“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, is how the popular idiom goes. But what some may assume of X’Ho is nothing but a carefully constructed veneer, designed to reflect more about those who cast their stones than the man himself.
“Some friend described me as somebody who’s got one foot in everything, so I never feel like I completely belong to one kind of thing. I’m a misfit everywhere —every segment of where I am,” says X’Ho when I bring up the topic of loneliness. As a DJ, musician, writer and filmmaker, X’Ho is perhaps most well-known for his work as the frontman of Zircon Lounge, which is a testament to the band’s legacy. These days, however, you’re likely to find the artist knee-deep in a politically charged arena, both online and in his music. But make no mistake: this is not about a story that’s jumping the shark. Rather, it’s a perennial tale that never gets old, of failure and success, learning to cope under the harshest conditions, and emerging better, albeit a little broken, in a world you never thought you’d survive.
What was it like for you growing up?
I come from a broken family and my grandmother, who became my mother and guardian, was an abusive parent. We didn’t have a house of our own and I was a bit of a nomadic tenant going from place to place. We had a house when I was born until I was maybe 4 to 5 years old. But because my mother remarried, she moved away and went with my stepfather and I was left in the care of my grandmother who became my mother. [My grandmother] was renting rooms for the large part of my life and I was basically just squatting. I didn’t have good role models; I had squabbling women. Everyday, somebody was quarrelling with someone.
The good thing was that the apartment had a Rediffusion set. There was a tenant who was into The Beatles and pop music, so she was the one who kind of initiated me because she was into it. She used to throw her song book at me: “This song very good, copy!” I didn’t even know the song but I copied the lyrics. Rediffusion had two channels, Chinese and English, and because of her, there were times when we would switch to English. Those years were really helpful in laying the groundwork for my music taste. I was already exposed to pop music when I stayed with my godmother during certain times of the year when I wasn’t in school, but they didn’t have a Rediffusion set.
In the old days, radio was like BBC World Service. You only get 30% pop music and 70% news magazine programs the whole day. Rediffusion was more progressive because it was more independent in that sense. You would never hear Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or The Doors on [radio], but you would hear it on Rediffusion.
You’ve worked in radio for a long time.
Well, you see, I’m very old school. In that sense, I have a split personality. When I’m a DJ, I’m c-h-r-i-s ho. I’m a worker bee; I’m an employee. It’s not my place to question. You pay me, I do the work. But on my own as X’Ho, I consider myself the artist and I can express myself however I want to.
Is there an in-between where the worlds collide?
Yeah, I think there are times. If I were to examine it, I really have managed to delineate the two personas very well. People may be a bit confused and people may question, but I don’t at all. The minute I switch on the mic in the radio station, I’m Chris Ho. You don’t see me for a minute as X’Ho, the artist. Not at all. And when I record my album, I don’t have to think about whether I should say this [or that] at all. They’re two different vocations, to put it that way. And I’m very happy in both.
You identify with both?
You know what, one simple reason — I started out as a guai guai boy next door.
So it comes naturally to you.
Yeah. If I started the other way round, that would have been unnatural. I started out being the obedient boy next door, and I was so boy next door that when I first started out and was freelancing for The Straits Times as a music columnist, Sumiko Tan named me as a young talent to look out for in the national day supplement. But how I’ve disappointed her in that way. I think it really is being more involved in alternative music and culture.
When did you start being more involved in [alternative music and culture]?
This must have been with the advent of punk rock exploding in the 70s that made me see the more rebellious side of rock and roll. Rock and roll itself is a rebellion, but by the time I got into it, it was already mainstream. But it was punk that showed up the rebellion side in a very acute way.
[It was also] because of BigO magazine — it was Singapore’s only independent rock publication and rock music magazine; right up till today, there isn’t any other music magazine — where I was writing a regular column for them that eventually evolved into a social criticism kind of column as well, examining local culture and people, that sort of thing. And I suppose also myself maturing as a person.
At the end of the day, you cannot say you are a true social creature if you have no sensibility whatsoever about the political nature of where you are. It’s only Singapore that has this mindset where if you criticise, you’re political. If you happen to praise the same issue, somehow you’re not political. Basically, what Singaporeans term as “political” is environmental awareness. I am seriously not into politics. I’ve got no political inclinations and I don’t know so many political facts. I am, in that sense, a theorist. I’m an ideologist. I’m not into social activism. I’m not into campaigns, amassing, organising — I’m not into that at all. I’m just about the philosophy. Dealing with my life, that’s all.
