What strikes us about Darker Than Wax’s (DTW) eclectic selections is its ability to change the mood of the room through their underground tunes, which are backed by a thorough understanding of jazz and a well-honed view of music. This has led them to be influential in the circuit, by getting endorsed by Gilles Peterson to streaming on WorldWide FM, amongst many others. Their head honchos, Dean Chew (Funk Bast*rd) and Kevin Guoh (Kaye), met through a mutual friend DJ Brendon P at the now-defunct NOX at Mohammad Sultan a decade ago when they were exploring the intricacies of a deeper, jazzier side to dance music and came together as Cosa Nostra.
That fateful day was also a turning point for Kevin having opened his mindset to a “whole new world of music” he never knew existed, having been typically exposed mainly to standard jazz, pop and hip-hop tunes. The duo and their ever-growing roster of DJs, RAH, Daryl Knows, Marco Weibel, Halal Sol, William J and more, have performed at multiple world-class venues such as Velvet Underground (Zouk) and Kyo; as well as graced the stages at multiple festivals, namely, ZoukOut, Wonderfruit and the Beijing Olympics.
As with most DJs starting out, having an irregular income is something to grapple with. Whilst Dean maintains his side hustle as a designer; and Kevin, arguably one of the most versatile electronic acts in Singapore, sometimes plays to a corporate crowd as a saxophonist — both have felt the hit on their revenue streams from multiple venue closures. This has not stopped them from attempting to pull together an integrated, live music 7-hour virtual show with their friends from specialty coffee connoisseurs Chye Seng Huat Hardware, which you can jive to with accompanying Party Packs. Darker Than Wax’s ability to stay true for the genre of music they love and stand for, has been crucial in maintaining the integrity and standards of their label, especially through these incredibly trying times.
Popspoken: Kevin, tell us more about how you ventured into playing the saxophone and which are the key producers or artistes you looked up to in your musical journey so far.
Kevin: Jazz had always been playing in the house when I was a kid as my brother was a jazz fan, so it was always there. But something happened when I was 14, going throughout some mid-teen existential crisis. I picked out one of my brother’s tapes from his collection, it was Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come”. It was really weird but I was listening to that album on repeat probably for what felt like weeks. It resonated with me in such a deep and profound way it convinced me that I was gonna play music for the rest of my life – bear in mind that up till then my folks had put me through those Electone and piano classes, and I was a thorough and abject failure at that. But hey, look where I am now!
My biggest jazz heroes were all the ballsy guys, the fellas who really had that attitude in their personality as well as music. Miles, Trane, Mingus, Monk, Cannonball Adderley, John Zorn and Ornette Coleman were all definitely big influences in developing my musical style as well as my world-view. I also revered the hip-hop guys like Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers. Then later on in what I would call the phase 2 of my musical development after I met Dean were the “broken beat” guys like IG Culture, Beanfield, Kaidi Tatham, 4Hero, Jazzanova, Jeremy Ellis etc. They really blew me away because they were making dance music, but the structures and harmonies were so rich musically speaking! From a music theory perspective, to me, that era was when dance music was at its highest form of evolution and nothing even comes close till this day. I see some of that coming back with guys like Detroit Swindle and Crackazat, so that gives me hope.
Popspoken: Dean, you wear multiple hats. How do you keep your creative energy flowing? Tell us more about the principles in architecture that you apply to your music career.
Dean: Yes, although I have to admit wearing multiple hats can sometimes wear me down too. I guess my curiosity and the genuine urge to explore ideas generally keeps my creative energy flowing. I am very addicted to the process of manifesting an idea into reality, and that keeps me alive. I owe a lot to architecture. It gave me a robust foundation to work on. Architecture isn’t really about buildings or structure per se, contrary to popular beliefs. It’s really more about a way of life, a way of thinking, dissecting, observing and analysing. That has allowed me to conceptualise Darker Than Wax and my journey as a DJ / selector with a certain clarity and narrative.
Popspoken: To the uninitiated, how would you describe the Asian “underground” scene to them? How does it differ from that in Europe, especially Berlin? What is the particular mindset of people who are drawn to such events?
