Interview: Singaporean Popstars Sobs on Gas Stations, Blue Takis, and Selling Out
Three no-nonsense bodies hurried about me, loading their equipment quickly into the back of an Uber and piling into the backseat with some friends. I sat up front with the driver, who initiated a conversation about the various B-list celebrities and cultural icons he had the chance of driving around all week thanks to SXSW (he was particularly stoked to tell us that the Red Power Ranger graced the same seats we were sitting in).
Had I wanted to embarrass them, I likely would have mentioned that the three members of the Singaporean indie-rock band Sobs — Celine Autumn, Jared Lim, and Raphael Ong — could’ve been added to his list of rockstar riders. Moments before, the trio had taken to the stage, Celine’s signature blue hair bobbing in the air, as she crooned to the crowd. I had seen the band in action the night before as well, standing front-row at their show in an unassuming bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s.
Sobs brought me into their label’s Airbnb for the week (aka the Topshelf Records’ temporary Austin headquarters), where we sat huddled in a circle to talk about their long-standing friendship, dating icks, and shared love for pop music.
Why did you guys name yourselves Sobs? Do you consider yourselves depressed individuals?
Raphael: Do people in America say that? Like a shitty thing happens and we’ll type it out, right?
Celine: Yeah, it kind of started from there. Whenever I would fight Jared about something I would just type “sobs.” I was like, “That should be our band name.”
Raphael: It gets a bit tricky to search for band stuff on Twitter because you just get people saying “sobs.”
Jared: Like “sons of bitches.”
Raphael: Like, “Someone broke up…SOBS!”
Celine: Yeah, literally all KPOP fans use it.
Raphael: So that makes SEO a bit tough.
Do you think you’ll change the name?
Celine & Raphael: It would be convenient to have another name, but I can’t think of a better one.
How did you guys meet? I know a bit that Jared and Raphael started off on YouTube and ended up going to a CHVRCHES concert together.
Jared: I guess I knew Raphael from online first, just on Twitter.
Raphael: Even before CHVRCHES?
Jared: Yeah, I think so. I went to the show with, like, some random guy from Twitter.
Raphael: My friend.
Jared: Yeah, your friend Daniel. And that’s how we met. Shortly after, maybe a year after, Celine posted online on this music forum called Soft.com.sg. Like Craigslist for music. She posted there looking for collaborators, and I replied. Everyone else in the band… we all kind of know each other from other things. When we first started playing shows, we got all our friends.
I heard you guys are all huge pop fans. Can you tell me about how pop has inspired you as artists?
Celine: I think individually we all [like] very separate artists, but also, we share many common artists. I guess as a band for Sobs, our influences have evolved a lot through the years. We really love is Alvvays, Kero Kero Bonito, Crying. Big fans of Crying.
Raphael: Do you think they influenced us at all?
Jared: I don’t think so, completely separate.
Celine: Yeah, it’s just like a funny coincidence. So many… so hard to think of a list. We just love pop music.
Raphael: We just love pop music… mainstream pop.
Can you tell me individually, what are your personal musical influences? I know you like The 1975’s new album.
Raphael: Yeah, I listened to them a lot when I was a tween. Then I left because I thought The 1975 was uncool and sellouts. But then I realized that they are actually masters of creating pop albums [and] really lush atmospheres.
What made you think they were sellouts?
Raphael: Because Matty Healy is just…
Celine: Because at first you reject conformity and then… you get it, you know?
Raphael: I think I fully embraced all kinds of pop. The more I have to enjoy, the better, right?
Celine: Individually… personally I have a solo project called Cayenne, it’s more hyperpop slash internet pop, so I guess a lot of electronic pop stuff.
Do you have a favorite electronic pop artist?
Jared: Pretty much same.
Celine: Yeah, I think we have very similar influences.
Can you guys tell me about your latest project Air Guitar? How would you describe it? What direction did you guys want to take it in?
Raphael: A collection of pop songs. I think since we made music together for a while now, we kind of know what we want without aiming for something specifically. We never set out to do something. It just comes naturally. We get each other quite intuitively and we just, you know, flow.
Celine: We both write together. Like we write and we send it to each other.
Jared: Bits and pieces. Ideas. No real direction, just three years of writing one song every three months.
