That’s just Culture: Behind the Brain with Vira Suria

 By Athena Tan for Carpe ISLAND. Photography Zack Dilaroca & Afzian Anuar

The first thing I ask Vira is “How have you been?” We haven’t chatted formally since June, and the last time I saw him was a glimpse of his shoulder, signature beanie – he was outside Hard Rock Cafe Singapore, on the cusp of opening Taylor Swift night. It was going to be amazing.

“I’ve…been”, he offers after a few seconds, as an answer. The knowing gleam in his eye implies he’s been busy.

“Because I have been busy”, he says, lips stretching into a smile. Vira Suria is the brain behind Singapore’s largest parties – now a key driver of accessible nightlife in Singapore – and he has his hands full with event planning when he’s not on the decks.

“I’ve been busy with a personal project.” And that personal project, of course, is Culture.

Partygoers, revenge clubbers, first-time birds to the nightlife scene can often be found touting e-tickets to Culture: specific themed party nights helmed by a team of DJs and hypemen.

They may look like a typical team of creatives teeming with talent, but they’re much more than that: right now, they are the engineers and architects of nights that Singaporeans young and millennial look forward to nowadays. But why so accessible? Why so coveted? People actually camp on the site to purchase Culture tickets – and the groans are aplenty when one fails to secure their slots for the night.

Instagram:
Reality…

“In 2019, I wanted to create something unusual. So I decided to create this brand called Culture, an event where I could appreciate different cultures, no matter the genre. Here in this space, I am able to jump around, appreciate the value of community, see the nuances of the cultures they enjoy.”

“It started off with an event called Meme Night, back in 2018, 2019. The whole point of it was to appreciate community, to appreciate everyone’s sense of humour, or love for the same [era of] songs, no matter who you are.”

Vira’s first event didn’t go as well as planned because he didn’t have the reach – that is, social media presence. Nowadays, Instagram and TikTok have become our search engines, for the best ‘hidden gems’ in an area, cool new restaurants, local thrift stores, and the best parties. “Over the years, when Covid-19 hit, I started to bring back culture by pushing out content on TikTok and social media.”

I did end up asking Vira – why all the TikTok influencers flock to Culture nights? Did he design the event to welcome specifically the ‘mavens’ of our digital communities?

“Okay, so you see”, he starts, “everything – where I am today was a result of a series of accidents. Of course, now I have plans, where I want to reach certain communities and let my music and events impact their lives.” He’s just very grateful for the coincidences that led him here. Firstly, when he started on TikTok himself, “it was an accident”, Vira shares. “I actually was just playing around with filters and voiceovers, and realised that some of my videos were getting traction.”

“Back when I started on TikTok, it was more funny skits – not even music.” A quick scroll will prove him right – Vira indeed started like any other millennial heading out of the Vine-era and into TikTok to fill the void of digitally-driven and shareable humour.

But his videos of him playing remixes started to get hits. “My whole journey thus far has been like: what is the next step now that I’ve landed here? I never look back, only forward.” So when other local TikTok influencers started to take note of his remixes, of his own skits, and respond positively to his DJ challenges, Vira saw an opportunity to bring back culture.

To host his own night. Because he was a man of events, before a man of the decks. “Like any other DJ, I started in school. In Republic Polytechnic, in a co-curricular (CCA) activity called Electronic Music Production. But I didn’t start off as a DJ”, he remarks, and this is where it gets interesting.

“I started off as an MC, a hypeman.” Throughout his three years in polytechnic, Vira explored hyping other performers, not working on the musical production aspects at all. In fact, as the president of this CCA, he leaned more towards the management roles, planning events and throwing parties in school where other DJs took the spotlight.

“But I wanted to earn money”, he shares. “To be transparent, the real money isn’t through emceeing or hyping – DJs get paid better, if you still want to do nightlife.” So Vira transitioned into DJing, extending his love for music and events into a different sort of skill. “Though I wasn’t good at the start, I’m slowly getting better.”

It shows. Instagram stories of Culture nights see Vira’s face, his moving body in videos, hyping up the crowd or playing a familiar and well-loved rendition of a song. “I was pretty lucky that I started TikTok and continued it as I did, because during that time [of Covid], many DJs started to lose motivation.” There’s no need for us to show our talent, let’s change career – these thoughts fought for space in many nightlife professionals’ minds as they dealt with heightened restrictions during Covid-19.

