The past, present, and future of Ben&Ben

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Tracing back the history, success, and vision of Filipino indie pop-band with their new collaborations — from K-pop to P-pop. Photo courtesy of SONY MUSIC PHILIPPINES

In 2020, Ben & Ben found themselves topping the search chart of South Korea’s biggest music streaming platform Melon when several K-pop idols (such as TWICE’s Momo, NCT’s Mark Lee and Chenle, GOT7’s Bambam) identified “Leaves” as a song they often listen to, among other songs by Ben&Ben. It’s easy to see why. In “Leaves,” an enchanting and poignant melody unravels. The heartwarming instrumentals and sounds hark back to the core message of the song: all will be alright in time — words that lend comfort to many people.

Ten months later, the K-pop “crossover” yielded a result: Ben&Ben landed a collaboration with Young.K, the main vocalist of K-pop band Day6. In their remake of “Leaves,” the folk-pop band joined forces with the multi-talented Korean singer and songwriter to revisit the essence of healing and forgiveness at the heart of every difficult point in any relationship: “Leaves will soon grow from the bareness of trees / And all will be alright in time / From waves overgrown come the calmest of seas / And all will be alright in time / Oh you never really love someone until you learn to forgive.”

“Yung buong essence ng song, perfect na kasi siya with just the piano, guitar and just that bareness gave so much life,” Miguel says about the original musical arrangement of “Leaves.” To detail the same vulnerability as the original, the group rearranged “Leaves” by playing along with the song and left spaces in the chorus and second verse for the sweet and strong vocals of Young.K.

“[The collaboration] is the first step [towards] everything that we desire to do,” Miguel says. “Collaborations like this [are] an exchange of culture and an exchange of culture is always a step towards unity.”

For this interview with CNN Philippines Life, on my screen is half of Ben&Ben — twins Miguel and Paolo Guico (vocalists and acoustic guitars), Pat Lasaten (keyboards), and Agnes Reoma (bass). They sat comfortably in what I presume is their sala of the house that the entire nine-piece band now share and live in all together, four years after they formed Ben&Ben.

Musical roots and beginnings

Having studied in the same high school, I first knew Paolo and Miguel as members of the band Deadline — mostly performing Paramore, Yellowcard, and Urbandub covers as they competed in the yearly battle of the bands. At the time, the twins only considered music as part of an after-school culture — jamming with their friends at the back of the classroom once the bell rings. The twins confessed to choosing engineering as their college major after tinkering with sound speakers, thinking it was the closest they could get to pursuing music full-time.

Twins Paolo and Miguel Guico in their high school band Deadline performing at Battle of the Bands. Photo courtesy of MIGUEL AND PAOLO GUICO

“We played guitar [then] but we weren’t really confident with singing,” Paolo says. He remembered coming across an ad on Facebook about Elements Music Camp which he understood as a workshop purely focused on songwriting. “‘Yun pala, it focused on songwriting but you also had to perform what you write,” Paolo says. The camp’s mentors included Gloc-9, Noel Cabangon, Joey Ayala, and Ray Valera. The twins call their joining the camp not only the opportunity that pushed them out of their comfort zone, but also a cathartic experience.

“It really transformed the way we saw music, the way we saw life, and it really woke something up in us na the power of music is something so much bigger than any of us could ever imagine,” says Paolo.

Like Paolo and Miguel, Agnes shares a history of participating in several Battle of the Band tilts during high school before pursuing a degree in music composition like Toni Muñoz (percussionist). Other bandmates also pursued related degrees: Andrew de Pano (percussionist and vocals) studied music education, Jam Villanueva (drummer) and Poch Barretto (lead guitar and vocals) pursued music business management. Pat describes her career in music as the most logical path for her to take. She was first taught by her father to play instruments and later was trained to create musical scores for films and shows (such as “Gaya sa Pelikula” and “LSS”) — a side job she continues to do. Keifer Cabugao (violinist and vocals) is the sole member who has a non-music related academic background (business entrepreneurship.)

