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Ultra Triptych: Ely Buendia Hates, Surrenders, Loves

Ultraelectromagneticpop! remains revered by Eraserheads fans a quarter of a century after its original release. Unfortunately, it is also the biggest thorn in its chief architect’s side. For its special remaster and vinyl reissue, Ely wrestles with a demon and emerges victorious, archangel-like, above the rubble.

It can be argued that songs are stories, and recordings mere iterations of their telling. In David Byrne’s How Music Works, the Talking Heads frontman relegates recorded sound to something akin to an incomplete picture whose details are ultimately filled out by the listener. The more casual listener tends to be charitable by default, or maybe charity doesn’t even come into it; perhaps to him any picture is a picture to be taken at face value. The more evolved listener, meanwhile, irons out the creases himself, as though armed with some auditory autocorrect. With the idealizing feature of his mind’s ear, any ideation is stripped down to idea, that is to say, studio matters become sheer ephemera. Signature albums, however, carry more weight, and despite the fact that stories still lord over their telling, the telling is saddled with a profound burden.

Ely Buendia knew this when he undertook the daunting task of rereleasing the Eraserheads’ debut record, 1993’s Ultraelectromagneticpop!, on vinyl. That decade’s biggest band had to start somewhere, and this was it, bar none.

Photo credit: Genius

The irony, however, lies in how its makers (or, at the very least, its chief architect) had little love for how it turned out sound-wise. It wasn’t a retroactive distaste borne of succeeding successes on the recording front; the guys were, after all—despite still being college students at the time—also students of audio. They were clearheaded in both intention and design, they were armed with encyclopedic reserves of knowledge on recording canon, but, alas, their debut sounded like that. The fact that they seriously considered redoing everything as older men—and even started actual work on it, tracking from separate studios before indefinitely shelving the effort—is telling of the band’s nagging desire to reassess their culture-quashing maiden release. But circumstance is a bitch (or maybe an angel) and, after the rerecordings fell through, Buendia had to wrangle with the more logical but infinitely less attractive option: remaster the damn originals.

Ultraeclectromagneticpop! isn’t the lone record in the annals of rock to be, simultaneously, an artist’s definitive release while also being its worst-sounding. At a quick brainstorm sesh, my friend Jason Caballa (Pedicab/Cheats) points me towards classic records that aren’t quite as, well, blemish-free as one would expect them to be, given their stature: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, to some degree maybe even R.E.M.’s Murmur and The Smiths’ eponymous debut. The contentious list goes on, but, needless to say, as famed studio engineer Angee Rozul would tell me in a recent catch-up about the Ultra reissue, “Nasa kanta pa rin talaga, eh.” (It’s in the songs.) And Ely knows it. His songs, and his performances on the record alongside collaborators Raymund Marasigan, Buddy Zabala, and Marcus Adoro, will remain as definitive as they are indelible. Thankfully for the main man, though, “indelible” is not absolute, and anyway, the promise of tidying up a flawed classic was an irresistible proposition.  

Photo credit: Offshore Music

What followed was detective work of the highest order, dotted with mishaps and countered by wizardry along the way. There was, for one, the failed search for the high-resolution file of the cover art, replaced with a scan of a fan’s poster from the same period. The serendipitous discovery of the quarter-inch masters was biblical, and required only the best set of ears the known world has to offer, and the rabbit hole would eventually lead Buendia and the rest of Offshore Music to Bernie Grundman’s Hollywood doorstep. There were oohs, there were aahs, feelings were felt, and battles were won. The look on their faces when Angee first spun the masters on his Otari MX5050 two-track quarter-inch machine was priceless.   

But some introspection is in order.       

ALDUS SANTOS: There was a good five-year window from the band’s formation to the release of Ultraelectromagneticpop! in ‘93. How did you go about choosing which songs to include? By then, what was your confidence level? Most bands would wait ‘til the “right time” or the “right material.” Was then the right time and the right batch of songs, in hindsight, for the ‘Heads?

ELY BUENDIA: I think it was a hive mind kind of thing. During those early days, we never really sat down and planned stuff; we just did it. We wanted the same things. With the first album, I think we were on a longevity frame of mind, meaning, “Let’s save the serious, experimental stuff for later albums.” At this point, the band had songs ranging from “Toyang” to “Scorpio Rising.” We just wanted to go against the current angsty atmosphere at the time, with grunge and all that.

ALDUS: Yeah, it was peak grunge during that time. This was your blues-based rock and novelty-laced pop days, though. The ‘Heads, in this regard, were like really different people. How did you relate as people, as friends, as young folks in this new era in music and culture? I mean, you related well enough to start a band together, but how were you as creative collaborators during Ultra?