At the end of the day, you cannot say you are a true social creature if you have no sensibility whatsoever about the political nature of where you are.
The issue, like I said in my first book, is when I walk out that door and I have to deal with ugly people, I ask, “Why?” So I asked and I learnt to put the finger where the problem is. The other important point is that in my first book back then, I’ve always had this perverse side of me, and in that sense it saves me as well. I have to suffer because nobody feels the same way I do. It’s a perverse psychology. In the same way, why is my Facebook and Twitter account name, “xhosux”? I take comfort in the fact that you can’t put me down because I put myself down first.
What do you think of the current arts revival?
Badly needed. (laughs)
It comes across a little forced.
Of course it’s forced. But better to have than not to have la. And I’ll give you two simple reasons. Number one, to humanise Singaporeans because we’ve become robots. Number two, to add that slice of art into our lifestyle and culture is to prove that we have “arrived”.
Are we superficially engaged with it?
I think it is pretty much that way because something as profound as the arts cannot be embraced and loved overnight. There has to be a sensibility and you cannot press a button and say, “Oh, you have the great sensibility now!” It doesn’t work that way, we all know that. What’s scary is that it’s become such a huge bubble that without the government’s support, they will blow any time. It’s only still surviving because the government is pumping in money, resources and manpower endlessly. The minute they all pull out, mati. Going by the void that has been created, it’s going to be a national agenda for a long time to come.
Should an artist separate himself from the state?
Of course! I’m sure you’ve heard the popular saying that art is not supposed to please everybody. It’s supposed to criticise and argue and even show you the ugly side.
But we can’t in this current climate.
No. In the Singapore climate, they don’t want to see anything that’s anti-system. I feel that because the whole process is so mechanically devised, I can’t even get myself involved. You know what I mean? Because I’m not of that scene. And because of what I am, to be so outspoken, it’s even harder for me to get there. Unlike music where my foot is already in there, when it comes to the visual art category, it’s very hard.
What do you think of today’s music scene?
I’ve always said that present day pop music is always good. People who say that music today is not as good as the past — it’s not altogether correct. Although if you were to ask me, and it might sound like I am contradicting myself, the greatest periods in popular music were the 60s and the 70s.
How about the local music scene today?
It is a lot better than before because there’s actually a platform. I think the young generation don’t realise that it was a strong sense of inculcation from establishments in the same way that artists two decades before were not encouraged at all. My band [Zircon Lounge] arrived right smack in the middle of “no local”.
Who are some of your favourite [local] artists?
Oh, I’ve always loved Shigga Shay. Number one. I really like what he does. I think he’s gifted and he’s got great sensibility. To me, a very important part of music is sensibility. Whether you have talent or a voice is almost immaterial.
What sensibility are you referring to?
That means the feel and ability to absorb influences and develop your own. [Shigga Shay] has great sensibility and that’s what I like about him. I think that The Sam Willows deserve to be huge — far, far bigger than they are now. The fact that they’re not huge shows our hang-up. It’s not something I listen to, to be honest. But they’re a great pop act.
And I’ve always liked Dick Lee’s music because he has a natural verve that I like. It’s a personal preference, but I can give you a perfect example of why I consider him great. I attended one of his concerts recently and at the end of it, he finished his show singing two lines from “Home”. And I was moved to tears with just two lines. You know that “Home” is a great song. It’s just that it is so much a part of the national day parade that it loses that impact of being a personal song to me. The fact that [Dick Lee] delivered those two lines and he could make me feel the essence of the song and where the two lines came from, it was very powerful.
To me, a very important part of music is sensibility. Whether you have talent or a voice is almost immaterial.
People view you as a very acerbic and outspoken person. What’s the X’Ho behind that veneer like?
I can’t possibly tell you that, then I’ll render myself vulnerable! But I dare ascertain that actually I’m a very compassionate person. I think a close friend said before that I have great empathy for other people, and I know that to be very true. I’m a dripping faucet — I’ve admitted this in public as well — when I go to the movies. I cry at the littlest things you can’t imagine people crying at. I think it’s all from empathy.
