MANILA, Philippines - Long before music publications started eulogizing the dismal state of indie rock, DIY oddities that didn’t fit the mainstream format had been enjoying critical and commercial success from both sides of the Atlantic for a great deal of time. The mid aughts opened the doors to the golden years of indie rock, ushering in triumphant careers for Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine and Death Cab For Cutie — all of which have swept the top spot on album charts around the world, emerging as headliners in music festivals alongside Lady Gaga, Rihanna and One Direction. Crossover acts like Lorde, Gotye and Foster The People claimed control of the pop charts with outsider anthems that gave very few f**ks about dominant trends. As radio programmers strayed away from nu-metal and heavier-sounding modern rock to breed the next crossover champs by way of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers, indie rock has deservedly earned its place in the history of pop culture: from Feist’s “1234” soundtracking the iPod Nano commercial, to Arcade Fire winning a Grammy for Album of the Year — there’s no stopping the movement from breaking out of its shell.
Indie rock’s staying power proved to be no different from what we have on our local shores, with corporate machineries and aspirational brands eager to exploit what’s left of DIY culture’s growing influence in the youth and ABC market, a.k.a. the demographics that “matter.” But like any cultural explosion, indie rock’s clout isn’t mean to last — at least for now. Music website Consequence of Sound recently published an article called “Where Have All the Indie Rock Bands Gone?” which documented the waning popularity of the genre and its impending demise. While claims of its whimpering dissolution remain contentious, one can’t deny the shift in critical plaudits toward blockbuster monoliths who challenge the status quo with groundbreaking releases worthy of canonical praise, where Beyoncé, Kanye West and Drake reigned supreme over its “indie” counterparts.
Despite its declining relevance, the strongest among the bunch have somehow survived the unforgiving climate, receptive enough to welcome growth while enjoying the invisibility of staying in the fringes. Local indie-rock act Taken By Cars are among those that thrive in surprisingly delightful ways, stronger than ever with its third release. Like Broken Social Scene whose staying power as a collective can be attributed to years of solid friendship, the members of Taken By Cars remain close friends even as they balance work-life between music projects and adulting. “Even when we’re not working, we hang out with each other for leisure and fun,” multi-instrumentalist Siopao Chua tells Supreme. “When we’re together, we geek out about music, watch concerts together, and travel a lot. I guess the bond grew into a family thing. I’m happy to be in great company with these guys.” The indelible chemistry is palpable in their previous albums, 2008’s “Endings of a New Kind” and 2011’s “Dualist,” both showcasing tight musicianship and richly layered production. When translated into live performance, the band appears to be intensely connected by their raging energy and passion, delivering sonic punches with infectiousness that’s difficult to escape from.
Fast forward to 2017: Taken By Cars are fortunate enough to surmount the odds with a drastic shift in sound and image. Gone are the gutsy disco-punk anthems that got us dancing in the wee hours; the arpeggiated synths bridging the retro and the modern; the angular guitars pushed prominently high in the mix. It’s refreshing to welcome them in their most subdued iteration: ethereal and more introspective in terms of musicality, mellowed down to capture a side that we didn’t know they were capable of nurturing. True to its promise, their third album, “Plagues,” marks not only their changing music taste, but also defines their maturity as individuals first, and musicians second. “It just came naturally with what was going on in our lives,” says Siopao Chua. “We started settling down, getting older, and getting more serious about life. I think that’s reflected in our music. It wasn’t as upbeat anymore.” Sarah Marco points out that the experience of listening to new records was instrumental in shaping the sound of their new album in its incubation stage. “We were listening to a lot of shoegazey acts and I guess more mellow stuff. I personally started to have huge liking for Wild Nothing and the new Slowdive album, and we started being more partial to music in that vein. Siopao has a lot of psych-rock influences as well so this is also reflective of the stuff that we’re listening to. We’re also experimenting with a slower pace, but careful not to sacrifice the lush instrumentation of the music.”
The new album punches through the ceiling with sparse, dreamy textures and eclectic arrangements. Not only is it their most fully realized record to date, “Plagues” builds a vortex around a swirl of indie music influences, creating something that is compellingly unique yet close to home. At the heart of the songs are outsized themes that connect the personal to the political, with drummer and synth player Bryan Kong highlighting the band’s highly collaborative process as instrumental to their musical growth. “Every note needs an approval from everyone. And every member brings something new to the table. We’re really democratic when it comes to that.” Bassist Issa Garcia adds, “On one side, life happened and our sound evolved because of our influences. But then we also hit a point maybe a year before the album came out where we said we don’t want to play the same stuff.” Anchored by its ambitious scope and brooding intimacy, the band on “Plagues” isn’t afraid to tackle broader music palettes with newfound perspective on romance, life, death, bleakness and hope. The album isn’t black or white, for what it’s worth; it seeks refuge in overlapping emotional tones and complexity, never comfortable in being categorized.
Next month, Taken By Cars’ will release “Plagues” on vinyl. Thanks to surging interest in the old music format, we’ll be witnessing the record sink into the soul of every audiophile yearning for some obscure finds this side of the hemisphere. Pressed in London, the vinyl will contain dual sleeves designed by the band’s manager Mike Shih and beautifully photographed by Nina Sandejas and Bryan Kong. “I guess it’s a conscious effort to reach those fans who still want to own a piece of the band,” Chua shares. “We kind of went all out with this one.” While the move might be viewed as a last push to up the ante of their relevancy in the local indie circles, it clearly is not. They’re ready to push it forward, albeit at a steady pace. That’s how you play the game.