Filipino fuzz-pop group Spacedog Spacecat on debut: “There’s no point if you can’t turn up the dirt!”
Written by ABR on 20/09/2022
“We have to rethink that band description,” RJ Mabilin says in reference to his band’s self-assessment across their socials as “slackers.” After all, the group he co-founded during the pandemic, Spacedog Spacecat, hadn’t been as relaxed with their output as he’d promised his recruits they would be.
Indeed – five singles, four music videos, a knack for online jams, a surprise turn at Esplanade’s Rocking the Region in Singapore, and a full-length debut record after, Mabilin’s bandmates are scratching their heads, asking: “This is what you meant when you said ‘chill’?”
“I’ve always called him out whenever something takes too much effort!” Jam Lorenzo, with whom Mabilin masterminded the group, chimes in during their recent sit-down with NME.
“Slacker” isn’t supposed to be just a sound, Lorenzo says, but a total approach. To that point, he thinks their process is more akin to the steadier workflow of indie rockers – “Built to Spill types,” he suggests – than to that of true-to-form slackers devoid of plans, schemes, and designs of any shape or form.
In truth, Spacedog Spacecat have plans, schemes, and designs in (ironic) abundance.
Alongside drummer Jerros Dolino (Megumi Acorda, Tropical Depression, erstwhile Urbandub and Sheila and the Insects); bassist Marc Inting (Twin Lobster, Slow Hello); singer-guitarist-keyboardist Evee Simon (July XIV, Megumi Acorda); and violinist Janine Samaniego (concertmaster for the U.P. Symphony Orchestra, Covert), frontmen-guitarists Mabilin and Lorenzo were able to prove how access to a tight-knit indie network, some rudimentary content-creation chops, and equal parts of cheek and chutzpah can get you places.
Their recent appearance at the Esplanade was a particularly proud laurel: a small band on a large overseas stage, used to slumming it sound-wise but suddenly hearing everything crystal-clear.
Inting had to build an analog board from scratch for his bass to cut through three fuzz guitars, but it turns out he maybe didn’t even have to. Simon, meanwhile, recalls Lorenzo telling her, “Wow, I didn’t know you played those parts.”
“We love the bar shows here [in Manila], but [Rocking the Region] was the first time that we could actually hear each other,” Dolino says, still in disbelief.
Mabilin and Lorenzo first met at the now-defunct Redverb, the studio Mabilin owned and ran a stone’s throw away from Manila’s premier state university. They had been attempting a proper collaboration since 2016, in between skating jaunts and downtime jams between studio clients.
An earlier incarnation – a band called A Slight Fuzz, which already had Dolino on the drums – had to be shelved after just three shows and Mabilin’s terrifying brain aneurysm.
Following a successful treatment called endovascular coiling, the debacle did require a half-year-long break and change. But other than being on maintenance meds for hypertension, “I’m much better now,” Mabilin says.
A revolving cast of indie favorites, which included players like Megumi Acorda, Apa Rubio (Public Places, We are Imaginary), and Ean Aguila (Ang Bandang Shirley), would come and go, but the pair knew they were onto something. In fact, two tracks from ‘Fuzz Sounds’ – ‘Metro Retro Bizarro’ and ‘Etc. Beach’ – would be written and arranged in those early sessions.
“Those hangouts often devolved into impromptu jam sessions with a host of other Redverb regulars. That’s when we first came up with the idea to form a band together,” Lorenzo says.
By 2018, the duo zeroed in on forming one of two kinds of bands: a fuzz-driven or an indie-surf one. When 2020 and the pandemic swung around, they decided to channel the efforts of the previous years into a unified funnel.
Then there was the matter of recruitment, an otherwise daunting task made more bearable because, being a studio owner, Mabilin had plenty of musicians to ‘choose’ from. The joke was that the people who eventually made up Spacedog Spacecat’s personnel auditioned without them knowing it.
“I’ve always said that what I look for in music is sincerity, but that’s something I haven’t really reflected on”
“You got no choice, friends. You’re our bandmates now,” Mabilin chuckles.
It was during the pandemic when Redverb’s video-production alter-ego, Alternatrip, started enlisting “supergroup” collabs featuring studio regulars from different bands. While those sessions’ crowning moment was a Broken Social Scene-flavored protest tune called ‘Ngayon ang Panahon’, it was the covers – particularly the episode where they interpret a pair of tracks from The Rentals’ debut – that proved instrumental in recalibrating Spacedog Spacecat as we now know it.
“[At first] we decided that it would be mainly just the two of us, so that we can expedite the production of the songs – an idea that didn’t really last that long. After [The Rentals sessions], I pushed for a full-band line-up for Spacedog Spacecat, which Jam accepted – possibly begrudgingly,” Mabilin clarifies, sharing how hearing Samaniego’s strings and Simon’s keys and harmonies on the well-loved Matt Sharp songs was a eureka moment in their recruitment process.
Despite the low-key successes of the past year, the band’s discomfort over some things have not disappeared. Their self-critical jabs and tongue-in-cheek stabs at self-mockery – particularly at being called a “supergroup” – have been constants.
“It’s flattering and amusing, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. None of the individual members’ bands, past or present, ever really got big outside of the so-called hipster circles in Manila,” Lorenzo says, confessing his lack of fondness for “Velvet Revolver types” and pleading for suspension of use of the term when speaking of his band.
“It also adds a lot of unnecessary pressure,” he shrugs.
Supergroup or not, ‘Fuzz Sounds’ has a lot of “super” going for it: a bevy of glorious dirt tones (“There’s no point in being in a band if you can’t turn up the dirt and the reverb!”); fun, ‘Pet Sounds’-referencing cover art (if one goes by ‘Chronic Non-Surfers’ alone, they’re pretty much up the Beach Boys’ alley); earworm-worthy boy-girl melodies (‘Metro Retro Bizarro,’ ‘My Midori,’ ‘Seeking a Friend’). A propulsive energy permeates all of the record, and whoever you are – fuzz disciple or not – there’s likely something in it for you.
The discomfort with buzz words and huge hype machines (at least for Spacedog Spacecat honchos Mabilin and Lorenzo) isn’t standard-issue hipster contrarianism. If their work in other outfits is any indication – Mabilin with the militant Axel Pinpin Propaganda Machine, Lorenzo with indie faves The Geeks – it’s that one’s music isn’t so much a biography in audio but a selective projection of it.
“I’ve always said that what I look for in music is sincerity, but that’s something I haven’t really reflected on,” Lorenzo offers, admitting that while he was once “an overzealous indie kid” with a heavy purist bent, he has since grown up to “let people enjoy what they enjoy.”
Interestingly, despite his band’s shared appetite for eargasmic role models – Dinosaur Jr., Archers of Loaf, Guided by Voices, Portastatic – Lorenzo still grasps at straws when it comes to his rubrics of “cool.”
“At this point it’s almost an instinctive reaction, where I can immediately tell if I think something is cool based on the first few seconds of a song,” he adds. He has the same gut reaction to how someone writes social media posts, or how a band takes pictures of themselves: “That’s what happens if you’ve been judging people for so long,” he laughs.
The guys of Spacedog Spacecat don’t even consider themselves “antiheroes” – reasoning how one has to be on equal footing as a “hero” to even qualify – but they’re definitely delivering hero-level service to fuzz fiends everywhere. Apart from some hook-filled ace tunesmithing, ‘Fuzz Sounds’ is practically an advert for that time-honoured variety of guitar dirt tone.
So why all this fuss for fuzz?
“I guess the simplest reason is a lot of the bands I love use fuzz pedals,” Mabilin offers. “But if I were to overanalyze it, I’d say [I love it for] the unapologetic, in-your-face grit that it brings to a piece of music.”
‘Fuzz Sounds’ is out now via Catshelf Records
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