Award-winning composer, sounder designer, and all-around mastermind in Manila’s electronic music scene bids the city good-bye
Malek Lopez is telling us about his first employed job. “Teaching music at a university. Coding, digital signal processing…” he trails off. The thing is, Malek—an award-winning composer, sound designer, and all-around mastermind in Manila’s electronic music scene—hasn’t actually had this first job yet.
“I’m getting married next year and moving to Singapore in March,” he states matter-of-factly, as if leaving the Philippines—where he was born and based for the greater part of his life—were no big thing. “My fiancé just got a job there. I won’t be able to apply right away, but I’m thinking maybe Nanyang Tech.”
It’s almost strange to hear Malek muse over future job prospects, as he settles down on the floor of what’s been his studio for upward of a decade. In a clearly lived-in, surprisingly large, three-room condo unit nestled in the midst of a maze-like village complex, Malek quickly ushers us into seems to be his room of choice—a completely converted sound studio with bright blue walls and electronic gadgets galore. “I actually cleaned up last week,” he admits. “I’m trying to sell the unit space to Madz [Abubakar, one of his studio partners]. Since everything’s set up for music production and recording, it would be really easier to keep it that way.”
So is this a move from Malek’s independent sound creation to, let’s say, a more structured, generative career? “It’s actually more for me,” he concedes. “Since I’m mostly self-taught in electronic music, I think I can learn from seeing how a traditional education works—their curriculum and how things are really taught.”
True enough, from his long-haired high school days of playing in a Megadeth cover band to his original plan of composing music for film, Malek has his roots as a classically trained musician. “My dad was a frustrated musician, and we had all kinds of instruments in our practice room. I started taking piano lessons at seven; but you know, keyboards weren’t exactly the cool instrument back then,” Malek offers, as an explanation for why he ended up majoring in Guitar at the University of Sto. Tomas (UST), and later in Composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I was into all that art house stuff at that time—the one-to-one correspondence between the audio and visual, how there are pre-conditioned sounds for certain actions and scenes, the reasons for actually using music…” he says.
As it turns out, however, Berklee was where Malek started to develop an ear for electronic music, thanks to a friend who brought him to Wipeout, his first official rave. “I just started copying what I heard. Mostly big beat—Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Norman Cook of Fatboy Slim…” Malek tallies off. “And looking for something harsher. Post-rock sounds, like Stereolab.”
I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, but you know, keyboards weren’t exactly the cool instrument back then.
So naturally, when he came back to the Philippines in the mid-90s—a time when the open streets of Malate were a musician’s playground, and groups like Groove Nation and Natural Born Klubbers (NBK) were spearheading electronic music—Malek slid effortlessly into the scene.
One person he particularly connected with was Noel de Brackinghe, an audio engineer and “citizen of the world”, who had made himself at home in Manila; and it wasn’t long before they formed Rubber Inc. Together, the duo pioneered intelligent dance music (IDM) and drum ‘n’ bass (DnB) in the Philippines, with Noel creating the beats and Malek providing the melody. “We used keyboards, mixers, samplers, and sequencers, rather than records or CDs, and performed live sets in different cities. Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Germany,” he reminisces.
“We also handed out these Christmas CDs with mash-ups of carols, remixes, and scores every year starting 1998—Xmus I, Xmus II, Xmus III… “It was a strong time for the scene. There was a lot of support and we were doing well, getting about PhP15,000 to 20,000 a night… it was like, ‘What toys don’t we have yet?’ This went on from about ‘97 to ’99—then, in 2000, things sort of died down.”
The duo’s undeniable talent, though, wasn’t as easily stopped. Without skipping a beat, Rubber Inc. expanded its repertoire to design soundtracks for performances by Ballet Philippines and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). And seeing even greater potential on the production and studio side of sound creation, they established Sweetspot Studios in 2001.
Sweetspot, with its more stable location and resources, allowed Malek to not only pursue personal projects, but also to record local labels, unsigned bands, and even produce his own outfits, the first of which was trip hop trio Drip in 2002. Profiled as “the classic trip hop set-up—two quiet Filipino guys in the background to tweak knobs and play instruments, with a hot Filipina female vocalist to enthrall the audience with her voice,” Drip’s founding members included Malek, as the sound designer, live keyboardist and programmer, Raymund “Ran” Golamco on guitars, and Beng Calma-Alcazaren on vocals. They would be later joined by Ian “Morse” Magbanua, adding beats and programming, and Arvin “Caliph8” Nogueras, who replaced Ran’s guitar embellishments with a distinct turntable style.
Drip slowly but steadily gained a cult following, with the release of two full-length albums—Far Side of the World in 2004 and Identity Theft in 2008—that showcased a seductive experimental sound perhaps best described by The Manila Times as “capable of giving you simulated bliss”.
Malek’s latest project is the genre-defying Bent Lynchpin, which appears to be on its way to similar success. With Malek on synth, Fred Sandoval on guitars and effects, El Ministro on bass, and Albatross on drums, the four members describe themselves as “all molecular biologists responsible for the discovery of molecules that react to a specific audio frequency and the fuzz wah sound.” With just a few public performances at altern-events like Subflex and Fete dela WSK! under its belt, Lynchpin is already making the rounds on Google and YouTube, fast becoming a favorite of local electronic music-heads.
Even apart from these multifaceted efforts, Malek himself is well-recognized amongst Manila’s musical cognoscenti. A true musician’s musician, already enjoying single-name status, he is constantly sought after for his supreme sound style, listing The Teichmann Brothers, avant-rock outfit Radioactive Sago Project, and world music project Humanfolk as just some of those he’s worked with.
Aside from select passion projects, though, Malek admits to not really missing the old days of gigging until sunrise. “Back then, just pop a couple of pills and you can go all night,” he chuckles. “You also had to lug around so much equipment—keyboards, cables, turntables… Now, all you pretty much need is a laptop.”
These days, most of Malek’s time is spent behind-the-scenes, composing and scoring for commercial media, films, and art exhibits. “Working for clients, of course, pays better. You just have to know their language, gather the right information, keep your ear to the ground…” he advises. “The thing I like with clients is there’s a deadline—when it’s done, it’s done! With your own work, you tend to keep going back and revisiting it. There’s always something you can change. It’s never really finished.”
So with a few months left before uprooting to Singapore, which although just a four-hour flight away, is the start of a completely new life altogether, what is Malek’s next move? “I’ve been using the opportunity to do my own thing. Making things that make sounds, my own beats, synths… it’s like me playing Legos. It’s actually maddening to listen to—it seems like you’re hearing the same exact sound over and over again for hours,” he describes, while distractedly tinkering with an archaic-looking piece of studio equipment, giving you the impression that he’s going off into his own world for a while. “I’ve also been listening a lot to the Raster-Noton label, Alva Noto, and Tujiko Noriko, who’s kind of like a Japanese Björk.
“Is there something that ties my work together? I don’t know… words really fail to describe,” he mulls, his thoughts already shifting to another topic. “There’s the idea about electronic music that anyone can do it, because the computer enables you to do so many things. But I think it’s also a good time to be in music, it’s more interesting and allows you to grow as an artist. So whenever I’m asked why I do what I do… it’s because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN. PHOTOS BY GINO DALAO.