The summer when he was 13, Rico Blanco would often climb onto the roof of his house.
The signal of DZXB, Blanco’s favorite “new wave” FM station, was weak in San Pedro, Laguna, where the family had moved from Sta. Ana, Manila. He stood on the roof holding aloft a broken-off radio antenna hooked up to his boom box with wire from a spiral notebook, hoping to catch some stray radio waves so he could listen more closely to every note of Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode when they went on the air.
An unabashed music geek, the young Blanco was totally obsessed with pop. In grade school he had done some dancing, doing the strut in street battles during those early days of what would become hip-hop. But the ’80s was really when he awakened to the joyous, liberating properties of music.
He followed the American Top 40 religiously, neatly noting down the weekly chart positions of each song in a special folder he kept. He taped songs from the radio, cutting the DJ spiels out, matching beats and creating amazing mix tapes this way. He would split the cost of an album with a friend: one would get the vinyl one week, the other a cassette recording. The following week they would swap (presumably so they could gaze at the LP cover while listening to the Cult, the Cure and Mission U.K.).
Blanco had learned to play the piano by ear, working out chord changes from song hits that he bought every week. But what he really wanted to be was a DJ. Sundays he would pretend-broadcast a Top Ten show from his bedroom boom box to a captive audience of younger cousins.
“I forced them to listen,” he recalls. “We had a countdown and they had to vote. It ended up boys vs. girls, the boys voted for Duran Duran and the girls for Menudo. We had a different No. 1 every week.”
“I was just glued to the radio every single day, for whole summers,” he recalls. “I didn’t care if I didn’t have any friends.”
In many ways, Blanco, now 39, is still that music-obsessed fan, despite his rock-star bona fides: 14 years as main songwriter and nearly as many as lead singer for local alt-rock pioneer Rivermaya, two well-received albums since going solo in 2007, and a famous model/actress ex-girlfriend.
“It’s all a blur to me, just from the sheer amount of music that I’ve listened to,” he says. “Music itself is my influence.”
We are in the attic studio of the metro townhouse that Blanco shares with Bowie, a lanky one-year-old brown Dutch Shepherd. The house itself is comfortable but spartan and masculine—no hint of the rumored “non-showbiz girlfriend” that reportedly took the place of the famous one. The studio itself is similarly spare, all business, a sign perhaps that Blanco is back where he belongs—making music—after a brief spell under the sway of the Dark Side, i.e., local showbiz.
A couple of years back, shortly after leaving Rivermaya, Blanco made his TV acting debut in the ABS-CBN teledrama “Imortal,” the network’s bid to cash in on the “Twilight” craze. He had acted before, on stage and in the indie film “Nasaan Si Francis?” and the reviews of his performance were generally favorable.
Nothing could have prepared him, however, for the kind of 24/7 scrutiny he got when he started going out with KC Concepcion. No one, it seems, was happy with the union: Blanco’s fans accused him of going “showbiz,” while KC’s fans reviled him for not being “showbiz” enough (whatever that means).
After the couple’s reportedly rancorous break-up, vicious rumors started circulating to the effect that Blanco had fathered a love child with KC, blah, blah, blah. The ensuing showbiz media frenzy all but eclipsed Blanco’s onscreen performance. Thankfully, the issue was finally overshadowed by KC’s next break-up.
The distraction might explain the four-year gap between “Your Universe,” Blanco’s 2008 solo debut and his latest album. (And his management’s request that we not ask any “showbiz” questions.)
In any case, “Galactik Fiestamatik,” the new album, should erase all doubts that Blanco is firmly back in the saddle again, which is to say, writing songs and making music.
Its lead single “Amats,” a dark, drum and synth-driven tale of obsessive love, debuted at number two the same day Apple officially opened its iTunes store in the Philippines.
When the album was released last July 10 on iTunes, it went straight to number one on the iTunes store albums chart. The launch of the physical CD two weeks later was almost an afterthought.
The music industry’s paradigm has shifted since Blanco’s days in Rivermaya. These days, as far as recorded music is concerned, the action is in digital downloading. The advent of the iTunes store in the country just gives local listeners a legal alternative to the free peer-to-peer music sharing networks. Local recording companies are taking it as a hopeful sign that people are willing to pay the equivalent of 66 to 99 US cents for a Rico Blanco song, four to five US dollars for an album. As an added incentive, the iTunes version of “Galactik” features a bonus track, “The Endless,” that won’t be on the CD version.
