What are the chances of a UAE-based Filipino rock band getting signed by a major music label in the Philippines?

“Almost nothing,” Mark Legaspi, part-time rocker and full-time entrepreneur, offers matter-of-factly in an interview with Gulf News #Pinoy.

Legaspi has jammed with various bands in Dubai’s Filipino rock concert scene for several years, but he’d never known what it took to book an audience with a major label, let alone sign a recording deal. 

“We wanted to get signed,” says Legaspi, frontman of the four-member hard-rock band Gatilyo. “But we had no idea how. We had no idea how to get the attention of the label. We’ve been in different bands the past years, but we still didn’t get noticed.”

As newer generations of listeners gravitated towards EDM (electronic dance music), hip-hop and R&B, hard-core rock outfits such Gatilyo have only found it even more difficult to get noticed. And Legaspi knows this all too well. 


“Getting exposure in Dubai is very, very hard,” he says. “First off, there’s no label in the UAE; there’s no such thing as a label scouting, especially for the music that we play. So the chances of getting signed are almost nothing.”

It has not helped that none of the other band members—guitarist David Ojeda, bassist Clyden Bonifacio and drummer Axel Florida—are full-time musicians. 

It can be said that music is the heart and soul of these OFW-by-day-rockers-by-night Pinoys, but it is their day jobs that fill their stomachs. “Of course, our family and work are still more important,” says Legaspi.

But things have changed, although only slightly, the band claims, since a fortuitous encounter with no less than the manager of one of Legaspi’s rock idols – a fateful night that ushered Gatilyo into the giddy world of mainstream rock-and-roll.

Outrageous proposition

It was April and the band was playing as a front act for multi-award-winning hard rockers Kjwan, whose frontman, Marc Abaya, Legaspi regards with deep respect and reverence.

By the end of the concert, Gatilyo was a heartbeat away from signing a recording contract.

“I think our story helped as well,” says Legaspi, explaining how the record label took into account the group’s all-OFW crew as an interesting sidelight to the band’s narrative. “We were just very fortunate enough that we met Joel Ellorin, our manager.”

Ellorin, who also manages Kjwan, approached the band after the concert with what then seemed like an outrageous proposition: a recording contract with a Philippine tour to boot.

Legaspi recalls how the band took the offer with a pinch of salt: “At that point we were just thinking, ‘yeah man, you’re just saying that’. But after three months, he gave us a call and next thing you know we’re in the Philippines touring with a label. I guess it was just luck. Somebody up there just wanted this to happen.”

Gatilyo at a concert in Dubai. The group also went on a promo concert tour in Manila in February 2018

Gatilyo signed with Warner Music Philippines in November, becoming the first UAE-based, all-OFW Pinoy hard rock band to go under the wing of a major label, and by Christmas week the band’s first single, Bagyo, was released.

The group then went on a promo concert tour in Manila in February. A second single, Bihag, was released in April, and now the band is hard at work for its first album set to be released in October.

What has changed?

The past year has been a whirlwind of events for the band, but the foursome say they are taking everything in stride. “It’s just time [management] basically,” says Bonifacio, who works as an office staff in a fashion retail company. “Because we all have day jobs, we have our families here, we can’t play music 24/7, unlike in the Philippines.”

The record deal notwithstanding, Gatilyo continues to share mostly the same hardships and challenges faced by other Filipino bands in the UAE.

“In the Philippines, they have the freedom to play anywhere they want,” says Bonifacio, taking pains to explain the grievances of his indie music peers in Dubai. “Here it’s really difficult because we all have to get permits.”

Gatilyo was formed in 2015 as a musical collaboration between two artists

Legaspi, who owns a company that designs and builds clubs and entertainment venues, says the entry of new production outfits and producers has injected fresh energy into Dubai’s Filipino music concert scene, but admits the financial aspect remains a big challenge to the community. “It’s a struggle, a real struggle,” he says.

Band with a bang

Formed in 2015, Gatilyo started out as a musical collaboration between Legaspi and Ojeda. Florida and Bonifacio would later come onboard as the band started playing in the local concert circuit. Ojeda, along with drummer Florida, usually creates the foundational riffs of the band’s songs.

“It’s a bit of everything,” Ojeda says about their music, refusing to confine the band to a specific genre. “We’re very open to all kinds of music.”

Legaspi, who writes most of the lyrics, enthuses, “We are a soulful hard rock band,” but cuts himself short, “we just made that up.”

“Because we can’t think of any,” Ojeda interjects.

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Ojeda is also credited with the band’s name. “I want people to reference our songs from the band’s name,” he explains. “If you think of Gatilyo, which means trigger, basically I want to give people the impression that somehow we are a band with a bang.”

A new song is made

The band has already written eight songs for an upcoming album; the label has stipulated a minimum of 10. A rough outline of the ninth song was completed just as the band was waiting for this interview to start, Legaspi reveals.

“When we write songs, he [Ojeda] would just stay in one corner, do a riff and the next thing you know we are all just following that and that’s a song,” the band’s frontman explains. “Like when you just arrived. When we were setting up here, he was just there doing a riff by himself, and before we do the interview, we already got a song.”

“That’s the ninth song,” Florida exclaims.

Not your typical recording artist

With a planned October release of their first album, the four have their hands full juggling responsibilities at work, family and their budding career as recording artists. It’s a typical struggle in the industry, but it gets a little more complicated when you’re an OFW.

“We all have day jobs,” Legaspi underscores the obvious.

Gatilyo signed with Warner Music Philippines in November 2017. The band consists of (from left) drummer Axel Florida, vocalist Mark Legaspi, guitarist David Ojeda and bassist Clyden Bonifacio

Ojeda, who shoots video to earn a living, adds: “I don’t think you can survive without a day job.”

“Especially with what we are doing, I don’t think anybody can survive,” Legaspi rejoins.

Unsurprisingly, the band has done a few tweaks to accommodate the new responsibilities as recording artists, although the four maintain they remain fully grounded in spite of the newfound success.

“Probably the direction of the band [has changed],” says Ojeda.

Legaspi concurs, “Yeah, [it’s] not our lives, but the direction and the thinking of the band that has changed.”

Florida, an airbrush artist,  says the band is now more focused in their practices and performances. There is also a greater emphasis on quality and discipline.

“Before we were just happy to be here, write music and play for our friends,” says Legaspi. “Now it’s a different ballgame.”

Still waiting for perks

The financial rewards of signing with a major label has not been instantaneous, if at all. “We’re still waiting for it because we just got signed and our music just got released, so there really is no money coming through yet,” explains Legaspi.
“We’re still broke,” came Bonifacio’s terse rejoinder, drawing loud, approving guffaws from his bandmates.

But sharing the stage with their rock heroes and other rock-and-roll luminaries has been all worth it. During their tour in February, Legaspi says they had an opportunity to jam with two of his biggest musical influences, and out came the fan in him.

“I was really stoked when we went to the tour,” he says. “I got to play on the same stage as Kjwan and Razorback, those are my idols. That’s a big perk for me – getting to know my idols personally.”