Recounting The Substation's music legacy: gigs over the years

Recounting The Substation's music legacy: gigs over the years

For more than 30 years, The Substation has been a stronghold for the contemporary arts scene in Singapore. People from all walks of life have descended upon 45 Armenian Street to catch a multitude of performances and exhibitions, each one inspiring them to take a deeper look at society and ponder the individual's role in change-making through expression.

Started by the late playwright Kuo Pao Kun, The Substation's programming extends far beyond the realms of theatre. Music has always been an integral part of the arts centre. The Substation served as a cradle for Singapore's indie scene in the early 1990s, launching the careers of early acts like Stompin' Ground, The Oddfellows and Humpback Oak

The first gigs at The Substation were organised independently by the artists themselves, and they happened weekly at the iconic Garden where a large banyan tree once stood beside the main building. The Substation Garden was a paradise for young musicians keen on showcasing their songs to a large crowd. Management of the space changed hands over the years between a few dining establishments, from Fat Frog Cafe to the current Timbre. 

As The Substation announces its permanent closure from July onwards, we take a look back at some of the music programming and events that have been staged at the arts centre over the years, reminiscing the rich legacy it has left behind for musicians and music-lovers alike in Singapore. 

Round-the-Clock Concert (1990)

Photo Credit: Lim Sin Thai 

In the '90s, New Year's Eve at The Substation was a raucous (or should we say 'rock-ous'?) affair. Ambitious 24-hour concerts would be lined up to ring in the new year with lots of merrymaking and headbanging, featuring sets by pioneering acts like Stompin' Ground, Global Chaos, Nunsex, and Opposition Party. 

The first installment of this extravaganza drew a crowd of more than 10,000 which packed out the Garden to its brim. Rock music wasn't the only thing on the agenda. Poetry recitals, puppet performances, comic drawing demonstrations, and a good mix of jazz/folk/pop music all made an appearance on the stage throughout the day. The Substation even released its own song 'The Dream Has Just Begun' at that year's concert.

Enthralled audiences largely stayed put throughout the marathon-style event, despite a few instances of the sound system breaking down at night and a thunderstorm that came at noon, which eventually forced a temporary halt to the festivities. 

Over the years, the '24-hour' performances became shorter as organisers took a more pragmatic approach to the event. 1999's 'Post-Ulu gig' organised by The Artists Village featured 12 bands compared to the initial 40. The celebrations were also shortened to 12 hours, with a line-up that included well-known names like Humpback Oak, Kindred and Astreal.  

Septfest (1990) 

Photo Credit: The Substation

The Substation's anniversary celebrations have long been a grand affair for the arts centre, marked by a series of festivities lined up for the entire month. Aptly named Septfest for its opening on 16 September 1990, the yearly event wasn't so much a concert but a carefully curated programme that showcased The Substation's multi-disciplinary approach to the arts. 

Music gigs that did occur were often melded with other forms of art such as theatre/dance to put up unique performances that fit that particular year's artistic theme. For example, Malay experimental music duo NADA was paired with dance group ScRach Marcs to explore Singapore's forgotten club culture of the past for 2021's "In the Margins" iteration. 

Big music-related events were also arranged to come together with Septfest's celebrations where possible. For instance, music zine BigO's 13th anniversary was marked with a gig under 1993's Septfest. Another iconic musical moment was in 2015, when a special edition of the concert series Tribal Gathering of Jaw Benders featured pioneering acts that used to play at the venue in the early '90s: The Oddfellows, Moods and TypeWriter. A fitting way to mark the musical legacy of the centre.

Music Space (1991) 

Photo Credit: Koh Nguang How Facebook

In 1991, The Substation's founder Kuo Pao Kun mooted the idea of a platform to support experimental music in order to address what he saw as a stagnation in creativity among Singaporean composers. Thus was born its first music programme — Music Space

The first batch of musicians onboard were largely from Lasalle College of the Arts, who played their original compositions which spanned an eclectic mix of genres including xinyaopantun, and classical music. Established artists like Phoon Yew Tien and Mark Chan also featured on this first edition of the programme. 

The first edition was a hit with audience members, who turned up in great numbers and filled the Substation's Theatre beyond its maximum capacity. That eagerness was equally apparent at the post-show forum, where musicians got to explain the creative processes behind their experimental pieces. 