ELY: There were disagreements during recording, which was normal, but generally it was fast and painless. There was no way we wouldn’t enjoy our first professional studio session.

The band, circa 1993. Photo credit: Offshore Music

ALDUS: Speaking of. Unless you were in a family of recording musicians—or existed in a show-business milieu—there really was nothing to pattern that kind of undertaking [recording] after, I’d imagine. How did it feel stepping into a pro studio for the first time? What was the general atmosphere like?

ELY: It was amazing. The place [Ad & Ad] was huge. We had to record over a Nora Aunor tape, but we weren’t picky at that point.

ALDUS: Much has been said about the stress-fest that was the Ultra sessions. You were practically first-timers in the studio then, and the infamous [record producer] Ed Formoso was driving you hard. There was, I’ve read, a disconnect in your tracking sessions at Ad & Ad and your mixing sessions at JR Studio; like the former was stressful and the latter more inviting. In hindsight, what were all those sessions like for a then-beginner? And not to belabor the point, but what’s your view of the Formoso situation now?

ELY: I wouldn’t call the sessions stressful. Postprod was a different matter. I wasn’t happy with the mix. Butted heads with Ed Formoso. He left the project. We’ve patched things up since. We weren’t exactly noobs at that point, though. We knew our shit. We’d already self-recorded two albums—the Candelaria Sessions and Pop U—which sound better than Ultra.

Original quarter-inch masters. Photo credit: Day Cabuhat

ALDUS: Ultra captured your UP-guys charm—making do, working with what we have—but it’s also a popular part of ‘Heads mythos that Ultra, at least in terms of recording, was a chink in the armor that is your stellar discography. Does that still hold water? How do you feel about how it sounds today? Can you detach yourself from it and say, “Oh, it was a document of that time”? Or have you always wanted to go revisionist on it, like what Macca [Paul McCartney] did in Let It Be, Naked?

ELY: Well, needless to say, I can barely listen to the album now. The playing, my singing, the recording: all cringe-worthy. We could’ve made a better debut album. But at that point, we just wanted it out.

ALDUS: What were you proudest of about it, though? I mean, your “hate/cringe” list is very telling, but you never mentioned songwriting, which has always been the one thing people respect about you guys. On that note, let’s talk about writing quickly. Did you feel you were unconsciously tapping into a new songwriting idiom? Like a bastard child of Americana, Pinoy novelty, and crooner folk, laced with street-style storytelling? “[Tindahan ni Aling] Nena” and “Toyang,” for instance, were form-based but had catchy lyricism; “Pare Ko” was tragic but not melodramatic; “Ligaya” reeked of college but wasn’t collegiate. Basically, how do you view the writing in it? Yours, most especially. Like, I can imagine it gave you a roadmap.

ELY: I don’t know about idioms, but we definitely felt we had something new to offer, something unclassifiable up to that point, and something that would set us apart from the pack. My take was “Let’s not sound like foreign bands. Let’s do something really Pinoy. Let’s wave the flag for OPM.”

ALDUS: Yeah, I can sense that. Ultra was, in both form and content, very Pinoy, more so than Circus and Cutterpillow, though, granted, that trilogy of releases made for one solid era.

ELY: Well, the writing on Ultra was hit-and-miss. Some, like “Pare Ko,” “Maling Akala,” and “Shake Yer Head,” holds up today, but others, like “Easy Ka Lang,” I can barely listen to. It’s banal even by pop standards. Also, sometimes that “street-speak” thing doesn’t always work. But, much as I hate it, I do recognize its importance. The fans love it, and I respect that. I’ll put as much love in this anniversary release as a mother loves her ugly child.

Ely unboxing. Photo credit: Day Cabuhat

ALDUS: [laughs] Anyway, tell us about the journey towards this project. How did it come about? Tell us about your attempts to recover the quarter-inch masters. You’ve told me in the past—maybe ten years ago, perhaps even before the reunion shows—that you’re comfortable with the ‘Heads legacy, and I see this reissue—of an album you loathe, in some ways—as consistent with that: a gesture of good will. What do you wish to achieve with it?

ELY: When the twentieth anniversary came around five years ago, the band was waiting for the label to do something. They never did—Sony was virtually nonexistent, [and there were] music rights issues—but the band got together to re-record the tracks just to celebrate it. When Offshore Music came about and we started doing vinyl, I knew we could make something happen on the twenty-fifth [anniversary]. This was planned two years ago. What took a long time was the legal wrangling. We read about this stuff all the time and it’s every bit as tedious as you’d expect. The light at the end of the tunnel emerged when Ivory’s rights to the catalogue expired, and it happened just at the right time. The biggest challenge though was finding the masters. We were resigned to using the CD source for the remasters because the tapes were nowhere to be found. Then we got word that they were safely tucked away at a storage facility in Laguna. Then we really knew it was going to happen.

