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Rivermaya Is Back—Reincarnated For A New Sound And Solid Lineup

The band talks about Nathan’s return, the lives they now lead, and new material in their upcoming album
by Jill Tan Radovan | Aug 9, 2017
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Rivermaya has outlived most—if not all—of its contemporaries from the ‘90s, and to this day, continues its legacy through its music. There may have been some misses among the hits, and some songs may have been better than others, but overall, the band’s discography, which includes timeless tunes such as “Awit ng Kabataan” and “Umaaraw, Umuulan,” is as much as part of the playlist of the Filipino listener—from the ageing 45-year-old construction worker to the 25-year-old millennial—as fried rice is essential to every silog meal.

It’s been four years since the band released an album; the last being Panatang Makabanda, which was released in 2013. There wasn’t much commotion after that, until members of the original line-up—Nathan Azarcon, Mark Escueta, Perf De Castro and Rico Blanco—reunited for what was dubbed as a “secret mini-reunion.” It was a dream gig that a relative few bore witness to, one that may have ignited false hopes for old-school, die-hard Rivermaya fans.

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Roughly a month after the gig, bassist and vocalist Norby David left the band. Nathan and another former bassist, Japs Sergio, alternately took over Norby’s bass guitar duties. By mid-2016, it was official: Nathan had been reinstated as the band’s bassist after 15 long years, and thus began the recording for a new album, Sa Kabila ng Lahat.

Rivermaya’s steamy new music video is arguably the hottest thing that has come from the band in a while. And it’s not merely because of the gritty, socially relevant yet sexy narrative—the single, on its own, is an ode to the senses. “Manila,” sung and penned by returning member and bassist Nathan Azarcon, is as titillating to the loyal but discerning Rivermaya fan as the ladies appearing in the video. It's a much-awaited comeback that might fill in the cracks caused by several line-up changes over the years.

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Rivermaya’s line-up has changed so frequently and so drastically, it’s been hard to keep count. If “Manila” is any indication, the latest reincarnation—which consists of original members Mark Escueta and Nathan Azarcon, second-generation member Mike Elgar and former sessionist Ryan Peralta—is the most promising line-up we’ve seen in a long time.

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Can you describe your dynamics and delegation of duties in the current line-up. Is there a chief songwriter? How do you go about arranging songs?

Nathan: Parang lahat kami eh. Si Mark, may mas malaki siyang contribution in certain songs. Si Mike din. Pero overall lahat kami, sa areglo. Pareho nung old school pa rin na Rivermaya.

Mark: Yung new single, ang title niya, “Manila.” Si Nates yung chief contributor.

How is your progress on the upcoming album?

Nathan: Actually, tapos na yung recording ng album. Eight songs. Nasa layout na lang kami, artwork, thank you’s. Things like that.

Do the other songs have the same feel as “Manila?”

Mark: Iba-iba. Magkakaiba.

Nathan: Rivermaya naman from the start, sa lahat ng reincarnations niya, iba-iba yung kanta. Pero okay naman, cohesive naman yung tunog ng album.

Do you think this line-up will be for the long haul?

Mark: Always. We’re hoping.

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Nathan: I wish. Matanda na kami eh.

Star Music is a major label and there’s this notion that labels have a big say in the output of artists. Did you have full creative control? Was there any collaboration for the album?

Mark: For this album, walang collaborations with other artists, but we did work with Tower of Doom for the recording and co-production.

Mike: And we also worked with an old bandmate, si Japs. Japs Sergio. Nag-produce siya ng two tracks.

Mark: Sa Star Music naman, actually, hands off sila sa creative side. Meron lang silang mga reactions. Bibigay nila yung mga opinions nila sa mga kanta. ‘Maganda ito,’ o  ‘puwede ‘to’  pero wala naman silang idinidikta na, ‘o gawa kayo ng ganitong kanta. Natuwa naman kami kasi yung demos pa lang nagustuhan na nila eh.

Nathan: Yung rough demos. Parang, ‘game’ and um-oo naman sila.    

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The eight songs—were they all written when you came together or did you have previously written contributions?

Nathan: May mga songs na written before but then the rest, sabay-sabay na.

Mike, is this your first time working with Nathan?

Mike: Yes, this is my first time working with the bass icon. Matagal ko nang gustong makatrabaho si Nathan, alam ni Mark yun. Nagulat si Nathan nung sinabi ko sa kanya, pero yes, first time.

How is working with Nathan different from your experience of working with other artists?

