Astronauts, a Singapore R&B, funk and soul band on the songs from their debut EP: "They're about girls, love, seduction and attraction"
To infinity and beyond
We chat with Ben Jacob Lee and Benjamin Mah of Astronauts about the story behind the quintet and their latest EP, ONE
"Have you heard of Astronauts?" asked my editor.
"Huh?" I replied, wondering if she was asking me about one of NASA's most well-regarded professions.
I wasn't aware that Astronauts was in fact a five-man band from Singapore, and that they were holding a gig for the launch of their debut EP, ONE. While I was unsure of what to expect before I walked into the *SCAPE The Ground Theatre on 19 May, the throngs of people streaming in set my expectations high. After rapper Subhas and R&B and electro-pop singer Ffion performed as opening acts, Astronauts finally graced the stage with a full spectacle of tracks from ONE, song covers, a brass section accompanying them and a whole lot of dancing. Each band member added to the show's pizazz, not forgetting the lead singer's smooth vocals that he managed to maintain while grooving around the stage. I was sold.
Formed in June 2016, the talented musicians behind Astronauts are Ben Jacob Lee (keyboard and vocals), Benjamin Mah (bass), David Andrew Lee (rhythm guitar, also Ben's brother), Jonathan Tan (lead guitarist) and Eugene Lum (drums). It wasn't until the 2016 Stärker Music Carnival competition when Astronauts started making a name for themselves in the local music scene, which then led to their debut single, 'Get Close', released last year.
Guiding them further, Astronauts — most of them in their final year of university — also had the opportunity to be in the 2017's Noise Music Mentorship Programme under Kevin Foo, who's known for managing the likes of Charlie Lim, Linying and The Steve McQueens. With their unconventional genre (in local music) that takes you back to how it was in the '60s and '70s, they took it to the stages of festivals like Baybeats, 100 Bands Festival and the Singapore Night Festival, even opening for Tim De Cotta's The Warrior album launch.
I had the privilege of chatting with Lee and Mah a week after their EP launch at CHIJMES' The Glasshouse, where they shared more about ONE.
Benjamin, I read somewhere that you wanted to pursue music after a semester in Boston University. Tell us more. Benjamin: I was in Boston for a university exchange about two years ago. Up until then, I was only playing music in my bedroom, in church, a little bit in university, and that was it. I always wondered what it would be like to pursue music outside of my comfort zone. While I was there, I had a lot of time on my own to think about it and weigh my decisions, then I sort of realised that if I didn't try now, I'll never have that opportunity again. As a student, it was really the best time to explore so that was sort of the tipping factor for me.
Benjamin, did you want to start out as a solo artist first, or knew all along that it had to be a band? Ben: We did this YouTube video where a mutual friend brought us together, and then from there we just kept talking and kept in contact when he was in Boston. Benjamin: I met Ben shortly after I went to Boston, actually. We kept talking in Boston and at some point I just thought, 'You know what? I'm just going to start with this guy'.
Was Ben the first member you recruited? Benjamin: I guess you could say that. We're both founding members of Astronauts in some sense. Ben: When he was in Boston, I was writing some material for this in anticipation for when he came back.
Why did you decide to rope the other four guys into the band? Ben: There was this competition we joined in December 2015 — way before we were Astronauts. Our drummer, Eugene, was already part of that line-up and so was our lead guitarist, Jonathan. I was a keyboardist and only sang one song, and we had another lead vocalist for that band. Benjamin: It was at Hard Rock Hotel in Sentosa, where we pulled in a bunch of different people. Ben and I knew each other back then, including Jonathan. I also knew Eugene, so it was like a "friend of a friend" thing and then we pulled everyone together.
Did everyone have a musical background before Astronauts began? Benjamin: If you want to go way back, everyone in our band has the stereotypical Singaporean classical piano background. We all started with that at some point. Ben: Every single one. Ben, were you immediately keen on joining the band? Ben: Not really, because there was this period where I submitted an application for this music programme and I didn't think I got it as they didn't get back to me, so I was very disappointed. It turned out that I actually got accepted into that so that was encouraging. I think from that point, my morale was boosted and then I decided to join Astronauts. Benjamin: Good times, good times.