Celine: Yeah. We’re not like, “Oh, let’s sit down and write the next album.”
Jared: We started writing immediately after Telltale Signs, I think, a few months after.
Celine: The songs slowly trickle in throughout the years. We never set out like, “Okay, let’s write 12 songs for an album.” I feel like if we did that…
Jared: It would suck. We would not be going anywhere with that. I think we liked it because we took our time with it.
Raphael: It’s a very intuitive process of working on that one product — adding tracks, editing stuff, removing stuff.
Celine: There’s no one set concept like, “We’re gonna have this concept. We’re gonna write this album around this concept.” It was not like that.
Jared: Also, working on the same project… the final [tracks] have things that were from the first ever sessions. We just keep working on it until it’s done.
Raphael: At the same time, we were a lot more focused on this album. The first album, we had a lot of tracks, like a shitload of tracks, we left in.
Jared: It’s just messy.
Raphael: I think we’ve been more focused on what sound we wanted this time. I think we learned a lot.
Do you guys have favorite songs off the album? Any favorites to perform live?
Raphael: “Friday Night” was going to be cut. We didn’t think “Friday Night” was a good song. I thought the chorus was really good.
Jared: I wasn’t convinced yet because it felt very unfinished.
Celine: It wasn’t complete. We only had the verse and the chorus, but we didn’t know how to end it so we were just like, “Fuck this song.” But then after that, we tried beats that I didn’t like.
Raphael: There were a couple different versions of other endings.
Celine: They didn’t work.
Right, I was going to ask about the Friday Night outro. I know it’s from the Sonic R OST.
Jared: It was a joke. We had a few different versions of the outro; we just couldn’t figure it out. And then one day, I was like, fuck it.
Celine: And it worked out. I would say it’s my favorite song to perform.
Jared: Mine would be “Lucked Out.”
Celine: Oh. “Lucked Out” then “Friday Night,” I guess.
Jared: It’s the last song we did for the album. Still fresh to me.
Raphael: For me, probably “Friday Night” as well. “LOML.” In general, I think the album is really fun. The songs are all dynamic.
What are your personal dealbreakers in a relationship? I know you talk a little bit about it in the song, is that collectively for all of you?
Celine: When I wrote those lyrics, it’s kind of depicting amongst my friends or within Asian culture, Singapore… I’ve heard a lot of my friends having to creep around their parents dating someone that’s not in the same culture or religion or race. It’s kind of like that where you have to gain your parent’s approval to date someone else. It’s quite common in Singapore. Not everybody, but some people, so I wrote that with my friends in mind.
Raphael: Our drummer wears that.
Celine: Yeah, I’m sorry Shaun, but that perfume is not it. What about you guys, what are your icks?
Jared: No icks.
Celine: People who like Red Hot Chili Peppers. You go on a first date and they’re like, “Oh, I like Red Hot Chili Peppers, they’re my favorite band.” That’s an ick. That’s a dealbreaker if your favorite band is Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Raphael: I don’t know. I couldn’t date someone that doesn’t like spicy food. And my partner… she loves spicy food too. I realized that in the US, I don’t like eating American food, so every night I get Uber Eats. I get like, spicy Korean food, or Thai food. I need that spice in my life. [To Jared] For you, no icks?
I find that super hard to believe.
Celine: Yeah, me too.
Unless you’re like literally the nicest person in the world.
Raphael: He might be the nicest person in the world.
Celine: Perhaps, maybe.
Can you guys tell me about the inspo for the “Air Guitar” music video? [The main character] signs her soul away to the devil…
Raphael: Yeah, I think that capitalism and commercialism is something that we can’t escape from. Especially as we go as people in working society, a band as well. To some extent, how a band, for example, like Sobs, Celine is the face of everything. For what it is, it’s kind of like we are selling the image of Celine. You can’t escape it. You can’t escape idol culture.
Celine: Especially if you’re trying to reach the masses. I guess us working in the confines of pop music [… there’s] this thing where if you get too big in pop, it’s selling out. I guess you just work within the confines of it.
Raphael: So this approach of playing around with concepts of commercialism and consumerism is something that was very prevalent in 90s indie music in general. Specifically, Shibuya-kei in the ‘90s Japanese scene, there’s direct references to all these things in the music video. I didn’t think about it too much, as long as it’s pretty and people would watch it, I’m happy.
