Rico Blanco says Rivermaya — one of the most successful and iconic bands to emerge from Manila — probably was annoying as hell back then (and some might think he’s right), but admit it or not, their songs have been giving many of us a case of LSS for years. Even Rico’s many energy-charged songs of late each have the makings of a classic, which proves that despite his uncertainty (he once considered quitting music for good), he’s still — and here’s comes a big word — RELEVANT. It’s the struggle of an artist to tread that delicate balance between creating and catering, every day, but Rico is no longer that teenage rockstar who both craves and loathes being misunderstood. These days, he just does damn well what he pleases.
You are a musician as well as a fan of music — was your most unforgettable concert moment?
For me, watching, it would be… it’s more like a festival moment because it was three days of Benecàssim in Spain — it was 2011? I forgot the year, but not what I experienced there. I was deep inside the mosh pit while the Arctic Monkeys were playing. I got a black eye. I took an accidental headbutt that turned into a black eye the next day, but it was worth it. I was gasping for air, everyone was taller than me, and apparently it’s not that easy to find oxygen in that situation. I lost my shoe but the mosh pit just very thoughtfully opened up for me to get my shoe back. One guy even held me so I could tie my shoelaces without having to crouch. And the Arctic Monkeys were just killing it onstage. The day before that, I saw the Streets, one of my favorites. It was supposedly their last tour. And the day after the Arctic Monkeys I saw Arcade Fire closing the festival. Apparently it was their last gig for the year they won the Grammy’s, so it was a big deal for them. And they played the last day, and it was the last night for their tour. It was a special thing for me, being a fan of music, and over the weekend I saw different artists. We also saw Big Audio Dynamite and I was in front, super close to them. So that’s my favorite.
As for single concerts, it’s a tie between U2 in Madison Square Garden in 2005 — a key moment for them. I found myself, during the U2 set, in tears around five or six times and I don’t know why, maybe it was just a feeling of joy. It was almost spiritual, at that point in time I was so happy. I watched it alone because I couldn’t find anyone willing to shell out… because I bought tickets late so it was a little pricey by then, just two weeks before the show. My cousin wouldn’t allow me to pay for his ticket so I ended up watching alone but I felt like I was one with everyone — I know it sounds cheesy but that’s really how it felt. I felt so lucky and so blessed to be there, and I remembered all my friends who got me into music, all my bandmates, everyone na I wish was there, my siblings who I had to share savings with every week so we could buy records, you know, that kept my love for music going. That’s what was really special for me.
But I would say that that’s only tied with Nine Inch Nails here in the Philippines. You know, I watch concerts here and outside the country. But technically, sound-wise, lighting-wise, to me, that was the best I’ve seen. And it was here. So parang, “Okay, if they can do that here…” it just inspired me in the technical aspect, as a musician, as a performer. If I see that it’s possible, then we could probably aim for something like that.
And your most unforgettable moment onstage?
For me, on stage it’s harder, as a performer. I love big shows, important shows. Being the first Filipino to perform an original song on MTV Asia Music Awards, you know, and not share the stage with anyone. I mean, just us playing the whole song — no one asked for it to be cut because it was a long song, no one asked for a popular international artist to sing alongside us. It was just a stage given to a Filipino artist that made me — and there was some pressure — but made me so proud to be Filipino. I was with Rivermaya then. Instead of the organizers cutting us, or shortening the song, they even said, “Okay, we can offer the Thai Royal Orchestra to play the strings section for the orchestral part.”
So that was one of my favorites, but I also have some favorites on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ll always remember a show in the U.S. There was some mix-up between the producers and some of their partners. We had to change the venue on the day itself and not have a way of telling anyone that there was a venue change. So we ended up playing to about six people. I remember telling myself, “Give them the best show ever, and give them a story that they can tell everyone else who didn’t go” and I think that was one of my favorites also.
I also liked my first gig as a solo artist. It was with Sonic Boom and we had barely practiced my new songs, but I was there and it felt like my first gig ever. They didn’t know what to expect because I wasn’t with Rivermaya. Most of the guys in the crowd, they hadn’t heard the songs that I played. And it was a nice way to jumpstart and validate my doing music as a solo musician — because at that point, I wasn’t sure. I just said yes, I wanted to keep my word of honor with the record label. “I’ll give you an album, if it doesn’t do well, I’ll go back to my doing non-music stuff.” I didn’t really want to play anymore and I hadn’t played for about a year leading into that. So if it doesn’t feel right, I’m just going to say that’s it. But something was special about that gig, and I was playing to a lot of fellow musicians. Because you know, in productions, your audience is also your peers. So that was special.