Why did you guys choose the name 'Astronauts' for the band? Ben: Going back to that competition we were talking about, we played one original song, called 'Do You Wanna', which was our first original song that we wrote. Benjamin: We always refer to that song as 'Rocket'. There's a line in the song that says, "I can rock it like a rocket", so that's pretty much where we derived our name, since we only had one song and it's the first one we wrote at that point.
Most local musicians are more into the folk and pop genre. What made you guys venture into the funk genre? Benjamin: It's part of who Ben is. Ben: I've always been listening to a lot of R&B, but at some point I was quite interested in picking up street dance, so the first type that really caught my eye was locking. Locking is a funk style, so when I started picking it up, I started listening to a lot of funk, soul and disco, and I guess naturally I just gravitated towards funk stuff.
So were the rest of the members in on the genre as well? Benjamin: I think from the get-go, Astronauts was always meant to revolve around those three genres — R&B, funk and soul. That was always the core identity of the band.
What kind of music did you guys listen to while growing up, and how does that feed into Astronauts now? Benjamin: (to Ben) You grew up listening to Jay Chou, right? Ben:(laughs) I wasn't always in Singapore as I stayed in Shanghai for 10 years since I was 10-years-old, and all the girls were listening to Jay Chou. I played some of his songs on the piano. After that, I went through a pop-punk phase, which I think we all did. Then it was metal and post-rock in my teenage years. Benjamin: Same thing for me. My longest phase was the whole pop-punk, 'emo' night thing. For me, that happened for the longest time because I had an older cousin who was really into it, so ever since I was in primary three or four, I've had that with me all the way. But at the same time, something I didn't realise until much later on was that I unknowingly listened to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. That was also a larger part of my childhood. I grew up in Malaysia and maybe hip-hop is a bigger thing in there as it's always on television.
As a lower primary school kid, I listened to Snoop Dogg, Chingy, Omarion, Lil Bow Wow... all these rappers. That was concurrent with the pop-punk stuff that I listened to, so it was kind of nice going into Astronauts and then realising that 'Hey, I can still play this'; things that I have been listening to while I grew up.
Tell me about Astronauts' new EP, ONE. What are the themes behind it? Ben: I think when we went into the studio and started recording, we had around six or seven songs. But I think these were the four songs — 'Kick It', 'Do You Wanna', 'Kryptonite' and 'I'm No Good' — that we chose for the EP because we felt that they worked well together. Thematically, they're all about girls, love, seduction and attraction. Benjamin: The songs we picked were the most coherent as well. Because of that, it's also sort of an introduction to who we are and the sounds that inspire us.
Ben, you mentioned during the launch that 'I'm No Good' was about a breakup? Ben: Yeah, because I was going through this phase where I was trying to process why the relationship didn't work. I think we were going through different life phases at that point in time and I was no good for her back then. I didn't want to make it so much about that; I sort of took it and flipped it around. If I'm no good, I might as well go all the way and be a bad boy, so that was what I was saying in the song.
What was the creative process in ONE? Benjamin: I only wrote one line in the EP, which was the bridge in 'Kryptonite'. This man here [Ben] is the main songwriter. He usually comes in with a demo or a recording, brings it to the band and then we spend two to three hours playing the same song over and over again, trying to arrange it and make it sound better. We'll think about what is missing, what can we take out or what sounds better. We keep playing it again and again until we have a product that we are happy with.
Was it tough recording your first EP? Ben: When we first go into the studio with a song, it never sounds like how it sounds now. I remember when I first brought 'I'm No Good' to the band, we had a gig coming up and Eugene said that he didn't want to play it as it didn't sound good at that point. So, it's just a process of refining the song. Benjamin: I wouldn't say it's a tough process, but a long one instead. When you're very committed and dedicated to the music; if you just trust the process and that as long as you love what you're doing and keep doing it, it will get better. It's a lot more bearable and quite enjoyable. It's also fairly organic — it's just that it's long. Shout-out to our producer for the EP too, as he also had a bit of input to make the songs like what they are.
