x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rock and a hard place

Saloon A Dubai-based heavy metal band searches for a screamer.

The band were originally called Stigmata, then Alias, then Anonymous, then nothing. After that, they became Spaghetti Junction.
The band were originally called Stigmata, then Alias, then Anonymous, then nothing. After that, they became Spaghetti Junction.

A Dubai-based heavy metal band searches for a screamer. Tucked away on the top floor of Wafi Mall, above the Gucci bags and Swarovski Crystal, above the food court and computer games, in a poky, airless room with dirty-pink walls and a muck-mottled carpet, a rock legend is being born. Or it would be, say the members of Spaghetti Junction, if they could only find themselves a singer. For months, members of this Dubai heavy metal band have muddled along without a lead vocalist, a situation that has put a dent in their dreams of stardom. Their last singer, a French woman, left town when the credit crunch hit. A string of auditions has failed to turn up a replacement.

But tonight could be the night. They've rented a suitably shabby rehearsal space, drawn up a play list of rock classics and set their instruments to "deafening". All they need now is for tonight's candidate to show up. This guy, they're all pretty sure, will put an end to their epic search. We'll call the candidate Alex (his real name has been withheld for reasons that will later become clear). "We're looking for a screamer," says Benjamin, the band's lead guitarist.

"Someone with range," adds the rhythm guitarist, who goes by the name C'mith (pronounced 'Smith'). "We've never actually heard him sing," says bass player Nitesh, referring to Alex. "We liked his Facebook profile." Don't laugh. When it comes to rock 'n' roll stardom, appearance is half the battle. And Alex, in his Facebook photo at least, looks every bit the heavy metal hero - on stage, mid-jam, surrounded by a halo of spotlights.

As for the rest of Spaghetti Junction, there seems to be something of an identity crisis underway. They say their idols are Megadeth and Metallica, but these guys look more suited to the sensitive art-rock favoured by college kids: a sprig of chin hair, a shaved head, a pair of overly-designed spectacles, and not a single teased lock among them. Benjamin freely admits that he'll have to hit the treadmill before he goes anywhere near a pair of leather pants.

But Spaghetti Junction is still a work in process. In its current form, the band has been around for a year. For two years before this, incoming band members had the life expectancy of fruit flies. Naming the band, too, was a protracted struggle - they were going to be Stigmata, then Alias, then Anonymous, then, for a couple of years, nothing. But there's excitement in the room tonight, a sense that things might finally be falling into place. The band members - Rajesh on drums, Nitesh on bass, C'mith on keyboard and rhythm guitar, Benjamin on lead guitar - have grown tight. They have a name. Soon, they could have a singer.

Even if things work out with Alex, though, there will still be one very large obstacle standing between Spaghetti Junction and the screaming, packed-stadium limelight they crave. By Benjamin's estimate, there are 50 or so bands in Dubai. In terms of success, Spaghetti Junction probably falls midway along the spectrum - somewhere between the death metal outfit Nervecell, who have toured globally, to the tin-eared teens caterwauling in their parents' garages.

From the top down, however, all of these bands face the same problem: in Dubai, it is extremely tough to break into the music circuit, mainly because there isn't one - at least not for bands whose ambitions extend beyond doing covers of Summertime at the Grand Hyatt. "It's a sad scene," says Nitesh. "There are no clubs. To play, you need a hotel to sponsor you; you have to be on their visa." What this means is long-term contracts with multinational leisure companies - not an arrangement that lends itself to musical experimentation. It's tough, after all, to imagine a roomful of sun-scorched tourists nodding in appreciation to a rendition of Wake Up Dead.

"We really enjoy playing," Nitesh says, "but it would be a plus if we could perform." Recently, the guys found a partial solution to this problem, in the form of a musical patron, a "really cool" Australian named Steve, who gets them the occasional gig at private parties. They've played a handful of these so far, says Rajesh, earning them "a fan base of crazy Aussies". The band hopes to build on this, to record a few songs, try to get a few more shows under their belt, win a few more devotees. None of them has plans to quit their day jobs.

"In our hearts, we know that one day we will rise," says C'mith. "We shall overcome," says Nitesh, arching an eyebrow. "We'll take it one step at a time," adds C'mith, sheepishly. All the guys know that tonight, this audition, could be a big step, and there is a real buzz when word arrives that Alex is almost here. And then he arrives. The first thing that hits you is this: That Facebook shot must have been taken a long time ago. The man who walks into the audition wears shapeless jeans and a khaki shirt over a white T. His hair is cropped, flecked with grey. The other band members aren't kids - they range in age from 24 to 31 - but Alex's days of hairspray and spandex are definitely behind him.

"I haven't done this for 15 years," he says. "I've been, erm, working for a living." For an hour or so, Alex sings a bunch of rock standards - Sultans of Swing, Roadhouse Blues. The man, it must be said, does not look relaxed. Mostly, he keeps his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels during high notes, hunching forward when searching for the low. As things wear on, he allows himself the odd demonstrative flourish, such as wiggling his fingers along the frets of an imaginary guitar.

But all is not lost. Appearances are important, but singing ability counts too. C'mith had said they were looking for someone with range, and they certainly get that with Alex. He can do near-silent and help-I'm-being-stabbed with equal facility. But his Sweet Child O' Mine sounds like Axl Rose being fed into a wood chipper. And not in a good way. Perhaps he's just rusty, or nervous, but it doesn't look promising.

After the audition, when Alex has said his goodbyes, the guys discuss his prospects. There's a chance, they insist, that they might say yes. A moment later, however, they ask that we not use Alex's real name in this article. "We don't want to hurt anyone," says Rajesh. "He might try out for another band."
* Chris Wright