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PEP's Eraserheads saga: The making and unmaking of a rock n’ roll dream

March 13, 2008 5:11pm
Marooned comfortably on a couch inside a science lab turned dressing room, Eraserheads frontman Ely Buendia downplayed the news that the band's current single "Julie Tear Jerky," lifted from the band's Asian album Aloha Milky Way had gone number 1 in Indonesia.

Prior to the news, it was reported that the initial pressing of the album in Singapore, 400 copies to be exact, sold out at the day of the launching and has stayed on the Singapore charts for several weeks.

"Ayaw kong kontrahin, e," Ely told reporter Rod Yabis after a St. Scholastica's College gig back in 1998. "Ayaw kong pag-isipan. Masyado pang ano, kumbaga, naaalala ko nang lumabas ‘yung Ultra," he reminisced, pertaining to the band's 1993 groundbreaking album Ultraelectromagneticpop under BMG Pilipinas.

"A few months after, kinakabahan pa rin ako. Ayaw ko ring mag-isip nang time na ‘yun. Talaganag bahala na. Ganun pa rin ang attitude ko," continued Ely in typical deadpan delivery.

ROCK N' ROLL DEGREE. Ely's unassuming attitude, as displayed in the interview, aptly sums up the story and eventual success of the Eraserheads, particularly at the beginning.

It was in 1989 when four college students from the University of the Philippines decided to merge and form a new group. Bassist Buddy Zabala and guitarist Marcus Adoro of the band Curfew hooked up with guitarist Ely Buendia and drummer Raimund Marasigan of Sunday School with the intention of playing music inside the campus during programs and events.

But while undeniably being ardent music fans, the quartet's desire to form a band also stemmed from shared adolescent yearnings; something that had to do with their perceived shortcomings.

"We form a band so we could attract girls sa campus," all four took turns in saying years later, "hindi kasi kami marunong mag-basketball kaya banda na lang."

Legend says that the scruffy quartet arrived at the name Eraserheads during a hastily arranged campus gig. Groping for a name to put on paper, they leafed through a well-thumbed magazine carried by Ely, who is a film major student, and stumbled upon the movie title Eraserhead by surrealist director David Lynch.

It wasn't the best name, they would later say, "but somehow it stuck," said Raimund in an early interview.

Finally with a stable lineup and a definite band name, the boys then confronted a daunting problem: they realized that they're not competent when it comes to playing covers.

Undeterred, they decided to write original songs instead to make up for the liability. "After all, if we committed a mistake, no one would recognize it since they don't know the song," rationalized Ely, who embraced the songwriting responsibility more seriously during the period.

The logic was perfect. Armed with original songs, the Eraserheads soon earned a cult following inside the campus. One particular song that stood out among the earliest materials was the song titled "Pare Ko"—a straightforward ditty about spurned love, laced with obscenities and street-smart lyrics.

UNDERGROUND SENSATION
. For some time, the band was thinking of cutting a demo to document the original materials they fastidiously wrote and rehearsed.

Fortunately, a UP professor named Robin Rivera was generous enough to lend a helping hand. Robin, who studied music recording at Berklee College of Music, convened the quartet and gave them their first taste of actual recording albeit primitive conditions. The band used the demo to shop for a record deal but was consistently turned down. Label reps said the record was not pop enough and unsuited for the airwaves. Upset but still upbeat, the band sarcastically named their demo record Pop-U! as mock response to the "not-pop-enough" comments.

Robin's intention was noble. "One of the main reasons I decided to help the band record the now legendary Pop-U! was that in the event that they never got a recording contract, I wanted it to serve as permanent proof of the creativity of their youth," he wrote years later.

The band produced only 20 copies of Pop U! which they proudly distributed to close friends. However, the numbers grew exponentially inside the campus as other students began dubbing copies for themselves.

Setting their sights outside UP, the Eraserheads in 1990 managed to land a regular gig at Club Dredd in Quezon City. It was the perfect venue for a fledgling band to hone their chops while at the same time partake in the steadily growing underground-alternative community and rub elbows with the old timers like The Jerks and Betrayed among others.

Ely, Buddy, Marcus and Raimund were not the best musicians around as perhaps compared to most of their contemporaries during their startup years. But what they lacked in virtuosity, they more than made up for with catchy hook-filled tunes—a critical element that would serve the band greatly as they inched their way slowly to the mainstream.

The Eraserheads gained admission in Club Dredd mainly on the strength of Pop U! Insider Jing Garcia, in an essay he wrote for Tikman Ang Langit recalled the prophetic words uttered by local rock scene impresario Wilfredo "Dodong" Viray to friend Robbie Sunico upon hearing the crudely recorded Eraserheads demo.

"Look after them, man," Dodong nudged Robbie while listening to the demo, "they're going to be big."

TAKING OFF
. Robbie did take Dondong's suggestion to heart and went on to assume responsibility for the boys. Relying on their instincts that something big is brewing for the Eraserheads, the two conspirators set out to provide the band an adequate number of gigs to maximize their potential as well as to expose them to a wider audience.

Robbie and Dodong did manage to land an out-of-town gig for the band. Heading south, the boys served as front act to the then popular Introvoys in a battle of the bands show. The Eraserheads would eventually immortalized the experience in the song "Combo on the Run" in which they sang: We took a trip by boat / into the promise land / to sing a different note / man, I don't understand...

Upon their return to Manila, Dodong and Robbie felt that it was finally time for the Eraserheads to record a proper full-length album. During the time, Ely was already employed as a copywriter at BMG Pilipinas. Having full access, Ely practically submitted the record to his bosses who immediately saw the group's potential. They had one pressing concern though: BMG's Vic Valenciano wanted the entire album re-recorded to make it sound more professional and fit for radio.

