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Hello pain, hello gain
 

THE X-PAT FILES by Scott R. Garceau

Publish Date: [Sunday, June 30, 2002]

Is Pinoy rock set to take over America?

Thatís what Michael Sutton, A&R representative for Tacoma, Washington-based Know-It-All Records, seems to think.

"With the right promotion, Pinoy rock will be the Next Big Thing in America," predicts Sutton, who is half-Filipino, half-American.

The music buzz about town is that indie band the Pin-Up Girls are the first to bag a deal with the US record label, with two other "mystery bands" to follow. Sutton signed the Pin-Ups after hearing tapes of the bandís "Cold and Better Place" played on local station NU-107.

"I feel like Iíve stumbled onto buried treasure," Sutton said. "I can easily see the Pin-Up Girls being warmly embraced by college-radio stations in the United States, and then crossing over into modern rock formats. Commercial FM in America is becoming too ethnocentric in their programming, saturated by Yankee mediocrity; the Pin-Up Girls will show them that the world is round, not flat."

A pretty bold statement. But many people seem to think Filipino bands have talent to burn; all they need is that big break in the US. "Being half-Filipino, I feel a strong sense of pride," says Sutton. "Iím proud that my native country produced a group as talented and refreshingly creative as the Pin-Up Girls."

All of this is a little mind-boggling to the local band which previously had to sell their self-produced CD, Hello Pain, between gigs at Mayricís.

"What are the chances, right?" wondered Pin-Up Girlsí singer/guitarist Mondo Castro after hearing the news. "My first reaction was that this was a hoax. It reminded me of that scene in the movie Rock Star where Mark Wahlbergís character was offered to audition for that big band. The hairs all over my body were standing up. Amazing!"

Letís face it: landing a record deal in the US is kind of the Holy Grail for Filipino bands. It should be enough to gain national attention, win fans and audiences and endorsements right here on your home turf, but somehow it isnít. Local bands have been striving to break through to foreign markets since... well, forever.

Thereís nothing wrong with this, of course. The theory goes that opening the door for one Filipino band makes it a lot easier for the rest. But since even established bands like the Eraserheads failed to make a dent in the US, itís worth considering if this reflects a "grass is always greener on the other side" mentality. And for those other unsigned local acts who are now green with envy, itís worth taking a look at how the Pin-Up Girls managed to grab the elusive gold ring.

Turns out Sutton, who was born at Clark Air Force Base in 1968, became a fan of NU-107 while visiting here in 1984 (before that, he was addicted to the now-defunct New Wave station DWXB 102). A friend in Manila sent him tapes of NU-107, and his ears fixated on the Pin-Up Girlsí single. He hunted down Mondo Castroís e-mail address and informed him of Know-It-Allís interest. The bandís other guitarist, Pam Aquino, shipped him a copy of Hello Pain.

It should be said here that Know-It-All is not your average American record label; theyíre a small, selective indie label started by a Tacoma-based rapper named Lazarus in 1999. Average CD pressings are about 5,000 copies, and their roster includes obscure but interesting artists such as singer/songwriter Matt Easton and former Lotus Eaters singer Peter Coyle. According to Sutton: "What Lazarus envisions is a label with the high standards of Motown during the í60s and í70s. We also want to be unpredictable... Weíre not interested in cranking out hits; we want artists who will grow with us."

Thereís also a strong í80s esthetic to the label, or at least to Suttonís ears, which must have heard something resonate in the Pin-Up Girlsí decidedly-í80s sound. (After all, this is a guy who quotes the Icicle Works in his e-mails.)

"Thereís definitely an í80s influence on the band,í agrees Castro. "But does that mean itís a conscious effort? No. We all cite bands like The Cure, The Pixies, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, and the Jesus and Mary Chain as major influences. We love the spirit of the bands from the í80s Ė intense, sincere, pure and innovative."

Somehow, the Pin-Up Girls fit into this eclectic mix. Theyíve been offered a record deal which includes touring and promotion in the US, as well as video production. In September, the band is set to open for Peter Coyle at the Youthquake Music Festival in Washington State, and theyíll appear on the Youthquake cable TV series, now in pre-production. "Gigs in America are essential, and Iím going to book the Pin-Up Girls in places where they can attract an American audience instead of just regional Filipino-American communities" says Sutton, who notes there isnít much of a Filipino-American audience in Tacoma anyway.

Sutton hints another band Ė possibly two Ė are now in talks with Know-It-All, but no form of torture or persuasion will get him to reveal who it is. "Itís another Pinoy rock act," is all heíll say. "I canít reveal their identity right now. An oral agreement was made with one of their members Ė the person who is also in charge of their business deals Ė but Iím not going to announce it until theyíve seen the artist-label agreement."

By most accounts, the terms of the Pin-Up Girlsí contract compares favorably to those being offered to local bands on their own turf. "The Pin-Up Girls and Know-It-All Records share the profits 50/50," notes Sutton. "You donít see any labels making generous offers like that."

"I donít think thereís another label in existence that offers that," enthuses Castro. "Know-It-All is extremely artist-friendly. These people arenít sharks."

He says the bandís first CD will be re-released in the US, UK, and possibly Japan Ė minus a few alternate versions and remixes, but still including the Tagalog songs. Which leads to the question: Does a Pinoy band have to sing in English to capture a US audience? "It certainly makes them more marketable," agrees Sutton. But Castro notes Filipino bands have been singing in English "ever since" in an attempt to sound Western Ė to no avail.

Initially, Know-It-All will press 5,000 copies of the single "Burn," and is set to record the bandís second album in Washington next year. "Yes, they will be funding it," Castro says, a little amazed at their good fortune.

All this is a bit strange for a band that in the past had to pay for its own recording (without a contract, the Pin-Up Girls put out Hello Pain on their all-but-fictitious Broken Records label). "We just plunged into the whole thing without thinking about the business side. Idiots! We just wanted to cut our album our way," says Castro. Similarly, the video for "Down" was done on the cheap by friends (like director Quark Henares). "We didnít pay them a cent! All we did was feed them, thatís how poor we are. It was a case of fellow D.I.Y.-minded people helping each other out."

The singer/guitarist is quick to thank those who believed in the band from the start, even when local labels werenít interested. "Major labels turned us down for being Ďtoo pop,í whatever that means. Nobody, aside from a handful of people like Raimund Marasigan (drummer for the Eraserheads and producer of Hello Pain) and Jing Garcia truly, sincerely believed in the Pin-Up Girls."

And while Castro concedes that, swimming among the talent pool of Filipino bands, the Pin-Up Girls have been very lucky, he also knows itís going to take a lot of hard work to prove themselves. "Itís the remotest thing that could happen, a Pinoy band signing a contract with a US label Ė itís unheard of up until now."

But right after this comes a burst of national pride: "Weíre really going to push this to the limit and hopefully blow the lid off the Philippine rock scene! Imagine Sheila and the Insects playing in CBGB or Chain Gang kicking Creedís behind!" 



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