The Oddfellows continue to receive wide acclaim as a pioneering influence within Singapore’s close-knit alternative rock scene. They are best known for fan-favorite singles such as “Lost My Head,” “She’s So Innocent,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Unity Song,” and their most definitive hit, “So Happy.” Forming in early 1988, the band took cue from American college rock and power pop acts, namely REM and The Replacements. Over time, The Oddfellows’ sound would become considerably more nuanced through their two critically-praised full-length albums, 1991’s Teenage Head and 1992’s Carnival, as well as in numerous compilation appearances.
Currently, the band is preparing to release their long-awaited third album, What’s Yours and Mine, due out in September of this year. Last week, to tide fans over, the band released an 11-track retrospective, Up in the Clouds: The Best of The Oddfellows (For Now), which includes newly-remastered renderings of the aforementioned singles from both albums, as well as compilation one-offs. With this album, the band has made their debut on streaming platforms.
In a Music Existence exclusive, I caught up with frontman Patrick Chng to discuss his formative influences growing up, his experiences with The Oddfellows and in the Singapore music scene, the new compilation, and what to expect on the band’s upcoming album.
Since your recent compilation is a retrospective of your early days, let’s start from the beginning. I understand that, as a kid, you played piano as well as guitar. Which kinds of music were around you at that time?
I was born in 1967, so my formative years were in the 70s. My parents were very much into 50s and 60s pop and rock n’ roll music. My dad played a bit of guitar, and really liked Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, and The Beatles, while for my mum, Elvis Presley was a big one. The radio was always on in our house, and I’d actually help mum record songs off the radio. I’d be standing next to our cassette player, and she’d be like, “Okay, record that! Record that song!” So, I had a great time growing up in the 70s and really loving music, you know? I also have two younger sisters, and at the time, my mum decided to let them take piano lessons. I wasn’t learning piano then; I’d just take my sisters to the piano teacher’s house, which was a few blocks away. But once I absorbed what they were learning, and was able to play as well as them, my mum was like, “Hey, you should learn piano, too.” So, when I started piano lessons, it was all classical music, until about grade five, then I switched to pop piano. When I was 11 years old, my mum passed away, and that’s when the lessons stopped.
During that transition, did the guitar provide you a sense of solace, and seem to be an instrument you were more comfortable playing?
Yeah, I think so. We always had a guitar around the house, and after mum passed away, I lived with my uncles, and also with my grandmother, for a year. My uncles, who were my dad’s younger brothers, were into bands like Bread, Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and that kind of stuff. They also had a guitar, and I’d watch them play, and pick up on what they were doing. They also had a songbook with all the chords to various songs – one section on The Eagles, one section on The Seekers, The Bee Gees, Abba, The Carpenters – and were able to teach me stuff from them, so that’s how I learned guitar.
The funny thing was, I didn’t take learning guitar seriously until I joined my first band. I was 16 years old and fresh out of secondary school. I was waiting for my results in order to get into Polytechnic Junior college. Once I took a part-time job at a retail shop, I met these guys who were already in a band and needed a keyboard player. So, when they found out I played piano, they were like, “Come, come; you need to join our band!” We played together, and they were so good. That was the first time I’d ever experienced an electric guitar up close! We’d play stuff by The Eagles, Whitesnake, and Black Sabbath, and that’s when it hit me, like “Damn, I need to play electric guitar.” (Laughs)! That’s when I got set up to play it.
To put this musical exposure in a Singaporean context, you lived through a clampdown period growing up, which saw restrictions on certain types of music, and by the 80s, being introduced to heavier bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath must have been big!
Well, actually, when I was growing up, I had no idea the clampdown was happening (laughs).
Wow, so you were oblivious to it, since you were familiar with many other types of music already, and you otherwise became aware of your local scene at just the right time.