Vinyl inlay. Photo credit: Day Cabuhat

ALDUS: After this first slew of releases though (around 1993 to ‘95?) you stopped being storytellers [in lyric-writing] and veered away from genre music—blues-based rock, folk, and so on—in terms of arrangement. What in that period made you enamored with, like, more traditional forms? And why did you, eventually, abort it?  

ELY: We needed a break from doing straight albums. At that point, everyone felt they had carte blanche, so we came up with Fruitcake. After that, there was no going back, so to speak. The guys continued the path to experimentation, and I tried to hold the fort and tried to reclaim whatever was left of the goodwill the majority of fans lost. That was foolish of me. It was the start of my decline as a songwriter.

ALDUS: That is profoundly affecting, when you say things like that. Like a tragic tug of war.

ELY: Yeah, I have a tragic mentality. [laughs]

ALDUS: “Byronic hero,” as they’d say in lit.

ELY: Oh, I like that. [laughs]

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Photo credit: Offshore Music

ALDUS: Now on the audio side of things. A lot of vinyl remasters are, in reality, culled from CD masters. There’s something meta about that in a way. But, anyway, you were brought up at a time when people still used tape to record albums. How instrumental was locating the quarter-inch masters for the project? For the uninitiated, can you describe what difference it makes—vis à vis importing from a CD file—in terms of sound and what you can do with the songs in post?

ELY: If we didn’t find the analog masters, this whole anniversary thing would never happen. And it was vinyl or nothing. We wanted the product to have the highest audio standards and be as faithful to the original, yet surpass the CD release in many ways. I’m not a purist, but I prefer vinyl because it’s just so much sexier.

ALDUS: I remember when you let me tag along to Yellow Room the night Angee [Rozul] was going to audition and play back the masters. How did he assess the “health” of the masters?

ELY: The masters were in top condition. They were stored in a climate-controlled vault, so no surprise there.

Bernie Grundman. Photo credit: Offshore Music

ALDUS: Let’s talk Bernie Grundman, mastering engineer of great records such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Steely Dan’s Aja, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, U2’s The Joshua Tree, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. How did the idea of tapping him came about?

ELY: If you check out Bernie’s website, he actually offers his services to anyone, and I mean anyone in the world. Isn’t that amazing? We live in a day and age where you can have the guy who worked with those artists work on your project, too. He is the name behind all those great-sounding records, and it was a thrill of a lifetime to sit in his studio and watch him work on my music.

ALDUS: I’m curious. What was Mr. Grundman’s assessment of the Ultra masters—and, I guess, the material—when you first made him listen? I mean I don’t see him (or his studio) working on a lot of non-Western releases.

ELY: Bernie’s all about open-mindedness. He hears frequencies, not lyrics, not notes. His job requires him to be non-judgmental. Of course, it was always tempting to ask his opinion, but I wisely thought better of it.

Team Offshore with Grundman. Photo credit: Offshore Music

ALDUS: What aspect of the record needed the most work in mastering, in Grundman’s estimation? My first impression—listening to the streaming version, after the fact—was that the bass is now more apparent in the mix.

ELY: I always thought the original masters were a bit lacking on the low end, so I was happy when Bernie fixed that without me asking. Overall the changes are very subtle, tastefully done yet a vast improvement.

ALDUS: I know some feelings will remain, but some may change. Has hindsight swayed you to rethink your [largely mixed] feelings about Ultra?

ELY: I still feel it could have been a better debut. It’s the safest Eheads record. It could have benefitted from one of our more forward-thinking songs, which like I said, we had a lot of already. The playing, I can no longer do anything about. But yeah, not my favorite.

12-inch vinyl. Photo credit: Day Cabuhat

Original cover art via Genius. Photos with Bernie Grundman, as well as the band’s vintage photo, via Offshore Music. Photos at Yellow Room depicting Ely and the quarter-inch masters via Day Cabuhat. The launch of the 25th anniversary reissue of the Eraserheads’ Ultraelectromagneticpop! on vinyl happens November 24, 2019, 11am, at the Eastwood Central Plaza. The Ultra25 vinyl reissue was produced by Sony Music Entertainment Philippines, Inc. and Offshore music; with executive producers Roslyn Pineda, Andrew Castro, and Ely Buendia; project managers Day Cabuhat and Derick Villarino; remaster and lacquer cutting by Bernie Grundman; pressing at Record Technology Incorporated; layout by Team Manila; and liner notes by Aldus Santos. Complete launch event details in the poster below.  

Event poster. Photo credit: Offshore Music

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