Little could’ve prepared me for the first time I was to hear a Wonggoys song just last year. I’d heard of these boys before, of course—they’d been around for a good three or so years, infiltrating local high school and college gymnasiums, capturing the hearts of prom crowds, and then releasing a debut album of all-original material in 2010—but I can honestly say I’d never heard (or cared to dig for) a single song by them… That is, until this one Sunday in January of last year (during the album cover shoot for their labelmate Martina San Diego’s debut effort) when their producer, the impeccably credentialed Cattski Espina, deliberately shoved her Wonggoys playlist to my face, and what followed was pure audio bliss. I’d been working closely with their record label 22 Tango for the last two years, and in researching them and studying their roster of talents I would take nothing more than a cursory glance over at this group of three brothers, probably because I’d felt intimidated by them—almost all of their promotional photos had shown them in suits and ties, you see, which had led me to conclude that “they’re probably this uptight bunch who make snooty, hard-to-follow garage rock/garage punk a la The Hives or something.” So imagine my surprise when Cattski handed me her earphones, and what oozed out of them was this lyrically articulate, instrumentally creative, yet charmingly mellow, easy-like-Sunday-morning acoustic folk ballad—with a sweet echo of early Jason Mraz, and no trace of The Hives at all! Just like that, I got schooled, big time!
Now, I know you’re itching to school me some more on the whole “judging a book by its cover” thing, but let me stop you right there and say this: I’m actually glad I did that, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had that very impactful, um, moment of discovery! The surprise is always more intense when something turns out to be a far cry from what you always believed it to be. Next thing I knew, I was putting my camera down, shuffling through Cattski’s entire playlist, and becoming a Wonggoys convert, one sing-songy chorus at a time! impossible not to get hooked to their distinctive brand of folk-rock-meets-pop-rock-meets-surf-rock-meets-reggae-pop-meets-twee-pop-with-a-side-of-big-band! Theirs was the kind of music that you would play on an easy, breezy road trip to the beach, or while gathered around a beachfront bonfire, what with their low-murmured harmonies, daydream-y melodies, smooth tones, and overall chill vibes. But make no mistake: while the music makes for easy listening, something gives you a sense that these tunes were carefully and intricately crafted—how else could you put together the simmer of folk rock guitars, the listenability of pop rock, the jangle of reggae pop, and the firepower of big band horns? The average age of these boys at the time these songs were written might have been too young to afford them the occasional free pass to sneak past curfew hour (for the record, even up to this very day, their “mom is the boss”), but you can be sure it takes a certain level of musical maturity to piece together or forge this kind of sound. And don’t let the title of their debut album—I’m Not Sure What to Say But I’ll Say it Anyway—fool you either, because these guys knew what they were saying! And doing! As what veteran guitarist Ian Zafra (of Sheila and the Insects) wrote after seeing the boys for the first time on stage, “These young lads can really write, sing and perform.” So perhaps that was the logic behind stuffing them into suits and ties in every single photo they were to appear on, be it for promotional purposes or for magazine appearances? To denote that these guys were wise beyond their years musically, and that they meant business?
And then Cattski posed the question, “If you were to dress them up, how would you do it?” Still bobbing my head to one of the boys’ deliciously smooth songs, I replied, “Definitely not in suits and ties!” which probably caught the producer lady off-guard. Not that I have a problem with suits and ties—especially the ones that they wear, which are all custom-made for them by celebrated Cebuano menswear genius Protacio Empaces Jr. (who also happens to be my go-to guy for my own suits). Again, and I cannot stress this enough: there is nothing wrong with dressing snappily—and Kyle, the youngest Wonggoy, in a skinny black suit is looking very fine, indeed (as a matter of fact, when he guest-performed at a college’s formal ball some three years ago, it was that exact suit that earned him the award for “Best Dressed Male” and caught the eyes of a certain Marianne Dungog, who would later on become his girlfriend and his co-composer on the award-winning Cebuano-language hit “Balay ni Mayang”). But if putting the boys in suits in an attempt to assert their creative maturity and sophisticated musical chops comes with the side-effect of deemphasizing and/or masking their fun, fresh and youthful sound, then, Houston, we have a problem! That was my story, and I was sticking to it. I proceeded to tell Cattski that I envisioned the boys in playful summery fashions, and placed in a beach setting. “Think modern the Beach Boys!” was how I put it. I was thinking of throwing some surfboards into the picture, too, to pay homage/harken back to the iconic the Beach Boys album covers of yore (Surfin’ Safari from 1962 and Surfer Girl from 1963). And I wasn’t pulling this out of thin air! This really was the mood board that played in my mind as I was listening to the boys’ laid-back, light, feel-good songs! Didn’t I mention these tunes were meant for a trip to the beach, or to bring the beach to you?
