Drawing the songs together
Some may know him as an graphic artist, animator, or author of the recently published graphic novel Ronin Rat and Ninja Cat. Singer-songwriter and illustrator Joshua Chiang has also been making music in Phnom Penh for some years now. Starting as a solo artist, he hooked up with percussionist Pervez Gulzar for the Josh & Pervez duo, which then added Denver Danang on lead guitar and morphed into The Boxchords. He fronted Sonic Detergent and then Parallel Impulse, working slowly towards a full repertoire of his own songs. Next weekend his new band, Psykic Elektric, will play their first full show at Cloud on St 9.
Joshua finds an interesting dynamic in the switch between songwriting and drawing. “Music and illustration – both are forms of storytelling, and I don’t think I’ll ever give up storytelling. It would be hard to choose between the two – sometimes I wish I hadn’t learned to play music. And I don’t know whether it’s right to say I learned how to draw, because it just happened: I knew how to draw. And the skills improve over time.”
He came to songwriting comparatively late. “I learned to play the guitar when I was 19, and in university I joined a band, and wrote my first songs. I was trying to be like Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp – it was pretty bad writing. After I left university I decided to form a band for purely original songs, and that’s when I really started writing, at the age of 26. But it never really quite took off until I was in Phnom Penh.”
Another major development in his writing style came technologically. “Back when I was only playing with an acoustic guitar, I was pretty limited. When I got Garage Band [music production software] on my computer it opened up so many possibilities. I surprise myself at times at how much I actually am driven by the bass and the rhythm. It’s ironic, because I play bass very badly, but my taking-forever album is pretty bass-driven. I don’t write as much on acoustic guitar now.”
While working slowly on his solo album – which is being recorded at home and will be mixed and mastered in his home town of Singapore – Joshua formed a new band, Psykic Elektric, out of the ashes of Parallel Impulse. “Tim [Parallel Impulse bass player and co-lyricist] was committed to finishing his studies and had to take a break, but I couldn’t wait.” He looked around for collaborators. “Mia [singer /guitarist/ songwriter for metal band Nightmare AD] wanted to try something different musically. We’d jammed before, so I knew she could play bass, even though it’s not her primary instrument. Denver was from Parallel Impulse – and Denver is perpetually reliable. And I think at first even Mike [drummer] wasn’t sure whether he would be the right fit. The kind of stuff we do is a different style from his other bands like Phnom Skor.”
With the new band, Joshua has embraced his love of 80s funk and new wave, fueled by the possibilities awakened by Garage Band. “It went a different way: I didn’t have songs in my head, I had beats in my head, I had bass lines in my head, and I put it all down. Most of the time it gets deconstructed by the rest of the band, but the general essence is there.”
Joshua sees a new sense of discipline with Psykic Elektric. “Mia and Mike surprised me: they come to the rehearsal fully prepared. So initially I was the one who was the least prepared, in spite of the fact that I wrote the songs. And they do take after take. I say let’s move on – they say, no, we have to get this right. Also I am easily distracted by different things, and the band members pull me back when we’re going too far away from the funk and new wave roots.
“We’re just trying to find and fill a niche. I was getting bored with rock. I was listening to a lot of funk songs, and euro disco. When I learned to play the guitar I was really into rock and Brit pop, the sound that first spoke to me was from the 80s. For instance, there’s a song of mine the band likes called Dive. The opening riff is stolen from a 1980s 16 bit racing game, the first video game I played.”
You can see Josh playing solo at The Big Easy (St 172) on Monday nights, around the traps most weekends with acoustic party band The Boxchords, occasionally in concert with Lisa Concepcion, and at Cloud on Friday 25 with Psykic Elektric. And stay tuned for his solo album.