Yeah, I never knew! So, in the 80s, as far as our local bands from Singapore, there were actually very few being played on radio. One band I really liked was Zircon Lounge, and they released great music, even though none of it had gotten any airplay. But I can remember my first time seeing their singer Chris Ho on TV as a kid. When I was maybe 10 years old, he was hosting a popular variety show, and I was thinking, “Wow, he’s quite a funny guy!” A few years later, I discovered that he was the lead singer in the band Transformer, and, later on, Zircon Lounge.
A bit before you formed The Oddfellows, you heard the compilation tape Nothing on the Radio, which had Chris’s solo music on it. Another artist from that tape that you were inspired by was Joe Ng, who made music as Corporate Toil. What was it like meeting Joe for the first time?
How I originally met Joe was through BigO, around 1986. Before BigO became a proper magazine, it was just a fanzine that was photocopied and not professionally printed.
Ah, I see. It was very underground, right?
Yeah, extremely underground. It was all black and white and they would xerox copies of it. Readers could place ads of records they wanted to sell, and at the time, Joe was selling some albums and singles. He left his phone number on the ad, and I called him up saying, “Hey, I’d like to buy this record,” and that’s how we met. We became really good friends, and would hang out on the weekends quite regularly. Then, the Nothing on the Radio cassette came out through the fanzine. Actually, when it was first being made, BigO was calling for artists to submit their demos, and I actually submitted two tracks. Mine weren’t selected (laughs), but I still got the tape. When I listened to it, it just blew me away, like, “Wow, this is our local talent; this is really good stuff!”
That’s really cool! So, Zircon Lounge and Corporate Toil inspired you to put out your own stuff. Then, with Oddfellows, you got together with Casey Soo and Stephen Tan, and released the cassette called Mild in 1988. When you were just starting to form, how did The Oddfellows turn from an idea into a band?
I was friends with Casey, and I met him through BigO as well, buying records and stuff like that. That was in early ’87, and by that time, I had another band that had just broken up. He and I shared a common love of REM and The Replacements, and once my band dissolved, I was like, “Hey, why don’t we put a band together,” and we took our band name from the REM song, “Oddfellows Local 151.”
In June of 1988, BigO was going to organize a concert for the Singapore Fringe Festival at the Botanic Gardens. They originally had my previous band on the lineup, and I told them, “That band is no longer around, but I have a new band, The Oddfellows, and we’ll be there!” I didn’t even have a bass player at the time, and I had only a few months to put a band together. At one point, Stephen came up to me and was like, “Hey, Pat, do you need an acoustic guitar player,” and I was like,” Actually, I need a bassist.” (Laughs)! He was like, “I don’t even know how to play; I’ve never touched a bass before,” but I said, “Oh, it’s so simple; let me teach you how,” and that’s how we got the band together. So, we managed to play that gig, and that’s how a lot of people got to know us.
So, up to this point, everything was really grassroots. Being able to play in front of people, and especially, meeting people who inspire you, must have been awesome, because you got to see how they would affect your growth over time.
Yeah, definitely! When we came out with our first cassette, Mild, Chris Ho was actually very supportive. He had a radio show, and invited us into the studio to play a few tracks from the cassette. If you ever heard it, you’ll know the quality is atrocious – super lo-fi (laughs)! So, his show was called Eight Miles High, and he’d have eight songs on his chart. He ended up putting one of our songs at number one.
Yeah, and at that time, he was also a writer for our national newspaper, so he was able to interview us and get us coverage, and that was another way we gained some publicity.
That’s huge! You’ve been getting around at this point, and actually, before the Botanic Gardens gig, there was a pre-Oddfellows gig in ’87 that impacted you in a big way. That was No Surrender, which had Zircon Lounge in their final days, but also, the bands Corporate Toil and Opposition Party, who you’d also be featured with in 1990 for the upcoming compilation, New School Rock. What happened during that transition?
