Dream Yourself Indie—
and you just might end up like Twisted Halo, whose fierce music and even fiercer persistence have yielded an impressive EP and a full-length album now in the works. Anjeline de Dios attempts to uncoil the band's story.
“There's nothing really special about the band,” frowns Joey Odulio, one of the three guitarists for Twisted Halo. We had agreed to meet on a Saturday night at a crowded coffee joint for the interview. Now, over emptied plastic cups and small mounds of crushed cigarette butts, the members of Twisted Halo (sans Buddy Zabala, erstwhile producer and recently recruited bassist, and Vin Dancel, vocalist and rhythm guitarist) mull over their continuing story as one of Manila's most hardworking indie bands. Well-attended gigs, brisk sales of their eponymous EP, an In the Raw Award from last year's 2001 NU Rock Awards*, and a full-length album well under way: pretty good for a band in a tiny music scene that's as rich in original talent as it is devoid of any moolah whatsoever. What makes the success even more surprising is that, while other musicians have driven towards the ultimate goal of securing a contract with a major label, Twisted Halo has from the very beginning established itself as an independent band. They are known for their stubborn do-it-yourself ethic as much as for their intense, genre-defying music.
Offstage the members are unexpectedly good-natured—and highly self-critical. Odulio even seems baffled by their success. “You can't say we're the loudest. You can't say we're the first indie band either. We're just like any other band out there that happens to produce their own stuff.” “It just so happens we're one of the most commercial-sounding,” adds Jason Caballa, who also plays guitar. His remark draws laughter from Odulio, drummer Monmon Lopez, and manager Anna Piramide. “No, seriously! I'm not trying to say our music is unique, because it's not. I'm not saying I hate it. It's just that it could've been recorded by anyone… but it's good shit,” he concludes, satisfied.
Anyone listening to a Twisted Halo set would be hard pressed to define what this good shit actually is. The members' individual allegiances include genres as disparate as punk, pop, new wave, acid jazz and metal, with these influences all voicing themselves equally and forcefully in their songs. From the darkly sensuous ballad “Hiram”, the sinister hostility of “Brad”, the nail-biting agitation in “Untitled #4”, to the head-bobbing, near-pop sentiments of “Bean Curve”, here is music so restless and obstinately unclear that it leaves obsessive-compulsive listeners shifting uncomfortably in their seats. “Halo” in the band's name refers to the ring of light above the heads of the holy, but it can also refer to the Filipino word for “mix”—and this coincidental linguistic overlap aptly captures the multifaceted character of their music.
The rationale behind having two lead guitarists in the band can shed some light on the heterogeneity: many Halo songs are characterized by the contrasting interplay of the melodic, narrative lines provided by Odulio, who cites the Cure and Stevie Ray Vaughan as his influences, and Caballa's atonal, ambient sounds, similar to the workings of Sonic Youth. “When Halo was being formed we didn't make any conscious effort to include three guitars just so we could be noisy,” writes Dancel in an email. “It just happened.” Odulio's entry into the band as third guitarist came about when Caballa realized he was having a difficult time doing lead guitar duties by himself (“I can't solo for shit,” he admits). Along with Dancel on rhythm guitars, the lineup has yielded more than just a fuller sound in the music. Odulio and Caballa run a whole gamut of reasons why the structure has worked for them, from the practical (“It's easier to approximate the recorded sound this way, like an instant overdub”) to the absurdly theoretical (“It's good in the sense of the tonal spectrum—the bass takes the low end, Joey takes the low-mid, Vin takes the high-mid, and Jason ends up on the treble”). Lopez's contribution to the band has been to lend a more muscular feel to their music, rendering even the lightest of their songs with a harder, more metal edge. It remains to be seen how Zabala will further shape the band's musical terrain. The other members, however, eagerly look forward to collaborating with their producer, who, as Dancel notes, “was with us from the very start—he jumpstarted everything and pushed us in the right direction.” “Of all of us, he seems to be the most open-minded. And he can play more instruments than all of us combined,” observes Caballa.
Whatever the origins, the textured music woven by the guitars and cemented in the solid rhythm section creates the perfect venue for Dancel's singular voice and words. Dancel's chameleonic vocals change colors from song to song, sometimes even from verse to verse: soothing one moment, scathing the next. The spoken-word piece “Untitled #4” begins with cryptic mutterings about a family poisoned by incest and patricide, and ends with Dancel screaming the words “Bless my mother/bless my father/bless all children/here and after.” “Brad” is a story disguised as a song, with Dancel taking on the persona of an unrepentant fraternity brother addressing a brutally injured neophyte. “Irene”, “White on Yellow”, “The Bean Curve” and “Hiram” are love songs that describe the loved one so obliquely and mysteriously that you're never quite sure what's going on. (See for instance the opening lines of “The Bean Curve”: “She said what she said/in her head/But I heard it long before she even thought of it/Spoke of it/There's a room with no windows/Just mirrors and half-painted lies/And a sigh.”)
The emergence of Twisted Halo as one of the scene's most promising bands would not have been possible without the presence of a supportive, tightly-knit community of peers and listeners. The EP was pushed and prodded into being by Zabala and Raimund Marasigan, musical heavyweights in the local scene (aside from being members of the immensely popular band the Eraserheads, both have collaborated with some of the most talented bands in the area). Various friends and colleagues offered them slots in concerts and gigs when they were just starting out. The band now has a small but fiercely devoted following, with kids from different provinces trekking to Manila just to catch Halo gigs. “I was really surprised when I entered the band scene, because the atmosphere in every gig was just like a family—all the bands know each other and help each other out,” shares Lopez. “They're there for you even with the smallest things, like when you drop a stick while performing. Even when they're seated far away, they'll stand up to help you out.”
In the end, it's still the band's attitude towards performing and propagating their music that got them to where they are right now. Though they are brutally honest about their music, the members allow themselves a modicum of pride with the way they've earned their keep: “We worked our asses off for the EP. Production, marketing, promotion, distribution, the works. We knew no one else was going to do it for us,” explains Dancel. “I guess that's the essence of our being indie: we don't want to be told what to do, how and where and why to do it.”
And is such a tenacious insistence on autonomy even possible in the music industry? Odulio sums it up neatly: “If we do have a degree of conceit, it's because we were able to show people that going indie is doable. Not that we've reached our peak or anything, but it can be done. Just do what you want to do—whether you want to sign up with a major label or not. And if you work really hard at it, it'll happen.”
*The In the Raw Award is a yearly award given to the most exceptional band featured on “In the Raw”, a weekly radio/TV program on NU 107.5/UNTV which profiles the music of unsigned bands.
Writer Jeline De Dios is schizophrenic when it comes to musical preferences, which is probably why she likes Twisted Halo. These days she wakes up to Jeff Buckley and Utada Hikaru, sings Gloria Estefan during breaks, and falls asleep to Schubert and The Beta Band.