Archive for August, 2003


Friday, August 8th, 2003

Over dinner and a few drinks, singer songwriter Pete Teo shares an absorbing tale of finance, construction, music and the healing properties of Tequila

By Ashok, Astro Guide

It’s 15 minutes before Pete Teo’s big album launch party and all the singer songwriter wants is to take a shower. “I can’t keep my eyes open,” he explains. That’s the least of his worries. Pete’s also got a bad cough and he worries about not being able to project well in No Black Tie, the famously claustrophobic bar. But if you’ve spent even 5 minutes alone with the Man Called Pete, you’ll understand that a small thing like feeling under the weather won’t stop him. Not knowing the first thing about finance didn’t stop him from becoming a financial analyst. Similarly, not knowing about engineering didn’t stop him from going into construction. Even if Pete was to be abducted by aliens tonight, the show would go on.

The rise of singer songwriter Pete Teo is all the more remarkable considering how difficult it is for Malaysian musicians to carve out a slice of the local entertainment pie. What’s more, the Sabahan’s debut album, ‘Rustic Living For Urbanites’, is in English, which puts a cap on its conventional commercial possibilities. Of course, Pete is nothing if not unconventional.

Strangely enough, Pete Teo’s story can be gleaned from his eyes. The gentle lattice-work around them acts as a map to his convoluted path in life. Each line, each crease speaks volumes about his experience. And for all his protests that there are some things he won’t share with the world, he’s never less than completely candid. As a quick listen to his tunes attests, Pete is a man with a lot on his mind and a burden that’s almost more than he can bear. One thing, he is not as shy about sharing the trials and tribulations that his music seems to reflect.

For Pete, the story begins a long time ago, in London. The future sensation of No Black Tie was doing his Masters in Social Theory at the London School Of Economics and teaching on the side. Together with another post-graduate student, Grace, he began playing London bars and collegial gigs. This act was called ‘Mid Century’ and it was destined for Hong Kong.

“Grace and I both took some time off one summer and went to Hong Kong in the hope of cutting a record. That was when I first met Leo Fung (audiophile recording producer / engineer extraordinaire), who signed us and put out the record. Well, its a Top-40 record and that was my first taste of pop stardom,” says Pete.

Unfortunately, the first big moment for ‘Mid Century’ was also to be the last. The band’s second album was an abortive effort and both Grace and Pete had to face the stark reality of making ends meet. While doing film scores to pay the rent, Pete had a chance encounter with a book called ‘Liar’s Poker’, by Michael Lewis, which started him on his great Malaysian adventure.

“It (‘Liar’s Poker’) was basically a study of greed. I thought it was a fascinating subject, so I returned to Malaysia to become a financial analyst. I just read a few books to bone up on the trade and everything else I picked up as I went along.”

Among his achievements was getting the small start-up financial house he worked at rated by ‘Asia Money’ by writing the weirdest research they had ever seen. Having made his mark on the financial market, Pete went off in search of a new challenge, and this led him to construction. “Again, I knew nothing about construction.” But this didn’t stop Pete from putting up buildings. “I wanted to make something real. In finance, you don’t build anything. You just pick up the phone and deal,” says Pete, flashing his trademark smirk.

For all his success with things he knew nothing about, satisfaction eluded Pete. But at that time, he was a long ways away from finding the songs he knew he had inside him. In fact, this was one of the reasons he left Hong Kong and the music scene. It would be six years before Pete heard the call of music again.

“When I said I took a six year break, I mean I didn’t even write. I didn’t pick up a pen or an instrument. I didn’t like what I was writing because I felt I was getting stale. I had nothing to write about. It was like being all dressed up and nowhere to go. Rather than writing shit that I didn’t like, I took a break,” says Pete, his brow furrowing.

It’s ironic that the man who could do so unbelievably well in fields he knew nothing about, that failed to move him even an inch, could flounder about so helplessly when it came to things he loved most in life. If nothing else, all the heartbreak and turmoil of Pete’s years away from show business gave him something to write about and added even more character to his craggy features. Then the music fairy came calling again.

“One day, he (Leo Fung) came around from Hong Kong. It wasn’t a very happy time in my life at that time. My marriage was breaking up and it was tough. Anyway, Leo heard that I was in a tight spot and came to see how I was doing. He asked if I had written anything, or if I was writing at all. I said that I had this one song, but it wasn’t intended for public consumption. Anyway, he insisted that I play it and so I did.” That song was ‘Marianne Called’.

Little did Pete know that that private number was the beginning of ‘Rustic Living For Urbanites’. Listening to Pete bare his soul on the track is especially hard. The honesty of the lyrics, the plaintive stirrings of the erhu and the rawness of the singing are almost overwhelming. In chronological terms, Pete followed tears with wry humour in his next tune ‘Alive N’ Free’, which is actually about the moment when the music fairy came back to town. The rest of the songs emerged over several years of hard gigging in Kuala Lumpur, which is as hard a place to get a good gig as there ever was.

For loyal Pete-ites, his record is an affirmation of all their support over the years. Indeed, many of them worked on the album, in some way or other. On the big night at No Black Tie, all of them are scattered around the packed interior. The man of the hour is himself a little scattered. In a bid to calm his rebellious throat, he’s plying himself with the liquor of his choice, tequila. Pete’ll be alright though because he’s only playing two songs tonight – the rest will come from the other artists who have come together to cover his tunes. Quite remarkable considering that the album has only just been released.

Because of the songs on his album and the tequila we’ve shared, I believe Pete when he asserts that I’ve known him in the happiest stage of his life. Quick with his quips and his tequila shooters, Pete is as generous as he is gregarious, especially when it comes to his fans. He never fails to play the rousing crowd-pleaser, ‘Jesselton Tonight’, no matter how much it irritates him, although he does complain about it. In fact, even as I write this, the infectiously groovy number is climbing the charts, thanks in no small part to the Pete-ites who keep requesting the song. Tonight though, the hopeful strains of another of the Marianne songs, ‘Arms Of Marianne’, dominate the room.

Pete Teo is smiling again, despite the blood on the tracks.