The Great Spy Experiment
For longtime fans of the local indie rock scene, The Great Spy Experiment requires no introduction.
Formed almost two decades ago in 2006, the band consists of frontman, guitarist, and main songwriter Saiful; second guitarist Song; bassist (and self-proclaimed fashionista of the band) Khai; keyboardist Magdalene; and drummer Fandy.
Since their debut, the band has experienced it all—they’ve risen to fame with infectious, head-banging hits that remain fan favourites to date (Class ‘A’ Love Affair, anyone?), performed abroad, worked with international brands, went on an indefinite hiatus, and, most recently, released two new singles and played a sold-out comeback show (their first in eight years!).
“When we first started playing, the level of professionalism was pretty much non-existent,” Saiful says, laughing. “It was really just rock and roll, plug and play. We wanted to change that.” They took their infectious sound to the global stage in London, Cannes, Taipei, Perth, and New York, much like what younger bands and artists are working towards today, and worked with brands that aligned with their creative vision, like agnès b.
This all came to an abrupt halt in 2015, when they disbanded to focus on their personal lives, and thus began a long eight years of self-exploration and individual growth for each member.
Back in the present, we met the older, wiser version of Great Spy on a sleepy weekday afternoon, with a couple of their kids in tow, at Sunroom Studios, where we filmed this entire series.
Having just recently played their aforementioned comeback show at the Esplanade—the very venue they played what was to be their last gig back in 2015—we were curious to find out just how they felt coming full circle in this way.
The band’s general consensus? Nervous, yet excited.
Of course, nerves are to be expected before any show, but here in Sunroom’s cosy studio space, the band seems more relaxed as they ease into doing what they all love and do best—jamming together.
Despite their different personalities and now, different responsibilities in life, the band comes together naturally like a group of longtime friends (even their kids seem to be good friends), but perhaps that’s what they are at their core—friends first, bandmates second.
Note: The video above includes a short snippet of the full interview, which is transcribed below.
Your last performance in 2015 and your recent comeback performance were both held at the Esplanade. What was it like playing at the same venue again after eight years?
Saiful (SF): When we started the conversation to make music and perform again at the end of 2021, we knew that it was always going to be at the Esplanade, because it’s our favourite venue to play in Singapore—the crew is amazing, and the venue is awesome. We’ve played there many, many times, so when the opportunity came up for us to do Baybeats 2023, we were really excited and couldn’t say no.
What’s changed since the last time you played there in 2015?
SF: Well, the venue, for one (laughs). This time round, we played at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, which wasn’t there in 2015. I think this venue in particular was really perfect for us. It’s big enough for us to be loud, but not so big that we can’t stay intimate with the fans.
And, of course, after eight years, I think we were all quite nervous. I mean, I was very, very nervous, more than I’ve ever been before, and we’re also older now, so the energy levels are different, but whatever it is, we hope that the fans enjoyed it anyway.
Fandy (F): I think it’s interesting to note that the average age of the crowd was older this time round. But it was nice because we missed them, you know? It felt like friends coming down to watch us play after so long.
Before the gig, I had people coming up to me asking, “When are you playing? We wanna see you play again.” So it felt like we played for them. It was nice.
Magdalene (M): When we played the last show in 2015, I had just given birth and come out of confinement, so that was a completely different experience for me.
This time round, when we played the comeback show, my youngest daughter, who’s eight years old now, was in the crowd, so that was very special for both Khai and I, as her parents.
How about coming together again as a band? Has your dynamic as a group changed in any way?
M: I think we became more smiley after the break (laughs). I don’t know why, but the energy’s a bit different, a bit more positive.
Saiful, do you wanna take this? Because he was smiling a lot on stage, which is rare (laughs).
SF: (laughs) I smile when I make mistakes, so I suppose I must have made a lot of mistakes. But it was nice lah, to see the all the smiling faces in the crowd.
Anyway, dynamics-wise, as a band, the relationships haven’t really changed lah. Fandy and Khai, they still have this special rhythm section bond thing happening—see that bromance happening?—while Song and I are the more serious ones, and Mag is the maternal one that looks out for us. Yeah, at the end of the day, we’re still the same five people.
Outside of music and jamming, what do you like to do together when hanging out as a group?
SF: We don’t hang out (laughs).
F: All five of us together? Oh, nothing lah! (laughs)
These days, because we all have our own responsibilities, it’s really, really hard to hang out together as a whole group. Even for jamming, we’re finding it hard to jam as much as we did before the break.
SF: But actually, even before the break, I don’t think we used to do things together as a band. It was really just music for us.
M: But because of music alone, we were already able to spend a lot of time together, actually.
F: Yeah, correct, we already spent so much time together for our music, so there was nothing else for us to do, you know?
SF: (laughs) Especially when we used to travel for gigs and all that, we saw enough of each other I think.
On the topic of travelling, what would you say is the biggest difference performing for a local crowd versus a foreign crowd?
SF: I think foreign crowds are definitely more accepting. They don’t have to know you to really get into the music. When we played shows in the States, the crowds there had no idea who we were, but once we started playing, they would automatically groove with us.