Do you think popstars always have to work within confines?
Celine: I think yes and no. When you think of a popstar you think about having a high budget on stage and they have a higher budget for music video visuals. You need money, you need a major label to back you, so it’s a bit hard to find the in-between.
Raphael: Even just coming to SX with our Topshelf showcase, it is evident that pop music can come from anywhere in any shape or form.
Celine: I guess when you think “popstar,” you don’t think of DIY-pop people coming up now. You might not see them as a pop star because they don’t have the whole glitz and glamour of a big stage and lighting, but they still make great pop.
Raphael: But at the same time if you’re massive, like Charli XCX, it doesn’t mean that…
Celine: She works within the confines of her industry because she pushes the envelope with what she’s doing and it’s what we really admire… the ethos of PC Music.
Jared: I think I don’t pay attention to a lot of the behind the scenes, underlying stuff that makes the industry work. I don’t have a good comment on that.
Raphael: But Jared listens to so much music.
Raphael: So we’re good friends with the band For Tracy Hyde from Tokyo. In general, we’ve always felt that we’re like-minded, aside from being big fans of their music.
Celine: I think we’ve vibed really well as friends. It’s funny because the first day we shot, we struggled to communicate because he speaks mainly Japanese, right? So by the second day his English kind of like.. not improved, but he studied abroad. When he came back, he wasn’t used to English. After talking to me for a day, he got used to it more. Then we could communicate better, because the first day he was really just demonstrating what I should do. [noises to demonstrate motion] Second day, we could have conversations. It was nice despite the language barrier.
Raphael: The cool thing is that Ken (Pennacky) is a huge Asian music fan. Before he did a video for us, he did a video for Forests. Forests is the most celebrated currently in Singapore indie. Math rock, emo stuff. He also did a video for Gizpel, an Indonesian band on the label Kolibri Records. It’s cool to meet like-minded people that like Asian music as much as we do. And we’re happy to see Ken doing huge music videos like Ichiko Aoba.
Why is the Gwen Stefani “Cool” cover on the album and not the Avril Lavigne one you guys played on tour?
Jared: So we’ve recorded the Avril [Lavigne song] on the Japanese CD.
Raphael: Maybe we should release it sometime.
Jared: Yeah, we want to.
Raphael: We do plan on releasing a video for “Friday Night,” which I hope we do together with Pennacky as well. Yeah, so maybe with that single release, release “Friday Night,” with maybe a couple of remixes. And then “Anything but Ordinary” is the B-side.
Is that music video already in the works or are you just thinking about it?
Raphael: Thinking about it. Very expensive. I need to recoup my losses for the US tour.
Celine: To come here is so expensive… flights from Singapore to here.
Raphael: We had to renew our visas. We did manage to get a government grant for this tour, which I hope covers flights, so I’m hoping to get off the tour breaking even… which means I can’t afford the music video.
Can you tell me about how the tour has been?
Raphael: America feels like a fever dream of CVS, Walgreens, and gas stations.
Celine: I fucking love the gas stations. I love going to supermarkets in other countries. I could just get lost in it.
Raphael: We spent, like, four hours in a Target.
Celine: American snack aisles are just so insane. I love it looking at the snacks that you guys have. It’s never-ending crazy variations of something that you know — say, Cheetos, or something. There are many variations of that. We don’t really have that in Singapore. We just have one Cheetos, like the main thing. The blue Takis… like what the hell is that?
Raphael: Consumerist wonderland.
Celine: Most of the snacks don’t even look appetizing… like, it’s just intriguing to look at. I want to hold it, take a picture of it, document it, but I don’t want to eat it, you know?
Raphael: I don’t know how Americans are alive, the amount of soft drinks…
Celine: But also with that, there are so many sugar-free variations of everything.
What’s your favorite thing about America and what’s your least favorite thing about America?
Raphael: When you’re born as a human being in America, you have a car attached.
Celine: Because you have to drive.
Raphael: If you have to have a car, you’re like a subhuman. New York is fine.
Celine: Cities that you have to drive, you struggle to find parking at the same time… so, like, what is that about?
Raphael: Yeah, like venues where there’s no parking… we missed the entire soundcheck because we were looking for parking. When we go back to the Airbnb at night, we’ll take like two hours just to find a lot.
