It was supposed to be a romantic night: Hong Kong indie/emo outfit Wellsaid had just finished playing a gig at the Kaohsiung stop of their Taiwan tour along with friends Die!ChiwawaDie! from China. Someone (no one could remember exactly who) then tossed around the idea of spending the night at a pier by the harbour—roughing it like real punk-rockers, rather than wasting money on a hotel room. There’d be drinks, they’d talk about life, and it’ll be a night to remember.
But as the hours dragged on, their muscles still sore from lugging instruments around all day, the positivity started dissipating. They had got up early that morning to take a high-speed train from Taipei, and when the beers’ effect ebbed away they became increasingly conscious of the winds pelting at them from the sea. Slumped over on one of the rocks was Wellsaid’s drummer Latif, who was unfortunately sober due to health issues.
Now, that night is forever immortalised in the album art of Wellsaid’s debut full-length release, Apart. For the vinyl version, Taiwanese artist Morning Anxiety painted the harbour against a coral sunset-tinted apocalyptic sky, while Hong Kong illustrator Onion Peterman’s impression of the pier sees a glowing moon disappearing into the sea amidst cargo ships. “It was excruciating,” Wellsaid frontman Rocky Sum recalls cheerfully, laughing a little at how 柒 they were. The covers, Rocky says, are a tribute to “that shitty night.”
Wellsaid was initially intended to be Rocky’s solo project, an excuse for him to keep making music after his math-emo trio Emptybottles. was put on indefinite hiatus. He had already written two songs on his own for a project pitched to him by Taiwanese musician Hom Shenhao which was never realised, but soon Rocky knew he wanted to play those pieces live with a band. After the short-lived post-hardcore band Ponyboy disbanded, Rocky recruited bassist Dixon Chan and drummer Sung Kong towards the end of 2016. Although they were meant to be session musicians, Dixon accidentally ended up liking the music and never left.
Dixon previously played in different bands including Milkteeth and Ponyboy, which had broken up for a variety of reasons, although the theme that keeps coming up is the impossibility of pushing the group forward when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. “The problem was that we were very democratic and… no one could be decisive and be like, let’s do this, and so we stopped because there wasn’t a lot of progress,” he says. Eventually, everyone lost steam.
Rocky was weary of how bands spent too much time trying to reach a compromise, or experience what he calls “scheduling hell”—taking years to produce an album because of clashing timetables. Rocky even wrote Wellsaid’s songs in a way that ensured he could play them on his own when each and every one of his band members was out of town or busy. With Wellsaid, he hopes to have an open-door policy like Broken Social Scene, a Canadian collective with a large revolving cast of members including Feist and Metric.
The model makes sense in theory, especially given the short lifespans of Hong Kong bands, but presents tricky challenges in reality. Just before the release of their first EP, Sung Kong announced that he’d be leaving, and Rocky ended up titling the EP Setbacks because of this. It never received a proper release—instead, the band just took it with them on tour and continued selling it when they returned to the city.
They started afresh with a new drummer, Latif Dilworth from Turing Apples, and put together the nine-track album Apart in just a year. This time, the songs are markedly less raw and hectic than Setbacks, which required at least a few listens to unravel each tightly-woven layer. Instead, they’re smoother, leave a more lasting aftertaste, and contain a few surprises—the quiet, acoustic track “Devotion” is perhaps the softest the band has gone yet. Rocky’s signature loud guitars and boyish, angsty vocals that often teeter on screaming are still omnipresent. Over half the songs are under three minutes, a sign, the band says, of their short attention span.
We know it’s very important to keep the momentum. A lot of the times we’re on the same page even if, musically, we might have different ideas.
As the chief lyricist, Rocky pays tribute to the many drunken adventures he and Dixon shared around the city, which often take place after gigs or rehearsal sessions. The album opens with “Spilling My Guts”, where he laments the time he painted “the pavement with my insides”; in cheekier songs like “Paris, Taxes”, which he wrote when he had to do his taxes for the first time, he sings, “taxable income—I’ve drank away mine.”
“The songs are not necessarily just about drinking, but dependence in general. People can be and are hooked on various things—relationships, pride, power—just to name a few,” he says. It just so happens that drinking is his.
“It was very easy for [Dixon and I] to play together, since our vices are the same,” he adds. “The reason why we can stay together as a band is that we’ve had similar experiences—we know it’s very important to keep the momentum. A lot of the times we’re on the same page even if, musically, we might have different ideas.”
On the surface, Wellsaid perfectly fits the textbook definition of emo: “boy-driven, glasses-wearing, overly sensitive, overly brainy, chiming-guitar-driven college music,” according to music writer Andy Greenwald. But in Hong Kong, audiences have a very different understanding of emo (think My Chemical Romance and smudged eyeliner); Wellsaid’s true influences, from American Football and Number Girl to local titans The Lovesong, never gained a mainstream following.
The title Apart pays tribute to how Wellsaid sees themselves within Hong Kong’s indie scene, as proponents of the lesser-known genres of Midwest Emo and punk-tinged “guitar music.” There were shoegaze and post-rock circles, metal circles, trap circles—but most people didn’t really even understand what Midwest Emo was. “We’re the scene with the fewest people… you go to one of our gigs—well, you’re looking at the whole scene already,” Dixon says.
They often feel like outliers, misunderstood and rejected. “To say ‘acceptance’ is weird, because we’re not even that radical, we’re actually not that crazy,” Rocky notes. But maybe that was the problem. Their down-to-earth band tee looks don’t exactly fit into the type of aesthetics associated with punk and emo crowds, and as Dixon recalls, they’ve even been asked: “How are you punk?”
“The struggle is, you don’t want to deliberately shape your sound according to what’s popular, but you don’t want it to be just those few people coming every time,” Rocky says. It was a conundrum they have yet to solve. But Dixon has simpler goals. “We’re not trying to prove ourselves or blow people’s minds,” he says. “We’re mostly just enjoying playing together… with the people we like.”
Amongst the bands in Hong Kong, the pair did find kindred spirits in David Boring and Stranded Whale, which are musically different but share similar beliefs. But generally, “Our companions are all over the place—Taiwan, Guangzhou, Singapore… There’s a sense of loneliness in Apart, because it hints at how we couldn’t find that connection in our own city,” says Rocky.
Then, they received news that they were losing one of their own, again. Departures don’t hit as hard with practice, but when Latif accepted a job that would relocate him away from Hong Kong, Wellsaid was forced to regroup for the second time. Still, when they reached out to friends, they answered: Darryl Blacker from Worst Gift takes over on drums, and they’ve also added a new guitarist, Jackson Ng.
Whatever the setbacks, Wellsaid won’t be announcing its demise anytime soon. “There’s this band called Sharks Keep Moving—the urban legend is that if sharks don’t keep swimming, they’ll die. That’s similar to what I want for Wellsaid. I want to keep playing music, and Wellsaid is that vehicle,” says Rocky.
“We’re going to outlive them all.”
Wellsaid’s album Apart was released on April 27. Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan contributed editing.