PK Shellboy is as calculating as he is chaotic – I spoke with the Manila artist about what’s next for Fax Gang and the underground avant-garde.
It’s been a couple months now since Material Girl of Boston label No Agreements messaged 108MICS to recommend Fax Gang. The group is a global team of five artists dedicated to remodelling the norm by way of destruction; their music is notable for the severe degradation and crushing applied to the master audio, giving an intensely dystopic flair to otherwise awe-inspiring trap cuts. There’s nothing that can prepare a listener for Fax Gang – in his scene-shaking article for Pigeons and Planes Keiran Press Reynolds likens their future to “the shoegaze of rap”, though where shoegaze finds harmony from combination Fax Gang thrives through juxtaposition. They’ll take the visceral noise of, well, noise music, and contrast it with vocal chops and glowing melodic patterns more akin to bubblegum pop. The result is as candified as it is immense; music as massive as theirs will always command attention, but Fax Gang use that power to command you to dance.
At the front of the stage is PK Shellboy, hailing from the Phillipine National Capital Region, Metro Manila, a sprawling urban world formed from sixteen cities. PK is the lyricist, writer, and frequent conceptual chairman of Fax Gang. His writings cast a telekinetic shroud around topics like depressive mania on the irresistible “Breathe2 (In/Out)” and inequality on the cascade of “Cells”. His words are inspired on a worldly scale, born from a connected space that trashes borders for the free movement of information. To Fax Gang, ideas are currency to be processed and exchanged, turned into fuel for a new artistic evolution. PK Shellboy helms one of the most exciting collectives in a world that is only speeding up; I spoke to him to see what it’s like at the frontier.
How are you?
I am alright! I got a bit too much sleep today, I went to bed at like 4am last night, drank a bit… I’m feeling decent.
Just want to start on Fax Gang at the minute, your album [“FxG3000”] is out, you’re getting some really good press, a lot of people seem to like what you’re doing, so how do you feel about that?
It’s been really – how do I say this – I guess heartening to see? We just started as a bunch of kids, basically, who know each other through a Discord server, and we just wanted to make some music. There’s more story behind it than that – it’s interesting to me that from such a random collection of kids from all around the globe we ended up making something that a lot of people are beginning to enjoy with virtually nothing going on before it (laughs).
We just put it out, I had this tiny EP, this split EP, that I put out just so that my friends who didn’t go to an event could download it, ‘cos that first EP, the oneothe / Fax Gang split – it wasn’t meant to be released online at all, I just had an EP trade at a gig I was going to and I wanted to put together at least some of our work in progress material so that I could share it… then there were some friends who wanted to hear the thing that couldn’t come… it’s not really a formal release. “FxG3000” was our first real formal release. I’m surprised it’s gotten this much traction. It’s just very nice to see… very motivating.
You’re split across the world, as a group.
How does it come together when you’re making music? How do the ideas start forming?
We discuss the kind of things that we want to do just within random moments on our Discord server. Before “FxG3000” came out we toyed around with different sounds then decided on the bit crushed, futuristic, spacey, trancey [vibe] that we ended up gunning for on that EP. But usually it’s just they’ll send over a beat that’s pretty much finished, I will do vocals over it, whoever’s producing will fix up the vocals, do some more effects, chopping, splitting, mixing, whatever, over it and then it’s pretty much done (laughs). We send stuff back and forth, yeah.
Awesome. So, Fax is really taking off, and that’s wonderful – how does your own music and the Fax Gang music play against each other? You’ve released music under your own name – do you feel like Fax Gang is more like a vehicle for you to push yourself forward in or is it a different project entirely?
Releasing music as a solo artist right now isn’t something that I’m focusing most of my creative energy on at all – I mean I wasn’t expecting Fax to blow up at all, I wasn’t expecting anything out of it you know, we were just making music for fun. I feel like I’m pouring 90%, 95% of what I want to do creatively into that, and I’m completely fine with that. At the moment at least I don’t see myself working on something wholly as a solo artist. I’m really, really happy with what we’re doing as a group… being able to be a conduit to tie the separate visions of all these producers is something I’m really enjoying at the moment. That is currently at my forefront.
Cool, I just want to say as well, obviously you’re in the Philippines, your English is fantastic, I don’t know if it’s commonly spoken over there?
Oh! It’s very widely spoken here in the Philippines but I also grew up with English as my first language rather than Filipino, I’m pretty bad at Filipino honestly, and that sucks (laughs).
So how did you grow up, was it in the Philippines or –
In the Philippines, yes. It’s just that there’s, among the more well privileged and upper middle class in the Philippines, a tendency to raise people with English as their first language, or being raised with English alongside Filipino – we’ve been a, what’s the word, rampantly colonised country for the entirety of our history.
I was gonna ask if it was a leftover of the Americans.
Oh yeah. Definitely is. And Filipino is very rooted in Spanish.
Of course. That actually leads in – there was that article on Pigeons and Planes with like 50 people getting mentioned, and then I saw Fax Gang get brought up, and I’m like – wow, holy shit you know?
