A 20-Year Partnership: Jack & Rai on Zouk Live, Pandemic Blues, and Their Chemistry Over the Years

Kicking off the first Zouk Live on 10 December 2021, was a 90-minute set by Jack & Rai, one of Singapore’s foremost acts in the realm of live music gigs. Accompanied by their drummer Joseph and bassist Clement, also known as EIC, Jack Ho and Rai Kannu brought their interpretations of classic Pop, Rock, and Hip-Hop hits to the iconic club, stoking the fires of passion in the music lovers present at that sold-out show. 

Popspoken managed to have a candid sit-down with Jack & Rai after the show to discuss topics ranging from Zouk Live and Twitch streaming during the pandemic, to what their 20-year musical journey has taught them, as well as the joys it has brought. 

Photo courtesy of Zouk Live, Zouk Singapore

To start, ever since the beginning of the pandemic, you were known to have not played a live gig for over one and a half years. That cycle was broken in June earlier this year and you’ve since been able to play a couple of other gigs, both live and virtually. What’s the biggest difference playing a gig before the pandemic compared to now, as we are approaching an endemic status?

Jack: I’ll start off by saying that before the pandemic, we were very fortunate to be able to be running around like monkeys and to be able to play gigs everywhere. So, for us, it’s not that we took anything for granted, but playing shows were a day-in-day out thing for us. Suddenly, come April 2020, we had the rug pulled out from our feet. Fast-forward to today, I will say that it’s a surreal feeling and I still find it hard to put it in words. 

Rai: Imagine you’re brushing your teeth every morning, and then one day someone tells you that you’re not allowed to do that anymore. It feels like that. To us, we never even batted an eyelid to play a gig, and then suddenly everything changed. Interestingly enough, when this whole situation happened, we decided to do something different. So, we’ve been trying to build more of an online presence. I think it’s just a matter of moving forward and trying to do things differently, while still keeping that feeling alive. 

Jack: With all that, we started streaming live on our own accord – no official gigs and no sponsors. Rai was the one who said we should get down to the studio, set-up some cameras, and make music. 

Rai: Yeah, we streamed on Facebook for a while and now we’ve moved over to Twitch. 

Jack: I also want to add that, over the past year and a half, we’ve definitely noticed that a lot of corporate companies we work with are very open to this new online model. We’re very fortunate to be streaming and doing more corporate gigs along with a handful of live gigs, too. 

Was the transition to streaming difficult for you?

Jack: Yeah, man! [Laughs] I think we were figuring out a million things at once!

Rai: We had to troubleshoot for about two weeks, because we were trying to figure out how to play properly together because we totally couldn’t meet in person. We even tried dialling each other on the telephone while on video conferencing!

Jack: [Laughs] We were calling each other on landline!

Rai: We were thinking that there can’t be a lag in every possible device right? But we found out that there was! In everything you try, there’s a lag! Eventually, we decided to stick with separate videos and jam with each other using those videos. That was how we did all our jam videos during circuit breaker, but I think that taught us a lot. Moving forward, it taught us what makes an effective livestream, how to model yourself after the people who’ve done it before you, and just some tips and tricks in general. But, still, nothing beats playing live. 

Jack: I think, even content-wise, it drove us to design our livestreams where it’s like a semi-talkshow with music, where we make an effort to do a social commentary about something funny that happened during the week, for example. All that helped us to think slightly differently as opposed to what we’d have done if we just continued gigging as usual. 

Rai: Yeah, and it also gave us a lot of opportunities. At that time, a lot of F&B businesses were suffering as well, so we approached a few of them to feature some samples on our show. 

Jack: And we didn’t actually charge them for it, just got some samples from them to try so that we can recommend to our viewers. That really helped us understand that we got to work together as a community, so that we can get through this. 

It seems like some semblance of normalcy is returning to the music, arts and entertainment industry – and the Zouk Live pop-ups are an obvious sign of that. How does it feel to be the first band to launch this series showcasing the best of what Singapore music has to offer?

Rai: You know, when Zouk, more specifically DJ Nash D, dropped me the message asking if we’d want to do this pop-up, it was a no-brainer. We said yes immediately. I mean, who doesn’t want to work with Zouk? And, for Jack and I, we believe that these are the guys who are going to propel music forward. We’ve been doing a few other series for other live music venues, and we are so glad that Zouk is one of them because there’s a lot of sentimental value there as well. Why not?

If you had a chance to curate the next acts in the Zouk Live series, who would you want to be on the bill?

Rai: You know what, I would like to have not just one band perform, but I want to see the Hip-Hop guys all in action again, man! With Zouk always having collaborations between DJs, rappers, percussionists, all that, I want to see the whole local Hip-Hop crew doing this. Would love to see ShiGGa Shay or THELIONCITYBOY, and maybe we could even get Dharni on board! I’d love to see something like that!

Photo courtesy of Zouk Live, Zouk Singapore.

Jack & Rai is a name that is not unfamiliar among Singaporean live music lovers. Arguably veterans in the live gigging scene, what do you think is the way forward for musicians in Singapore now that the landscape has been so drastically changed by the pandemic?

Rai: I’ll be straight-up and say, honestly, the landscape is not really in a position right now where you can certainly foretell what’s coming in the future. I think everyone’s trying something new or they’re trying to rebuild what was lost. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of movement in the online realm as well, such as with gaming, extended reality (XR), and augmented reality (AR). There are all these things that are pushing forward very aggressively. So, as a musician right now, I would say that you can’t let go of the live music thing, because that’s what teaches you the basic skills of performing, but, at the same time, you also have to understand what the new technology is and how you can integrate them into your music. It’s a lot about keeping up, but also not forgetting where everything came from.