Of course, when Cattski asked me that question, I had a sneaking suspicion she meant for it to be rhetorical, so it didn’t surprise me that much when, six months later, I found myself getting to work on a shoot with the boys—but that doesn’t mean it didn’t get me pumped! Here was my chance to bring my interpretation of their work to life! This wasn’t for a new album, by the way. Their label had decided to reissue their debut album, with two new, previously unreleased tracks (i.e., outtakes from random recording sessions) namely “Life to Live” and “Who Do You Think You’re Kidding;” and they’d figured this was a good time to rehash the boys’ image, rather than waiting for their sophomore album to drop before taking such action. There was just no way I could turn this project down! To reveal a new side of the band to their loyal fans, and to turn the heads of those who previously overlooked them—I was all for it! Let’s put these boys in surf jams! Let them put their Ray-Bans on! Make them wear flannels! Have them break out the ukuleles! Let the sun shine on their faces! Keep them low-key comfortable! Let them stay true to their school! They’ll have plenty of time for suits and ties when they’re older! (I mean, come on, you guys, even the greats were given ample time to grow up: by my highly scientific observation, it wasn’t until after four albums that the Beach Boys were made to don suits and ties, for the front sleeve photo of their 1964 single “Fun, Fun, Fun!”)
The photos that you see on here were shot within a two-week period, and are the result of months and months of hard work that the 22 Tango Records team and I put in. The clothes part was easy: we just shopped the boys’ own closets, had a few Baja Hoodies shipped from the States, threw in a little Urban Outfitters here and there, and—voila!—we had two shoot days’ worth of wardrobe! It was the props and the locations that really put us to work. Imagine the hoops we had to jump through to secure surfboards, longboards/skateboards, fishing tackles, a vintage Kombi (Volkswagen T2), and an empty, dried-up swimming pool! You should’ve seen the project plan that went around during our meetings, or the e-mails that went back and forth between team members—not for the faint-hearted, I tell you! But, you know what, everything was worth it when the actual shoot day(s) came and we saw how everything fell into place. The guys looked incredibly fresh in their new clothes; and I’m glad we picked some colorful, pattern-rich pieces, too—what a way to break the monotony of the matching suits and ties that they’d had to endure for the past three or so years! I also kind of like how the pictures of them inside the empty pool turned out. Hardcore Wonggoys fans will recall that some of the boys’ first few promotional photos showed them jumping into a pool fully clothed, making a splash (an admirable attempt to inject some playfulness into the picture to counterbalance the stiffness of their suits and ties). And so these new photos of them in a dirty, empty pool should be seen as symbolic—it proves to the world that these guys are not afraid to shed old notions, break away from old molds, and explore a different side of themselves!
Speaking of a different side of themselves, it was great to be around the band when they were just being chill and laid-back and not all serious, you know? If them in suits was their grand entrance, them in surf jams and tank tops was like they were just slipping silently through the back door. The shoot was such a no-fuss and no-pressure kind of assignment that it didn’t feel like work at all! Couple of things that they did for me during our shoot that would make any die-hard Wonggoys fan die of extreme jealousy: they gave me some of their clothes, played me an hour-long private serenade, spoiled me rotten with food… But none of those made me giddy. What floored me was how approachable they were, how they made me laugh with their jokes, and how they treated me like family, confirming what I had long since surmised: feel-good music can only come from the genuinely nice guys.
Gabriel Keith Wong, William Wong, Jr., and Kyle Miguel Wong, collectively known as The Wonggoys | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on July 7, 2013, and in Argao and Dalaguete, Cebu, on July 14, 2013 | Hair and grooming by Justine Gloria | Sittings assistant: April Ordesta | Special thanks to Cattski Espina, Maria Celeste Wong, Nicole Wong, Israel Alinsug, Julie Pongos, and Norma Barba | Extra special thanks to Carlo de Asis of Aframe Surf Company for the boards | Jacquard henleys in lavender, shamrock green, and lava, Koto, Urban Outfitters | Lived-in slim khakis in potpourri pink, palomino brown and pixie green, the Gap | Denim skate shorts, Carbon, Rue 21