And [a lot of] these artists… they have the bigger songs, and they have the bigger followings, but at the time you guys were on 300 Twitter followers or something?
Still on less than 300 I think.
Wow… there’s not that much representation from Southeast Asia, and the Philippines specifically. Do you find yourself feeling like an ambassador for your region or do you think that matters less now that the internet is more prevalent?
Well for one, yes, I do think it matters less now that the internet is prevalent. It’s odd I guess, seeing myself as a representative of the Philippines or even Southeast Asia, because there’s almost nobody doing anything even remotely close to what we’re doing in the hip hop scenes… particularly in the Philippines. I can name maybe two or three good rappers that use autotune in the Philippines, or use autotune the way a Drain Gang member or a Lil Uzi Vert would.
Right now the Philippine hip hop scene is still very rooted in boom bap, in very traditionalist stuff… I feel like stylistically a lot of Philippine hip hop, in terms of the curve, it’s kind of behind it. It’s catching up to the trends of rap a year, two years, three years after they happen in the States or in the UK or anywhere else. The Philippine hip hop scene is vibrant. I should be into it more than I already am. I’m not really even that caught up with what goes on in the local hip hop scene but, yeah. I just don’t see myself as connected to it… we’re just not doing anything like anything that’s being done. So it’s hard to call myself representative.
I’d go so far as to say there’s very few people that are doing anything like Fax Gang are doing in general. Closest I could think would be Sixtythree666, but at the same time I remember writing my review of [“FxG3000”]… it was almost like a new genre. How did the idea to do something like that even come about?
For the sound, the idea for the bitcrushing came from [Fax Gang producer] Blacklight. Before we decided on the bitcrush sound we were working on the Drain Gang – biting aesthetic, working with autotune crooning rap, with these melodic hooky bits, but futuristic energies, things like that. But when Blacklight started throwing the bitcrusher on there and starting to put in some – I don’t know what it was, trance influences? I’m pretty sure [they] aren’t even very intentional for most of the project, since it’s Blacklight on three tracks out of the five. He’s the guy that sort of set the path for what the EP would sound like.
That was mostly actually set by listening to the beat for Jeopardy. He took that – that’s an older beat actually, we’ve had that already – I think he decided to take that feeling, vibe, and run with it, with the really neon, spacey, future-city-party-rave vibe.
When it comes to our influences it’s difficult to pin them all down. Blacklight’s actually a lot of an emo head, interestingly. I’m pretty sure he’s been in at least a few bands, he’s very much into midwest, into screamo, so when I listen to the stuff he produces I hear less trance and I hear more emo, I hear emo tinged melodies and lead lines in his production. Because of the way that the workflow ended up happening – which is just, okay, he sends something over then I do vocals on it, I send it back, he finishes the track – it just came out naturally. There wasn’t even much discussion at all like ‘what do we want this to sound like?’… just ‘here’s a beat, do what you want over it, send it back’ and ‘maybe change this melody a bit’… then it would be done. I guess we were operating on similar wavelengths.
That’s kind of the best settings though, where it just comes together and you don’t have to think about it too much.
Building off of that, what are you working on next? What’s next for Fax Gang? Are you gonna stick with this crushed wave – Surge Rap, people are calling it – or are you gonna go for something different?
Yeah, Surge (pauses). Whatever people are calling it, I don’t have a horse in the race of what to call it.
We’re trying to push the sound forward of course. We don’t want to stay treading the same ground “FxG3000” did because that would be pretty boring (laughs). So we’re looking more into even more bending [of the] boundaries of genre, and mixing our other influences into the pot. Even more noticeably. Take genre fusion and do something even more unrecognisable than before.
Nice, you got any ideas of what particular genres you want to go into?
Well I’ve talked about it to a friend, and the way that I describe my personal attack on writing for the album as it is right now is – how do I say it…
I think this album is a bit more raucous, in terms of the way I’m writing the melodies, writing the songs, writing the structures, things like that. I feel at least that it’s pulling more into things like indie rock, emo, things like that. We’re still playing in the same territory “FxG3000” is in… there’s so much more space that can be explored within the crushed, futuristic, huge, loud, booming sound but… yeah.
Even since the EP has come out, I don’t think the sound has been explored to its fullest potential and that’s what we want to try to do on the upcoming album. Taking it in different directions.
That’s good to hear. I was gonna ask how you really felt about the reactions to your work. I’m on Bandcamp right now – you’ve got a decent amount of sales, your reviews are pretty great, you’ve had the Complex article – how did you envision people would react, if at all?
I wasn’t expecting anything. I just thought that this can be a cool thing, some of my friends can listen to it, some people in Discord servers I’m in, music discussion Discord servers I’m in, might give it a shot. Blacklight saw it coming; when we were working on it, maybe about a week before, I remember him sending a message like “if this is what we’re making, we’re going to take this part of the scene by storm”. I guess he was right! He’s prophetic in a way (laughs). I was just expecting that it would be fun to make, some friends would listen to it too, hopefully some random people would listen to it and enjoy it. It’s great that so many people are. Very flattered.
