With a disarming grin, shock of wavy hair, a guitar and an impressive pedal collection, Singapore-born Randolf Arriola is one of the best and most unique bar acts in the city. A resident at Harry’s @ Dempsey Hill for the past five years, Arriola can record and play back all the parts in a song in real time, so that it sounds like a full band is playing – his loops of regular covers such as U2’s ‘With or Without You’ are genuine feats of musicianship.
With over 20 years of performance experience under his belt – he began entering competitions and playing in clubs around Singapore in the ’80s – Arriola has established himself as one of the top global talents in the art of guitar looping, with endorsements from Gibson, Dell and Nikon. In 2010, he released his boldly creative debut CCCD, a winding, hypnotic single track which was recorded in one take lasting an hour and 45 minutes (and later cut to just over an hour). This led to a headlining slot at 2011’s Y2KX+1 International Live Looping Festival held in Florence – the Glastonbury of live looping.
This month, he presents ‘The Beatles’ Ballads’, a show commissioned by the Esplanade, where he’ll be putting his live looping spin on the Fab Four’s timeless megahits. He tells us more about his craft.
When did you first pick up the guitar?
As a third-generation Filipino here, my dad wanted to move away from the stereotype of Filipinos being musicians. Basically I became a law-abiding, good boy, pass-my-sums kind of Singaporean. So I picked it up quite late in life at 15, just before my O-levels. I gave up swimming, soccer – everything – and became obsessed with it overnight.
How did you start experimenting with pedals?
I was never formally trained; I learnt everything by ear, and through Guitar Player magazine and reference books. Before that I was very goondu [idiot] lah. I’d watch getai bands and think the Fender tremolo was a microphone! Soon I came to understand things like pickups and echo pedals – boxes you plug in between that make sounds like anything from heaven to hell. When I found friends who could actually afford them, I’d beg, borrow and steal just so I could go home and fascinate over them. Through band competitions, people came to learn about the weird guy who likes to play shred guitar but also likes making funny, experimental sounds. And that became me.
Tell us how you craft a song with live looping.
Basically, I’ll establish a little motif of a simple melody and build improvised harmonies around it. Then I’ll start to subtract them, and when I get down to the bare minimum, the core motif’s still there. The beauty I was trying to explore with [debut album] CCCD is that you can hear music in a complete picture like staring at a painting itself, but when you stand really close to a painting so that you only see one object, you realise how it functions in the big picture. Everything is a part of everything.
You’ve got some really interesting ways of melding together guitars, gear and gadgets like the iPhone. What have you been experimenting with recently?
I’m trying to find a way to integrate video and DJ elements with my live looping performance.
Of all the highly regarded bands, why did you choose to pay tribute to The Beatles?
What makes The Beatles very meaningful to me is that when we listen to their music, there’s no denying a very simple universal fact – and this is something I hold very dear – a great song is a great song, no matter how old or dated it might sound in the recording itself. I’ll demonstrate and incorporate this in the show – when The Beatles are reinterpreted in a solo context, stripped down to voice and guitar, [their music will] still sound great.
As a veteran of the music scene, what do you make of its current state?
Talent isn’t an issue. What we really need is Singaporeans who develop the confidence to take risks and find their own identity. Because we live in a safe environment, we dare not take risks – we like to try, but we don’t depend on it. Because we only associate what’s cool with what’s underground overseas, we mimic that and fail to realise those bands are able to make under-the-radar music because they have the mainstream. Up until today, Singapore in reality never had a music industry – that can only happen when we have people who write pop music that the masses here will buy and propagate.
Are you hoping your son Ramon follows in your footsteps?
My wife used to joke by saying, ‘You never know, he might grow up not interested in music or guitars. He might want to pick up underwater basket weaving!’ Because the guitars are all around the house and he sees me working in the studio all the time, I’m not going to push him. I’m going to enjoy the whole process of watching Ramon grow up and discover what he truly connects with.
Randolf Arriola performs ‘The Beatles’ Ballads’ at the Esplanade Recital Studio on 7 May at 10.30am & 3pm. He also performs at Harry’s @ Dempsey Hill every Thu, Fri and Sat at 9pm.