Was there anything new that you guys experimented with? Benjamin: Compared to 'Get Close', it had a much more polished sound. Going into the EP, we definitely decided to go for something that sounded a bit more organic and raw, so the EP doesn't have that polished, pop sensibility to it. It does have this whole 'live' aspect to it.
Are there any songs on the EP that speak to you guys on a more personal level? Ben: I love playing 'Do You Wanna' because I feel that I can get the audience involved, and when they get involved, I can feel it too. My next favourite will be 'Kryptonite' as it's just fun and it always gets people going. If people can relate, then that brings me satisfaction. Benjamin: My two favourites will be 'I'm No Good' and 'Kryptonite'. 'Kryptonite' is just a fun song to play and it's our liveliest track on the EP as well. I love 'I'm No Good' from a musical standpoint, as I love the way it has been arranged. To me, it's the grooviest song. 'Kryptonite' is a bit stressful because I need to move around live, especially with those cheesy dance moves so it's hard to coordinate all that. I love playing 'I'm No Good' live more than 'Kryptonite'.
As a five-man band, what are the things that you guys bring to the table that complement each other well? Ben: I think we have very specific roles. Maybe it doesn't seem so obvious, but Jonathan writes these really great lead lines and I don't think it's nice to say that if David wrote the lead lines, I don't think it would be as impactful. But, he does write a lot of rhythm-based stuff which I think he shines better at than Jonathan does. Benjamin: That's a very good way to put it. Jonathan is a blues-inspired guitarist, but at the same time he tries not to let himself be pigeonholed as a blues player. He does write a lot of lines that have a very nice pop sensibility to them that I really like. I think in terms of discussing about music, I don't talk so much to Jonathan and Eugene about it, but more to Dave and Benjamin. In terms of getting inspiration and listening to new stuff, it's them. That's where the creative ideas come from. Ben: Eugene hits hard on the drums, which I like (laughs). Benjamin: Eugene is very into the whole production process, so he does bring that perspective with him.
Any upcoming projects that we can look forward to in the future? Benjamin: We have new material, where if all goes well, we hope to start releasing them towards the end of the year, so we will see how that goes. Now that it's after the launch, we are just tying up all the administrative loose ends. Once we've done all that, we have shows again soon in June and August, and then we will hit the studio again. Astronauts is a young band; we're just short of two years in age.
The two of us always felt that we started too late. Nowadays in Singapore, our local bands are still in polytechnic —just 17 and 18 years old — and they are already playing at gigs. Then these two jokers [Benjamin and Ben] right here who are already in the mid-twenties started too late, so we have to hurry and hustle. We have been hustling for the past two years and I think that it is very important that we don't stop because we are not getting any younger. We have to keep pushing our music out there.
Benjamin, I heard that you have a music gear business as well, called Stompbox SG? Benjamin: Yes, it's run by Jonathan and I. It helps that he is also in the band, and then we can understand each other's responsibilities and struggles. We have the same responsibilities because we are both in e-commerce, in school and play in the same band. I think personally for me, how I juggle all three things — business, music and school — is that I sacrifice other things. When I was still studying, I stayed in Nanyang Technological University's Hall of Residence, and rarely went home. Ben: We rehearse and play at shows on weekends too, so it doesn't really give you the time to do anything else.
Oh gosh, how do you guys juggle university stuff and your music? Benjamin:(laughs) You're assuming that we're juggling it successfully.
Do you guys feel that it's very taxing and that you are missing out? Benjamin: It's taxing, but after a launch like that, it's all worth it. It's not just the launch, but even when we finish a song and release it on Spotify, it feels like we have achieved something. It's worth it.