Interview and Text by Euden Valdez
FOR Ebe Dancel, the show always goes on. He has been doing so in the last 20 years. The show went on for the singer-songwriter when his longtime alternative rock band Sugarfree disbanded eight years ago. He went solo and almost slowly but surely made a name for himself in the industry.
Come February 29, 2020, the show continues for Dancel as he finally holds his first solo concert at the Metrotent in Pasig City. It marks and celebrates his two decades in the local music industry.
Last December, this author was able to exclusively interview the OPM icon in promotion of the upcoming solo concert, which sold out within months of selling by the way. It was serendipity of sorts for the last time I was able to interview him exclusively was for the promotion of his first solo album eight years ago.
In that span of time, a lot has changed for the artist but one thing remained the same. Whenever he goes solo, he never really does it alone.
Here's the full transcript of the interview:
After so long, what made you finally say yes to a concert?
Not everyone gets to last 20 years in this industry. A lot of us are lucky to make it to 10, 15 (years) but 20 is such a milestone for someone who didn’t really had big dreams about being a musician. I didn’t know what I wanted to be until music came. I think this is my way of saying thank you to the fans, to my God, to my family and to everyone who has kept me going throughout the years.
12 years in a band, 8 years solo. How does it compare?
With Sugarfree, I always thought of myself as a faceless musician because everything we did, we did as a group and dapat walang lilitaw. And when I went solo, it was initially harder because all eyes were on me and me only. The responsibilities naman did not change. I still play the guitar, I still sing, I still write the songs but it’s different when you have a whole group with you. Parang security blanket siya. At the beginning of my solo thing, that was the biggest adjustment but in terms of career.
I think, well of course people will disagree with me. But I think the better songs, I really wrote after Sugarfree. But that’s my personal preference.
To begin with, Sugarfree became a very mainstream act with songs "Hari ng Sablay," "Tulog Na," and "Muli." That’s when we really started going around the country but there was always some sort of deadline with Sugarfree. This is your time to write songs, this is your time to perform. When I went solo, obviously in the beginning, shows were way down. I had more time at home. I became more self aware, I guess, of what was going on around me, what I wanted for myself. So I started going back to simple pleasures, small bars, kahit 10 lang ang nanonood I didn’t care. Because I came from a band that was used to playing in front of 5,000, 10,000 people and then everyone knew the song. When I went solo hindi pa nila naririnig ang mga bago.
During the time of Sugarfree kasi, it was one those golden moments in OPM na radio stations, TV stations, they all wanted the bands, they all wanted new music every two months. Now the landscape has changed a lot. It was easier in my opinion. It was good music not just us but also bands like Sandwich, Imago, Moonstar88, Parokya ni Edgar, everyone. Now, people are starting to think in terms of singles. Back in the day, Sugarfree did not have Spotifiy, Facebook. We started with Yahoo Groups, okay kids? (We) graduated to Facebook after a really long time. YouTube was only beginning to make waves. So talagang we had to rely on traditional media.
Now I tweet one time, “Hey come to the show” people would come. Dati it was word of mouth. It was very organic.
Then it had also become easier?
Easier and harder. Easier because everyone had direct access to you and vice versa. Harder because 5,000 other musicians had direct access to fans and vice versa. So parang mabilis matabunan ang information. We have to fight for our very little space online.
Back when I interviewed your for your first solo album, you said that you never really went solo. Is it the same for the concert?
Oh man, I’m bringing a whole army with me to the concert. There’s going to be 35 musicians from The Manila String Machine. With myself and a keyboard player, and three bandmates, that’s around 40 people at a time on stage. Chino David and Paolo Valenciano are directing.
How is it so far working with them?
They’re all my friends. They’ve known me for most of my 20 years. There’s nothing awkward about it. So sabihin ko, “Chino, this is what I wanna do.” Sasagutin nya, “Yeah, but really, we have to do it this way.” No ego. Only friendship, I love it.
What are the dynamics of playing with an orchestra? Is it challenging, or is it the opposite?