So, in ’87, BigO organized the No Surrender gig at the Anywhere Music Pub, and that was a pretty groundbreaking gig as well. I believe it was Zircon Lounge’s either last or second to last gig ever, but they blew me away. Opposition Party played there too, and we became very close with the people in that band. Joe performed as Corporate Toil as well, and he had planned for me to play guitar on a cover of the Joy Division song “Exercise One,” so I got up there and played it with him. It was a really wonderful gig, you know?
After that, there were a few shows here and there. Chris Ho also organized a gig in December of ’88 called Ten Years of Punk, where The Oddfellows played with Opposition Party, and another band called Mortal Flower. Then, by 1990, BigO had become a proper magazine.
Ah, I see now. This time, they had better resources, right?
Yeah. It was modeled after other magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone, and the pages were also in color and everything. Once that happened, BigO put out the New School Rock CD. When we recorded it, they sponsored two hours of studio time per band. So, Opposition Party would come in to record, and then immediately after their two hours was up, we’d come in, and then after us, Corporate Toil. We all used that time to record two songs each. That’s how the CD came about.
You have the twee pop, sweet-but-sonic influence of The Oddfellows, the new wave – and, to an extent, no wave – qualities of Corporate Toil, and then the thrash metal approach of Opposition Party. It’s a pretty good sampler of sounds for the time.
Yeah, definitely, and CD was also a pretty new format in Singapore at the time. I didn’t even have a CD player when New School Rock came out, so I actually bought one just to be able to listen to it (laughs). But it was the start of something, you know?
By the early 90s, this was also the period when you’d release your debut album, Teenage Head. I remember watching a documentary on YouTube about the Singapore indie scene that had the same title, New School Rock, and in one of the remaining segments, it talks about The Oddfellows being signed to BMG and having this mainstream potential. In general, were major labels interested in signing bands from your scene?
No, no, see, what happened with that was that BMG showed their support to BigO and would advertise in the magazine. The founders of BigO – the Cheah brothers, Phillip and Michael Cheah – were quite close with BMG, and that’s how we chose to work with them.
So, first, in 1991, a new, small recording studio opened, called Savoir-Faire Studio. They called BigO and said, “We would like to sponsor a band. Would anyone be interested?” Then, the brothers came to me and were like, “Hey, would you and The Oddfellows like to record an album? There’s this new studio that just opened, and they want to sponsor bands in order to get the word out.” So, of course I grabbed the opportunity (laughs)! We were at the studio for three days, and only had to pay for sound engineering, which was like $500. I went in the studio with Casey, and by that time, Stephen wasn’t in the band, so I played bass on the album. We recorded reel-to-reel on an 8-track machine – four tracks for the drums, one track for bass, two tracks for guitar, and one track for vocals. It was so simple, and was done in a few takes. It was really rough, but we were happy. We recorded 11 or 12 songs, and I was thinking, “Okay, with this, we can get a record deal!”
Next, we had to contact BMG. I met them and was like, “Hey, listen to this and see if you’d like to sign us up.” So, they listened to the recording, and said, “We don’t really sign bands up, but we wouldn’t mind distributing this.” At first, I was like, “Aww, man – distribution!” But then I said, “Sure, why not,” and that’s how it happened. The fate of the recording was really unintentional. I had no idea that it would count as our first album. We originally made it as a demo to present to the label in hopes of getting a deal, but they distributed it just as it was. Once they manufactured the album on CD and cassette, and started pushing it out to radio, I was quite surprised when radio decided to play our song “So Happy”.
That’s your most popular song, and it even inspired the name for the exhibit called So Happy: 50 Years of Singapore Rock, back in 2015, where they interviewed you, and all these other musicians, including Chris and Joe.
Yeah, that’s right!
What do you remember about writing “So Happy”?
I think I wrote it back in 1990. I was just playing the three chords to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” then came up with my own tune, and ended up writing the song pretty quickly – maybe finished it in about half an hour. Up until our time with BMG, I’d never thought of it as a single, but they allowed me to choose it.
