer desperately trying to make one great piece of literary art. Does anybody dream of doing that thing anymore? I think most “writers” nowadays are consumed with creating adsucking blogs instead. The protagonist Jan wants to be like Burroughs, Borges and other greats, despite existing in a futuristic age inhabited by well-dressed shadowy figures and robot careerists all smelling of apps
and money. But, you know, dreaming of transcendence is timeless.

Plus, it’s a metaphor for the band’s own struggle.

The Black Vomits wrote most of the songs before The Gray Ground was conceived, and were written by different members of the band. Was it a revelation to discover a common theme among your compositions? How?

The band has been together for quite a while, through ups and downs. We’ve played in gigs where everyone else sounds the same and we are the musical equivalent of a sore thumb. Oh what fun! Thus, our songs were written by four people who are outsiders dealing with a similar sense of
alienation. The same despair threads the songs. We were a gang.

Putting together this rock operetta has been a bitch (try asking sponsors to fund a “rock opera” and you’d get blank stares; we’re not gonna break the bank with this one and we’re not quitting our day jobs), and I don’t think we will survive this latest episode because of infighting and general disgruntlement. But, what the hell, our songs are on vinyl. Redemption through suffering pressed in wax. This is our postcard from Purgatory.

Bryan Escueta, guitar
Bryan Escueta, guitar

The Hunting Ground is a song composed for The Gray Ground. How does it differ from the other songs in the album? What does it stand for in the context of launching your first album?

The Hunting Ground is our most challenging song to date. It’s a junior miracle that we were able to pull it off at all. We wanted to come up with a song with a storyline, a song that takes you somewhere strange and alluring. Sort of like Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days or Genesis’ Supper’s Ready. Not that The Hunting Ground is at par with those classics, but we love the final outcome of our piece.

Bryan, our guitarist, wrote the music that goes from soft and languid, to pummeling and brutal, and then back again. Joyen, our singer, wrote most of the lyrics. Julius, our drummer, stretches and impresses on this one. I remember one drunken night at Julius’ house in Antipolo when we started arranging the song. Half-filled aquariums and a statue of an Indian chief gave the house a certain vibe. We recorded it at WombWorx over beer, eternal pizza and tongue-exploring lovers.

My favorite part of the song is when the trumpet and saxophone come in. We wanted it to be bold, brash and dissonant. Hector Sanvictores and Butch Silverio came in and played beautiful, melodic passages. They are big-band jazz musicians so they are predisposed to playing harmonically. Our
engineer recorded different takes and then layered them on top of each other. All hell broke loose. The inmates ran the asylum.

When that part comes we hope you’d get the desire to smash things up.

Do you relate to the character Jan? How?

Jan wakes up every day and wonders whether he will get the inspiration to write his first literary work, and be like Pynchon or The Bard. But he gets sucked into the vortex of dead-end jobs: writing press releases for the Cosmodemonic PR Agency and ghostwriting for a society columnist. I wake up every day and wonder about the same things.

What is your “gray ground”?

Being me in a time of not-me’s.

What can the audience expect from The Gray Ground and The Black Vomits?

It’s not your usual Friday night at the theater of moneyed musicals and production mind-numbers. No buff men at the barricades here. It’s about a man experiencing writer’s block written by a man experiencing writer’s block — well, in a manner of saying. Sounds boring eh? My hero Samuel Beckett wrote about two men waiting for someone who doesn’t arrive, but it’s more mind-blowing than Batman v Superman.

And, originally, we wanted to be wild, ambitious and as huge as how the guys in Spinal Tap imagine a piece of Stonehenge coming down from the rafters. We dreamt of Expressionist shadows moving across a sinister Faust 2006 stage, everything being slanted, a space video-mapped with fire, blood and monsters. We wanted The Wall and The Who and everything in between. Failing that, well, we will give the audience our own Orpheus and Eurydice — our own attempt at telling stories, telling lies and telling beautiful lies.

And, oh, the music ain’t too bad.

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The Gray Ground A Rock Opera by The Black Vomits will be held on May 20, 2016 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight theater in Circuit Makati. For tickets and information, email gistdotph@ gmail.com or follow @theblackvomits

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(EDIT: The Black Vomits are Igan D’Bayan (bass), Bryan Escueta (guitar) Mark Contreras (vocals), and Julius Sanvictores (drums)

Photos by DENISE VIÑA