Celine: In Singapore, I feel like I will complain about the weather being too hot. It’s too humid and [we] romanticize cooler weather so we can dress up in layers. Once you’re here it’s like, “I’m shivering, I’m struggling to talk. It’s so cold.”
Raphael: Austin is my favorite so far. Otherwise it’s New York. I feel at home in New York. I go anywhere else and I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere because you can’t get around.
Jared: I like the weather… loving the weather. I think I’m having a pretty good time overall.
Celine: I just like the culture of people saying, “Hi, how are you?” People are more personable, will talk to you, ask “How’s your day?” Singapore’s not really like that.
Raphael: They’re very passive aggressive.
Celine: Yeah, it’s the culture. You don’t really make small talk. We don’t really care to know what someone else’s life is like.
Raphael: Do you think they mean it here though?
Celine: Honestly, I just think it’s just formality. But it’s just nice. It just feels a lot more warm, you know?
How has been performing here compared to performing in Asia and Southeast Asia?
Celine: I feel like there’s a lot of similarities and lots of differences. Ultimately, everyone just loves music everywhere. There’s music fans all across the world… talking to them about music is the same. And differences…
Raphael: No bag line! In venues in other countries, you go to a venue that’s like a drum set setup, amps… everything you need, but over here, you go to an empty stage, so you either have to borrow gear from an opener, or bring your own amps. But overall, I think the venues we played at were great.
Celine: Really professional sound guys as well. Before I came here, I thought that people would be less shy but I think our fans are just all shy and awkward.
Do you think it’s because of your music?
Celine: I think so, yeah.
What’s the group dynamic? Who’s the mom, the baby?
Celine: I feel like [Raphael is] kind of very much the mom. He’s kind of our tour manager as well. He does everything.
Raphael: I just think about business stuff because I run the record label Sobs used to release on.
Celine: We’re all babies.
How do you guys feel like your relationship has developed as friends over five years of working together?
Raphael: We definitely used to fight all the time. Serious fights. Now we understand how to work together, understand the role that each person takes, and how to create an environment that is conducive for everyone to work.
What is one thing you guys love about each other?
Celine: Even if we don’t talk every day, don’t spend our time together, we have a very strong connection. I can’t really explain it. We just get each other in a way. On stage, it’s always great.
I know that you guys made a lot of your projects remotely.
Celine: I think it’s the easiest way for us.
Jared: Because we don’t go out.
Celine: No, not that! I feel like writing-wise I’m better when we send stuff to each other so I have time to sit down alone and write on my own. I can’t be like, “Oh, let’s do a session, let’s write together.”
Jared: I can barely play guitar in front of other people. I can’t sit in front of someone else and try to figure out parts with other people looking at me.
Raphael: We also record at home. What you hear on the album is recorded in my room and that gives us a lot more time to delve into things rather than if we booked a studio. Every second costs money.
What are you listening to lately? What inspires you lately?
Celine: Just being here, being outside of Singapore, seeing all these bands, and being surrounded by music.
Raphael: Megumi Acorda.
Celine: These bands we’re sharing a stage with… we’ve been listening to [them] for years, so it’s surreal that we’re on the same lineup as them. They feel so far away from us geographically.
Raphael: We’ve always been listening to this stuff from the beginning. I remember when we were working on Catflap or Telltale Signs, we were listening to Ratboys’ stuff, Double Double Whammy, Frankie Cosmos, Florence, Jay Som, Snail Mail, and Soccer Mommy.
What’s one thing that you love about yourselves?
Jared: I love that we’re here and we’re playing shows and everything went good. I’m happy to be alive and here.
Celine: I love that we got to connect with new people here, meet bands that we idolize, meet fans who have been listening to us for a long time.
Raphael: We’re really thankful we got to meet up with so many people, we couldn’t have ever imagined hanging out with Topshelf, all the bands on the label. It’s really surreal.
This interview was conducted by Nancy Jiang in-person at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March of 2023.
Header photo by Chris Sim.
A New York City native, Nancy Jiang is a budding journalist covering music, arts and entertainment, and politics. One day she hopes to interview Frank Ocean, but for now, she’s bumping Endless and spending all her money on vinyl and concerts.