Music on Purpose 

Grex sounds the alarm in their latest album

click to enlarge LEGACY: Drex’s Karl Evangelista is the nephew of Miriam Defensor Santiago, the people-chosen President of the Philippines.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GREX

LEGACY: Drex’s Karl Evangelista is the nephew of Miriam Defensor Santiago, the people-chosen President of the Philippines.

In 2012, local experimental duo Grex recorded a playful, jazzy reworking of the Filipino national anthem. Before releasing it, Karl Evangelista—half of the band—got messages from family members in the Philippines asking him not to release the song. Unknown to him, it’s illegal to perform the national anthem in any way that departs from the original. And the kicker is that since Evangelista is related to progressive, anti-corruption politician Miriam Defensor Santiago, his releasing of the song could create a scandal.

He did anyway but gave it a new name, “Hymn (dad, b)” to lessen any potential controversy. “Hymn (dad, b)” wasn’t the real political point he wanted to make. He’d observed the corruption in Philippines politics and wanted to comment on it. His aunt won the presidency in 1992 against Fidel Ramos, but due to fraud, she didn’t take the office. She didn’t contest the results, not wanting to put the Filipino people through an extended period of chaos.

What Evangelista wanted to comment on was the criminal nature of his aunt’s 2016 political opponent and current president: Rodrigo Duterte. Before, he probably would have avoided this degree of scandal, but after living in the Trump presidency, he grew a sense of responsibility to speak truth to power that eclipsed any fear he had for his personal safety. As a result, he wrote the angry Death Grips style noise-rock song “Criminal” about Duterte. It’s the lead single off of Grex’s upcoming album, Everything You Said Was Wrong, which gets released on September 5.

“The song was written from the point of view of both me attempting to empathize with a lot of the Filipino people who actually like Duterte, and also my disdain for his practices,” Evangelista says.

Everything You Said Was Wrong was written primarily in 2018 and 2019. It’s an urgent album with jazzy vibes, hip-hop overtones, noisy instrumentation, cut-up drums, and a mix of dissonant and eerie vocals. It’s a more politically potent album than prior Grex releases, which relates not only to dealing with the realities of the Trump presidency and reconsidering speaking up about Filipino politics but also came from working recently with the previous generations’ experimental music greats, many of whom were outspoken even in the face of physical danger, musicians like Louis Moholo-Moholo and Milford Grave. Everything You Said Was Wrong is also Grex’s angriest and most frustrated sounding albums ever, though oddly, one of the easiest records for them to make.

“All of these threads of working with these activists and in dealing with this legacy in progressive action manifested in these songs because these were the tools that I was given to confront these problems,” Evangelista says. “I just felt that with this album being noisier and angrier, it felt irresponsible to me to not write music like that.”

But the record would evolve further in the later stages of the recording process. Much of it was recorded in early 2020, but some of the overdubs and mixing happened after the shelter in place orders were given, and the band members had to finish their parts from home, away from the studio.

Working in this capacity and seeing the social unrest unfold, Evangelista thought back to the radical nature of the experimental musicians he admired and worked in more of an improvisational and chaotic element to the songs. On some songs, he re-recorded solos. On others, he’d add improvised layers underneath the songs. The resulting album sounds even more frustrated and unrelenting than he’d even originally intended.

“It was important to me that there was some kind of chaos on it. That's been the soup of the last couple of years. But after lockdown, we went back, and the mix got noisier. It was this big imperative for me, to make the improvised content more regular,” Evangelista says. “I also like the idea that if we're living in a period of personal and political imperative that the music also doesn't have to conform.”

Like most musicians now, Grex had to cancel their tour, which was the primary means to which they were going to promote Everything You Said Was Wrong. They realized that any attempt at a standard promotion cycle was just going to be tone-deaf right now, and they’ve turned the whole promotion cycle into a chance to raise funds and awareness for good causes.

Even before the album came out, they had been organizing online “Lockdown” festivals, using the money raised to support venues and neighborhoods that were in financial risk, like The Uptown, The Make-Out Room, but also programs like Alameda County Community Food Bank. For the release show of the album, they have a third Lockdown Festival planned and intend to give the money to the ACLU and to support Milford Graves. They’ll be donating a portion of the sales to the ACLU and Graves as well.

“A lot of these community-based organizations are the same ones that have been giving experimental music and the neighborhoods that the experimental musicians live support for the past several decades,” Evangelista says. “I just thought this can't be a normal album release. Not only does it not feel right but it's also infeasible. We have an opportunity to use this music for something resembling a social purpose. And I think being purposeful right now is as good a reason to make music as any.” Grex will perform online at Lockdown Festival 3 on September 5

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