I think the crowds in Singapore differ in that sense. But that said, we’ve been very lucky in the sense that our fans, they really show us a lot of love, so whenever we play shows, we always see familiar faces, and everyone dances and sings along.
F: I remember when we were at SXSW in 2007, nobody asked us what our day jobs were. I find that to be memorable lah, because we were treated like proper musicians, so that was a nice feeling.
We never got that here because that’s the reality lah, you know? Here, you’ve got to support yourself with other means.
These days, a lot of youths are getting into the local music scene, forming their own bands and attending gigs. How do you feel about this, and how else do you hope to see the local music scene evolve?
Khai (K): I’m very proud of the scene, actually! They’re going all over the world! We’ve got bands like Forests and Sobs appearing on all the international shows on YouTube, so I think that’s a step forward lah, and I guess it can only get better with time.
F: I would like to say though, I wish Singaporeans would generally be more receptive towards local music.
Right now, it feels like you have to make it overseas and then come back just to have some hype about you, then people will be like “Eh, who are you?” Just be open and listen to more music. If you like it, you like it, but if you don’t, it’s okay, at least you tried.
Do you have a dream venue or gig you’d like to play at?
SF: I think after watching New Jeans perform at Lollapalooza… (laughs)
Song (SG): There we go.
SF: I mean, I don’t know, we played some festivals overseas, but on smaller stages, so I think to be on the main stage at any festival would be something that we’d be excited to do lah.
That said, we’re very happy with what we’ve done so far—having played at Esplanade is special, you know? That was always what we wanted to do when we first started out, so I think at this point, with where we are in our lives, there’s not so much a dream stage, but more of finding the right stage and time to play.
At this stage of your lives, how would you say you’re balancing your personal lives and playing as a band?
SG: I think we’re still trying to figure that out, because, as we mentioned before, we’re all in different stages of our lives, and we’ve only just gotten back together to prepare for one show, so depending on what our plans after this, we’ll just have to find ways to get around it. But we always work things out in the end.
M: When we broke up, one of the reasons was because there was a lack of balance for me as a new mother.
At that point, I was a mother of two, and my older child has a medical condition, so I was juggling hospital visits, work, and the band, and traveling away from my babies constantly, so it was a bit tough.
I’m not saying I’ve found the magic balance as of now, but I’m still trying to, and my older child obviously still needs medical attention, but I think that finding the headspace and time to meet the four of them—I mean, I see this guy (Khai) everyday lah—
F: “This guy”
SG: This Khai.
M: Anyway, it’s really tough trying to find a slot in my daily routine to come out and jam. I have to settle my girls’ dinner before running to jam, then after I get back I have to shower them and then put them to bed, so I’m really very thankful that the band tries to accommodate to Khai’s and my schedules.
But I think in terms of balance, there’s never really a right balance lah. In whatever I do, if it’s something that I like, I’ll just force myself to find the time to do it. I seek solace in this space.
The songs that Saiful wrote for the band in our first two albums dictate the special moments in our lives, so when we play these songs, it’s like we’re going back to these moments and spaces that we’ve left behind. It’s a nice feeling, because we were all young, we had no schedules, we hung out after jamming, and we could eat supper. I don’t even know what supper is right now!
I think motherhood really changes you. I put my kids at the forefront of everything. My younger daughter loves being on stage, so seeing us, her parents, being on stage means a lot to her. I just want her to know that it’s possible to be whatever you want to be. Just go out there and just fall down—it’s always okay to restart, like what we’re doing right now. Just stop, and when it’s time to restart, just come back again.
F, SG, SF, K: (laughs, claps)
M: Thank you very much (laughs)
On that note, what did you miss most about each other?
F: I didn’t miss either one of them for a certain quality. It was more like I missed hanging out lah, I missed playing music, I missed us as a whole, but all those feelings went away when we got together.
It’s like when you yearn for somebody, and you finally meet them, everything is reset. It’s always okay to reset.
SF: (laughs) Wah, you quoting Mag?
SF: That’s an immediate quote (laughs). But yeah, I think it’s the same for me lah.
If you get to know the band on a personal basis, you’ll understand why the band is what it is lah. There’s just something about everyone that makes them easy to like and be around, whether it’s being very naturally funny, or being crazy talented like Song—I can play anything and he can come up with something to riff along to that.
So there’s something in everyone that comes together very nicely in the band, and I suppose you don’t really get that with many other people.
F: Yeah, because I tried hanging out with other people, but it’s very different lah.
SF: (laughs) What, you’re dissing all the people you hang out with?
F: No, no, no, I mean… you know what I mean lah.
M, K, SG: (laughs)
F: It’s like we’re a 5-piece puzzle. When we come together, we form a complete picture, which is nice, but you cannot replace any piece, or the image won’t be whole.
So that’s what I meant—when I hang out with other people, it’s not exactly the same because we form a different picture, but if you ask me, I like this picture of Great Spy better lah. But you get what I mean lah. Sorry to the folks that I hang out with (laughs)!