Kevin: I personally don’t think it was as unified, like in Europe, although over the past few years the climate has changed quite a lot. Over there when there’s a festival, you can find artists from all over Europe at that particular festival. At the club gigs, same thing. You can find DJs and acts from various parts of Europe gracing the consoles. In Asia it used to be a lot more “domestic” in the sense that the acts from a particular country didn’t have that much of a chance to travel to other countries within Asia to perform. But with the explosion of festivals in the last 5 plus years, it has given more opportunity for regional programming. Also, because it’s cheaper to invite artists from around the region as opposed to halfway across the world, and I think that has helped to open up ears to different sounds. Identity wise, the very different cultures in the Asian region give a very unique musical flavour – drawing from their respective cultures and ethnicities and fusing it with Western styled dance music has birthed some truly unique styles which you will probably not experience anywhere else in the world.
Popspoken: There has been a recent trend where commercial / superstar DJs are keen to return to their underground roots. How do you think the balance of commercial success should be struck when maintaining the “soul” of the underground?
Kevin: For me, you should never lose sight of what got you into the game in the first place. But fame and money changes perspectives, so what do I know? I do know this though, if you always do what you love, chances are you can keep at it for much longer, as opposed to if you were always chasing trends, money, fame and popularity. That burns you out faster than anything. It’s a tough balance for sure, but that’s the enlightenment stage everyone should aspire towards – being artistically uncompromising and yet remaining financially viable. The ultimate yin- yang balance.
Popspoken: Are there any changes in the ecosystem you’d like to see to strengthen the independent electronic music scene?
Dean: I think for me personally, there’s never been a more critical time for the ecosystem to educate more value into the output of musicians, artists and the like. Its’s an irony when an artist has to keep touring constantly in order to get paid, while the possibility of earning a decent income off the sale of an album is almost non-existent. Streaming itself is a double-edged sword and we can go on endlessly debating about its strengths and flaws, but I humbly believe there needs to be a concerted effort in general to encourage more people to support the artists by buying their music! Bandcamp has been the champion of aiding independent musicians and labels in recent times, and I hope to see more positive outcomes through that.
Popspoken: How do you approach working with artists and getting the trust, since some may be distrustful of record labels?
Dean: It’s very important to approach someone with an earnest, genuine and honest attitude. I fundamentally believe in that, and if you convey a certain type of energy, you will naturally receive it back in a certain way. My team and i make a very clear and conscious effort to communicate that, and we always try our best to maintain absolute transparency with the artists, especially when it comes to issues like royalties. Money, unfortunately is the one factor that sours a relationship between labels and artists. Thus, it’s very important to address that clearly with the artist from the start, in order to gain trust and respect.
Popspoken: How important is it to actually like the artists that you produce?
Kevin: 100%. I’ve said this before, I’d much rather work with someone who has the hunger and humility to learn even though he/she may not be as talented as others, than someone who is immensely talented but is a whiny, bitch-ass diva.
Popspoken: To maintain the quality of your label, how do you deal with tricky situations where an artist may think it’s good enough to be released, but you don’t think it is?
Dean: Thankfully, the label has reached a certain stage in its development that we are in a position to be honest and give our feedback if we don’t think it’s strong enough. If anything, I have learnt how to say no and be critical when the time calls for it, and that has allowed us to maintain a certain standard for the label.
Popspoken: Share with us what you do on a daily basis to keep productive and creative now that COVID-19 has disrupted all normal ways of life.
Kevin: Everyone’s turning to live-streaming now, right? So we’ve obviously all had to figure that out, but one thing that sets DTW events apart from the rest is having that live element to complement the DJ set. It really elevates the experience, and I wanted to bring that into our livestreams. After many weeks of research diving into technical articles that I never want to read again, I’ve actually figured out a way to jam with our DJs live while streaming, so it’s definitely a one up! Other than that it’s actually not much different before since I’ve been working from home all this while, so the usual producing music, sourcing for new music, also thinking of ways monetise my experience and knowledge online since I have zero income stream right now.
Check out their next stream co-hosted with Chye Seng Huat Hardware, BREW. They’ve curated a party pack consisting of craft beers, party bites and merchandise on the Chye Seng Huat grab app. To support Darker Than Wax, subscribe to their membership and Kaye’s PayPal account.