Mike: Si Nathan kasi, pogi eh (laughs). Yung totoo, yung style kasi ni Nathan, sa observation ko ngayon ha, mahilig siya mag-jam. Kahit wala lang. Start siya ng mga groove niya. Tapos yun kasi yung kinalakihan ko eh, so yun din yung gusto kong klase ng jamming. Hindi yung mag-stru-structure kayo na, ‘uy eto kung chord pattern ha’  tapos gawin natin ‘to. So nakakatuwa dahil ganun pala siya. Same as yung old bands ko. Nung high school kasi kami nagkikita na kami. Mga classic rock yung tugtugan namin noon. Puro jamming so kapag nagre-rehearse kami, hindi talaga kami nagre-rehearse. Parang kung ano yung mangyari, so ganun yung experience with Nathan. Kung ano yung mood niya that day, lalabas na lang sa tugtog, eh. Sasabay kana lang. Which is sobrang fun.

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Nathan: Ganun din sila [referring to other members]. Tas biglang yun na, kakanta na siya.

Mike: So in the end, with the eight songs we did, parang halos hindi nga pinlano yung mga songs. Sa jam, yun nga, tugtog lang. Tsaka nagulat ako, ang bilis mag-take ng bass nito. Sa recording, yung bass tracks niya ang bilis, tapos agad. First time ko na-experience yun. Kasi sanay ako na binubusisi talaga. Eto ang bilis eh, tapos maganda pakinggan.

Nathan: Thanks, bro.

And then, Mark, you’ve shifted to playing the guitar from manning the drums, right?

Mark: Yes, nag-shift ako to guitar three years ago. Si Ryan actually, konting history, in the ‘90s pa lang, siya na yung nagse-session pag wala ako noon nung time na yun. Pag nagthe-thesis ako o pag may sakit ako. Since then, kinukuha na namin siya mag-session, either drums or keyboards or percussion. Pero a few years back naisip namin, nung nag-eexperiment kami ng line-up, kung anong gagawin, tinry ko mag-guitar kasi mas madaling kumanta with a guitar kesa with drums. Hirap kumanta with drums eh. So palit-palit kami ni Ryan hanggang sa yun, gusto ko rin mas matuto mag-gitara so tumigil muna ako and si Ryan, in-absorb na namin as a member.

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Mike: Buti nga si Mark, nag-decide na talaga siya mag-guitar eh. Kasi dati meron pa siyang piano phase. So lahat ng out-of-town namin, meron yang maliit na keyboard. Imbis na matulog yan nagpra-practice yan ng piano sa hotel.

Nathan: Sa homecoming siya yung naglagay ng mga strings sa ending, sa bahay niya.

Mike: O nga pala, baka hindi alam ng mga tao, si Mark, actually capable yan sa keyboards.

Nathan: Siya yung mga naglapat sa ibang tracks, old Rivermaya pa.

Mark: Konti lang, konti lang. Si Ryan mas aral talaga siya sa keyboard arrangements eh. Sa album na ‘to, si Ryan yung nag-keyboard.

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How active do you intend to be in the current scene, in terms of playing live gigs in bars and other venues? Are you going to be selective with your gigs? Does the label have anything to do with it?

Nathan: Yung label wala naman. Kami parang pang-fiesta na kami ngayon. Tumutugtog kami sa mga provinces. Yung mga hindi pinupuntahan ng mga bands, napupuntahan namin. Yung talagang mga liblib na lugar. So okay din siya.

Mark: Yung mga road trip. Plane tapos road trip.

Nathan: Road trip na three, four, five hours. Medyo nakakapagod pero okay din kasi pag dating namin doon, ‘kayo yung first band na nakarating dito.’ Kami parang, ‘talaga?’ Ang weird nun mga bata yung nanonood. Mga 10 years old, 15 years old. Di ko alam kung bakit pero alam nila yung mga kanta, sing-along, ganun.In-expect ko mga ka-edad nung mga first fans namin yung manonood. Pero ito super young, mga high school, ganun yung crowd.

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Mark: Siguro in the next few months medyo madadagdagan din yung gigs to promote the album.  Yung sa label naman yun. May plans na mga mall tour tsaka mga guestings sa TV and radio.

Nathan: Try namin sa mga schools pero di namin alam kung tama o mali lang, eh. Sa probinsiya okay pero sa Manila di ko alam kung viable sa amin yun. Di ko alam eh kasi ang tagal na naming hindi tumutugtog sa mga ganun.