In 2016, Paolo and Miguel tried their hand in the music industry as the duo, The Benjamins. “Pursuing music in the Philippines, especially at that time, was such a huge gamble kasi hindi ka rin talaga sure kung ano yung pwede niyang puntahan,” Paolo shares. But even as they imagined that the odds are stacked against them and anticipated challenges hinged on their decision, they decided to wager their chances.

The rest followed when their paths crossed with seven young musicians that they would later call their bandmates — in a fortuitous encounter at a recording studio that led to a one-night only live show. The growing local music scene at the time fostered a culture of performing live at bars, school events, cafes, and other music venues. “A lot of young people during that time ay tumutugtog sa iba’t ibang lugar at sila-sila rin nanonood din ng gigs sa iba’t ibang lugar,” Miguel recalls. “That’s where we found each other.”

“Looking back, it really wouldn’t have happened any other way na meeting all nine [members] of Ben&Ben talaga, it really was by some bigger plan na all of our paths crossed at one point and then converged altogether to make it what it is today.” — Paolo Guico 

Miguel and Paolo were then gearing up to release their songs “Kathang Isip,” “Leaves,” “Susi,” and “Dahilan” as The Benjamins. They invited a few friends (Toni, Andrew, Jam, Poch, Keifer, Agnes, and Pat) who they felt could add more color and life to their music. “It all started with a record — like love at first jam,” Miguel says.

For every member of the band, it felt like undeniable chemistry in their first live performance. While they initially performed as a nine-member act for fun, they performed gigs for four more months before officially introducing themselves as Ben&Ben in May 2017.

“Looking back, it really wouldn’t have happened any other way na meeting all nine [members] of Ben&Ben talaga, it really was by some bigger plan na all of our paths crossed at one point and then converged altogether to make it what it is today,” Paolo says.

Home is where Ben&Ben’s new story begins

Last July, they decided to rent their first home that could fit all nine of them. “It’s been a joke for so long and then it became a plan because of the pandemic,” Paolo said of the choice to live together.

Going on the tour for their debut album “Limasawa Street” unearthed several logistical challenges that drained both their energy and creativity. “During the tour, halos everyday na kami nagkikita – uuwi sa same hotel, lilipad ulit, uuwi, matutulog sa kanya-kanyang bahay tapos magkikita naman.” With the houses of all nine members spread across the corners of Metro Manila, traffic, time, and distance were their tour’s biggest enemy. “Until one time, sabi ni Keifer, ‘What if we lived together nalang no? Wala nang malelate,” Pat recalls.

The nine-piece folk-pop band Ben&Ben at their second home. Photo courtesy of SONY MUSIC PHILIPPINES

Since moving in, they find the process of writing and producing music much faster. “Since we’re nine, a lot of things can really be done at the same time,” says Miguel. “For example, we’re recording right now and then something is also being arranged by someone else while the others are recording.”

Their unintentional shift towards digital concerts stems from a desire to bring people together to help. For the band, the early news of struggling medical workers and front liners and shortage of healthcare supplies back in March 2020 inspired them to turn to online performances as a way to raise funds and alleviate the situation in whatever way they could. While the band admits that the energy and engagement of an audience during a live show can never be replicated, they also discovered unexpected ways to connect with listeners from the change in dynamics and set-up.

“We can’t really bounce off energy from the audience so the only other source of bouncing off energy would be from each other [and] because of that, we also learned how to better listen to each other musically,” Miguel says.

