‘A zany, funky, clown-rock jamboree’ – that’s how Tiramisu frontman Rizman Putra describes his band’s style. Throughout the group’s 16 years of existence, they’ve perfected a manic, anything-goes approach to showmanship to become, as many local gig-goers will readily confirm, Singapore’s most visually fun band.
The hard-rock quintet is back this month for another round at the Ignite! Festival at Republic Polytechnic. Their onstage get-up often features outlandish costumes, with the rubber-faced Putra leaping, scissor-kicking and galloping around the stage – and, er, sometimes groping the other members. In one of their most ambitious performances to date, they filled The Substation Theatre with balloons and invited transgender pole dancer Marla Bendini as a guest for the 2010 edition of Tribal Gathering of the Tongue Tasters. ‘We did the staging, the lights…everything was DIY,’ recalls guitarist Rahmat Suliman proudly.
Crazy high jinks weren’t always the band’s MO, however. Tiramisu first formed in 1998 while Rizman was studying in Lasalle College of the Arts with guitarist Keith Su and former guitarist Jeremy Sharma. ‘We started out playing while looking at our shoes,’ Rizman says. ‘After that we got sick of it. The Singaporean audience likes to stand still or be seated, so we thought, let’s bring the energy up and move on stage. Then we really started to enjoy the music.’
Since then, there have been numerous line-up changes, with Sharma leaving the band in 2004 to focus on other artistic projects. Still, much of the confidence Tiramisu display in live shows might result from the fact that most of them hold full-time jobs in or around the spotlight: Rizman is also a prominent performance artist and theatre practitioner with Cake Theatrical Productions, Rahmat supervises lighting at the Esplanade, while drummer Syed Ahmad heads Latin percussive collective Bloco Singapura. ‘I think when we’re onstage our characters get amplified,’ says the coolly laidback Rizman. ‘When we’re offstage we’re just like a bunch of boys next door – friendly and peace-loving people.’ ‘I guess we’re just enjoying ourselves,’ says Rahmat. ‘Maybe it gets too much!’ he adds with a laugh.
As for the costumes, Rizman reveals: ‘It was a musical strategy. Jeremy got into an accident one night, and we didn’t have a guitarist for our show. So we picked costumes and performed with them on.’ The gimmick stuck, and now they spontaneously borrow wacky garb and wigs from relatives’ closets and Cake Theatrical Productions – memorable outfits include a panda suit, Kiss-influenced leather-and-spandex outfits, and women’s clothes.
Musically, Tiramisu feeds off a highly eclectic mix – from samba to the most obscure indie bands – to create an all-encompassing, rock-led sound that is ‘pure wackness’. ‘We will combine crazy things like Afrobeat, suddenly slot in a Motown kind of feel and end it with a bit of dangdut [a form of Indonesian pop],’ says Rizman. Tongue-in-cheek topics and wordplay sometimes grace their compositions, like the lewd ‘Mr Fantesticles’, which pokes fun at suck-ups. ‘I wrote it in the army – it’s about my warrant officer, who really liked sucking up to his commanding officer. So it’s a song about people sucking on balls.’
The song has a permanent place on their setlist, and even managed to escape MediaCorp’s censors during their spot on talent show Live ‘n’ Loaded in 2009. ‘[The producers] told me to change the lyrics, so it became “Mr Fantasticles”, and they asked me to tone it down,’ says Rizman. ‘But when we got in the air, we just did it the original way. That was quite a success!’
Their open-minded affinity for music, experimentation and all things theatrical has even seen Tiramisu win a Life! Theatre Award for their sound design collaboration with composer Philip Tan on Desire at the Melancholic String Concert this year, for which they wrote nine new songs in a single day. ‘It was an eight-hour process and we really had to crack our brains,’ Rahmat says. Despite the stress, the band members agree they would do it again: ‘We love exploring the idea of a whole performance where the audience doesn’t just listen to us, but witnesses madness unfold,’ says Rizman.
More recently, the group members have been channelling much of their energy into their long-awaited debut album, working on new tunes over Dropbox and recording completed ones in Ahmad’s personal studio in Dunlop Street. ‘We have over 50 songs to select from, and we’ve been hiding out, trying to figure out [what to use]’, says Rizman. ‘Probably the best ten will go onto our album. We’ll slot in a couple of old tracks, definitely, and the rest will be B-sides or singles.’ If you can’t wait till the tentative release date, lope down to their next set – word has it LED-embellished costumes are in the works.
Tiramisu play at the Ignite! Festival on 6 Jul.