“I was one of the few left that would broadcast or play live on TikTok or Instagram to show they were still surviving.” Holding his own ‘shows’ on these platforms reaped some results, with loyal visitors – among them some key opinion leaders – returning to watch him play. “So I thought, why not revive Culture?” At the time, he made different editions of his original event nights, calling them ‘TikTok Night’, where TikTok songs would occupy space on the setlist, because trending songs included those from the past and present – “and you can explore different genres within that broad label of a night”.

However, the same vision shone through. “I think gatekeeping is stupid. Now, the whole point of Culture – and even actual, sociology-culture – is to appreciate community.”

“So our tickets are not expensive, but they’re also not very cheap lah. The price point is appreciated by everybody, who want to come down to party and pay that price. I don’t want it to just be rich people who can come down – or ‘older’ clubbers only. As an event organiser, I believe that as long as you see people having fun – that’s what really matters.”

“Deep down, I really enjoy running events.” Citing people as one of his sources of passion, Vira divulged that running these nights is not all fun and games. The intense amount of planning and foresight it takes to pull off one of these nights shows, especially when the whole team arrives at the venue to a queue snaking around the back streets of Orchard Road. “I’ve always wanted to do my own events, see”, he says, sheepishly scratching his head. “My own festivals.” I nod appreciatively, and Vira decides to share more. “As I said, in poly, events was really something I was passionate about. So running events like these have always been my main goal – the festivals being the main one.”

“But I didn’t know how to reach it.” Like any creative with motivation to do more with their passion, there were logistical and interpersonal challenges. “You really need to think out of the box to excel in this industry, but everyone realistically is going to be thinking out of that box already.”

“Sometimes, it’s about pushing creative approaches, and rebranding – these are critical to successful music and events, and event organisers have to learn the whole package, the push and pull between normal and crazy.”

“Now I can see myself saying that running my own festivals is reachable…because I’m seeing a database of people sign up for our nights. I believe I can really do it one day.”

But Culture night-goers never feel like a number or a just a ticket-holder at one of Vira’s events. In fact, many send appreciative messages for ‘throwing it back’ to their favourite era, or shed screamy-tears on TikTok through a filmy fish-eye camera about relieving their headbanging days with friends they never thought they’d see again. One Direction night? Brought the primary school cliques back together. The first TikTok night? Had people having epiphanies about recognising old friends.

When I tell Vira the story of meeting one of my old friends outside a Culture event, he laughs – “Exactly. It’s about the people.”

“I want to be a creative that connects to the consumer. It boils down to personal connection. Sure, Culture nights are where we can play songs we like, slip through the genres, but we always choose to hone sounds that consumers appreciate. Memories that appeal to them.”

As a man of passion, Vira shares that both his passion for music and events do not compete. Rather, they complement – as a young guy organising events, “I’m not just here to provide a party, but to also solve problems.”

He plays what he wants, when he wants at competitions. But being so genre-fluid means that at a Culture night party, he uses his artistry to bring people together – and his keen eye for people management to build community from behind and onstage, to the very back row. “There will always be inconveniences and rude people during events. But that doesn’t take away from their enjoyment of the music, because my approach is that I won’t let that take away from my own love for music.”

With that, he slams me with a pretty good thought to think about: “The hard work actually goes by not in the club, but at home.” Sure, he’s sweaty and all and it’s hard to hear his partners, but finding and anticipating the specific sequence of songs, obtaining licenses, queuing mixes, handling guests lists, and doing promotion – all of this adds up financially-wise and emotionally-wise. Vira does share how it’s worth it, though – when he sees people enjoying themselves, and when he sees his parents go on a holiday he pays for. “No, I don’t disclose my paycheck to them. Instead, they see in other ways I can deliver.”

On riding the wave of partying until the end of the year, Vira notes that there will soon be a slowing demand for these kind of events. “That’s why I have to keep evolving, to learn more, to improve what we love.”

“Sometimes I really do need to take a step back and explore new music by myself”, Vira states, and I ask if that’s considered alone-time for a people-person like him.

“Yeah. I’m actually into pretty interesting music myself – like Japanese oriental music. Do you know that?” I do know my way around a YOASOBI album, but not this, After I promise to give it a shot, I thank him for giving us a shot. Our first piece back – and it’s Vira Suria.

“Thank you”, we say at the same time. Maybe it’s just in our blood to be thankful for a platform to share our passion. I promise to camp out for all tickets as much as possible. He promises to say hi when he’s –– not –– surrounded by legions of people that are fans of his work. Not just music, but his team’s masterpiece of a night.

Lifting each other up.

I’m glad it’s in our culture.

Keep up with Culture here and show Vira all the love here.

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