You were unsure if you still wanted to continue doing music?
As a result of a sequence of events, I found myself in 2007 telling myself, that’s it for music. I felt and I knew that there’s more to me than just music. So maybe I was worried that if I do it again, I won’t be able to go on with all my other hopes and dreams. Because it was so hard to leave. It was so difficult, painful, and I was like, “Why am I even going back?” Initially, I was hearing about things that even strengthened my decision to leave. It made me feel like it’s really not worth it. After all these years, you do all of that, you decide you want to do something else and this is what you get — it’s probably not worth it, you know? But over time, I met people who understood, who were thankful, who were appreciative. Some fans would say “Whatever you want to do, we’re cool, thank you for the body of work or the experiences that we had before.” I guess when you’re forcing someone to do something, the more they don’t want to do it. But when they let you do whatever you want to do, maybe you’ll entertain it pa. I don’t know, maybe it’s human nature or just the rebel in me.
You’ve written a lot of songs. Do you sometimes look back on songs (even those that were never released) and think that you’ve outgrown them somehow?
Well, yeah, there are several. Many things happen to your songs. You outgrow some — almost instantly. Each time I release an album, by the time it’s released, I hate it, you know? And then you find yourself listening to it, maybe five or ten years later and then you say, “Oh, wait, it’s not so bad.” When someone has an opinion of me based on my singles, I just… it’s with some sort of smile that I just say to myself “Okay, you didn’t hear the album cuts, and you haven’t been to a show. Sayang.” Because I work as hard on the album cuts. The amount of work that I put into a single is the same amount of work that I put into an album cut… or what ends up as an album cut. Sometimes I produce the album as one whole story. So for you to just read a chapter, medyo, “Ops, sayang, sana you read the whole story.” But I was more frustrated when I was younger. Now I know that people are just too busy with so many other things and it’s just music. If they stumble upon something you make and they like it, cool! If they don’t know a single song you make… cool! I mean, it’s just life, it’s just music.
So you’re no longer worried or concerned about being misunderstood?
Yeah I think, I used to stress about that more especially when we were starting out. I look back now and I can say for a fact that Rivermaya was so misunderstood. Because we came out of nowhere and all that shit. And we were young, so medyo… nakakainis kami eh. We had that yabang na, if I was there now, babatukan ko yung sarili ko before. But I was talking to boss Vic Valenciano who signed us and the Eraserheads and said, “Oh we must have been such… annoying kids, no?” but sabi niya, “No, that’s what also works.” That’s what kids were like before. So I guess if we were too nice and formal and proper before, I don’t know if that would have worked. But that was that and this is me now, and I’m less frustrated about being misunderstood because I think that everyone is misunderstood. Sure, I would like to correct misconceptions here and there. Sure I still get upset when people spend so much time misinforming other people, you know, I think these days they’re called haters. But that’s their thing in life. I don’t want to fan the flames by acknowledging them because they’ll only get more.
When my peers get it, when people whose music I also enjoy get it, that makes me care less about people who don’t get it because that’s life, we’re all misunderstood.
Have you ever been friendzoned?
(Laughs) Yeah, I believe… parang sabay eh. Parang naging “Hey… sige, sige friends lang tayo.” It happens to me when I’m starting to get to know a person. I think back then you just call it “didn’t-work-out,” ‘di ba? Now I think people don’t want to accept that so they just say you’re friendzoned. It’s a funny way of putting things. Some people just call it rejection eh, back in the day. These days, friendzoned. I think it’s funnier, so props to the guys who came up with that.
What record did you play today?
“Skylarking”… parang bagay today. It would change, on some days it would be a Nick Drake record, or some traditional world music album. It’s much easier nowadays to surf for albums.
You have 72,000 followers on Instagram.
Or was that Twitter?
That was Instagram, yeah.
Which do you enjoy more?
