Up Dharma Down and the perks of being wallflowers

MANILA, Philippines - The first of them arrived at five in the afternoon. They came from as far as Davao, flew in from Singapore and Las Vegas. Some were turned away before the first song, the big man in the tie saying the hall was at capacity, and more would make One Esplanade a fire hazard.

Most of those who left still stayed, long past midnight, after the cursing and the crying, to sit listening outside cross-legged outside the glass doors. There were ponytails and all varieties of plaid and the stonewashed skinny jeans of hip young Manila, but there also clerks in uniforms and men in their forties slouched against railings in stained baseball caps. The event has been four years in the making, the center is a quartet that calls itself Up Dharma Down, whose hold on its small but loyal group of followers -- “listeners, not fans,” says lead singer Armi Millare -- continues to be a phenomenon in spite of four years without new music.

On Wednesday, November 28, Up Dharma Down launched their third album, Capacities to a packed house at the SM Mall of Asia. They performed the new album in its entirety, including pre-release popular singles such as “Indak” and “Tadhana” (which the group re-recorded) as well as past hits like “Taya” and “Oo” to a crowd singing the songs back.

The band -- composed of Millare, guitarist Carlos Tañada, bassist Paul Yap, and drummer Ean Mayor and signed under local independent label Terno Records -- has long been touted by both the local and international press as the best Filipino act to come out in the past decade, with the most potential to make it internationally. Time Magazine has called the band's music “genre-defying” as well as “both thoughtful and sensual” while BBC DJ Mark Coles singled them out as having the most cross-over potential to break the North American market.

Tweet after Dharma

Millare calls the group a performing band, one whose eight years in music was interrupted by only one three-week break. She admits it may have much to do with the fact the band is not “built for the tube” or for radio.

“I think people in media don’t want us there,” she says laughing, “and at the same time it’s okay because we’re not really very comfortable.”

Tañada prefers the intimacy of small audiences. Yap says it allows them more control, and lets them meet their audiences after each perfomrance. Mayor’s answer as to why the band continues to perform outside broadcast platforms is straightforward: they are not skinny enough, and do not collectively possess the necessary number of tattoos.

Millare describes Up Dharma Down as a social media band, one that has found its home on the Internet after a YahooGroups account gathered fans together. Their listeners are considered friends, who bring cake and share songs and promote the band without instigation from the musicians, all of whom make a concerted effort to engage with followers. Millare, a self-confessed wallflower, says it was difficult at first.

“They say many things,” she says, referring to their fans, “and I think none of us four are good at compliments.”

They are better, she says, at taking criticism.

Turn it well

It is a quiet quartet, all four tapping away at smartphones during lulls in rehearsal. There is very little conversation, although thay say there is chaos when there is a new song to be approved, or rejected.

“We want songs we won’t regret making,” says Mayor, a change from the band’s previous attempts to making all their compositions work.

Millare wrote a majority of the album’s seven new songs, sharing credits with Yap, whom she describes as “a pretty emotional guy.” It may be awkward to sing someone else’s lyrics, she says, but at least she can go all out and still have someone to blame. The band concedes Millare’s popularity, and steps back when fans whip out phones to take photos with the front woman in her white suit.

“We tell her, you get most of the attention so you have a certain responsibility,” says Yap. People look up to Millare, he says, and that demands she “take care of herself.”

On November 28, Up Dharma Down played a total of 20 songs, sold an undisclosed number of albums, received one dozen mini-muffins, signed several hundred autographs, shook what appeared to be the same number of hands, then packed keyboard and guitar to sing three more songs before another audience at another hall in another city.

Their listeners are happy to follow. - Rappler.com