Mark: Sana schools kasi parang, lalo na iyong mga bata ngayon. Medyo naspo-spoil na sila sa technology. Yung streaming tsaka YouTube. Iba pa rin yung makakita ka ng younger generation sa isang gig. Yun sana yung ine-encourage namin kahit sa ibang artists.

Do you still get to watch local gigs of other artists? Are you updated on the new bands that actively play in gigs nowadays?

Nathan: Bihira eh.

Mike: Ako rin, sobrang bihira. Siguro yung last ko makapanood ng ibang banda sa usual venues like Route 196, one year na yata. Parang naki-jam ako kay Japs dun sa Peso Movement niya na banda. Nag-hello sa mga dating ka-eksena. Ang daming mga bagong mukha na hindi na kilala. Pero kung may mga free time kasi kami from gigs out of town, we spend it na lang with our families.

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Nathan: Gigs, balik tayo sa gigs ha. Medyo, parang mapalabas kami, Kailangan medyo iba talaga yung banda. Kasi more or less nakita mo na lahat eh. May mga genre. Yung mga nu metal, nakita ko na yan, or yung mga kasabayan namin kahit dati. So para mapalabas ako, or mga kasama ko, Kailangan medyo weird o iba talaga.

Mark: Yung sobrang fresh-sounding...

Nathan: Yes, yes...

Mark: Parang nung Fete de la Musique, di ba?

Nathan: Parang yung Fete, ganun. Yung mga Ben & Ben, uy okay ‘to. Sila Jensen. Normally kasi pag nagpunta ka ng mga gig ngayon, ang makikita mo pa rin, same bands nung dati. So para sa akin—hindi ko alam sa band members ko, parang—may anak na ako eh. So para talaga gumimik ako kailangan talaga medyo...

Mark: Ako bihira lang talaga.

Nathan: Plus yung traffic. Pag lumabas ka, talagang 10 days in advance. Hindi yung basta-basta, ‘yo, you wanna go out tonight?’ Parang, ‘where?’ Tas inaano mo pa lang, parang, damn, three hours dapat yung travel time. So medyo mahirap talaga yung eksena. Pero may mga times din na parang talagang interesting din tong banda na ito, so papanoorin mo talaga.

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Mark: Siguro pag yung mga multi-band event, doon talaga namin napapanood yung ibang artists. Like sa UP Fair, or Fete de la Musique recently. Marami akong nakikitang magaling. Tsaka sa Spotify, minsan, sina-scan ko yung sectioning mga new OPM artists.

So you’re all more focused on your families now and have kids?

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Everyone: Yes (in unison).

Mike: Ako tatlo, ako yata pinakamarami sa amin eh.

Mark: Si Ryan, Dalawa, ako isa.

Nathan: Ako, Dalawa.

Mike: Pero ako nanonood ako ng banda pag alam kong maraming magagandang babaeng manonood dun sa banda. Lumalabas ako. Hindi, loko lang. (Everyone laughs.)

Mark: Andyan nga pala yung asawa mo.

Mike: Pero yun, oo, parang enjoy din kasi pag nasa bahay ka lang and kasama mo yung mga anak mo. Iba rin yung pakiramdam. Ayan, si Mark, sobrang hands-on din. Ako ineenjoy ko din, medyo matanda na rin yung mga anak ko. Well hindi naman matanda. May 12 na ako, may 7, tsaka may 3 years old.

Mark: Wala kaming yaya, kami ni Nathan.

Nathan: Kaya medyo pahirapan para sabihin na ‘yo gimik tayo, inom tayo.’ Hindi kasi pareho nung dati na kahit hanggang 7’o’clock puwede umiinom. Pero ngayon hindi na eh. Pahirapan, kahit kami-kami mismo. Parang, ‘ano, inom tayo?’ Tapos ‘teka, kita na lang tayo sa jam. Dun na lang tayo.’

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Mark: Minsan after gig na lang, konting pampaantok.

Nathan: Mga Chivas, mga brandy na. Tapos yung pulutan mga prutas. Tanders na eh. Puti na nga buhok ko eh!

Mark: Cognac, red wine, ganun na.

Mike: Chivas, sabay ako naka-Coke. Bihira ako makiinom sa kanila eh.


Some artists prefer to have their children lead lives that are more normal or conventional than their own. How is it in your case? Is being a musician something that you’d encourage and support with your kids?