“To be in the charts in between ’Call Me Maybe’ and Maroon 5 makes me happy to know Filipinos still support Filipino music, despite what some people have theorized,” says Blanco.
Blanco is especially happy with the way “Galactik” turned out because it is, quite literally, a solo album. Unlike his previous album, which saw him playing with various musician friends and session men, “Galactik” is all Blanco: every instrumental part, every overdub, every vocal done in his home studio.
“It’s the freshest my ideas have ever been recorded, because I did everything myself,” he says. “If an idea comes to me at odd hours, I can immediately record it.”
Doing it yourself has its advantages, he says. For one thing, he didn’t have to watch the clock. The album took six months to complete, as opposed to the usual slam-bang two weeks a band would have taken.
On the other hand, he admits, the process has its drawbacks.
“I’m limited by my abilities,” he says. “I don’t have a second opinion, which can be scary. But at the end of the day, it’s my sole responsibility whether it flies or not. I’m proud to say this is 100 percent mine.”
I suppose if one were in a showbiz frame of mind it would be easy to read too much into “Amats,” a song about erotic obsession. Who is the obsessed stalker, and who the object of his obsession? One could say the same thing about “Chismis,” a musical diatribe about the national pastime, and “Hours and Days,” a pained break-up song.
Is the album autobiographical?
“Every album I make has the flavor of the times, whether intentional or not,” he says.
But every album is also the sum of the musical influences that preceded it, and “Galactik” reflects current obsession with electronic dance music. “Amats,” in particular, calls to mind the doomstruck, synth-driven beats of “Black Celebration”—era Depeche Mode, or Japan’s “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.”
“Dark, no?” says Blanco. “Even the (sound of the) ati-atihan drums is dark here.”
About that. The cover of “Galactik Fiestamatik” shows Blanco’s face in close-up. He is wearing an ati-atihan headdress and face paint. One might be led to believe that Rico Blanco was, shudder, going “ethnic.” Thankfully, other than the ati-atihan beat, which functions more like a rhythmic punctuation, there is no evidence of that.
“I’ve always liked the ati-atihan drums,” he says. “In the first Rivermaya album, ’Awit ng Kabataan’ had it. ’Posible’ had it toward the ending. If it were up to me there would have been more ati-atihan. It’s just something that I really love since I was a kid. My heart would always race whenever it was fiesta and the ati-atihan is around the corner. Up to now I still peek.”
Framed in electronic synthesizers and Blanco’s intentionally mannered vocalization, the ati-atihan drumbeats fit, heralding a new musical direction while still paying homage to Blanco’s roots in the ’80s, although perhaps “Galactik” highlights a different set of ’80s influences than Rivermaya brought out, more dark wave than new wave.
It only serves to underscore the distance that Blanco has traveled from his Rivermaya days.
“I’m just a nomad, I guess,” he says. “A musical vagabond.”
Rivermaya was fun for 14 years, and then it wasn’t anymore.
“I just wanted a vacation, but things happened that made it impossible for me to stay,” he says about his former band. “I didn’t want to live a one-dimensional life. I didn’t want to be just that guy in that band, because I could do other things.”
Even now, Blanco has his “other things.” He has an Italian restaurant, Alphonse, and a bar in the Ortigas area. He also has a line of clothing, Koboi, that he designs and markets.
In some ways, the local music industry is back to where it was just before Rivermaya and its cohorts first emerged, pinning its hopes on the likes of General Luna and Tanya Markova where its predecessors banked on Side A and the Rage Band, trying to get a handle on what the next trend might be.
Once the upstart, Blanco is now the established, mature artist, along with contemporaries such as Ely Buendia and Raymund Marasigan.
But Blanco is loath to rest on past glories. Rather than stick to the tried and true guitar drums and bass format, he decided to try something completely different for “Galactik Fiestamatik.”
“I handicapped myself on purpose so I would struggle with this new method of recording. I just wanted to contribute a little to the story of how music is made. I wanted to see for myself if there are still new ways of doing things.”