Is that why you have to put up a self-defense mechanism? To protect yourself?
Yes. If I’m so vulnerable then I won’t be able to survive in an urban jungle. In that sense, I’m a bit of a Thai as well. Thai people can be very sweet-natured, but when they turn they can be very scary. And I feel a bit like that. That’s why I relate to the fictional character, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s in my Facebook status bio that I’m Dr. Jackal and Ms. Hide. I can be a jackass, but I can also turn around and hide and say, “No I’m not.” Of course it’s a form of self-protection because this country is all about that. What other choice do I have? No other.
What kind of movies make you cry?
I dare to say no one else would have cried at this movie at all, but my eyes were swollen. Julie & Julia.
Which part made you cry?
Throughout. It’s not a sad movie. I was overwhelmed by the conviction and compassion of Amy Adams’s character. I was so glad I watched it at home because it’s very painful crying in the cinema; you don’t want people to know and you’re trying to stifle your own sob. Aiya, I get very easily overwhelmed. You know the expression, “my cup runneth over”? My cup runneth over all the time.
Was this in you since you were young?
Mostly. And that’s why I don’t like watching romantic comedies. I feel cheated. You’re supposed to be “feel good happy”; I always end up crying. Even in movies I don’t like, I will cry. I’m very easily moved because I’m very emotional. Sometimes I think I’m too emotional for my own good.
Have you ever tried to shut that part of yourself off?
No. The only form of self-validation, I dare say, is to feel. It’s almost like in order to validate myself, I have to let myself go to feel. Because if I don’t feel, I don’t feel like I’m a person, a rightful human being.
But that emotional intensity has got to be overwhelming if you feel so much all the time.
I do try and sieve out the indulgent or even unnecessary aspects of emotionality. I wouldn’t consider myself a cry baby, but I admit I’m a dripping faucet. And maybe to some extent, as much as I know that I cry and that it’s painful to cry in public in the cinema, I still love to watch movies by myself. Maybe it’s because of the loneliness that I don’t have that kind of interaction with people enough to distance myself from that overwhelming feeling. It’s almost like I need to go to the cinema to confirm that I can feel, that I’m still capable of that interaction with life as it were.
I think I’m human enough to shut [the emotional intensity] off as well. I’m not sure if this is a valid point, but I think the difference is that I’m too honest with myself. If I can shut it off, I would even question the motive of shutting it off. If it’s justified to myself, I will do it. But if I feel like it’s not justified to my personal wellbeing or my peace of mind, then I won’t.
What will make it justified?
If you follow me on Instagram, you will also see in recent posts where I said that believe me, if I decided tomorrow that I don’t have to deal with Singapore anymore, I won’t. I can drop it just like that. I know myself. The fact that I’m not dropping it is also out of self-love because it’s my way of dealing with living here.
If you decide to drop it, what will it mean for you?
It’s something good. It can only mean that my heart is no longer here and that I don’t have to deal with this place anymore. And on that day, there is one song I will blast — Michael Bublé’s version of Feeling Good. His version, not Nina Simone’s version.
Why his version?
Because his version is really all about celebrating a new beginning. And the way the music was arranged and the singing, it’s all about “Rah rah, one more for the road, I’ll show ya!” Whereas Nina Simone’s is bittersweet; it’s a new dawn, but remember what it was like? No. For me, when the break comes, it has to be Michael Bublé.
Is music essential to your survival?
Oh yeah. I’ve always said, “Can you imagine me without rock and roll?” I can’t. I think music created me to discover myself. Because I came from a conservative cantonese background, nobody in the family spoke english. So being in english education, what touched me was music, especially singer-songwriters. That connected me with the romanticism that was in me that I didn’t know how to express, discover, find or connect with. But it was rock and roll that was like, “Yes, here it is! Here is you!” It’s naturally appealing to me because rock and roll is all about individuality and freedom, which is basically my personal quest, because I was so confined, held back, and restrained by my conservative cantonese upbringing. Rock and roll is literature, especially when it comes to singer-songwriters.
