MAN IN A HURRY
ELY BUENDIA’S UNFLAGGING HEART
Ely Buendia's life has crossed decades and bent genres, but not without a few close calls
Photos by Martin San Diego
Man in a hurry: Ely Buendia's unflagging heart
MANILA, Philippines – Ely Buendia is one of the most recognized names in Philippine music. His most successful band to date, the Eraserheads, drove major record labels on a contract signing frenzy for any and all indie bands in 1994 in the hopes of cashing in on the trend the Eheads had spawned.
Ultralectromagneticpop!, the Eheads' debut album, was released 25 years ago, launching the careers of 4 unknown and untested boys. Their star kept reaching new heights, and their 3rd album Cutterpillow was released, selling 40,000 copies (platinum) on the launch date alone.
When Ely left the band in 2002, he continued making songs for his new band The Mongols, which eventually morphed into Pupil in 2005.
"I didn't have any other band when I had Pupil. I was focused on that," he said. "[Pupil's modern rock sound] was something that I'd been leaning towards. We were all leaning towards that sound at the tail-end of the career of the Eraserheads."
The much-awaited reunion concert of the Eraserheads was cut short in 2008 when Ely was rushed to the Makati Medical Center halfway through the concert due to hypokalemia (which happens when one's potassium levels are too low) and exhaustion. He underwent his second angioplasty soon after. After a year, the band came together again for The Final Set, where an estimated 100,000 people showed up to celebrate not just the fact that the band they so loved was back together, but to revel in the music and memories the songs invoked.
In 2011, Ely set up Oktaves with former The Jerks guitarist Nitoy Adriano, Ivan Garcia, and brothers Bobby and Chris Padilla of Hilera. He said he had always wanted to work with Nitoy Adriano. He saw Nitoy's departure from The Jerks as a sign to invite the veteran guitarist – who definitely adds a distinctive flavor to the band's renditions of rock and roll, rockabilly, blues and country – to join him.
Ely has constantly crossed genres in his career. He worked with the late rapper Francis Magalona on In Love and War, an album that was released in 2010 after Magalona's death.
In 2016 came the big band sound of Apartel, though Ely had been noodling with the trope as early as 2016, even creating a horn section to accompany him for his solo concert, Ely Buendia Greatest Hits Live, where fans had a chance to hear Eraserheads songs performed with the big band sound.
"I wanted to put a twist on the old songs," Ely explained. "I finally was able to afford these musicians like the horn players. I'm pretty proud of the production because there's nothing like it in the mainstream. And I'm proud of the arrangements of the old songs."
He continued: "I've always wanted to be in a big band with a brass section and back-up singers. It's just the kind of spectacle I haven't been seeing anymore but wanted to do. I wanted to get back to authentic music playing where everything is really played by musicians – and not sampled, not electronic – and soul music was the perfect sound for that. For me, that's kind of the same ballpark as rhythm and blues."
Nothing seems to stop Ely from performing. Even during his less active years, he was always noodling around, collaborating and producing artists. Ely seems like a man in a hurry – his plate is always full and the man is always in demand.
"It's not that I'm in a hurry. It's just that I feel a surge of creativity," Ely explained. "I'd been meeting a lot of very interesting, talented people [over] the course of a decade; and there's a possibility of doing something new with everyone I meet. They inspire me to be creative."
On to Offshore Music
In 2016, Ely, along with a number of partners, founded independent record label Offshore Music.
"With regards to the business model, we're pretty much old school. Some things don't work anymore – like consignment, and selling [of] records in stores – because there are no more stores," he told Rappler.
"Some things stay the same, though. Bands and new artists still want to be signed to a label; that's part of a musician's journey. And the marketing is pretty much the same; although it's more online heavy now. I can still apply what I learned during those 20-30 years: working first as a record label employee, then as an artist of a record label. I'd been on both sides before. Some things that were true then, are still true now."
Another plus about being signed to Offshore Music? Being able to record in Ely's own home. “When Offshore Music became official, and we started signing bands, all Offshore artists [started] recording here," he added. Called The Crow's Nest, the top of Ely's home has been made into a recording studio where many artists, including the Eheads themselves, have recorded.
"We don't sign up every band we see. We pick the ones that we believe in, and whose music we like. We don't sign anyone we know we couldn't support, as we have very little resources, and have a very small budget to work with."
Among those who've signed up with Offshore are The Late Isabel and Jun Lopito.
"The latest band we signed up is One Click Straight, whose members are super-talented teenagers. We really like their sound. No one in this country sounds like them," he said. The band just came out with their single "She," which is on Spotify.
Behind the lens
Directing has always been something Ely felt drawn to. In 2014, he did a crime anthology with King Palisoc and Yan Yuzon titled Bang Bang Alley.
"I had a great time. It was a dream come true for me, because I really wanted to be a director when I was in school, but I was kind of sidetracked by the Eheads. I never really got around to writing a good script and a whole movie. That only happened when I was in my 40s. It was right then that I knew what I wanted to do. That's when I started writing, and Bang Bang Alley happened. I wouldn't say it was a success – but as a first film – I didn't think it was that bad. I really still do wanna direct a movie," he said.
In 2016, Ely appeared in Bradley Liew's Singing in Graveyards as the son of Pepe Smith's character.
"That was fun and surreal at the same time," he said. "I've only known Pepe as this very cool, sometimes wild guy. And of course, I look up to him. It was a revelation for me to see him work like that, because he can really act. He wasn't Pepe the way I or anyone else knew him when we were doing that scene. It was really a different person. And he prepared and gave so much for that movie. I really admired him in that one."
Ely also had cameo scenes in Lav Diaz's Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, where he contributed an instrumental rendition of classic revolutionary song "Jocelynang Baliwag" and Danny Fabella's "Anak ng Bayan."
"They didn't get me because I was a good actor, but because I could play the guitar and sing. And I'm proud of that. They wanted me to play this traditional kundiman song. I had to brush up on my classical guitar for months because I am not a classical [guitar] player," he said.
Most recently, along with his producer, Pam Reyes, Ely pitched Kontrata to film investors and producers at the 2017 Cinemalaya-DGPI Filmpitch. The film is about a guitar player who sells his soul to the devil in his desire "to be the best guitar player in the world." The duo went home with many awards, including Star Cinema's Choice, and some post-production packages.
Ely looks forward to doing pre-production this year. "I just hope we do the script justice because it's a really good story," he said.
Affairs of the heart
It's no big secret that Ely has had two angioplasties. Since then, he has made major adjustments to his lifestyle.
"I think it all boils down to what you eat that causes heart problems. So I'm focused on that right now. I want to stay off the meds – because in the end – those will also kill you. I want to be naturally healthy," Ely said, though he does still take regular medication to help keep his heart healthy.
He has started eating healthy and jogs around their village in Parañaque City. On the night of the interview, on the menu was cauliflower rice, Indian butter chicken, and salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
For many, the wholesome homeyness of the scene is far from how one envisions the life of a rock star of Ely's caliber. There is an air of calmness and security around him. "Everything's going well. I can't ask for anything more. I am very, very happy." – with reports from Susan Claire Agbayani / Rappler.com