Let’s take a step back from Fax for a second, in a more general sense what drives you forward to keep creating things? What are those day to day influences – art, more physical things, or is it all music to you?
My main medium right now is music. I listen to a lot of music, I write about music; as I said in a reply to one of your tweets I write for a music blog, do reviews and stuff. Critical work I dabble in. I was starting to get into fashion and making clothes, I have not done any in a while, maybe since quarantine started because I am lazy. That’s something I should get back into – probably won’t have much time to because I’m working on the album, and classes are about to start for me as well. I’m very much inspired by fashion, actually. I like clothing, I like the way that it allows people to express themselves, visual art on the body.
Music really is the biggest thing in my life in terms of art, what art I like. I watch anime, I play some video games, but mostly I listen to music, and make music.
Who are your favourite musicians at the moment?
Of the moment? Or in general?
Up to you.
Always my biggest five favourite musicians are, first, Car Seat Headrest. I adore Car Seat Headrest, Will Toledo is my songwriting inspiration, I adore the way that he writes his lyrics and song structures, everything. Obviously Drain Gang – it’s a pretty obvious influence on the music, it’s just easy for me to listen to at almost any time. It’s music for the life. Third… Jeff Rosenstock. He to me is the epitome of pop punk and power pop, and his attitude and the sunniness, despite how shit everything is; the willingness to spit in the face of bad things happening, and being optimistic despite shit. That’s what I love about Jeff Rosenstock.
Tricot – the Japanese math rock band – are one of my favourite things to listen to, and perhaps my biggest artistic inspiration is Lil Ugly Mane.
Wow, yeah. What a shoutout, definitely.
I need to shoutout Lil Ugly Mane. The insane eclecticism, the raw ability to switch between the irony of “Mista Thug Isolation” and then to the pure honesty of projects like “Oblivion Access” and “Bedwetter”. There’s insane amounts of range, and it’s clear that whenever he does make things he really puts himself in them.
I can see how that comes across in your lyrics, to be honest. If you take “Breathe2 (In/Out)”, one of the first lines on there is “I take my medication, I’m on uppers not no cyanide”. That’s so loaded, and that’s like half a second!
Yes, I am so proud of that hook, one of my favourite things I’ve ever written.
Such a fantastic song. Each line hooks round the next, it’s like velcro. Do you think the math rock stuff has an influence? A lot of the Fax Gang melodies – it doesn’t seem like the vocals and production have much overlap, but you’re always finding new ways to move within them.
I think if there’s anything I can draw between my process and the process of math rock it’s the ‘jam band’ nature of it. A lot of math rock and a lot of more technical rock bands like that get their stuff done by toying around with each other, figuring out sounds as it goes on, and forming those ideas into songs. Whenever I hit a new instrumental, often times I’m just listening to it for a couple hours on repeat just mouth-sounding over it, figuring out ways to make some sort of vocal melody work, make some kind of rhyme scheme work, some kind of rhythmic thing work over it. The improvisational nature of that, I guess, but rather than just improvising and then taking all that’s improvised, it’s improvising, taking the best bits of what’s been improvised, and melding them together.
If there’s anything that I can say of my lyrics, or rhythmic element, of my vocal work on Fax Gang, I have always been heavily influenced by Shakespeare when I write. Whenever I write, for any sort of rap, actually, I always go back to Shakespeare. I’m a theatre nerd! I forgot to say that. I acted in “Macbeth” just last year.
Who did you play?
I was part of the ensemble, but my biggest bit was the Sergeant at the start of Act I Scene II, the dude who fanboys over Macbeth, basically. I adore that monologue.
Really, when it comes to rhythm and scale, Shakespeare is always just a gold standard for me. There has never been anything in any medium of art that sounds as naturally good as Shakespeare does, it’s so meticulously crafted such that every syllable works in its proper place. That’s something I always try to keep in mind when I’m writing – how will this syllable sound next to this one, and toying around with phonetics.
That’s wonderful to hear honestly. Nobody has ever said anything like that to me about the way they write. You said you write for a music blog, too. What got you into that, what are your aims with it?
The music blog I write for isn’t an international one, it’s a locally focused one. It’s a review outlet, coverage, thing for the underground in the Philippines. So far I’ve mostly been doing reviews, or at least contributions to reviews. I guess my goal is to exemplify why something is worth listening to, or why something should be checked out. Whether that be by showing all of the good things about it, paying attention to the small things that could’ve been done better or may not pertain to my taste particularly (but may pertain to others). The thing I try to do in my writing is to make sure it comes out that there is a reason you should listen to this, and that the piece will convince you to perhaps give it a shot. I think that music criticism as a directory, almost, for people to be able to find things they may not have otherwise been able to find, is what I aim to do.
Fax Gang are currently readying their debut album, including the new single “Itsumo”.
– Jamie (@youngjade1216)