It’s a lot to digest, play with a full orchestra, kasi when I play with my band or even Sugarfree, it was always very free-flowing. We did whatever we wanted to do, change up the set, play the songs faster, play the songs slower. Sang, did not sing. But with The Manila String Machine there’s an actual arrangement. You have to stick to your 1, 2, 3, 4. And it’s challenging for me that way because I’ve always been a free-willing kind of guy. But at the same time, you learn something new everyday. That’s an instrument that you hear, that you never heard all your life, imagine it could sound so good in your song. That’s fantastic.
Will the whole of your set be performed with the orchestra?
We will change it up a little bit. Maybe sometimes it’s just me and the guitar, me and the violin, me and the whole orchestra. A lot of time it’s going to be the band and the orchestra and myself.
The music of Ebe Dancel and Sugarfree, talagang natatandaan yong mga kanta, which always resonated with the listeners, fans or not. Throughout these 20 years, have you discovered a secret or a formula to song-writing?
No. There’s no science to what I do. I write when I can, where I can. Sometimes I don’t write songs for two years, sometimes I write three songs in one day. It’s very unpredictable. Some people can write songs on command. Some songwriters I know, pag-upo nila sa piano parang meron silang isang buong kanta. I’m not like that. Parang whenever the moment comes, that’s the only time I really grab the opportunity.
In lieu of that question, can we expect new songs in the concert?
No. It’s a celebration of what I’ve done so far with Sugarfree and just as myself.
What does singing or performing continue to teach you?
Discipline. Back in the day kasi, I would smoke and drink before, during and after my set. I would sleep at 7 in the morning, wake up at 3 in the afternoon. Everything affects my voice. Singers need to sleep. If you don’t sleep, wala kang boses. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. The late nights, I cut off from my life. I’m starting to eat the right food, I take care of myself, I exercise. And I even hired a vocal coach. It’s also gratitude because parang every time I’m on stage, I feel like everyone’s singing along. That feeling never gets old.
As a Filipino artist, what’s your personal take on music being able to tackle issues on society, considering what’s happening in our country today?
I think music is a reflection of a country’s culture and political conditions. Everything that happens in our country is reflected in the arts. It’s not just music. It can be photography, painting, dance, spoken word. Some people tend to write about different aspects of our country, I know Noel Cabangon, Joey Ayala and Gary Granada would write songs that reflect on the current state of our politics. But I’ve learned over the years that just because I write love songs doesn’t mean I don’t write for our country. When I write songs that people can identify with, and it helps them, then I’m helping my country. So I’m still writing for my country.
Then why are some songs so hard to go into the mainstream or be appreciated?
I think you’ll have to ask the radio companies and the record companies. They dictate naman talaga what goes on and what doesn’t play. But as far as I know, most of us submit our songs to every possible platform and they pick which ones they want to play, which ones they think will be a big hit. I understand where they come from and if they can’t keep their businesses running, they won’t be able to help musicians such as myself.
There are a lot of young bands now. You’ve worked with the likes of Ben&Ben, and you’ve been in their shoes 20 years ago. What can you tell them?
I was having this conversation with Ben&Ben a few days ago. Sabi ko daanan nyo yong pagod, daanan nyo yong hirap. You’ll be grateful. It will make you wiser people, wiser musicians. You learn to pace yourselves, and eventually, you learn to just instead of worrying about tomorrow to just be present in the moment. Enjoy everything that you have. These things they don’t last forever. Live shows, they don’t last. Music will but the live performance aspect of it, someday people will get tired of you and someday, I’ll get tired of playing. But right now is what matters. And I want the young musicians to dream big while you look ahead, you make sure that you are right here and right now at this moment.
Are you hopeful for the Philippine music industry?
I think the future has arrived. The kids are taking over. Ben&Ben, IV of Spades, all these young terrific acts. Unique Salonga is a personal favorite. Moira, Clara Benin. Everyone is making such a huge contribution to the scene that when the older bands play with them, they call all of us sir. So parang kanila na talaga ang stage at this moment. It doesn’t mean will play less. We will play as many shows as we can.
What’s your hope or wish for your musical career?
I just have to get through this night and then do more shows and then do the concert. Ask me again after the concert because I don’t, I try not to think too far ahead and I think that’s what makes me enjoy each performance and not just go through the motions.
The exclusive interview was arranged for Philstar.com. Read the article here.
is a former dyarista, now digitista who has been writing whenever the tides, the winds, the earth take her somewhere familiar, somewhere new.