Jack: Yes, that’s true. And, I think it’s also very important to keep an open mind. Like Rai mentioned, technology is evolving and the pandemic has spearheaded that movement in terms of what’s being offered out there. We’ve been to your usual studio with a green screen, we’ve also been to this XR place where we are floating in space, and we can’t believe what people are bringing in and investing in. So, yeah, keep an open mind and stay true to what you believe in, and I think it’s going to be an interesting few years to come.

The two of you have been playing music together since 2002. How do you maintain the chemistry and connection between each other, and how has it changed over the past almost-20 years?

Rai: Well, for one, we grew facial hair! [Laughs]

Jack: I mean, I would say that it’s been a really great ride! Not to sound like a broken radio or like a guy with a chip on his shoulder, but I was very affected when the pandemic hit and I felt very lost, very useless, and I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. But, I think in this relationship that we have, Rai is more of the encouraging one. 

Maybe it’s because he’s a Libra and his scales are always perfect, I don’t know, but he’ll always be the one to say, “Let’s do this sh*t!” regardless of whether he knows what’s coming or not. For me, being a Taurus, I just chiong with him. I’m not really an astrology guy but I’m very influenced by him and my wife. [Laughs] But, yeah, we just go with the flow and, now that we’ve come so far from the start of the pandemic, I’m definitely more calm and settled. I think it’s great that things are slowly progressing, but our relationship has definitely become stronger. 

Rai: Having gone through so much of life together, I think there’s a lot of understanding between us. It’s not as before when we just dive head-first everything. There are some considerations to keep in mind now, and we each have our own responsibilities. So, I think it’s a matter of balancing it out and understand who you’re working with. Sometimes you just got to be not so self-centred lah.

Speaking of hitting your 20-year anniversary, what are some of your most memorable moments as a band in the last two decades?

Rai: I think what would be more significant are our unmemorable moments – those moments after we’ve had to much to drink. [Laughs]

But, on a serious note, the biggest memorable moment for us was the transition from being a cover band to playing our own music. I think that was the biggest step for us, but it was also the one we struggled with the most. People probably don’t know whether to see us as a cover band or an original band, but we do both. 

Jack: Funny enough, like Rai said, fast-forward to today, we still are straddling those two realms, but in a more comfortable way, and I think we are very proud of everything that we have done. To answer your question, to me, we are so proud to be able to work with or share a stage with all the people that we look up to when we were younger. Over the last twenty years, just seeing ourselves play with our heroes, it just means so much to me. 

What changes have you noticed in your audience or fans over the last 20 years? How do you think it will continue to evolve?

Rai: If you ask me, the trend in consuming music itself is shifting, for sure. After we discovered Twitch, we realised that the streaming community is a different community altogether. There are some familiar faces who used to watch us live, but now they’re consuming our shows online and they support us through the live stream as well. So, it’s a different kind of ball game, in that sense. 

But for our audience, interestingly enough, we’ve got one segment made up of guys who used to watch us but left because of their progressions in life, and they’ve slowly come back now that we stream or when we have these live performances. We also have the other segment of younger kids. We teach songwriting in schools sometimes, and these students will check us out. So, I think because Jack and I do so many things, we just straddle a bunch of different audiences. That makes it very interesting for us because we have to cater to each and every one of their tastes. 

Jack: Yeah, Rai’s right! We just cater to them and react accordingly. I think a lot of people now are very deprived of live music, and I think it’s awesome that they aren’t tired of music. Everybody is still so supportive, and we are so thankful for all the messages we got for today’s gig. Admittedly, the tickets were released a bit late – one week before the show – and we were a bit panicky because we didn’t know how the turnout was going to be like. In the end, over the last two days, a lot of our friends sent us messages saying that they’ll come and bring more friends along. Today’s show was a full house, and we are just so happy. 

Photo courtesy of Zouk Live, Zouk Singapore.

As a band, you are known for your rousing covers as well as your original compositions. There has always been this idea that some people have that cover bands are not proper bands, what do you think of that?  

Rai: Oh, that’s total BS! [Laughs] Honestly, there’s a big difference between purely covering songs as they are, like a jukebox, and giving these existing songs your own interpretation. There’s a whole spectrum of how you cover a song, and that’s musicality. You can’t exactly say that you wrote a song without listening to others, it just doesn’t happen that way – any creative idea is always inspired from something else. You need to have that base of listening to a lot of music, being inspired by a lot of music, before you can even come up with your own stuff. So, I would say, being a cover musician or an original musician, whatever it is, you do you!

Jack: I was just going to say that, if I could be really honest, when we first started, we went through that same phase. At that point, when we haven’t embarked on our original stuff yet, we would sometimes be questioning ourselves because of that idea. If I could say something to everyone out there: Don’t ever doubt yourself. Use us as an example, just chiong, have fun, build your identity as you go along. Don’t ever think that being a cover band is a lesser thing. Whatever it is, the passion is the most important thing. 

Finally, what are some of your hopes and wishes for the upcoming new year?

Jack: I hope that we can all progress forward, have more live events, that the measures can be relaxed even more as, hopefully, our situation gets better.

Rai: Yeah. I think I speak for a lot of live venues and F&B businesses when I say that we hope for some of the regulations to be relaxed, so that the sectors that were affected the most can start thriving again. 

Jack: I know some people might think art or music might not be the most important thing, but we truly believe that we all have a purpose. Next year, I really hope that there’ll be more joy, more music, more love, and that everyone is safe.

For the latest updates on the Zouk Live pop-up experience, be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram via @zouksingapore.

Looking for more interviews and stories about the Singapore music scene? Check out our Music section.


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