For most parts of my life, I’ve lived my life by acting out a fantasy in my so called creative work. I’m not a filmmaker, but I make films. I’m not a musician, but I’ve created music. And I never groomed myself to be a writer, but I became a writer as well.
So what fuels your hope?
Well, I guess by now you can also imagine that I’m quite a spiritual person. I think I’ve always been a spiritual person. It’s just that the awareness came later in life. When I was young, I was just too blind to see a lot of things — who I really was. I remember saying this to me friend, “I feel like I’ve never lived until now.” This was in 1993 with my second solo album, if I’m not wrong. Because that was the time I finally discovered meditation and buddhism as well.
How does [your spiritual journey] tie in with your creative process?
Oh, everything is from within. For me, it’s really all about inspiration. I can’t do anything if I’m not inspired. And if the inspiration hits, I just let it take me. For most parts of my life, I’ve lived my life by acting out a fantasy in my so called creative work. I’m not a filmmaker, but I make films. I’m not a musician, but I’ve created music. And I never groomed myself to be a writer, but I became a writer as well. And that’s only the more professional aspects of the whole picture. I dare say in my private life it was even more so. I really feel like I’m two different people, especially in my personal life.
Which one comes first in your songwriting process, the lyrics or the melodies?
It’s never that structured. It’s whatever that comes to me once [inspiration] takes hold of me.
What about your latest album, Lucifugous?
It came together [with the melodies], mostly. Most of the core songs came together. I think there were some songs that were left over from No Ordinary Country. “Her Soul’s Demise” was from No Ordinary Country — I wrote it with my guitar.
I’m quite intrigued by “Rosalie’s Fray” [in Lucifugous]. What was the inspiration behind this?
This one’s a secret. It’s about someone, a real person, but I changed the name. It’s a little bit out of sync with the rest because the rest are basically about [Singapore]. This one is about a person and it also came from No Ordinary Country, during the session when I was writing songs.
Why did you write about this person?
Because I was a bit angry with this person. I felt that she was a bit of a poser. In a sense, she’s never said [it’s hip to be gay], but it’s through her actions that she was displaying that.
Is she still the same way?
For the most part.
Do people ask [who this song is about]?
Yeah, even Leslie and Vivian [of The Observatory]. They did ask, but I never told them.
When you write these songs, is it a form of purging for you?
Yeah, it’s like a form of catharsis. I’ve always said that I originally put this album together as a form of catharsis on a daily level. That’s why I call it my daily mantra.
Some musicians say that when they put out a song to the audience, it’s no longer their song anymore. Is this the case for you?
I can’t be that bold to say that. I don’t think I have that much of an audience for them to take that away. I don’t think a lot of them actually pay that close attention to my songs.
Do you feel like it still belongs to you?
Oh, for sure because I don’t know how many of them relate to the songs the way I do. If you ask me whether I still relate to stuff from my solo album, then it’s a bit hard. There are certain parts of it, but it’s not so much me now because that was made for a large audience. This was like 1989 when the record company was going to market me as a crossover pop act. Before that, I was with Zircon Lounge which was not very commercial so they were trying to make me commercial. That album was not how I wanted to portray myself, but I was conceding to the fact that the record company was paving the way for me to be a crossover potential. So I went with it willingly. I put all of me in there but it’s not something that I fall back on because I’ve gone with the alternative way more.
Do you still identify with Zircon Lounge’s songs?
Oh yeah, I do. There’s something about the Zircon Lounge songs. I remember when somebody remastered it about 10 years ago and my first impression was, “How did I survive that period?” And that’s exactly what another good friend told me as well when she heard the songs because it was a very painful romantic period. There was a lot of yearning and suffering.
How did you survive that?
You just live on. It’s like my favourite singer, Emmylou Harris’s best lyric [in the song “Boulder to Birmingham”] where she says, “Well you really got me this time / And the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive”.
You mentioned in your documentary [The Naked DJ] that you’ve always feared stillness.
It’s a stillness that has no life. That scares me. A lifeless void.
Is that your biggest fear?
I don’t know. It’s very abstract.
So what’s your biggest fear?
I don’t even know. What do I fear? Without love. How’s that for a nice cliché? As Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, sang — but Southside Johnny wrote it — without love, there’s nothing you can do.
Photographs & images courtesy of X’Ho
Header photo by Alvin Tan