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Mike: Well siyempre, normal life din yung gusto ko for my kids, like makatapos sa school. Pero kung ano man yung hilig nilang tatlo, pinapabayaan ko lang sila. For example, yung panganay ko, alam niya yung gusto niyang gawin eh. Girl siya, pero gitarista and singer. Sa school nga, yung club niya, rock band. Hinahayaan ko lang naman as long as school niya yung priority. Pero pag naririnig ko silang nag-uusap nung friends niya, mukhang hindi eh, mukhang yung rock band. Iniimpart ko sa kanya kung ano yung ups and downs and pros and cons na ganito yung trabaho ko, ng lifestyle na ganito in case na para lang alam niya yung papasukin niya if ever na pasukin niya. Pero as much as possible, sana mag-ano siya ng iba na puwede niyang pasukin din na mas.. hindi ko sasabihing mas stable, kasi puwede rin namang maging stable itong pagbabanda, pero something na..mas normal. Pero hindi ko siya pipigilan na maging musician if ever. Or any of the other two kids.

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Nathan: Okay lang, kung natural lang sa kanila. Wala namang masama. Kung kaya nila, go. Kahit anong gusto nilang gawin.

Mark: Ako naman yung anak ko, mahilig talag kumanta. As in from the day na natutong kumanta, meron na siyang mga compositions niya kahit na kumpleto yung vocabulary niya. Halos sigurado na kong magiging musician siya eh. Siguro pareho kami ni Mike, yung awareness lang on what might happen. Siguro maganda na rin na musicians kami na naging parents. Baka mas magawa namin ng tama.

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Going back to the album, what makes it particularly special for you guys?

Nathan: Ako fresh siya. Medyo natutuwa ako. Nakita namin kahapon eh. Nag-listening kami sa close fans, parang Team Rivermaya namin. Ako, proud ako. Same as nung mga first album namin. Ganung-ganun. Parang, t*ngina, amin ‘to. Proud of.

Mike: Ako sa recording process eh. So I’ll go back to Nathan as a jam bass player. So parang na-apply siya nung recording. Kasi since I joined Rivermaya, until before Nathan rejoined, yung recording process namin, sobrang kalkulado lahat, sobrang pinag-isipan. Every note, every bagsak nung drums or whatever, fill-ins nung guitar, sobrang iniisip. Eto first time ko na, hindi naman sa hindi pinag-isipan, yun nga, pero parang, ‘ilabas mo lang lahat.’ Tapos kung ano yung maririnig mo pag labas ng album, yung tinatawag dati ng mga musicians sa States na ‘in the moment.’ Yun yung nangyari. Kumbaga, hindi naman sa parang tinamad ako mag-isip pero parang inspiring yung pagiging jam bass player so parang, uy gusto ko ring ibalik yung pagiging jam guitar player ko.

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Mark: Andun yung same excitement, na siguro yung hinahabol namin na...hindi ko mai-describe eh..siguro yung hinahabol namin na value ng songs, para sa amin, bilang musicians kasi. Eto yung craft namin. So parang yung pakiramdam ng bagong album—tama si Nates eh—parang every new album mula nung first album hanggang ngayon, alam mong, hindi mo iisipin na, ang tagal na, parang, ‘tunog pagod na ba itong album na ito? Tunog tinatamad?’ Hindi, hindi siya ganun eh. May bagong ideas pa rin.

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Did it ever come to a point that it felt that way before for you, Mark, since you’re the one who never left the band?

Mark: Pag dating sa songwriting, hindi, hindi naman. Kasi minsan tinatanong ako or kami, ‘anong sikreto, bakit ang tagal niyo?’ Hindi naman siya secret talaga. Never lang kaming tumigil magsulat. I think when you stop writing and you stop performing, and hindi na rin kayo nagkikita, nag-uusap, I think dun medyo magda-die down yung excitement ng banda. Pero pag tuloy-tuloy kayo nagsusulat through the years, nag-gro-grow yung banda at the same time parang nagma-mature eh. Yung songwriting. Kung iisipin mo, parang pang-13th na album na yata namin ito. Parang ang hirap magsulat ng bago. Puwede mong isipin na ganun, pero hindi siya naging issue. Parang parating may bagong idea si Mike, o si Nates. Tapos pag dating ng jamming, lahat nagkakaintindihan. Ija-jam namin for a few days, hanggang sa mabubuo na namin yung kanta. From demo stage hanggang final. Nakakatuwa yung pag naririnig ko yung mga kanta ngayon, naaalala ko kung paano namin ginawa. Yung mga decision na nangyari throughout the process. Very fulfilling.

