The Life of a Modern Dog
They came down one by one: guitar, drums, vocals. Meandering through the lobby and plonking themselves down on the sofa opposite us, the ‘fathers of Thai indie/alternative rock’, aka, Modern Dog, in turns, revealed how life plays out as a Thai rock star. The band have sold more than two million copies of their five studio albums, and have had scores of number one singles, including three from their most commercially successful album to date, That Song, which was produced by Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai) and featured Sean Lennon (John’s son). Although Modern Dog may not come across after a few listens quite as ‘alternative’ as their epithet suggests, the band were the catalyst of a musical renaissance here in Thailand; they are/were alternative in the strict sense of the word.
The band infuses their songs with a kind of day to day open-minded realism previously not expressed in Thai chart music while they also balk at the ubiquitous line ‘kit theung’ put into every verse of every song; musically, Modern Dog experiment with guitar noise and invoke the use of strange keyboard effects into some of their songs. In a country where change from the norm is often frowned upon, Modern Dog’s rock sidestep could be said to have been tantamount to musical heresy. Their new, alternative sound, one long-term fan told us the night of the interview, was difficult for Thai people in the beginning, but the band soon generated a keen following. The youthful looking three piece band, that celebrated their 15th anniversary last year, has supported Radiohead, and are one of the few Thai bands to tour the US and Japan. In terms of accolades, Modern Dog, to millions of devout, mostly young Thais, are an alternative Modern God.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that being called the fathers of anything might be a misnomer for the Modern Dogs as they hardly look old enough to father children, let alone a musical epoch. “When I hear people calling us that,” says guitarist May-T Nojinda, “I feel old, but I still think I’m pretty young.” May-T, who arrived first to the interview, seemed the quieter, more reserved of the three. He talks about the genesis of Modern Dog and what part they have played in transforming Thai music. “We were all students at Chulalongkorn University and we formed a band to take part in the Coke Music Contest. We tried a lot of different styles, I suppose you’d say it was art rock music, or college music as some people called it then. We still took inspiration from the older generation, we got some input from them, and now we’ll output to the next generation. We’re just part of the cycle,” he says philosophically. He mentions Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beatles, The Cure, Pink Floyd as influences from abroad. Also Radiohead, whom they supported at the MBK Centre in 1994 in only their third ever show. May-T recalls how while rehearsing the crowd were shouting “go away” which of course made the then dilettante band reluctant to go on. Softly spoken, laid back drummer, Pong Suwannacheep, and a more hyper Pod Ujjin, vocalist and songwriter, who whimsically laughs in response to every other question, now join the guitarist on the couch. Pod picks up on the conversation I’m having with May-T about the gig with Radiohead: “Yeah, Radiohead seemed like really nice people,” he says, a loud grin marks his face; leaning forward on the sofa he adds, “we ate some pizza with them . . . but Tom Yorke wasn’t there.” This is another source of amusement to Pod, the fact that Radiohead’s moribund singer didn’t show up for the pizza.
Since their communal pizza with Radiohead, Modern Dog have spent much of the last fifteen years on the road, playing around a hundred gigs a year. “You do kind of feel dislocated,” says May-T, “but it’s good getting away from Bangkok, I like travel. It can be a bit like a holiday this job.” Pod agrees, who says he enjoys coming up to Chiang Mai, going to places to relax such as Tao Garden in Doi Saket. Pong, the drummer, in a more fluent English than his already fluent counterparts adds, “When you’re doing a hundred gigs a year you have to try and find something new. It has to be something we’re still happy to do.” Pod explains that even though they don’t really get bored doing the ‘hits’ the crowd insists on they like to play some of their less popular music occasionally: “We did a gig called Private Performance where we played a lot of songs that weren’t so much pop sounding songs, they were the harder stuff. But 600 people still turned up, and the fans knew all the words.”
The songs, says Pod, who writes all the lyrics, are mostly about his life experiences, “things I learn every day, normal everyday life.” Laughing again he tells us, “not all the songs are about love!” The restless singer says he’s too ambivalent, or confused, to write political songs: “It’s just too complicated, there are too many layers to it all, and I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong,” he says. In terms of language capabilities the band could certainly write and sing lyrics in English, as some Thai alternative outfits are now doing to gain international attention, though Pod admits that for them their attempt to break into the English language scene “didn’t work out,” and says it hardly mattered as “there are lots of English bands. The Thais never had much choice, so I make music for my people.”
The life of a Modern Dog ain’t so hard the band agrees, and when asked what they do when they aren’t being rock stars Pod announces exuberantly, as if from a line from an Iggy Pop song, “I don’t wanna buy a new TV!” I’m not sure if this is an anti-consumerist sentiment or merely something more quotidian that’s been on his mind lately. Opting for a quiet life the band seem content walking dogs, sucking in fresh air, making videos, trying not to see themselves on TV and listening to music. And what do Modern Dog listen to? Pod: “Today The XX, a good album.” Pong laughs self consciously: “The Carpenters”, and May-T, once again deliberate and thoughtful: “Old Thai music, stuff that made me think about the past, you know…” he searches for a word, and with some help adds, “nostalgic, nostalgic music.”
Modern Dog is in no rush to write another album just yet. The band seems to engender the expression, no rush; testament to this fact was that we were still talking ten minutes before they were due on stage a few miles away at Chalerm Krung. “I might write some new stuff,” says Pod, “you know, observe, get some inspiration,” and again he answers while constantly moving back and forth, with a kind of hyper-curiosity, an on-the-edge-of-his-seat intensity. It’s a popular clich?, and maybe journalistic suicide to say something as trite as ‘you couldn’t meet friendlier guys’, but really, “you couldn’t meet friendlier guys.” The Modern Dogs are alright.