Wow, that’s interesting. Usually labels choose the singles themselves, but they left it up you!
Yeah! Even then, I was like, “Hmmm…I dunno…maybe this one,” and I went with “So Happy” (laughs). I knew I didn’t want to choose a ballad, because if the ballad became a hit, I wouldn’t want to make more ballads, so I just said, “Okay, let’s go with ‘So Happy’,” and the song just exploded, you know?
From what I understand about the Teenage Head album, it sold its initial pressing of 2,000 copies, and ever since, it’s been somewhat of a collector’s item, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right – 2000 copies. That was 800 CDs and 1,200 cassettes.
Yeah, I can remember, in the very beginning of 2021, seeing that Teenage Head sold on Discogs a year before for $40 and being like, “Damn, missed it! Oh well…” And then, funnily enough, I see some copies on the site Carousell for $10, which I can’t even access, because I’m in America!
Aww, man, yeah! I don’t even have a copy myself (laughs).
Oh, wow! Well, from what I’ve been able to hear, it has a great sound! So, after that album, you released a follow-up called Carnival in 1992. What was that experience like?
Okay, so, right before Teenage Head came out, I got Kelvin Tan to join the band as second guitarist, because we were going to have tons of gigs after the album launched, and I wanted to beef up our sound, basically. I’d seen him play live a couple of times. He’s a fantastic performer and a great guitarist, and I’d gotten very close with him. I got Vincent Lee to join as well, on bass. I’d see him play with The Nonames, who were probably my favorite local band at the time. So, we’d become a four-piece band, and we’d play so many shows for the next three to four months after Teenage Head was released.
The following year, we decided to make a second album. BMG was like, “Hey, we’d like you to do another album,” since it was a two-album distribution deal, and I said, “Yeah, we’re gonna record soon.” With Carnival, the songwriting was divided up. Kelvin wrote “She’s So Innocent,” Vincent wrote a couple of tracks, and I co-wrote a song with Vincent as well. It was really more of a band effort. I really like Carnival as an album.
That’s so cool! Going into your Up in the Clouds compilation, you had Joe working with you to remaster these songs, and Little Ong did the cover art. Have you guys always stayed in touch through the years?
Oh yeah! Yeah, Joe and I have always been the best of friends for over 30 years. When I got married, he was my best man as well.
Yeah, so we’ve always collaborated in some form since the mid-80s. Joe’s also had experience producing for film soundtracks, so it was a no-brainer for me to ask him. I’ve known Little for a long time as well, and when we were thinking of someone to do the artwork, I think he was our first choice.
That’s great how you’ve all stayed such good friends for so long! In terms of getting the Oddfellows’ original albums for the compilation, how were you able to track them down, especially with them being so rare?
Well, you see, I don’t have physical copies of Teenage Head or Carnival, but fortunately, Kelvin had a copy of Carnival, so I ripped the songs from it and sent it to Joe. And actually, I think Joe has a copy of Teenage Head. As for me, I own several of the compilation CDs we were on, like New School Rock, Left of the Dial, Dazed and Confused, and the 12 Storeys film soundtrack.
How we decided on the songs for the compilation was based on how popular they were when we’d play shows – no-brainers like “Lost My Head,” “So Happy,” “She’s So Innocent,” “Your Smiling Face,” – all these early favorites. Then, we included songs from those other compilations, that maybe aren’t as well known. “Foggy Daylight,” for example, is from Dazed and Confused, while “Breach” is from 12 Storeys.
By your releasing this compilation, it gives me hope that eventually, more classic Singaporean material will come out digitally. As we’ve talked about before, a lot of Singaporean music, especially from the 80s and 90s, is extremely hard to find in any form, let alone digitally. For some perspective, we only got the Class Acts compilations in the US iTunes and Spotify very recently, whereas before, aside from Singapore, I saw that they were available in Canada as well as the UK.