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Since you’re the one who has worked with all the other members, do you feel that there’s still an immense need to adjust, or does everything seem to flow seamlessly?

Mark: Sa ngayon sobrang comfortable ko na sa lahat. Kami ni Nathan, schoolmates na kami since Prep eh. Ever since naman, kahit umalis siya sa banda for a while, pag nagkikita kami, parang wala namang problema. Si Ryan naman, matagal na rin. Actually lahat naman sila. We were really friends, even before the band.

But would you say you all know one another’s pulse when it comes to performing and arranging songs?

Mark: Medyo. Parang madali na ring magbigay ng input sa isa’t isa. Kasi yun naman yung challenge, kunwari hindi mo gusto yung part ng song na ‘to, mahihiya ka na sabihing ‘baguhin natin.’ Pero ngayon very open naman lahat.

Are you officially the new lead vocalist, Nathan?

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Nathan: A few songs. Pero hati-hati kami.

Mark: Iba-iba sa album. Yung isa ako, the rest si Nates tsaka...

Nathan: May ibang songs dalawa kami ni Mark, ganun. Duet. Love song, duet kami. (Laughter)

Mark: "Endless Love."

Mike: "Together Again" yung title.

Nathan: Parang nag-uusap. Okay din eh.

For Ryan—how does it feel to be officially part of this latest reincarnation of Rivermaya?

Ryan: One word. Privileged. We’ve been friends for a long time, pero...kilala na sila back then pero hindi mo alam na it will last this long. Being the newest member and being part of it, witnessing the years after, it’s really a privilege.

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You’ve worked with them before. Are there still times that you feel, nangangapa ka pa rin?

Ryan: Meron pa rin. Hanggang ngayon. Hindi naman sa nanganagpa na parang hindi mo alam kung anong gagawin. Ako kasi, first time ko to play with a band that plays its own music. I used to play with bands that play covers. This one’s different kasi it’s your own. There’s an adjustment part.

The relationship between the drum and the bass guitar is integral to the rhythm of a song. How is it working with Nathan?

Ryan: Laking tulong nung when we played before. Siguro back then sobrang bata ko pa so yung musicality ko iba rin, back then. Ngayon, after playing with other players, tapos nagkataon din magkalapit kami ng bahay, madalas kami magkasama, kami yung car pool. Pati yung mga EDSA trips, may favorite na kaming EDSA food. We listen to the music din in the car. So parang pati yung mga nuances ng mga maliliit na bagay on how we can converse with the bass and the drums, nakakapag-usap na kami at that level. Nakakatuwa kasi what I hear, he hears. Pero siyempre nag-aadjust pa rin, I still ask for advice. Hinaan ko ba yung ganito, bagalan ko ba yung ganyan. And ganun din kay Mark. Kumbaga, since he was the drummer before, he’ll tell me also, ‘o sige, game, bagalan natin yung ganito, bilisan natin yung ganyan.’ May additional mentors.

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Can you name your favorite tracks from the album and tell us why it’s your favorite?

Mark: Ako ngayon, "One Step" yung title. Kasi yun yung favorite nung anak ko, pag tinatanong ko siya kung ano yung gusto niya. Parating yun yung gusto niyang pinapatugtog sa akin na song. So the fact na parang nakagawa kami ng song na naka-appeal sa isang three-year-old, as in natuwa siya na kinakanta niya.

Nathan: Lahat paborito ko eh. Sa akin yung mga hindi sa akin nanggaling yung gems sa akin. Kasi kahit paano pag yung nucleus, nanggaling sayo, yung idea, medyo sawa ka na eh.

Mike: Ako yung "Irena." Tagal ko nang sinasabi kay Nathan. Ganda ng kuwento ng song, yung lyrics niya pero more than that, sarap niyang tugtugin. Relax lang, puwede mong i-jam yung song, puwede mong dalhin kung saan, kung gusto mo. "Irena," abangan niyo yun.

Ryan: Marami. Siguro isa yung "Manila" kasi gusto ko nga yung riff nun. Pangalawa yung pinahirapan ako ni Nathan sa "Irena." Pero gustong-gusto ko yung kanta na yun. Yung ballads din. Yung ‘8 to 5.’ Simple lang siya, pero gusto ko lang yung feel ng ibang song. 

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Rivermaya and Star Music are working on finishing touches for Sa Kabila ng Lahat. Stay tuned for the official release date.

Main image by Dianna Capco

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