Ben&Ben is (clockwise from left): Paolo Guico (acoustic guitars and vocals), Poch Barretto (electric guitars), Pat Lasaten (keyboards), Keifer Cabugao (violins), Agnes Reoma (bass), Toni Muñoz (percussions), Miguel Guico (acoustic guitars and vocals), Jam Villanueva (drums), and Andrew de Pano (percussions). Photo courtesy of SONY MUSIC PHILIPPINES

Although everyone shares unrivaled love for folk pop (Keifer, especially — he wrote their acoustic-based song with folk and pop arrangements “War” which he originally sung solo in 2015), members of Ben&Ben have also shown their range in musical tastes: Andrew, Toni, and Poch performed John Mayer covers together online. Jam is continuously inspired by Nirvana, Radiohead, and the Foo Fighters, while Pat names Hayley Williams as her life goals in terms of pop punk musical artistry. Apart from growing up listening to Paramore and Yellowcard, Paolo finds himself immersed in the songs of Indonesian artist Pamong Cas while Miguel is currently inspired by the various sounds of K-pop, “I can go on and on with what I appreciate about J-Hope. Sorry, bias ko siya eh.”

When asked about what to expect for their upcoming album, Miguel teased listeners: “We really tried having fun so all I can say is: just be open-minded about it.”

“Some artists thrive naman na kahit hindi magkakasama pero parang for us, it really seemed to be more natural to just move in together,” he explains.

Shining light on relationships with fans and other artists

Fittingly, their fan base — over 60,000 on Facebook, for example — is called “Liwanag.” The name is originally inspired by the title of their first studio album which represents a place of light. Ben&Ben describes their choice of “Liwanag” as the name of their official fandom as a way to honor their Filipino heritage. The nine-piece band listened to their fans’ suggestion of translating their initial fan club name “Lights” to Filipino, due to conflicting fandom names with K-pop group HIGHLIGHT.

They credit the collaboration with Young K to their Liwanag, members of which also follow a wide range of K-pop groups and, eventually, discovered Korean idols who listen to the band’s chart-topping song “Maybe The Night” — including Day6’s Young K. During a V LIVE segment that Young K hosted for My Day (Day6’s fanbase), he was asked by Filipino fans if he was open to working with Ben&Ben or any Filipino artist — an idea he enthusiastically responded to. One thing led to another: Ben&Ben’s management and label Sony Music and JYP Entertainment got a hold of each other, and not long after, working on a song together became a reality.

“Out of [the] few songs that I listened to, ‘Leaves’ caught my ears the most. The message given through the lyrics and the entire vibe was very heart-warming. And the vocals were amazing,” says Young K on the song’s official release.

Last June 20, Ben&Ben also released the Korean rendition of the song “Leaves” — the first time the band sang an original song in another language.

As much as the collaboration with Young K on “Leaves” displays the vulnerability that characterized Ben&Ben’s earlier work, it is also emblematic of their history as a band.

“[‘Leaves’] is special to a lot of people, not just to us,” Agnes explains. “We received these messages [that] the song saved their lives or it brought them healing from different kinds of pain in life. So, crucial siya sa amin na if we’re gonna do this song again, we have to give it the same justice na yung essence niya.”

Recently, Ben&Ben dropped another collaboration, this time with P-pop group SB19 in a new version of the boy band’s song “MAPA,” following their work with Moira dela Torre on “Paalam” in 2020.

“We were 100% involved with the process. [SB19] gave us free liberty to arrange the song, only giving us additional comments to help make some parts flow better,” the members of Ben&Ben share on the song’s official statement. The arrangement of the band version of “MAPA” was conceptualized and spearheaded by Pat and Poch. “They’re two of the most technically proficient in the band when it comes to arranging intricate sections, and they wanted to add that to support the powerful message of the original song.”

With an ongoing discussion for a collaboration with Grammy award-winning H.E.R. and a second album in recording, Ben&Ben anticipates a future of musical exploration. Their wish list includes BTS’ J-Hope, Hayley Williams, and Taylor Swift.

As for their track with Young K, honey-voiced lyricist of Day6, there are similarities shared by both OPM and K-pop. “Our experience din of interacting with artists from Korea inspired us so much kasi they — in as much as we love, and we know how to listen to them — they also listen to us,” Miguel says. “They hear us out, they appreciate the music, and we’re excited where all of it could go.”