Thai pop music is okay, and occasionally I’ll be in the mood for Luk Thung (Thai country) or Phleng phuea chiwit (Thai folk). I do like all of that stuff, but I’ve never felt the same way about any Thai band, as I do about western groups like the Pixies, Nirvana, or Radiohead – or at least I didn’t until recently.
A few weeks ago, I started to listen to more underground bands like Yellow Fang, Desktop Error, Monomania, and Greasy Café, and it has completely changed my perception of Thai music. This stuff is much more than just okay, it’s full of passion, energy and innovation, and I adore it. These bands are creating the type of tunes that makes me want to close my eyes and pretend I’m in the band.
I can barely strum a guitar, but I’ve been obsessed with music all my life. I might not be able to tell you what I was doing on this date a couple of years ago, but I can tell you what music I would have been listening to. All the events in my life are associated with certain songs, and I can use music in much the same way as other people use photograph albums.
I’ve listened to a lot of Thai music over the years, but it has been mostly the popular stuff. These tunes are certainly catchy enough, but like pop music elsewhere in the world, they can be feel a bit vapid and soulless. I imagine churning out these hits is more about market research and using winning formulas rather than passion and talent – this would explain why it mostly all sounds the same.
This is the Sound of Thailand
My journey into the Thai underground scene began a few weeks ago when rock philosopher Dave Crimaldi shared a song called รุ้งสีเทา by Monomonia on Facebook. It was one of those rare tunes where I heard just a few bars, and I instantly fall in love with it. Monomonia sound a little bit like early Radiohead but with a fresh Thai twist. I found out from Dave that this group is still relatively unknown, and he gave me a list of some other superb bands I’d never heard of.
Dave’s list of bands has sent me on a journey into the Thai underground music scene, and it has reignited a passion I’d feared was lost. I’ve been feeling less emotionally connected to music since I turned forty, but I blamed this on just getting older. I still have it playing in the background almost all day long, but it sometimes feel as if the magic has gone. The discovery of these bands is like finding a chest of gold in my garden (okay, I’d probably be more thrilled with a chest of gold), and it has allowed me to once again experience the joy of losing myself to a song.
I asked Dave Crimaldi to give me a short-list of the band I should listen to, and he came up with ‘Mr. Garrigan’s Homework – 20 Indie BKK Music Videos’. This turned out to be an excellent introduction into the scene.
The band that has most impressed me so far is Yellow Fang. This female trio reminds me of bands like the Breeders and B52s. I found their album ‘The Greatest’ on Deezer, and every song on there is a classic. I’ve never liked a Thai band enough before to listen to a whole album (with the exception of Loso), but I can’t get enough of this collection of tunes by Yellow Fang – it has already earned a place in my list of favorite albums of all time .
Desktop Error are another band that have earned a permanent place in my record collection. Their album ‘Keep Looking at the Window’ is also available on Deezer, and it is track after track of instantly lovable songs and dreamy guitars. Their most recent song is called ‘เปลือยเปล่า’, and it has all the ingredients of a classic indie hit.
The song ที่ที่มี by The Canning Spring Summer is another one I can’t stop playing. I haven’t been able to find out much about this band, and I can’t find any more of their songs, but if this is what they are capable of, I want to sign up as a fan. There is a part near the end of the song where he sings “มีความสุข”, and it is followed by the most perfect guitar fadeout ever.
One of the other important finds on my journey into the Thai Indie scene has been Cat Radio. Not only does this radio station play all the latest Thai Indie sounds, but they also have a TOP 30 that is mercifully free of the latest batch of sickly-sweet songs from Thai soap operas (ละคร).
Interview with a Rock Philosopher
I’ve done interviews on here in the past, but I’m a complete newbie when it comes to the Thai underground music scene. Dave Crimaldi, on the other hand, has been obsessed with these bands for a long time (I fear he has infected me with his madness), so I decided to ask him a few questions, and he generously agreed to answer them.
Why should anyone outside of Thailand care about these bands?
Bands in Thailand? If people like new music then they enjoy exploring music scenes in other cities. With the internet and ease of travel, knowing what is happening in a city means that you can drop into a city for the night, find the action and feel right at home. The people outside of Thailand that dedicate their lives to music and also enjoy traveling will care about the music here.
Is there a difference between Thai Indie and the Thai underground scene?