Over the years, Music Space even attracted international artists to take part in the programme; 1996's edition saw nine artists from France, Japan, Korea and Singapore put up an interdisciplinary performance entitled "Compositions: The Pulse of Sound and Movement" which was helmed by Japanese double bassist Tetsu Saitoh

Rock the Sub (1997)

Photo Credit: The Substation Facebook

An annual concert series that dated way back to the early days of The Substation, Rock the Sub's programming was exactly what it sounded like — a one-night-only gig at the arts centre with a line-up of headbanging acts that were designed to melt faces off. 

Throughout the years, musicians that were featured in this series came largely from the pioneering batch of indie bands in our local scene. Acts like Pasture, Suburban Dammit and Astreal have all made an appearance on the Rock the Sub stage across its various editions. For a rundown of what went down at these shows, bloggers on Nostalgic Singapore and The Urbanwire have posted detailed reviews.

A final iteration of Rock the Sub was scheduled to take place this year as part of the Goodbye Garden farewell shows, but have unfortunately been cancelled due to tightened COVID restrictions.

Singapore Night Festival (2008)

Photo Credit: The Substation Facebook 

If the words "Singapore Night Festival" evoke imagery of National Museum's iconic facade being lit up in colours while aerial trapeze acts glided across the building's lawn, you're probably in the majority. Yet, aside from the Museum, The Substation itself has also been a committed partner of the festival since its inception in 2008. 

Music gigs first became a highlight of the festival in 2010, when The Substation's balcony remained open several hours after midnight to host performances by local indie acts Bani Haykal, Lunarin, Mux, The Analog Girl, Ugly in the Morning, and Westside

Over the years, the music programming for the Night Festival was turned up several notches, with The Substation adding more bands to the line-up each year. Tribal Gathering of Jaw Benders, the indie rock concert series, was first featured as part of the festival in 2012. Some of the artists who played that year included The Observatory, Enam JahanamThe Psalms, and Distrust. 

Soon, local performance venue and popular watering hole Timbre jumped onboard the festival and began to organise gigs of its own at its Substation outlet. In 2013, they put up "3 Generations of Rock", which featured the young Miguel Antonio, resident rock band Reverie and the aged Jimmy Appudurai who was from The Straydogs, performing hits from the '80s and '90s on the same stage. 

Tribal Gathering of Tongue Tasters (2010)

Photo Credit: Maria Clare Khoo

"Unusual collaborations". Those were the words used to describe this series of performances. They weren't exactly your usual rock gigs, electronic music DJ sets, or however else one could try to pigeonhole the shows that happened as part of Tribal Gathering of Tongue Tasters. The boundary lines that separated musicians and genres were intentionally muddied in this series that was first pitched by Bani Haykal in 2010. 

In one show in 2012, Malay music ensemble Orkestar Trio, more well-known for infusing cultural music into its works, was paired with sound scientist and electronic music artist Brian O'Reilly to explore the intersectionality of the experimental and traditional. In another, death metal band Sanity Obscure was put on the same stage as the live-looping, ambient singer-songwriter Randolf Arriola. 

A spin-off yearly concert known as Tribal Gathering of Jaw Benders was started in 2011. The ticketed portion of this show would feature a wide range of established artists including Caracal, NAZ, Circuitrip, Cyril Wong, SEYRA, and many more over the years. A 'free' performance segment, known as the "gagging sessions", was cast as an open invitation to all aspiring artists who wanted to showcase their music at The Substation. All they needed to get a shot at performing their songs at this iconic venue was to sign up. 

Timbre Singapore Originals (2012)

Photo Credit: Timbre Group

Sitting on the former grounds of The Substation's Garden for some years was none other than Timbre X @ The Substation. While some may argue that the bar's fancy decorations and generally more refined atmosphere made the experience of watching a live performance there a far cry from the Garden's raw, untamed setup, it's undeniable that Timbre helped continue the legacy of championing local gigs, with many artists kick-starting their careers there.

If you've visited Timbre's Substation outlet on the last Tuesday/Wednesday of each month in the past, you'd probably always notice a crowd gathering quickly in the evening. That's down to the Singapore Originals series, which would take place then. The longstanding series has been running since 2012, with singer-songwriter Nicholas Chim being the first guest performer. 

Over the years, countless Singaporean musicians have played at Timbre X @ The Substation as part of its offerings. After guest performers were done with their set, it was common for one of Timbre's resident bands such as 53A, Shagies and Sweatshop Jam to take the stage and keep the music flowing. 

