Archive for February, 2002


Monday, February 11th, 2002

By Jerome Kugan, Kakiseni

Itís 11pm on Friday, January 4, 2002, at No Black Tie. As the chatty crowd progresses from tipsy to sloshed-out, Pete Teo approaches the mic onstage and plugs his acoustic guitar in. After introducing himself to the crowd, which had grown only slightly quieter, he plays the opening chords of his first song, ìAlive and Freeî. The room fell silent.

“Welcome to my living / Sit down, while I undo my trimmings / It’s cold out, I’m glad you came by / How did you recognise me? / Last night, I saw Annie / Like you, she was oh very pretty / Dark eyes, her name is Frank now / She died in 1945 / In the year of the night”.

From his performance that night, itís obvious that Pete Teo is not a musician who rides on big trendy sounds to please his audience. Instead, like a modern-day troubadour poet, he tells stories, paints intimate mini-dramas and describes scenes that couldíve come from noir films of the 1940s.

A week later, when I tell Pete that itís very obvious that his ëfolksy singer-songwriterí approach is different from the usual “pub-cover blues”, “slicked up jazz pop” or “alternate-rock” fare one gets on the local live music circuit, he nods and lights up a cigarette.

“With my songs, lyrics are very important. I donít necessarily play complex chordal arrangements or go out of my way to wow people with my guitar playing. That doesnít work for me. Donít get me wrong, I know a lot of wonderful musicians who do that successfully, but that simply isnít my thing. For the stuff I do, the guitar is solely used to accompany the voice and augment the song. I try to keep it simple, and I donít care much for genres. If the song only needs three beginnerís chords and wants to be played in a technically unimpressive way, why ruin it by incorporating the flashy stuff? I am a story teller and have absolutely no ambition to be a guitar hero.”

This straightforward attitude to music is strangely unfamiliar in the local music scene where musicians try to outdo one another with technical virtuosity (which more often than not seems revelatory only to the musicians themselves). Refreshingly, Pete insists that the essence of a song as embodied in the words and the voice should not play second fiddle to the instrumentation surrounding it. In other words, the tail should never be allowed to wag the dog.

“When I was younger, I was packed off to study in England because I was such a rebel. Over there, I was exposed to a particularly European way of approaching creativity. The European creative culture tends to centre more on ideas than technical prowess alone. That was the artistic environment that shaped me, and thatís where I come from as a musician. As such, I have always spent more time reading than listening to music or practising, and it is still the same way today.”

Oddly enough, for all his immersion into creative endeavours, Pete’s time in England almost plunged him into a career in academia. One fateful night, while sharing a drink with his academic mentor, Pete (then finishing his masters degree in Law & Social Theory, and who moonlighted as composer for Channel 4) sought advise on whether he should pursue a career in academia or music. The reply was terse and clear. “Music.”

And that’s what Pete did. Contrary to his Bohemian looks, Pete has courted pop fame in unlikely places. He has been, among other things, a session musician, songwriter, producer and sound engineer in the Cantopop world of Hong Kong. As the writing half of the cult recording duo Mid-Century (the other half being vocalist Grace Au), he recorded two albums in the early 90’s, one under BMG, and another under the wings of the famed indie audiophile recording guru Leo Fung. But why has the man only now decided to perform his own solo material?

“At first, Leo and I were talking about me working with Grace again. But after hearing the latest compositions on a demo tape I sent him, Leo felt that I should seriously think about doing it as a solo record and have it done the way I want to. I suppose I’ve always had a solo effort in the back of my mind but the opportunity never came up.

Until now, that is. According to Pete, heíll be taking time out in the next few months to record his first solo album. The as-yet-untitled album will include most of the songs that he performed at his recent NBT and Acoustic Jam gigs such as ‘Alive and Free’, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘Budapest’ and ‘Red House’. Rather than cluttering up the sonic space with a wall of sound, Pete feels that his current songs are at their best when allowed sufficient space to breath. Thus, he envisages that the record will have a moody, dark and sparse feel.

“I tend to write songs in batches and the current batch were written with a moody and sparse record in mind. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m not really out there to please everyone. Like most musicians, I get a huge buzz from receiving positive response from people who like my work, but thatís just a bonus to whatever fun I am having at the time. What I want to do is to make music that is emotionally intense and evocative. Most of all, I want to make records that I can believe in.”

Is Pete Teo the next big thing? Judging by current trends in popular music, it seems like a long shot. But if his critically lauded recent performances are any indication, it is clear we can expect a well-crafted recording of songs that are rich and challenging in imagery, poetry and pathos. Meanwhile, the music plays on, as the troubadour poet continue to lament for the souls of the troubled.

“Excuse me for asking, but how did you get in? / There’s a hole in your heart, that’s how I got in / Some days, I don’t remember / What it’s like to be / Alive and free”.