Not sure how to answer that because definitions of words are ambiguous and can be used synonymously. LOL. I use them but at the same time I don’t even know what it means. ‘Underground’ means you perform, produce and distribute music to a non mainstream audience in do-it-yourself DIY punk rock ways. It might mean the label is run as a non profit entity rather than for profit like a major record label. There are major distinctions between the philosophy of a non profit and a for profit business. DIY that we got from punk rock was a middle finger at the established order. No one wanted to make money so much as get their aggression out. Mainstream business always looks at the fringes to see what they can exploit and market to people – so you end up with art becoming a product to be consumed. In Thailand music is used as a means to sell other products. Without a royalty system in place it means lesser known bands on indie labels can’t get paid. But what is “indie”? It should mean that the music is produced independently of a major record label where artistic decisions are made by business people rather than artists. It is quite dangerous when that happens. But “indie” could also connote the sound of the music – I guess look on could go on wikipedia and look at definitions – LOL – I do stuff like this frequently. But “indie” has been incorporated by the mainstream and so has probably already lost it’s original meaning – that’s OK because language evolves. When I was a kid we had this thing called “alternative music” and “alternative kids” – apparently that means you listened to Radiohead – if you were an American kid it probably mean you had quite a bit of British music in your catalog: The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, New Order, etc. – you probably also dabbled in writing, wearing black turtlenecks even in the summer and reading existential philosophy. These days I guess they would be hipsters LOL.
Do bands like ‘Modern Dog’ belong to the Thai underground scene?
I know bits and pieces of things about them but it would be better to talk to someone who knows the band better than me and was here at the time of their rise. My sense is that they are not underground however were important for their influence on the generation after them. Their label Bakery got bought by Sony – that’s not underground.
Can a ‘garage band’ in Thailand make it to the big time?
What is the definition of big time? Getting signed to a major label? These days with the internet and the cheap tools on it bands can produce their own music, do videos and distribute everything online. But because everyone is doing it, we live in media saturated world where everyone has ADHD, checking facebook status messages, gaming, news, it makes it more difficult in some ways to be actually heard. You can hire companies or buy sponsored ads on facebook to get FB likes as if they actually mean anything but what we have learned is that likes without meaningful engagement with content means nothing. So I have seen supposedly pretty big stars attracting no people to a show, but if you look at their social media it looks like they are huge – a big corporation or even a little garage band can inflate numbers.
But can a garage band make it? My answer is YES. But is it hard work? YES. Essentially, you are training for the Olympics. If you are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’ and signed by a for profit record label, you are out on the road promoting the album. This could mean you are playing 7 nights a week – in Europe or North America it could mean just one city after another. So a record deal isn’t just free money – you essentially got a loan from the label to make an album and they want their return on investment. Having a successful career as a musician where all or much of your income comes from royalties, live performances and you get endorsement deals for free gear is obviously coveted. But to be honest I think success in the business has less to do with talent (look at Courtney Love) and more to do with passion and determination. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything for a career in music including stability, relationships, privacy. The older people get the more unlikely it’s gonna happen because of the time requirements and physical endurance. But yes, a garage band in Thailand can make it big and it wouldn’t surprise me to see certain bands or musicians make it here. In this world, we create our own opportunities – no one gives you anything – you have to earn it. Some of these bands can be big, only a few of them will, and an even smaller number will last.
If you were organizing your own Thai underground festival, what bands would you invite?
All my friends bands, friends of friends bands, bands in ASEAN, a few from Europe or North America, anywhere – probably 30 – 50 bands! These festivals already exist like Stone Free, Noise Market, Fatty Fest. I’ve done production work on small mini festivals when I worked in Korea and theatre groups in high school and even then it’s a lot of work. A festival where there are 40 bands, several stage areas, outdoors is a logistical challenge. But they are tremendous fun. It’s a labor of love.
How did you get involved with the Thai underground scene?
I have lived here for a long time but it was relatively recent that I dived into music. I have always loved music and play drums. I’d been to a few shows here over the years but never really knew what was happening. When Facebook arrived I think the awareness of what events were happening suddenly increased 1000%. A few years ago, my life was going nowhere, and I was somewhat depressed and bored. I had played in some jam bands but never really enjoyed playing live performances or having to depend on others so much. So I was reading all these self-help/ happiness books – I can show you a photo of all my books – and somehow I began changing my own thoughts…. that filtered out into the real world somehow…. In early 2012, I was hanging out in a bar near Soi Cowboy with my friend Matthew – we were both in a spiritual rut, it was hot and humid and there was nothing better to do than drink beer. Anyway, I was really into life coaching at the time (and still am!) and started asking him questions a life coach might ask not knowing if any of this stuff worked. Mostly I asked him, Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Do you need a lot of money? How much do you need? Oh you want to have a bar and diner? Describe it in every way! Don’t worry about money. Just dream.
Anyway, Matthew ended up opening a bar that is quite valuable to the city’s underground music and as a result of that I ended up writing about bands and seeing more shows that I would just because it was my friends bar. Everything kinda grew from there and I go to see shows at other venues as well.
Dave’s blog is a fantastic resource, and I strongly recommend you check it out if you are interested in any type of live music in Bangkok or Thailand generally.