In 2020, the concert series moved online due to the pandemic and was rebranded as #KeepMusicAliveSG Originals. With hundreds of gigs performed at Timbre Substation through Singapore Originals, it's safe to say that our culture has truly persevered at this iconic arts centre even after the loss of its Garden. 

Music Matters Live (2014) 

Photo Credit: Timbre Music Facebook

Asia's premier music festival Music Matters Live may have been more closely associated to nightlife venues like Clarke Quay, but the show has actually visited Timbre X @ The Substation numerous times over the years. The first instance of which was in 2014, when homegrown acts like Singapore Idol alumnus Sezairi and R&B/rap icon Mark Bonafide played alongside international bands to wrap up the four-day festival at the venue.

In line with its goal to champion the local music scene in each country, Music Matters Live featured a dedicated Singaporean showcase entitled "Made in Singapore". It made its debut at Timbre's Substation venue in 2015 and featured then rising acts like THELIONCITYBOY, Take Two, Ciao Turtle and Sezairi

Photo Credit: SG MUSO Facebook

The Takeover (2017)

Photo Credit: Timbre Group

As one of Singapore's most sought-after recording and rehearsal spaces, The Basement Studio celebrated its fourth anniversary by throwing one heck of a party at Timbre @ The Substation in 2017 as part of 'The Takeover'. A new series initiated by Timbre, this encompassed temporarily handing over the reins of music programming to a guest curator, who would be tasked to put up a concert at one of Timbre's branches off their own vision.

The line-up was a stunning collection of four Singaporean bands which rocked the night away in a full-house venue. The Basement Studio's founders, Yazzit Ismail and Ritz Ang, brought their respective bands Wicked Aura and The Summer State onto the stage. The other two bands invited were local 17-piece Batucada pop group MOTUS.SG and famed punk-rockers Iman's League. Check out this highlight video to relive what went down. 

The series didn't make a comeback to The Substation after that year. The Basement Studio staged another Takeover gig in 2018 as a tribute to American rock band Incubus, but it was held at Barber Shop by Timbre instead. 

Blackkaji (2019)

Photo Credit: The Observatory

A wicked collaboration between experimental rock band The Observatory and indie label Ujikaji Records, this series of live performances was conceived as "a study of the unseen, unsound, unsuspecting, unsustainable, unstable." 

Its first run at The Substation was in 2019 when it fell under the programming for Nusasonic, a regional culture fest that aimed to spark cross-border dialogue through the wonders of sound. Homegrown musicians that played at this two-day edition of BlackkajiXtra included the series' founders The Observatory, electronic music duo Pupa, and producer Fauxe

Aside from the rousing performances, those who attended BlackkajiXtra would likely recall the panel discussions that took place on Day Two. Attendees had the opportunity to glean insights on topics like "Music through historicism and cultural referencing", and "Resistance through music: secular territories of the underground" from a panel of established, regional musicians. 

Blackkaji made its return to The Substation the following year in 2020. By then, COVID-19 had impacted the world of entertainment and the concert's performances were shifted online. The line-up consisted of three acts: The Observatory, local electronic music pioneer George Chua, and drum-and-synth duo sl_owtalk

Straits Records Chill Sessions (2020)

Photo Credit: The Substation

Well-known in the scene as a champion for local gigs and music releases, Straits Records invited artists to put up a series of performances from the basement of The Substation last year. In true pandemic fashion, these sessions were live-streamed onto their Facebook, where the artists engaged their online audience with original tunes and stories of their musical exploits. 

Featured acts included The Guilt, Akid Amir, Iman's League, Fam Mat Soul, and Sanction Tapes

As part of Straits Records' involvement in the arts centre's Associate Artist Programme that year, they also introduced a pop-up store at the Substation's Box Office to sell books, music releases and merchandise.

You can relive entire episodes of the Chill Sessions, such as the one featuring Iman's League below, on The Substation's Facebook page

The Substation’s history was forged alongside the growth of our nation. It greeted creatives from all walks and disciplines with open arms. An institution for the conventional, the underground and the indie artists, it welcomed ideas few would accept and live performances no other would dare to host.

While the building might be vacated in a few week’s time, it’s without a doubt that its name and musical legacy will live on as an indelible imprint on our local culture, its position as a pantheon for the arts long cemented. It remains to be seen how the minds behind will keep fighting the good fight, but for now, it bids adieu to 45 Armenian Street.

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