It’s different things. I think I just hit 1 million on Facebook, and that’s because people who like Rivermaya will usually “Like” the Rivermaya page. It’s not based on who’s there, but what music. It used to drive me nuts — “What do I post where?” But I always like to keep in touch with people who appreciate my music. When I was still with Rivermaya, we had a P.O. box and I would answer every single letter with my own handwritten reply — every single one. And it’s nice because someone just tweeted me my reply to her a couple months ago. And I’m a fan of many, many other artists or athletes or just people. And I’m interested in what they’re up to, and it gives me joy when I get their autograph or get my picture taken with them, and I would like to give that joy to people who appreciate my music. I mean, it’s so easy.
So for Facebook, they want me to post more of my selfies. I’m not a fan of selfies, but I like it when the people I follow post selfies! So I just try to force myself into taking more selfies. For Instagram… I love taking photographs. I think, I was in Grade 3 when I asked for a camera for my birthday. So now, with Instagram, you have an audience. It’s just a thrill for me to be able to share that hobby to an audience now that appreciates it. ‘Di ba, noon you had the photo albums and you’d just lug them around and show people. It’s just something that wasn’t there before and it’s mind-blowing, honestly. So I like also editing, I like aesthetics, I like design, I appreciate design. So everything is just all there on Instagram, your taste for color and shapes, proportion and everything I like is there. Twitter is more of news to me. I wanted to be a sports commentator before, so on Twitter I become an “expert” — a couch expert, and I give my fans that. I even trash-talk with them, because I know that in another sport we’ll be magkakampi anyway. You know, maybe we’ll trash-talk sa NBA, pero pagdating ng UAAP sure magkakampi tayo, or sa tennis pareho tayong Nadal or pareho tayong Lebron James. So we’re just having fun. That’s also where I try to answer questions, announce shows, and share mundane things, like when I’m washing the dishes or heating something up in the microwave and it blows up. I can share silly things there.
You’ve written a lot of songs that have somewhat become “anthems” in different ways for different people. For you, is there a song you wrote that empowered you in the same way?
No, I don’t think so. It’s people’s reactions to my songs that charge me. I’ll tell you a story. I was commissioned to write a song. I was writing a song a few weeks back and I was stuck. I take pride in doing commissioned work, you give me whatever you need, I won’t change it and I’ll make it work. But a few weeks back, I said, “Okay, parang I’ll have to call them up and say, ‘Guys, I think for the first time I won’t be able to write this song… Can we tweak the words, or can we think of another line?” I was really close to calling them up, when Chito Miranda calls me up: “May kanta ka bang ganito, on the radio?” Sabi ko, “Ah, oo, meron.” “Sabi ko na nga ikaw yun eh!” Kasi he heard it daw, and he didn’t know who it was, and he liked it. So when he put the phone down, I don’t know, I actually texted him or called him back because I was so Ganado. I said, “Thanks, that’s exactly what I needed!” And I finished the song.
When I listen to my song parang hindi ako na-empower, because the things I say in my songs, I already believe in the first place. I don’t need to listen to them again. It’s when hearing people’s positive reactions that I forget about how hard it is. It’s hard work. Sometimes I question it: “Why am I working so hard on the fourth line of the second verse, when no one really cares what they mean?” They probably won’t even hear the song, or just hear a snippet of the chorus, and think that it’s someone else singing it. But why am I stressing over the fourth line on the second verse? Then someone says “Hey, that line, I saw it on a music video channel… it felt like you were talking to me…” it just makes me really thankful that I’m blessed to be an instrument. What comes out from me, doesn’t come from me. I’m just a messenger.
I read in one of your interviews three years ago, you said that you didn’t like the sound of your own voice?
I still hate it. I still hate my voice.
How do you get over that, when you inevitably will get to hear it?
I can’t get over it, I’ll never get over it. I manage artists now, and in my selection process, obviously voice is top priority. I have Never the Strangers now, and I like the sound of Ace’s voice. I just signed Meg Fernandez, a new artist, I haven’t heard a voice like that in a long time. So I’m excited about that. I’m a producer also. I have to work in the studio and make things sound nice to the best of my abilities. So I make a musical arrangement or composition that sounds nice, it’s sounding really good, and then ‘pag kinantahan ko na, parang nasisira, parang pumapangit — for me. So actually that’s my frustration.
Who would you like to sound like?
If my voice could sound like the young Sinatra, and then I am able to sing like Freddie Mercury, I’d be happy. Parang mahirap pala ‘yun.
Photos by MITCH MAURICIO