Racing with time, the quartet scampered to remix the entire record. As a coup de grace, the band decided, at the last minute, to add "Combo on the Run" in the final product. 1993 witnessed the release of the Eraserheads debut album dubbed as ultraelectromagneticpop!

Ely, Buddy, Marcus and Raimund finally arrived.

ERASERHEADSMANIA. As it turned out, the success met by the band's debut record was just the tip of the iceberg. Gradually, the album, fuelled by the songs, caught the attention of the listening public. Months after the album was released, the Eraserheads became a sensation.

Critics and observers pointed out that the Eraserheads arrival was the perfect example of the saying: being at the right place at the right time. By the early ‘90s, there was this new generation of young listeners who were looking for role models to call their own. The ‘90s was the antithesis of the ‘80s; glam and anything flamboyant was out and the kids were craving for something more real and honest.

And that's what the Eraserheads came to offer. Aside from the straightforward lyrics and catchy tunes, the image of Ely, Buddy, Marcus and Raimund wearing t-shirts, jeans and sneakers held the young listeners captive. With the band's ruggedness and irreverent attitude, the Eraserheads was a breath of fresh air in the midst of well-groomed balladeers and suave crooners.

The Eraserheads tackled the usual adolescent concerns in their music—campus life, unreciprocated love, friendships, vices and other mundane subjects—with tongue-in-cheek lyrics. As they went along, the band's music matured and drew on complex life problems.

It is perhaps a tribute to Ely Buendia's songwriting genius that the band managed to churn out consistent radio hits without sounding baduy or corny. "Ligaya," "Maling Akala," "Alapaap," "Magasin," "With A Smile," "Ang Huling El Bimbo," "Torpedo," "Kaliwete," "Balikbayan Box," "Spoliarium," "Para Sa Masa," "Harana," "Huwag Kang Matakot," "Pop Machine," "Maskara," and "Palamig," were just a few of the many good songs the Eraserheads dished out during their reign.

All in all, the band (with Ely on board) came out with 10 commercial albums: Ultraelectromagneticpop! [1993], Circus [1994], Cutterpillow [1995], Fruitcake EP [1996], Fruitcake [1996], Bananatype EP [1997], Sticker Happy [1997], Aloha Milkyway [1998], Natin 99 [1999] and Carbon Stereoxide [2001].

The band's popularity even extended overseas, particularly in the Asian region, where they developed a cult following.

THE END. On March 2002, music fans were caught off-guard with the news that frontman Ely Buendia had split from the band. Buendia's decision, as revealed later, was relayed to his bandmates through a text message citing the words "it's graduation time."

For the longest time and despite the nagging questions raised not just by the press but also by fans, all four members refused to delve into the details of the murky breakup.

In a Pulp magazine interview however, Diane Ventura, Ely's longtime partner spoke in behalf of the fallen Eraserheads frontman. During the interview, she recounted the details that prompted Buendia to finally call it quits.

According to Diane, she and Ely arrived late during a mall show, triggering the band's roadie to call Buendia "unprofessional." Diane argued that she and Ely were not aware of the schedule. When Ely brought the incident to manager Butch Dans, the latter allegedly opted to believe the roadie's account instead of conducting an investigation first. As for Buddy, Marcus and Raimund, Diane said that the three sided with the roadie's side of the story. Ely, apparently, had enough and immediately pulled the plug.

LONG TIME COMING. But insiders believe that the "roadie incident" was just the last straw in the band's already rocky relationship. After the falling out, Buddy said in an interview that relationship between the four members, for the longest time, were already teetering on the edge. He mentioned that disbanding was an option that frequently popped out but they just chose to carry on, perhaps for the sake of the music and their hard-earned legacy.

Jing Garcia wrote that personality clashes among the members intensified as the band became more successful. Ely, as Jing said, was the one calling the shots right from the start. But as they matured in the scene, Raimund Marasigan grew confident with his own abilities as a musician. It was therefore inevitable that ego clashes between Ely and Raimund would become commonplace. Management issues also consistently hampered the band throughout their career.

But indeed the strain was already evident as the ‘90s drew to a close. "Believe me, the feeling is not good when pressure becomes too much a thing to handle,' said Ely to entertainment columnist Ricky Gallardo back in 1999.

It was a revealing interview, given Ely's evasive personality, but he did open up to Gallardo on the trappings of fame and the pressure of being a pop icon expected to write hit songs one after the other.

"I have a lot of negative feelings about myself," confessed Buendia, "and a lot of times when I feel so defenseless. And the more we get famous as a group and the more our songs sell and make it big, the faster these insecurities double up,' he courageously admits. 'You see, I felt I was giving more than I should, plus the fact that I was seen and perceived as the moving spirit behind the group and the unofficial 'leader' of sorts, which was all unplanned if I may say, made things a lot more difficult for me."

Ely, momentarily shedding his celebrity skin, added: "And things were suddenly getting out of proportion, you know, the more you work, the more you don't stop. I've even reached conclusion that to stop has become a luxury. Parang sige na lang nang sige, tuloy na lang ng tuloy. Especially with regards to touring. Pauwi ka pa lang, sinasabi na sa iyo ang itinerary sa susunod na destination. It comes to a point na nakakapagod din and you start asking, what's all these for? Where am I getting at?"

Three years after the interview, the pressure that had built up around the most influential band in the history of OPM finally took its toll.

Incidentally, "Para Sa Masa," a song included in the Eraserheads 1997 album Sticker Happy carries the line, "mapapatawad mo ba ako / kung hindi ko sinunod ang gusto mo..." In the light of all the clamor for a reunion, Eraserheads tributes and Ely's stiff refusal to yield, that line resonates more than ever. - Philippine Entertainment Portal