Yeah, and so back when your compilation was coming out, I was worried, like, “Will this be on the US Spotify?” “Is this a Singapore exclusive?”
Ahh, man (laughs)!
Anyway, I’m glad that you were able to release these early songs digitally, and have them remastered, too.
Yeah! I mean, prior to this, we didn’t have our music on any streaming platforms at all. You know how there’s another Oddfellows band on Spotify already? I believe someone made a playlist on Singapore music, and they actually included the American band! I was like, “No, no, no!” (Laughs)! So, we figured we should get our music on there as soon as we could. Also, our new album is coming out next month.
Oh yeah! How’s that coming along?
It’s just waiting to be released; it’s finished already. We recently sent it off for mastering and just got the masters back.
Wow, that’s awesome!
Yeah, so this new album is called What’s Yours and Mine. We’ll have Little directing the music video for our first single, and this will also be the first time that Kelvin will be singing lead. He’s the lead vocalist on two songs, and this one is a song that he wrote. We’re feeling really good about this album. In fact, it was Kelvin’s idea to put “(For Now)” in the title of the compilation, because the best is yet to come.
Would you consider What’s Yours and Mine a modern take on The Oddfellows’ sound, or a reinvigoration of nostalgia?
I’d say it’s a new sound for us. When you consider where we are now and then look back, Carnival was made almost 30 years ago, so we’ve grown a lot. We do sound a bit different, but at the same time, we also sound kind of the same (laughs).
Including this album, you’ve always done work in various forms as a producer. What do you notice about your growth in that aspect?
Well, I will say that I’ve always liked being behind the scenes, and getting to meet and work with other artists. I’ve really enjoyed the mixing and production side of things, and I continue to. How I originally got into it was just from wanting to produce for my own bands, like The Oddfellows, and also TypeWriter, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve set up my home studio. It’s really saved us a lot of money, you know? For this new album, we’ve still used a traditional studio to record drums, but everything else is done at home.
Has your style come through in a big way on this album?
Yeah, it has; it really has. Most of the tracks were recorded in my home studio, and I mixed it as well. Being able to produce for other artists over the years has definitely helped to bring it out on the new album. We’ve taken our time, basically. We don’t have to worry about the clock, so to speak, when it comes to the process. We enjoy the production style, and we’re really happy with the way the album turned out.
After the new album is released, do you think that eventually, you’ll get to re-release Teenage Head and Carnival digitally, now that you guys have the original albums?
I don’t think we’ll release the older albums any time soon. To be honest, I haven’t listened to those songs in a very long time (laughs). The compilation we currently have out was a way for us to release something onto Spotify in the meantime, but for now, our main focus will be What’s Yours and Mine. I’ve listened to the new album so much, and when I listen back to the songs on the compilation, it sounds like two different bands, but not really, as well, since we still incorporate a bit of the classic sound on it. We feel that this new album is our best one that we’ve ever done.
That’s awesome, man! Putting your career in perspective, what have you learned about yourself, as a musician, and as a person?
Wow, that’s deep (laughs)! I’ve learned that I’m not a very technical player. I’m more of a ‘feel’ type of person, and whatever I do, I aim to do it well. Some of my favorite musicians are very technical players, and even higher-level producers, and I can appreciate that. But at the same time, I love punk music, you know? I love bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Sonic Youth – those kinds of influences.
Do you feel that you’re more tolerant now of bad things that may happen in life, as well as opening your mind to new music?
Yeah, I think having that kind of tolerance is all a part of growing up, really, and I’ve always enjoyed different types of music since I was very young, because of my parents and my relatives. About 20 years ago, I got into Indian classical music and even started learning sitar. But I’ve loved other styles as well, like country music, classical, and jazz. In general, I’ve been pretty open to all types of music.
Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
I just want to thank you for all your support over the years. The response to our compilation has been wonderful and very encouraging. Once our new album comes out, we hope you dig it because we’re really excited for it!
The Oddfellows Socials: